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Council discussion of "The Birth-Mark" by Nathaniel Hawthorne,
led by William F. May, Ph.D., of Southern Methodist University

Leon Kass asked me to offer a few remarks about Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Birth-Mark." I don't intend to extract from the story inferences for any of the policy issues that will come before the Council. The contributions of works of art to public life are largely indirect rather than direct. Novelists don't bake bread or write legislation. However, the Hawthorne story may help us (attentively read and discussed) recognize the way in which all major undertakings, those of this Council included, sooner or later force us to reflect on the human condition, a condition which we know first and foremost, not as experts, but as participants in daily life. I'll start the discussion, not with the great public projects associated with biotechnology, but with everyday life.

The "Birth-Mark" exposed and sheds light on two powerful human experiences-the drive for perfection and the struggle with the unelected marks that go with our birth. We know these experiences chiefly in the setting of the passions, and in daily life, particularly the passions of self-love, intimate sexual love, and parental love. In all three arenas, we struggle both with the yearning for perfection and with the marks of a condition largely given and received rather than self-created or chosen. Hawthorne plays out his story in the context of marital love. While I have untold decades of experience in the complexities of self-love and marital, let me spare you comments on these and angle my way back into the Hawthorne story by reflecting for a moment on parenting.

Parenting entails a double passion and loyalty -- both to the being and to the well-being of the child. Neither loyalty is complete alone. On the one hand, parents need to accept the child as he is. As Frost said, home is where when you go there, they have to take you in. Parenting requires accepting love. On the other hand, parents must also encourage the well being of the child. They must promote the child's excellence. If they merely accept the child as she is, they neglect the important business of her full growth and flourishing. Parenting requires transforming love.

Attachment becomes too quietistic if it slackens into mere acceptance of the child as he is. Love must will the well-being and not merely the being of the other. But attachment lapses into a Gnostic revulsion against the world, if, in the name of well-being, it recoils from the child as it is.

Ambitious parents, especially in a meritarian society tend one-sidedly to emphasize the parental role of transforming love. We fiercely demand performance, accomplishments, and results. Sometimes, we behave like the ancient Gnostics who despised the given world, who wrote off the very birth of the world as a catastrophe. We increasingly define and seize upon our children as products to be perfected, flaws to be overcome. And to that degree, we implicitly define ourselves as flawed manufacturers. Implicit in the rejection of the child is self-rejection. We view ourselves as flawed manufacturers rather than imperfect recipients of a gift.

Parents find it difficult to maintain an equilibrium between the two sides of love. Accepting love, without transforming love, slides into indulgence and finally neglect. Transforming love, without accepting love, badgers and finally rejects. E.B. White captured nicely the difficulties of balancing the two contending passions as they pervade daily life:

"Every morning when I wake up, I am torn between the twin desires to reform the world and to enjoy the world and it makes it hard to plan the day."

It may not overreach to observe that modern science exhibits the two sides of love suggested here. On the one hand, science engages us in beholding; it lets us study and savor the world as it is. On the other hand, science and the technologies it generates engage us in moulding, in the project of transforming, amending, and perfecting the given world.

Why take seriously Hawthorne's story about a scientist caught in the toils of a one-sided passion? He loves his wife but kills her in the attempt to remove her single imperfection, a birthmark on her left cheek, a stain so superficial that her "lovers were wont to say that some fairy at her birth hour had laid her tiny hand upon the infant's cheek." Birth handed her a superficial blemish, not a tumor. However, her husband becomes so obsessive and controlling that he determines to bring to bear all his learning and resources to remove this flaw, whatever the cost. Even his plodding, earthbound servant recognizes something hysterical, overwrought, deranged in his project as he mutters, "If she were my wife, I'd never part with that birthmark."

Aylmer has to take on the challenge of the "crimson hand" because he sees it as more than a topical blemish. Twice, Hawthorne tells us that the birthmark is imprinted on her left cheek, a sinister mark, as it were, on the left -- the mortal side of every living thing, his Georgiana included, the side on which the heart itself resides, the very fount and core of life. Life and mortality are sited there together. Ultimately, he cannot perfect her; he cannot remove the mark of mortality with removing her from life. In the harrowing dream sequence, Aylmer imagines himself "attempting an operation for the removal of the birthmark, but the deeper went the knife, the deeper sank the hand, until at length its tiny grasp appeared to have caught hold of Georgiana's heart; whence, however, her husband was inexorably resolved to cut or wrench it away." The narrator of the story tells us, long before psychoanalysis, "Truth often finds its way to the mind close muffled in robes of sleep, and then spreads with uncompromising directness in regard to which we practice an unconscious self-deception during our waking moments." In his sleep, he cries out, "It is in her heart now, we must have it out." He must do battle with the birthmark, "the fatal flaw of humanity which nature, in one share or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productionsThe crimson hand expressed the ineludible grip in which mortality clutches the highest and purest of earthly mould, degrading them into kindred with lowest and even with the very brutes like whom their visible frames return to dust."

Hawthorne carefully locates his story within the central project of modern Western civilization. He gives us a peak into Aylmer's library. It includes the work of the alchemists "who stood in advance to their centuries" and "who imagine themselves to have acquired from the investigation of Nature, a power above nature"; but his library also includes "early volumes of transactions of the Royal Society, in which the members knowing little of the limits of natural possibility, were continually recording wonders or proposing methods whereby wonders could be wrought."

Aylmer's intellectual forbearers heralded something new in the world. Whereas the ancient Greeks celebrated the human power for knowledge, the modern scientist celebrates the powers acquired through knowledge. The Greeks recognized that reason crashes against limits -- the power of fate and death from without and flaws from within. Reason offers us, at best, wisdom in the midst of suffering, not relief from its toils. But modern science offers the dizzying prospect of the powers which knowledge itself can generate to alter human life for the good, the ultimate end of which would be to lift the burden of mortality itself.

I take it that Hawthorne's story is a cautionary tale, not strictly speaking a tragedy. In tragedy, a hero perceives a problem and resolves to do something about it, only when the solution is beyond reach. He eventually recognizes, but cannot undo, what he has done. He becomes wise only in the course of suffering; he cannot eliminate it. Hawthorne's scientist never achieves such recognition. Nor do the two passions of saving and savoring mercifully restrain and qualify one another in his action. He loves Georgiana, but the passion of savoring his bride shifts into the unrelenting drive to save her. "I even rejoice in this single imperfection, since it will be such a rapture to remove it." In a sense, only his wife reaches a moment of truth. Georgiana tells him, after he has given her the toxic cure, that would at long last remove her birthmark, her mortal life, "My poor Aylmer, I am dying."

But the story breaks off a few sentences later without Aylmer suffering/achieving this "profounder wisdom." Hawthorne's story posts a warning about a one-sided passion that his hero does not decipher.

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