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Criticism - FANATICISM Post by :Spider Category :Essays Author :John Greenleaf Whittier Date :April 2012 Read :2336

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Criticism - FANATICISM

THERE are occasionally deeds committed almost too horrible and revolting for publication. The tongue falters in giving them utterance; the pen trembles that records them. Such is the ghastly horror of a late tragedy in Edgecomb, in the State of Maine. A respectable and thriving citizen and his wife had been for some years very unprofitably engaged in brooding over the mysteries of the Apocalypse, and in speculations upon the personal coming of Christ and the temporal reign of the saints on earth,--a sort of Mahometan paradise, which has as little warrant in Scripture as in reason. Their minds of necessity became unsettled; they meditated self-destruction; and, as it appears by a paper left behind in the handwriting of both, came to an agreement that the husband should first kill his wife and their four children, and then put an end to his own existence. This was literally executed,--the miserable man striking off the heads of his wife and children with his axe, and then cutting his own throat.

Alas for man when he turns from the light of reason and from the simple and clearly defined duties of the present life, and undertakes to pry into the mysteries of the future, bewildering himself with uncertain and vague prophecies, Oriental imagery, and obscure Hebrew texts! Simple, cheerful faith in God as our great and good Father, and love of His children as our brethren, acted out in all relations and duties, is certainly best for this world, and we believe also the best preparation for that to come. Once possessed by the falsity that God's design is that man should be wretched and gloomy here in order to obtain rest and happiness hereafter; that the mental agonies and bodily tortures of His creatures are pleasant to Him; that, after bestowing upon us reason for our guidance, He makes it of no avail by interposing contradictory revelations and arbitrary commands,--there is nothing to prevent one of a melancholic and excitable temperament from excesses so horrible as almost to justify the old belief in demoniac obsession.

Charles Brockden Brown, a writer whose merits have not yet been sufficiently acknowledged, has given a powerful and philosophical analysis of this morbid state of mind--this diseased conscientiousness, obeying the mad suggestions of a disordered brain as the injunctions of Divinity--in his remarkable story of Wieland. The hero of this strange and solemn romance, inheriting a melancholy and superstitious mental constitution, becomes in middle age the victim of a deep, and tranquil because deep, fanaticism. A demon in human form, perceiving his state of mind, wantonly experiments upon it, deepening and intensifying it by a fearful series of illusions of sight and sound. Tricks of jugglery and ventriloquism seem to his feverish fancies miracles and omens--the eye and the voice of the Almighty piercing the atmosphere of supernatural mystery in which he has long dwelt. He believes that he is called upon to sacrifice the beloved wife of his bosom as a testimony of the entire subjugation of his carnal reason and earthly affections to the Divine will. In the entire range of English literature there is no more thrilling passage than that which describes the execution of this baleful suggestion. The coloring of the picture is an intermingling of the lights of heaven and hell,--soft shades of tenderest pity and warm tints of unextinguishable love contrasting with the terrible outlines of an insane and cruel purpose, traced with the blood of murder. The masters of the old Greek tragedy have scarcely exceeded the sublime horror of this scene from the American novelist. The murderer confronted with his gentle and loving victim in her chamber; her anxious solicitude for his health and quiet; her affectionate caress of welcome; his own relentings and natural shrinking from his dreadful purpose; and the terrible strength which he supposes is lent him of Heaven, by which he puts down the promptings and yearnings of his human heart, and is enabled to execute the mandate of an inexorable Being,--are described with an intensity which almost stops the heart of the reader. When the deed is done a frightful conflict of passions takes place, which can only be told in the words of the author:--

"I lifted the corpse in my arms and laid it on the bed. I gazed upon it with delight. Such was my elation that I even broke out into laughter. I clapped my hands, and exclaimed, 'It is done! My sacred duty is fulfilled! To that I have sacrificed, O God, Thy last and best gift, my wife!'

"For a while I thus soared above frailty. I imagined I had set myself forever beyond the reach of selfishness. But my imaginations were false. This rapture quickly subsided. I looked again at my wife. My joyous ebullitions vanished. I asked myself who it was whom I saw. Methought it could not be my Catharine; it could not be the woman who had lodged for years in my heart; who had slept nightly in my bosom; who had borne in her womb and fostered at her breast the beings who called me father; whom I had watched over with delight and cherished with a fondness ever new and perpetually growing. It could not be the same!

"The breath of heaven that sustained me was withdrawn, and I sunk into mere man. I leaped from the floor; I dashed my head against the wall; I uttered screams of horror; I panted after torment and pain. Eternal fire and the bickerings of hell, compared with what I felt, were music and a bed of roses.

"I thank my God that this was transient; that He designed once more to raise me aloft. I thought upon what I had done as a sacrifice to duty, and was calm. My wife was dead; but I reflected that, although this source of human consolation was closed, others were still open. If the transports of the husband were no more, the feelings of the father had still scope for exercise. When remembrance of their mother should excite too keen a pang, I would look upon my children and be comforted.

"While I revolved these things new warmth flowed in upon my heart. I was wrong. These feelings were the growth of selfishness. Of this I was not aware; and, to dispel the mist that obscured my perceptions, a new light and a new mandate were necessary.

"From these thoughts I was recalled by a ray which was shot into the room. A voice spoke like that I had before heard: 'Thou hast done well; but all is not done--the sacrifice is incomplete--thy children must be offered--they must perish with their mother!'"

The misguided man obeys the voice; his children are destroyed in their bloom and innocent beauty. He is arrested, tried for murder, and acquitted as insane. The light breaks in upon him at last; he discovers the imposture which has controlled him; and, made desperate by the full consciousness of his folly and crime, ends the terrible drama by suicide.

Wieland is not a pleasant book. In one respect it resembles the modern tale of Wuthering Heights: it has great strength and power, but no beauty. Unlike that, however, it has an important and salutary moral. It is a warning to all who tamper with the mind and rashly experiment upon its religious element. As such, its perusal by the sectarian zealots of all classes would perhaps be quite as profitable as much of their present studies.

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