Sunday, May 03, 2009

Uncertainty, Reason, and Trust in “Young Goodman Brown”

This was my midterm for my American Lit course in which the various Lit notes were taken from. The below uses some of the material and thoughts mentioned initially in my reflections on Hawthorne. There are essentially two different arguments worked out below, one about the interpretation of "Young Goodman Brown" and one, briefly, about interpretation in general, a typical pattern for someone impressed by Stanley Fish, a person who wants to both interpret a text and advance an argument against those who want to suggest that this or that particular text is open (or closed, for that matter) in a way that other texts aren't--at the level of theory, all texts are as open and closed as any other. The separateness of the two arguments (and activities of theory and interpretation) are itself a consequence of the pragmatist theory of interpretation Fish elaborates.

References are to:

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Portable Emerson. Ed. Carl Bode in collaboration with Malcolm Cowley. New York: Penguin Books, 1981, 1974, 1946.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Portable Hawthorne. Ed. William C. Spengemann. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


Immanuel Kant wrote famously in 1781 that “thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.” (A 51/B 75)[fn.1] As worked out in Kant’s system and 19th century thought generally, this formula’s tremendous impact was to suggest the mind-dependence of reality. Emerson ambiguously took hold of this tradition and suggested we might never see reality directly, but always through the mediation of our minds. I would like to suggest that Hawthorne writes “Young Goodman Brown” as an allegory for the uncertainty of the human condition in its mediated state. Hawthorne uses the figure of the dream as a means in establishing ultimate uncertainty. Further, this uncertainty is caused by our ability to reason. We are fallen because we reason and words are depicted as the devil’s work, whispering to us the dark thoughts embedded in all of us. In this same conceptual set-up, however, we are given the tools of freedom. With the figure of Faith, Hawthorne suggests how one arrests, not just Satan, but the maddening, endless cycle of words and the mistrust engendered by them.

Kant began something called transcendental idealism, which was meant to combine the New Science with Christian spirituality, and it did so by splitting them off into two ontological corners: science took the conceptualizable phenomena and religion took the ultimately unknowable noumena. This posed a problem for spiritualists who had thought that they had known something. What they knew was God, and at the very roots of Christianity worked the ancient Greek tradition of Orphism that taught that there was a radical disjunct between Humanity and their realm and God and His. As Kant got wrapped into Orphism, it helped reproduce the idea that words, being human-made, would never help us see God’s plan, and, in the image of Milton, were in fact the devil’s work. Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” sits on this stage between Humanity and God and the uncertainty with which we divine His plan.

To pin down the program at work in “Young Goodman Brown,” I would like to first differentiate two ways in which Hawthorne uses narrative uncertainty to achieve his aims. Hawthorne frequently puts the reader at bay from the exact occurrences of his stories, but the reasons for doing so are not always the same nor achieve just the same results. For instance, it is often argued that Hawthorne’s prefacing of The Scarlet Letter with “The Custom House” and continued use of his “this-may-or-may-not-have-happened” figures, particularly the penultimate chapter’s revelation of what may or may not have been a red A on Dimmesdale’s chest, indicates Hawthorne’s wish to dethrone the authority of the author over his text. As readers, however, we should always be wary of this gesture for, as a matter of course, an author can never give up their authority of what appears on the page, and therefore over the text being presented. The meaning of any gesture of narrative uncertainty can only be found by the way it hangs together with the rest of the text, which thereby gives it its own particular inflection. The “antiauthoritarian author” is an illusion that Hawthorne creates, fitting together in this case with The Scarlet Letter’s wish to open up a space for moral reflection on the issues that the story presents, rather than forcefully moralizing in any particular direction.

Hawthorne’s use of the dream trope in “Young Goodman Brown” aims for something different. In the swift penultimate paragraph, Hawthorne wonders, “Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest, and only dreamed a wild dream, of a witch-meeting?” (Hawthorne, 64) This question remains totally unanswered, a seemingly massive hanging thread wafting in the forest winds. Rather than attempting to diffuse authority, as in The Scarlet Letter, I think Hawthorne is establishing the particular allegorical interpretation of his tale. All of the tricks of perceptual uncertainty that Hawthorne threads throughout are certainly uncertain—not in the service of ambiguous uncertainty, but specifically to establish the certain uncertainty of life, so that it doesn’t matter whether, e.g., a pink ribbon fell in the forest (59) or the staff actually writhed or not. (53) What matters is how Goodman Brown reacted to the uncertainty, to the events, real or dream, that were experienced.

All of this work occurring in Brown’s mind is what connects him to the Emersonian tradition of Kantians. The point of “Young Goodman Brown” is that it doesn’t matter whether it was a dream or not. Brown has been changed by the experience because dream and reality both occur in our minds equally, the mind thus attaining its mediatory powers. It would seem, however, that because Brown has been changed by this particular experience he has also thereby lost to the forces of sin. The shape-shifting devil says that the knowledge he would bestow those who’ve traveled is “to know their secret deeds,” (62) of all your neighbors, “to penetrate … the deep mystery of sin….” (63) What knowledge is this? seems to be the question. At the outset of Brown’s journey, Hawthorne sets in contradistinction the lonely solitude of the traveler with the possibility of “passing through an unseen multitude.” (52) This “unseen multitude” eventually takes the shape of all his neighbors: “And all the unseen multitude, both saints and sinners, seemed to encourage her [Faith] onward.” (58) Even if we can commonsensically distinguish between saints and sinners, Hawthorne blurs them all together in Brown’s nightmare, the dark knowledge that we are all sinners.

The way in which Brown attains this knowledge is key and brings us back to Emerson. In the Orphic tradition that Emerson summons, the only true knowledge is that which breaks through the mediation of our minds to reality itself—the power of intuition. Whereas in a dark mood Emerson says “we do not see directly, but mediately,” (Emerson, 284) in a brighter mood Emerson seems to think that the truth of God is possible, though still not “second hand.” “What he [any other] announces, I must find true in me, or reject,” and this turn inward “is an intuition.” (76) Hawthorne’s counter—as the darker Emerson would surely agree—might be that all of these announcements, even our own, get bounced around the mediated internals of our reasoning minds. It is reasoning that gets Brown into trouble, listening to the devil.

The trick of the devil is his “reasoning as we go,” (Hawthorne, 53) “discoursing so aptly, that his arguments seemed rather to spring up in the bosom of his auditor….” (56) The reasoning that the devil teaches, which seems so natural in the “uncertain light,” (53) is that, if we harbor any sins in our own hearts, even living as if we did not, then could not any other, including those pure saints we esteem as being beyond sin entirely?
“Ye deemed them holier than yourselves, and shrank from your own sin, contrasting it with their lives of righteousness, and prayerful aspirations heavenward.” (62, italics mine)
It is because Brown treats the possibility of goodness as coextensive with the existence of pure cases of purity that, having finally lost faith in this easily doubted notion, he becomes a storm of gloom, “a distrustful, if not a desperate man,” (64) treating everyone as a secret horrid sinner, lustful for the worst depravities. Forever after, Brown “shrank from the bosom of Faith….” (ibid.)

The figure of Faith completes the allegory, for the significance is the setting of faith against doubt, and the triumph of doubt. Previous convictions of purity are shattered as Brown hears their whispers in the dark gloom of the wilderness. We should take the wilderness to be simply the living of life: we walk through life without truly knowing the hearts of our fellow-travelers, but—and this is key—only our own. “But, where is Faith?” (61) says Brown, and it is the loss that sinks us. By the same token, Hawthorne is suggesting to us how to climb out of despair—by the act of faith, faith and trust in our fellows. It is because Brown holds a particular view of good and evil that sinks him into depression. Brown has reacted to the uncertainty of our moral concepts, to the uncertainty over the Puritan good/evil dichotomy, one which holds for no mixed, ambiguous cases. Hawthorne isn’t sinking us into the despair of the Puritan Brown, he’s suggesting to us what mental furniture we can move around to reach different results.

Hawthorne casts the forest of “Young Goodman Brown” as a mental screen upon which the Puritan mind had projected their innermost, rejected desires, with for example Puritans imagining (and being titillated by) the image of Pagan orgies. Once you start reasoning, however, you start to pull at the thread that hangs the picture, you pull down the dichotomizing partition, illustrated here by the parentheses between “imagining” and “titillated.” This makes you, not an innocent, but as a reaction a “raging,” “gloomy” moralist. (60, 65) Brown’s paranoia of the forest is a paranoia of himself. This is, principally, why it doesn’t matter whether it’s a dream or not—it is real because he is changed by it. Literally real or a dream, it doesn’t matter to Goodman Brown. Rather than some form of direct intuition of reality, the results of which just get bounced around in the noggin anyways, Hawthorne, I believe, is suggesting that the knowledge of the self that reasoning brings is honesty with oneself and the repressed desires you harbor. Fear and paranoia—the Puritan mind—turns the breakdown of the partition into a peering into the abyss. Hawthorne thinks no such pure, sinful abyss exists and that social virtues like honesty with oneself and trust in others might replace it.


[1] Standard notation for the Critique of Pure Reason in Norman Kemp Smith’s translation lists both the first and second editions, and as A and B respectively.

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