Civilization as Destroyer


The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, 7th ed.

Civilization is perceived by contemporary man to be a cornerstone of life, a virtue which separates humanity from the beasts, and offers refinement, benevolence and structure in contrast to the barbaric and capricious state of nature. The classical thinkers which we have come to respect as founders of western culture, men such as Aristotle, Plato and Cicero, wrote of the ideal human being, an exemplar of civility and reason, skilled in the liberal arts, a lover of poetry and of high moral and religious devotions. Up until very recent years the world was divided into two realms by the political culture of the early modern age: that of the civilized, and that of the uncivilized. Of the former were attributed the dominions and principalities of Europe, and to a lesser degree the Turkish Sultanate, while the indigenous people of most of Africa, Asia and the New World were considered uncivilized, the “White Man’s Burden,” peoples alien to the refined fruits of civil society, goods considered natural for pious and righteous life. Yet as can be observed in the short stories A Wagner Matinee and Young Goodman Brown, by Willa Cather and Nathaniel Hawthorne respectively, civilization can also serve a divisive, destructive, if not ambiguous role, regardless of its widely lauded virtues. In the former tale we learn of a woman who was both awakened by and encumbered by the fine arts, while in the latter we are introduced into a world of existential torment and escapism made possible only by a reverence of civil religion.

In A Wagner Matinee we encounter a story of a Nebraska farmwife, Aunt Georgiana, returning to the cultural hub of early twentieth century Boston, the place of her youthful years, to attend the settling of the estate of a “bachelor relative” (230) who had recently expired. After hearing of his aunt’s return east, the protagonist Clark invites Georgiana to the opera, where Wagner is being performed. Georgiana, who was a music teacher at the Boston Conservatory in the 1860s, had while still living in the east introduced the young Clark to the splendor of music, owing to her “most of the good that ever came [his] way in [his] boyhood,” (231) teaching him how to play the parlor organ and exposing him to the other fine arts. Accordingly the grateful nephew invites Georgiana to the opera, thirty years by marriage removed from any exposure to high culture “fifty miles from the railroad” (231), her past years spent in the gray, bleak and unforgiving Nebraska territory, consumed by back-breaking work and the monotonous labors of survival.

Rather than enjoy the Wagner performance Aunt Georgiana is devastated by it, finding not reprieve from a hard life but false hope in a world of thought not applicable to the harsh reality she must return to, afflicted by a mental breakdown in the theatre, fixed to her seat and dreading to leave. In this fashion civilization while at first enriching Georgiana’s life in her youth seems to have left an encumbering attachment which “never really died,” (234) not casually severed without causing destruction to the exposed individual. Aunt Georgiana is exposed to the heroic and idealistic world of Wagner, produced in fancy by a class of professional artists, while fully aware that she will never be able to experience it again, married to a more austere and bleak life, where music and civilization is a luxury at best, and at worst a fatal waste of time. This realization depletes the woman to a hopeless and panicked state, tragically pleading to her nephew: “I don’t want to go, Clark, I don’t want to go! (235)”

Young Goodman Brown also reveals a more sinister side of civilization. Hawthorne’s story is an allegory involving the eponymous character’s loss of faith, both in his god and in the civil order, after becoming aware of what he perceives to be the innate evil and hypocrisy of humanity, and as a result becomes a cynical, suspicious and existentially tormented man, so that even “his dying hour was gloom” (648). Goodman Brown enters the dark woods nearby to colonial Salem and encounters the people of the town, who he considered to be pious and upright citizens, consorting with a demonic figure, and engaging in a sort of “black mass,” including participants ranging from the woman who taught him the catechism to the deacon himself. When Goodman Brown discovers his wife Faith, and by extension through the allegory, his own faith and godliness, being tempted to corruption by the Devil figure he finally rejects the seduction, crying out “look up to heaven, and resist the wicked one. (647)” Suddenly finding himself alone in the forest, the prior visions seemingly part of a dream, Goodman Brown is still left with a feeling of despair, distrust and suspicion, forever changing his perception of the people around him, hearing not but “an anthem of sin” (648) during the church services, unable to detach himself from his revelation.

This sort of paranoid existential torment was only made possible by indoctrination into the “city on a hill” Puritan ideology of the day, which sought to simultaneously bring about virtue in the citizens, in quest of establishing a holy civilization, whilst simultaneously preaching the innate sinfulness of humanity. The standards of civilization proposed by the Puritans proved to be incongruous with the realities of human existence, which is prone to frailties and indulgences considered sinful, and thus perpetuated a sense of endemic guilt, self-loathing, isolation, and suspicion in the indoctrinated societies. Goodman Brown comes to terms with this former fact, and rather than accept it as a fact of life, escapes into even deeper and more divisive religious devotion, sternly chastising and rejecting his fellow citizens as evil, isolating himself so as to save his own soul from corruption.

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