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Hepzibah and <i>The House of the Seven Gables</i>. When the Other Continues the Cycle of Othering

Wakefield’s Ghost: Surveilling Consciousness in Hawthorne and Beyond

Kevin Plunkett, Merrimack College, Nathaniel Hawthorne Society Conference, June 2014

Surveillance and voyeurism are so central to Hawthorne’s writings and authorial self-image that one struggles at times to extract coherent patterns of meaning from the vast array of multileveled surveillant acts and images. Surveillance seems inescapable in Hawthorne, and at times a useful perceptual tool, yet surveillance, in both successful and failed endeavors, from Chillingworth to Coverdale, also becomes the most persistent trope in Hawthorne for framing and exploring failures of humanity and empathy.

As a professor of both film studies and American romanticism I am increasingly intrigued by the pre-cinematic dimensions of Hawthorne’s writing, the power engendered by the dynamic tension between the unfettered and redirected gaze. In my lit and film course on surveillance themes, for instance, we approach Hitchcock’s Rear Window by bringing it into conversation with the pivotal section of The Blithedale Romance when Coverdale voyeuristically spies into various back windows of his hotel. As the male gaze, the entrapment of women within that gaze, and the emptiness at the heart of its psychological dynamic animate both works.

Like numerous surveillance-shaped works from Hamlet through The Lives of Others. Hawthorne’s writings provide us an understanding of surveillance as a window into divisive levels of consciousness. The hyper-consciousness embodied in the surveillant gaze and the redirection of that gaze by the initial object of surveillance provoke a decentering of the self (in Lacanian terms), unsettling fictive constructs of individuality and privacy.

My primary focus in this paper is “Wakefield,” which encodes many of the surveillance issues explored throughout Hawthorne’s career, in concert with Paul Auster’s reworking of Hawthorne’s story in his novella “Ghosts,” part of a trilogy of meta-detective stories published in 1982. In both writings surveillance emerges as a consistently disruptive and perverse act, anticipating many of our contemporary concerns with global surveillance culture

One of the initial points to be made about Hawthorne’s cryptic story is how unpromising it seems as material for Romantic fiction, a fact underscored by the narrator’s off handed admission of the few meagre facts (“This outline is all that I remember”), and reinforced a century later by Auster as one of his main characters retells the story’s entire plot of a man’s twenty years absence from his wife with little dramatic import for the clueless listener. But then the story was never really about the drab and unimaginative Wakefield (which is after all an invented name imposed by the narrator) and the newspaper account on which it is based, “a story told as truth,” implies the fluidity of such truth as it passes through the prism of various imaginations, reinforced by the story’s invitation to the reader “to do his own meditation, or if he prefer to ramble with me through the twenty years of Wakefield’s vagary” (76).

Indeed, Hawthorne goes out of his way to devalue authorial privilege in the opening pages, the act of authoring conveyed in a variety of reflective and spontaneous stances: recollecting, meditating, musing, rambling--and collapsing all seeming boundaries between reader and author because “whenever any subject so forcibly affects the mind, time is well spent in thinking of it” (76). Yet for all the self-deprecating and democraticizing charm, the imagined pursuit of Wakefield through the crowded streets of London, conflates narrative whimsy and surveillant intensity on a number of levels, both comical and frightening, suggesting, perhaps, one of Poe’s bumbling police magistrates, surrounded by his deputized readers, but animated by a priority, nonetheless, to never lose sight of this man in the crowd. Thus not only authorship but readership becomes inscribed with the surveillant act.

Of course, Wakefield a engages in his own devoted surveillance—every day of his twenty year sabbatical haunting his former house, spying for any glimpse of his wife, any clue of her frame of mind, and by extension surveilling his own life. As Sharon Cameron suggested in “The Self Outside Itself,” Wakefield vacates his life for no apparent reason in order to look at it…and in looking for his life loses it” (419). It is on this level we encounter the latent horror and perversity within a story framed so whimsically. To attempt to watch one’s life while standing outside of it, to disembody one’s life, provokes the paralyzing self-absorption that Wakefield drowns in. A realization of what Lacan describes as the hollowness at the heart of ego structure. The haunting quality of this heightened state reinforced by the double-strands of surveillance, which both mirror and deepen each other.

Auster’s reimagining of Wakefield helps to reinforce its relevance for modern audiences, though on the surface the stories seem worlds apart. A detective designated simply as Blue (all characters bear color titles) is hired by White to spy on Black for an indeterminate period of time with no specified reason or purpose. Over time, as his old life slips from him, Blue realizes not only that Black is spying on him as well, but that it was Black who actually hired Blue initially, pretending to be White, with the perverse intent of provoking Blue to murder him. Throughout the story Auster rehearses and echoes a series of key events in Hawthorne’s story: Blue losing all contact with his future wife, his inability to call her despite his repeated intent to do so, his gradual loss of control over his life and identity, and, most dramatically, an accidental meeting with his would-be-wife on a busy Brooklyn street. And even when the story departs from the original, it remains loyal to the spirit of Hawthorne’s perspective. For example, in the summary of Hawthorne’s story, Auster imagines Wakefield witnessing his own funeral, a symbolic death underscoring one of Hawthorne’s major themes—the “impassable gulf “ dividing Wakefield’s apartment from his former home. Throughout the story Auster writes of the ghosts that are all around us, including prominently the ghosts of American Romanticism. Black is well read in Hawthorne, Alcott, Whitman and Thoreau, because as he explains, “It helps me to understand things” (208). Auster positions himself as postmodernist haunted by a Romantic past.

His story, with its strong emphasis on meta-commentary helps situate his and Hawthorne’s perspective within the tropes of surveillance-based art and actual practices. One of Auster’s core observations is that all acts of surveillance are ultimately turned inward. In spying on Black, Blue finds that he is also watching himself. Auster devotes tremendous attention to this inward turn, and the baffling levels of consciousness it provokes:

For the first time in his life, he finds that he has been thrown back on himself, with nothing to grab hold of. He has never given much thought to the world inside him, and although he always knew it was there, it has remained an unknown quality, unexplored and therefore dark, even to himself…Now suddenly with the world as it were removed from him…he finds himself thinking about things that have never occurred to him before, and this too has begun to trouble him. If thinking is perhaps too strong a word at this point, a more modest term—speculation, for example—would not be far from the mark.

Auster becomes intrigued in the Latin origins of speculate—“speculates,” to spy out—and its association with “speculum,” suggesting a mirror or looking glass (171-172). This linking of the surveillant gaze with a disorienting mirror parallels Hawthorne’s own sensibilities in “Wakefield” and a variety of other works.

The mirroring aspects of the surveillant gaze reflects a dramatic shifting of power between subject and object, and as Rosen and Santesso suggest in The Watchman in Pieces, the object of surveillance quickly assumes control of the ongoing narrative. But Hawthorne and Auster significantly complicate this power dynamic by emphasizing the important link of a voyeuristic symbiotic dimension to any surveillance incident. Throughout his career Hawthorne frequently explored this relationship, never more transparently than in “Sights from a Steeple”. In it Hawthorne’s narrator in climbing a steeple to look down at the various houses within the village, engages in a series of surveillant/voyeuristic fantasies: “A watchman, all heeding, yet unheeded…O that a multitude of chimneys could speak…and betray in smoky whispers the secrets of all…uncover every chamber, and make me familiar with all its inhabitants… hovering around man and woman, witnessing their deeds, searching into their hearts.” But most amazingly, experiencing the total effacement of his individual self in the process. “retaining no emotion peculiar to himself” (115-116).

In Auster’s story this voyeuristic tendency is rendered in dramatic and existential terms. Repeatedly Blue encounters Black, in various disguises, and situations, interacting on various levels of conversant intimacy, leading him to read books like Walden, or to wander throughout the city, fueling intensifying levels of self-exploration, but always leading back to Black, ending only in Blue’s murder of him. Despite the intense and violent arc of Auster’s story, it underscores a basic pattern of development found repeatedly in surveillance-based art. The acclaimed German film The Lives of Others, for example, where a Stasi official directing the surveillance of a playwright and his actress girlfriend, becoming aware of his own emptiness, lives vicariously through the two, doctoring transcripts, arranging to meet the actress in a pub and stealing books from the author, in the end removing evidence of subversive behavior, resulting in the death of the actress and his own career (though not without validation of him by the writer.) Other examples, the 2005 French film Cache, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, the graphic novel V for Vendetta, the surveillance stories of Philip K. Dick and, of course, The Scarlet Letter.

In “Wakefield,” this pattern is also in play, but not as dramatically apparent at first. Wakefield’s return home, inherited from the original account, appears to suggest some semblance of closure to his bewildered vagary, secure again, though psychologically unchanged, a rare event in surveillance narratives where symbolic death and erasure of identity are the rule. But clearly by the time the door has shut behind Wakefield, he has lost all narrative significance. His importance having derived from his interior emptiness and the corresponding vacancy provoked within the center of the tale—a blank point within the perceptual field, in the terminology of gaze theory, shaped by the projected imaginings of the narrator. As witnessed throughout the story, the blurring of boundaries between subject and object.

In fact, the more we restrain from conflating this narrative voice with Hawthorne, the better we are situated to appreciate his intuitive grasp of the complex psychological structures involved in the surveillant gaze. When approaching the narrator in this fashion, one of the first things we realize is how peculiar, volatile and perverse, even, his narrative voice is. These tendencies are everywhere. For instance, the long reflective passage concerning Wakefield’s wife and her presumed perspective of her husband as cold, selfish, secretive and “possessing a little strangeness,” which the text then subverts by reflecting “this latter quality is indefinable, and perhaps nonexistent” (76). This tendency of language to obscure rather than illuminate is one of the most persistent features of the text. For instance in the very opening of the story the narrator insists that readers will encounter a “pervading spirit and moral, even should we fail to find them, done up neatly and condensed into the final sentence…[for] thought has always its efficacy, and every striking incident its moral” (76). . If we slow down our reading pace, we realize what an astonishing assertion this is in its sweeping generalizations, and its conflation of binary oppositions of thought and morality. But most significantly, the belief that all thought is efficacious is an intellectualized equivalent of those tendencies in Wakefield that lead to his bewilderment.

And one is left to wonder, epistemologically speaking, what the consequences are of rambling through another man’s vagary-- questions answered eventually in the narrative by a neatly condensed moral presented, of course, in the closing sentence. So in a manner of speaking, we encounter an ironically framed cautionary tale as subversive as it is didactic.

Perversity as a key to the relationship between narrator and character is nowhere more evident than the scene in which Wakefield and his wife meet. Just prior to this accidental encounter, Wakefield is framed “as bearing in his whole aspect, the handwriting of no common fate, for such as have the skill to read it” (80). Nor is this the first time he links the strangeness of Wakefield’s life with his own authorial interests: “Would that I have a folio to write…how an influence, beyond our control, lays its strong hand on every deed which we do” (79). As Brenda Wineapple suggests in her biography, this is a story “relishing an ordinary man’s extraordinary caprice.” Wakefield as artist--the artist though as crafty nincompoop (86).

But the sensual physicality of the actual encounter, in stark contrast to ghostly echoes of the story, threatens to undermine the narrative from within: “A man waxing elderly, he is meagre; his low and narrow forehead is deeply wrinkled, his eyes, small and lustreless, sometimes wander apprehensively about him, but often seem to look inward”. His wife, in stark contrast, a portly and placid widow, a “well-conditioned woman,” eventually, “their hands touch; the pressure of the crowd forces her bosom against his shoulder; they stand face to face, staring into each other’s eyes… thus Wakefield meets his wife” (80). Although they are meeting after an absence of a decade, the deliberate phrasing suggests the shock of an initial recognition, as if seeing her for the first time, as if we along with narrator confront her for the first time. And the disruptive impact is so great that for the first time in the story Wakefield is portrayed as visible to the crowd: “With so wild a face that busy and selfish London stands to gaze after him” (80). A few pages later on the night of her husband’s return, her shadow projected by way of firelight on the ceiling suggests, to the narrator, a grotesque witchlike quality: “the cap, the nose, the chin, and the broad waist form an admirable caricature, which dances…almost too merrily for the shade of an elderly widow” (81). .

This woman reconfigures the dark, unknowable gap at the center of the tale, which accords with central concepts of gaze theory from Foucault to Lacan to Zizek. As Todd McGowan suggests in The Real Gaze, there is always an aspect within the perceptual field, a blank point or stain that is untranslatable, existing independent of symbolism and language. It’s implicit, indeterminate mystery both entices and undermines the constructed realities by which individuals and societies attempt to shape existence.

And throughout Hawthorne best tales he used a particular kind of psychological allegory in which characters long to find a way of projecting their selves onto the external world, in the hopes of eliminating schisms that would otherwise remain internal and unresolved (Cameron 415). Structurally speaking, the wife-figure functions as Wakefield’s ghost, hauntingly resisting all his efforts to allegorize her. And on some level, we can’t quite resist the story’s implication that we are all somehow like Wakefield, always one street away, hiding behind our silly disguises, blinded to a reality we struggle so hard to understand and control.

Although rarely considered among the highest tier of Hawthorne’s tales, “Wakefield” in its cryptic meditations on identity, love, perversity and freedom continues to tantalize contemporary readers and authors, as evidenced in Daniel Stern’s retelling of the story in 1992 (Twice Upon a Time) and Andrei Codrescu’s 2004 novel Wakefield. Indeed, Codrescu’s book draws upon elements in the story to pen a comically sardonic portrait of contemporary American society. And the story’s complex consideration of the interweaving of surveillance and consciousness deepens its resonance in the aftermath of the Snowden revelations, providing an alternative filter through which to process the narratives of media and government.

Works Cited

  • Auster, Paul. The New York Trilogy. New York: Penguin Books, 1985. Print.
  • Codrescu, Andrei. Wakefield. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2004. Print.
  • Cameron, Sharon. “The Self Outside Itself: ‘Wakefield’ and ‘The Ambitious Guest.’” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tales. Ed. James McIntosh. New York: W.W. Norton & Company,1987. 415-421. Print.
  • The Lives of Others. Dir. Florian Henckel van Donnersmarck. Wiedermann&Berg Filmprodution, 2006. Film.
  • McGowan, Todd. The Real Gaze: Film Theory After Lacan. New York: State University of New York Press, 2007. Print
  • Rosen, David &Aaron Santesso. The Watchman in Pieces: Surveillance, Literature, and Liberal Personhood. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. Print.
  • Stern, Daniel. “Wakefield.” Twice Upon a Time. Houston, Rice University Press, 1992. Print.
  • Wineapple, Brenda. Hawthorne. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Print.


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