Studies in Classic American Literature/Chapter 8
NO OTHER book of Nathaniel Hawthorne is so deep, so dual, and so complete as The Scarlet Letter: this great allegory of the triumph of sin.
Sin is a queer thing. It isn't the breaking of divine commandments. It is the breaking of one's own integrity.
For instance, the sin in Hester and Arthur Dimmesdale's case was a sin because they did what they thought? it wrong to do. If they had really wanted to be lovers, and if they had had the honest courage of their own passion, there would have been no sin, even had the desire been only momentary.
But if there had been no sin, they would have lost half the fun, or more, of the game.
It was this very doing of the thing that they themselves believed to be wrong, that constituted the chief harm of the act. Man invents sin, in order to enjoy the feeling of being naughty. Also, in order to shift the responsibility for his own acts. A Divine Father tells him what to do. And man is naughty and doesn't obey. And then shiveringly, ignoble man lets down his pants for a flogging.
If the Divine Father doesn't bring on the flogging, in this life, then Sinful Man shiveringly awaits his whipping in the afterlife.
Bah, the Divine Father, like so many other Crowned Heads, has abdicated his authority. Man can sin as much as he likes.
There is only one penalty: the loss of his own integrity. Man should never do the thing he believes to be wrong. Because if he does, he loses his own singleness, wholeness, natural honour.
If you want to do a thing, you've either got to believe, sincerely, that its your true nature to do this thing - or else you've got to let it alone.
Believe in your own Holy Ghost. Or else, if you doubt, abstain.
A thing that you sincerely believe in cannot be wrong, because belief does not come at will. It comes only from the Holy Ghost within. Therefore a thing you truly believe in, cannot be wrong.
But there is such a thing as spurious belief. There is such a thing as evil belief: a belief that one cannot do wrong. There is also such a thing as a half-spurious belief. And this is rottenest of all. The devil lurking behind the cross.
So there you are. Between genuine belief, and spurious belief, and half-genuine belief, you're as likely as not to be in a pickle. And the half-genuine belief is much the dirtiest, and most deceptive thing in life.
Hester and Dimmesdale believed in the Divine Father, and almost gloatingly sinned against Him. The Allegory of Sin.
Pearl no longer believes in the Divine Father. She says so. She has no Divine Father. Disowns Papa both big and little.
So she can't sin against him.
What will she do, then, if she's got no god to sin against? Why, of course, she'll not be able to sin at all. She'll go her own way gaily, and do as she likes, and she'll say, afterwards, when she's made a mess: 'Yes, I did it. But I acted for the best, and therefore I am blameless. It's the other person's fault. Or else it's Its fault.'
She will be blameless, will Pearl, come what may.
And the world is simply a string of Pearls today. And America is a whole rope of these absolutely immaculate Pearls, who can't sin, let them do what they may, because they've no god to sin against. Mere men, one after another. Men with no ghost to their name.
Oh, the irony, the bitter, bitter irony of the name! Oh Nathaniel, you great man! Oh, America, you Pearl, you Pearl without a blemish!
How can Pearl have a blemish, when there's no one but herself to judge Herself? Of course she'll be immaculate, even if, like Cleopatra, she drowns a lover a night in her dirty Nile. The Nilus Flux of her love.
By Hawthorne's day it was already Pearl. Before swine, of course. There never yet was a Pearl that wasn't cast before swine.
It's part of her game, part of her pearldom.
Because when Circe lies with a man, he's a swine after it, if he wasn't one before. Not she. Circe is the great white impeccable Pearl.
And yet, oh, Pearl, there's a Nemesis even for you.
There's a Doom, Pearl.
Doom! What a beautiful northern word. Doom.
The doom of the Pearl.
Who will write that Allegory?
Here's what the Doom is, anyhow.
When you don't have a Divine Father to sin against; and when you don't sin against the Son; which the Pearls don't, because they all are very strong on LOVE, stronger on LOVE than on anything: then there's nothing left for you to sin against except the Holy Ghost.
Now, Pearl, come, let's drop you in the vinegar.
And it's a ticklish thing sinning against the Holy Ghost. It shall not be forgiven him.
Didn't I tell you there was Doom?
It shall not be forgiven her.
The Father forgives: the Son forgives: but the Holy Ghost does not forgive. So take that.
The Holy Ghost doesn't forgive because the Holy Ghost is within you. The Holy Ghost is you: your very You. So if, in your conceit of your ego, you make a break in your own YOU, in your own integrity, how can you be forgiven? You might as well make a rip in your own bowels. You know if you rip your own bowels they will go rotten and you will go rotten. And there's an end of you, in the body.
The same if you make a breach with your own Holy Ghost. You go soul-rotten. Like the Pearls.
These dear Pearls, they do anything they like, and remain pure. Oh, purity!
But they can't stop themselves from going rotten inside. Rotten Pearls, fair outside. Their souls smell, because their souls are putrefying inside them.
The sin against the Holy Ghost.
And gradually, from within outwards, they rot. Some form of dementia. A thing disintegrating. A decomposing psyche. Dementia.
Quos vult perdere Deus, dementat prius.
Watch these Pearls, these Pearls of modern women. Particularly American women. Battening on love. And fluttering in the first batlike throes of dementia.
You can have your cake and eat it. But my God, it will go rotten inside you.
Hawthorne's other books are nothing compared to The Scarlet Letter.
But there are good parables, and wonderful dark glimpses of early Puritan America, in Twice Told Tales.
The House of the Seven Gables has 'atmosphere'. The passing of the old order of the proud, bearded, black-browed Father: an order which is slowly ousted from life, and lingeringly haunts the old dark places. But comes a new generation to sweep out even the ghosts, with these new vacuum cleaners. No ghost could stand up against a vacuum cleaner.
The new generation is having no ghosts or cobwebs. It is setting up in the photography line, and is just going to make a sound financial thing out of it. For this purpose all old hates and old glooms, that belong to the antique order of Haughty Fathers, all these are swept up in the vacuum cleaner, and the vendetta-born young couple effect a perfect understanding under the black cloth of a camera and prosperity. Vivat Industria!
Oh, Nathaniel, you savage ironist! Ugh, how you'd have hated it if you'd had nothing but the prosperous 'dear' young couple to write about! If you'd lived to the day when America was nothing but a Main Street.
The Dark Old Fathers.
The Beloved Wishy-Washy Sons.
The Photography Business.
? ? ?
Hawthorne came nearest to actuality in the Blithedale Romance. This novel is a sort of picture of the notorious Brook Farm experiment. There the famous idealists and transcendentalists of America met to till the soil and hew the timber in the sweat of their own brows, thinking high thoughts the while, and breathing an atmosphere of communal love, and tingling in tune with the Oversoul, like so many strings of a super-celestial harp. An old twang of the Crevecoeur instrument.
Of course they fell out like cats and dogs. Couldn't stand one another. And all the music they made was the music of their quarrelling.
You can't idealize hard work. Which is why America invents so many machines and contrivances of all sort: so that they need do no physical work.
And that's why the idealists left off brookfarming, and took to bookfarming.
You can't idealize the essential brute blood-activity, the brute blood desires, the basic, sardonic blood-knowledge.
That you can't idealize.
And you can't eliminate it.
So there's the end of ideal man.
Man is made up of a dual consciousness, of which the two halves are most of the time in opposition to one another - and will be so as long as time lasts.
You've got to learn to change from one consciousness to the other, turn and about. Not to try to make either absolute, or dominant. The Holy Ghost tells you the how and when.
Never did Nathaniel feel himself more spectral - of course he went brookfarming - than when he was winding the horn in the morning to summon the transcendental labourers to their tasks, or than when marching off with a hoe ideally to hoe the turnips, 'Never did I feel more spectral,' says Nathaniel.
Never did I feel such a fool, would have been more to the point.
Farcical fools, trying to idealize labour. You'll never succeed in idealizing hard work. Before you can dig mother earth you've got to take off your ideal jacket. The harder a man works, at brute labour, the thinner becomes his idealism, the darker his mind. And the harder a man works, at mental labour, at idealism, at transcendental occupations, the thinner becomes his blood, and the more brittle his nerves.
Oh, the brittle-nerved brookfarmers!
You've got to be able to do both: the mental work, and the brute work. But be prepared to step from one pair of shoes into another. Don't try and make it all one pair of shoes.
The attempt to idealize the blood!
Nathaniel knew he was a fool, attempting it.
He went home to his amiable spouse and his sanctum sanctorum of a study.
But the Blithedale Romance. It has a beautiful, wintry-evening farm-kitchen sort of opening.
1. I. The narrator: whom we will call Nathaniel. A wisp of a sensitive, withal deep, literary young man no longer so very young.
2. Zenobia: a dark, proudly voluptuous clever woman with a tropical flower in her hair. Said to be sketched from Margaret Fuller, in whom Hawthorne saw some 'evil nature'. Nathaniel was more aware of Zenobia's voluptuousness than of her 'mind'.
3. Hollingsworth: a black-bearded blacksmith with a deep-voiced lust for saving criminals. Wants to build a great Home for these unfortunates.
4. Priscilla: a sort of White Lily, a clinging little mediumistic tempstress who has been made use of in public seances. A sort of prostitute soul.
5. Zenobia's Husband: an unpleasant decayed person with magnetic powers and teeth full of gold - or set in gold. It is he who has given public spiritualist demonstrations, with Priscilla for the medium. He is of the dark, sensual, decayed- handsome sort, and comes in unexpectedly by the back door.
PLOT I. - I, Nathaniel, at once catch cold, and have to be put to bed. Am nursed with inordinate tenderness by the blacksmith, whose great hands are gentler than a woman's, etc.
The two men love one another with a love surpassing the love of women, so long as the healing-and-salvation business lasts. When Nathaniel wants to get well and have a soul of his own, he turns with hate to the black-bearded, booming salvationist, Hephaestos of the underworld. Hates him,for tyrannous monomania.
PLOT II. - Zenobia, that clever lustrous woman, is fascinated by the criminal-saving blacksmith, and would have him at any price. Meanwhile she has the subtlest current of under- standing with the frail but deep Nathaniel. And she takes the White Lily half-pityingly, half contemptuously under a rich and glossy dark wing.
PLOT III. - The blacksmith is after Zenobia, to get her money for his criminal asylum: of which, of course, he will be the first inmate.
PLOT IV. - Nathaniel also feels his mouth watering for the dark-luscious Zenobia.
PLOT V. - The White Lily, Priscilla, vaporously festering, turns out to be the famous Veiled Lady of public spiritualist shows: she whom the undesirable Husband, called the Professor, has used as a medium. Also she is Zenobia's half- sister.
Nobody wants Zenobia in the end. She goes off without her flower. The blacksmith marries Priscilla. Nathaniel dribblingly confesses that he, too, has loved Prissy all the while. Boo-hoo!
A few years after, Nathaniel meets the blacksmith in a country lane near a humble cottage, leaning totteringly on the arm of the frail but fervent Priscilla. Gone are all dreams of asylums, and the saviour of criminals can't even save himself from his own Veiled Lady.
There you have a nice little bunch of idealists, transcentalists, brookfarmers, and disintegrated gentry. All going slightly rotten.
Two Pearls: a white Pearl and a black Pearl: the latter more expensive, lurid with money.
The white Pearl, the little medium, Priscilla, the imitation pearl, has truly some 'supernormal' powers. She could drain the blacksmith of his blackness and his smith-strength.
Priscilla, the little psychic prostitute. The degenerate descendant of Ligeia. The absolutely yielding, 'loving' woman, who abandons herself utterly to her lover. Or even to a gold-toothed 'professor' of spiritualism.
Is it all bunkum, this spiritualism? Is it just rot, this Veiled Lady ?
Not quite. Apart even from telepathy, the apparatus of human consciousness is the most wonderful message-receiver in existence. Beats a wireless station to nothing.
Put Prissy under the tablecloth then. Miaow!
What happens? Prissy under the tablecloth, like a canary when you cover his cage, goes into a 'sleep', a trance.
A trance, not a sleep. A trance means that all her individual personal intelligence goes to sleep, like a hen with her head under her wing. But the apparatus of consciousness remains working. Without a soul in it.
And what can this apparatus of consciousness do, when it works? Why, surely something. A wireless apparatus goes tick-tick-tick, taking down messages. So does your human apparatus. All kinds of messages. Only the soul, or the under-consciousness, deals with these messages in the dark, in the under-conscious. Which is the natural course of events.
But what sorts of messages ? All sorts. Vibrations from the stars, vibrations from unknown magnetos, vibrations from unknown people, unknown passions. The human apparatus receives them all and they are all dealt with in the under-conscious.
There are also vibrations of thought, many, many. Necessary to get the two human instruments in key.
There may even be vibrations of ghosts in the air. Ghosts being dead wills, mind you, not dead souls. The soul has nothing to do with these dodges.
But some unit of force may persist for a time, after the death of an individual - some associations of vibrations may linger like little clouds in the etheric atmosphere after the death of a human being, or an animal. And these little clots of vibration may transfer themselves to the conscious-apparatus of the medium. So that the dead son of a disconsolate widow may send a message to his mourning mother to tell her that he owes Bill Jackson seven dollars: or that Uncle Sam's will is in the back of the bureau: and cheer up, Mother, I'm all right.
There is never much worth in these 'messages', because they are never more than fragmentary items of dead, disintegrated consciousness. And the medium has, and always will have, a hopeless job, trying to disentangle the muddle of mess- ages.
Again, coming events may cast their shadow before. The oracle may receive on her conscious-apparatus material vibrations to say that the next great war will break out in 1925. And in so far as the realm of cause-and-effect is master of the living soul, in so far as events are mechanically maturing, the forecast may be true.
But the living souls of men may upset the mechanical march of events at any moment.
Rien de certain.
Vibrations of subtlest matter. Concatenations of vibrations and shocks! Spiritualism.
And what then? It is all just materialistic, and a good deal is, and always will be, charlatanry.
Because the real human soul, the Holy Ghost, has its own deep prescience, which will not be put into figures, but flows on dark, a stream of prescience.
And the real human soul is too proud, and too sincere in its belief in the Holy Ghost that is within, to stoop to the practices of these spiritualist and other psychic tricks of material vibrations.
Because the first part of reverence is the acceptance of the fact that the Holy Ghost will never materialize: will never be anything but a ghost.
And the second part of reverence is the watchful observance of the motions, the comings and goings within us, of the Holy Ghost, and of the many gods that make up the Holy Ghost.
The Father had his day, and fell.
The Son has had his day, and fell.
It is the day of the Holy Ghost.
But when souls fall corrupt, into disintegration, they have no more day. They have sinned against the Holy Ghost.
These people in Blithedale Romance have sinned against the Holy Ghost, and corruption has set in.
All, perhaps, except the I, Nathaniel. He is still a sad, integral consciousness.
But not excepting Zenobia. The Black Pearl is rotting down. Fast. The cleverer she is, the faster she rots.
And they are all disintegrating, so they take to psychic tricks. It is a certain sign of the disintegration of the psyche in a man, and much more so in a woman, when she takes to spiritualism, and table-rapping, and occult messages, or witch-craft and supernatural powers of that sort. When men want to be supernatural, be sure that something has gone wrong in their natural stuff. More so, even, with a woman.
And yet the soul has its own profound subtleties of knowing. And the blood has its strange omniscience.
But this isn't impudent and materialistic, like spiritualism and magic and all that range of pretentious supernaturalism.