April 25, 2015

HER BIRTHMARK AND OUR BIRTH (self-reference alert):

Gothic Mystery Meets Puritan Belief : Medical ethics are at odds with the ideal of human perfection in Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'The Birthmark.' (JOHN J. MILLER, April 24, 2015, WSJ)

Around the time Hawthorne wrote "The Birthmark," his wife, Sophia, suffered a miscarriage. "Men's accidents are God's purposes," she said. One of them scratched this line into a window of the Old Manse, the home they rented from Ralph Waldo Emerson in Concord, Mass. The graffito is still visible, offering what comfort it can to troubled souls. "The Birthmark" reverses its insight, as God's apparent accident gives one man a misbegotten purpose.

Hawthorne seems to say that imperfection is a part of the human condition and we meddle with it at our peril. It is a warning that eugenicists and other utopian schemers have failed to heed. They envision glorious possibility, but lack the imagination to see the costly trade-offs--the unintended consequences that curse every project of social engineering.

Readers occasionally misinterpret "The Birthmark" as a hidebound conservative's brief against any improvement at all. There's a difference, they argue, between transformative change that seeks perfection and incremental reform that merely aims to enhance quality of life. And they are right: Today, ordinary birthmark removal doesn't threaten lives or raise ethical dilemmas. Surgery can offer radical benefits to children with cleft lips and palates and other birth defects.

Hawthorne knew something of metaphorical birthmarks and cosmetic alterations. When he was born on the Fourth of July in 1804, his surname was Hathorne. He added the "w" in the 1820s, for reasons he never explained, though some have speculated that he wanted to separate himself from the legacy of John Hathorne, a great-great-grandfather who presided over the notorious Salem witch trials.

In the final paragraph of "The Birthmark," Hawthorne scolds Aylmer for not reaching "a profounder wisdom." Perhaps this is another aspect of the human condition: We're always struggling to discern right and wrong, making difficult decisions that try to balance tradition and humility with opportunity and ambition. Good judgment is a precious commodity that shows up in grimy lab assistants at least as much as it does in the hubristic geniuses who order them around.

The kerfuffle over Leon Kass using this tale--and the libertarian-dominated rightwing blogosphere's objections thereto--led to our starting this blog.

Posted by at April 25, 2015 8:03 AM

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