Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

From Aylmer's Experiment to Aesthetic Surgery

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

From Aylmer's Experiment to Aesthetic Surgery

Article excerpt

Contemporary American authors continue to be interested in relating Nathaniel Hawthorne's works to their own art. To name just two examples: Jhumpa Lahiri (b. 1967) borrowed the title of her short story collection Unaccustomed Earth (2008) from "The Custom-House." Miranda July (b. 1974, as Miranda Jennifer Grossinger) entitled the penultimate story of her short story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You (2007), "Birthmark." (1) I would like to discuss why I consider California-based "Generation X" writer, indie filmmaker, and performance artist Miranda July's conspicuously titled story a noteworthy early-twenty-first-century satellite of Hawthorne's "Te Birth-mark." (2)

As July's text does not specify its indebtedness to a canonized work, it is an appropriation rather than an adaptation. (3) While "Birthmark" adopts the title of Hawthorne's story (minus the definite article) as well as its thematic focus on how a woman's facial features reflect her and her observers' views on beauty, social inclusion or exclusion, the moral dimension of tampering with nature, and love relationships, July never mentions Hawthorne. According to Julie Sanders, large numbers of adaptations and appropriations produced during postmodernism reference texts from the Victorian period. To Sanders,

   the Victorian era proves [...] ripe for appropriation because it
   throws into sharp relief many of the overriding concerns of the
   postmodern era: questions of identity; of environmental and genetic
   conditioning; repressed and oppressed modes of sexuality;
   criminality and violence; the urban phenomenon; the operations of
   law and authority; science and religion; the post-colonial legacies
   of the empire. (129)

Several of these concerns apply to Hawthorne's "The Birth-mark" (1843) and have been addressed in readings of the story. One area that has attracted little comment is the state of the medical profession in the United States in the 1830s and 1840s. Medical discourse, especially on linkages among empirical science, healing, and individual character, underscores the appropriative entanglement between Hawthorne's and July's stories because the narratives address medical and social notions of what it means to diagnose a problem and offer a solution. In both cases, beauty and integration into society rather than illness are in the foreground, as is the volatility of visual perception. Hawthorne juxtaposes two responses to the heroine's birthmark: a charming effect which is said to enhance her sexual attractiveness versus a horrific effect caused by a small physical imperfection which is interpreted as a manifestation of mortality. July undermines the beauty-versus-ugliness dichotomy by stressing the act of perceiving oneself in comparison with or reflected in another person and by contemplating paradoxes of perceiving visible or invisible physical features. For either story, medical discourse of the respective time period helps illuminate the depiction of the patient, the physician, the medical procedure and its outcome, and the effect of the patient's state on her self-perception and on her perception by others.

First, I will introduce July's attitude toward art. Then I will survey interpretations of Hawthorne's tale and of medical discourse in the 1830s/1840s and today, specifically regarding characteristics of the plastic and/or aesthetic surgeon and regarding patient-surgeon relations. Following my comparative analysis of the two stories, I will explain why I consider July's text an appropriation of Hawthorne's. To my mind, July's story echoes Hawthorne's concern with how obsession impacts perception and with how obsession affects ethical notions of physical and/or metaphysical perfection and fulfillment. Just as Hawthorne responds to philosophical and artistic concerns of his time, July lays bare how the workings of social conditioning continue to promote mistaken notions of human agency. …

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