From the “Hawthorne number” of The Critic – Vol.XLV No.1, July 1904
Hawthorne: Emperor of Shadows
By Benjamin DeCasseres
HAWTHORNE drank from the beaker of inexhaustible shadows; his soul sought instinctively the obscure and the crepuscular; the shadow-glozed figures of his brain were never mockeries of the real, but phantasms of the dead-beings called out of the endless night of the tomb to sport, at his will, in the shadow of crypts and catacombs, or to languish in half-lights, or to be the pawns in some moral problem that vexed his sensitive heart. He dallied in byways and roamed strange, blighted heaths, and preferred to listen to the sibilant murmurs that came from the brackish tarn than to stand beside the gay, tumbling waterfall in the full light of the sun. He was an emperor—but an emperor of elves—an Oberon whose reign began at the twilight hour and who abdicated at the first cockcrow. He was a giant—but a giant leashed in cobwebs. He was a thinker whose thoughts were always at half-mast for the sorrows that sucked at his heart. He was exquisitely aware of a Conscience. He knew that the supernormal could alone explain the normal, that the exceptional housed all the laws that governed ordinary occurrences plus an explanation, which if it did not explain gave us something better — another mystery. “The Scarlet Letter” is the romance of pain; “The House of the Seven Gables” is the romance of crime; “The Marble Faun” the romance of penitential despair.
The evil that is in the heart of man; the subtle poisonous vapors that emanate from his soul like vent-hole gases; strange, sudden maladies without name, dateless in their birth, bringing with them reversions to a kind of devilship; moral cankers which he identified with physical environment and which he made to dwell in dank cellars, in old gabled houses, in curious angles in the garden-wall, or in the fetor of old wells—these things possessed Hawthorne entirely. He dealt with pain as though it were a conscious being —a survival in his brain of the puritan belief in a personal devil. He never burst through the black cerements and dun dreams that kept him apart from his kind. His tales are his soul-saga.
They portray a man immured in a sunless moat—one who is content with the dark, but who, unconsciously, rises from his seat at intervals and searches the walls with his eyes for a chink of light. His mind was a lodging-house for the distraught. What weird, pain-bitten, grief-ravaged beings took up their abode in that caravansary at night and slunk away in the morning, maybe never to return!—imprinted, unprintable, untellable. And there came, too, to stay with him myriads of wan, pale, ethereal wayfarers who seemed to bear about their eyes the light of impalpable worlds and on their brows the sombre thoughts of thwarted genius. The best that is in a man is never told—and the worst is past imagining. Two things the soul cannot formulate in language: its remote, obscure emotions and its immediate noon-day certainties. In Hawthorne’s face there are the wonderful tales that he never told.
There is phantom-touch in his pages. He lacked the sense of reality—the sure test of spirituality. Long, shadowy files sweep up from out the unconscious and form black processions across the earth. That is life. It is the phantom lockstep. These shadows come and go, making frenetic comic gestures. They whisper hoarsely each to the other—and this they call history. They scud across the earth from the immurmurous to the immurmurous — from Mist to Mist. They are palpitant sobs vested in flesh-mesh. This star is but a ghost walk—the fading ramparts of a mystic Elsinore, and graveyards are but tombs within tombs. The days sheened in their meridional glories, the nights set with their little pulsing eyes are the reflections of soul-torrent. Our arts are but the photographs of the apparitional.
Who has touched the Real or tethered the Now? What Hawthorne saw, that is so. Who can say, “Here thought begins and things cease”? Who can put his thought upon that moment that divides the sleeping moment from the waking moment?—who can tell how far one trenches on the other? Life is but a conscious sleeping; sleep an unconscious waking—or a waking into the Unconscious. Life in prospect is always phosphorescent with hope; the path behind is a white capped dream. Youth and Age are to both somnambules. Our imaginations —and Hawthorne was an imaginative seer — are unplumbed, immeasurable. Fancy is the mirror that gives us back the real. Life is a progressive dream, a languorous, painful unwinding. We pace the decks, withered gods, the definite shrunk to a hint, a puzzle to ourselves, a puzzle to the beasts below and the inhabitants of the fourth dimension above. Hawthorne nowhere formulates this sense of mystery, but it stands shadowlike behind each sentence. It is the breath of his literary body.
Though here, of our date and time, he was a belated spirit—a fanciful, roving, ether-cleaving spirit who one day, while peeping in curiosity over the eaves of his dream-mansion, fell into flesh. Society annoyed him and he turned from the rouged arts of civilization with a fine contempt.
Genius treads far from that bellowing sphinx called civilization. The nineteenth century was a coarse melodrama written by the devil for the delectation of the blasé gods. By ignoring it utterly Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walter Pater became its greatest critics. Civilization at best is a peddler dressed up to look like a monarch. It is that process which has subtilized the direct and made automatic the spontaneous. It has made a crooked line the shortest way between two given points and substituted Machiavelli for Euclid. It invents pains in order to banish from its heart the horrible boredom that oppresses it. The vaunted arts and sciences sit cheek-by-jowl with Mammon. “Progress” is the cluck-cluck of satisfaction of Caliban as he makes headway into thicker mud.
Practical life stands for the utter materialization of the soul. Its glitter, which attracts from afar, is the glitter that falls from pomade-burnished garbage cans. In the great cities, which Rousseau called nature’s sinks, men do not congregate, but fester. Cities are great street-canalled slime-vats, wherein long familiarity has indurated the sense of smell. Here the souls of men turn turtle: they call it “business.” Ideals melt in these fens like the snow-image in Hawthorne’s tale when it is dragged by the Practical Man—always and everywhere an atheist—before the fireplace. Practical life!—the domain of the arched spine and the furtive glance—it is better to become moss-grown in the Old Manse of Dreams. Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, Clifford Pynchon, Miriam, Donatello shall outlive in shadowy immortality the flesh and blood beings that mimic their ways here below, and the turrets and spires of our civilization shall long be gangrened in the muds of oblivion when the shadow-makers that have gone shall still with potent rod smite the souls of generations unborn, and from them, as from us, shall burst the fountains of exalted wonder.
What strange shadows tread at our heels!—shadows of evil and shadows of good. On how slight a pivot turn our fortunes! In that exquisite fantasy, “David Swan,” the muffled march of events that never materialize, that cross and recross our paths unseen, unapprehended, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father when he parades before the eyes of the spirit-blind Queen Gertrude, is the theme of Hawthorne. In this little allegory we read the chances of life. Our destinies are brittle but inexorable, and we are tossed around in the great world-forces like a bottle in the sea.
Young Swan lies down to rest beneath a tree that stands by a well-travelled road. He is poor and sleeps deep. A carriage becomes disabled near him and the occupants, an elderly lady and gentleman, while waiting for a broken wheel to be mended, contemplate his adoption, but the coachman interrupts with the message that the carriage is ready, and Fortune, which just grazed him in her flight, passes on forever. Death, in the guise of thieves who are about to murder him for his clothing, but who are opportunely frightened off, lingers near him for a second and then postpones her rendezvous with the soul of David Swan. Love, in the person of a young girl who steps aside to contemplate and blush, glides by him. David wakes and goes on his way whistling.
Our days are freighted with gifts and curses, and the bitterness of life lies in the consciousness of what might have been. Yet the Law never swerves, or if it swerve, it carries on its breast the debris of our dreams and hurries us to the Gulf that swallows all dreams. The might-have-been is as far away as that which never came to being. “Our happiness passes close by us.” Not so: it is the illusion of space. Unless we possess it, it is but the greater mockery when it thrusts its flowers under our noses and when we are about to inhale the fragrance substitutes snuff.
Hawthorne, King of a realm fantastic, Emperor of shadows, Grand Seigneur of the unmapped, tourist of the sub terrene, who saw from behind his lattice of fancy the pain that bases the moral world and the comic lie that is called optimism — he sups to-night, with Omar, Amiel, and de Maupassant, on herbs and bitters. For he was one of the Order of the Black Veil—in life a soul of regal pains, in death a quenchless memory in our hearts.