ISSUE THREE
May 1998

William Heath


THE CORTLAND REVIEW

INTERVIEWS
 
R.T. Smith

POETRY
 
R.T. Smith
  Muffy Bolding
  John Kinsella
  Richard Foerster
  A.F. Moritz
  Miriam Levine
  Louis Armand
  David Shevin
  Stellasue Lee
  Adrian C. Louis
  David Sutherland
  Gregory Djanikian
  Paolo M. Bottigelli

REVIEWS
 
J.M. Spalding
  R.T. Smith

ESSAY
 
William Heath

FICTION
 
Douglas Thornsjo

William Heath William Heath teaches American Literature, and Creative Writing at Mount Saint Mary's College, where he is also the editor of The Monocacy Valley Review. He has written a novel about the civil rights movement, The Children Bob Moses Led, and a book of poems, The Walking Man. His essays of Melville, Twain and Styron have appeared in The Massachusetts Review, The South Carolina Review, and The Southern Review respectively.
 
 

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The Power of Passion discusses Hawthorne's profound ambivalence toward women and passion in his finest stories. This essay is part of a larger study, "Hawthorne and Merry Old England," that notes how Hawthorne tends to equate art, joy, and sensuality with Shakespearean England—a theme that achieves its richest expression in The Scarlet Letter, when Hester and Pearl embody the world the Puritans thought they were leaving behind.

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The Power of Passion:
Hawthorne's Tales of Thwarted Desire

 

I.

If Hawthorne as a young man had been condemned to wear an "A," it would have stood for aristocratic pretension and artistic ambition. When he was only a freshman at Bowdoin he wrote to his mother: "I was not born to vegetate forever in one place, and to live and die as calm and tranquil as A Puddle of Water. What do you think of my becoming an Author.... How proud you would feel to see my works praised by the reviewers, as equal to the proudest productions of the scribbling sons of John Bull" (XV 139). In order to realize his dream of surpassing English authors, Hawthorne submitted himself to an intense twelve-year apprenticeship, the so-called "haunted years;" a time when nothing was permitted to interfere with his priestly devotion to art.

The first inauspicious production of his pen, Fanshawe (1828), was privately printed and quickly repudiated by its author, no doubt because it was too revealing a portrait of the artist as an affected young man. Hawthorne's outgoing, card-playing, wine-loving, zesty side is to be found in Edward, but the title character pale, aloof, studious, and destined to an early grave, yet possessing nobility of soul and a strange hermaphroditic beauty ("he was distinguished by many of those aspirates around which a woman's affection will often cling") is the author's romanticized version of his essential self (21). The plot is straight wish fulfillment, contrived to prove that the consumptive student was really "a gallant and manly youth, whom a lady might love, or a foe might fear" (74). Fanshawe, Edward and an unscrupulous rake ("I will have no rivals in my wooing") compete for the fair Ellen (43). A timely tossed pebble from Fanshawe rescues Ellen from the clutches of the viper, who then falls to his death, entitling our hero to the prize which he renounces. Shortly after, he dies ("turf never covered a nobler heart"), relinquishing the field to Edward, who gladly trades "worldly distinction" for "domestic felicity" (113-4). Thus Fanshawe is a cautionary tale that illustrates a line from one of its epigraphs, "...let the aspiring youth beware of love" (20).

The anxious fear of entangling alliances with women is an article of faith for the budding author. In order to court his muse, passion must be avoided as if it were the plague; a simile taken literally in some of his stories. Hawthorne, like Fanshawe, was acutely aware of his singularity: he had a strikingly beautiful face, combining such delicacy and strength that a gypsy woman once exclaimed, "Are you a man or an angel?" (Mellow 27). He also sensed that he was preternaturally gifted, possessing a psychic power that enabled him to uncover the secrets of the human heart. He was convinced that he had been placed on this earth, and set aside from ordinary human affairs, to accomplish some great purpose that, if achieved, would bring him literary immortality. But, alas, the ascent of Parnassus is perilous. The would-be bard must take risks. As Stephen Daedalus declares, he must be willing to make a life-long mistake, for the path is not clear: There are devious sidetracks, treacherous detours and labyrinthine cul-de-sacs that can leave the climber ditched, disappointed or even dead before his time—like the ill-fated fellow in "The Ambitious Guest" who is swept away by an avalanche before his dream of fame has been realized.

Hawthorne, of course, was more fortunate. In 1836, before the publication of Twice-Told Tales, he wrote, "In this dismal and squalid chamber, fame was won" (Lost Notebook, 1836). Yet the qualifying adjectives suggest how troubled he was by the disturbing materials of his art. His "fame" was based on morbid themes: the illicit wishes, lacerating guilts, tainted desires, and monstrous crimes that his haunted mind had dreamt and dramatized. Whence came these demons? It is easy for us to say, at the fag end of Freud's century, they come from the id. But that hypersensitive young man's confrontation with the murky urges of the unconscious must have been profoundly shocking. Remember, the Victorian age believed that a beneficent providence was perfecting mankind and that happiness in this world and salvation in the next were a part of every American's birthright. It was a time when Millerites specified the date for the faithful to don white robes and perch on their rooftops to facilitate the final ascension. Given such sentimental assumptions, where was Hawthorne to find an explanation of these horrors? The  Puritan doctrine of Innate Depravity, that "in Adam's fall we sinneth all," seemed closer to the appalling truths he had discovered than the saccharine sedatives of his contemporaries. Even as he branded passion as evil, however, he knew that that was not the whole story. But how could such a disruptive message be delivered?
 
Hawthorne hit upon the ideal Apollonian form to convey his Dionysian meanings: Allegory, designed to highlight heavenly morality, written with the elegance and poise of an Augustan style, provided the perfect counterpoint to his tales of hearts burdened by loathsome secrets.

But what, exactly, was Hawthorne's secret? Conventional wisdom says that he felt cursed by the overzealous sins of persecution committed against Quakers and witches by his Puritan forefathers; yet, the very intensity of his guilt, and the way his fiction insists on the horror of some unspeakable crime, has caused a few to wonder if the culprit might be the author himself. Did Hawthorne sleep with his sister or commit a murder? When psychoanalytic critics round up the usual suspects, there stands blind Oedipus with bloody hands first in line; and next to him Cain, Faust, Narcissus, Onan and Peeping Tom. A case can be made for Hawthorne's affinity with each of these archetypes. Philip Young's biographical study stresses the fact that in 1680, Nicholas Manning, a relative on his mother's side, fled into the forest to avoid punishment for incest. Young argues that Hawthorne had read the court records, which include the testimony of a Manning servant that "she hat severall times since seene her master Afforesaid in bed under the bed clothes with the said Anstice...and Like wise his sister margarett... several times...& she saw the bed much stained of a Red colour [sic]" (128). The two sisters, Anstis and Margaret, were condemned "to be whipt upon the Naked body" and stand in the middle of the meeting house "with a papper upon each of their heads, written in Capital Letters `This is for worish carriage with my naturall Brother'" (126). Young's thesis is that Hawthorne came upon this case at the same time he shared a passionate attachment with his sister, Elizabeth (Ebe), and that this conjunction filled him with revulsion and the fear that he had been cursed to repeat the sins of the past. Frederick Crews, among others, has traced unresolved incestuous wishes throughout Hawthorne's oeuvre and has cited them as the reason why the last romances slip into incoherence. The image that Hawthorne compulsively returns to in his fiction, the bloodstain, is a tantalizing clue that suggests at once loss of virginity, the taboo menstrual flow, and the shedding of blood. Most notably, Goodman Brown at the Witches' Sabbath in the woods is told to "behold the whole earth one stain of guilt, one mighty blood spot" (287). Hawthorne moves from private obsession to a general revelation that Melville found to be "as deep as Dante" (348). The problem with psychoanalytic criticism is that it suffers from its own "repetition compulsion" to reduce everything back to its origins. Seen from this wrong end of the telescope an oak is merely a distorted acorn and a butterfly is a caterpillar "in denial." Thus, Crews ultimately sees Hawthorne as "pathetic," and his fiction more as a plea for therapy than a perception of life's ineluctable tragedy (271).

How valuable are the stories? Hawthorne is the only writer I am aware of who held his work in lower estimation than it merited. His prefaces cast a cold eye on his accomplishments when measured against his own severe standards. "How little I have told!" (1147) he exclaims in 1846, lamenting that his "fitful sketches" are mere "trifles" that "afford no solid basis for a literary reputation" (1149). In his preface to Twice-Told Tales (1837) he is more precise in his condemnation: "Instead of passion, there is sentiment; and, even in what purport to be pictures of actual life, we have allegory, not always so warmly dressed in its habiliments of flesh and blood, as to be taken into the reader's mind without a shiver. Whether from lack of power, or an unconquerable reserve, the Author's touches have often an effect of tameness; the merriest man could hardly contrive to laugh at his broadest humor; the tenderest woman, one would suppose, will hardly shed warm tears at his deepest pathos" (1152). In The Snow-Image(1852), he finds few signs of artistic development over the course of his career: "The ripened autumnal fruit tastes little better than the early windfalls" (1156). In sum, Hawthorne's own evaluations stress how lifeless, limited, and flawed most of his stories are, while coyly hinting that the author's inner self remains veiled from even the most curious, as if not expressing himself were his artistic aim!

Harsh as these judgments are, they are not entirely off the mark. A chronological reading of Hawthorne's short stories validates the conclusion that the vast majority is not aesthetically successful. In only a handful of them do form and content coalesce into complexity of meaning; in those rare triumphs his allegories exfoliate into the richly textured suggestiveness of symbolism and his art captures the "power of blackness" that Melville was the first to note as the trademark of his tragic vision. Hawthorne's best stories, as well as many of his lesser ones, play variations on a few themes: the nature of women, the power of passion, the role of the artist, and the discovery of evil. In these works the focus is not on the neurotic shortcomings of the author, but rather on "the depths of our common nature"(1154) that is to say, our shared fears and desires and our vain, though sometimes heroic, attempts to understand the ungraspable phantom of existence.

 

 

 

II.

The "curse" that Hawthorne needed most to avoid was not the sins of his forefathers but the sentimentality of his contemporaries. His dilemma as an artist was   that his more conventional side believed in, and his popularity as a writer depended on, the sentimental notions of his day: the cult of the child; the celebration of hearth and home and the exaltation of the lowly over the haughty, emotion over reason; the doctrine that women were meek, ministering angels whose mission was to refine and redeem masculine clay; the consensus that the purpose of literature was edification and uplift; the evangelical faith that America was the special favorite of God's providence, and that progress and perfection went hand in hand, and so forth. The chief "flaw" in Hawthorne's assumptions, then, was not his reliance on allegory, which he was able to adapt to his purposes, but his conviction that he needed to "spiritualize" his material, that earth was too crude a substance to embody higher truth. All too often, Hawthorne's reverence for the spiritual is a disguise for his revulsion from the physical. Like Lear, he wants to wipe clean the hand that smells of mortality. The very fastidiousness that enabled him to be an exquisite stylist also inhibited him from being a realistic novelist. The result is Hawthorne's famed ambiguity; the product of his profound ambivalence about the things of this world in general and women in particular.

Hawthorne seems almost Neoplatonic in his repeated lament that life is merely a playing with shadows, and fiction an imitation of that imitation. He depicts himself as the spy who was left out in the cold, a ghostly voyeur who can observe and analyze life, but can never wholeheartedly participate in it. Often his resort to conventional moralizing is an attempt to rejoin the human community. His marriage to Sophia should have cured him of his addiction to abstraction and his preference for fantasy, but unfortunately she was far more sentimental than he and only encouraged his spiritualizing tendencies. In his cloying love letters, for example, Hawthorne vowed to her that "I deem a true woman holier than an angel" (XV 358), that "God gave you to me to be the salvation of my soul" (XV 330), and he penned this revealing passage: "How much mud and mire, how many pools of unclean water, how many slippery footsteps, and perchance heavy tumbles, might be avoided, if we could tread but six inches above the crust of the world" (XV 405). Hawthorne thought that such fantasies served to illuminate universal truths, but    precisely because they did not have to pass the test of realism, they frequently were projections of his private anxieties. His propensity to idealize, and thereby desexualize, the objects of his desire, tells us more than he wishes about his dread of sensual experience and his inability to reconcile Sophia's passion with her purity.

Not surprisingly, during the early years of their marriage, he insisted over much of the prelapsarian innocence of their relationship. Hawthorne's sexual anxieties fit the pattern Freud discussed in "The Most Prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life"(1912). Freud argues that to achieve a healthy lovelife "two currents of feeling have to unite we may describe them as the tender, affectionate feelings and the sensual feeling," but he notes that in his clinical experience many men have great difficulty achieving this union. As a result, "where such men love they have no desire and where they desire they cannot love" (59-62). They regard the sexual act as "something degrading, which soils and contaminates not only the body" (65), and so they idealize women as angels of worship or degrade them as whores for lust. Freud traced this neurosis to unresolved Oedipal feelings, and he advised that "whoever is to be really free and happy in love must have overcome his deference for women and come to terms with the idea of incest with mother or sister" (65). Abstinence, on the other hand, only makes the heart beat faster, increasing the psychical value of love; and so Saint Anthony and other ascetic monks of early Christianity "were almost entirely occupied with struggles against libidinous temptation" (67). Hawthorne's problem, of course, was shared by many men of the Victorian era: How dare they defile the angelic paragons of their adoration with the stain of sexual passion?

It should not be assumed, however, that Hawthorne feared passion because he was incapable of it. On the contrary, the essence of ambivalence is a powerful pull in opposite directions; it is an ongoing struggle between impulse and inhibition, attraction and repulsion. His stories dramatize this conflict and gain their force from it.  Their inspiration comes from his unconscious; like dreams they employ splitting, inversion, displacement and overdetermination to enable the dreamwork to both reveal and conceal meaning. Thus his stories tend to become parables to be deciphered rather than dramatic actions to be experienced. They have a static, tapestry-like quality that invites close scrutiny of the stitchery as well as contemplation of the unifying pattern. His goal seems to be the fable that successfully resists definitive interpretation, capturing by its very elusiveness the mystery of life.

The question of how deep is, and what monsters lurk in, Lake Hawthorne has always confounded the critic, who usually sees only his or her own face in its placid surface. No wonder many professors, who spend their days making literature palatable to the fast-food tastes of college students, prefer Hawthorne the straight-laced moralist. But others are convinced that his stories are indeed twice-told, tales within tales, with levels of significance for the discerning to discover. "I am not quite sure I entirely comprehend my own meaning in some of these blasted allegories" (XVII, 307), Hawthorne confessed in retrospect to his publisher, and perhaps that is as it should be. For had he understood how disturbing and demoralizing some of his best work is, he might not have written it. On the other hand, especially in his stories about frustrated desire, he never quite learns their hidden lesson: That as Wallace Stevens said, "beauty is of body," and that great art and vital life are achieved not by rising above, but by immersing the self in, the physical world of sensual experience.

When Hawthorne read a part of "Rappaccini's Daughter" to Sophia she asked, "But how is it to end?...is Beatrice to be a demon or an angel?" To which Hawthorne replied, "I have no idea!" (Julian Hawthorne, I, 360). This puzzlement is at the heart of Hawthorne's artistic dilemma; he simply can't decide what to make of women. He tries to rely on the pat polarities of fair maid and dark lady, the sexless and saved versus the sensual and damned. He wants to "spiritualize" the issue and have his tales say that matter doesn't matter, spirit is all, the body is mere clay, and passion is poison. Fortunately, he is too complete an artist not to include a deeper contrary current that acknowledges the complexity of women and the legitimate claims of desire.

The fair maid is the anathema of Hawthorne's art; whenever she appears without irony or satire his fiction suffers. These lightsome, gladsome, gossamer girls; these sweet, pale, slender, feeble creatures with their golden locks and crystal-clear hearts, flit through Hawthorne's early work with dismal regularity before wafting heavenward. Only rarely does he break this mawkish mold and give voice to more irreverent imaginings: "Here was the pure, modest, sensitive, and shrinking woman of America; shrinking when no evil was intended; and sensitive like diseased flesh, that thrills if you point at it..." ("Sketches From Memory" 348). One of his numerous early stories about nuptial fears, "Mrs. Bullfrog," perhaps comes closest to capturing Hawthorne's predicament: "My early habits had gifted me with a feminine sensibility, and too exquisite refinement.... So painfully acute was my sense of female imperfection, and such varied excellence did I require in the woman whom I could love, that there was an awful risk of my getting no wife at all, or of being driven to perpetrate matrimony with my own image in the looking glass" (406). What the young man needed to accept, Mrs. Bullfrog counseled, was that "women are not angels" (412).
 

continued...

 

William Heath: The Power of Passion, essay, 1
Copyright 1999 The Cortland Review Issue ThreeThe Cortland Review