Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Two Potent American Images,

The Commanding Doctrinaire & the Lunatic Penitent, abound in our culture.

Here is a scene from "The Gentle Boy," by Nathaniel Hawthorne. To help you understand the significance of these images, I will summarize the story to the point the images are presented. Ilbrahim, a young Quaker boy, sat on the mound where his father was buried. His father was hanged by the Boston settlement of Puritans for being a Quaker, his mother was ostracized from the community and forced to wander in the wilderness. The boy was taken in by Tobias and Dorothy, a childless Puritan couple. The Puritans are so merciless to the Quakers that they start to alienate Tobias and Dorothy for their kindness to Ilbrahim. This scene is in the Puritan meeting house, where Catharine, Ilbrahim's mother, meets her son and confronts the community. This is the more personal part of the scene between herself, Dorothy, and Ilbrahim.

Nathaiel Hawthorne. Scene, "The Gentle Boy," 1832, 1837.
QUOTE: The muffled female, who had hitherto sat motionless in the front rank of the audience, now arose, and with slow, stately, and unwavering step, ascended the pulpit stairs. The quaverings of incipient harmony were hushed, and the divine sat in speechless and almost terrified astonishment, while she undid the door, and stood up in the sacred desk from which his maledictions had just been thundered. She then divested herself of the cloak and hood, and appeared in a most singular array. A shapeless robe of sackcloth vvas girded about her waist with a knotted cord; her raven hair fell down upon her shoulders, and its blackness was defiled by pale streaks of ashes, which she had strewn upon her head. Her eyebrows, dark and strongly defined, added to the deathly whiteness of a countenance which, emaciated with want, and wild with enthusiasm and strange sorrows, retained no trace of earlier beauty. This figure stood gazing earnestly on the audience, and there was no sound, nor any movement, except a faint shuddering which every man observed in his neighbor, but was scarcely conscious of in himself. [...] END QUOTE.

From here, Catharine begins an oration about herself and her suffering in vivid and even inspired terms. She condemns the community that has destroyed her family in bitterly violent terms. While her language is violent, one is convinced, looking on her afflicted state and her isolation, that she could never act on her rage. If anything, her religion would prevent it, and in fact, it does. Catharine seems like a fanatic, but it's important to remember that given other events in the story, she's really no more fanatic than the surrounding, seemingly more reasonable community of Puritans.

QUOTE: Her [Dorothy's] mild, but saddened features, and neat, matronly attire, harmonized together, and were like a verse of fireside poetry. Her very aspect proved that she was blameless, so far as mortal could be so, in respect to God and man; while the enthusiast, in her robe of sackcloth and girdle of knotted cord, had as evidently violated the duties of the present life and the future, by fixing her attention wholly on the latter. The two females, as they held each a hand of Ilbrahim, formed a practical allegory; it was rational piety and unbridled fanaticism, contending for the empire of a young heart.
[...]She turned her steps towards the door, and the men, who had stationed themselves to guard it, withdrew, and suffered her to pass. A general sentiment of pity overcame the virulence of religious hatred. Sanctified by her love, and her affliction, she went forth, and all the people gazed after her till she had journeyed up the hill, and was lost behind its brow. She went, the apostle of her own unquiet heart, to renew the wanderings of past years. For her voice had been already heard in many lands of Christendom; and she had pined in the cells of a Catholic Inquisition, before she felt the lash, and lay in the dungeons of the Puritans. Her mission had extended also to the followers of the Prophet, and from them she had received the courtesy and kindness, which all the contending sects of our purer religion united to deny her. Her husband and herself had resided many months in Turkey, where even the Sultan's countenance was gracious to them; in that pagan land, too, was Ilbrahim's birthplace, and his oriental name was a mark of gratitude for the good deeds of an unbeliever. END QUOTE.

The Puritans have the look of reason and human civilization, but do not practice these things. The Quaker woman and her son seem barbarian, anarchic, and yet, by their difference, they both call on the larger community to become secular, practice law through reason, and through implication, invoke enlightened civilization.
Here in America we assert that diversity is a good thing constantly. But diversity means that your neighbors don't look like you, may not worship your god, and may not value the same experiences in the same way. Their differences from the community, or your differences with your larger community call for a secular response, an acceptant response, a civilized response, a democratic response, and a humanistic response. For the world to go on peacefully, nothing else will do.

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