Rising Scientism, Declining Supernaturalism, and the Loss of Taste and Morals in W.G. Simms’ “Grayling”By Peter Daniel Haworth for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
America’s nineteenth century cultural transformation from a traditional society, which was marked by common belief in supernatural intervention in everyday life, to a more materialistic society marked by a scientism, in which people predominately focused on naturalistic and mechanistic explanations of phenomenon, is well portrayed by William Gillmore Simms in his story, “Grayling: Or ‘Murder Will Out’” from his The Wigwam and the Cabin. The following brief essay will discuss Simms’ reflections about the rise of scientific naturalism (i.e., explaining phenomena according to mere natural and mechanistic causation, without citing supernatural intervention) and decline of supernaturalism (i.e., explaining phenomena in a manner that employs supernatural causal factors). In doing so, I will argue that Simms’ theses about the decay of morals and the arts resulting from the decline of supernaturalism can be elaborated upon by reflecting on the insights of Flannery O’Connor and the Southern Agrarians.
Simms’ “Grayling” and the rise of scientism and decline of supernaturalism:
Simms clearly frames “Grayling” as an exploration of the changes that had been occurring within the American mind during the time of his writing in 1845. In his introduction, Simms discusses how scientism and anti-supernaturalism have become common:
“THE world has become monstrous matter-of-fact in latter days. We can no longer get a good ghost story, either for love or money. The materialists have it all their own way; and even the little urchin, eight years old, instead of deferring with decent reverence to the opinions of his grandmother, now stands up stoutly for his own. He believes in every ‘ology’ but pneumatology. ‘Faust’ and the ‘Old Woman of Berkeley moves his derision only, and he would incredulously, if he dared, at the Witch of Endor. The whole armoury of modern reasoning is on his side; and, however, he may admit at seasons that belief can scarcely be counted a matter of will, he yet puts his veto on all sorts of credulity. That cold-blooded demon called Science has taken the place of all the other demons. He has certainly cast out innumerable devils, however he may still spare the principal.”[i]
With this initial commentary in place, Simms begins his fictional story by “retelling” an old woman’s narrative about a series of events that occurred just after the American “revolutionary war”- i.e., probably sometime during the mid 1780’s. James Grayling and his family were moving to the “low country” in South Carolina. They were in route to the “city” of Charleston when both a strange “Scotchman,” Macnab, and their friend, “Major Spencer,” separately met and joined their party. After a night together, both Macnab and Spencer depart from the Grayling camp at different times. When James has to also temporarily leave his party a day later to borrow an axe from a nearby innkeeper, he learns that Major Spencer has unexplainably not advanced this far along the common road. That night James is bewildered by this mystery. During his duty on watch, James is visited by the ghost of Major Spencer who explains how the Scotchman, Macnab, murdered Spencer after they both departed from the Grayling camp. Moreover, Spencer’s specter explains how Macnab is currently on a boat in Charleston harbor waiting to depart for Britain, and the ghost charges James with the duty of bringing Macnab to justice. The old woman’s story continues with James Grayling traveling to Charleston and, then, employing the ghost story to convince merchants, the police, and ultimately a judge of Macnab’s probable guilt. After later finding by the lake both the body of Spencer and the other half of a broken gun-handle fitting the gun that was found in Macnab’s possession, Macnab is tried, found guilty, and hanged.[ii]
Although the old woman’s narration ends there, Simms’ story continues. The son of the old woman, who possesses the new nineteenth century mind that Simms lambastes in his introduction, now begins to tell a materialistic counter-narrative to save his son from the grandmother’s “superstition.” In particular, the father-narrator argues that “the appearance of the specter was nothing more than the work of a quick imagination, added to a shrewd and correct judgment. James Grayling saw no ghost, in fact, but such as was in his own mind; and, though the instance was one of a most remarkable character, one of singular combination, and well depending circumstances, still, I think it is to be accounted for by natural and very simple laws.” The father-narrator proceeds to suggest that James merely dreamt about the ghost. Moreover, the supernatural revelation that Macnab murdered Spencer was merely the result of an intelligent mind reasoning and intuiting upon the facts associated with Spencer’s probable disappearance, common danger of the highways, and Spencer being a tempting target for bandits. Finally, the father-narrator argues that it was also James Grayling’s “sagacious judgment, and quick, daring imagination” that prompted him to intuit that Macnab was aboard a ship bound for Britain.[iii]
Simms’ thesis on the loss of taste and morals resulting from the rise of scientism and the decline of supernaturalism:
In addition to the above-cited passage from his introduction, Simms criticizes the anti-supernaturalist perspective of his day based upon the damage it inflicts on morality and the arts. In his introduction, for example, he addresses the damage to morality:
“There is reason to apprehend that in disturbing our human faith in shadows, we have lost some of the wholesome moral restraints which might have kept many of us virtuous, where the laws could not.”[iv]
Here he implies that fear of the supernatural can be a healthy influence on human morals and, hence, prompts people to self-govern their own behavior. This is far more effective than legal coercion for advancing order.
With respect to the arts, Simms also intimates the absurdity of nineteenth century writers who pursue realism to the extent of truncating their subject matter down to the patently obvious and uninteresting:
“Our story-tellers are so resolute to deal in the real, the actual only, that they venture on no subjects the details of which are not equally vulgar and susceptible of proof. With this end in view, indeed, they too commonly choose their subjects among convicted felons, in order that they may avail themselves of the evidence which led to their conviction; and, to prove more conclusively their devoted adherence to nature an the truth, they depict the former not only in her condition of nakedness, but long before she has found out the springs of running water.”[v]
According to Simms such a naturalist approach to realism is not only nonsense and boring, it also greatly damages the arts and people’s aesthetic appreciation:
“It is to be feared that some of the coarseness of modern taste arises from the too great lack of that veneration which belongs to, and elevated to dignity, even the errors of preceding ages. A love of the marvelous belongs, it appears to me, to all those who love and cultivate either of the fine arts. I very much doubt whether the poet, the painter, the sculptor, or the romancer, ever yet lived, who had not some strong bias—a leaning at least—to belief in the wonders of the invisible world. Certainly, the higher orders of poets and painters, those who create and invent, must have a strong taint of the superstitious in their composition.”[vi]
In this passage, Simms suggests that some belief in supernatural mysteries and their interventions in human affairs is necessary for good artists. Further analysis about this claim will be considered below.
Supplementing Simms’ Evaluation with the Agrarians and Flannery O’Connor:
Simms’ claims about the damage to morality and taste, which results form the rise of scientism and decline of supernaturalism, can be supplemented by the insights of the Southern Agrarians and Flannery O’Connor. The Agrarians, for example, maintain that true religion requires (or, at least, is greatly enhanced by) a connection with nature in which humans are reminded of or experience their status as creatures. This can be seen in the “Introduction: A Statement of Principles” in I’ll Take My Stand, which is jointly authored by twelve Agrarians whose work constitutes the volume. Here the Agrarians emphasize the problems that industrialism poses for religion:
“Religion can hardly expect to flourish in an industrial society. Religion is our submission to the general intention of a nature that is fairly inscrutable; it is the sense of our role as creatures within it. But nature industrialized, transformed into cities and artificial habitations, manufactured into commodities, is no longer nature but a highly simplified picture of nature. The God of nature under these conditions is merely an amiable expression, a superfluity, and the philosophical understanding ordinarily carried in the religious experience is not there for us to have.”[vii]
Here the Agrarians suggest that maintaining a sense of nature’s mysteries and submitting to them are necessary for true religion. Their phrase, “a nature that is fairly inscrutable” seems to imply more than mere empirical phenomena, for empirical reality alone can largely be ascertained overtime through the natural sciences. Rather, the “inscrutable” facets of nature in the above passage are probably supernatural elements (e.g., spiritual reality) that cannot be known by the natural sciences. Moreover, the phrase, “our submission to the general intention of a nature that is fairly inscrutable,” implies a willingness to accept our finiteness, weakness, and dependence as “creatures” within a nature that includes supernatural realties that we cannot control. Furthermore, when humans experience true nature in contrast to losing connection with it through industrialization, they are reminded of their limits and vulnerability. Such an experience of true nature might even make them more sensitive and vulnerable to “inscrutable” supernatural elements within the cosmos. For example, the Agrarians suggest (in the above passage) that a more complete experience of the “God of nature” can be attained within true nature (i.e., that existing outside of industrial society), rather than the “nature” tainted by industrialized society.
When humans experience the existence of and/or believe in supernatural reality, they tend to recognize their own limits in strength and knowledge. They see both how significant parts of reality cannot be learned and mastered by the empirical sciences and how human beings are fragile and vulnerable in comparison to the unknown forces of the supernatural. Similar to the learning that often results from man’s experience of nature, this recognition of the supernatural inspires awe and humility among human beings. They are prompted to take their creature status seriously, depend upon Divine protection from possible malign supernatural forces, and (in turn) seriously consider the ethical system prescribed by revelation. The dual factors of humility and communion with the Divine, then, often prompt one to take morals seriously. All of this obviously serves as a possible elaboration to Simms’ claim that the loss of “human faith in shadows” has resulted in the loss of “wholesome moral restraints which have kept many us virtuous, where the laws could not.”
With respect to Flannery O’Connor, she also understands how art flourishes through recognition that much of reality is mysterious. In her essay, “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” O’Connor argues that “novelists are fundamentally seekers and describers of the real, but the realism of each novelist will depend on his view of the ultimate reaches of reality.”[viii] She continues to suggest that the problem with many writers and readers in the modern period is their truncated conception of reality. Like Simms, she observes the presence of scientism and naturalism in the modern world: “Since the eighteenth century, the popular spirit of each succeeding age has tended more and more to the view that the ills and mysteries of life will eventually fall before the scientific advances of man…”[ix] O’Connor implies that this perspective limits the possibilities of fiction, for it severely limits a writer’s conception of reality and, hence, what he or she will attempt to address. If, on the other hand, a writer’s view of reality goes beyond mere scientism and naturalism, he or she becomes free to explore the mysteries that are beyond both what can be known through empirical sciences and beyond belief for those holding a naturalist epistemology and metaphysics:
“[I]f the writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious, if he looks upon us as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself. His kind of fiction will always be pushing its own limits outward toward the limits of mystery, because for this kind of writer, the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted. Such a writer will be interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do. He will be interested in possibility rather than probability. He will be interested in characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace and who act on a trust beyond themselves- whether they know very clearly what it is they act upon or not. To the the modern mind, this kind of character, and his creator, are typical Don Quixotes, tilting at what is not there.”[x]
O’Connor’s claims here are very supplementary to those of Simms. In a similar manner to Simms’ view that the good “poets and painters” possess a “belief in the wonders of the invisible world,” O’Connor suggests that the fictional writers who believe in and appreciate reality’s mysteries will, in turn, push their work “toward the limits of mystery… Such a writer will be interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do.” O’Connor’s claims, however, help explain the question of why artists who believe in and explore mystery are often better than those who do not, or, as Simms would articulate it, why “the higher orders of poets and painters, those who create and invent, must have a strong taint of the superstitious in their composition.” According to O’Connor, the answer is that such artists believe that reality extends beyond the material world, and they, in turn, seek to understand and portray these immaterial and mysterious elements. Since reality entails more than mere matter and both human experience (especially, but not exclusively, when it has been attained within the more true, pre-industrialized remnants of nature) and the spiritual facets of human nature prompt us to intuit truth in such mysteries even when our modern society suggests otherwise, human readers tend to resonate with fiction that treats such mysteries.
This, in turn, raises the important question of how art might assist moderns with recognizing supernatural mysteries given moderns’ tendency to be disconnected from the elements of nature. In “Grayling” the son of the naturalist/materialist minded father-narrator decides to believe his grandmother’s supernatural narrative:
“I heard my father with great patience to the end, though he seemed very tedious. He had taken a great deal of pains to destroy one of my greatest sources of pleasure. I need not add that I continued to believe in the ghost [of Spencer who appeared to James Grayling], and, with my grandmother, to reject the philosophy [of materialism or naturalism being]. It was more easy to believe the one[—i.e., supernaturalism—] than to comprehend the other[—i.e., naturalism or materialism—].”[xi]
Here Simms suggests how fictional presentations of supernatural mysteries can promote or strengthen belief in them. Thus, maybe art can prompt some of the awakening that the Agrarians believed the experience of nature could provide before it was transformed by industrialization.
At the very least, the above reflection demonstrates how William Gilmore Simms’ “Grayling” can be considered in conjunction with the fine insights from the Southern Agrarians and Flannery O’Connor. Through such examination of these works, we see a profound case for respecting the mysteries of the supernatural and not being diverted from this by modernity’s concern with scientific naturalism.
Furthermore, we begin to see a possible venue for how to proceed in the face of our materialist society’s minimal recognition of these concerns: we should encourage and read fictional writers like Simms and O’Connor whose work tends to awaken recognition of the supernatural mysteries. Maybe art can revive western culture’s sensitivity to the “shadows” that cannot be ascertained through the empirical sciences, and maybe this new sensitivity, in turn, will help beget better art.
[i] William Gilmore Simms, “Grayling: Or, ‘Murder Will Out.’,” in The Wigwam and the Cabin (New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1845), 1, presented by Documenting the American South, University Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
[ii] Ibid., 1-36.
[iii] Ibid., 32-36.
[iv] Ibid., 1.
[v] Ibid., 1-2.
[vi] Ibid., 2.
[vii] Twelve Southerners, “Introduction: A Statement of Principles” in I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, 75th Anniversary Edition (Louisiana State University Press, 2006), xlvi.
[viii] Flannery O’Connor, “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, Selected and Edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969), 40-41.
[ix] Ibid., 41.
[x] Ibid., 41-42.
[xi] Simms, “Grayling,” 36.