Hawthorne's "material ghosts": photographic realism and liminal selfhood in the House Of The Seven Gables.
Ultimately, what I am seeking in the photograph taken of me (the "intention" according to which I look at it) is Death: Death is the eidos of that Photograph.--Roland Barthes
There is no such thing as a true portrait. ... They are all delusions.--Nathaniel Hawthorne
In the summer of 1857, Nathaniel Hawthorne's sojourn as a United States consul in Liverpool was pleasantly interrupted by several excursions to the historic Manchester Arts Exhibition. The exhibition was an extremely successful, if unlikely, showcase of art gathered from some of the finest private collections in England. (1) Hawthorne's initial impression, however, was that the Manchester exhibit, "like every great show," was a "kind of humbug" that forced even the most conscientious viewer merely to "[skim] the surface" (343) because of the vast quantity of works on display. In the English Notebooks, a frustrated Hawthorne complains: "Such a quantity of objects must be utterly rejected, before you can get any real profit from one!" (343). Nevertheless, Hawthorne's subsequent visits, chronicled in notebook and journal entries, reveal more sustained encounters with various schools, artists, and works, and his attempted self-education in art and self-conscious examination of how the visual arts enlarge or challenge his own aesthetic views as a writer. As he remarks in a letter to his friend and publisher James T. Fields, "We spent several weeks in Manchester, and went most diligently to the Arts-Exhibition; and I really begin to be sensible of the rudiments of a taste in pictures" (Letters XVIII 95).
For Hawthorne, who, in the preface to The House of the Seven Gables (1851) utilizes the artistic metaphor of chiaroscuro when he announces that he will "manage his atmospherical medium as to bring out or mellow the lights and deepen and enrich the shadows of the picture" (1), painting, and, in particular, portraiture, offers a useful visual correlative for the literary romance. As Gordon Hutner has observed, The House of the Seven Gables, like many of Hawthorne's works, emphasizes the "transformative process of representation" (79), specifically the ability of representation to "express the 'secret character' of [its] subjects" (79). Uncovering the spiritual meaning beyond the appearance of the actual is central to Hawthorne's thinking about the role of the writer and artist. "Poetic insight," explains the narrator of Seven Gables, observing with frustration the grotesque figure of Hepzibah Pyncheon, "is the gift of discerning ... the beauty and majesty which are compelled to assume a garb so sordid" (41). It is this ability to make transparent the spiritual meaning behind ordinary objects that Hawthorne finds appealing in Dutch paintings. When reflecting in his journal on the artistic accomplishments of "old Dutch masters" (Heart 245) represented at the Manchester Arts Exhibition, he notes, for example, the paintings' expression of the "perfect realities" of common, domestic objects, beyond even what a photograph could accomplish; and yet, he acknowledges, "it is strange how spiritual and suggestive the commonest household article ... becomes when represented with entire accuracy" (246). "These Dutchmen," Hawthorne concludes, "get at the soul of common things, and so make them types and interpreters of the spiritual world" (246). In "The Custom House" (1850), he imagines a similar transubstantiation of the actual under the play of the "dim coal-fire" of the hearth and the "cold spirituality of the moonbeams" (Scarlet 47). Under these ocular influences, the "little domestic scenery of the well-known apartment" (46) is famously converted into a "neutral territory" (46) where forms of the fancy are imbued with the "sensibilities of human tenderness" (47).
In contrast to the obvious pleasure he takes in the "spiritualizing" power of the Dutch painters, Hawthorne responds to the works of certain Pre-Raphaelite painters at the Manchester Exhibition with a mixture of intellectual curiosity, artistic frustration, and barely-concealed horror. Reflecting on an unspecified painting by William Holman Hunt, he writes:
The only modern pictures that accomplish a higher end than that of pleasing the eye--the only ones that really take hold of the mind (and they do it with a kind of acerbity, like unripe fruit)--are the works of Hunt, and one or two other painters of the Pre-Raphaelite school. They seem willfully to abjure all beauty, and make their pictures disagreeable out of mere malice; but, at any rate, for the thought and feeling which are ground up with the paint, they will bear looking at. Never was anything so stiff and unnatural as they appear; although every single thing represented seems to be taken directly out of life and reality, and, as it were, pasted down upon the canvas. They almost paint even separate hairs. Accomplishing so much, and so perfectly, it seems unaccountable that the picture does not live; but Nature has an art beyond these painters, and they leave out some medium--some enchantment that should intervene, and keep the object from pressing so baldly and harshly upon the spectator's eyeballs. With the most lifelike reproduction, there is no illusion. I think if a semi-obscurity were thrown over the picture, after finishing it to this nicety, it might bring it nearer to nature. (Heart 240-41)
It is impossible to say with absolute certainty which of Hunt's works Hawthorne found to be at once so compelling and so disturbing since his journal provides the reader with only scant details, formal traits, and visceral reactions rather than general descriptions of the painting's content. Hunt's 1851 painting, The Hireling Shepherd, seems the most likely candidate, however, since it was, in fact, showcased at the 1857 Manchester Arts Exhibition and received--in apparent agreement with Hawthorne's own view--a less than warm reception by the public.
The painting depicts a neglectful shepherd who offers a death's-head moth to a reclining female companion for her perusal. While the shepherd thus neglects his duty--both indulging his own superstitious curiosity and his amorous interests in his companion--the flock of hungry sheep pictured in the background of the painting wander into a corn field where they become fatally distended after the corn they have consumed ferments in their bellies (Macmillan 193). According to John Duncan Macmillan, The Hireling Shepherd reflects the Pre-Raphaelites' typical pairing of "intense scientific naturalism" with "serious moral purpose" (191) adapted from Ruskin's theory of modern art.
At the level of allegory, the painting reiterates a familiar religious warning against indulgence in earthly pleasure at the expense of spiritual salvation: death is the "consequence of sin" (191). Responses to the painting by some contemporary observers, however, would seem to indicate their detection of something objectionable in excess of the painting's overt symbolic message. Suzanne Fagence Cooper points out that when Hunt's painting, previously exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1852, was showcased at the Manchester Arts Exhibition with several other Pre-Raphaelite works as an example of the British avant-garde, the editors of the London Saturday Review found it to be "more repulsive than ever for the brutal ugliness of its figure" (qtd. in Fagence Cooper 4). Already in 1852, the editors of The Illustrated London News decried what they perceived to be the "absurdity and sickly affectation" ("Exhibition" 407) of certain Pre-Raphaelite conceits, noting, in particular, the "fiery red skin" and "wiry hair" (407) of the peasant figures in Hunt's painting. David Masson of the British Quarterly Review also condemned the apparent vulgar naturalism of The Hireling Shepherd, stating, "There is certainly no attempt at poetry here; for a fellow more capable than the shepherd of drinking a great quantity of beer, or a more sunburnt slut than the shepherdess, we never saw in a picture" (qtd. in Andres 26). The tenor of such objections would seem to indicate that, for some viewers at least, the painting appeared shocking because the bodies, and hence the sexuality of the peasants in Hunt's painting, were viewed as excessive even though the figural content of the painting is not, itself, overtly obscene. Clearly, the familiar and essentially conservative allegorical meaning of the text was overwhelmed by certain unfamiliar and disturbing formal elements, such as an innovative and, at times, visually-jarring color palate, as well as an emphasis on the representation of extreme verisimilitude in figures and textures. (2)
While Hawthorne begins his own commentary on the Pre-Raphaelite paintings by praising their singular ability to intellectually engage the viewer, he too seems confounded, even disturbed by the effects of the realistic, or, to use his term, "literalist[ic]" (Heart 266) aesthetic. The effect of the painting on Hawthorne is, ultimately, one of such intrusion that he interprets the artwork as an act of malice perpetrated by the artist against the spectator. The central dilemma for Hawthorne seems to be: How can something represented as if it were "taken directly out of life and reality" and executed "so perfectly" (240) seem so unlike nature? He appears troubled by the way the transient and elusive aspects of nature are rendered "stiff and unnatural" (240) in Hunt's painting, and, most importantly, how the subject of the painting is reduced to its component details (as if even "separate hairs"  were painted). The problem with the painting is, ironically, that it is too lifelike to "live," reproducing the details of the actual with such mimetic precision that the object represented presses "baldly and harshly upon the spectator's eyeballs" (241) rather than creating and sustaining an illusion. Instead of "entering" into the Pre-Raphaelite painting via some seductive (or ameliorative) quality of ambiguity, concealment, or illusion--as Hawthorne is apparently able to do with the realistic Dutch paintings--the viewer is essentially forced out of the pictorial frame by the oversaturation of the image itself. The Hireling Shepherd is an excellent example of the ways in which technical and/or formal innovations in a representation can, on occasion, unsettle, not only the cultural assumptions of the viewer with regard to Art, but also--as I will describe at length in what follows--the viewing position itself. If, for Hawthorne, a painting becomes "something ... like magic" (299) when form and content cohere--when renaissance perspective and technique coincide with moral imagery--as he remarks of Raphael's Madonna Della Seggiola (1513-1514), it becomes unaccountably disturbing when certain formal elements seem to disorient, threaten, or challenge the viewer, turning desire back on itself and inducing a feeling of shame and disgust.
If, as Kenneth Dauber has observed, "the goal of [Hawthorne's] writing" is the resolution of the "opposition of self to other" (53), his understanding of the self is based upon the notion that the perpetual confrontation with otherness is both the source of, and threat to, identity. In what follows, my analysis of Pre-Raphaelite painting and, in particular, Hawthorne's reaction to it will serve principally as a point of departure for considering the ontological and ethical implications of photographic realism--the type of verisimilitude represented by Hunt's painting and, especially, the daguerreotype photography of the mid-nineteenth century--on Hawthorne's understanding of the self as he imagines it in The House of the Seven Gables. Utilizing the psychoanalytic concept of the gaze, I first consider the potential threat of the excessive appearance of what Hawthorne calls the actual to the constitution of the self, and then the role of the romance in preserving the ontological concomitant to what Hawthorne calls the "soul of common things" (Heart 246), namely, transcendental selfhood.
In the ambiguous representation of the daguerreian portrait, both elusive due to its mirrored, unsteady surface and static in its mimetic, scientific objectivity, Hawthorne presents a complex view of the self as both ontologically emergent and bordering on ontological destitution--at once a "material ghost" (House 105) and an animate corpse. While, late in the novel, Clifford Pyncheon exclaims to Hepzibah upon leaving the House of the Seven Gables, "'We are ghosts! We have no right among human beings ...'" (169), virtually all of the inmates of the house, in one form or another, suffer a similar ontological crisis. Victims all of an ancient curse and the unwilling, shadowy actors in an historical drama that seems doomed to endlessly repeat itself, they must discover how to cross the "threshold" into being. The House of the Seven Gables reflects not only Hawthorne's attempts to grapple with the implications of modern technologies of representation on a transcendental conception of personal identity, but also, specifically in the love story of Holgrave and Phoebe, his continued effort to (re)conceptualize the meaning of the romance as an artistic and decidedly ethical mode of relation between the self and others.
Hawthorne's sense of uneasiness regarding Pre-Raphaelite artwork reflects his fundamental belief that art should function as a form of mediation, a "neutral territory" (Scarlet 31), to return to his phrase from "The Custom House," between self and other (ness). Explaining his own authorial intent and aims for the romance (as opposed to the more realistic novel), Hawthorne, in the preface to Seven Gables, famously describes the potential for the violation of the reader's rights and for the perversion of the imperatives of art. In terms evocative of his criticism of the Pre-Raphaelites, he observes:
When romances do really teach anything, or produce any effective operation, it is usually through a far more subtile process than the ostensible one. The Author has considered it hardly worth his while, therefore, relentlessly to impale the story with its moral, as with an iron rod--or rather, as by sticking a pin through a butterfly--thus at once depriving it of life, and causing it to stiffen in an ungainly and unnatural attitude. (2)
For Hawthorne, the function of art is to support (at least the appearance of) the transcendental dignity of the individual self; the failure or rejection of this task, he suggests, amounts to both an artistic and ethical failure.(3) Due to formal innovations in color, texture, and technique, along with an overtly strident moral, The Hireling Shepherd disturbingly mingles signifiers of sexuality with intimations of death and decay in ways that mortify, or, to use Hawthorne's term, "impale" both the subject of the painting and the unsuspecting viewer. The peasant girl in Hunt's painting, the supposed object of the viewer's desire, is, to borrow Hawthorne's phrase, grotesquely "pasted down upon the canvas" (Heart 241) and reproduced as a cadaver, offered unceremoniously for the viewer's examination. Reclining in the grass, she, nevertheless, directs her haughty stare, invitingly, if confrontationally at the viewer, thereby unsettling the male spectator's expectations for viewing the female body from a position of "outsider-surveyor." (4) The death's-head moth, a point of resistance within the painting's narrative imagery (since neither the hireling nor his mistress recognize its true portent), functions as both the symbolic center of the piece and as a locus point for the viewer's self-conscious anxiety, or what Jacques Lacan calls the "gaze." (5) The death's-head "looks" at the viewer who is, in effect, "caught" in the act of perusing the startling arrangement of a familiar allegory, a shocking color scheme, and the awful density of painted flesh and hair. The peasant girl's earthy glance is, in this instant, marked with the inexplicable and anxiety-provoking appearance of death. Bringing to mind the words of Hawthorne's narrator from The Blithedale Romance (1852), Miles Coverdale, who comments on an indeterminately offensive aspect in the countenance of the mesmerist Westervelt, Hunt's painting bears "the naked exposure of something that ought not to be left prominent" (92).
Hawthorne's ironic solution to the problem posed by the Pre-Raphaelites' realism is the addition of a "semi-obscurity," a partial concealment, that would bring the representation "nearer to nature" (Heart 241), precisely by attempting to open up a gap between the spectator and the image. According to Hawthorne, the actual--the bare substance of life--appears to have the quality of living nature only when, through the means of a type of double-vision, the spectator is able to sustain an illusion and maintain his or her security from a distance. In the aesthetic terms of the romance (and in some of Hawthorne's most iconic representations of it), it is the veil that distances the viewer from the disturbing, excessive aspects of the actual that is missing from the Pre-Raphaelite painting. The structure of distancing provided by the veil is what, paradoxically, produces the effect of the viewer's sense of absorption into the pictorial space.(6) For, as Clark Davis has explained, the veil "shrouds, brings darkness," but also "initiates desire" (49); acting as a permeable barrier between self and other, it ensures the essential space of privacy or intimacy (7) that allows for the cultivation of what, in "The Custom House," Hawthorne refers to as the "inmost Me behind its veil" (4). It is in this space of intimacy, observes cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek, that the modern subject emerges:
[T]he break of modernity, the rise of the modern subject, equals the emergence of the space of intimacy: the subject asserts itself as the subject of the gaze who masters the world by first seeing it from a safe distance, from a dark place beyond the Other's gaze. Unseen, I see. This is what the Cartesian cogito ultimately amounts to: I am insofar as I am not seen, insofar as the core of my being dwells in an "intimate" space that escapes the Other's public gaze. This exemption is an illusion, however, a screen against the fact that, prior to seeing, I am here for the Other's gaze. (178) (8)
If the modern subject must locate itself in reality within the field of the symbolic Other through social identifications, it defines itself as a self, in its authenticity, in the "core of [its] being" (178), or what Hawthorne calls the "inmost Me" (Scarlet 4), in terms of intimacy and withdrawal. It is "there" in that private "space" of intimacy that the subject emerges as a subject of dignity, in the modern Kantian sense of personhood. Ralph Waldo Emerson memorably locates that vital space at the vanishing point of the horizon. "In that tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon," he declares, "man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature" (7). As Zizek points out, however, this transcendental "exemption" is an illusion, hiding the fact that, so far as the subject exists in empirical reality, it is "givento-be-seen" under the "Other's public gaze" (178); consequently, the subject remains vulnerable to losing its transcendence and being reduced to its status as an object in a field of other objects. The psychoanalytic theorist, Joan Copjec, describes the ontological implications of this conflict in one's relation to the Other's gaze as that of being "looked at from all sides by a nomadic gaze" versus being "visible to an all-seeing God" and experiencing "ourselves as part of some whole" (216). In the second perspective, one which preserves the space of intimacy, she explains, "we are no longer visible in the world, but fully visible only outside it" (216).
For Hawthorne, there is something in the Pre-Raphaelite painting, in contrast to those sublime works of the Dutch masters, that blocks, disables the viewer's ability to move from the mimetic image on the canvas to spiritual or transcendental meaning, and ultimately, the recognition of a transcendental self. Such a failure, as I have described it in relation to contemporary viewings of Hunt's The Hireling Shepherd, coincides with the spectators' disturbing encounter with what was perceived as an intrusive and moribund sexuality. Rather than supporting the viewer's sense of transcendence, the act of viewing, itself, becomes, as in the case in Hawthorne's viewing of the Pre-Raphaelite painting, a self-conscious reflection/enactment of the vexing corporeality displayed before the spectator on the canvas. The gaze is located neither as a point of disappearance within Renaissance spatial perspective nor as a mark of ambiguity or limit that incites desire, specifically, the desire to uncover a missing signified of spiritual truth. In either of these cases, the spectator could maintain a belief in his or her transcendental position by virtue of the fact that such a position is supported by an "all-seeing God" (since pictorial meaning is oriented towards some unifying transcendental perspective), or what Hawthorne describes in Seven Gables as a "comprehensive sympathy above us" (41). It is precisely this loss of transcendence Hawthorne describes in relation to the Pre-Raphaelite painting that becomes the basis for his thinking about the nature of modern selfhood and the disturbing aspects of daguerreotype photography in Seven Gables. These ontological anxieties are examined first, however, in the characterization of Clifford Pyncheon.
While Hawthorne was, I believe, personally committed to the nineteenth-century notions of spiritual transcendence and romantic idealism, many of his written works explore potentially disturbing aspects of the self. In The Blithedale Romance, for example, Miles Coverdale, when witnessing a lecture on the nineteenth-century pseudo-science of mesmerism, expresses his repulsion at its spiritual implications:
Human character was but soft wax in [the mesmerist's] hands; and guilt, or virtue, only the forms into which he should see fit to mould it. The religious sentiment was a flame which he could blow up with his breath, or a spark that he could utterly extinguish. It is unutterable, the horror and disgust with which I listened, and saw, that, if these things were to be believed, the individual soul was virtually annihilated. ... (198)
Coverdale's disgust at the mesmerist's lecture may reflect Hawthorne's own concerns about the dangers of probing into the human psyche, or what he referred to as the "holy of holies" (qtd. in Brown 87). As Gillian Brown has observed, Hawthorne's own resistance to his wife's interest in mesmerism stems from his belief that it exposed "not only 'the sacredness of an individual' but the fact of the accessibility of individual interiority" (87). Beyond this, one may discover that the soul is, in the end, "an empty chamber waiting, for a guest" (Hawthorne, qtd. in Coale 14). Such is the status of Clifford when he is first introduced to the reader in The House of the Seven Gables.
Clifford, falsely accused by his cousin Jaffrey Pyncheon and sentenced to thirty years in prison, is portrayed as a grotesque, ruined figure. When we are first introduced to Clifford, he is little more than a "vague murmur" (97) emanating from a shadowy corner of the gabled mansion. Described as a "material ghost" (105) whose intellect and animating spirit seems to come and go like the flickering of a flame (104) or the ephemeral reflection on the mirrored surface of a daguerreotype, Clifford is marked by obscurity even at the level of his being. In a passage built upon essential contradictions, the narrator observes:
[H]e faded away out of his place; or, in other words, his mind and consciousness took their departure, leaving his wasted, gray, and melancholy figure--a substantial emptiness, a material ghost--to occupy his seat at table. Again, after a blank moment, there would be a flickering taper-gleam in his eyeballs. It betokened that his spiritual part had returned, and was doing its best to kindle the heart's house-hold fire, and light up intellectual lamps in the dark and ruinous mansion, where it was doomed to be a forlorn inhabitant. (105)
By stating later in the novel that Clifford is like "almost everybody" (157), the narrator implicitly universalizes what, on the surface, seem to be singular and bizarre characteristics. Specifically, in his extreme condition of internal antagonism (between the ideal and the material, the spiritual and the animalistic), Clifford reflects Hawthorne's understanding of the ontological deadlock of the self. Because Clifford has spent three decades enclosed by the "four stone-walls" (110) of a dark prison cell, he embodies the Lockean tabula rasa, having no ideas save that of the beautiful to support his identity. As a consequence, Clifford is characterized as experiencing the waxing and waning of ideational support, moments when he can temporarily be spiritually and ontologically "propped up." At such moments, we are told, "the opaque substance of his animal being" grew "transparent, or, at least, translucent; so that a spiritual gleam was transmitted through it, with a clearer luster than hitherto" (107). More disturbing implications of Clifford's characterization are hinted at when it is connected to the problem of temporality in the constitution of the self in general. The narrator observes, "With a mysterious and terrible Past, which had annihilated his memory, and a blank Future before him, he had only this visionary and impalpable Now, which, if you once look closely at it, is nothing" (149).
William J. Scheick has persuasively argued that Hawthorne's notion of personal identity represented by Clifford may have been influenced by his reading of the skeptical empiricism of David Hume while at Bowdoin College. If, according to Hume, the imagination, which relies on contiguity, and memory, which relies on resemblances, cannot be viewed as the source of true knowledge of the world, then personal identity must, itself, be seen as nothing more than a "necessary" fiction (Scheick 134). Hume argues that if the faculties of the senses and the operations of the imagination and memory are what make our identities persist in time, it follows that we are no longer actual persons, but nonentities, when those faculties are at rest, as in sleep. In A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), Hume writes, "Ourself, independent the perception of every other object, is in reality nothing" (340). This view of the self, Scheick observes, leads to the rather disconcerting conclusion that humans are, essentially, "a form of living dead ... merely animated corpses for whom the lack of personal identity--which is equivalent to nonbeing (death)--is the paradoxical ground of our self-less (soul-less) animated bodies" (134). Clifford, occupying the "impalpable Now" (House 340) of temporal existence, represents the self at the liminal juncture of becoming and non-being. In addition, Hawthorne suggests that because Clifford lacks a substantial interiority, he is driven by an idealizing impulse that threatens to further compromise both his own identity and his ability to relate to others.
In a memorable scene from the "Arched Window" chapter from Seven Gables, for example, the narrator gives us insight into the pathological idealizing desire of Clifford Pyncheon's glance as a political parade passes. The narrator explains that the "fool's play" of the procession marked by the "tedious common-place of each man's visage" can only become "majestic ... by its remoteness" (165). E. Michael Jones has argued that this form of dualism between the abstract ideal and the pressing actual represents a central ambivalence in nineteenth-century thinking about the possibility of a relationship between the individual and the world. He explains that according to this perspective,
[I]f the self chooses contact with the world, the danger is that it will become reified and absorbed by the mechanical universe. If, on the other hand, the self refuses all intercourse with the world, it runs the danger of becoming an insubstantial ghost, forever flitting over it, unable to find any connection with it or the substantial types ... who inhabit it. (54)
As Clifford looks out onto a political parade, the narrator observes, "With a shivering repugnance at the idea of personal contact with the world, a powerful impulse still seized on Clifford, whenever the rush and roar of the human tide grew strongly audible to him" (House 165). The repugnance that Clifford feels at the thought of "personal contact with the world" is represented by images of the "tedious common-place of each man's visage" (165); it is only distance that "melts all the petty personalities" into "one broad mass of existence--one great life--one collected body of mankind, with a vast, homogeneous spirit animating it" (165). While Clifford cannot relate to humanity in its messy and often-repugnant particularity, his wish to relate to it from an idealized, detached perspective proves to be potentially lethal. The narrator informs us that Clifford, tottering on the window's ledge, "would hardly be restrained from plunging into the surging stream of human sympathies" (165).
In this scene, Hawthorne describes a form of sympathy that is abstracted to the point that it risks the individual's own disintegration. This might be regarded as Hawthorne's ironic answer to Emerson's famous "Transparent Eyeball" metaphor in the essay Nature (1836) that describes a moment of sublime exaltation paired with an apparent loss of self: "Standing on the bare ground--my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space--all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God" (6). By contrast, Clifford's sublime experience of having "all mean egotism" vanish verges on the suicidal rather than the transcendent. Because he has no middle ground, no fixed perspective from which to view at least his own symbolic disappearance into an idealized perspective, his sense of self collapses into the phantasmagorical ideal. The only two positions available to Clifford are, it seems, a suffocating over-proximity, which disgusts and repels, and a sublime surge of universal spirit (a disembodied perspective that subtracts the particular and idealizes sameness), which comes dangerously close to annihilating identity altogether. As Edgar A. Dryden asserts, this kind of detachment, examined often in Hawthorne's writing, ultimately constitutes a "form of hallucination" (33) that separates "man and total reality" (34). Insulated as he is within the veil of his own few ideas, Clifford's hallucinatory vision represents a pathological form of artistic detachment. As the narrator explains, Clifford's "images of women had more and more lost their substance, and been frozen, like the pictures of secluded artists, into the chilliest ideality" (House 140). And even though Phoebe is able to "bring him back into the breathing world" (140), the narrator reveals that she "was not an actual fact for him, but the interpretation of all that he had lacked on earth, brought warmly home to his conception; so that this mere symbol or lifelike picture had almost the comfort of reality" (142). Clifford, it is implied, is a thwarted artist, and his hallucinatory detachment from the world resembles the failures of an artist, such as Owen Warland of "The Artist of the Beautiful" (1844), whose greatest artistic achievements symbolize a profound loss of sympathy between himself and the world. Consequently, Hawthorne suggests that Clifford's ontological condition not only corresponds to the aesthetic concerns of the romance, but also that it has an ethical dimension as well.
As we have already seen, the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic "fails," according to Hawthorne's own artistic sensibility, because, while its symbolism effectively "takes hold of the mind" (Heart 240), the appearance of the actual is, due to its extreme realism, suffocating in its over-proximity. For Hawthorne, the romance is, by contrast, a mode for sustaining the dignity of individuals (that is, transcendental selfhood) by veiling the actual; however, such veiling does not entail the complete concealment or evasion of the disturbing or excessive aspects of the actual, which would--as in the case of Clifford--only lead to a self-destructive, hallucinatory solipsism, but rather a sustained attempt at working through, integrating, and transforming such otherness--or the knowledge gained by it--into something spiritually and ontologically sustaining. The aesthetic of the romance, therefore, reflects an essentially open--if reserved--and intimate engagement with the world. As John Dolis has observed, Hawthorne's conception of the romance, itself, reflects the fundamental belief that, within the field of visual and specular relationality, subject-object encounters are mutually constitutive. Dolis explains:
The world of Hawthorne's fiction defrays the inordinate cost of an objectively "neutered" universe, and its bankrupt vision, in favor of a polar and metamorphic reality situated in the individual glance of a perceiver. Amid this "sexually" ambiguous world, the gaze regards the "interiority" (desire) of its objects as they in turn reconstruct the consciousness perceiving them. (50) (9)
In Seven Gables, Hawthorne finds in the representational ambiguities and contradictions of daguerreotype photography a compelling metaphor for both the otherness in the self (precisely its objectivity) and for the romance that would attempt--via aesthetic and ethical negotiations--to integrate/transform it. He suggests, in fact, that it is the encounter with otherness--within the sustaining structure of romance--that must be the basis for ethical relations. The condition for the possibility of the blossoming love between Phoebe and Holgrave, and, ultimately, the resolution to the Pyncheon/Maule feud, is the couple's "lawless" proximity to Jaffrey Pyncheon's corpse and their shared encounter with the possibility of ontological destitution. Their love marks the final transformation of the encounter with excessive otherness into the sympathetic "touch" of radical intimacy through which the self is able to peer into the truth of the actual without enduring the collapse of ontological support.
In a dramatic scene near the end of Seven Gables, the reader witnesses Holgrave, the reclusive daguerreotypist, declare his long-concealed love for Phoebe, the Pyncheons' country cousin, who has just returned to the old mansion to find the corpse of Jaffrey Pyncheon lounging in a chair. Importantly, the scene is framed by Phoebe's confusion about two similar images, namely, the identical daguerreotypes of Jaffrey--one taken while he is living and one taken shortly after his death. In the daguerreotypist's image, "taken within this half-hour" of the discovery of the body, Phoebe recognizes what she observed in a prior image, "the hard and relentless traits of the original" (302); she is not, however, immediately able to detect the essential difference between the images of the living and the dead man. As recognition dawns on her, she finally exclaims, "This is death!" (302).
The scene involving Phoebe, Holgrave, and the corpse of Judge Pyncheon underlines the desubjectivation of the judge (which occurs in an earlier chapter) by offering the daguerreian image as an instance of the encounter with the anxiety-provoking gaze that I described earlier in this essay with regard to Hawthorne's criticism of Pre-Raphaelite artwork and the negative public response to William Holman Hunt's painting, The Hireling Shepherd. Phoebe's mistake serves to emphasize the fact that the only difference between the two images is the ontological status of the subject of the two representations, a difference that cannot itself be represented. While The Hireling Shepherd painting provoked anxiety in its contemporary viewers because of the apparent collapse of its allegorical message under the weight of its challenging verisimilitude and formal innovations (such as a dense application of paint and a novel color palate), Holgrave's daguerreotype disturbs Phoebe because of the formal ambiguities inherent in the medium itself. That is, while Hunt's painting--and the Pre-Raphaelites' realistic aesthetic-challenges the viewer's expectations of Art and the representation of the body, daguerreotype photography, because of its status as objectively "true," reveals an apparent contradiction as to the nature of the self.
Because daguerreotypy is a chemical process through which an image is captured by sunlight on a silver-coated metallic surface, it may entail visually reproducing a living (temporal) subject as a static, detemporalized object. Consequently, the medium may be a productive site of the uncanny, obscuring, as it does, the boundary between animate and inanimate states, internal and external realities. The effect is similar to the moment described by Roland Barthes when the photographic image, because of its "contingent" (34) status within signification, appears to blur the line between the living and the dead. He explains that the experience of sitting for a photograph is an unsettling ordeal in which the individual undergoes the experience of objectification:
[The] photographer must exert himself to the utmost to keep the Photograph from becoming Death. But I--already an object, I do not struggle. ... [B]ut when I discover myself in the product of this operation, what I see is that I have become Total Image, which is to say, Death in person; others--the Other--do not dispossess me of myself, they turn me, ferociously, into an object. (14)
Barthes describes the process of being reproduced as a photographic image as a moment in which the subject experiences a type of living mortification, a moment when death emerges as a spectral double (exposure) that threatens to overtake the "living" signified content of the image itself. (10) Phoebe's initial reaction to Holgrave's daguerreotype of the living judge earlier in the novel betrays her uneasiness with regard to the photographic medium itself. Holgrave encouragingly describes his occupation to Phoebe as "mak[ing] pictures out of sunshine" (House 91), a description that is aimed to elicit sympathy from Phoebe whose name symbolically connects her to the sun. Invoking the romantic notion of penetrating the surface of objects to disclose spiritual truth, Holgrave asserts that the dauguerreian image "actually brings out the secret character with the truth that no painter would ever venture upon, even could he detect it" (91). To these declarations Phoebe replies, "'I don't much like pictures of this sort--they are so hard and stern; besides dodging away from the eye, and trying to escape altogether" (91). Phoebe's response to Holgrave reflects a typical early reaction to the new medium. As Alan Trachtenberg explains, early daguerreotypes were viewed as a "kind of magic realism" (20), often arousing "a strange response, a shudder rather than a smile of pleasure" (23-24). In her rejection of the image of Judge Pyncheon, Phoebe comments on what appears to be a contradiction inherent to the daguerreotype. While Phoebe is disturbed by the "hardness" of "pictures of this sort," indicating her reaction to the extreme detail of the image, she seems equally troubled by the ghostly ephemeral quality of the image, which seems almost to be "dodging away from the eye" (House 91). Accounts of early responses to daguerreotypes confirm these two apparently contradictory impressions.
While Trachtenberg points out that because of the mirror-like quality of the images, "[m]any viewers remarked on the evanescent quality of daguerreian portraits" (26), Richard Rudisill has shown that the "extreme detail" of the daguerreotype was perceived to be "subtly inhuman and disturbing" (39). In her book In Visible Light: Photography and the American Writer, 1840-1940, Carol Shloss observes that the daguerreotype enforced certain assumptions about the relation between empirical evidence and truth: "The camera and the daguerreotype were quickly, almost instinctively, fit into a system of thought that recognized truth in a certain style of nonsubjective vision. Since nature recorded her own appearance, since no individual sensibilities interfered with its rendering, photographs were thought to be true" (33). According to this view, the camera is imagined simply as a witness to nature's own act of self-recording. Even so, for many who sat for daguerreotypes, there was a perceived disjunction between the way they viewed themselves and the way the photographic image re-presented them. Shloss points out that the complaint was typically not that the image did not portray a good likeness (34), but that something essential to their character exceeded the photographic representation:
Their disappointments need not express foiled vanity--though that was almost certainly part of it--but a less easily expressible feeling that their pictures had not "captured" or represented a sense they had of themselves that existed prior to the sitting. Though they could not fault the daguerreotype image in particular--the recorded features were undoubtedly their own--they nonetheless retained a sense that these externals were "true" in very limited and particular ways. They perceived a discrepancy between what they saw represented in a plate and what they felt to be unexpressed in their own character. (34-35)
The ambivalence regarding early photography, in other words, stemmed from the fact that individuals were unable to observe in the daguerreotypes aspects of themselves that they identified as constituting the most essential aspects of their being. (11) Such a discrepancy had the effect of putting into question not the mimetic accuracy of the photograph (since, as Shloss points out, the technology was accepted as a sort of unmediated objective truth), but the unrepresented-and perhaps unrepresentable-qualities that spectators valued in themselves. If the daguerreotype reflects an instance of nature's self-recording, it also potentially enacts what Joan Copjec describes as a "nomadic gaze" (216), compromising the self's essential space of intimacy. The ambiguity of the judge's image, in other words, reflects the fact that the self's sense of transcendence is both threatened by and dependent upon its prior existence as an object in the visual field. For Phoebe, the realism of the image forecloses the discovery of any spiritual truth; rather--much like the viewers of The Hireling Shepherd--her viewing becomes the site of self-conscious anxiety, reflecting her own ontological vulnerability.
Like Clifford, who, in his present state of ontological dilapidation is described as a "material ghost" (House 105), the image of Jaffrey Pyncheon also represents the emptiness of the "Now" (149). Ironically, the "truth" of the daguerreotype of Judge Pyncheon is the fact that its subject is revealed to be most himself at the moment in which he is seized by the objectifying power of the image (and the present) and reproduced as a corpse in precisely the sort of mortification described above by Roland Barthes. The internal "truth" of Jaffrey Pyncheon, it becomes clear as the novel progresses, is inseparable from the obscene (re)appearance of death.
It is in the chapter of Seven Gables entitled "Governor Pyncheon" that Hawthorne imagines the process of desubjectivation as a process in which the human, in the person of the recently deceased Jaffrey Pyncheon, is reduced entirely to its corporeal-objective form. The title of the chapter is itself an ironic reminder of the ways in which social significations can have representational lives of their own, quite apart from the individuals to which they would refer. The posthumous title of Governor points to the fact that Pyncheon was and is, even in death, only the sum of his public representations. The narrator, as a disembodied observer or "attendant spirit" (278), describes the play of light and shadow that animates an otherwise gloomy chamber: "The shadows of the tall furniture grow deeper, and at first become more definite; then, spreading wider, they lose their distinctness of outline in the dark, gray tide of oblivion, as it were, that creeps slowly over the various objects, and the one human figure sitting in the midst of them" (276). The ontological distance quickly closes between the "one human figure" (276) and the other objects in the room as the features of the judge fade into a "swarthy whiteness" (276). With this disappearance of the judge's visage, the narrator imagines a frightful world in which the anchoring perspective of human transcendence is irrevocably lost:
The features are all gone; there is only the paleness of them left. And how looks it now? There is no window! There is no face! An infinite, inscrutable blackness has annihilated sight! Where is our universe? All crumbled away from us; and we, adrift in chaos, may hearken to the gusts of homeless wind, that go sighing and murmuring about, in quest of what was once a world! (276-77)
The terrible invisibility of the judge's corpse is made even more salient by the "pertinacious ticking of his watch" (278). The difference between persons and objects has been erased; but here, in this chaos of darkness, it is the impersonal, mechanical ticking of the watch that imposes the memory of human will on the mute landscape. The process of desubjectivation reaches its grotesque climax at the moment when the body of the now Governor Pyncheon is encroached upon by a fly:
And there we see a fly--one of your common houseflies, such as are always buzzing on the window-pane--which has smelt out Governor Pyncheon, and alights now on his forehead, now on his chin, and now, Heaven help us, is creeping over the bridge of his nose, towards the would-be chief-magistrate's wide-open eyes! (283)
One implication is clear enough: the man of great social rank and worldly distinction has, in death, fallen beneath even the lowly housefly. In Pyncheon's desubjectivation, his corpse--the public image of the self--becomes emblematic of the vanity of worldly things. I would suggest that, in addition to this ecclesiastical moral, Hawthorne characterizes the corpse--now emitting an odor of death--in terms that emphasize its uncanny liminality parallel to the ambiguity of the daguerreotype. Because the dead man's eyes are open, the mocking narrator is audacious enough to ask, "Canst thou not brush the fly away? Art thou too sluggish?" (283), making the ambiguous presentation of death the source of morbid irony.
The extended reflections on the judge's corpse--like the earlier, lengthy descriptions of Clifford--serve to open general speculation into the nature of selfhood. If the photographs of the judge--living and dead--are found to be confusing to an observer, then, Hawthorne suggests, so must be the figure of the judge himself. Early in the novel, in fact, we are told that the judge bears an uncanny likeness to his historical progenitor, Colonel Pyncheon, the original puritan whose crime of falsely seizing land from Matthew Maule sets in motion a blood feud. Catching a glimpse of her cousin Jaffrey, Hepzibah murmurs, "'This is the very same man. ... Let Jaffrey Pyncheon smile as he will, there is that look beneath! Put on him a scull-cap, and a band, and a black cloak, and a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other--then let Jaffrey smile as he might--nobody would doubt that it was the old Pyncheon come again!'" (59). This symbolism of historical continuity, visually representing Hawthorne's moral that "the wrong-doing of one generation lives into successive ones" (2), is paralleled by the grotesque presentation of the judge's liminal corporeality. The "look beneath," to which Hepzibah refers, marks not only the spectral double of history, but also the obscene double of the self in its most excessive actuality.
The instant of mortification felt under the gaze of self-scrutiny we examined with regard to Hawthorne's viewing of a Pre-Raphaelite painting is, I would argue, literalized in Seven Gables, such that the self is--particularly in the characterizations of Jaffrey and Clifford Pyncheon--revealed to be little more than a walking corpse. The momentary, disturbing loss of transcendence Hawthorne experienced in his viewing of the Pre-Raphaelite painting at the Manchester Arts Exhibition is, in Seven Gables, grotesquely magnified as the ontological limits of the self are, in effect, turned inside out in the figures of the "material ghost" (105) and the corpse. As Julia Kristeva has observed in her writing on the abject, the corpse signifies both a "radically excluded" (2) object and "the border of [the subject's] condition as a living being" (3). Regarding the corpse, she describes "[a] massive and sudden emergence of uncanniness, which familiar as it might have been in an opaque and forgotten life, now harries me as radically separate, loathsome. Not me. Not that. But not nothing, either. ... On the edge of non-existence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me" (2). The "Not Me," reminiscent of Emerson's famous declaration in the introduction of Nature points to a fundamentally negative relationship between symbolic representation and the ontological constitution of the self: I am only so far as the excluded object--the "Not Me"--is concealed. As we have witnessed with regard to daguerreotype photography and contemporary responses to Hunt's The Hireling Shepherd, however, this abject double--precisely the self given-to-be-seen under the gaze of the Other--always lingers somewhere in the background or in the margins, provoking anxiety and threatening the collapse of transcendent selfhood. Jaffrey Pyncheon is, throughout Seven Gables, characterized in such a way that reflects his close proximity to this obscene "edge of non-existence" (Kristeva 2). He is, for example, described as "unctuous, rather than spiritual" (House 116), owing to the "somewhat massive accumulation of animal substance about the lower region of his face" (116). There is, as well, an element of repugnant sexuality in Jaffrey's animalistic nature. In his attempt to demonstrate filial affection for his cousin with a kiss in the chapter "The Pyncheon of To-Day," we are told, "the man, the sex, somehow or other, was entirely too prominent" (118). And like a serpent, Jaffrey's attempts at fascination and public deception are accompanied by the "fill[ing] of the air with his peculiar odor" (119). This odor, connected to the judge's "unctuous benignity" (117), foreshadows the odor that later draws the housefly to the judge's "sluggish" corpse. Judge Pyncheon, always associated with the actual, is, therefore, directly linked to the excessive, obscene remainder that must be repressed. It is ironic, then, that the confrontation with this otherness is precisely what allows Holgrave to descend from the dusty attic recesses of the old mansion and meet Phoebe on romantic terms.
For Phoebe Pyncheon, whose gift is "making things look real, rather than fantastic, within her sphere" (House 297), the judge's corpse is the very embodiment of lawlessness and a kind of brooding evil needing to be exposed. '"Why,"' she asks Holgrave, '"have you not thrown open the doors, and called in witnesses?" (303). Yet, as the narrator explains in a passage worth quoting at length:
[T]he artist did not feel the horror, which was proper to Phoebe's sweet and order-loving character, at thus finding herself at issue with society, and brought in contact with an event that transcended ordinary rules. Neither was he in haste, like her, to betake himself within the precincts of common life. On the contrary, he gathered a wild enjoyment--as it were, a flower of strange beauty, growing in a desolate spot, and blossoming in the wind--such a flower of momentary happiness he gathered from his present position. It separated Phoebe and himself from the world, and bound them to each other, by their exclusive knowledge of Judge Pyncheon's mysterious death, and the counsel which they were forced to hold respecting it. The secret, so long as it should continue such, kept them within the circle of a spell, a solitude in the midst of men, a remoteness as entire as that of an island in mid-ocean;--once divulged, the ocean would flow betwixt them, standing on its widely sundered shores. Meanwhile, all the circumstances of their situation seemed to draw them together; they were like two children who go hand in hand, pressing closely to another's side, through a shadow-haunted passage. The image of awful Death, which filled the house, held them united by his stiffened grasp. (305)
While Phoebe is disturbed by "finding herself at issue with society," Holgrave understands it is precisely the transgressive, even obscene nature of their shared knowledge, that allows for their sympathetic union. The narrator suggests that the blossoming love between Holgrave and Phoebe is based on their mutual suspension of the "precincts of common life." It is their shared close contact with the corpse of Judge Pyncheon, their proximity to death--or life in its barest form--that, paradoxically, serves as the condition for the possibility of their child-like journey down a "shadow-haunted passage." The moment of transcendence, it would seem, ironically emerges out of an "unnatural" encounter with nature in its most repugnant aspect. And it is in the figure of the corpse that Hawthorne is able to point, albeit indirectly, to the dangerous dimensions of the sexual relation and eventual reproduction that will follow from Holgrave and Phoebe's union.
By staging the emergence of intimacy between Phoebe and Holgrave as a triangular encounter with excessive otherness (the border of being), an encounter in which the demands of the Law, of social custom and the actual are momentarily suspended within the dialectics of secrecy, Hawthorne suggests that all intimacy is constituted on the basis of such an encounter. I would argue that, in this unexpected meeting of Phoebe and Holgrave, we are to understand something like the moment of revelation described by Hawthorne in a letter to his wife Sophia of the sympathetic "touch" that brings one into being:
[H]ow little did I know what it is to be mingled with another's being! Thou hast taught me that I have a heart--thou only hast thrown a light deep downward, and upward, into my soul. Thou hast revealed me to myself; for without thy aid, my best knowledge of myself would have been merely to know my own shadow--to watch it flickering on the wall, and mistake its fantasies for my own real actions. Indeed, we are all but shadows--we are not endowed with real life, and all that seems most real to us is but the thinnest substance of a dream--till the heart is touched. That touch creates us--then we begin to be--thereby we are beings of reality, and inheritors of eternity. (Letters XV 495)
In language reminiscent of Plato's "Allegory of the Cave," Hawthorne describes his nuptial union with Sophia as a moment of self-revelation and ontological quickening. According to Hawthorne, it is the "touch" of intimacy that allows one to reach across the veil of shadows into the divine depths of humanity, for "that touch creates us" (495; emphasis mine). Through the notion of touch, Hawthorne effectively pairs ontological need with ethical necessity. Implying both the sympathetic and the sexual, "touch" names an opening of radical intimacy, where the instance of disclosure (that is, the encounter with the otherness of self) is supplemented by the dialectics of secrecy (and the veiling that sustains desire). As Gordon Hutner has observed, "[Hawthorne] posits that his reserve is not a love of secrecy for its own sake, but a manner of communication that stipulates how others must come into his sphere, that is through sympathetic penetration" (8). Through this logic--the logic of the romance--Phoebe and Holgrave are able to relate to each other--at least for a time--according to a law of their own. It is at once, Hawthorne suggests, the risk involved in facing one's ontological destitution and the ability to manage one's proximity to it that engenders not only true sympathy, but also ontological consistency. If, as Hutner has argued, the romance constitutes a "narrative method of simultaneously concealing and revealing" (1), it is because at the core of Hawthorne's artistic vision lies an insistence that human dignity is only possible through the risk of the touch, a risk that both jeopardizes and reaffirms the essential privacy of the self. The failure to take such a risk is examined in many of Hawthorne's works, but perhaps most memorably represented in The Blithedale Romance in the chapter entitled "Zenobia's Legend."
In the brief interpolated tale within the novel, the young, cynical protagonist, Theodore, accepts a wager from his friends to "find out the mystery of the Veiled Lady" (Blithedale 110). While Theodore awaits the arrival of the mysterious maiden in her private dressing room, he hides behind a screen, suggesting, ironically, that it is not only the veiled lady who is hiding her "true" self. In this regard, Theodore reflects the position of the novel's voyeuristic narrator, Miles Coverdale, who often observes others from afar, believing himself "the Chorus in a classic play, which seems to be set aloof from the possibility of personal concernment" (97). The ensuing encounter between Theodore and the Veiled Lady reveals the former's failure to take the ethical risk of intimacy. The Veiled Lady describes the choice before Theodore:
"Pause, one little instant," said the soft, low voice, "and learn the conditions of what thou art so bold to undertake! Thou canst go hence, and think of me no more; or, at thy option, thou canst lift this mysterious veil, beneath which I am a sad and lonely prisoner, in a bondage which is worse to me than death. But, before raising it, I entreat thee, in all maiden modesty, to bend forward, and impress a kiss, where my breath stirs the veil; and my virgin lips shall come forward to meet thy lips; and from that instant, Theodore, thou shalt be mine, and I thine, with never more a veil between us! " (112-13)
Theodore, "who prided himself upon his common sense" (110), chooses a third option in bad faith. Fearing that he may, in fact, be lured into kissing the "lips of a dead girl, or the jaws of a skeleton, or the grinning cavity of a monster's mouth," he declares, "Excuse me, fair lady ... if I prefer to lift the veil first; and for this affair of the kiss, we may decide upon it, afterwards!" (113). The allegory captures with perfect pitch not only the immanent failure of Coverdale to establish any meaningful relationship with Zenobia, Priscilla, or any of the others in the Blithedale community, but also the ontological risk involved in establishing intimacy. Because Theodore cannot bear the burden of the maiden's potentially threatening corporeality, which he imagines as both potentially monstrous and, perhaps, simply repugnant ("the odds were ten to one that her teeth were defective" ), the possibility of the ontologically-quickening touch described in Hawthorne's letter to his wife is foreclosed. Theodore's choice is, in actuality, the choice not to bring another into being; as a consequence of his decision, he is haunted by the shadows of his own fleeting memories of the maiden and doomed to "waste life in a feverish quest" (114) for what he can never find. In Seven Gables, it is precisely the meeting of Holgrave and Phoebe in the context of their shared knowledge of mortality that allows Holgrave to finally reject the position of aloof voyeur and take an active role in resolving the ancient feud between the Maules and Pyncheons.
Like Miles Coverdale, who takes sadistic pleasure in peering into the hearts and analyzing the motivations of others while risking nothing of himself, Holgrave admits to Phoebe that he believes he will "derive a moral satisfaction" from watching unfold the "drama which, for almost two hundred years, has been dragging its slow length over the ground" (House 216). In response, Phoebe, whose character is much more sympathetic, "Hawthorne's 'Material Ghosts'" angrily accuses Holgrave of viewing the House of the Seven Gables as a private theatre:
[y]ou seem to look at Hepzibah's and Clifford's misfortunes, and those of the generations before them, as a tragedy, such as I have seen acted in the hall of a country-hotel; only the present one appears to be played exclusively for your amusement! I do not like this. The play costs the performers too much--and the audience is too cold hearted! (217)
At the same time, however, we are told that Phoebe has undergone a transformation of her own: "[a] change grew visible; a change partly to be regretted, although whatever charm it infringed upon was repaired by another, perhaps more precious" (175). Both Holgrave and Phoebe, like the characters in Hawthorne's earlier tale "The May-pole of Merry Mount" (1836), must cross a threshold (a term used frequently in Seven Gables) into authentic being; such a crossing, Hawthorne suggests, entails the assumption of one's own mortality and the expansion of the self via intimacy with another.
Hawthorne utilizes the image of the daguerreotype in Seven Gables as a way of considering both the ephemeral quality of the self--the waxing and waning of being represented by Clifford--and its static, uncanny double, the corpse represented by Jaffrey Pyncheon. In the end, these apparently oppositional figures in the allegorical language of the romance may be seen to represent different views of the same, central problem concerning the constitution of the self. Echoing the anxious responses of contemporary viewers of William Holman Hunt's painting The Hireling Shepherd--and Hawthorne's own response to Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics in general--Hawthorne links sexuality and human reproduction to the specter of physical death and the risk of and potential for ontological destitution. The possibility of being, he seems to argue, depends upon sharing one's ontological vulnerability with another, specifically, within the framework of the marriage union. Because of this, I tend to read the conclusion of Seven Gables--the expeditious marriage of Holgrave and Phoebe and their subsequent relocation to Judge Pyncheon's country estate--viewed by generations of Hawthorne scholars as "a forced happy ending" (Davidson 674), as a logical extension of the metaphorical framework through which Hawthorne would have us comprehend the metaphysics and ethics of being. Having none of the perspective of what Cathy N. Davidson calls "postmodern positioning" through which to find "solutions, comfort, or even distance" (675) in the wake of some of his more radical insights about the problem of representation and what he has revealed to be an essentially fragmented, decentered self, Hawthorne embraces what he imagines to be the only possible setting for a truly shared intimacy--the domestic sphere. If, as T. Walter Herbert maintains, "'the world,'" in nineteenth-century America, "was invented as the domain of the not-self, an inhuman unpredictable ocean permanently threatening to drown a man's true inner reality" (85), then the condition of the self and the role of the private sphere can be defined precisely in terms of the attempt to access, protect, and cultivate this "inner reality." Ultimately, however, Hawthorne suggests that the ontological demand on the self is equal to its ethical responsibilities to others, since it is only through the sustained, creative encounter with otherness that the self comes into being. This, Hawthorne, optimistically insists, is the task of romance.
Sincere thanks to Joan Copjec, Kenneth Dauber, and Stacy Hubbard for their assistance with an earlier draft of this essay. I would also like to thank the anonymous reader for PLL for his/her valuable insights and advice.
(1.) For an excellent overview of the 1857 Manchester Exhibition, see Suzanne Fagence Cooper's "The Art Treasures Exhibition, Manchester, 1857" (Magazine Antiques June : 1-7).
(2.) In contrast to these critical objections to his painting, Sophia Andres points out that Hunt was "evidently proud of the realism and naturalism" in the picture (26). In a letter he seems clearly aware of his break with convention, observing that the figures in The Hireling Shepherd represent "not Dresden china bergers, but a real shepherd, and a real shepherdess, and a landscape in full sunlight, with all the colour of luscious summer, without the faintest fear of the precedents of any landscape painter who rendered Nature before" (qtd. in Andres 26).
(3.) In one journal entry from 1858, however, Hawthorne seems troubled by the possibility that artistic genius and aesthetic taste may not, in themselves, reflect moral sense. He writes:
Talking of a taste for painting and sculpture, Powers observed that it was something very different and quite apart from moral sense, and that it was often, perhaps generally, possessed by unprincipled men of ability and cultivation. I have had this perception myself. A genuine love of painting and sculpture, and perhaps of music, seems often to have distinguished men capable of every social crime, and to have formed a fine and hard enamel over their characters. Perhaps it is because such tastes are artificial, the product of cultivation, and, when highly developed, imply great remove from natural simplicity. (Heart 301)
In what follows, I will be arguing that, even though he entertains speculative insights about the nature of art and of the self, Hawthorne ultimately takes the position that the two are linked by a moral imperative rather than by natural coincidence. If "cultivation" widens the gap between moral sense and aesthetic taste, it is the artist's or author's job to try to close it through the structure of the romance.
(4.) See John Berger's Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin, 2009) for a useful discussion of the cultural history and imperatives of representations of the female body (35-64). Also see Sophia Andres's The Pre-Raphaelite Art of the Victorian Novel: Narrative Challenges to Visual Gendered Boundaries for a useful discussion of the Pre-Raphaelites' unconventional attitude towards sexual equality in artistic representation (20-30).
(5.) For excellent discussions of this concept, see Lacan 79-88, Henry Krips's Fetish: An Erotics of Culture (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1999) 97-117, and Parveen Adams's The Emptiness of the Image: Psychoanalysis and Sexual Differences (London: Routledge, 1996) 109-121.
(6.) As Jacques Lacan has observed, a painting functions as a lure for both the viewer's sight and his or her desire, not because of its "extraordinary verisimilitude" (112), but because of its ability to function as a veil, which "incites [the viewer] to ask what is behind it" (112).
(7.) For a cultural materialist analysis of the issue of privacy and the constitution of the American self in Hawthorne's works, see Milette Shamir's Inexpressible Privacy: The Interior Life of Antebellum American Literature (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2006).
(8.) Here, Zizek both glosses the premises and challenges some of the conclusions of Gerard Wajcman's essay, "The Birth of the Intimate" (2004), in order to argue that while the modern subject (represented by the Cartesian cogito) is conceived vis-a-vis the gaze of the Other in terms of intimacy, this relation was preceded by--and structurally depends upon--a prior moment in which the subject emerged, not as the "observe[r] of the play-stage of reality," but as "part of the tableau staged for the void of a nonexisting gaze" (178). He further speculates that the current moment in subjectivity, defined by reality television and video surveillance, may be structured with reference to the "anxiety ... [which] arises from the prospect of not being exposed to the Other's gaze all the time" (180). The "camera's gaze," he contends, may function "as a kind of ontological guarantee of ... being" (180). His disagreement with Wajcman, I believe, is directed not at the "intimacy" hypothesis per se, but at Wajcman's failure to acknowledge the fact that "the subject's opacity is strictly correlative to his or her total self-exposure" (181).
(9.) See Dolis's book The Style of Hawthorne's Gaze: Regarding Subjectivity for an in-depth analysis of the implications of daguerreotype photography in Hawthorne's work and nineteenth-century culture (9-39).
(10.) In her article "Photographs of the Dead: Sherman, Daguerre, Hawthorne," Cathy N. Davidson makes a related observation: "Viewing old photographs, old portraiture, is ... always unsettling--the 'Return of the Dead' as a photocentric zombiism, with the restless undead aroused and sometimes (consider Monroe) arousing" (672).
(11.) See also Davidson 677-86.
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SEAN J. KELLY is Assistant Professor of English literature at Wilkes University. His research and teaching interests include American Romanticism, the history of the American novel, nineteenth-century visual culture, psychoanalysis, and composition.
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|Title Annotation:||Nathaniel Hawthorne|
|Author:||Kelly, Sean J.|
|Publication:||Papers on Language & Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2011|
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