Thursday, February 16, 2017

"Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" (1837)

Read story by Nathaniel Hawthorne online.

I usually come around to liking anything I read by Nathaniel Hawthorne, but I have to admit he can be a terrible chore sometimes. This short story is typical, taking off on the Fountain of Youth myth for a kind of parable, or fable. The scientist in the title is presented as something closer to an alchemist or magician in the very long paragraph describing his "chamber." Well, that's fine for atmosphere. Dr. Heidegger has acquired a quantity of a rejuvenating liquid and gathered up four old specimens: three aging gentlemen and the bird they used to fight over. What could possibly go wrong? For their elucidation, Dr. Heidegger demonstrates the effects of the liquid on a rosebud more than 50 years old ("rosebud"). Sure enough, right back to blooming. The guests decide they'd like to sample this beverage. And again. In a matter of minutes they have returned to middle age. Then it's all the way back to youth, sweet youth—meaning, approximately, age 21 or 22. Naturally, the men begin fighting over the woman again. Dr. Heidegger breaks it up by calling their attention to the rose. It is aging, shriveling, and dying. In the fight, the four spilled the remainder of the precious fluid. Now they regret that deeply. Some subtleties occur to me. What is the nature of this experiment? Dr. Heidegger does not drink. Is that because he knows from previous experience that the results don't last long? He seems to deny foreknowledge. The experiment appears to be more than just looking at the effects of the elixir on humans. Did he gather these four particular humans deliberately? There is also a chance they are simply the people he happens to know. But he demands a commitment from them before they get their drink—that they remember their hard-won lessons from life. Of course they assent, eagerly. We all know we are wise now. Look how old we are. But as the sap of youth rises, they throw all that out, and the beverage too. "Youth is wasted on the young," Hawthorne seems to be affirming, with the surprising proviso that it's wasted even with the experience of age. Whatever the mysterious Dr. Heidegger intended to investigate with his experiment, the result for us is another comically bleak examination of the human spirit.

Library of America Story of the Week (Library of America)

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