If an early American author writes a postmodern novel and nobody is there to label it as such, has he truly written one? Another way to consider this tortured revision of a timeworn and clichéd conundrum is to ask if a postmodern novel can exist in pre-modern times. While Charles Brockden Brown’s novel Wieland contains the “sentimental-seduction” trappings of the popular romance novels of the late eighteenth century (Manly 311) and the kind of menacing Gothic horror that Poe made famous decades later, his epistolary narrative exhibits characteristics often associated with postmodern literature. From the problematic epigraph to Clara’s final instructions to the reader, Brown’s novel deconstructs eighteenth century concepts of truth, reason, faith, and perception.
The value of postmodern literature resides in the rejection of reason as a reliable arbiter of truth. The very language used by authors “floats or slides in relation to reality” (“Introduction to Theory and Criticism” 21). “Abyssal, undecidable” (21) meaning replaces the merely ambiguous or paradoxical messages of other notable early American authors: Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James, in particular (Manly 321).
Brown begins the typically postmodern act of sowing uncertainty by introducing the motif of multiplicity in his poetic epigraph. The “blissful paths” that lead to virtue juxtapose the “double-tongued…[who] stray” from righteousness’ way into “mazy paths”(1). The epigraph’s placement in a conspicuous position prior to the narrative indicates its intention to frame Clara’s account in a didactic manner that emphasizes the moral superiority of forthrightness. Paradoxically, the many paths that lead to virtue mirror the duality of language of the double-tongued person. In its attempt to enlighten the reader with a moral guidepost, the epigraph becomes an ambiguous maze that turns around upon itself. By juxtaposing the multiplicity of both moral and immoral behavior, the epigraph works to highlight the inability of the novel’s characters to distinguish truth from lie. With the emphasis on numerous approaches to morality and the possibility of using language in an imprecise or duplicitous manner, Brown prepares the reader for the indeterminacy that permeates the lives of the novel’s characters.
Sandwiched between the epigraph and Clara’s story is Brown’s “Advertisement.” Although the author’s own direct address to the reader confidently claims insight into the “moral constitution of man” and establishes the setting of the novel well into the Age of Enlightenment (3), the narrative that follows self-consciously calls attention to the insufficiency of reason—“What but ambiguities, abruptness, and dark transitions, can be expected from the historian who is, at the same time, the sufferer of these disasters?” (135)—and the failure of that reason to lead men to choose the correct moral/religious path—“Wieland was a maniac, a faithful servant of his God, [but] the victim of hellish illusions” (172).
Clara Wieland, the narrator of this tragic tale, acknowledges the imperfect nature of her account: “I doubted whether my remembrance of the events were not confused” (180); “my narrative may be invaded by inaccuracy and confusion” (135). Her story, recorded some time after the actual events in a letter to an unnamed recipient, admittedly lacks the certainty of truth “owing to the imperfection of…language” (136). In his essay “Theorizing the Postmodern: At the End of Metaphysics,” Jeffrey Nealon claims that “the postmodern epoch…frustrates the arrival of truth” (82). From the mysterious death of Wieland the elder to Theodore’s inexplicable murder of his wife and children, Clara’s account struggles with “composing a faithful [in other words, a truthful] narrative” (Brown 194).
Nietzsche, in his essay “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” blames the difficulty of obtaining truth on “the haughtiness which goes with knowledge and feeling, which shrouds the eyes and senses of man in a blinding fog [and] deceives him” (1). The death of Clara and Theodore’s father imprints the story with the type of binary oppositions that control the narrative. The father struggled with obeying the will of God, and this conflict eventually led to the mysterious incident of his spontaneous combustion. The uncle rushed to the scene that his senses mistakenly identified as the Temple ablaze. When he arrived, he saw something that “resembled a cloud impregnated with light” (Brown 16). Light usually brings clarity of sight, while a cloud tends to obscure vision. This binary image illustrates the complicated struggle for understanding that the major characters experience. Clara describes her uncle’s “testimony [as] peculiarly worthy of credit, because…his belief is unalterably attached to natural causes” (18). Presumably, his “skeptical” (18) approach to things supernatural makes him capable of explicating phenomena that might otherwise be misrepresented, but the uncle’s senses had already deceived him into believing that a conflagration was destroying the Temple. Additionally, that impregnated cloud did not give birth to any clear understanding of the event. In fact, the truth of the incident was forever aborted, partly because the father provided the uncle with “an imperfect tale” (17) of his deadly experience.
Oddly enough, Clara experiences her own radiant cloud near the novel’s end. While dreaming of “half-seen” forms and “gleams of light” that briefly shine into an otherworldly abyss, she is awakened by her uncle who rescues her from her bedroom “chamber…filled with smoke, which though in some degree luminous” did not permit her to see anything. Clara’s dream occurs after two intensely painful shocks in her life: her discovery that Wieland murdered his family because he believed that God had verbally commanded such a show of faith; and her loss of Pleyel, who ignored all that he knew of Clara’s superior character and believed his faulty senses when they seemed to indicate that she had behaved in a shameful manner with Carwin. Brown bookends these “illusion[s] of the senses” (213) with two similar scenes of light engulfed in a cloud, scenes that dramatically and symbolically portray the limitations of man’s perception and understanding. Brown’s characters live “in the between, in the undecided” that Jeffrey Nealon declares is “ ‘characteristic’ of writing the postmodern” (83).
Wieland and his lifelong friend Pleyel earnestly searched for truth and meaning. Wieland studied various religions “to ascertain their validity” (Brown 21). Pleyel, on the other hand, relied on no “faith…but that of his senses” (69), and he “rejected all guidance but that of his reason” (23). Both men discussed and debated their respective views. “Their creeds, however, were in many respects opposite. Where one discovered only confirmation of his faith, the other could find nothing but reasons for doubt” (23). Both men sought truth, but found that two reasonable men could look at the same evidence and reach different conclusions. Nietzsche described man’s attempt to find truth as man’s ability to see the world through his own limited scope of vision and understanding: “At bottom, what the investigator of such truths is seeking is only the metamorphosis of the world into man, and at best he achieves by his struggles the feeling of assimilation” (5). Wieland and Pleyel’s sincere searches for truth ultimately failed because each man’s reasoning was limited by his own attempt to make the world conform to his own vision of truth.
Postmodern literature questions truth, especially that truth which relies on the senses for its verification. The characters of Brown’s novel rely on the “reception of stimuli” (Nietzsche 1) to determine the truth. Unfortunately, their senses, more often than not, deceive them. Wieland’s murderous rampage occurs only after he believes he hears God’s voice telling him to sacrifice his wife and children. Clara and Pleyel’s hearing caused them no end of trouble. Carwin used his talents as a biloquist to deceive them both. Hiding in Clara’s closet, he convinced her that two men were lying in wait to murder her. She felt she was “no longer at liberty to question the reality of those accents” (56). Pleyel thought he heard Clara declare her impure intentions to Carwin, and his suspicions were confirmed when he saw Carwin leaving her house late one night. Despite all he knew of her good character, he believed that his “eyes [and] ears” bore “witness to [her] fall” (96). Clara could not convince him that he had “drawn from dubious appearances conclusions [that were] the most improbable and unjust” (97). She could not hope that “truth [would] render [her] triumphant” (104).
The Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima ushered in the era of postmodernism. These two brutal and irreversible landmarks of twentieth-century reason shattered the illusion of western culture’s belief in an Apocalypse, a final “ ‘Un-veiling’ ” of truth (Nealon 80). Genocide on the scale of these historical events, apocalyptic events, offers no “determinate ‘revelation’ of truth, but only its withdrawal—not truth but impasse” (80). Likewise, Wieland’s sacrificial offering of his family to God (in the Old Testament, burnt offerings to Jehovah were called holocausts) epitomizes what Jeffrey Nealon described in his essay as acts of finality that abjectly fail to produce truthful revelation. Wieland believed he heard God’s voice demanding him to kill his family. Upon hearing his account, Clara “could not bear to think that his senses should be the victims of such delusion” (32), because “if [his] senses be depraved it is impossible to calculate the evils that may flow from the consequent deductions of the understanding” (33). The evils of Hitler’s ethnic cleansing and America’s tactical use of nuclear weapons show how reason led modern man to the kind of “consequent deductions” that Wieland committed on a smaller scale.
In closing her letter, Clara directly addresses the reader: “I leave you to moralize on this tale” (223). Using anaphoral statements, she offers the reader explanations how the “errors of the sufferers” (223) in the novel could have been avoided had they taken different actions. Since Clara offers moralistic answers, the reader has no need to search for his own. The contradiction that ends the novel completes the circle where it began in the epigraph. Brown negates the validity of truth finding, or moralizing, by offering a number of different possible truths at the end in the same way the epigraph poses itself as a single message while paradoxically offering multiple messages.
Clara believes that “there are means by which [people] are able to distinguish a substance from a shadow, a reality from the phantom of a dream” (Brown 79-80), but the novel never offers a reliable means by which to determine reality. Faith, reason, and perception all fail. The only time Clara stumbles upon truth is in a dream. In that dream, her brother tried to kill her. Long before he murdered his family, some “inexplicable contrivance” (80) forewarned her of danger. She could not understand why she would dream such an unreasonable thing. She quickly put aside this confusing vision and uttered a seemingly innocuous thought: “Ideas exist in our minds that can be accounted for by no established laws” (80). In this statement, Clara nullifies the importance of faith, reason, and perception. If truth can be obtained by man’s unconscious, then how reliable is man’s conscious? If, as Nietzsche said, “truths are illusions” (4), what does it say about reality when illusions are truthful? Brown may have had different “aims” (3) when he published his novel in 1798, but he certainly left the literary world with a work that posits postmodern ideas long before the nuclear age gave birth to that philosophical and literary theory. Certainly Clara’s statement is prescient, and postmodern ideas that can be accounted for by “no established laws” do exist in the mind of an eighteenth-century author.
Brown, Charles Brockden. Wieland; or the Transformation and Memoirs of