Real & Ideal Lives

What's NextI am quietly destroyed —

I am weather, the glean of wet streets,

a personal disaster.

I am quietly destroyed

in the quiet I can’t speak –

the storm, mute, the storm, night-imbued.

I could tell you it isn’t hard

not to speak, to swallow the current

mad wind, become it

in silence, become the silence

quietly destroyed.

A few nights ago some friends turned up after I came home from work so I cooked dinner as we discussed politics and what was happening to our lives. The next day was another teaching day. I was somewhat worse for wear in the morning but once in the classroom I seemed to forget that I was sleep deprived. I realized too, as we were discussing Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birth Mark” that this dark tale of the perversions of American Enlightenment ideals – the obsession with perfectibility and refusal to admit to the imperfections of our “marked” mortality – had some resonance with the recent troika negotiations and the IMF report on Greece’s financial viability. The viability, that is, of Greece’s unsustainable debt. While the IMF actually noted in their report that the EU (and Germany specifically) needs to consider a cut in the debt, our current government officially made it clear and public that they were “with Europe” on the loan policies. I was quietly, and not-so-quietly, appalled at the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble’s shift from overt Greece-bashing (during the May and June elections in which he and the rest of Europe feared the vote would move left of center) to the covertly patronizing tone he now assumes when speaking of “respecting” the “sacrifices of the Greek people” as the current government dutifully follows Europe, or Germany’s, mandates for keeping our(?) European(?) house in order by taking on yet more unsustainable debt.

Hawthorne’s protagonist, Aylmer, is a scientist who nevertheless “had made experience of a spiritual affinity, more attractive than a chemical one.” That is, in the optimism of America’s 19th century’s Age of Reason, all seemed possible in that Emersonian marriage of the human with the divine. And, as Hawthorne’s narrator put it, “the recent discovery of electricity, and other kindred mysteries of nature, seemed to open paths into the region of the miracle,” when, too, “it was not unusual for the love of science to rival the love of woman.” So Aylmer, married to his beautiful Georgiana, becomes obsessed with removing what he sees as a “mark” on her cheek, what he describes as “the visible mark of earthly imperfection.” Aylmer’s proposal shocks the beautiful Georgiana who says “it has been so often called a charm, that I was simple enough to imagine it might be so.” Aylmer though finds that “this one defect” grows “more and more intolerable” to him. Georgiana’s birth mark is, Hawthorne’s narrator tells us, “the fatal flaw of humanity, which Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productions, either to imply that they are temporary and finite, or that their perfection must be wrought by toil and pain.”

As Georgiana learns to “shudder” at her husband’s gaze and his obsession with “this one disastrous topic” his desire to remove the mark, I kept thinking of the EU’s obsession with keeping Greece’s “contaminated” economy from infecting others. An economy which Europe, and the EU specifically, helped create, nurturing on loans which were mismanaged, misdirected and abused, though the ground for all three of these circumstances were fertile within the loan terms themselves. What in effect has brought Greece to its knees is the reality that it cannot – and was never taught to – sustain itself. The EU had Greece’s various right-wing and socialist governments while importing goods from its northern neighbors at prices which inevitably boosted those economies, also regulated and limited the country’s natural produce and resources, such as olive oil, and indigenous vegetables and fruits. As a friend said, “we were told in my village to bury the lemons and grow asparagus.” Meanwhile the country’s incompetent, and often corrupt, leadership of the past 30 years, in combination with the ignorance and self-interest of those who followed them, continued to buy into an EU agenda invested in ignoring the complexities and imbalances of its own policies. It has all landed Greece, somewhat like Georgiana, at the mercy of the soulless finagling of those who wish to prove the viability of their experiments despite clear signs that living bodies are proving the experiment’s failure. It is tragic and unfortunate that those who might make a difference are acting, like Aylmer, in a psychosis of determination to prove themselves right, and their experiment viable, despite the obvious. IKEA workers proceeded to shut the doors and take over the building some 10 days ago when their employer announced a cut in pay because profits were not what they had been. “They are profits,” a colleague said, shaking his head, “This is immoral… to cut pay because profits are down. We’re in a financial crisis. The company is not talking about losses.” Germany too, and the banks, continue to insist on making money back (and not cutting losses) only a healthy, not a dying, economy can produce.

Though Georgiana senses that the “cure” may cost her, Aylmer is quick to say he’s “convinced of the perfect practicality” of her birthmark’s removal. He tells her “The draught cannot fail,” when she warns“I know not what may be the cost to both of us… Perhaps its removal may cause cureless deformity. Or, it may be, the stain goes as deep as life itself.” Aylmer though, more in love with his idea of a perfect Georgiana than he is with her “marked” reality, will not allow himself “the degrading” of his “perfect idea to the level of the actual.” Georgiana mournfully and dutifully takes the draught in Desdemona-like resignation while Aylmer’s assistant, the primitive Aminidab mutters to himself that he would “never part with that birth-mark” if she were his wife. Aylmer ecstatically watches the gradual fading of the mark from Georgiana’s cheek, convinced to the last that he has proved his experiment right until he notices that with the blanching of Georgiana’s skin is also the fading of her dying breath.

About akalfopoulou

Author of three poetry collections, a book of essays, Ruin, Essays in Exilic Living, and most recently, A History of Too Much (Red Hen Press 2018).
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1 Response to Real & Ideal Lives

  1. Artemis says:

    Keep the birthmark – the birth rite – the imperfection of beauty is found in truth!

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