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.

The week (March 30th, 2007): Nobody asked me, but…

With a tip of the fedora to Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

JOURNALIST DANIEL PEARL’S MURDER in Pakistan will be the focus of an investigative journalism seminar being planned by Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies, which the school says in a press release “will search for clues to what really happened” when Pearl was kidnapped and beheaded in Karachi in 2002.

The seminar, dubbed The Pearl Project, will be led by Barbara Feinman Todd, associate dean of journalism, and former Wall Street Journal reporter Asra Q. Nomani, a one-time colleague of Pearl’s. Nomani is quoted as saying: “For the five years since Danny was killed, I have wanted to find out the full truth behind Danny’s kidnapping and murder.”

Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, (also known as Sheikh Omar), a British-born Islamic militant, was convicted of Pearl’s murder and sentenced to death in 2002. Three other men were sentenced to life sentences. Sheikh Omar is now appealing his conviction, pointing to the confession of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks on the United States, that he had beheaded Pearl.

One the unanswered questions about the Pearl murder includes what links there might be between elements in the Pakistani intelligence agency (Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI) and Omar Sheikh, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and Al Qaeda.

How far will The Pearl Project get towards answering any of the unresolved questions? A key will be the level of cooperation and access offered by Pakistan’s government.

OPRAH WINFREY’s CHOICE OF Cormac McCarthy’s novel ”The Road” as her latest book club selection has come as a bit of a surprise, because the TV celebrity usually chooses less weighty fare. Winfrey said McCarthy’s novel, the story of father and son and their journey in a post-apocalyptic America, was “haunting and inspiring.”

A better choice to expose Oprah’s millions to McCarthy’s considerable talents would have been his novel “All the Pretty Horses”; I found “The Road” to be a somewhat derivative and predictable foray into science fiction.

I’LL BE ROOTING FOR GEORGETOWN’S basketball team in the NCAA’s Final Four tournament chiefly because of the Hoyas’ brilliant young coach, John Thompson III, who is looking to follow in the footsteps of his father, John Thompson, and lead the Jesuit school to a national championship. John Thompson III calls his squad the “son of” team because it includes the sons of former NBA players Patrick Ewing (Patrick Ewing Jr) and Doc Rivers (Jeremiah Rivers).

IT IS WELCOME NEWS FOR ADVOCATES OF JOURNALISTIC TRANSPARENCY THAT the New York Times has decided to continue the newspaper’s practice of employing a public editor (an ombudsman meant to act as the paper’s “readers’ representative.”) Editor Bill Keller will replace Byron Calame, whose tenure as public editor is ending in May.

The ombudsman role, resisted by the Times for decades but then adopted after the Jayson Blair scandal, does allow for some public scrutiny of editorial decision-making. The public editor, by design, looks into journalistic controversies after the fact.

More important to the practice of objective-means journalism at the Times is whether the standards editor, Craig Whitney, can effectively address any breakdowns in the daily practices of the newsroom. Is there proper oversight of reporters? Are there adequate checks-and-balances in the editing process? Are conflicts-of-interest, or problems with bias (vide Linda Greenhouse’s lapse into partisanship) surfaced and dealt with?

OBAMA AND BLUE COLLARS: DO THEY FIT?” is the title of Ronald Brownstein’s piece in the Los Angeles Times where the veteran national affairs columnist focuses on whether Presidential hopeful Barack Obama can move beyond his appeal to the college-educated (the “wine track”).

Brownstein characterises Obama as a “brainy liberal” with a “cool, detached persona,” like Eugene McCarthy, Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas and Bill Bradley. He sees Hillary Clinton as having more appeal to working class Democrats. Brownstein notes:

Since the 1960s, Democratic nominating contests regularly have come down to a struggle between a candidate who draws support primarily from upscale, economically comfortable voters liberal on social and foreign policy issues, and a rival who relies mostly on downscale, financially strained voters drawn to populist economics and somewhat more conservative views on cultural and national security issues.

Those Democratic candidates—like Bill Clinton or, to a certain extent, Robert F. Kennedy—who can reach out to both groups, Brownstein argues, can fashion a winning coalition. Can Obama achieve this? That will be the deciding factor in the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination race.

THE WORDS FOR THE WEEK FROM PATRICK HENRY, the fiery Virginia patriot of the 18th century: “The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.”


Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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Postapocalypse now: Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”

Cormac McCarthy
The Road (2006)

Dystopian visions appear to be all the rage these days. Director Alfonso Cuarón’s just-released Children of Men, a film set in 2027 London, imagines a dying world where humans can not reproduce; on television, CBS is airing the series Jericho, a futuristic drama about life in a small Kansas town after an atomic attack on Denver; and Cormac McCarthy’s latest novel, “The Road,” traces the journey of a father and son through a lawless America in the aftermath of a fiery (nuclear?) apocalypse.

What lies behind these harrowing scenarios? A delayed reaction to 9/11, or to the dangers of genetic engineering, or to global warming? Fears triggered by North Korean nuclear tests, or the threat of terrorists acquiring Weapons of Mass Destruction?

While the Doomsday Clock, a measure of the “global level of nuclear danger” kept by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, reflects worrisome trends (it reached seven minutes to midnight in 2002, much narrower than 1991’s 17-minute gap), we are relatively safer than we were during the brinkmanship years of the Cold War. In 1953, for example, after the U.S. and Soviet Union both tested thermonuclear devices the clock moved to two minutes from Armageddon; in 1962 the Cuban missile crisis nearly escalated into all-out war.

Perhaps today’s artistic anxiety stems from the greater potential for random acts of destruction. The Cold War superpower standoff was based on the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, the assumption that rational leaders would be deterred from using atomic weapons knowing that there could no winners. In contrast, many of today’s terrorists have embraced suicide as a religious act, and Iranian leaders have mused aloud about acceptable population losses in a nuclear exchange with Israel. Rationality is no check. The fear and trepidation that these works of science fiction tap into is very real.

“The Road” captures that anxiety. McCarthy has been in a grim mood of late; his 2005 novel, “No Country for Old Men,” explored the disturbing impact of drugs, easy money and anarchic violence on Texas small towns along the Mexican border. McCarthy (through the character of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, a traditionalist) clearly longs for a return to older values and virtues, such as family and faith, which have been challenged by a brutal, criminal amorality.

A Hobbesian America

That longing for a baseline morality again surfaces in “The Road.” McCarthy sketches an anarchic America, still smoldering from the war, where the few survivors confront a Hobbesian nightmare, scavenging for food and shelter in a burned-over landscape, evading the roaming bands of predators who have descended into barbarism.

There are echoes here of Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain” with his hero’s Homeric journey through the back-roads of a Civil War South where the social order has collapsed. The protagonist in “The Road” hopes that by travelling south to the coast through a “barren, silent, godless” landscape he and his ten-year-old son can find sanctuary from the coming harsh winter. All the while he fights his own growing “dull despair” and clings to a preapocalyptic morality—telling his son that they are the “good guys” and promising they will never resort to the savagery, including cannibalism, that they see around them.

Fire dominates this book: it has scorched the ruined America the two travelers encounter (“Sketched upon the pall of soot downstream the outline of a burnt city like a black paper scrim”); yet building a fire is also necessary to keep the man and boy alive in a post-nuclear winter climate. And “carrying the fire” is the reason the man gives his son for persevering despite their nearly hopeless situation; that fire is a metaphor for keeping alive the internal spark of humanity.

McCarthy is known for his spare, poetic prose—it is on full display in “The Road.” His stripped down language (with its Hemingwayesque use of conjunctions) matches the stark environment he limns:

It was as long a night as he could remember out of a great plenty of such nights. They lay on the wet ground by the side of the road under the blankets with the rain rattling on the tarp and he held the boy and after a while the boy stopped shaking and after a while he slept.

There are hints of Biblical judgment (the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah), and of more recent horrific images (the “Highway of Death” from Kuwait to Baghdad where Iraqi solders were incinerated during the first Gulf War). McCarthy couples his description of the radically altered physical landscape with a portrait of a father’s redemptive love for his son and his growing desperation as he realizes that he is dying and may not find a safe harbor in time for his boy.

There is much to admire in “The Road,” and yet McCarthy’s imagery and lyric Celtic prose don’t elevate the novel into something first-rate; in the end the book disappoints. It feels derivative, borrowing (intentionally or not) from the popular-culture dystopias we’ve encountered in the Mad Max and Terminator films (and perhaps even from futuristic clunkers like The Postman and Waterworld). There’s nothing particularly fresh, or different, in McCarthy’s somewhat baroque postapocalytic take. (I would argue that Nevil Shute’s “On the Beach” remains the scariest, and most haunting, vision of what might happen after a nuclear war, as the surviving remnants of humanity await the radioactive winds that doom the species, “not with a bang but a whimper.”)

Recognizing the future

The most fascinating science fictions these days—in print and on screen—are those that provide us a glimpse of a plausible, but deeply disturbing future, one that is familiar and that we recognize with a bit of a shudder. Michael Winterbottom’s 2003 film Code 46 does just that, imagining how globalization, environmental stress and genetic engineering might lead to a society divided by wealth and “breeding.” We encounter a pampered, urban technocratic overclass and an impoverished, “genetically inferior” underclass, oppressed and isolated from First World civilization, restricted by a series of codes and laws. The film hits close to home in a way “The Road” does not. (Screenwriter and director Andrew Niccol explored somewhat similar, and uncomfortable, themes of genetic privilege in his 1997 movie Gattaca.)

Storytellers are as much drawn to the future–its mystery, its plasticity, its mythic potential–as they are to the present or the past. Yet innovative science fiction is harder to create than it appears. McCarthy’s comfort with the themes and tropes of the Western—another distinctly American genre–are evident in his “Border Trilogy,” but his foray into science fiction isn’t nearly as successful.

He’s not alone: since George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” the challenge for mainstream writers to imagine the society of the future has proven irresistible and enduring. Sometimes they hit—witness “A Clockwork Orange” (Anthony Burgess), “Planet of the Apes” (Pierre Boule) and “Never Let Me Go” (Kazuo Ishiguro)—and sometimes they miss the mark (vide: Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” or Caleb Carr’s “Killing Time”).

They will—we can safely predict—keeping trying.


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Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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