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Monday
Apr182011

The Birth-Mark

One of the most common topoi on these pages has been one of the most ill-named: positivism.  A dictionary will tell you that this sorry word denotes a system whereby only what can be perceived by the senses is worth remarking; a good dictionary will add that this selfish approach somehow also means being positive.  It is more than a little ironic that a theory boasting of knowing nothing except what can be grasped, smelled, tasted, seen and heard by a single mortal form could dare bestow upon itself such an uplifting motto.  Let every person negate the information accumulated by the rest of the world and only count himself, and let us then behold the amazing rapture that overcomes this soul, or darkling cave, upon learning that he can only learn so much.  Indeed, even the greatest of positivist minds can only absorb so little of what the world holds that it seems laughable to think they could ever survive without the input of others.  They do, naturally, because it is their grand decision to perceive what others have already achieved.  Should all this sound like a stinking heap of particularly rotten fish, you may enjoy the gentle allegory contained in this story.

Our tale is not distinguished by its originality, but by its beauty – in which case it has much in common with its heroine, Georgiana.  Georgiana is a woman of stunning attractiveness, attractiveness that could not be more proportionate, more radiant or truer to nature's perfect design.  Yet amidst these angelic fibers lurks one small flaw, a birthmark of the oddest proportions:

It shape bore not a little similarity to the human hand, though of the smallest pygmy size.  Georgiana's lovers were wont to say that some fairy, at her birth-hour, had laid her tiny hand upon the infant's cheek, and left this impress there, in token of the magic endowments that were to give her such sway over all hearts.  Many a desperate swain would have risked life for the privilege of pressing his lips to the mysterious hand.  It must not be concealed, however, that the impression wrought by this fairy sign-manual varied exceedingly, according to the difference of temperament in the beholders.  Some fastidious persons but they were exclusively of her own sex affirmed that the Bloody Hand, as they chose to call it, quite destroyed the effect of Georgiana's beauty, and rendered her countenance even hideous.

It has been said that there is nothing more repulsive than a slightly distorted version of what one finds incredibly beautiful (an example from fiction would be a loved one resurrected as a corpse-like phantom); it has also been said that there is nothing to which one inures oneself more quickly than ugliness.  The male mind, if it can successfully be cloven from the female mind on such an issue, would likely suggest that a woman's voluptuousness can blind even the fussiest of male admirers to a flaw.  But another argument can be made outside of the gossipy circles of tea parties:

It was the fatal flaw of humanity, which Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productions, either to imply that they are temporary and finite, or that their perfection must be wrought by toil and pain.  The Crimson Hand expressed the ineludible grip in which mortality clutches the highest and purest of earthly mould, degrading them into kindred with the lowest, and even with the very brutes, like whom their visible frames return to dust.

Both arguments are presented to and considered by perhaps the most important person to have to consider them, Georgiana's husband Alymer, which brings us to another story quite apart.

Alymer is "a man of science, an eminent proficient in every branch of natural philosophy," who possesses, much like this literary figure, the oracle of the Brazen Head.  What experiments he conducts in his laboratory are not ours to know, but his trusted assistant Aminadab has much of the modern cinematic notion of such helpers:

Forthwith there issued from an inner apartment a man of low stature, but bulky frame, with shaggy hair hanging about his visage, which was grimed with the vapors of the furnace. This personage had been Aylmer's underworker during his whole scientific career, and was admirably fitted for that office by his great mechanical readiness, and the skill with which, while incapable of comprehending a single principle, he executed all the details of his master's experiments. With his vast strength, his shaggy hair, his smoky aspect, and the indescribable earthiness that encrusted him, he seemed to represent man's physical nature; while Aylmer's slender figure, and pale, intellectual face, were no less apt a type of the spiritual element.

Aminadab ("bad anima" reversed) should not be written off as a minor character just as Aylmer, for all his pomp and thriving circumstances, should not really be considered our protagonist.  The dichotomy indicated above finds its harshest echoes in Aminadab's own chuckling.  As Aylmer struggles, mixing, matching, meditating through alembics, ingredients and formulas, Aminadab fulfills his every command yet cannot stifle a more than occasional snicker.  For whatever triumph as Aylmer may have achieved in his eventful existence, such fortune pales in comparison to what has surrounded him, on the outside of his laboratories, its seeds and stems the essential components of innumerable concoctions.  Indeed, when he finally whisks poor Georgiana into his offices to find a means to remove her solitary blemish, he even boasts that "no king, on his guarded throne, could keep his life" if he chose to administer a certain potion he humbly dubs the Elixir of Immortality.  Georgiana resigns herself to her husband's genius because everyone else has already succumbed to his wise ways – even if what he wishes to do infringes upon all natural law.

I have previously commented that Hawthorne produces two types of goods, and despite its primitive symbolism, The Birth-Mark is undoubtedly riveting.  One can fairly whiff the exotic scents that Alymer cascades around the wretched Georgiana as if she were nothing more than another damned spot that could not be removed.  The "discord in life" that describes, in turn, Georgiana's odd mark then the havoc wreaked by the votaries of implacable materialism is also buttressed by Alymer's diary, which is something more of a financial statement than a personal account:

The volume, rich with achievements that had won renown for its author, was yet as melancholy a record as ever mortal hand had penned. It was the sad confession and continual exemplification of the shortcomings of the composite man, the spirit burdened with clay and working in matter, and of the despair that assails the higher nature at finding itself so miserably thwarted by the earthly part.

We should all be so lucky as to have our earthbound senses thwart us in our climb to heavenly glory.  How else are we to attempt a modest life if not by filling our gums with dirt?   Or perhaps with the red clay so ready at our fingertips.

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