Friday, July 23, 2010

Dreams, Narrative Structure, and Epistemological Authority in Wieland

This was a final for a seminar in sentimentalism and sensationalism in antebellum American literature, dressed up as a conference paper (we faked one at the end of the course, a great idea and experience for getting the swing of professional practices). What was interesting about the course was that it tried to find parity between a number of axes of discourse and debate: popular vs. high-brow (e.g., is Uncle Tom's Cabin a great piece of writing?), historical (what's going on in America?), theoretical (how does our understanding, then or now, of morals and/or emotions tie into the texts?), political (does Lippard's Quaker City say anything about his surroundings, and how should we care?).

My attraction to Charles Brockden Brown, known as America's first professional novelist, was because of the way his Wieland seemed to register on two valences I'm interested in: philosophical and political. In particular, we might shake out two different epistemological projects begun in the 17th century (and for which we identify as the beginning of "modern philosophy"): personal-epistemology and state-epistemology. Descartes is the paradigmatic father of the former, and Hobbes of the latter. What I have in mind is the well-known idea that Descartes was after certainty in our reasoning: how do we authorize the premises of our reasoning? By taking this to be radically unclear, he hoped to find a foundation to begin building from: the birth of modern foundationalism. My smallish claim is that Hobbes' project is the exact parallel of Descartes': the quest for legitimation of a government in the face of radical doubt about any such legitimacy. My sense is that the connections between these two different projects has largely been unexplored in the philosophical literature (though a good place to start is Toulmin's Cosmopolis).

What I found in Brown's Wieland was the embodiment of the kind of explicit philosophical work I think needs to be done on the connection between how an individual's practical reasoning interacts with the body politic. I was so excited that my first attempts (an initial presentation, an initial abstract, and my first draft) came out as gobbily-gook. I had the good fortune of having a professor who was experienced in putting together philosophy and literature, and who have me great advice for how to shape something presentable. What is below simply approaches the issues I've outlined as the interaction between personal-epistemology and state-epistemology (and what I really want is the historical reconstruction of the common underlying motive that produced two disparate strains of philosophical inquiry that rarely coincide: for some fanciful reflection that begins with the Greeks, see "What Happened to Political Philosophy?"). In particular, the notion of the dream as a metaphor for radical non-constraint can be developed much, much further, and I really did very little to truly capitalize on this potentially rich thought, and it might be a very fruitful historical project in tracing how the dream-metaphor has functioned in intellectual history (I suspect it has played similar roles as that of madness, and seeing both histories together would be interesting).

Since nobody's read Wieland, and I'd at least like to make the issues I try and explore accessible, I'll begin with Tompkins' pithy summary of the plot, which she claims (rightly) is central to understanding the meaning of the novel (not in the obvious way). The fact of the matter is, the plot is simple and bizarre, which makes it inaccessible to a modern reader wondering how on earth somebody could go from a coolly rational person to massacring their whole family because an unknown voice told him it was God, and what God wants, God gets, and God wants'em all to die. Bizarre, frustrating, and hilarious at times, though I'm not sure Brown meant it to be, it also--if read right--provides insight into the process of slipping down slopes that happen because of bad, previous assumptions about what's going on. And for this insight, it isn't the content of the plot that must be emphasized, but the form of the narrative. At any rate, here's Tompkins:
This is what happens in Wieland.

Four young adults--Theodore and Clara Wieland, and Catherine and Henry Pleyel--are leading the most rational and harmonious existence imaginable on a country estate on the banks of the Schuylkill River. One night, after the arrival in their midst of a mysterious person named Francis Carwin, one of them hears a strange voice and after that, it is no exaggeration to say, things go rapidly downhill. Theodore Wieland, who heard the voice, becomes introspective and morbid. Clara begins to hear voices too--men in her bedroom closet threatening to rape and kill her, other men warning her to keep off her own cottage grounds. Pleyel overhears someone say that his fiancee in Germany is dead (she is alive), and later he hears someone say that Clara, whom he loves, has betrayed him with another man (she has not). The climax comes when Wieland is visited by an apparition (he thinks it is God) commanding him, as proof of religious devotion, to kill his wife--which he does--and then demanding that he kill his children--which he also does (he has four of them). Upon learning of this, Clara falls desperately ill, but recovers in time for Wieland to break out of jail in order to kill her, too. She is saved, however, by the interposition of Carwin, whose confession that he is a ventriloquist causes Wieland to doubt whether it was indeed God's voice that commanded him to murder his family. He kills himself. Clara's house burns down. Somehow, the misunderstanding between her and Pleyel is cleared up and they go off to Europe. End of story.

This summary of Wieland's main narrative exaggerates its craziness only slightly. (40)
I might also add that the argument below embodies an increasing reliance on a critical vocabulary that emphasizes the role of inference: my increasing appreciation of Robert Brandom's pragmatism is evident in my construction of how epistemological authority works. And if I'm right about Brown, then Brown knew as well as Kant (if perhaps not as explicitly, which is Brandom's fascinating new interpretation of Kant in Reason in Philosophy) that the content of thoughts depend on their inferential connections to each other (which is my slide between "descriptions" and "deductions" below).

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


The dominant interpretation of Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland since the mid-80s has been as political allegory.[fn.1] Lifting off from Brown’s ironic invocation of the Platonic analogy of scale between city and soul, of making “the picture of a single family a model from which to sketch the condition of a nation” (Brown 34),[fn.2] and grounding the allegory’s presence in facts like Brown’s membership to the largely Federalist-leaning Friendly Club and that Brown sent a copy of Wieland to Thomas Jefferson upon its completion,[fn.3] this interpretation seeks to explain the presence of the many kinds of uncertainty in the text as emblems for the dissolution of traditional kinds of authority in a pure democracy. Federalists like Adams and Hamilton thought that a strong central authority was needed to lead and control the passions of the populace, whereas Republicans like Madison and Jefferson were quite sure that a strong central authority was the key impediment to freedom that the recent Revolution had been designed to overcome. And while in political terms this was a debate about how strong the national government should be, the Federalists and Republicans also saw it as a struggle over truth: Republicans believed that truth would come out in the free proliferation of opinions and Federalists thought that was just a screen to believe whatever you wanted.[fn.4] Wieland, on this interpretation, intersects this debate by showing three generations of Wielands progress away from aristocratic, traditional boundaries into a free, idyllic conversational paradise, which suddenly implodes with the introduction of an eloquent outside element that does not have their best interests at heart.[fn.5] Without any central authority to reign in speculation on the mysteries of the voices, Carwin stands as an emblem of the problem of rhetoric in a free-for-all of competing opinions and Wieland as an emblem of the problem of the authority of God in a secular, pure democracy.

I think all of this is right, but the emphasis on the narrative content of Wieland—the story, the plot—tends to de-emphasize the text’s radical penetration into the uncertainty about authority produced by pure democracy. We should understand ventriloquism as a metaphor for secularization,[fn.6] which means not just the difficulties of taking God as an authority in a democracy, but the problem of the general human condition under the auspices of the nebulous authority-structures of democracy. Not just those who claim God as an authority are affected by democracy, but all claims in general are subjected to the uncertainty of decision resulting from democracy’s cherishing of unconstrained conversation. Thus Brown’s allegory ultimately grounds itself in the very real practical situation of making decisions in a democracy. To show this, I will first focus on the narrative structure of Wieland (as opposed to content) in order to suggest that Brown’s choice of how to tell the story of the Wieland family was not haphazard but central to his point. And secondly, I will focus on the metaphor of the dream as a fiction of radical non-constraint to show how deep Brown’s epistemological nightmare goes.

Brown chose the epistolary form as the vehicle for his narrative, and by making the story of Wieland unfold from Clara’s retrospective pen, Brown is able to place us inside of an active mind still entangled in past events. However, Clara not only provides us with her retrospective feelings about the events (as in the beginning of Chapter 6 when Clara struggles for a page gathering “strength enough to proceed” (56), before ushering Carwin onto stage), but Brown also has Clara narrate in the past tense her then understanding and movements of mind at the time of the occurrences. This intimate view of Clara’s mind, where we are allowed into her most private of thoughts and struggles like the close friend we, as reader, have the pretence of being, allows Brown to emphasize the importance of description to the unfolding of events. Clara’s past-tense narration gives us a special view of a person’s mind as they experience an event, but her present-tense narration of the past as she now sees it gives us a view of how descriptions of events evolve, an “if I had only known then…” quality. The important point here is that descriptions change. And while this may seem a platitude, Brown wants to emphasize to us how Clara’s actions at the time rested on her description, her understanding, of the events at the time and how the knowledge of potential change in description creates the precarious feeling of basing actions on mutable reasons. For the reason why you do something is based in part on your understanding, your description, of what the event you're responding to is.

To concretize what I’m suggesting about Brown’s motives for choosing the epistolary form, let me quote a passage (just after Clara has heard the first whisper in her closet):
The maid was my only companion, and she could not reach my chamber without previously passing through the opposite chamber, and the middle passage, of which, however, the doors were usually unfastened. If she had occasioned this noise, she would have answered my repeated calls. No other conclusion, therefore, was left me, but that I had mistaken the sounds, and that my imagination had transformed some casual noise into the voice of a human creature. Satisfied with this solution, I was preparing to relinquish my listening attitude, when my ear was again saluted with a new and yet louder whispering. It appeared, as before, to issue from lips that touched my pillow. A second effort of attention, however, clearly shewed me, that the sounds issued from within the closet, the door of which was not more than eight inches from my pillow. (65)
The narrative grammar of typical passages in the novel is such that events are not shown, but tightly bound to Clara’s acts of showing. Clara does not just tell us what happened, but argues for her description, littering the narration with “hences,” “therefores,” “persuasions,” and “conjectures.” This gives us the odd spectacle of not just a fallible narrator, but an argumentative narrator, and the reader is made to actively question the description of events by the narrator’s own active interrogation. As thinly veiled as Brown’s use of the epistolary form is—which unlike William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy or Samuel Richardson’s Pamela carries none of the accoutrements of a letter, like salutations, dates, places of origin, or names of correspondents—it does allow Brown the pretence of a reading audience, of somebody specifically being communicated to within the frame of the story. This gives Clara motivation within the frame of the story to argue for what she describes. What is heightened by Clara’s argumentativeness is cognizance of the chains of inference that lead us to conclude that a scene should be described as such and such, an event being this and not that.

The narrative action in Wieland, I’d like to suggest, is on the model of a practical syllogism. Syllogisms are short, inferential proofs of two premises and a conclusion, and for my purposes the length of Clara’s mental machinations matter less than three propositional forms typical of a syllogism: descriptions of a scene (“the maid … could not reach my chamber without previously passing through the opposite chamber”), conditional statements to set inferences in motion (“if she had occasioned this noise, [then] she would have answered my repeated calls”), and conclusions resulting in action-outputs (“No other conclusion, therefore, was left me, but that I had mistaken the sounds…. Satisfied with this solution, I was preparing to relinquish my listening attitude”). At one point in the novel, Clara says: “The will is the tool of the understanding, which must fashion its conclusions on the notices of sense. If the senses be depraved, it is impossible to calculate the evils that may flow from the consequent deductions of the understanding” (39). This is Brown’s epistemological situation in a nutshell. The understanding receives sensory inputs and must fashion them into descriptions, “deductions” as Clara puts it, before it is able to tell the will what action-outputs it should perform.

This situation, however, is not simply a private one—it is affected greatly by public discussion. The ongoing public discussion of the voices between the Wieland family, with Carwin being added to the discussion in Chapter 8, mirrors the ongoing discussion of public policy carried out by the Democratic Clubs that came into existence at the close of the 18th century. Defending their right to exist, the Democratic Clubs articulated the idea of a “public sphere” where the citizen, because not at the direct helm of the ship of state as in ancient Athenian democracy, could remain constantly involved in public affairs. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 passed by the Federalists—the same year Wieland came out and Brown’s club, the Friendly Club, dissolved—attempted to suppress this newly created sphere, but Republicans Madison and Jefferson came to the sphere’s aid by repudiating, in historian Eric Foner’s words, “the common law tradition that the national government enjoyed the power to punish ‘seditious’ speech.”[fn.7] In Wieland, Brown is articulating first-hand anxiety over the form of social life that comes about in repudiating traditional sanctions on conversation. To Jefferson’s Miltonic echo of “error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it,”[fn.8] Hamilton would reply skeptically that “Men are rather reasoning than reasonable animals, for the most part governed by the impulse of passion.”[fn.9]

The Wieland family is a double for both the Friendly Club and our national culture. The horror of what happens to the Wielands depends on both the care-free attitude of the Wieland family’s discussions and consequential decision-making. The Wieland family’s attitude to life, where most outside events like war or Louisa’s story contribute “in some sort to our happiness, by agitating our minds with curiosity” (29), and providing “a copious theme of speculation” (33), mirror the Democratic Clubs’ discussions insofar as they are carefree because they lack power—the Clubs are precisely not at the helm and so not responsible for actually making any decisions. However, due to the nature of democracy, public discussion is consequential, which is why the Federalists feared the Democratic Clubs’ very existence.[fn.10] Likewise, the Wieland family does make consequential decisions, like the debate between Pleyel and Wieland about whether to go to Europe. It is the insertion of meaningful consequence into unconstrained conversation that turns the secret knowledge of God’s will into a potential slaughterhouse just waiting to happen. Without any outside authority to restrain Wieland, he’s at liberty to pursue the consequences of his belief. The slim figure that connects the double role of the Wieland family, as both idyll of unconstrained conversation and the potential horror of pure democracy, is that of the reasoning-not-reasonable individual—Clara: the embodiment of a person grown into a culture of unconstrained conversation, unused to the authority of anything but her own senses, and without recourse when those senses fail her, and who, as narrator, is constantly emphasizing this point to the reader in her narrative grammar.[fn.11]

The figure of the dream serves to deepen the problem contained in the authority of the senses. At the beginning of Chapter 7, Clara tells us of a dream she had, in which she sees her brother:
As I carelessly pursued my walk, I thought I saw my brother, standing at some distance before me, beckoning and calling me to make haste. He stood on the opposite edge of the gulph. I mended my pace, and one step more would have plunged me into this abyss, had not some one from behind caught suddenly my arm, and exclaimed, in a voice of eagerness and terror, “Hold! hold!” (71-2)
Clara says that “images so terrific and forcible disabled me, for a time, from distinguishing between sleep and wakefulness, and withheld from me the knowledge of my actual condition” (72), and until Carwin finally corrects her, she believes that the voice was internal to her dream. When Clara hears the words “Hold! hold!” again later, she recognizes them as from her dream and says, “There are means by which we are able to distinguish a substance from a shadow, a reality from the phantom of a dream” (99). Yet, this belief that she indeed possesses these means are what lead her to believe that she heard a supernatural agent come to her protection in telling her to “hold.” In practical terms, we believe that we have these means available (for example, Clara says after Pleyel first confronts her about imputed improprieties with Carwin, “I moved that I might banish the doubt that I was awake” 119), but these means are predicated on a fairly stable reliance on our senses, which is exactly the problem throughout the novel. Brown’s reference to “reality” and “dream” heightens the problems of the Wieland family to an almost Cartesian level given the actual problems they encounter in taking the authority of the senses.

What is interesting about the interaction between the dream and the voices is how, once one has softened the distinction between dream and reality, more and more of what was previously a dream becomes interactive with reality. Upon hearing the dream-voice again, Clara immediately takes stock of the items in her dream, saying her brother, seized arm, and the voice “were surely imaginary”—“yet the words and the voice were the same” (99). As soon as this move has been made, picking away at her certainty about what is on which side of the line between dream and reality, she begins contemplating this “monstrous conception” of her brother from the dream. And though she promptly dispels this “strange and terrible chimera,” she also immediately follows that with “yet it would not be suddenly dismissed” (99). Just as the Federalists feared, in historian Gordon S. Wood’s phrase, the “democratization of truth” that Republicans cherished because there would be no agreed upon method for determining who was right and who was wrong—just a war of opinions, all against all—so does the lack of method in distinguishing dream from reality exemplify this fear, and land Clara in a slippery slope of allowing into her practical syllogisms all kinds of riff-raff. For example: that she has an invisible guardian. Even before Carwin has solidified this belief in Clara, by pretty much out and out stating that she has an invisible guardian, the way was paved in Clara’s own mind by just contemplating the voice and then the dream. She says, “My belief that my monitor [i.e. the mysterious voice telling Clara to hold] was posted near, was strong, and instantly converted these appearances [i.e. shadows in the room and curtains swaying in the breeze] to tokens of his presence, and yet I could discern nothing” (98). As Carwin says in his confession to Clara: “I had filled your mind with faith in shadows and confidence in dreams” (241).

The way the dream is able to seep into Clara’s waking life, the way ambiguity over what parts were dream and which not, serves to make the dream a figure for the Friendly Club, for the dream of democratic society. For Clara’s “fancy” (71) is given control and free reign over Clara in her dream, unconstrained allowance to do what it pleases. The ability of the fancy to do as it pleases in a dream mirrors Federalist fears over the Democratic Clubs. What they feared was that the Democratic Clubs were bypassing politicians in power and making direct appeals to the people, bypassing the traditional currents of power. The Democratic Clubs, in effect, were able to think what they pleased and then set these ideas loose on the American public. This breakdown between a populace that can think whatever it wants because it has no power and a power-controlling inner circle is the parallel breakdown of the distinction between dreams and reality. As the breakdown begins when the “Hold! hold!” moves from dream to reality and Clara’s “horrific conception” of her brother then begins affecting her life, her “reason” flees her. She says her “actions were dictated by phrenzy” and “surely I was bereft of understanding” (101). As the boundary between dream and reality breaks down, Clara turns into the passion-fueled mob Hamilton and the Federalists feared.

In an early essay, “Walstein’s School of History,” Brown comes down on the side of narrative as a better instrument of moral education over “abstract systems and intellectual reasonings,”[fn.12] and this, I think, because narratives are able to embody intellectual reasoning, show its processes and inner workings. In Wieland, the display of the process of reasoning becomes, not just a better didactic tool, but central to his purpose. By showing Clara’s sometimes fantastic movements of mind, Brown is able to show what one person’s mental state is when bereft of traditional authority-structures. When Carwin says that he had filled Clara’s mind “with faith in shadows and confidence in dreams,” I think this is a nod not only to the dream-voice turn invisible guardian, but the dream of democratic society that Republicans were trying to promulgate. Repubican-leaning deists—like fallen Calvinist preacher turned deist orator Elihu Palmer—would speak of the coming “new religion” which taught of the “perfectibility of man” and would usher in the “universal reign of reason, peace, and justice.”[fn.13] We can see Pleyel, “champion of intellectual liberty” (28), especially, in this description, but the Wieland family generally. The nightmare scenario of the plot of Wieland is intended to dissolve an easy faith in this dream. While on the one hand, Brown’s metaphor of ventriloquism strikes at the heart of those who speak in the name of God—placing him in camp with Republican deists—on the other, Brown, in part through the form of the narrative, through Clara’s constant mental deliberations, is able to push this metaphor so that it cuts into any private store of knowledge.[fn.14] Private deliberation becomes an echo-chamber where the slightest push in the wrong direction can send you tumbling down a chain of bad inferences.


Brown, Charles Brockden. Wieland and Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist. Ed. Jay Fliegelman. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.
Fischer, David Hackett. Liberty and Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Foner, Eric. The Story of American Freedom. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.
May, Henry F. The Enlightenment in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Waterman, Bryan. Republic of Intellect. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.
Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1992, 1993.


[1]I take the two major documents of this shift to be Jane Tompkins’ chapter on Wieland in her Sensational Designs and Jay Fliegelman’s introduction to the Penguin edition of Wieland. Tompkins refers to Fliegelman’s earlier interpretation of Wieland in his Prodigals and Pilgrims, published in 1982, as having independently developed an “almost identical” (Tompkins 208n4) approach to her own, and so I read Tompkins’ book as having tipped the scales in favor of political allegory, prompting Penguin to ask Fliegelman to introduce their edition. Bryan Waterman’s book on the Friendly Club, Republic of Intellect, offers a significant revision of this political interpretation.

[2]The allusion is ironic because Pleyel offers the formula in order to say that it “was absurd” (Brown 34).

[3]Tompkins’ attempt to shift interpretation of Wieland begins with this “single fact” (Tompkins 43).

[4]David Hackett Fischer’s “visual history,” Liberty and Freedom, contains a good example of this sentiment, showing a print drawing from 1793 entitled “A Peep Into the AntiFederal Club,” with part of the club’s creed on the wall of the drawing being “liberty is the power of doing anything we like” (Fischer 204).

[5]Tompkins emphasizes the function of the first two Wielands on 56-7.

[6]Jay Fliegelman says this in his introduction to Wieland (Brown xxxix).

[7]Foner 43

[8]Quoted in Wood 363.

[9]Quoted in May 254.

[10]May 254

[11]Wood describes the general milieu of the “democratization of truth”: “Most ordinary people were no longer willing to defer to the knowledge and judgments of those who had once been their superiors. Perhaps plain people did not have the college education, the extensive travel, or the intellectual power of their aristocratic neighbors, but, their spokesmen said, they had eyes and ears, and they knew what was true for them better than some ‘commanding genius’ or ‘learned sage’ did” (362).

[12]Quoted in Tompkins 46.

[13]May 231-2

[14]Waterman, 50-91, expands on the perceived difficulties of knowledge-production entertained in the conflict between Federalists and Republicans, particularly in relationship to Illuminati conspiracy theories, saying that the conflicts between Federalists and Republicans on the one hand and deists and religionists on the other “reveal late-Enlightenment crises of epistemology and public intellectual authority as they raised questions about who had avenues to knowledge adequate to warrant the public’s trust” (53).

No comments:

Post a Comment

Want to get in touch with me but are too scared to universalize and eternalize your comments for all everywhere and always to see? Just e-mail me: