Wednesday, February 24, 2016

In search of “The Unpardonable Sin”

I’ve been delving into nineteenth-century English-language literature, in particular (at present) Hardy and Hawthorne;  and in the latter’s story “Ethan Brand” (original title: “The Unpardonable Sin”), happened upon this:

… Ethan Brand’s solitary and meditative life, before he began his search for the Unpardonable Sin.

That brought me up short.  For I once published a novel -- generically, Detective Fiction -- whose undercurrent is that very theme:

Hawthorne describes such putative sin  to be such as is “beyond the scope of Heaven’s else infinite mercy”.   So far, so good.
He also states that “Ethan Brand … had conversed with Satan”.    Bad.  But then, detective Michael Murphy has (initially, unwittingly) several times had Satan (or one of that fallen angel’s emissaries) as a client in a case.

But then, this:

Ethan Brand became a fiend … he had produced the Unpardonable Sin!
“What more have I to seek?  what more to achieve?” said Ethan Brand to himself.  “My task is done, and well done!”


At that, Ethan Brand (Nicht gedacht  soll seiner werden) cast himself into the furnace (a perfect instance of how, in C.S.Lewis’ theory, the obstinate  do indeed  wind up in the Pit).
So, a motivation quite different from that, of the Christian sinner Murphy.

It is perhaps wise, not to inquire too nicely  into the meaning of Hawthorne’s tale.  I shut the book, and sain myself, and there’s an end to it.


Hawthorne’s American notebooks from the mid-1840s  contain many brief notes for possible future stories, most of which never got written.  Here are the germs of the story at hand:

The search of an investigator for the Unpardonable Sin -- he at last finds it in his own heart and practice.

The Unpardonable Sin might consist in a want of love and reverence for the human Soul;  in consequence of which  the investigator pried into its dark depths, not with a hope or purpose of making it better, but from a cold philosophical curiosity -- content that it should be wicked in whatever kind or degree, and only desiring to study it out.  Would not this, in other words, be the separation of the intellect from the heart?


[Personal footnote]  I once studied under a professor of linguistics  -- CJF, or informally “Chuck” -- a gentle man, in all ways inoffensive,  who, as an adult, to signal a conclusive break with his fundamentalist upbringing, did one day “curse the Holy Ghost”, by way of committing the Unpardonable Sin. 
So he confided to me, in his office.   I mention it now, for the first time, only because he has by now slipped off the mortal coil, awaiting his reward.   The which, I pray, and indeed believe, shall be that of those, who never did blaspheme.   It is not so easy as all that, Professor, to baffle God’s infinite mercy (and sense of proportion)!

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