Dr. Heidenhoff's Process

by Edward Bellamy

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Chapter XI

"How long will she sleep, doctor?" asked Henry, after satisfying himself by looking through the crack of the door that she was actually asleep.

"Patients do not usually wake under an hour or two," replied the doctor. "She was very drowsy, and that is a good sign. I think we may have the best hopes of the result of the operation."

Henry walked restlessly to and fro. After Dr. Heidenhoff had regarded him a few moments, he said--

"You are nervous, sir. There is quite a time to wait, and it is better to remain as calm as possible, for, in the event of an unsatisfactory result, your friend will need soothing, and you will scarcely be equal to that if you are yourself excited. I have some very fair cigars here. Do me the honour to try one. I prescribe it medicinally. Your nerves need quieting;" and he extended his cigar-case to the young man.

As Henry with a nod of acknowledgment took a cigar and lit it, and resumed his striding to and fro, the doctor, who had seated himself comfortably, began to talk, apparently with the kindly intent of diverting the other's mind.

"There are a number of applications of the process I hope to make, which will be rather amusing experiments. Take, for instance, the case of a person who has committed a murder, come to me, and forgotten all about it. Suppose he is subsequently arrested, and the fact ascertained that while he undoubtedly committed the crime, he cannot possibly recall his guilt, and so far as his conscience is concerned, is as innocent as a new-born babe, what then? What do you think the authorities would do?"

"I think," said Henry, "that they would be very much puzzled what to do."

"Exactly," said the doctor; "I think so too. Such a case would bring out clearly the utter confusion and contradiction in which the current theories of ethics and moral responsibility are involved. It is time the world was waked up on that subject. I should hugely enjoy precipitating such a problem on the community. I'm hoping every day a murderer will come in and require my services.

"There is another sort of case which I should also like to have," he continued; shifting his cigar to the other side of his mouth, and uncrossing and recrossing his knees. "Suppose a man has dons another a great wrong, and, being troubled by remorse, comes to me and has the sponge of oblivion passed over that item in his memory. Suppose the man he has wronged, pursuing him with a heart full of vengeance, gets him at last in his power, but at the same time finds out that he has forgotten, and can't be made to remember, the act he desires to punish him for."

"It would be very vexatious," said Henry..

"Wouldn't it, though? I can imagine the pursuer, the avenger, if a really virulent fellow, actually weeping tears of despite as he stands before his victim and marks the utter unconsciousness of any offence with which his eyes meet his own. Such a look would blunt the very stiletto of a Corsican. What sweetness would there be in vengeance if the avenger, as he plunged the dagger in his victim's bosom, might not hiss in his ear, 'Remember!' As well find satisfaction in torturing an idiot or mutilating a corpse. I am not talking now of brutish fellows, who would kick a stock or stone which they stumbled over, but of men intelligent enough to understand what vengeance is."

"But don't you fancy the avenger, in the case you supposed, would retain some bitterness towards his enemy, even though he had forgotten the offence?"

"I fancy he would always feel a certain cold dislike and aversion for him," replied the doctor--"an aversion such as one has for an object or an animal associated with some painful experience; but any active animosity would be a moral impossibility, if he were quite certain that there was absolutely no guilty consciousness on the other's part.

"But scarcely any application of the process gives me so much pleasure to dream about as its use to make forgiving possible, full, free, perfect, joyous forgiving, in cases where otherwise, however good our intentions, it is impossible, simply because we cannot forget. Because they cannot forget, friends must part from friends who have wronged them, even though they do from their hearts wish them well. But they must leave them, for they cannot bear to look in their eyes and be reminded every time of some bitter thing. To all such what good tidings will it be to learn of my process!

"Why, when the world gets to understand about it I expect that two men or two women, or a man and a woman, will come in here, and say to me, 'We have quarrelled and outraged each other, we have injured our friend, our wife, our husband; we regret, we would forgive, but we cannot, because we remember. Put between us the atonement of forgetfulness, that we may love each other as of old,' and so joyous will be the tidings of forgiveness made easy and perfect, that none will be willing to waste even an hour in enmity. Raging foes in the heat of their first wrath will bethink themselves ere they smite, and come to me for a more perfect satisfaction of their feud than any vengeance could promise."

Henry suddenly stopped in his restless pacing, stepped on tiptoe to the slightly opened door of the retiring room, and peered anxiously in. He thought he heard a slight stir. But no; she was still sleeping deeply, her position quite unchanged. He drew noiselessly back, and again almost closed the door.

"I suppose," resumed the doctor, after a pause, "that I must prepare myself as soon as the process gets well enough known to attract attention to be roundly abused by the theologians and moralists. I mean, of course, the thicker-headed ones. They'll say I've got a machine for destroying conscience, and am sapping the foundations of society. I believe that is the phrase. The same class of people will maintain that it's wrong to cure the moral pain which results from a bad act who used to think it wrong to cure the physical diseases induced by vicious indulgence. But the outcry won't last long, for nobody will be long in seeing that the morality of the two kinds of cures is precisely the same, If one is wrong, the other is. If there is something holy and God-ordained in the painful consequences of sin, it is as wrong to meddle with those consequences when they are physical as when they are mental. The alleged reformatory effect of such suffering is as great in one case as the other. But, bless you, nobody nowadays holds that a doctor ought to refuse to set a leg which its owner broke when drunk or fighting, so that the man may limp through life as a warning to himself and others.

"I know some foggy-minded people hold in a vague way that the working of moral retribution is somehow more intelligent, just, and equitable than the working of physical retribution. They have a nebulous notion that the law of moral retribution is in some peculiar way God's law, while the law of physical retribution is the law of what they call nature, somehow not quite so much God's law as the other is. Such an absurdity only requires to be stated to be exposed. The law of moral retribution is precisely as blind, deaf, and meaningless, and entitled to be respected just as little, as the law of physical retribution. Why, sir, of the two, the much-abused law of physical retribution is decidedly more moral, in the sense of obvious fairness, than the so-called law of moral retribution itself. For, while the hardened offender virtually escapes all pangs of conscience, he can't escape the diseases and accidents which attend vice and violence. The whole working of moral retribution, on the contrary, is to torture the sensitive-souled, who would never do much harm any way, while the really hard cases of society, by their very hardness, avoid all suffering. And then, again, see how merciful and reformatory is the working of physical retribution compared with the pitilessness of the moral retribution of memory. A man gets over his accident or disease and is healthy again, having learned his lesson with the renewed health that alone makes it of any value to have had that lesson. But shame and sorrow for sin and disgrace go on for ever increasing in intensity, in proportion as they purify the soul. Their worm dieth not, and their fire is not quenched. The deeper the repentance, the more intense the longing and love for better things, the more poignant the pang of regret and the sense of irreparable loss. There is no sense, no end, no use, in this law which increases the severity of the punishment as the victim grows in innocency.

"Ah, sir," exclaimed the doctor, rising and laying his hand caressingly on the battery, while a triumphant exultation shone in his eyes, "you have no idea of the glorious satisfaction I take in crushing, destroying, annihilating these black devils of evil memories that feed on hearts. It is a triumph like a god's.

"But oh, the pity of it, the pity of it!" he added, sadly, as his hand fell by his side, "that this so simple discovery has come so late in the world's history! Think of the infinite multitude of lives it would have redeemed from the desperation of hopelessness, or the lifelong shadow of paralysing grief to all manner of sweet, good, and joyous uses!"

Henry opened the door slightly, and looked into the retiring-room. Madeline was lying perfectly motionless, as he had seen her before. She had not apparently moved a muscle. With a sudden fear at his heart, he softly entered, and on tiptoe crossed the room and stood over her. The momentary fear was baseless. Her bosom rose and fell with long, full breathing, the faint flush of healthy sleep tinged her cheek, and the lips were relaxed in a smile. It was impossible not to feel, seeing her slumbering so peacefully, that the marvellous change had been indeed wrought, and the cruel demons of memory that had so often lurked behind the low, white forehead were at last no more.

When he returned to the office, Dr. Heidenhoff had seated himself, and was contemplatively smoking.

"She was sleeping, I presume," he said.

"Soundly," replied Henry.

"That is well. I have the best of hopes. She is young. That is a favourable element in an operation of this sort."

Henry said nothing, and there was a considerable silence. Finally the doctor observed, with the air of a man who thinks it just as well to spend the time talking--

"I am fond of speculating what sort of a world, morally speaking, we should have if there were no memory. One thing is clear, we should have no such very wicked people as we have now. There would, of course, be congenitally good and bad dispositions, but a bad disposition would not grow worse and worse as it does now, and without this progressive badness the depths of depravity are never attained."

"Why do you think that?"

"Because it is the memory of our past sins which demoralizes as, by imparting a sense of weakness and causing loss of self-respect. Take the memory away, and a bad act would leave us no worse in character than we were before its commission, and not a whit more likely to repeat it than we were to commit it the first time."

"But surely our good or bad acts impress our own characters for good or evil, and give an increased tendency one way or the other."

"Excuse me, my dear sir. Acts merely express the character. The recollection of those acts is what impresses the character, and gives it a tendency in a particular direction. And that is why I say, if memory were abolished, constitutionally bad people would remain at their original and normal degree of badness, instead of going from bad to worse, as they always have done hitherto in the history of mankind. Memory is the principle of moral degeneration. Remembered sin is the most utterly diabolical influence in the universe. It invariably either debauches or martyrizes men and women, accordingly as it renders them desperate and hardened, or makes them a prey to undying grief and self-contempt. When I consider that more sin is the only anodyne for sin, and that the only way to cure the ache of conscience is to harden it, I marvel that even so many as do essay the bitter and hopeless way of repentance and reform. In the main, the pangs of conscience, so much vaunted by some, do most certainly drive ten deeper into sin where they bring one back to virtue."

"But," remarked Henry, "suppose there were no memory, and men did forget their acts, they would remain just as responsible for them as now."

"Precisely; that is, not at all," replied the doctor.

"You don't mean to say there is no such thing as responsibility, no such thing as justice. Oh, I see, you deny free will. You are a necessitarian."

The doctor waved his hand rather contemptuously.

"I know nothing about your theological distinctions; I am a doctor. I say that there is no such thing as moral responsibility for past acts, no such thing as real justice in punishing them, for the reason that human beings are not stationary existences, but changing, growing, incessantly progressive organisms, which in no two moments are the same. Therefore justice, whose only possible mode of proceeding is to punish in present time for what is done in past time, must always punish a person more or less similar to, but never identical with, the one who committed the offence, and therein must be no justice.

"Why, sir, it is no theory of mine, but the testimony of universal consciousness, if you interrogate it aright, that the difference between the past and present selves of the same individual is so great as to make them different persons for all moral purposes. That single fact we were just speaking of--the fact that no man would care for vengeance on one who had injured him, provided he knew that all memory of the offence had been blotted utterly from his enemy's mind--proves the entire proposition. It shows that it is not the present self of his enemy that the avenger is angry with at all, but the past self. Even in the blindness of his wrath he intuitively recognizes the distinction between the two. He only hates the present man, and seeks vengeance on him in so far as he thinks that he exults in remembering the injury his past self did, or, if he does not exult, that he insults and humiliates him by the bare fact of remembering it. That is the continuing offence which alone keeps alive the avenger's wrath against him. His fault is not that he did the injury, for he did not do it, but that he remembers it.

"It is the first principle of justice, isn't it, that nobody ought to be punished for what he can't help? Can the man of to-day prevent or affect what he did yesterday, let me say, rather, what the man did out of whom he has grown--has grown, I repeat, by a physical process which he could not check save by suicide. As well punish him for Adam's sin, for he might as easily have prevented that, and is every whit as accountable for it. You pity the child born, without his choice, of depraved parents. Pity the man himself, the man of today who, by a process as inevitable as the child's birth, has grown on the rotten stock of yesterday. Think you, that it is not sometimes with a sense of loathing and horror unutterable, that he feels his fresh life thus inexorably knitting itself on, growing on, to that old stem? For, mind you well, the consciousness of the man exists alone in the present day and moment. There alone he lives. That is himself. The former days are his dead, for whose sins, in which he had no part, which perchance by his choice never would have been done, he is held to answer and do penance. And you thought, young man, that there was such a thing as justice !"

"I can see," said Henry, after a pause, "that when half a lifetime has intervened between a crime and its punishment, and the man has reformed, there is a certain lack of identity. I have always thought punishments in such cases very barbarous. I know that I should think it hard to answer for what I may have done as a boy, twenty years ago.

"Yes," said the doctor, "flagrant cases of that sort take the general eye, and people say that they are instances of retribution rather than justice. The unlikeness between the extremes of life, as between the babe and the man, the lad and the dotard, strikes every mind, and all admit that there is not any apparent identity between these widely parted points in the progress of a human organism. How then? How soon does identity begin to decay, and when is it gone--in one year, five years, ten years, twenty years, or how many? Shall we fix fifty years as the period of a moral statute of limitation, after which punishment shall be deemed barbarous? No, no. The gulf between the man of this instant and the man of the last is just as impassable as that between the baby and the man. What is past is eternally past. So far as the essence of justice is concerned, there is no difference between one of the cases of punishment which you called barbarous, and one in which the penalty follows the offence within the hour. There is no way of joining the past with the present, and there is no difference between what is a moment past and what is eternally past."

"Then the assassin as he withdraws the stiletto from his victim's breast is not the same man who plunged it in."

"Obviously not," replied the doctor. "He may be exulting in the deed, or, more likely, he may be in a reaction of regret. He may be worse, he may be better. His being better or worse makes it neither more nor less just to punish him, though it may make it more or less expedient. Justice demands identity; similarity, however close, will not answer. Though a mother could not tell her twin sons apart, it would not make it any more just to punish one for the other's sins."

"Then you don't believe in the punishment of crime?" said Henry.

"Most emphatically I do," replied the doctor; "only I don't believe in calling it justice or ascribing it a moral significance. The punishment of criminals is a matter of public policy and expediency, precisely like measures for the suppression of nuisances or the prevention of epidemics. It is needful to restrain those who by crime have revealed their likelihood to commit further crimes, and to furnish by their punishment a motive to deter others from crime."

"And to deter the criminal himself after his release," added Henry.

"I included him in the word 'others,'" said the doctor. "The man who is punished is other from the man who did the act, and after punishment he is still other."

"Really, doctor," observed Henry, "I don't see that a man who fully believes your theory is in any need of your process for obliterating his sins. He won't think of blaming himself for them any way."

"True," said the doctor, "perfectly true. My process is for those who cannot attain to my philosophy. I break for the weak the chain of memory which holds them to the past; but stronger souls are independent of me. They can unloose the iron links and free themselves. Would that more had the needful wisdom and strength thus serenely to put their past behind them, leaving the dead to bury their dead, and go blithely forward, taking each new day as a life by itself, and reckoning themselves daily new-born, even as verily they are! Physically, mentally, indeed, the present must be for ever the outgrowth of the past, conform to its conditions, bear its burdens; but moral responsibility for the past the present has none, and by the very definition of the words can have none. There is no need to tell people that they ought to regret and grieve over the errors of the past. They can't help doing that. I myself suffer at times pretty sharply from twinges of the rheumatism which I owe to youthful dissipation. It would be absurd enough for me, a quiet old fellow of sixty, to take blame to myself for what the wild student did, but, all the same, I confoundedly wish he hadn't.

"Ah, me!" continued the doctor. "Is there not sorrow and wrong enough in the present world without having moralists teach us that it is our duty to perpetuate all our past sins and shames in the multiplying mirror of memory, as if, forsooth, we were any more the causers of the sins of our past selves than of our fathers' sins. How many a man and woman have poisoned their lives with tears for some one sin far away in the past! Their folly is greater, because sadder, but otherwise just like that of one who should devote his life to a mood of fatuous and imbecile self-complacency over the recollection of a good act he had once done. The consequences of the good and the bad deeds our fathers and we have done fall on our heads in showers, now refreshing, now scorching, of rewards and of penalties alike undeserved by our present selves. But, while we bear them with such equanimity as we may, let us remember that as it is only fools who flatter themselves on their past virtues, so it is only a sadder sort of fools who plague themselves for their past faults."

Henry's quick ear caught a rustle in the retiring-room. He stepped to the door and looked in. Madeline was sitting up.

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