From a five-minute “snap talk” delivered as part of the Non/Humanity program at Bucknell University on Aug. 20, 7529 (civil calendar, Sept. 2, 2021).
Richard Henry Dana Sr.’s early American Gothic novella, Paul Felton, the title character encounters a wilderness whose woods enclose demonic evil. The title character’s ultra-romantic individualistic approach to life has disastrous results, by engaging the demonic presence of an old murder in the woods. Dana’s explication of the woods as a place of horror is of a piece with his critique of the trajectory of New England culture from Puritanism to liberal Unitarianism and Transcendentalism. The latter, finding an apotheosis of sorts in what Ralph Waldo Emerson called the “transparent eyeball” of absorbing Nature, related to his promotion of “Self-Reliance” apart from traditional faith. Such ideas offered fertile ground for both American social-justice utopianism on the one hand, and New Thought and the Prosperity Gospel on the other — with a shared tendency to try to remake the nonhuman and erase the terrible reality of mortality in the image of individual will. Dana’s depiction of the non-human world of the woods could easily be read into that narrative, labeled typical of developing American attitudes toward the wilderness, as an evil awaiting not only purification but commodification– the reduction of the nonhuman to an object used to build up and shape our reality according to our will, such as turning Felton’s woods into a parking lot.
But such a reading of Dana’s book would neglect important older themes that he reworks into his early American horror tale, and themes important to American cultural history itself — namely awareness of terrible and awful aspects of the non-human, and implications for human nature. It would neglect in his work the traditional Christian concern with the existential choices moment-by-moment of this life, as the basis for the after-life, that continue to inform an important dimension of American culture.
The non-human in Dana’s novella is terrible as a source of terror and confusion of human certainties, awful not only for its sense of brooding evil, but evocative of a fullness of awe in the face of the ultimately nonhuman experience of death, which is nonetheless all too human. In this, Dana draws on a core of Christian and biblical themes going back two millennia and more, on a personal path that would lead him–not conventionally for Yankee literati of his era as they embraced secular materialism with religious fervor–to the traditionalist faith of the high Episcopal Church. His horror at the encounter with death as the ultimately nonhuman that is also human is something secular humanism came to evade, a shared but denied experience of the “nonhuman” limitations of human life. A vivid memory of such horror came to me by surprise, as a young person, when told by a neighbor of how a beloved relative whom I admired for his strong personality was reduced to pounding his hands on the concrete floor of the morgue in despair when identifying the body of his daughter.
As the historian Michael Connelly noted in discussing the critique of American Romanticism by Dana, whom he describes as an “American Tory,” the early American author saw the paradox of how “[t]he Romantic could create works of beauty, imagination, and grandeur. Led by subjective individualism, he also held the potential for psychosis, madness, and nihilism.” Literary scholar Doreen Hunter noted that Dana “could not accept a worldview that placed fatally flawed humankind at the center of the meaning-making process. He discerned few literary possibilities in the workings of the unconscious mind. The hidden processes of the mind, which for many romanticists was a rich source of symbolism, now seemed to Dana haunted by the demons of untamed passion.”
The terrible nonhuman as a theme in ancient Christian tradition with which Dana engaged goes back into Late Antiquity and beyond in biblical accounts. In the fourth-century Vita of St. Antony the Great, the great prototype of Christian hagiography, the author St. Athanasius the Great records that Antony went out into the desert, into a wilderness infested by demons. Yet ultimately in that desert, unlike the romantic Paul Felton in Dana’s New England woods, he came to fall in love with a desert place where he came to live and engage in asceticism and meditative prayer, combined with survival gardening and a fruitful defensive interaction with animals eating his garden. The non-human landscape permeated with the demonic, with spiritual beings beyond human ken, sometimes appearing in nonhuman animal form, involved a spiritual landscape in which Antony’s ascetic contemplation thrived, even when he lived in a tomb in the desert or in an abandoned fort there. Multitudes followed him to the desert to escape in faith the cruelties of the Roman Empire. But it remained a potentially dangerous physical and spiritual place. Like Edmund Burke’s idea of the experience of the sublime as going beyond the merely beautiful to experience a deeper truth in nature, going to live in the nonhuman desert as a contemplative ascetic involved an experience like being perched on an abyss, an encounter also with one’s own “nonhumanity” through faith. To use another analogy, just as looking to the horizon from a boat can calm the embodied terror of seasickness, so the contemplative grounding of prayer and asceticism could be called a kind of looking to a larger context of the “nonhuman” greater than ourselves, which for the Christian is the mystery of the God-man Jesus Christ.
The Christian Gospel influenced writers such as Athanasius and Dana to meditate on how finding one’s self requires losing one’s self in the nonhuman and finding the nonhuman to be human as well in the process. Finding ourself is a central cultural value of today’s secular education. But as indicated also by Dostoevsky’s horror-tinged writing, with Christian existentialist themes like Dana’s, self-emptying into the terrible non-human, finding the non-human in the human face of Christ the God-man, offers another way than the self-assertion emphasized in many modern ideologies. As the poet Rilke put it, “every angel is terrible.”
For more by and about Richard Henry David Sr., see Poems and Prose Writings by Richard H. Dana, 1833, reprinted in Kessinger’s Legacy Reprints. Also Doreen Hunter, Richard Henry Dana, Sr., Twayne Publishers, 1987. And Michael H. Connolly, “The Toryism of Richard Henry Dana, Sr.,” in The Imaginative Conservative (2020), https://theimaginativeconservative.org/2020/09/toryism-richard-henry-dana-sr-michael-j-connolly.html