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Throughout Wieland the text circles around the possibility of social, and therefore national, progress during the period following the American Revolution. The eventual answers the text might provide are ambiguous and certainly outside the scope of this essay. However, one specific passage that contributes significantly to this textual discussion is contained within Clara’s description her brother and father’s qualities and the procurement of the bust of Cicero and how it sets the tone for the children’s use of their father’s temple. While attempting to break away from established systems of thought, the Wieland clan embrace Enlightenment thinking and with it the reverence for classical civilizations. In doing so, the possibility of progress is replaced with regress as they simply simulate and perform what they conceive to be Roman culture.
The similarities between Wieland and his father provide the slate upon which the rejection of certain values begins. They maintain similar characters, appearances and “…were accustomed to [view] …the vicissitudes of human life…”(Brown 22) in the same light. Viewing perpetually changing circumstances in a consistent manner seems paradoxical and lends itself to the idea of society as fundamentally unalterable. The choice of the word “vicissitudes” is notable because it comes from a Latinate root originally meaning ‘by turns’. Given the context of this passage, one can parallel this imagery of turning to revolution, a revolving, originally meaning a rolling back. Such a connection, would lead one to believe that both Wieland men would view revolution ineffective as a means to attaining societal progress. Such analogous traits, however, are neither the most notable, nor the most influential in the course of this passage.
The key differences between the Wieland men contradict their likenesses and reveal the underlying ideological fractures that drive the children to attempt to abandon their father’s path. Compared to his father, Wieland’s mind is “…enriched by science…”(Brown 22). The Enlightenment valorization of rationality is here entrenched in the text, and thereby elevates scientific knowledge above other forms. At the heart of this valorization and the scientific method is the assumption that through trial and error improvement can be made and truth can be ascertained. Clara also describes her brother’s mind as having been “…embellished with literature”(Brown 22). This statement frames the mind in aesthetic terms and takes aim at literature in an almost derogatory fashion. Literature’s function becomes to add detail and make more interesting, but not necessarily to improve. Such a stance is contrary to the elder Wieland’s, especially when considered alongside his religious conversion and pilgrimage, which was entirely textually driven (Brown 8). These ideological assumptions underpin the Wieland children’s endeavors to shake loose of old paradigms and venture into new ones.
Their attempt first waxes revolutionarily in its appropriation of a sacred space for secular purposes. With seeming disregard for the location of their father’s death, his “…temple was no longer assigned to its ancient use”(Brown 22). In line with her brother’s rational thought, Clara asserts that religious spaces can be designated as non-religious spaces. Considering the paternal figure of the church, that is all the more present because of the elder Wieland’s religious practices, as “ancient” is indicative of revolutionary aims in the perception of the earlier generation as instantly outmoded.
The children push toward reassigning the temple into their own “new” space and leave behind remnants of the past, yet fail and simply replace one past with another. For decoration in the temple and in commemoration of one of the Wieland children’s idols, Wieland “…purchased a bust of Cicero”(Brown 22). Superficially, this may not seem altogether counterrevolutionary or anti-progressive, but if one views the post-revolutionary period as ideally one of original cultural production, then such a purchase does seem contradictory. Although such décor is in line with the Enlightenment period’s need for historical figures, especially those who come from ancient democratic societies, to glorify. This element of hero worship can be seen as simply a return to principles of the past, if perhaps a different past, and therefore contrary to revolutionary progress.
This vein of replication, rather than innovation, is further detailed by the history of the sculptor and his work. The artist is “…an Italian adventurer…”(Brown 22) who is therefore historically and culturally linked to the ancient Roman civilization. Thus, he is continuing and spreading this cultural linearity. Furthermore, “he professed to have copied this piece from an antique…”(Brown 22). Given that a bust is already a copy of a person, the bust that Wieland purchased is a copy of a copy. This twice-copied image/object is now that which Wieland himself seeks to emulate in his doting over Cicero’s writings. The reproducibility of history and culture threatens the nature of Clara and Wieland’s efforts to use the freedom and space they possess to form something other than that which has existed before.
Adding to the complexity of the situation, in which the Wieland children find themselves, is the impossibility in discerning original from replica. They are “not qualified to judge…the truth of [the sculptor’s]…assertions…”(Brown 22). Their predicament immediately contradicts a rationality based on sensory experience because they are persuaded solely by its “marble…pure and polished…”(Brown 22). Although visual aesthetics are certainly reason enough to enjoy art, they are not (normally, or in this case) enough to discover a work of art’s origins. The artist very well could have copied an antique bust, but just as easily could have copied a modern copy of an antique bust. There is no way to know, and it does not really matter. In this instance, all copies lead back to Cicero, one way or another. It is this reproducibility of image and action that creates the conundrum in Mettingen and undermines the possibility of original cultural production or progress.
It is the reproducibility of thought, ideology and action through performance that ultimately destabilizes the push for social change and progress. The Wieland’s accept the bust because they are “…contented to admire [the sculptor’s]…performance”(Brown 22). Just as the bust could be replica of a replica, his performance could be a performance of a truth, and thus what we normally regard as a lie. When one begins to unravel things through simulation and performance, the dichotomies of truth and falsehood, original and copy begin to dissolve into one another. And this is precisely what happens when the Wieland’s commission “…the same artist to hew a suitable pedestal from a neighboring quarry”(Brown 22). This pedestal presumably matches the bust, yet is made locally. Therefore, the geologic origin of the bust is called into question since such a bust could have been sculpted from local stone. Perhaps even more intriguing, is the fact that this pedestal, although made by a foreign artist, is the most original product in the passage, even though it is created to accompany a figure of ancient history. These performances push the Wieland’s deeper into regressive modes of functioning and thinking because of the iterability of culture and history.
The defining concept of what the temple space becomes is in fact reproduction of another culture and history. Using Roman civilization and Cicero for models, the temple becomes a type of small, private Roman forum where they “…sung, and talked, and read, and occasionally banqueted”(Brown 22). The transformation of the temple complete, nothing innovative takes its place, only replications of various aspects of Roman culture. There “…the performances of our musical and poetical ancestor were rehearsed”(Brown 22). They turn back to different historical conceptions and value systems, but they are still just rehearsals. Not literally only the rehearsals, but also the “…thousand conversations, pregnant with delight and improvement…”(Brown 22). It seems unlikely that the conversations, being emulations of ancient pasts, moved forward significantly. Simultaneously, the Wieland’s children are being educated there, which could be perhaps the clearest example of rehearsal possible (Brown 22). Education being a key manner of cultural transmission, it implies that once taught one will replicate the culture and therefore continue to transmit it. Therefore, Clara and Wieland fail to foster any sort of new cultural or national production and instead replace it with something even older.
The passage examined reveals a failed revolutionary attempt that simply replicates a culture other than the one that preceded the revolution and veils regression under the assumption that any alteration in prevailing systems of thought and action must be progress. While this passage cannot serve as a summary of Wieland, it certainly does reveal one of the text’s predominate themes and concerns about a post-revolutionary America. This cautionary passage perhaps can stand in for the parts of the whole text that doubt the possibility of social progress and view any visible changes as simple “vicissitudes of human life”(Brown 22).
Brown, Charles B. Wieland: and Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist. New York: Oxford, 2009. Print.
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