Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark”[i] has achieved new fame in recent years through Leon Kass employing it in the President’s Council on Bioethics.[ii] The story is gripping and obvious in its portrayal of a foolish man’s maddening attempt to scientifically control and perfect nature only to destroy the humane potential and joy of his conjugal life. There, however, also seems a deeper theme and dynamic in the narrative, for it is also an illustration of modern Gnosticism, which Eric Voegelin roughly views to be an attempt at realizing the perfection of the eschaton within the temporal realm. Moreover, as we will see, Hawthorne also reveals how the pursuit of scientific progress can often be a manifestation of humanity seeking to be gods unto themselves.
Hawthorne begins by discussing the late 18th century zeitgeist of utopian-hope in scientific progress to which the tragic Aylmer becomes a captive in an attempt to remove his lovely wife’s only physical flaw, a crimson-colored birthmark on her left cheek resembling a small hand. Before his marriage, Aylmer had been “an eminent proficient in every branch of natural philosophy.” This was a time “when the comparatively recent discovery of electricity and other kindred mysteries of nature” had made “the love of science” an “absorbing energy.” Infact, according to Hawthorne, the “higher intellect, the imagination, the spirit, and even the heart might all find their congenial aliment in pursuits which, as some of their ardent votaries believed, would ascend from one step of powerful intelligence to another, until the philosopher should lay his hand on the secret of creative force and perhaps make new worlds for himself.” The possibilities of scientific progress prompted new hopes for finally achieving what natural humanity had long hoped for: self-deification via achieving mastery over nature and the capacity to create a world like God had done.
Convinced of his ability to “correct…what Nature left imperfect in her fairest work…,”Aylmer persuades his dear wife, Georgiana, to consent to his experimental removal of her facial birthmark. In doing so, however, he fails to recollect his past lesson, which he learned in a futile attempt to master how “Nature…create[s] and foster[s] man”, that “Nature” man’s “great creative Mother, while she amuses us with with apparently working in the broadest sunshine, is yet severely careful to keep her own secrets, and, in spite of her pretended openness, shows us nothing but results.” This amnesia results in a train of abortive attempts to play the Deity. To comfort Georgiana who fears his laboratory, Aylmer creates a mock-plant, but its leaves instantly wither into “coal-black” before Georgiana can “inhale its brief perfume.” Then, Aylmer fails to photograph Georgiana’s likeness through a “scientific process of his own invention.” The photo is almost indecipherable save “the minute figure of a hand appeared where the cheek should have been.” Also, there is Georgiana’s sense, which is prompted by her husband’s “minute inquires into her sensations…”, that Aylmer has been unsuccessfully trying all along to secretly remove the birthmark through the food and fragrant air that Georgiana has been consuming while in the laboratory.
In addition to these attempts at god-likeness, Hawthorne also reveals a profoundly religious quest to overcome the limitations and finitude of man’s place in nature and so to realize perfection on earth. Georgiana’s reading of Aylmer’s diary of his past “success or failure” in conducting experiments exposes a human person handling “physical details as if there were nothing beyond them; yet spiritualized them all, and redeemed himself from materialism by his strong and eager aspiration toward the infinite.” Here Aylmer seems to commit what Eric Voegelin in The New Science of Politics defines as “Gnosticism,” which (according to Voegelin) entails “an immanentist hypostasis of the eschaton” or seeking to realize a perfection in the immanent/temporal world that is akin to the transcendent perfection of the Christian eschaton (i.e., the end time that includes “the Last Judgment and the advent of the eternal realm in the beyond.”). [iii] Rather than continuing to engage in the relatively difficult process of finding spiritual fulfillment through the traditional Christian Church of the West that, through the influence of Augustine, understood “there would be no divinization of society beyond the pneumatic presence of Christ in his Church,” Aylmer as the representative modern western man engages in “Gnostic speculation” that prompts him toward (in Voegelin’s words) “the more appealing, more tangible, and, above all, so much easier creation of the terrestrial paradise.”[iv] Aylmer’s quest to master physical nature through science seems a religious/spiritual search for realizing the “infinite” in the immanent- i.e., attempting to immanentize a perfection that (according to Voegelin) Augustinian Christianity suggests can only be realized in the transcendent realm.
Such intellectual pathology is not just a personal tragedy for those under the spell, Voegelin shows that modern Gnosticism results in both paradoxical regression of civilization and infamous totalitarianism. He argues that the Gnostic attempt at immanentizing the eschaton can result in a civilizational paradox. Modern civilization develops rapidly due to moderns engaging “civilizational activity” for the sake of realizing “terrestrial paradise”, and personal “death of the spirit” to the extent that moderns invest themselves “into the great enterprise of salvation through world-immanent action.”[v] According to Voegelin, the latter is a regression in civilization that results in its ultimate decline; “since the life of the spirit is the source of order in man and society, the very success of a Gnostic civilization [-i.e., the hyper-pursuit of civilizational activity causing death of the spirit-] is the cause of its decline.”[vi] This process of “advance and decline,” however, comes to an abrupt end “when an activist sect which represents the Gnostic truth organizes the civilization into an empire under its rule.”[vii] This is “Totalitarianism, defined as the existential rule of Gnostic activities,” and it is “the end form of progressive civilization.”[viii]
Voegelin, himself, identifies the particular manifestation of Gnosticism that Hawthorne’s character, Aylmer, seems afflicted by: “Scientism has remained to this day one of the strongest Gnostic movements in Western society; and the immanentist pride in science is so strong that even the special sciences have each left a distinguishable sediment in the variants of salvation through physics, economics, sociology, biology, and psychology.”[ix] As Hawthorne understands, the tragic consequences of “Scientism” are legion. For Aylmer and poor Georgiana it is Georgiana’s death during their final reckless attempt to remove her birthmark, which is intimated in the story to be intrinsic to and necessary for her human life; “[t]he fatal hand had grappled with the mystery of life, and was the bond by which an angelic spirit kept itself in union with a mortal frame.”[x] For ourselves in the 21st century who now must face (among other scientific flowers) the possibility of atomic destruction of the inhabitable parts of Earth and the mass destruction of human embryos for the sake of advancing bio-engineering technology, the progress of science has resulted in the paradox of greatly expanding civilization but with the risk of destroying a significant portion of humanity. Another question we must face in our present is whether the specter of totalitarianism, which we now know was ultimately to follow the strange 18th and 19th century Gnosticism that Hawthorne was critiquing, will dramatically erupt, again, in our world of new Gnostic “modes and orders.”[xi]
[i] Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Birthmark, ” The Literature Network: http://www.online-literature.com/poe/125/. The impetus for this essay was my participation in a leisurely discussion of this story at a reading group in Phoenix, Arizona with Michael Fink, Jamie Hansen, Erik Twist, and Nik Nikas. I am grateful to these gentlemen for sharing their observations about and helping me better understand Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark.” [ii] Albert Keith Whitaker, “Neoconservative Nathaniel: Bioethics and “The Birth-Mark,” Hawthorne in Salem: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/ScholarsForum/MMD2448.html. [iii] Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics: An Introduction, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987, 107-132, especially 109 and 120. [iv] Ibid., 129. [v] Ibid., 128-131. [vi] Ibid., 131. [vii] Ibid., 132. [viii] Ibid. [ix] Ibid., 127. [x] Hawthorne, “The Birthmark.” Also, see Whitaker, “Neoconservative Nathaniel.” [xi] The phrase “modes and orders” is by Machiavelli. See, for example, Niccolo Machiavelli, The Seven Books on the Art of War, by Niccolo Machiavelli, Citizen and Secretary of Florence, trans. Henry Neville (1675). Chapter: FIRST BOOK Accessed from http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/984/90382/2044778 on 2010-07-22.
Totalitarian forms and thinking are already entrenched in this Post Soviet, Post Mao world. There is a misapprehension that asserts the end of the Cold War meant the end of Totalitarianism. Hardly. While it may possess different manifestations and expressions, the totalitarian urge of Voegelin’s Gnosticism is accumulating a force that grows unabated precisely because we believe, as victors over totalitarianism, that we cannot be totalitarian ourselves. Nothing could be further from the truth and it is an old adage that one often adopts the worse behaviors of one’s enemies, particularly when one’s enemy’s own actions were as big a component in their defeat as was one’s own positive actions.
Science, frequently an Occam’s Razor in pursuit of codifying and illuminating an imperfect world seems to think that perfection …the Grand Theory ….is actually desirable. This scientific compulsion has colonized public policy in this age of the Global Nation State and rather than illuminating human interaction through heuristic openness and inquiry, it has devolved into the patently absurd course of occupation and democracy at gunpoint. Science, and its Political assigns , rather than being a vehicle for inquiry has become a pat stance of hubris.
Once an arch criticism of the Totalitarianism of National Socialism, Voegelin’s accusations of Gnosticism can now be trained squarely upon the Government and Popular Culture of the United States of America. The messianic declamations of “change” in the last election, the drift of the Treasury Department and Fed into a role as Top Corporate Backstop and Arranger, the Endless War on Terror and its accompanying labyrinth of Security industries, the transforming of debt into commodity…they are all illustrations of the toxic edge of the modern Gnostic impulse. Totalitarianism, in an American form has already erupted. Interestingly enough, finding no significant enemy in opposition, we turn on ourselves. We call terrorism the enemy but they are a rather minor opponent when compared to our gathering self-destructive behavior.
Thanks for this. Voegelin, writing from the experience of persecution at the hands of Hitler , his penetrating if somewhat dense vernacular provides one of the clearest insights into our current dysfunctions of any modern philosopher. Compared to that loutish Marxist Existentialist Sartre and despite his dense classical references, Voegelin is the breath of fresh air this triumphantly fatalistic age needs.
Nicely done. I think it was Walter MacDougal who recently held up Hawthorne as the only real genius of the American “renaissance” in the Nineteenth Century. And, of course, Kirk gives him a certain pride of place in “The Conservative Mind.”
I might suggest, following Matthew J. Milliner’s interesting recent essays, that Protestants concerned with culture and art in the temporal realm might take Hawthorne and Jonathan Edwards for touchstones. More on this anon.
Dear D.W. and James,
Thanks for your kind words. Also, thanks for posting these excellent reflections and further readings.
The essay (an introduction to a book) by Flannery O’Connor, “Introduction to ‘A Memoir of Mary Ann,'” references “The Birthmark.” I believe reading that extraordinarily powerful essay would inform and enhance the experience of reading this excellent post. Thank you.
The journal, The New Atlantis, is publishing a series of Hawthorne’s science related short stories as well as essays commenting on them.
The website for this project, which will be pretty expansive, can be found here: http://www.thenewatlantis.com/Hawthorne .
I admire Voegelin’s ideas on Gnosticism when he is talking about modernist ideas but I have always been uneasy about the some of the rest of his thesis. Firstly I have never really understood the need for him to try and link his criticisms of modernist with ancient gnostics in a rather tendentious way. And secondly and more importantly implicitly, and occasionally almost explicitly, his criticisms very infrequently seem to be applicable to mysticism or esotericism as a whole, which I feel not only is metaphysically incorrect( orthodox, genuine mysticism being a true and indeed the highest religious path.) but unnecessary to his attacks on modernists.
In his laudable zeal to expose the modernist attempts to immanentise the transcendent he does occasionally seem to sort of mystics transcendence in the here and now which would include Christian mystics such as Meister Eckhart, St.Francis of Assisi and St.John of the Cross as well as the more mystical Christian East not to mention the Sufis like Ib’n Arabi, the Vedantan’s like Adi Shankara and of course the Buddha and any Buddhist or Hindu attempts at enlightenment or libertation in this life and also Taoist and Platonic mystics to name a few schools. Indeed there is one introduction in one of his works that he does seem to label Platonism(almost inexplicably called “Neo”-Platonism by modernists, and for some reason Voegelin in the passage I’m referring to, despite it being a direct continuation of middle Platonic, Platonic and Pre-Socratic thought going back to Egypt and Mesopotamia.) and Hermeticism as possibility gnostic in his negative sense which would be a grave miscalculation and misunderstanding of these schools of theosophy(as the great traditions of classical thought always were.). I think it would have been better for Voegelin if he just avoided the term Gnostic completely, there is positive gnosis and just concentrated on his real and profound criticisms of modernist and post-modernist thought.
Can someone comment on profoundly prophetic intuitions on science and society in Hawthorne…there’s something of a haunted Jules Verne in Hawthorne, a science forecaster despite himself.
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