Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” and the dark temptations of paranoia

There’s something to be said for paranoia, at least from an evolutionary perspective. Our prehistoric ancestors faced a brutal, unforgiving world where misjudging a threat could prove fatal. Suspicion of strangers was a natural instinct, and a well-developed sense of “friend or foe” might mean you were more likely to survive and pass on your genes.

Long after the survival threat to homo sapiens became less pressing, the paranoid proclivity remained. When it is triggered by environmental or genetic factors, and causes abnormal suspiciousness and delusions of persecution or danger, clinicians call it “paranoid personality disorder.” As Robert Wright, author of The Moral Animal, has observed, “…it’s interesting to note how many psychopathologies, including paranoia, may simply be evolutionary ingrained tendencies turned up a notch too high.”

Many authors, artists and film-makers have been fascinated by the alienation present in paranoia, and while it seems to be a modernist concern (consider: Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” or Franz Kafka’s “The Trial”) the theme surfaced in literature well before the advent of Freudian psychiatry. While Nathaniel Hawthorne did not set out to directly address the impact of paranoia in “Young Goodman Brown,” his haunting short story has retained its appeal long after its 1835 publication, I would argue, precisely because it taps into the feelings of isolation, fear of the Other, and, yes, the dark temptations of paranoia that are part of the human condition.

What do I mean by the dark temptations of paranoia? It’s that natural, and gratifying, inclination to blame others for our misfortune. It includes our very human tendency to bear grudges, to question the loyalty or trustworthiness of friends, to fear being exploited or deceived, and to credulously accept conspiracy theories. And “It wasn’t my fault. They were out to get me” offers a tempting explanation for trouble, one that neatly shifts any blame for failure or disappointment onto malevolent others.

Paranoid reality or paranoid dream?

Many literary critics have seen “Young Goodman Brown” (along with The Scarlet Letter) as part of Hawthorne’s critique of Calvinist theology as practiced in New England, especially the Puritan fascination with predestination and the role of the Elect—those divinely-selected Christians assured of a place in heaven. Certainly the story is crammed with religious symbolism and imagery and touches on many of these themes. Yet the universal appeal of the story lies in its portrayal of a young man struggling with his growing sense that the world has turned against him, and the open question as to whether his new-found disillusionment with family and friends is grounded in reality or reflects a delusional dream-state.

As with many horror stories, “Young Goodman Brown” relies on a series of small revelations, dark imagery, and hints of the supernatural to build suspense. Goodman Brown of Salem sets off on a mysterious journey with, we are told, an “evil purpose”; his wife, Faith, (“aptly named”) tries to entice him to stay home, but he refuses.

Once in the dark forest, Goodman Brown encounters an older man, a “fellow-traveler” whose companionship is not “wholly unexpected” by Goodman. Hawthorne foreshadows events to come as Goodman Brown wonders: “What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow!”

Soon we learn that the devil, indeed, is at his elbow (disguised as his grandfather and carrying a staff “which bore the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent”), that his religious mentor Goody Cloyse is a witch, and that Goodman Brown’s father and grandfather before him had embraced the occult.

When Goodman Brown reaches the clearing where the devil worshipers will hold their Satanic ceremony of initiation, he recognizes “a score of the church members of Salem village famous for their especial sanctity.” And these “grave, reputable, and pious people” are joined by “men of dissolute lives and women of spotted fame”—good and wicked, sinners and saints joined in their “homage to the prince of all.” He is staggered by the enormity of the deception, aghast at his discovery that the Elect of his community are part of this “impious assembly,” one he has come to join.

Even worse, however, is discovering that the young woman also awaiting “baptism” into this congregation, “trembling before that unhallowed altar,” is his own wife. Young Goodman Brown hesitates, and then calls on his wife to join in resisting “the evil one.” In a flash he finds himself alone, “amid calm night and solitude,” but whether Faith has also turned away from Satan, “he knew not.”

When he returns to Salem Goodman Brown is a changed man, shrinking from contact from the minister, snubbing his wife when he meets her. Then, in an intriguing twist, Hawthorne introduces doubt about the reality of Young Goodman Brown’s experience. Perhaps he hasn’t uncovered a coven of “fiend-worshippers” but instead imagined the scene:

Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?

Be it so if you will; but, alas! it was a dream of evil omen for young Goodman Brown. A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man did he become from the night of that fearful dream.

Is Goodman Brown’s nightmarish experience just that: a nightmare? Or has he discovered the reality behind the scrim of Puritan convention? The psychic damage has been done, in either case, for he can no longer encounter the townspeople, or his wife, without seeing them as secretly in league with the Devil.

A modern psychiatrist, rejecting prima facie the existence of Satan, might very well diagnose Goodman Brown as harboring paranoid fantasies. His belief that everyone around him had joined a sinister, and hidden, conspiracy would suggest paranoid personality disorder. (If the people of Salem were actually involved in witchcraft and secret devil worship, then the situation becomes much more complex.)

Contemporary demons

We may no longer believe in witches or the presence of Satan, but we still confront our own contemporary demons. Paranoia continues to have its artistic fascination. The Puritans of the Bay Colony had theological underpinnings for their fears, ours stem more often from half-baked ideologies (for example, 9/11 conspiracy theories) or junk science.

There has been a brisk demand for horror films trading on the thrill of group paranoia. It’s why Hollywood has fashioned four film versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a science-fiction story of alien invaders who secretly transform humans into “pod-people.”

The first film version came in 1956 (reflecting concerns about Communist subversion), the best-known remake followed in 1978 (trading off post-Watergate paranoia), the third in 1993 (with fears of toxic waste and a compromised environment as a backdrop), and the most recent in 2007, retitled The Invasion, (starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig and featuring a plot revolving around an alien virus).

Since the AIDs epidemic, paranoia about infection has been a continuing theme in popular culture, whether in the form of science fiction thrillers about pandemics (Twelve Monkeys, 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, Children of Men) or in the current fascination with vampires (the Twilight series, HBO’s “True Blood,” 30 Days of Night). Then there is 2007’s very popular I Am Legend, the most recent cinematic version of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel (following The Last Man on Earth in 1964 and The Omega Man in 1971), which offers moviegoers both infectious disease and vampirism.

Fearing a global epidemic is not irrational, as the spread of AIDs and the outbreaks of bird flu in China and foot and mouth disease in Britain have highlighted the danger, but the probability of an unchecked pandemic is much less than Hollywood screenwriters would have you think, and the probability of vampire and zombie attacks approaches nil. But in troubled times, cathartic fear and loathing (the stuff of group paranoia) always plays well at the box office.


Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.

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February 2009: Nobody asked me, but…

That “stimulating” New York Post cartoon, recession denial on the American campus, and other strange happenings

With a doffed snow-covered cap to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon (for borrowing his signature phrase): nobody asked me, but…

WHAT WERE THE EDITORS OF THE NEW YORK POST THINKING WHEN THEY PUBLISHED that now infamous cartoon by Sean Delonas, a cartoon that could be construed (in the words of Foon Rhee of the Boston Globe) to “tie President Obama to a rampaging chimpanzee killed by police,” and therefore might be regarded as racist?

The cartoon linked the recent passage of the economic stimulus package and the shooting of a violent pet chimp in Connecticut. Delonas depicted two police officers looking at the dead chimp, with one remarking: “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.” (View the cartoon here.)

Al Sharpton quickly attacked the Post: “Being that the stimulus bill has been the first legislative victory of President Barack Obama and has become synonymous with him, it is not a reach to wonder, are they inferring that a monkey wrote the last bill?”

Sam Stein of the Huffington Post echoed Sharpton:

“At its most benign, the cartoon suggests that the stimulus bill was so bad, monkeys may as well have written it. Most provocatively, it compares the president to a rabid chimp. Either way, the incorporation of violence and (on a darker level) race into politics is bound to be controversial.”

For his part, an unrepentant Delonas characterized the uproar as “absolutely friggin’ ridiculous” and told CNN: “Do you really think I’m saying Obama should be shot? I didn’t see that in the cartoon. It’s about the economic stimulus bill. If you’re going to make that about anybody, it would be Pelosi, which it’s not.”

Delonas received support from left-wing editorial cartoonist Ted Rall who said he didn’t think the cartoon was aimed at Obama or that it was racist: “It’s about his economic advisers who wrote the stimulus bill, and they’re a bunch of white guys.”

The editors of the New York Post eventually offered a qualified apology for the cartoon: It was meant to mock an ineptly written federal stimulus bill. Period….But it has been taken as something else – as a depiction of President Obama, as a thinly veiled expression of racism. This most certainly was not its intent; to those who were offended by the image, we apologise.”

That didn’t quiet the critics, and after threats of a boycott by civil rights groups, Rupert Murdoch, chairman of the News Corporation (the owner of the newspaper) had to offer his own apology (“Today I want to personally apologize to any reader who felt offended, and even insulted…I can assure you — without a doubt — that the only intent of that cartoon was to mock a badly written piece of legislation.”)

Was the cartoon racist? Certainly any use of chimps or monkeys as symbols for black people trades on centuries-old racial caricatures, as Brent Staples of the New York Times pointed out in his piece “The Ape in American Bigotry, From Thomas Jefferson to 2009.” (Yes, Mr. Jefferson made a bizarre connection between male orangutans and black women, according to Staples).

But it’s a stretch to see the Delonas cartoon as deliberately racist: that grants the cartoon more coherence than it deserves. Delonas is guilty of dead-line laziness, trying to graft a high-profile news story (the chimp attack) onto the stimulus package, not racism. And the cartoon consequently makes little sense: the authors of the stimulus (whether Congress or Obama) weren’t stopped (“shot”), so what exactly is Delonas trying to say? Beats me.

Should Americans newspaper editors be sensitive to racial or religious slurs in cartoons and comics, intended or unintended? Yes. The editors at the New York Post should have caught the potential for insult in the Delonas cartoon before publication. (The dangers of cartoonists employing monkey imagery in connection with African-American candidates was a topic of discussion in a media course I taught at NYU last semester, months before the controversy.)

Should they overreact, as did the Washington Post in apologizing preemptively for a humor column (“Monkey Business“) that had absolutely nothing to do with African-Americans? No. I read the column and looked at the allegedly insulting illustration and I couldn’t find any troubling racial overtones, (unless they reside in the psyches of Washington Post editors). Perhaps the apology really should go to Gary Hart, whose presidential bid in 1988 collapsed when it turned out he vacationed with a young woman (not his wife) on a yacht aptly named Monkey Business.

WHAT ARE EDUCATORS THINKING WHEN THEY DON’T, OR WON’T, HELP OUT on behalf of their university during hard economic times? How deeply entrenched is the Culture of Entitlement on America’s college campuses? Endowed professor Florence Babb has challenged the University of Florida’s request that she increase her teaching load to three courses a year. This comes as her university “is slashing its budget and laying off faculty and staff,” according to Inside Higher Education.

Babb argues her appointment letter in 2004 stated she would only have to teach one course a semester, but the University counters that “changing teaching loads is permissible under Florida’s collective bargaining agreement with the union” representing Babb. How does being asked to teach one additional course represent a hardship for Babb (who is highly compensated and has a very light course load)? Beats me.

Another educator (or should that be “educator”?), Jim Calhoun, the University of Connecticut’s men’s basketball coach, also is in recession denial. He has openly balked at any discussion of adjusting his out-sized compensation ($1.6 million a year) while his school (and the state of Connecticut) struggles with budget shortfalls. Calhoun’s tirade after being questioned about his salary by a freelance journalist prompted the Governor of Conneticut, M. Jodi Rell, to call it “an embarassing display.”

Yet another sad case of American elites (and college professors and Division I basketball coaches fall in that category) putting personal gain ahead of institutional loyalty. That educators are embracing a “me-first” attitude is particularly unappetizing.

WHAT WAS LIAM NEESON THINKING WHEN HE AGREED TO STAR IN “TAKEN“? Has the talented Irish actor been harboring a secret desire to appear in action-adventure films (a la “The Bourne Identity”)? Neeson’s considerable talents are wasted in a derivative and cliched effort. It’s disappointing because the script for “Taken” is from the usually inventive Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen (collaborators on “The Fifth Element”). The plot holes in “Taken” are so gaping that viewers are left wondering whether numerous explanatory scenes were left on the cutting room floor.

WHAT WERE THE BOSTON CELTICS THINKING WHEN THEY SIGNED STEPHON MARBURY, a “me-first” player with a well-deserved reputation for wearing out his welcome? It’s true the defending champs have struggled against Kobe Bryant’s Lakers this season, and Marbury can provide needed backcourt scoring, and Marbury is saying all the right things about his willingness to be a “team player,” but he has caused chemistry problems at all of his prior NBA stops (Minnesota, New Jersey, Phoenix, and the New York Knicks). Odds are Marbury’s stint in green will end badly.

JOHN RICH’S POPULIST “SHUTTING DETROIT DOWN” has been quite popular on country music stations around the country. Rich, a John McCain supporter (who wrote a campaign song for the Arizona Senator “Raising McCain“), is closer to the Main Street wing of the Republican Party, which remains suspicious of Northeastern elites, including the Wall Streeters who generously supported George W. Bush. Cognitive dissonance, anyone?

SIGN OF THE TIMES: “Honk if you are paying my mortgage,” hand-lettered sign on the back of a pick-up truck, spied on the Henry Hudson Parkway near the George Washington Bridge on the last day of February, 2009.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM AUTHOR AND PHILOSOPHER HANNAH ARENDT (1906-1975): “The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved