Wieland: Reason, the Supernatural, and the Self

By Justin Mutter

    In Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland, the underlying dichotomy between the supernatural and natural reason creates in the main characters a disregard for self-awareness, thus generating a circumstance into which Carwin can introduce his disastrous voice. Brockden Brown utilizes this dichotomy between faith and reason in order to illuminate one of the principle realities that the novel wishes to display: that the mind can be perverted. From the very beginning of the novel, the notion of belief is established as a kind of hyper-belief, and reason exists as kind of a hyper- rationality, that is, the two are not only mutually exclusive, but they are also accentuated to such an extent that introspection and self-awareness are but shadows under their pedestals. In this sense, both reason and the supernatural exist principally in form as a kind of system on which certain characters fully and unhesitatingly rely, but in which the self (not being an intrinsic part of the system) is ignored. While the story of the father of Theodore and Clara Wieland begins the process of self-disregard, the novel then polarizes faith and reason in the characters of Wieland and Pleyel, respectively. The culmination of this dichotomy and its consequences, however, occurs in the narrator herself, as she attempts to "hide" herself along a "middle path" where the self ignores questions and possibilities.

    The bizarre death of the elder Wieland and the effects that it bears in the minds of his children provide the foundation from which the novel builds the conflict between the supernatural, the natural, and the self. Faith, to the elder Wieland, was such that his very identity was lost in the tide of an all-consuming God. In the situation of his death, Clara notes that "fear and wonder rendered him powerless" (19), that is, he was not simply captivated by the supernatural, but rather he was swallowed by it. He took both the presentiment and the actuality of his horrible death with a kind of anguishing passivity that disallowed self-reflection or self-questioning. The elder Wieland, then, opens himself to the possibility of the "latent springs" and the "perversions of the human mind" into which disaster can easily invade (4).

    What is most significant, however, about the death of the elder Wieland, is the general reaction of the characters to the memory of that death. These reactions are chiefly characterized by a salutary neglect, that is, most often the characters do not seek to grapple with the actuality of the death or to answer certain questions that it raises. Clara notes:

Was this the penalty of disobedience? this the stroke of a vindictive and invisible hand? Is it a fresh proof that the Divine Ruler interferes in human affairs, mediates an end, selects, and commissions his agents, and enforces by unequivocal sanctions, submission to his will? Or, was it merely the irregular expansion of fluid that imparts warmth to our hear and our blood, caused by the fatigue of the preceding day, or flowing, by established laws, from the condition of his thoughts (21)?

Explicitly, Clara's comments seem to create the dichotomy between the supernatural and explainable reason that will govern the later conflicts between Wieland, Pleyel, and her. What is implicit, however, is that none of these characters seek to deeply reflect on such questions in such a way that they remove themselves from the all-consuming systems of hyper-faith and hyper-rationality. In other words, what Clara doesn't raise is the possibility of the fallibility of the human mind. Her father's death can either be relegated to a domineering God or to a scientific explanation of his condition, but not to a "perversion." Furthermore, Clara's questioning is stated, but not resolved, and therefore it resides in the back the characters' minds, leaving nothing but a cloud over the reality of the death and sustaining a disinterest for self-reflection.

    Thus, Clara is able to say that, after her mother dies as a result of the horror of her husband's death, "the years that followed were tranquil and happy" (22). Indeed, even when Mettingen hears the "sound of war" in the land, she remarks that it only served to "enhance our enjoyment by affording objects of comparison" (29). Although thoughts of the elder Wieland's death do occasionally resurface, particularly when the voices of Carwin begin to be heard, the general prevailing attitude of the characters toward the bizarre death is one of disregard. Such an attitude is most profoundly witnessed in the commencement of daily sittings and conversations on the hill in front of the temple built by the elder Wieland. The erection of the bust of Cicero on a pedestal in front of the temple does partly suggest the triumph of rationality over intense belief in the supernatural, but this is not an exclusive claim, for the strong tenets of the father's faith lives on in the person of Theodore Wieland. Perhaps what it more consistently refers to is a realized condition of prosperity, virtue, and happiness marks of a group of family and friends who are comfortable with themselves and with their surroundings. Clara stresses that, "Every joyous and tender scene most dear to my memory, is connected with this edifice" (26). This championing of virtue and happiness is a reflection of the impossibility of the idea of a real weakness in those of the Mettingen household. The temple and the bust of Cicero coexist as the two consuming systems of fideism and rationality; whereas they seem to coexist in a circumstance of perfected happiness, in reality they are emblems of foreboding that allude to the dangers of neglecting true introspection. Thus, Wieland, Pleyel, and Clara, like the elder Wieland, expose themselves to the possibility of disaster that comes with the voice of Carwin.

    Although he is concerned with classical notions of learning and expression, Theodore Wieland is portrayed principally as the embodiment of intense faith. Placing himself in the line of his father, his mind occupies itself with "moral necessity" and "calvinistic inspiration" (28). Furthermore, Wieland is the one character who seems to reflect upon and attempt to answer the questions that Clara raised in respect to their father's death. After the first incident of the hearing of a voice, Clara remarks of him, "His father's death was always regarded by him as flowing from a direct and supernatural decree" (40, italics added). Wieland, therefore, fully aligns himself under the system of a hyper-faith, refusing to think that a perversion of his father's mind could not have been possible. The irony of his position is that he is destined to follow the horror of his father's death by inflicting death on the members of his family. In the testimony of his horrid actions, he argues, "I have cherished, in His presence, a single and upright heart" (187). In other words, a perversion of self on account of his faith is deemed impossible, as his actions must be ascribed to the "direct" will of God; he is only the passive receiver of instructions, which he has no choice but to obey. The voice of Carwin, then, has easily penetrated the form of his convictions precisely because such convictions were not grounded on self-reflection. The system, then, ultimately defeats even the existence of the self, for when Wieland learns of his folly, he can do nothing else but kill himself.

    Pleyel, as Wieland's closest friend, holds no strong tenets of faith, but rather is the prototype of a thinker of the Enlightenment, arguing that reason can always lead one to the truth. Clara remarks that he rejects "all guidance but that of his reason" (28). Thus, when faced with the possibility of explaining a certain event as being connected with something supernatural, he adamantly rejects it. When he hears the voices of Carwin and Clara together in the summer-house, he concludes that what is logically apparent is absolute reality. In contrast to Wieland, he simply cannot force himself to believe Clara's desperate attempts to persuade him of her innocence. He tells Clara with an air of certainty, "I yielded not but to evidence which took away the power to withhold my faith" (154). What is significant is that the evidence relies on his senses, for he never actually witnessed in person the dialogue between the voices, nor did he specifically witness the projected absence of Clara from her room. Just as with Wieland, what seemed to be true to Pleyel had to be true, yet where Wieland was consumed by the apparent voice of God, it was the voice of apparent reasoning from the senses that appealed to Pleyel. Thus, by placing full trust in the system of reasoning, Pleyel dissolves himself as an intrinsic part of the reasoning process. The deep sentiment of respect and awe for Clara that he feels, then, is ignored. Pleyel originally lavishes unadulterated compliments on Clara:

I thought you accomplished and wise beyond the rest of women. Not a sentiment you uttered, not a look you assumed, that were not, in my apprehension, fraught with the sublimities of rectitude and the illuminations of genius (133).

Such deep-seeded comments about the character of Clara, however, have absolutely no bearing on his reasoning; rather, in pure devotion to the rational system, he must pronounce her the most "profligate" of women. The voice of Carwin again introduces disaster into the rigid form that disallows the possibility of perversion, and Pleyel can do nothing but run away from his perceived reality.

    While the faculties of faith and rationality are polarized in Wieland and Pleyel, the dichotomy between them and the consequences of a disregard for introspection are culminated in the character of Clara. Whereas Wieland and Pleyel present the most tangible (and horrible) consequences of losing oneself in the faculties of the supernatural and the natural, the character of Clara shows the profound intangible consequences that ultimately lead her to the realization that the perversion of the mind is a very real and possible cause of disaster. Although Clara presents herself as one who seems to follow the way of rationality, her actions prove that she, unlike Pleyel, is also concerned with the supernatural. Her original questions about her father's death, for instance, remain as questions, for she cannot definitively decide in favor of either faith or reason. As she progresses in her narrative, both the presentation of her as one who adheres to pure rationality and the presentation of her as one that holds almost perfect virtue absolve under the thoughts and actions that show that one's mind can be distorted.

    Clara's display of herself as a highly rational person is undermined by her ever-growing fears that stem from the voices of Carwin, which she has experienced both directly in her bedroom and indirectly through the experiences of her companions. After the incident in which Pleyel hears the voice that tells him not to go to Europe, Clara remarks of herself,

I am not fearful of shadows. The tales of apparitions and enchantments did not possess that power over my belief which could even render them interesting. I saw nothing in them but ignorance and folly, and was a stranger even to that terror which is pleasing. But this incident was different from any that I had ever before known. Here were proofs of a sensible and intelligent existence, which could not be denied (52).

Here, Clara very academically qualifies her thoughts and gives possibility to the supernatural, but what is implicit in such thoughts is the escalating fear of that supernatural power that she seeks to hide. Clara, here, is secretly almost convincing herself that there is no reason to believe that such a supernatural power could be "busy to evil rather than to good purposes" (52). Ultimately, then, Clara is hiding from herself, that is, disallowing her real self to play a significant role in her thoughts. Thus, although Clara seems to hold a position of middle ground between faith and reason, she too neglects the possibilities for introspection and self-awareness. As the she begins to experience the voices of Carwin directly, her fears and doubts only grow stronger. Furthermore, as her fears grow, she begins to increasingly blame Carwin as the "author" of all the impending disasters, arguing that he and only he is responsible for the evils that have beset her family: "my attention fastened on him as the grand deceiver" (217). Again, the focus of these thoughts is thoroughly external (on Carwin), and she refuses to affirm the possibility of self-perversion.

    Coexistent with Clara's refusal to ponder possible errors of the mind's faith and reason is her appraisal of virtue as an unfailing tool in defeating evil. Alongside of the notion that evil cannot "befall a being in possession with a sound mind," Clara also stresses, "True virtue supplies us with energy which vice can never resist" (104). Since Clara both presents herself and is presented by others (namely, Pleyel and Carwin) as seemingly the epitome of virtue, she refuses to admit that she has a capacity to be perverted, that is, she adheres to a vision of virtue that becomes more of a form than an actual self-probing. These resistances of the potentiality for human perversion, however, are completely undermined by the revelation of Carwin's place in persuading Wieland to murder his family and, perhaps even more importantly, in Clara's realization of her own capacity for vice. In the final scene with her brother, Clara realizes that she has the capacity and the desire to kill her brother in order to escape her own horrid death. She explains her thoughts at the time, declaring,

Alas! nothing but subjection to danger, and exposure to temptation, can show us what we really are. By this test was I now tried, and found to be cowardly and rash.... I shuddered and betook myself to any means of escape, however monstrous (253, italics added).

With the realization that she could kill her brother comes the actualization of self- regard and of introspection. Here Clara realizes who she really is, that is, that she is one whose mind is capable of being perverted to do evil. The all-consuming systems of both reason and faith dwindle under such self-reflection, and, ultimately, Clara grapples with reality.

    The conclusion to the dichotomy between faith and reason, then, lies in the illumination of the notion that self-reflection is extremely valuable to both. In her final words, Clara stresses, "The evils of which Carwin and Maxwell were the authors, owed their existence to the errors of the sufferers" (278, italics added). In other words, the disasters of Mettingen would not have occurred without the preexisting errors of the characters. The self, then, is indispensable; it cannot be swallowed or consumed by the hyper-forms of either rationality or the supernatural, nor can it be ignored or repressed by a "middle path" that doesn't seek to answer the questions at all and deceives itself of human capacities. The human mind, suggests Brockden Brown, is fallible, and thus, the self is essential to all thoughts and actions.