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Entries in Hawthorne (4)


The Minister's Black Veil

The topic, it might be supposed, was obvious enough. There was the black veil swathed round Mr. Hooper's forehead and concealing every feature above his placid mouth, on which, at times, they could perceive the glimmering of a melancholy smile. But that piece ... to their imagination, seemed to hang down before his heart, the symbol of a fearful secret between him and them. Were the veil but cast aside, they might speak freely of it, but not till then. Thus they sat a considerable time, speechless, confused and shrinking uneasily from Mr. Hooper's eye, which they felt to be fixed upon them with an invisible glance.

In a previous life – or twenty-two years ago, which was definitely another life of sorts – I was forcibly subjected to the dismal science and its web of incongruities, a maze with a monster in the middle but neither egress nor ingress. This was a dull time no shinier in retrospect. Readers of these pages are duly aware of my attitude towards the accumulation of riches while millions are never given the chance to live on subsistence, and twenty some years ago my opinions were but cygnets compared to the majestic bird who now swims unmolested on my autumn lake. Yet my opinions were already formed. Economics may not only involve the pursuit of money or wealth, but that is ultimately what gears its engine, just like the pursuit of physical satisfaction will always be captained by something that cannot be love. Few actually study economics to help the victims of inequality; most either want money or the authority to direct the policy of money (look no further than the pandemic fraud of Marxism-Leninism), which ends up corrupting them just as much as absolute power. No, most people who like to talk about money – even theoretically – will sooner or later love money itself and use it as a barometer to measure public happiness as well as their own. Some even say that the loss of something valuable can lead to economic stimulation, a horrific fallacy that was most famously coined in a work by a French theoretician. Behind the broken window, however, lies another human event, namely that some of us will catch ourselves smiling at the misfortune of others – not only because of the worst of human emotions, Schadenfreude, but also because in their failures we espy our opportunities. The services of some citizens may indeed gain in demand from rectifying the woes of others; but over time there lurks the possibility that they may begin to wish for misfortune so that they might profit. And to those who enjoy watching others struggle and fail, financial and emotional distress can be similarly beneficial, a point made in this fine parable.

An excessively candid title does not detract from the vitality of the introduction, whereby we become acquainted with a young, unmarried sexton by the name of Hooper. Hooper is well-liked in his small community both for his humor and his mildness, and seems to exemplify at least in his words what the Puritan methodology on the enjoyment of life and our destination upon corporeal extinction might entail. His ostensible piety mitigates his choice one day to don a veil, an act that confounds his parishioners:

On a nearer view [the veil] seemed to consist of two folds of crape, which entirely concealed his features, except the mouth and chin, but probably did not intercept his sight, further than to give a darkened aspect to all living and inanimate things. With this gloomy shade before him, good Mr. Hooper walked onward, at a slow and quiet pace, stooping somewhat, and looking on the ground, as is customary with abstracted men, yet nodding kindly to those of his parishioners who still waited on the meeting-house steps.

It is this "darkened aspect" that hints at those deeds to which we cannot be privy. Hooper's appearance at the pulpit is taken as part of his guise as preacher, as the presence he must possess to sway his constituents into the good and the favor of the Almighty. Hooper talks and all are enthralled because he seems to have pierced their consciences, derived from their darkest caverns the toils of their compunction, and encased them all behind his veil as if the veil itself were a box of sins to be fastened for eternity – or maybe a bit less than that. Yet his own misery makes him the subject of idle chatter, and those whose minds might indeed be plagued by something or someone see in him a worse version of themselves. And despite the uncertainty of his intentions (Hooper never quite explains what is gnawing at him) and the wickedness around their world, they cannot help but smile.

This uncertainty is augmented by the story's finest scene, and one of the finest in nineteenth-century literature, the subsequent funeral of a young woman. Hooper is expected to appear to send the departed on her way. But his actions, unquestioned for the most part by the mourners, cannot be deemed ordinary:

The clergyman stepped into the room where the corpse was laid, and bent over the coffin, to take a last farewell of his deceased parishioner. As he stooped, the veil hung straight down from his forehead, so that, if her eyelids had not been closed forever, the dead maiden might have seen his face. Could Mr. Hooper be fearful of her glance, that he so hastily caught back the black veil? A person who watched the interview between the dead and living, scrupled not to affirm, that, at the instant when the clergyman's features were disclosed, the corpse had slightly shuddered, rustling the shroud and muslin cap, though the countenance retained the composure of death. A superstitious old woman was the only witness of this prodigy.

One would guess that it is important that the only witness is both old and beset by the tall tales of more simple souls. Yet the matter is elucidated shortly thereafter by a couple in the procession:

"Why do you look back?" said one in the procession to his partner.

"I had a fancy," replied she, "that the minister and the maiden's spirit were walking hand in hand."

"And so had I, at the same moment," said the other.

We are given only one more aspersion against the pastor's character, and it comes from yet another woman. Upon learning of the ineptitude of local representatives tasked with discovering the truth behind Hooper's apparent self-castigation, a woman named Elizabeth, called the sexton's "lover" yet for the time being just a candidate for marriage, approaches the man of the cloth with halfhearted curiosity. Elizabeth is not baffled by Hooper, yet neither is she without fear. Fear, one should add, of knowing enough of the truth to guess the rest as if at the threshold of an ancient manor an indefinite series of parallel doors opened to reveal, at their end, one's most hideous apprehension. There were, she intimates, "rumors already abroad in the village," but these rumors are expressed only in the "color [that] rose in her cheeks." Hooper does not confirm or deny any of her insinuations, preferring to lift his veil only in death. Elizabeth leaves and we understand that, although still young, he has forsaken his last chance for companionship in this world.

Hawthorne's works come in two forms: excellent and riveting, and excellent and bland.  The blander works may still find their way onto high school curricula and can invariably be praised for their locution and elegance; but his riveting works cannot be praised enough. For reasons not unrelated to this astounding work of genius, the plight of our veiled sexton has endured among Hawthorne's most read short stories and can be used on opposing sides of argumentation, especially given the delightful but not unsurprising dénouement. What argumentation, you might ask? Consider the sexton's first address to Elizabeth: "There is an hour to come when all of us shall cast aside our veils." And at that hour a dark box may or may not be unfastened for all to see, however thick our camouflage was on earth.


P.'s Correspondence

Were it only possible to find out who are alive, and who dead, it would contribute infinitely to my peace of mind. Every day of my life, somebody comes and stares me in the face, whom I had quietly blotted out of the tablet of living men, and trusted never more to be pestered with the sight and sound of him. 

The unreliable narrator has become a staple of postmodern writing, as unreliable a "movement" as you'll find in any human epoch, precisely because the "art" of the postmodern sits like a row house within the artfulness of the con. We have had interesting liars throughout literature; but the vast majority have lied for something noble, or something so dear that, for but a fleeting moment or two, they have even gained our pity. But how is one to pity a crook? What empathy resides in our hearts for those who wish to deceive simply for the sake of deception? Why should we care about those whose business is to hide their true feelings – if, of course, they had any true feelings to begin with? No, the best symbol of the postmodern is the labyrinth with no minotaur or treasure at the center, not even a path that leads back on its own pebbles. The reader has navigated the zags and zigs and come to the clearing. Here he finds a card, a simple paper card, blank and ornate, yet to the discerning eye very cheap, and he stops to pick it up. And it is then that he looks around the topiary trim and espies not shrubs, but large green cut-outs in plainest carton, all of which begin to collapse simultaneously like the house of cards the postmodern has always been. True art resides in the eternal genius of men, in their moral mettle, and in their sincere striving towards spine-tingling bliss – nothing more and nothing less. A fine introduction to this odd and seminal work.

Our narrator will pass the baton rather quickly to his beleaguered friend, the eponymous P., who "has lost the thread of his life," a wonderfully sad way to soften the report of creeping senility. If we were, that is, dealing with senility:

All this is not so much a delusion, as a partly wilful and partly involuntary sport of the imagination, to which his disease has imparted such morbid energy that he beholds these spectral scenes and characters with no less distinctness than a play upon a stage, and with somewhat more of illusive credence.

These characters will turn out to be the major figures of English Romanticism, but let us take our cue from the date of P.'s letter, included integrally in the text, of February 29th, 1845. The date, as we know, is impossible; yet its impossibility prepares the reader to receive the text as the fantastic "moonshine" of someone who may not be able to separate our reality from the courtyard of his private dreams. P.'s own description of his environment does nothing to dispel this impression:

Sitting as I do, at this moment, in my hired apartment, writing beside the hearth, over which hangs a print of Queen Victoria – listening to the muffled roar of the world's metropolis, and with a window at but five paces distant, through which, whenever I please, I can gaze out on actual London – with all this positive certainty as to my whereabouts, what kind of notion, do you think, is just now perplexing my brain? Why – would you believe it? – that, all this time, I am still an inhabitant of that wearisome little chamber with its one small window, across which, from some inscrutable reason of taste or convenience, my landlord had placed a row of iron bars – that same little chamber, in short, whither your kindness has so often brought you to visit me.

Some would assume that time has so retrenched P.'s mind that he does not even realize the place of his own incarceration, likely an institution (he will recur to that "row of iron bars" towards the story's end) for those from whom reason has departed forever or in whom it never bothered to take root. We suspect, however, that neither condition truly befits our narrator. Not that this indeterminate state could stop him from strolling through an imaginary London peppered with more than a few imaginary literary acquaintances: Byron, now obese and, his newfound religion in mind, a violent bowdlerizer of the works of his juvenilia (the real Byron, as we know, enjoys eternal youth); Burns, senile and sentimental; Scott, nearly paraplegic, and empty of everything except what distinguished his particular adventures from everyone else's ("whether in verse, prose, or architecture, he could achieve but one thing, although that one in infinite variety"); Shelley, now a preacher; Coleridge, once of unlimited potential, now a mediocrity bereft of all traces of his mad genius; and Keats, the sole member of this unwilled fraternity who has survived both corporally and in reputation. Lesser lights also twinkle in P.'s dark evenings, but that is likely owing to his wish to incorporate all those past who influenced his own rapturous sighs. And despite the fact that most of the spectres are British, our text ends with two questions for this American diplomat who, like the rest of P.'s pantheon, has long since quit our green earth. 

Some believe that elements of our strange little story would furnish, a couple of generations past Hawthorne's own lifetime, that most nebulous and anti-intellectual of genres, science fiction, with a niche of beastly boringness known as alternate history. The chief difference being, of course, that P. is simply revisiting his heroes (both he and the addressee of his letter allude to P.'s failed literary aspirations), not transforming them into zombies, aliens, or rogue planets. What the space-and-race pundits omit to mention is that every literary man worth his salt will daydream in terms not unlike those P. so boldly lays out for his public. That said, the actual reimaginings of deceased writers now alive, if well past their literary primes, is not the usual manifestation; more common is a dialogue in which the dreamer revels in meeting his masters only to discover (if the dreamer is himself a first-rate genius) that the man whose work he has worshipped is a bore, and possibly also an unkempt and lumbering oaf. There is also the small matter of the moral pendulum of these same esteemed letters, an accusation he launches at a decrepit Scott ("the world, nowadays, requires a more earnest purpose, a deeper moral, and a closer and homelier truth, than he was qualified to supply"). It is therefore appropriate, one supposes, that Shelley, the most virulent opponent to society's mores, is accorded the keenest change of heart, and that his early works are explained thus:

They are like the successive steps of a staircase, the lowest of which, in the depth of chaos, is as essential to the support of the whole, as the highest and final one, resting upon the threshold of the heavens.

Shelley is still read in English survey classes, although he remains one of those authors one embraces when young and barely tolerates when older. Alas, not even such fame will ever be the lot of P.; although he will never stoop to the lows of anarchism and other such inanity, he will also never rise to the sublime perfection of this poem. "The reality  that which I know to be such," writes our resigned narrator, "hangs like remnants of tattered scenery over the intolerably prominent illusion." Which is why some people never find themselves able to choose between the two.


The Birth-Mark

One of the most common topoi on these pages has been one of the most ill-named: positivism.  A dictionary will tell you that this sorry word denotes a system whereby only what can be perceived by the senses is worth remarking; a good dictionary will add that this selfish approach somehow also means being positive.  It is more than a little ironic that a theory boasting of knowing nothing except what can be grasped, smelled, tasted, seen and heard by a single mortal form could dare bestow upon itself such an uplifting motto.  Let every person negate the information accumulated by the rest of the world and only count himself, and let us then behold the amazing rapture that overcomes this soul, or darkling cave, upon learning that he can only learn so much.  Indeed, even the greatest of positivist minds can only absorb so little of what the world holds that it seems laughable to think they could ever survive without the input of others.  They do, naturally, because it is their grand decision to perceive what others have already achieved.  Should all this sound like a stinking heap of particularly rotten fish, you may enjoy the gentle allegory contained in this story.

Our tale is not distinguished by its originality, but by its beauty – in which case it has much in common with its heroine, Georgiana.  Georgiana is a woman of stunning attractiveness, attractiveness that could not be more proportionate, more radiant or truer to nature's perfect design.  Yet amidst these angelic fibers lurks one small flaw, a birthmark of the oddest proportions:

It shape bore not a little similarity to the human hand, though of the smallest pygmy size.  Georgiana's lovers were wont to say that some fairy, at her birth-hour, had laid her tiny hand upon the infant's cheek, and left this impress there, in token of the magic endowments that were to give her such sway over all hearts.  Many a desperate swain would have risked life for the privilege of pressing his lips to the mysterious hand.  It must not be concealed, however, that the impression wrought by this fairy sign-manual varied exceedingly, according to the difference of temperament in the beholders.  Some fastidious persons but they were exclusively of her own sex affirmed that the Bloody Hand, as they chose to call it, quite destroyed the effect of Georgiana's beauty, and rendered her countenance even hideous.

It has been said that there is nothing more repulsive than a slightly distorted version of what one finds incredibly beautiful (an example from fiction would be a loved one resurrected as a corpse-like phantom); it has also been said that there is nothing to which one inures oneself more quickly than ugliness.  The male mind, if it can successfully be cloven from the female mind on such an issue, would likely suggest that a woman's voluptuousness can blind even the fussiest of male admirers to a flaw.  But another argument can be made outside of the gossipy circles of tea parties:

It was the fatal flaw of humanity, which Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productions, either to imply that they are temporary and finite, or that their perfection must be wrought by toil and pain.  The Crimson Hand expressed the ineludible grip in which mortality clutches the highest and purest of earthly mould, degrading them into kindred with the lowest, and even with the very brutes, like whom their visible frames return to dust.

Both arguments are presented to and considered by perhaps the most important person to have to consider them, Georgiana's husband Alymer, which brings us to another story quite apart.

Alymer is "a man of science, an eminent proficient in every branch of natural philosophy," who possesses, much like this literary figure, the oracle of the Brazen Head.  What experiments he conducts in his laboratory are not ours to know, but his trusted assistant Aminadab has much of the modern cinematic notion of such helpers:

Forthwith there issued from an inner apartment a man of low stature, but bulky frame, with shaggy hair hanging about his visage, which was grimed with the vapors of the furnace. This personage had been Aylmer's underworker during his whole scientific career, and was admirably fitted for that office by his great mechanical readiness, and the skill with which, while incapable of comprehending a single principle, he executed all the details of his master's experiments. With his vast strength, his shaggy hair, his smoky aspect, and the indescribable earthiness that encrusted him, he seemed to represent man's physical nature; while Aylmer's slender figure, and pale, intellectual face, were no less apt a type of the spiritual element.

Aminadab ("bad anima" reversed) should not be written off as a minor character just as Aylmer, for all his pomp and thriving circumstances, should not really be considered our protagonist.  The dichotomy indicated above finds its harshest echoes in Aminadab's own chuckling.  As Aylmer struggles, mixing, matching, meditating through alembics, ingredients and formulas, Aminadab fulfills his every command yet cannot stifle a more than occasional snicker.  For whatever triumph as Aylmer may have achieved in his eventful existence, such fortune pales in comparison to what has surrounded him, on the outside of his laboratories, its seeds and stems the essential components of innumerable concoctions.  Indeed, when he finally whisks poor Georgiana into his offices to find a means to remove her solitary blemish, he even boasts that "no king, on his guarded throne, could keep his life" if he chose to administer a certain potion he humbly dubs the Elixir of Immortality.  Georgiana resigns herself to her husband's genius because everyone else has already succumbed to his wise ways – even if what he wishes to do infringes upon all natural law.

I have previously commented that Hawthorne produces two types of goods, and despite its primitive symbolism, The Birth-Mark is undoubtedly riveting.  One can fairly whiff the exotic scents that Alymer cascades around the wretched Georgiana as if she were nothing more than another damned spot that could not be removed.  The "discord in life" that describes, in turn, Georgiana's odd mark then the havoc wreaked by the votaries of implacable materialism is also buttressed by Alymer's diary, which is something more of a financial statement than a personal account:

The volume, rich with achievements that had won renown for its author, was yet as melancholy a record as ever mortal hand had penned. It was the sad confession and continual exemplification of the shortcomings of the composite man, the spirit burdened with clay and working in matter, and of the despair that assails the higher nature at finding itself so miserably thwarted by the earthly part.

We should all be so lucky as to have our earthbound senses thwart us in our climb to heavenly glory.  How else are we to attempt a modest life if not by filling our gums with dirt?   Or perhaps with the red clay so ready at our fingertips.


The Scarlet Letter

Claiming that we are all sinners nowadays might evoke a chuckle from those among us who have rejected the possibility of spiritual salvation.  These same people would have us believe that the times have changed and that they with their non-committal commitment to relativity, hedging, oneupmanship and admissions that we know nothing apart from the obvious fact that we can safely rule out the existence of a higher power, are at last in the majority.  Centuries upon ignorant centuries passed in the obscurity of religious humbug, where whole nations shook at the sight of a cross or minaret, everyone was thoroughly convinced that we were just puppets in some omnipotent overlord's hands, and we were all sinners who deserved the wretchedness life foisted upon us.  The brave few who did not buy this codswallop were burned, hanged, drawn and quartered, drowned, or simply tortured into confessing their blasphemy, and in this way the wicked powers that be held sway in all governments of the world at all times.  Thank God – no, actually, we can't thank Him for this –that science finally rose from beneath the cesspool of filthy propaganda to enlighten us with its truths, its methods, and its evidence that no one is looking out for us except ourselves.  History was then rewritten.  Gone were all the miracles, conversions and happiness that so many believers have attained from their faith; in their stead came mounting reports of malfeasance and hypocrisy, of a Church (just to use one obvious example; the criticism was ecumenically fired at all religious institutions) whose leaders had no faith in God but took every precaution to persuade their mindless minions of the populace's need for such an entity.  History in its newest form tells us everyone was religious, stupid and irresponsible, with the significant exception of the mandataries of these teachings.

Should you find yourself nodding along to these accusations as if your own eyes had witnessed them, you might not want to consider that the world is probably more religiously inculcated now than it ever has been.  While many have denounced faith as a useless crutch, many more – from all creeds, races, nations, and income levels – educated themselves and still selected the path of spirituality.  Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the world wars of the twentieth century (not, I should add, the atrocities carried out during these wars) had no religious motivation whatsoever.  Their engines of terror were driven by power and greed, with a dose of ideology for sure; but power and the concomitant material gain fueled the destruction of almost sixty million human beings.  That is because no one can believe in money and power and simultaneously desire the greater good of mankind; no one can rise every morning without a drop of spirituality and truly claim that they will do nice things for people they don't know and reconcile that approach with their goal of money and power; no one can hope to overcome the evils that the worship of money and power promotes by asserting that they are very moral people who simply have chosen not to believe in anything.  If you don't believe in anything higher than yourself, then you only believe in yourself.  And soon enough you will become convinced that your idol (that would be you) deserves everything you can give it.  Worst of all, you think yourself justified because you and you alone are the arbiter of all moral dilemmas, which brings us to an old tale of injustice.

Our story begins after the fact, after the birth of Pearl to a certain Hester Prynne, a young woman whose husband is far away, either above or below the distant seas.  We are dutifully reminded that this is Puritan Massachusetts in the late seventeenth century, site of some of the most infamous witch trials in modern times and a place where nonconformity may merit banishment or annihilation.  Hester is by all indications a striking beauty and as voluptuous as a woman could be in those rigid times, a perfect target for the mediocrity of thought and appearance that would ironically distinguish much later regimes.  She walks the crowds and they look at her with disdain, not because she is a queen among weary pilgrims but because she has been branded like a head of cattle with a bright mark: an A.   Her sin is her child out of wedlock, and she is to be noticed henceforth only for that crime and nothing else.  At the beginning of the novel she is taken before a committee of town elders and asked about the identity of Pearl's father, an interrogation to which she has obviously been subjected many times before.  It cannot be her husband – who must be dead, murmur the townfolk, and, lo, she doesn't have the slightest remorse for his extinction – yet it could be anyone, absolutely anyone among them.  And like every previous inquisition, Hester refuses to answer, which infuriates the crowd including as it were, her long-lost husband, who is much older than Hester and now goes by the name of Roger Chillingworth.

Chillingworth, who confronts only Hester with his resurrection, is the second part of the equation.  Our sole remaining task is to find the true father (should he be among the living) and follow these three branches until they wither and snap.  Since the goal of the novel is not suspense but the tracing of moral consequences in three intertwined lives, the candidates are limited, which allows me to include the following with a clear conscience:

In her late singular interview with Mr. Dimmesdale, Hester Prynne was shocked at the condition to which she found the clergyman reduced. His nerve seemed absolutely destroyed. His moral force was abased into more than childish weakness. It grovelled helpless on the ground, even while his intellectual faculties retained their pristine strength, or had perhaps acquired a morbid energy, which disease only could have given them. With her knowledge of a train of circumstances hidden from all others, she could readily infer, that, besides the legitimate action of his own conscience, a terrible machinery had been brought to bear, and was still operating, on Mr. Dimmesdale's well-being and repose. Knowing what this poor, fallen man had once been, her whole soul was moved by the shuddering terror with which he had appealed to her – the outcast woman – for support against his instinctively discovered enemy. She decided, moreover, that he had a right to her utmost aid. Little accustomed, in her long seclusion from society, to measure her ideas of right and wrong by any standard external to herself, Hester saw – or seemed to see – that there lay a responsibility upon her, in reference to the clergyman, which she owned to no other, nor to the whole world besides. The links that united her to the rest of human kind – links of flowers, or silk, or gold, or whatever the material – had all been broken. Here was the iron link of mutual crime, which neither he nor she could break. Like all other ties, it brought along with it its obligations.

That "terrible machinery" is the skulduggery of a single individual who shall remain nameless even if little sleuthing is required, but let us digress for a moment.  Hawthorne's style never again achieved (I spent many a summer night on his other works, to little satisfaction) this twinning of artistic precision and clarity of righteousness.   Passage after passage, you will be stunned at what beauty he finds in a collation of trivia, asides, gestures, and very private thoughts.  You may have leafed through or been forcefed The Scarlet Letter during your high school years and shaken your head at the hypocrisy of all involved (children and adolescents love it when parents lay down the law but then forget to follow their own rules),  and you were probably told some rot about how the book depicts a uniquely American experience.  Unfortunately, uniquely American experiences tend to involve economic freedom, labor mobility and extreme multiculturalism; the tale as Hawthorne spins it is as old as time itself.  Consider then why he should tell it again and what is added to our lore of extramarital affairs, small-minded townsfolk, red-cheeked revenge and the gnaw of guilt that can eat someone's entrails bite by bite.  The retelling not only reflects Hawthorne's particular views on the history of Massachusetts (that is the boring detail that gets many simple-minded teachers very excited), there lurks first and foremost an artistic urge to write the perfect allegory.  What could be more perfect than a sin that taints everyone in close proximity like a virus and then proceeds to watch them flail and kick against the crimes they have committed – and we are not talking about Hester.  Is this not the pinnacle of artistic achievement?  After all, it is Hester who has suffered: society has shunned and mistreated her to such a degree that she can no longer "measure her ideas of right and wrong by any standard external to herself."  Whatever you think is moral and whatever seems to you to be just, if Hester truly cannot grasp that the moral law is both within and without her, she is no better than a desperado cowboy barging into a saloon and gunning down anyone who looks at him for a second too long, much less scoffs at his choice of drink.  But that's an American tale for another day.