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
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."