Fourierism and Nervous Sympathy in The Blithedale Romance.
Fourier's central idea is what his translator and acolyte Albert Brisbane calls "Attractive Industry," or the principle that individuals ought to perform the labor and seek the romantic ties that are most emotionally attractive to them, regardless of prevailing social institutions (24). In one letter, Peabody expresses her wish for "some undoubted" man to translate Fourier from the French into English (perhaps, she suggests, Unitarian clergyman William Henry Channing); she desires a virtuous bulwark against the theorist, whose ideas about labor, politics, and marriage, she writes, undermine "the very foundations of social order" (267-68). Her daughter replies that she and her husband have both read Fourier in the original French and that Nathaniel was "disgusted" with the "monstrous system" of social organization Fourier champions (269). Despite the novelist's disgust with Fourier, the Frenchman would come to play an important role in his literary career, as suggested by Julian's transcription of an 1851 entry from his father's journal: "I forgot to say that before supper Mr. [William Aspinwall] Tappan came in, with three or four volumes of Fourier's works, which I wished to borrow, with a view to my next romance" (415-16). Hawthorne's "next romance," published in 1852, would be The Blithedale Romance, a satire of transcendental fellow-traveler George Ripley's Utopian experiment at Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts.
This experiment, of which Hawthorne was briefly a member before he departed it in 1841, forms the historical foundation of most analyses of Blithedale. But scholars have neglected the roles Fourier's writings might have played in the novel despite their central role in both the novel's composition and the history of Brook Farm. I argue in this essay that the novel lampoons the theories of emotion that undergirds Fourier's economic, sexual, and social thought. Specifically, I argue that the novel portrays Fourierism in ways that call attention to its failure to account adequately for the depth, complexity, and unpredictability of human affections. Contravening Fourier's theory of the affections as permanent and stable within individuals, the novel draws on the language of nervous sympathy to depict individuals' emotions as comparatively impermanent, fluid, and resistant to the sort of affective management that lies at the heart of the Fourierist enterprise. In doing so, Blithedale stages an encounter between Fourier's (and Ripley's) dreams of a planned community and contemporary physiologists' sense that communities arise organically from individuals' sympathetic bonds. Attending to this encounter yields a new perspective on both Hawthorne's relationship with contemporary science and Fourierism's role in The Blithedale Romance.
Most critics who address Fourier's role in Blithedale attend exclusively to his controversial ideas about sexuality. Lauren Berlant writes that Miles Coverdale, the novel's protagonist, "converts to/is seduced by Fourier"; the result of this conversion/seduction, she writes, is that Coverdale begins to "desire the fruition of the literal delights of the [Fourierist] system, which bases its structure on fulfillment of the principles of attraction in both work and play, in industrial and sexual armies" (39-40). David Greven sees Coverdale's later dislike of the mysterious Westervelt and his "almost ectoplasmically multivalent sexuality" as potential proof that Hawthorne generally responded to Fourier with "erotophobia" and homophobia (139-40). Ryan Stuart Lowe situates Fourierist ideas about romance and marriage within contemporary transatlantic free-love movements.
Other scholars address Fourierism in context with other contemporary reformist and Utopian movements. Maura D'Amore asserts in her study of Blithedale as a "suburban romance" that "Coverdale's coded references to Fourierist ideas reflect Hawthorne's engagement with questions of an individual's relationship to the community of which he is a part"; this means that, "even though the commune's structure is not organized according to Fourieristic principles, Hawthorne invites readers to consider the fictionalized society he presents within the context of midcentury reform movements" (167). Craig White, attending to the crossroads of science and Utopian thought in Brook Farm and Blithedale, understands Fourierism as one of many "intellectual fellow-travelers" such as mesmerism and spiritualism (87). In a similar vein, my argument shows how the novel's depiction of nervous sympathy highlights Fourierism's failure to manage the complexities of the community's emotions.
FOURIER IN BLITHEDALE
In the middle of the nineteenth century, most Americans who encountered Fourier's thought did not, like the Hawthornes, read him in French; they instead relied on the works of Albert Brisbane, Fourier's translator and foremost American disciple. Brisbane, the son of a well-to-do family in Batvia, New York, went to Europe in 1828 for "study and travel," driven by an urge to learn more about the world (Guarneri 26). In his six years on the continent, he immersed himself in the intellectual ferment of the age. He attended Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's lectures in Berlin before encountering the socialist theories of Henri de Saint-Simon in Paris; he was a devoted Saint-Simonian until a schism among its adherents turned him away from the doctrine (29). Soon after, he encountered Fourier's writings for the first time and traveled to Paris to meet him in 1832 (30). The socialist, Carl J. Guarneri agreed to tutor Brisbane in his theory for two hours a week at five francs an hour (30). A few years after his return to New York in 1834, Brisbane advocated for Fourierism in The Dial, the transcendentalist magazine, in books such as Social Destiny of Man: Or, Association and Reorganization of Industry (1840) and in a daily column for Horace Greeley's New York Tribune written from March 1842 to September 1843. The Tribune was an ideal venue for Brisbane, D'Amore notes, because it "enabled him to connect with readers from a wide range of classes, professions, and backgrounds" (156).
In these writings, Brisbane seeks to popularize Fourier's idea that flaws in societies' approach to labor cause most of the world's ills: "We assert," he declares in Social Destiny of Man, "and will prove, that LABOB, which is now MONOTONOUS, BEPUGNANT and DEGBADING, can be ENNOBLED, ELEVATED and made HONOBABLE;-or in other words, that INDUSTRY CAN BE RENDERED ATTRACTIVE!" (vi). Brisbane often uses the term "associationism" rather than "Fourierism" to describe Fourier's system, but his contemporaries understood "associationism" and "association" as catchall terms for a number of different communitarian schemes. (1) As Robert Levine writes, "Brook Farm was one of a number of fairly vital communitarian groups in antebellum America during the 1840s that hoped to restructure social and economic relationships" (211). George Ripley, then, was far from an anomaly when he founded Brook Farm; rather, he was a participant in an important socialist movement that sought to put reformist theory into practice. In his lecture "New England Beformers," delivered in March of 1844, Ralph Waldo Emerson uses the term "Association" to refer not only to Fourier's ideas but also to those of the French socialist Henri de Saint-Simon and those of Welsh Utopian Robert Owen (408). Antebellum associationist communities inspired by these thinkers include Utopia, Ohio, and La Reunion, Texas, both of which were Fourierist, and New Harmony, Indiana, which was founded upon Owenian principles. What these communities have in common, Emerson asserts, is an "aim to give every member a share in the manual labor, to give an equal reward to labor and to talent, and to unite a liberal culture with an education to labor" (408).
As Brisbane explains, part of what distinguishes Fourier from other associationist reformers is his plan to make labor "attractive," which begins with "the fundamental Science, the Theory of the passions, or springs of action of the Soul" (452). Because Fourier understands the passions as regulating human action, Brisbane writes, he deduces that a social system properly accommodated to them will function much more pleasantly and productively than what he calls the "civilized mechanism" that governs society (157). (2) Whereas workers in "civilized" societies labor because they must, workers in Harmony (Fourier's term for his Utopia) will labor because they wish to do so. Like the rest of his system, Fourier's theory of labor rests upon his ideas about human emotion. In Social Destiny of Man, Brisbane faithfully reproduces what Fourier calls his theory of the passions, which sorts twelve primary passions into three groups comprising the five "sensitive passions," the four "affective passions," and the three "distributive or directing passions" (160). If fully developed, the sensitive passions, which correspond to the five senses, "direct man rightly, to health and the enjoyment of his sensual faculties"; however, civilization does not adequately provide for their proper use (163). Under the ease of life to be realized in Harmony, every person, not only those with the money and time to do so, could enjoy "fine music, the contemplation of agreeable objects in nature and the fine arts, and fragrant perfumes," thereby suffusing life with sensual pleasure (163). The four affective passions, "Friendship, Love, Ambition, and Paternity," would be regulated in Harmony; no more would the feeling of love go awry into jealousy or heartache, and, he adds, no more would a man care only for his own children, ignoring the poverty of those outside his home (165).
Fourier's ideas about the remaining three passions, the distributive passions, frame his theories of labor reform. The first, as Brisbane writes, is the Cabalist passion, a passion "of rival and intrigue" (Brisbane 167). This passion is what drives us to create intrigue through games if a more organically occurring intrigue is not at hand: at a party, Brisbane writes, "some artificial intrigue must be created for the guests, cards must be put in their hands, or a political cabal concerted" to satisfy this urge (167). It helps to maintain productivity under a Utopian mode of production by ensuring that community members would feel a healthy spirit of competition with each other in their labors. The second distributive passion, the Butterfly passion, is the psychological need for variety: this passion would be gratified in Harmony by having no one work the same job for more than two consecutive hours (183). Brisbane writes that a man might be a shepherd at five in the morning, a gardener at seven, and a fisherman at nine, according to his passional attraction to each task (183). The Composite passion, "the most beautiful of the twelve passions," is a mix of one each from the sensual and affective passions; it is a pure happiness combining body and soul that "enhances the value" of the other passions (171).
As Jonathan Beecher notes in his landmark biography of Fourier, the anatomy of the passions Fourier identifies is only the beginning of his fully developed theory: "[E]ach of Fourier's passions," he writes, "could be divided into a multitude of nuances" (228). Extrapolating from his passional theory, Fourier constructed a theory of personality types predicated on the idea that everyone's personality is devoted to and guided by "one or several dominant passions"; someone guided by one passion is a monogyne, a person guided by more than one passion is a polygyne, and so on (229). In sum, Fourier identifies 810 separate personality types that together composed a scale of personality (229). Different combinations of personalities are more harmonious than others, so the ideal phalanx--a complete Fourierist community--would include 1620 people so that the greatest passional harmony could be achieved (241).
Antebellum Americans with a dedicated interest in Fourierism would have been privy to the elements of the system I describe above. But they would have been less likely to know that Fourier applies his theory of the passions not only to industry but also to marriage, love, and sex. This is because Albert Brisbane's version of Fourierism scrubbed it of such material as Fourier's ideas about "Gamme des disgraces de l'etat conjugal" ("The Range of Marriage's Dangers") and "Faussete des amours civilizes" ("The Falsehood of Civilized Love"). However, both of these discussions are part of the volume that, as Sophia Hawthorne reported to her mother, so disgusted her husband in 1845. A footnote in volume 16 of The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Letters, 1843-1853) notes that the volume of Fourier that troubled Hawthorne is "a volume of Fourier's Theory of Universal Unity on love, family, and material conditions," but it gives no information about which volume that is (144). In Sophia Hawthorne's letter to her mother about Fourier, she mentions that the "abominable, immoral, irreligious" book she and her husband read is "the fourth volume," but is not any more specific; however, the only set of Fourier's works in French available in 1845 with more than three volumes was the Oeuvres completes de Charles Fourier, six volumes of his collected writing published in Paris by the Bureaux de la Phalange and the Librarie Societaire between 1841 and 1845. The fourth volume of the Oeuvres completes comprises the third volume of Theorie de l'unite universelle (Theory of Universal Unity), previously published in 1832 under the more pedestrian title Traite de l'association domestique-agricole ou attraction industrielle (2 vols.). Whereas the editors of volume 16 of The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne were right to identify "a volume of Fourier's Theory of Universal Unity" as what Hawthorne read, we can more specifically identify that book as the third volume of Theorie de l'unite universelle, which is contained in the fourth volume of the Oeuvres completes.
The book that Hawthorne read contains a discussion of "Faussement du systeme social par celui des amours" ("Imperfection of the Social System Regarding Love"), comprising one hundred pages on the dangers of marriage and civilized family life. In it, Fourier attacks monogamous marriage as a social disaster. He diagnoses mistaken paternity as a cancer on contemporary family life: "[T]outes les relations defamille sont viciees... le pere... est trompe, de plus, sur l'ongine de ses propres enfants; et c'est la plus odieuse de toutes les perfidies sociales" ("all familial relations are tainted... the father... is wrong, again, about the real origin of his children; and it is the most odious of all social treachery") (4: 52). And, perhaps guided by a classificatory passion, he produces a table listing sixteen ills resulting from marriage (figure 1).
As his chart attests, Fourier believed that monotony, bad in-laws, and false paternity rendered marriage a well of despair. "Resumant surcette analyse, " he writes, "je demanderai quel mari peut se flatter d'echapper a ces 16 disgraces, dont souvent une seule suffit a faire le malheur de sa vie?" ("Summing up this analysis, I want to know what married man can boast of escaping these 16 misfortunes, only one of which can cause misery for life?") (76). Elsewhere, as Beecher writes, Fourier gives an exhaustive taxonomy of cuckolds, listing the "Common Cuckold" and the "Posthumous Cuckold" among seventy other varieties (206). Fourier, in sum, was as fond of categorizing and enumerating affairs of the heart as he was of economic matters.
Blithedale's inhabitants often compare their romantic feelings with Fourier's ideas about the emotions and sexuality. When Coverdale prepares to take a hiatus from the commune, Zenobia expresses her wish that he would stay:
"I regret, on the whole, that you are leaving us," she said; "and all the more, since I feel that this phase of our life is finished, and can never be lived over again. Do you know, Mr. Coverdale, that I have been several times on the point of making you my confidant, for lack of a better and wiser one? But you are too young to be my Father Confessor; and you would not thank me for treating you like one of those good little handmaidens, who share the bosom-secrets of a tragedy-queen!" (141-42)
One might read a "Father Confessor" as a priest hearing confession, but the comparison of a priest to a queen's "good little handmaidens" does not follow. In Fourierist thought, a "confesseur" is a person over the age of sixty who is able to read potential sexual partners' guiding passions and match them according to their compatibility (Publications 4: 24). A confesseur would be as privy to others' romantic predilections as the handmaidens of a "tragedy-queen" might be, though Coverdale has neither the age nor the wisdom to take the role for Zenobia. Bead in the light of Fourierist thought, the above passage takes on a sexual resonance it would lack were we to read a father confessor as a priest. Here, Zenobia tells Coverdale that she has considered him as a possible confesseur, a sexual analyst who could take an active role in the direction of her romantic life. (3) Given Coverdale's fascination with others' lives, he may well have accepted the role.
But this scene also points to weaknesses in Fourier's passional theory. In a properly working phalanx, the role of the confesseur is to arrange the romantic life of the community; like all transactions of the phalanx, such arrangements would at once be harmonious and precise. In Blithedale, romantic relationships are neither; instead, they seem all the more disorderly precisely because they take place within a Utopian community. As Zenobia says, not only is Coverdale too young to be her confesseur, but she thinks he would be emasculated (a "good little handmaiden" to her "tragedy-queen") if he should take up the role (3; 141-142).
The fourth volume of Oeuvres completes introduced Hawthorne to the extent to which Fourier applied his passional theory to all aspects of human life. Although Brisbane's Social Destiny of Man and his Association; or, a Concise Exposition of the Practical Part of Fourier's Social Science (1843) outlines how Fourierist passional theory applies to labor and industry, no American who could not read French would have had more than secondhand knowledge of his ideas on love and marriage until New York publishers Robert Dewitt and Calvin Blanchard printed Henry Clapp Jr.'s translation of Fourier's Theorie des quatre movements in 1857. It follows, then, that Fourier's sexual theory occupied much of Hawthorne's attention as he wrote Blithedale, as Lauren Berlant and David Greven have argued. However, the sexual elements of Fourierism do not capture the whole story: although Blithedale does respond to Fourierist sexuality, focusing exclusively on this element of Fourierism neglects the novel's depiction of the theorist's passional system itself.
Coverdale and his fellow communitarians discuss their experiment in terms of Fourier's theories throughout the novel. When they convene at Silas Foster's farmhouse in "A Knot of Dreamers," they congratulate themselves on having "divorced ourselves from Pride" and replaced it with "familiar love" (3: 19). Coverdale describes their aims:
We meant to lessen the laboring man's great burthen of toil, by performing our due share of it at the cost of our own thews and sinews. We sought our profit by mutual aid, instead of wresting it by the strong hand from an enemy, or filching it craftily from those less shrewd than ourselves... or winning it by selfish competition with a neighbor.... (3: 19)
The communitarians' methods and goals align closely with Fourier's. In both cases, all people are to take an equal share of labor, and economic production will spring from "mutual aid" rather than the competitive marketplace of capitalism (3: 19). Most tellingly, Coverdale and his fellows pledge to substitute "familiar love" for egoistic pride; such love would be, in Fourier's terms, the guiding passion of the commune. In the next paragraph, Coverdale refers to the community's Utopian dreaming as building "splendid castles (phalansteries, perhaps, they might be more fitly called)" in the air (3: 19-20). By linking phalansteries and Blithedale at the beginning of the novel, Hawthorne invites readers to attend to the commune's Fourierist aspects.
Coverdale soon discovers that even a community bound by love is not without problems. The first of these is that, as the community grows, its newer members are connected to each other by a bond that is "not affirmative, but negative" (3: 62). After a brief illness, during the course of which he unsuccessfully attempts to discuss Fourier's ideas with Hollingsworth, an aspiring criminal reformer, he returns to his labor thinking that the commune may have achieved Fourierist harmony in his absence. Echoing Fourier's prediction that the cosmos will harmoniously align once everyone on Earth does the same, he marvels at how the group's "enlightened culture of the soil, and the virtues with which they sanctified their life, had begun to produce an effect upon the material world and its climate" (3: 61-62). But shortly thereafter, he realizes that the community has added new members who gather, not because of complementary passional tones (or even a bond of familiar love), but because they "had individually found one thing or another to quarrel with in our past life, and were pretty well agreed as to the inexpediency of lumbering along with the old system any further" (3: 62). These "crooked sticks," as Coverdale notes, do not gather into a neat bundle: though they agree in their unhappiness with the status quo, "there was much less unanimity" about what the new system should be (3: 62). With the addition of new members, Blithedale begins to lose the passional orientation that bound its founding participants. This parallels similar developments at Brook Farm: Sterling Delano writes that, though Brook Farm's conversion to Fourierism in 1844 was not in itself "one of the major causes of Brook Farm's eventual failure," it did lead to the departure of many of the community's more educated members and to an influx of "dozens of carpenters, shoemakers, and other skilled and semiskilled workers who permanently altered the character of the community" (323).
In Harmony, a confesseur or confesseuse facilitates romantic arrangements; however, affairs of the heart are not so easy to manage in Blithedale.
Coverdale remarks that the egalitarian mood of the community was such that "it seemed to authorize any individual, of either sex, to fall in love with any other, regardless of what would elsewhere be judged suitable and prudent" (3: 72). The "tender passion," consequently, "was very rife among us" (3: 72). But much of the novel's plot concerns the jealousy that arises between Zenobia and her waifish half-sister, Priscilla, as they compete for Hollingsworth's attention. As Coverdale notes, such a competition "was likely to be no child's play," free love aside (3: 72). That Zenobia and Priscilla's competition for Hollingsworth's affections culminates in Zenobia committing suicide and a lifetime of guilt for Hollingsworth emphasizes Blithedale's lack of harmony. The love triangle--or love quadrangle, to acknowledge Coverdale's midlife confession that he loved Priscilla--pulses with emotional energies for which Fourier's vision of harmonic love cannot account. In a secluded patch of the forest that they call "Eliot's Pulpit" after the missionary John Eliot, Zenobia suddenly takes Hollingsworth's hand and presses it to her chest. Coverdale remarks that, even if she had "gasped out--'I love you Hollingsworth!'" she could not have made her meaning more clear; indeed, Priscilla immediately "droop[s]" in response (3: 125). Coverdale cannot take the role of confesseur and neatly sort out a mutually beneficial and agreed-upon solution. Instead, he worsens the situation by teasing Priscilla: "[A]t this very instant," he asks her of Zenobia, "you feel her to be your dearest friend?" (3: 136).
These troubles illustrate the failure of Fourier's theory of the passions. The community at first gathers, according to Coverdale, under the guiding passion of familiar love, but their individual interests and attachments clash in ways that undermine Blithedale's Utopian mission. Although the free exchange of romantic love and sex is a cornerstone of Fourier's vision of Harmony, the proliferation of the "tender passion," even in Coverdale's small circle, results only in disorder. The novel depicts Fourierist passional guidance as perverting even well-intentioned goals. During his midlife reflection on Blithedale's decline, Coverdale notes that another guiding passion, philanthropy, rots the heart: "[T]he rich juices of which God never meant should be pressed violently out, and distilled into alcoholic liquor, by an unnatural process; but should render life sweet, bland, and gently beneficent, and insensibly influence other hearts and other lives to the same blessed end" (3: 243). Fourierist theory, with its charts, tables, and managerial impulses, is another sort of "unnatural process" by which to manage the emotions; ultimately, the novel suggests, those emotions cannot be distilled into another form (3: 243).
When Coverdale decides to take a holiday from the community, he does so after the ill will that follows an argument with Hollingsworth about philanthropy radiates to the other members of the community:
My outbreak with Hollingsworth, though never definitely known to our associates, had really an effect upon the moral atmosphere of the Community. It was incidental to the closeness of relationship into which we had brought ourselves, that an unfriendly state of feeling could not occur between any two members without the whole society being more or less commoded and made uncomfortable thereby. This species of nervous sympathy (though a pretty characteristic enough, sentimentally considered, and apparently betokening an actual bond of love among us) was yet found rather inconvenient in its practical operation, mortal tempers being so infirm and variable as they are. If one of us happened to give his neighbor a box on the ear, the tingle was immediately felt on the same side of everybody's head. Thus, even on the supposition that we were far less quarrelsome than the rest of the world, a great deal of time was necessarily wasted in rubbing our ears. (3: 139)
This passage constitutes a crucial moment in how the novel depicts the emotional life of communities. Coverdale characterizes his argument with Hollingsworth as an "outbreak," which in 1852 had only recently gained the medical connotations it carries today; the Oxford English Dictionary dates the earliest use of the word in its medical sense to 1836 (at the time, it was a word used to describe an "increase in the incidence of a disease" or "an epidemic of infectious disease"). The definition of outbreak as an "outburst of feeling or passion, of hostilities," appears from 1562 to the present day. Coverdale makes the word into a pun, playing with its medical associations and emphasizing the way that the quarrel reverberates across the community despite its being "never definitely known to our associates" (3: 139). He then explains that this peculiar event is "incidental to the closeness of relationship, into which we had brought ourselves"; in other words, the transmission of emotion from one person to the next--ultimately, to "the whole society"--arises as a function of the intimate social ties that bind Blithedale members (3: 139).
Coverdale terms the phenomenon "a species of nervous sympathy" (3: 139). In doing so, he gestures toward the contemporary scientific doctrine of nervous sympathy, a physiological explanation for emotional contagion and group psychology. Despite nervous sympathy's significant explanatory power in antebellum science and medicine, scholars of American literature have generally overlooked sympathy as a physiological process. What has gone unnoticed, as Mary Fairclough writes, is that sympathy bears "the strong influence of contemporary understandings of nervous function on moral philosophical expression"; although eighteen-century theorists of sympathy such as Adam Smith and David Hume sought to portray sympathy as an emotional or imaginative act of the mind, the phenomenon, especially in the nineteenth century, takes on physiological characteristics (33). And in both antebellum America and contemporary Britain, the moral-social and medical definitions of sympathy become twined. Evelyn Forget explains that these concepts of sympathy were interwoven for two reasons: One is that "ideas were not constrained by disciplinary boundaries" in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, so that "there was no clear distinction between medicine and what was to become social theory" (283). The other is that a "logical continuity" exists "between physiological and sociological investigations":
The same physiological communication that was imagined to account for somatic sympathy was used to explain the effects of the "passions of the mind" on the sensations and impressions of the body. And the "passions of the mind," these physicians noted, are very often infectious, illustrating one form of the unconscious communication between different people that is captured by the concept of "social sympathy." (283)
Nervous sympathy offers its own model of the passions in society, one in which the passions exist within the mind and can be unconsciously transmitted. One person's anger might transmit to another, though the latter might have no object for her anger; a person might cry simply out of nervous resonance with another's crying. This way of thinking about emotion is the polar opposite of that provided by Fourier, who insists on the constancy of the passional elements that make up one's personality (Beecher 238). The failure or inability to express one's natural passional makeup leads, for Fourier, to civilized repression and its attendant ills. In a phalanx, if nothing else a model of emotional equilibrium and harmony, nervous sympathy would be disastrous.
Coverdale's description of nervous sympathy resonates with that given by Emerson in his essay "Worship" (1860) of a paradigmatically "nervous" community of Shakers:
Men as naturally make a state, or a church, as caterpillars a web. If they were more refined, it would be less formal, it would be nervous, like that of the Shakers, who, from long habit of thinking and feeling together, it is said, are affected in the same way, at the same time, to work and to play, and as they go with perfect sympathy to their tasks in the held or shop, so are they inclined for a ride or a journey at the same instant, and the horses come up with the family carriage unbespoken to the door. (3: 203)
The Shakers, in a "perfect sympathy" that is "less formal" but perhaps "more refined" than that of either a state or a church, act in unison (3: 203). What works for the Shakers, however, does not work for Blithedale: the nervous sympathy wrought by the members' close relationships is not sustainable. Despite being "a pretty characteristic enough," it is "inconvenient in its practical operation, mortal tempers being so infirm and variable as they are" (3: 139). Although Blithedale members might be less given to arguing than others, a strike to a single person's ear will be "immediately felt, on the same side of everybody's head"; thus, an inordinate amount of time is spent "in rubbing our ears" (3: 139). Nervous sympathy, rather than distributing the pain of a strike equally across all group members (as Fourier might have hoped), instead multiplies it.
I do not wish to confuse nervous sympathy with mesmerism, which critics such as Samuel Chase Coale and Taylor Stoehr have identified as the primary scientific discipline that Blithedale addresses. After Coverdale falls ill early in his residency at Brook Farm, he muses that, "in a reduced state of the corporeal system," the soul "gets the better of the body," making sick persons susceptible to others' sympathetic influence; he thinks that Zenobia's influence "transformed [him], during this period of [his] weakness, into something like a mesmerical clairvoyant" (3: 46-47). Hawthorne was opposed to the ways that mesmerism seems to violate the notion of an independent soul: in a letter to Sophia, he writes that "the sacredness of an individual is violated by it; there would be an intrusion into the holy of holies" (Letters 1813-1843 588). He worried, especially in regard to his wife, who sought mesmeric cures for her headaches, that the discipline's mysterious power made mesmerized persons too subject to the wishes of their mesmerists.
Blithedale's lyceum scene dramatizes such anxieties. Westervelt, Zenobia's former lover and a mesmerist, gives public demonstrations of a "phenomenon in the mesmeric line" that grants, as a spectator tells Coverdale, "miraculous power of one human being over the will and passions of another, such that settled grief was but a shadow, beneath the influence of a man possessing this potency" (3: 5, 198). The subject of his demonstration is Priscilla, who is revealed to be the "Veiled Lady" Coverdale sees the night before he initially departs for Blithedale. Coverdale remarks that his "horror and disgust" at the demonstration are "unutterable"; he is outraged "that, if these things were to be believed, the individual soul was virtually annihilated, and all that is sweet and pure, in our present life, debased, and that the idea of man's eternal responsibility was made ridiculous" (3: 198). Though at no point in this scene does Coverdale refer to Westervelt's power as mesmerism, his comment that it would not have "surprised me, had he pretended to hold up a portion of his universally pervasive fluid, as he affirmed it to be, in a glass phial" appears to allude to mesmeric fluid (3: 200). (4)
The difference between mesmerism and nervous sympathy is that, whereas mesmerism operates on the basis of the mesmerist's will, the action of nervous sympathy is unconscious. If "I were to will it," Westervelt says of Priscilla, "she could hear the desert-wind sweeping over the sands.... Nor does there exist the moral inducement, apart from my own behest, that could persuade her to lift the silvery veil, or arise out of that chair!" (3: 202). The pathway of influence is willful and unidirectional. This is why, when Westervelt speaks of the coming mesmeric Utopia as "an era that would link soul to soul, and the present life to what we call futurity, with a closeness that should finally convert both worlds into one great, mutually conscious brotherhood," Coverdale whiffs sepulchral air; like Hollingsworth's philanthropy and Fourier's socialism, mesmerism is just one more dead end on the road to Utopia (3: 200). (5) The closest that Coverdale comes to experiencing a "mutually conscious brotherhood" is through nervous sympathy, and he finds even that connection uncomfortably powerful.
Throughout the novel, nervous sympathy undergirds Coverdale's understanding of the emotions that structure group affiliation. During the first evening in Silas Foster's home, for example, Coverdale realizes that the communitarians "were inevitably estranged from the rest of mankind, in pretty fair proportion with the strictness of our mutual bond among ourselves" (3: 20-21). The tightness of the group, instead of strengthening their commitment to better the world, puts them "in a position of new hostility, rather than new brotherhood," toward it (3: 20). Their sympathy, in its tendency to draw the group together, overflows their Utopian intentions for it. Nervous sympathy thus serves as a counter-discourse to Fourierist theory: whereas Fourier understands a group's passional attraction in terms of passional chords and harmonies independent of the persons affected by them, the Blithedale communitarians' nervous bonds are between themselves, not their personality types. The emotional volatility that arises as a result of nervous sympathy foreclosed the passional stability promised by Fourier. Ultimately, that volatility becomes a sort of insanity: Coverdale feels "dizz [ied]" by "such fermentation of opinions as was going on in the general brain of the Community" (3: 140). When Blithedale's inhabitants share one brain (a paradigmatic definition of nervous sympathy), the commune itself becomes "a kind of Bedlam" (3: 140).
Discussions of sympathy in Hawthorne's works, as Sam Halliday writes, tend to focus on Adam Smith's conception of sympathy as "the capacity to reproduce in one's own person the emotions one perceives in others" (109). This capacity is "the moral philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment": sympathy's ability to create "concern for others" was thought to be "the root of moral conduct and social life more generally" (109). But this sort of imaginative sympathy risks the sympathizer's gaining "agency over the sufferer," who loses something of his identity in the act of sympathetic identification, as Christopher Castiglia has noted (124). Understood this way, Frank Christianson writes, "Coverdale's sympathetic observation is invariably proprietary," an imaginative act that projects his own identity onto those with whom he sympathizes (249). Compared to Smith's conception of sympathy, nervous sympathy is less an imaginative act than a type of affective contagion. It is automatic and reflexive rather than willful. It works at the level of the nervous system and skirts the notice of consciousness, which is why Coverdale's "outbreak with Hollingsworth" is "never definitely known to our associates" even though it "had really an effect upon the moral atmosphere of the Community" (3: 139). Crucially, as Coverdale's sense of Blithedale as possessing a "general brain" suggests, nervous sympathy is also a communal rather than an individual experience (3: 140). Whereas Smithian sympathy involves the risk of the individual sympathizer reducing others in a community into different versions of himself, nervous sympathy aggregates a community's affections and impresses them upon individuals.
Reading Blithedale in terms of nervous sympathy offers insight into Coverdale's two departures from Blithedale. The first is precipitated by his "outbreak with Hollingsworth": after his rumination on nervous sympathy, Coverdale feels "an inexpressible longing for at least a temporary novelty" (3: 139). That novelty takes the form of removal from the community, even if that might involve "going across the Rocky Mountains, or to Europe, or up the Nile; of offering myself a volunteer on the Exploring Expedition; of taking a ramble of years, no matter in what direction, and coming back on the other side of the world" (3: 140). It does not seem to matter where he might go, so long as he can escape the emotional bonds of the community. In the next paragraph, he narrows his aims: because he feels himself "getting quite out of my reckoning, with regard to the existing state of the world," and because he is "beginning to lose the sense of what kind of a world it was, among innumerable schemes of what it might or ought to be," he decides to return to "the settled system of things" (3: 141). In doing so, he hopes to "correct" his view of the world, which has become skewed by the company of "reformers and progressive people," with the help of "a new observation from that old standpoint." What appears to most bother him about his state of mind in Blithedale is that "[i]t was impossible, situated as we were, not to imbibe the idea that everything in nature and human existence was fluid, or fast becoming so; that the crust of the earth in many places was broken, and its whole surface portentously upheaving" (3: 140). This sense of continuous upheaval and fluidity, brought about by the sustained presence of others who view society as malleable, demonstrates the degree to which Coverdale views the boundaries of his identity as under siege by the power of nervous sympathy. His desire to go somewhere, anywhere, so long as it is far away from Blithedale shows how sympathy is not merely an act of the imagination but a physiological reaction that can be quelled, not through the powers of the mind, but by physically isolating oneself.
Coverdale's need to escape the buzzing unpredictability of nervous sympathy is so strong that it lasts throughout his life. In the novel's closing chapter, he reveals that he never returned to Blithedale after Zenobia's suicide and that he has settled into the predictable life of a middle-aged bachelor despite having been in love with Priscilla. In the first paragraph of that chapter, he alludes to his propensity for others' lives to impress themselves upon his own: "I have made but a poor and dim figure in my own narrative, establishing no separate interest, and suffering my colorless life to take its hue from other lives" (3: 245). Yet his deliberate isolation is precisely what makes his life "colorless." His comfortable financial situation has enabled him to travel "twice to Europe," spending "a year or two rather agreeably at each visit," and he lives "sumptuously every day," and yet he seems to derive no real satisfaction from his life, which he characterizes as "all an emptiness" (3: 246). He has succeeded in removing himself from others' nervous influence, but he has failed to build the lasting social bonds that antebellum physiologists identified as one of nervous sympathy's products.
Ultimately, nervous sympathy's fluid, unmanageable qualities baffle Coverdale just as they do Fourier. Coverdale's habit of imaginatively reducing others to characters in his own private melodramas does not prepare him for the unpredictable reality of social communion. He constantly finds himself surprised, confused, or hurt when others do not act as he assumes that they will, such as when Zenobia lovingly presses Hollingsworth's hand to her bosom. Comfort comes only with removal, either to his arboreal hermitage or away from Blithedale altogether. Similarly, nervous sympathy frustrates the Fourierist assumption that individuals' personalities are consistent and predictable. More importantly, it calls into question whether reformist communities can be formed and managed according to philosophical principles. If the vagaries of human emotion do exceed social reformers' capacity to organize them toward a common end, then the novel challenges not just Fourierism but all forms of antebellum Associationism. The Blithedale Romance, finally, asks us to inquire not whether Utopia is politically possible but whether it is physiologically possible.
Josh Doty is an Assistant Professor of English at Spring Hill College. His essays on American literature and science have appeared in Early American Literature and Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies.
(1.) Brook Farm begin in 1841, not as a Fourierist enterprise, but rather as a joint-stock company whose shareholders, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, were "guaranteed," as Philip Gura writes. "5 percent annual interest on their investment and shares set at five hundred dollars" (157). All labor was compensated equally, and men and women received equal pay, but Brook Farm did not shift to Fourierism until early 1844, when the community's financial troubles drove it to adopt new economic principles (165). In 1845. George Ripley renamed the community the Brook Farm Phalanx, in reference to Fourier's term for a commune (167).
(2.) In Social Destiny of Man, Albert Brisbane glosses "civilization" as "the social system in which we live, as it now is" (xi).
(3.) Hawthorne is not the only one in his social circle to reference the figure of the confesseur: as Gura notes, Caroline Sturgis, Margaret Fuller's "young protegee and one of Emerson's closest female friends," wrote the young philosopher a flirtatious letter in 184,5 in which she jokingly urges him to "always be a good father confessor" to the young people of his coterie (174).
(4.) Franz Mesmer, the father of mesmerism or "animal magnetism," theorized the influence of fluid, penetrative magnetic forces upon the human body: he believed "that the planets have a magnetic influence on physiological and pathological processes, the celestial magnetic influence entering the body to become insinuated into the substance of the nerves to enhance their power of action" (Ochs 117).
(5.) The concept of a mesmeric Utopia originates in Fourier's contemporary Nicolas Bergasse, who studied the effects of magnetism and electricity on French society and proposed that the mesmeric fluid could facilitate worldwide political harmony (Darnton 114).
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|Author:||Doty, Benjamin Joshua|
|Publication:||Nathaniel Hawthorne Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2019|
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