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Thursday
Aug212008

The Scarlet Letter

Claiming that we are all sinners nowadays might evoke a chuckle from those among us who have rejected the possibility of spiritual salvation.  These same people would have us believe that the times have changed and that they with their non-committal commitment to relativity, hedging, oneupmanship and admissions that we know nothing apart from the obvious fact that we can safely rule out the existence of a higher power, are at last in the majority.  Centuries upon ignorant centuries passed in the obscurity of religious humbug, where whole nations shook at the sight of a cross or minaret, everyone was thoroughly convinced that we were just puppets in some omnipotent overlord's hands, and we were all sinners who deserved the wretchedness life foisted upon us.  The brave few who did not buy this codswallop were burned, hanged, drawn and quartered, drowned, or simply tortured into confessing their blasphemy, and in this way the wicked powers that be held sway in all governments of the world at all times.  Thank God – no, actually, we can't thank Him for this –that science finally rose from beneath the cesspool of filthy propaganda to enlighten us with its truths, its methods, and its evidence that no one is looking out for us except ourselves.  History was then rewritten.  Gone were all the miracles, conversions and happiness that so many believers have attained from their faith; in their stead came mounting reports of malfeasance and hypocrisy, of a Church (just to use one obvious example; the criticism was ecumenically fired at all religious institutions) whose leaders had no faith in God but took every precaution to persuade their mindless minions of the populace's need for such an entity.  History in its newest form tells us everyone was religious, stupid and irresponsible, with the significant exception of the mandataries of these teachings.

Should you find yourself nodding along to these accusations as if your own eyes had witnessed them, you might not want to consider that the world is probably more religiously inculcated now than it ever has been.  While many have denounced faith as a useless crutch, many more – from all creeds, races, nations, and income levels – educated themselves and still selected the path of spirituality.  Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the world wars of the twentieth century (not, I should add, the atrocities carried out during these wars) had no religious motivation whatsoever.  Their engines of terror were driven by power and greed, with a dose of ideology for sure; but power and the concomitant material gain fueled the destruction of almost sixty million human beings.  That is because no one can believe in money and power and simultaneously desire the greater good of mankind; no one can rise every morning without a drop of spirituality and truly claim that they will do nice things for people they don't know and reconcile that approach with their goal of money and power; no one can hope to overcome the evils that the worship of money and power promotes by asserting that they are very moral people who simply have chosen not to believe in anything.  If you don't believe in anything higher than yourself, then you only believe in yourself.  And soon enough you will become convinced that your idol (that would be you) deserves everything you can give it.  Worst of all, you think yourself justified because you and you alone are the arbiter of all moral dilemmas, which brings us to an old tale of injustice.

Our story begins after the fact, after the birth of Pearl to a certain Hester Prynne, a young woman whose husband is far away, either above or below the distant seas.  We are dutifully reminded that this is Puritan Massachusetts in the late seventeenth century, site of some of the most infamous witch trials in modern times and a place where nonconformity may merit banishment or annihilation.  Hester is by all indications a striking beauty and as voluptuous as a woman could be in those rigid times, a perfect target for the mediocrity of thought and appearance that would ironically distinguish much later regimes.  She walks the crowds and they look at her with disdain, not because she is a queen among weary pilgrims but because she has been branded like a head of cattle with a bright mark: an A.   Her sin is her child out of wedlock, and she is to be noticed henceforth only for that crime and nothing else.  At the beginning of the novel she is taken before a committee of town elders and asked about the identity of Pearl's father, an interrogation to which she has obviously been subjected many times before.  It cannot be her husband – who must be dead, murmur the townfolk, and, lo, she doesn't have the slightest remorse for his extinction – yet it could be anyone, absolutely anyone among them.  And like every previous inquisition, Hester refuses to answer, which infuriates the crowd including as it were, her long-lost husband, who is much older than Hester and now goes by the name of Roger Chillingworth.

Chillingworth, who confronts only Hester with his resurrection, is the second part of the equation.  Our sole remaining task is to find the true father (should he be among the living) and follow these three branches until they wither and snap.  Since the goal of the novel is not suspense but the tracing of moral consequences in three intertwined lives, the candidates are limited, which allows me to include the following with a clear conscience:

In her late singular interview with Mr. Dimmesdale, Hester Prynne was shocked at the condition to which she found the clergyman reduced. His nerve seemed absolutely destroyed. His moral force was abased into more than childish weakness. It grovelled helpless on the ground, even while his intellectual faculties retained their pristine strength, or had perhaps acquired a morbid energy, which disease only could have given them. With her knowledge of a train of circumstances hidden from all others, she could readily infer, that, besides the legitimate action of his own conscience, a terrible machinery had been brought to bear, and was still operating, on Mr. Dimmesdale's well-being and repose. Knowing what this poor, fallen man had once been, her whole soul was moved by the shuddering terror with which he had appealed to her – the outcast woman – for support against his instinctively discovered enemy. She decided, moreover, that he had a right to her utmost aid. Little accustomed, in her long seclusion from society, to measure her ideas of right and wrong by any standard external to herself, Hester saw – or seemed to see – that there lay a responsibility upon her, in reference to the clergyman, which she owned to no other, nor to the whole world besides. The links that united her to the rest of human kind – links of flowers, or silk, or gold, or whatever the material – had all been broken. Here was the iron link of mutual crime, which neither he nor she could break. Like all other ties, it brought along with it its obligations.

That "terrible machinery" is the skulduggery of a single individual who shall remain nameless even if little sleuthing is required, but let us digress for a moment.  Hawthorne's style never again achieved (I spent many a summer night on his other works, to little satisfaction) this twinning of artistic precision and clarity of righteousness.   Passage after passage, you will be stunned at what beauty he finds in a collation of trivia, asides, gestures, and very private thoughts.  You may have leafed through or been forcefed The Scarlet Letter during your high school years and shaken your head at the hypocrisy of all involved (children and adolescents love it when parents lay down the law but then forget to follow their own rules),  and you were probably told some rot about how the book depicts a uniquely American experience.  Unfortunately, uniquely American experiences tend to involve economic freedom, labor mobility and extreme multiculturalism; the tale as Hawthorne spins it is as old as time itself.  Consider then why he should tell it again and what is added to our lore of extramarital affairs, small-minded townsfolk, red-cheeked revenge and the gnaw of guilt that can eat someone's entrails bite by bite.  The retelling not only reflects Hawthorne's particular views on the history of Massachusetts (that is the boring detail that gets many simple-minded teachers very excited), there lurks first and foremost an artistic urge to write the perfect allegory.  What could be more perfect than a sin that taints everyone in close proximity like a virus and then proceeds to watch them flail and kick against the crimes they have committed – and we are not talking about Hester.  Is this not the pinnacle of artistic achievement?  After all, it is Hester who has suffered: society has shunned and mistreated her to such a degree that she can no longer "measure her ideas of right and wrong by any standard external to herself."  Whatever you think is moral and whatever seems to you to be just, if Hester truly cannot grasp that the moral law is both within and without her, she is no better than a desperado cowboy barging into a saloon and gunning down anyone who looks at him for a second too long, much less scoffs at his choice of drink.  But that's an American tale for another day.

Reader Comments (2)

That is because no one can believe in money and power and simultaneously desire the greater good of mankind; no one can rise every morning without a drop of spirituality and truly claim that they will do nice things for people they don't know and reconcile that approach with their goal of money and power; no one can hope to overcome the evils that the worship of money and power promotes by asserting that they are very moral people who simply have chosen not to believe in anything. If you don't believe in anything higher than yourself, then you only believe in yourself. And soon enough you will become convinced that your idol (that would be you) deserves everything you can give it. Worst of all, you think yourself justified because you and you alone are the arbiter of all moral dilemmas...

Everything I wish to say about this entry, and the consistent excellence of the blog as a whole, has already been said by Auden, in a letter he wrote to the Nation about James Agee's movie reviews.

Dear Sirs:

In the good old days before pseudo-science and feminism ruined her, it was considered rude to congratulate one's hostess on her meals, since praise would imply that they could have been bad, and by the same courtesy it should be unnecessary to write grateful letters to editors.

Astonishing excellence, however, is the exception, and James Agee's film column seems to this reader, and to many others he has spoken with, just that.

I do not care for movies very much and I rarely see them; further, I am suspicious of criticism as the literary genre which, more than any other, recruits epigones, pedants without insight, intellectuals without love. I am all the more surprised, therefore, to find myself not only reading Mr. Agee before I read anything else in the Nation but also consciously looking forward all week to reading him again.

In my opinion, his column is the most remarkable regular event in American journalism today. What he says is of such profound interest, expressed with such extraordinary wit and felicity, and so transcends its ostensible--to me, rather unimportant--subject, that his articles belong in that very select class--the music critiques of Berlioz and Shaw are the only other members I know--of newspaper work which has permanent literary value.

One foresees the sad day, indeed, when Agee on Films will be the subject of a Ph.D. thesis.

W.H. Auden
Swarthmore, Pa., October 16, 1944

August 22, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMelancholy Korean

High praise, indeed, my dear Steven; I am touched and honored as always by your kind comments. Someday MK and Deeblog will be perched in dual dominion in a display window while their creators sit across the way, sipping demitasses and praising the Hellenes for giving us every last drop of culture we have. I'll let you pick the window.

August 22, 2008 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

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