What lies behind a veil? Can we find out by tearing it away—the etymological meaning of the Greek word “apocalypse”?
In his 1837 short story, “The Minister’s Black Veil,” Nathaniel Hawthorne offers a perceptive answer. Set in a small town in Puritan New England, the story explores how a simple change in an individual’s appearance unsettles the entire community.
“There was but one thing remarkable in his appearance,” Hawthorne writes of his enigmatic protagonist, Parson Hooper. “Swathed about his forehead, and hanging down over his face, so low as to be shaken by his breath, Mr. Hooper had on a black veil.”
When the town’s parishioners realize that Rev. Hooper has no intention of removing or explaining his veil, they resort to psychological projections. At first, they postulate that he has succumbed to mental infirmity: “Our parson has gone mad,” cries the church sexton. When no evidence of madness emerges, they accuse him of willful mischief. “He has changed himself into something awful, only by hiding his face,” remarks an old woman angrily.
The parson’s decision to wear a black veil eventually stokes his parishioners’ self-doubts. “Each member of the congregation, the most innocent girl, and the man of hardened breast,” writes Hawthorne, “felt as if the preacher had crept upon them, behind his awful veil, and discovered their hoarded iniquity of deed or thought.” Unable to “penetrate the mystery” of the minister’s veil, the parishioners thereafter maintain an apprehensive distance from him.
Hawthorne’s story suggests that outward difference can become a blank canvas onto which a community’s latent fantasies and fears are superimposed. Echoes of this lesson reverberated for me during the recent Canadian elections in politically motivated calls to ban wearing the niqab by civil servants and at citizenship ceremonies. I hastened to assure students in my American literature course at the University of Victoria that I had assigned the story at the time entirely by coincidence.
Since the horrifying attacks in Paris on November 13, the debate over whether to admit Syrian refugees into western countries similarly has become a foil for broader conflicts over the cultural and religious diversity of these nations. Republicans in the US, who have practically fallen over themselves to bar the admission of Muslim refugees, pander to a constituency convinced that liberalism’s multicultural agenda undermines traditional white values. European nations, responding to nativist and xenophobic sentiment, are erecting physical and political barriers to exclude refugees from their territories.
In Canada, despite some disturbing incidents of anti-Muslim bigotry, the federal government and a wide array of organizations have put aside ideology in the name of providing shelter for Syrian families. Some 20 civic and religious groups in Victoria, including my own Congregation Emanu-El and UVic’s History Department, are raising funds to sponsor Syrian refugee families (join the effort: bit.ly/victoria-refugees). Canadians demonstrate, through such initiatives, why intercommunal cooperation and empathy are our true colours.
All of this recalls another era. In 1941, Otto Frank was denied entry into the United States, where as a Jew he hoped to flee with his family from Nazi-occupied Holland. American anti-Semitism and suspicions about the loyalty of Jewish refugees likely explain the rejection of his visa application. Frank’s posthumously celebrated daughter, Anne Frank, did not survive the Nazi concentration camp to which she and the rest of Otto’s family were eventually deported.
The moral imperative arising from the Holocaust, “Never Again,” can have meaning only when we act on our responsibility to aid other communities in peril. To project our fears onto another’s appearance or faith is to impose a veil through which we can not see.
Lincoln Z. Shlensky, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Victoria. He is a founding member of the Victoria-based Jewish peace group, If Not Now, When? (ifnotnow.ca).
You can read more articles from our interfaith blog, Spiritually Speaking, HERE
* This article was published in the print edition of the Times Colonist on Saturday, December 5 2015