Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Inaugural Hawthorne Essay

Stefanie at So Many Books has been doing this amazing series of posts on Emerson's essays for as long as I can remember. I've decided to take the form and apply it to one of my own favorite 19th century American writers: Nathaniel Hawthorne. After this first essay on "Ethan Brand," I will march right on through the table of contents in my Library of America edition... feel free to read along!

Hawthorne Series -- Essay #1:
"On Ethan Brand"

A temperamentally pensive man, Ethan Brand became a laborer at the end of his youth. His job involved feeding huge logs into the village lime-kiln half-way up Graylock mountain, always keeping the fire ablaze, gradually turning turning marble into lime. Hawthorne's description of the occupation tells more about Ethan Brand, I think, than it does about the job itself:

It is a lonesome, and, when the character is inclined to thought, may be an intensely thoughtful occupation; as it proved in the case of Ethan Brand, who had mused to such strange purose, in days gone by, while the fire in this very kiln was burning.

The story begins with Ethan Brand returning from an 18-year absence to his hometown. He looks a little rough around the edges, and his laugh makes at least one of the children in the town uncomfortable. He has become a legend: Ethan Brand, the man who went looking for the Unpardonable Sin. Narrating from the omniscient position, Hawthorne remarks, "Many years, as we have seen, had now elapsed, since that portentous night when the IDEA was first developed."

His 18-year quest led him, finally, to discover that he had produced the Unpardonable Sin in his own heart. As much as the "IDEA" itself, Ethan Brand's methodology seems to be the problem: "...seeking thoughout the world for what was the closest of all things to himself, and looking into every heart, save his own." And he is not unaware of the terrible irony; when asked, "What is the Unpardonable Sin," Ethan Brand replies:

It is a sin that grew within my own breast... A sin that grew nowhere else! The sin of an intellect that triumphed over the sense of brotherhood with man, and reverence for God, and sacrificed everything to its own mighty claims! The only sin that deserves a recompense of immortal agony! Freely, were it to do again, would I incur the guilt. Unshrinkingly, I accept the retribution!

Superficially, Hawthorne's point is clear: do not become an observer of humankind; be also a participant! But whether or not Hawthorne-as-narrator accepts Ethan Brand's assessment of the situation is somewhat less clear. At one point in the story, Hawthorne seems to offer a counterbalancing image, one with the potential to undo Brand's reading of his own situation. The men from the town pub (lowercase sinners all) come up the mountain upon hearing of Ethan Brand's return. A dog straggles into the scene:

But, now, all of a sudden, this grave and venerable quadruped, of his own mere notion, and without the slightest suggestion from anybody else, began to run round after his tail, which, to heighten the absurdity of the proceeding, was a great deal shorter than it should have been. Never was seen such headlong eagerness in pursuit of an object that could not possibly be attained... Faster and faster, roundabout went the cur; and faster and still faster fled the unapproachable brevity of his tail... until, utterly exhausted, and as far from the goal as ever, the foolish old dog ceased his performance as suddenly as he had begun it. The next moment, he was as mild, quiet, sensible, and respectable in his deportment, as when he first scraped the acquaintence with the company.

The men and children all laugh at the tail-wagging-the-dog. "Meanwhile," writes Hawthorne of his title character, "moved, it might be, by a perception of some remote analogy between his own case and that of this self-pursuing cur, [Ethan Brand] broke into the awful laugh, which, more than any other token, expressed the condition of his inward being." And instantaneously a gloom settles over the merry band; within minutes they disperse, leaving Ethan Brand alone.

If you haven't read him since 10th grade, you might be surprised: Hawthorne can be surprisingly modern psychologically (if not always stylistically). Consider this descriptive passage involving Ethan Brand's sorrowful and lonesome meditation after he has repelled the company of men for the last time:
He remembered with what tenderness, with what love and sympathy for mankind, and what pity for human guilt and wo, he had first begun to contemplate those ideas which afterwards became the inspiration of his life; with what reverence he had then looked into the heart of man, viewing it as a temple originally divine, and however desecrated, still to be held sacred by a brother; with what awful fear he had depecated the success of his pursuit, and prayed that the Unpardonable Sin might never be revealed to him. Then ensued that vast intellectual development, which, in its progress, disturbed the counterpoise between his mind and heart... He had lost his hold of the magnetic chain of humanity.

Keep in mind, America was probably a little more Bible-saavy back in the mid-19th century, so Hawthorne could get away with making allusions that we might not immediately recognize; I think he's doing that in "Ethan Brand." Consider what Jesus said about all this:

I assure you that people can be forgiven all their sins and all the evil things they may say. But whoever says evil things against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, because he has committed an eternal sin.

Anyone who says something against the Son of Man can be forgiven; but whoever says something against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven -- now or ever.

So does Hawthorne's vision sync-up with Jesus'? It's an interesting question, I think. It seems to depend on how we define the Holy Spirit... what if we define it by calling it "the magnetic chain of humanity?" Ta-da! I know a lot of imperfect people. What I don't know, thankfully, is very many people who have ever totally turned their back on humanity. Further, I'm not convinced that Hawthorne thinks even that "sin" is unforgivable: recall the absurd dog chasing his tail--as soon as he stops, he regains sensibility.

The way I read "Ethan Brand," the Unpardonable Sin cannot be found in saying evil things against the magnetic chain of humanity, but only in acting against it. In the end, Ethan Brand climbs to the top of his lime-kiln and explicitly embraces fire as his proper element, breaking his bonds with "Mother Earth," "mankind," and the stars of Heaven, before jumping in. In the morning, little remains but a skeleton in repose and a stony, marble heart on top of a cooling fire pit.

I'm a lover of the intellect, and I know that the mind is the gateway to a very significant part of being human; but I make company in academics with people who are naturally inclined in that direction, and I sometimes want to raise a glass to heart, to the Holy Spirit or the magnetic chain of humanity, or call it what you may--but please: call it!


Stefanie said...

Bravo! I forget how fantastic Hawthorne is and never think to read him. So perhaps your new undertaking will inspire me :)

Cathy said...

Beautiful, Casey. Here's to 'heart'!