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Reading and Respect: Hawthorne as Stranger

by Clark Davis
Dept. of English
University of Denver

Clark Davis, Dept. of English, University of Denver, 2000 E. Asbury, Denver, CO  80208
Clark Davis, Dept. of English, University of Denver, 2000 E. Asbury, Denver, CO 80208
“You tread behind his every footstep. You are beside him, sleeping and waking. You search his thoughts. You burrow and rankle in his heart! Your clutch is on his life, and you cause him to die daily a living death; and still he knows you not.”
Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

I would like to begin with a scene: Hawthorne in Rome, 1858. He’s a tourist—a slightly cranky, very American tourist, complaining, admiring, measuring the elaborations of the old world by the pragmatism of the new. It’s February and unusually cold. He would rather stay in or at least confine his sight-seeing to the warmed interiors of palaces, churches. St. Peters, for instance. Its “massive walls” hold summer heat. Not a bad place, he suggests, for a winter shelter for old folks, warmed by the stones of papal tombs.

Catholicism is good for this, at least. This and the confessional. It’s an opinion familiar to readers of The Marble Faun, who know that Hilda, pallid child of New England, repairs to Catholic confession to rid herself of Miriam’s secret. In fact, the passage from the French and Italian Notebooks that contains these reflections is famous precisely for this reason, as a source for the novel and an insight into Hawthorne’s practical preferences.

But this is prologue. The scene I wish to place before you occurs just after this meditation, within a slight and certainly more trivial confession of Hawthorne’s own:

On coming out of Saint Peter’s, at my last visit, I saw a great sheet of ice around the fountain on the left hand, and some little Romans awkwardly sliding on it. I, too, took a slide, just for the sake of doing what I never thought to do in Rome. (14:60)
Why does this fascinate? Why can I see it so vividly? The thin figure, in black no doubt, the not yet whiskered face. Hawthorne running, agile enough (he doesn’t say that he fell), the “little Romans” looking on. Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition to the serious, as though St. Peters must be shaken off a bit, its great weight shed in a moment of childish escape. His explanation is rich enough: “what I never thought to do in Rome.” I take it, first of all, that he means something about the climate, the lack of ice, the incongruity of a New England amusement at the doors of the Vatican. But there’s more: a comment on behavior perhaps, on the sudden discovery of what he might consider an American opportunity, to misbehave, rebel in his gently ironic way, even if it is a childish sort of rebellion, a preference for play in confession’s shadow. I can’t be sure, but it is enticing, a welcome fissure in the darkening notebooks through which, I fervently hope, we might glimpse a great writer sliding away from his critical history. An Ur-Hawthorne, hypothetical of course.

I am tempted to call this, “Hawthorne on Ice,” though I don’t want to give the wrong impression. I’m not out to freeze or preserve; stillness is not a goal. I would rather associate the scene with a line from Emerson’s “Experience”: “We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them.” This strikes the right note, I think, given that Hawthorne has just emerged, both physically and textually, from the cathedral of secrets. For as much as we’ve noted his interest in the hidden, it is really the emergence of depth that interests him, which is another way of saying he cares most about the way we complicate surfaces, make them slippery, dangerous. They tempt us to look through, to see down, to plumb depths á la Melville, when we should be sliding.

When I look at the history of Hawthorne criticism I am struck by the extent to which we’ve always been more attuned to the Hawthorne of St. Peters than to the ice-slider. Despite our variety of critical modes—or perhaps because of them—we cannot seem to avoid “burrowing” and “rankling” like so many Chillingworths. It isn’t surprising, of course. Western analysis, of which criticism is a species, has always valued depth over surface; it has demanded “burrowing” as the only legitimate activity for the truth-seeker who inherently distrusts the deceptions of masks. The occasional objections to such methods—I’m thinking here of Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation,” for instance—seem only to reinforce the consensus through exception. What is a bit surprising, however, is how long these assumptions have survived in the face of Hawthorne’s disapproval, of his strenuous objections to Chillingworth’s rapacity and what he clearly sees as its ethical failings. Though we’ve certainly been willing to acknowledge his objections—even to the point of describing the sophisticated traps he sets for us—we haven’t been able to stop, which suggests that at some level what we do—what we are paid to do—is deeply at odds with the major concerns of our ostensible subject.

Take, for instance, the last two decades of Hawthorne criticism. It isn’t too great a generalization to say that this period has been dominated by the return to history, in both “old” and new historicist versions. Nor is it inaccurate to note that the combination of political and ideological analysis (now typically designated as “cultural”) has come to dominate in a way generally reflective of its popularity in most other literary fields. In many respects this latter development has meant the revitalization of Hawthorne studies by moving us away from the time-encrusted “dark” Hawthorne, the closet Calvinist or disengaged formalist. In his place we have come to know a Nathaniel both more and less aware: a savvy politician, office-seeker, and pro-compromise Democrat on the one hand; an unconscious—or at best semi-conscious—purveyor of nineteenth century ideology on the other. But what appears to be a radical refocusing of interests has not helped us escape the burrowing tendency; we’ve simply brought it to higher level. Not only do we continue to distrust surface and prefer depth (the depth now of the cultural unconscious, of ideology or political and historical necessity), but we’ve found a convenient way to erase the unpredictable and often mysterious aspects of surface. We are still Chillingworths, in other words, only worse: we rankle with impunity because we’ve decided (at least when it’s convenient to do so) that there is no human “heart” to violate.

There are quite a few Chillingworths in Hawthorne’s work. He is much better overall at providing negative models than positive ones, which suggests that he practices what Ezra Pound called “the art of diagnosis” rather than “the art of the cure.” Of the few characters who might be considered anti-Chillingworths, most are women subject to the ethical abuses—or simply the eccentric behavior—of the men in their lives. Take Elizabeth from “The Minister’s Black Veil.” Faced with the peculiar behavior of her fiancé, she has the presence of mind to speak to the Reverend Mr. Hooper as though he hasn’t lost his mind. Instead she asks him to take off his veil and speak to her. It’s a simple and obvious request, and yet it gets to the heart of Hawthorne’s concern with the human importance of surfaces. This is how I see his position: there can be no human community without this acknowledgement, without this skeptical acceptance that though secrets certainly exist, what we bring to one another is always pure surface, the performance of who we are. If secrets are hidden, they are indeed hidden and cannot be ferreted out without altering the fundamental relationship between individuals. Elizabeth is a skeptic; Hooper, like Chillingworth, is an idealist.

What I am suggesting, then, is a move toward skepticism and away from idealism in our critical methods. This is not an easy thing to do of course. It requires humility, primarily, and academic criticism is not exactly designed to encourage humility. But I’m not asking for anything that Hawthorne doesn’t ascribe to Hester Prynne, for instance. As a sort of highly developed Elizabeth, Hester struggles against the sort of privileged position sought by Hooper (and, I would add, by us). The letter seems to give her special insight, the dark vision of secret sin: “she felt or fancied, then, that the scarlet letter had endowed her with a new sense. She shuddered to believe, yet could not help believing, that it gave her a knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts” (CE 1:86). But unlike many of Hawthorne’s male protagonists—Young Goodman Brown, Hooper, Aylmer, Richard Digby—Hester rejects the temptation. She struggles against the letter’s insinuations, no matter how satisfying they may be:

She was terror-stricken by the revelations that were thus made. What were they? Could they be other than the insidious whispers of the bad angel, who would fain have persuaded the struggling woman, as yet only half its victim, that the outward guise of purity was but a lie, and that, if truth were everywhere to be shown, a scarlet letter would blaze forth on many a bosom besides Hester Prynne’s? Or, must she receive those intimations—so obscure, yet so distinct—as truth? (CE 1:86)
This temptation, the same yielded to by Hooper and Young Goodman Brown, is the desire to see the surface of the world as deceptive and thereby grant the self an exclusive vision of its own goodness. Hester rejects the thought, offering instead her own limitations, her own vision of knowledge founded on a fundamental self-questioning: “Be it accepted as a proof that all was not corrupt in this poor victim of her own frailty, and man’s hard law, that Hester Prynne yet struggled to believe that no fellow-mortal was guilty like herself” (CE 1:87).

But how to bring such self-questioning into literary criticism, particularly when we’ve been trained in various strategies to consolidate the critic’s power? There are radical models of course—Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson—that are enjoyable and valuable. But I’m thinking less of a personal, creative criticism than of a new relationship to the subject, an engagement structured by the hypothetical framework of conversation.

In his recent book on current critical practice, Truth and Consequences: Intentions, Conventions, and the New Thematics, Reed Dasenbrock outlines an approach inspired by Anglo-American analytic philosophy, particularly the work of Donald Davidson. Arguing that most reading involves a measuring of intentions against potential interpretations, Dasenbrock imagines a sort of hermeneutic space in which interpretive theories can be developed and tested. The Davidsonian “passing theory” he explains as “a provisional understanding of what the speaker or writer means by his or her words” (74), and it hinges upon the return of intention: “Intention is crucial here because we assume that the speaker is trying to make sense, that he or she is engaged in an intelligible action, and that what the speaker is saying makes sense by the lights of the prior theory he or she holds. This does not give us a magic formula for how to figure out what the speaker means by the words being uttered; there is no formalizable set of rules for how we in Davidson’s terms converge on a passing theory that enables us to make sense of the anomalous. Davidson cannot give us such a formula precisely because the construction of passing theories is unsystematic, not rule- or convention-governed in the way so many theorists have assumed it to be” (172). In this sense, Dasenbrock’s version of intentionalism sets up a goal of intelligibility without a practical faith that the goal is attainable. Indeed, he insists that intention as understood by Davidson allows for the sort of plurality of meaning we have come to expect from all texts but a plurality governed by the basic assumptions of intended meaningfulness: “Nothing I have said here should be taken as suggesting that the process of interpretation stops when we have found the truth of an author's intentions any more than a scientist's search stops when he or she has found the truth. Neither truth nor intention gives us a stopping place, and we can never claim to be certain that we have found a match between interpreter and author. There is, I think Davidson would hold, no relation of perfect correspondence between a text and the passing theory an interpreter develops in response to it, no one indisputably ‘correct’ interpretation. Prior theories and passing theories are both irreducibly plural, and this is an accord with our actual experience of interpretation” (172-3). Such a model demands engagement, an interaction between reader and text—and, hypothetically, between the reader and author—as the object of intentionalist hypotheses. What such a relationship presupposes is interpretive respect, an insistence on maintaining a propositional “equal ground” or “good faith”: “We can . . . insist on good faith having priority over bad faith, good will over a will to power, only if we insist on an ethics of interpretation in which because authors are persons, they must be respected in the way persons in general must be respected.”

The language recalls what Kenneth Dauber has been suggesting recently, a criticism of “ordinary language”—inspired by Stanley Cavell and, more distantly, by Ludwig Wittgenstein—that takes the writer’s choices as fully responsible rather than repetitions of a given scene:

To meet the challenge of skepticism head on, we might say that it is the making good of one’s faith, so that it is quite patronizing to say, as most contemporary criticism does, that in writing one falls victim to some hegemonic construction of place and thought, that one subjects oneself to some imperial ordering of extremes. Rather, since extremes do not exist prior to one’s possession of them, to write is to construct an imperium whose order, whoever else’s it might also be, is inescapably one’s own. Here we would happily agree with the new historical criticism that to write is to limit--is to enter, in fact, into the rule of a limitation. But because the rule is one’s own, it is a rule difficult to distinguish from liberation, and which is, therefore, not the refusal of limit-making but its greater mastery. (134)
The freedom reached here is not idealistic but skeptical: it is the conviction that “one exists only as one gives an account of oneself” (137), which in Dauber’s terms is preferable to the anti-idealistic idealism of post-structuralism: “It is better to come to terms with one’s writing in its limitation than to suppose a ‘one’ that, free of limitation, must finally prove, with limitation’s return, both itself and its writing forever illusory. In this way one may avoid a certain sentimental longing—the pathos of dialectical writing, but a sentimentality, nevertheless—and learn a chastened contentment” (135).

In their edited collection published this past fall, Dauber and Walter Jost list several descriptors for ordinary language criticism: it is, they say, particular, empirical, experiential, dogged, connective, paratactic, dialogic, anthropocentric, and literary. Most pertinent to the present discussion, they consider it likewise ethical and superficial. This last might be the most striking of claims, but consider the explanation: “Ordinary language criticism is superficial. This is because it does not attempt to reduce or to simplify. It does not attempt to get back to what is behind or before. It takes it that words do not refer to things but are things. Things, propositions, words, and cases are not deeper than each other; they are explanations of each other. And the interest of OLC, accordingly, is in following the round of such explanations.” It is superficial. And because it is superficial, it is ethical: attuned to surfaces, to listening, to responsibility—that is, to both the obligation and the ability to respond.

My suggestion is that after so many years of burrowing, Hawthorne could use a little superficiality, a little respect. His personality and style have proved too tempting really, to all of us, at one time or another. He seduces readers, and we can’t resist his seductions to uncover who he really is, to look through all of his fictions for the always shifty but never doubted self. As is so often the case, he has already given us the answer, openly, obviously. He is as he appears, and everything else is simply the shadow of our own desire, our idealism, which I’m firmly convinced he does not share but thoroughly understands.

Hawthorne on ice. Hawthorne as stranger. To take up such headings in our criticism would require a certain sacrifice, of course, the surrender of privilege, the sacrifice of advantage. Even more, it would ask that we put our own selves—our motives, our secrecies—into question, facing Hawthorne on an equal basis, even if such equality is no more than a useful fiction. This is how we listen, or rather, why we must listen, as though to a stranger.

Page citation: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/12190/

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