Black Magic vs. White Magic in Hawthorne’s ‘Birthmark’: The Science of Control vs. the Poetics of Imagination

Bryce Christensen

Southern Utah University, USA

Volume 7, Number 3, 2015 I Full Text PDF


In his landmark Science and Poetry (1926), critic I. A. Richards suggested that science is inherently subversive of “the Magical View” of the universe which he believed to be essential to poetry. Careful readers of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Birthmark,” however, may wish to qualify Richards’ suggestion by contrasting two quite different magical views, both depicted in this iconic story. For Hawthorne depicts the magic of poetic imagination (practiced by the beaus who view Georgiana’s birthmark as a sign of a delightful enchantment) as something quite different from the sorcery of technocratic control (practiced by the perfection-seeking Aylmer). Thorough analysis reveals that the magic of poetic imagination is of the sort that W.H. Auden has in view when he acknowledges that in the physical world “poetry makes nothing happen.” However, Hawthorne helps readers see that in the world of the spirit, this poetic magic works marvels as it helps us to cherish the world as it is. This non-manipulative magic is central to the contemplative leisure that philosopher Josef Pieper recognizes as essential to literary culture. As a benign magic that “makes nothing happen,” this non-controlling magic suggests something like what Taoists refer to as wu wei or “wise passivity,” a contemplative posture manifest in the poetry of China’s two greatest poets, Du Fu and Li Bai. In contrast to this magic of appreciative contemplation, the manipulative sorcery of Aylmer’s science does make things happen in the physical world, though—as Hawthorne’s story makes clear—with perilous side effects.

Keywords: science, poetry, magic, leisure, wu wei, Hawthorne

In his landmark study Science and Poetry, critic I. A. Richards (1926) suggests that science is inherently destructive of “the Magical View” of the universe which he believes to be essential to poetry. Richards’ view on the incompatibility of science and poetry certainly seems credible when we hear the prominent 21st-century scientist Robert L. Park (2008) declare dogmatically, “Science is the only way of knowing—everything else is just superstition” (p. 215). A thoroughgoing scientism of this kind does appear antithetical to poetry. However, careful study of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Birthmark” raises doubts both about whether a “Magical View” of the universe always supports and nourishes poetry and whether science always threatens a magical view of the universe. For in this haunting tale, Hawthorne depicts two very different kinds of magical thinking, one of them actually aligned with and amplified by modern science, the other clearly outside of and even athwart the scientific impulse. As the narrative unfolds, readers come to realize that the magic aligned with science is a black magic which promises technocratic control of the world. This dark magic quite antithetical to—and destructive of–the white magic of poetic imagination that Hawthorne depicts as an enchantment that fosters acceptance of and love of the world as it is.

First published in 1846, Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” (1846/1983) introduces both kinds of magic relatively early in its compelling narrative. In the opening paragraph, the reader meets Aylmer, “a man of science, an eminent proficient in every branch of natural philosophy,” who has just “persuaded a beautiful woman [namely, Georgiana] to become his wife” (p. 3). But the narrator quickly informs us that “in those days when the comparatively recent discovery of electricity and other kindred mysteries of Nature seemed to open paths into the region of miracle, it was not unusual for the love of science to rival the love of woman in its depth and absorbing energy” (pp. 3-4). In invoking the possibility of science that opens “paths into the region of miracle,” the narrator suggests something very much like magic, very potent magic. Indeed, something like the magical powers sought by alchemists come into view when the narrator depicts the scientific enterprise to which Aylmer is deeply committed as one that its votaries hope will enable them to “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” (p. 4). This enterprise, the reader learns, even fosters “faith in man’s ultimate control over Nature” (p. 4). To be sure, in these opening passages, the narrator claims to be ignorant as to whether Aylmer was among those fully possessed of this faith. But the whole course of the events that follow sweep away that ignorance, revealing Aylmer as a man obsessively committed to claiming such control over nature, especially as nature is manifest in the body of his doomed wife.

Hawthorne’s depiction of modern science as an effort to find “the secret of creative force” and so to claim “ultimate control over Nature brings to mind—as Hawthorne surely intends—the efforts of alchemists to find the magical “Philosopher’s Stone,” a powerful talisman capable of turning lead to gold, of curing human ailments, and even perhaps of conferring immortality. Hawthorne explicitly links Aylmer’s science with the alchemists, noting that when Georgiana begins to poke about in her husband’s library, she encounters “the works of the philosophers of the middle ages, such as Albertus Magnus, Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and the famous friar who created the prophetic Brazen Head,” works reflecting an insatiable desire to achieve “from the investigation of Nature a power above Nature” (p. 23). Full Text PDF

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