THE BIRTH MARK
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Comments by Michael Scanlon
Valentines Day, 2009
I beg your indulgence for my strong reaction to Hawthorne's story. It comes from very unhappy experience that forces me to view this as a cautionary tale of great importance. I see it as having nothing to do with science in the sense that we discuss it in regard to faith, but a great deal to do with the way we view the ones we love, and the tendency, once a relationship is cemented, to shift focus from the completeness of our partners beauty as a whole person to a small aspect which we suppose very arrogantly ought to be better. I have been told that Paul Tillich once said in a sermon that original sin is treating people as objects. There is a whole world of morality in that statement, and rather than science, morality is what this story is about.
I would like to suggest to you that it fits very neatly into a tradition quite different from the scientific, but to understand this we must remember that prior to the enlightenment "Science" had a different meaning than we give it today. I quote the O.E.D. Note that the following is the first meaning of "Science."
1. a. The state or fact of knowing; knowledge or cognizance of something specified or implied; also, with wider reference, knowledge (more or less extensive) as a personal attribute. Now only Theol. in the rendering of scholastic terms (see quot. 1728), and occas. Philos. in the sense of ‘knowledge’ as opposed to ‘belief’ or ‘opinion’.
This body of knowledge, this field of contemplation, included the pursuit of Alchemy. Alchemy was ground in which the modern science of chemistry took root, but it was considered a philosophical discipline and the essential difference between it and it's descendant "chemistry" was that alchemy was based on an exploration of the philosophical writings of the "Ancients" rather than empirical observation. I quote from the text:
"He gave a history of the long dynasty of the alchemists, who spent so many ages in quest of the universal solvent by which the golden principle might be elicited from all things vile and base. Aylmer appeared to believe that, by the plainest scientific logic, it was altogether within the limits of possibility to discover this long sought medium..."
At the time "Scientific Knowledge" would have been the works of past philosophers. Modern science is based differently. Here the O.E.D. again, defining "Empirical," which is the basis of modern science:
1. Med. a. Of a physician: That bases his methods of practice on the results of observation and experiment, not on scientific theory. b. Of a remedy, a rule of treatment, etc.: That is adopted because found (or believed) to have been successful in practice, the reason of its efficacy being unknown. Also as quasi-n. in pl. = ‘empirical remedies’.
2. That practises physic or surgery without scientific knowledge; that is guilty of quackery. Also of medicines: That is of the nature of a quack nostrum. Cf. EMPIRIC B. 2.
3. In matters of art or practice: That is guided by mere experience, without scientific knowledge; also of methods, expedients, etc. Often in opprobrious sense transf. from 2: Ignorantly presumptuous, resembling, or characteristic of, a charlatan.
Looking at the story in a literary context I would like to suggest that if we trace a line from Ann Radcliffe's "Mysteries of Udolpho" to Poe's "The Raven," taking the route that passes through Mary Shelley"s "Frankenstien" we will find "The Birth Mark" to be a very comfortable last stop on the way. There is, of course the route through "Northanger Abbey" which for purposes of perspective and humour would be preferable, and more likely to get us to science as we know it, but Austen being rather ahead of the rest of the nineteenth century, that route would leap frog over this story we are discussing.
It is interesting that "Barnaby Rudge," the birthplace of Poe's Raven seems not to be on the road we are traveling, perhaps because Dicken's intentions were actually very "Modern" rather than being romantically "Gothic." If you don't know Barnaby's raven "Grip" you are missing one of Dicken's great characters. "The Count of Monte Christo," despite the superficial similarities in the preoccupation with alchemy also seems not to partake of the "Gothic" in the romantic way that began in "Udolpho." You may challenge me on this, I'm not quite confidant about this placement of the Dumas.
Having placed this story in the romantic "gothic" context I think it is easier to see Hawthorne's subject. It is a very uncomfortable, and as is the habit with Hawthorne, a very moral one.
"Georgiana," said he, "has it never occurred to you that the mark upon your cheek might be removed?"
"No, indeed," said she, smiling; but perceiving the seriousness of his manner, she blushed deeply. "To tell you the truth it has been so often called a charm that I was simple enough to imagine it might be so."
"Ah, upon another face perhaps it might," replied her husband; "but never on yours. No, dearest Georgiana, you came so nearly perfect from the hand of Nature that this slightest possible defect, which we hesitate whether to term a defect or a beauty, shocks me, as being the visible mark of earthly imperfection."
"Shocks you, my husband!" cried Georgiana, deeply hurt; at first reddening with momentary anger, but then bursting into tears. "Then why did you take me from my mother's side? You cannot love what shocks you!"
Abusive relationships are not new by any means, and I am afraid, indeed I know that they are not things of the past, and they are also things that it is very easy for seemingly good people to fall into. Why indeed did he take her from her mother's side. He has taken is vow-
"To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part."
and is now breaking that vow in his heart and mind, and will shortly break it in his actions. He has made his bargain and has become dissatisfied, and has entered into an insidious campaign to convince his lovely wife that he is right and is entitled to "correct" her "imperfection." we have here another road that will take us to "The Diary of a Mad Housewife." This is a dangerous road for the good hearted to travel on, for those who love truly will place the needs, desires, and demands of their loved one before their own well being, precisely because they see their own well being as resting on the loved one's happiness.
Our cultural tendency to focus on a claimed imperfection and turn a blind eye to the transgression of vow breaking comes more and more to perplex me. What is "perfect" and what "imperfect?" The O.E.D. again:
1. a. spec. Of, marked, or characterized by supreme moral or spiritual excellence or virtue; righteous, holy; immaculate; spiritually pure or blameless.
b. gen. In a state of complete excellence; free from any imperfection or defect of quality; that cannot be improved upon; flawless, faultless. Also occas.: nearly approaching such a state.
"Free from any imperfection or defect of quality." It is our tendency to consider such as word as "perfect" to be very clearly defined. In fact I find them very slippery, and "perfect" is a "perfect" example of how slippery words of judgement can be. The definition, even from such an authority, leaves the meaning of this word completely dependent on our individual or cultural assumptions of what constitutes a flaw. One approach to defining a flaw is to assume that the surface of an object should be absolutely smooth and of absolutely even color. A Japanese potter removing such a production from his kiln would break it as a monstrosity. He would see it as boring, and unnatural, out of harmony with creation. Even the world of cosmetics and the study of female beauty at the time encouraged the introduction of irregularities of color, so how define "flaw" in any absolute way? Georgiana had often been told her birthmark was a charm, and this is perfectly consistent with what we know of fashion, and it is even implied that Aylmer thought so himself before the marriage. The birthmark was not considered a flaw, and therefore Georgiana was not imperfect.
After the marriage she became a possession, an object, and Aylmer started to apply to her standards of his own devising, and worse, invoked the first meaning of "Perfect" which has a moral force, manipulate her into understanding that his recently developed preference should be responded to because of it's moral implications.
"Why do you come hither? Have you no trust in your husband?" cried he, impetuously. "Would you throw the blight of that fatal birthmark over my labors? It is not well done. Go, prying woman, go!"
This is, in my opinion, the dangerous trap that we set when we judge others by details of their being rather than accepting their totality, which is the responsibility we enter into in deciding to relate to them at all, much less enter into vows with them. It is both ironic and usually the case that those who become preoccupied with the flaws of others are the ones who are irked by their knowledge of their own flaws:
Much as he had accomplished, she could not but observe that his most splendid successes were almost invariably failures, if compared with the ideal at which he aimed. His brightest diamonds were the merest pebbles, and felt to be so by himself, in comparison with the inestimable gems which lay hidden beyond his reach.
Our restless minds are always speculating on the future, and evaluating the decisions we have made. This is not a bad thing until it causes us to forget that certain interactions are morally and ethically binding. Love is only real when it's moral implications are fully accepted. I won't repeat the poem I posted on my blog this morning, but is a part of this comment I am making and it's conclusion is that our ability to love other's is dependent on our ability to love ourselves- I do not call selfish motivations "love" here. There is no intimacy without a joining of flaws and disabilities and shortcomings. The whole point of the marriage vow is a recognition that in joining with another we accept that other not for their strengths and benefits but for their true, complex and flawed selves. It is done in church in the hope that they two together can find their way to the perfection of soul that only the creator can judge; and to help one another on that very confused search.
Two are better than one; Because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; But woe to him that is alone when he falls for he has not another to help him up. And if two lie together then they have warmth, but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him,Two shall withstand him.