Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Religion, a Utilitarian Ethics of Belief, and the Public/Private Distinction

*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.


Towards the end of his life, one of Rorty’s favorite passages to quote from Dewey was, “democracy is neither a form of government nor a social expediency, but a metaphysic of the relation of man and his experience in nature….”[fn.1] The earliest, clearest expression of what Rorty took this passage to mean is his “The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy.” In that paper, Rorty sought to defend Rawlsian liberal philosophy from liberal theorists like Ronald Dworkin and communitarian liberal-critics like Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor by urging that Rawls, like Dewey, is putting democracy before philosophy—democracy does not need philosophical justification (nor a fortiori has philosophical presuppositions), but it can, if people would like one, have philosophical expression. A few years after writing that paper, Rorty wrote the centerpiece of his lifework, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. This book famously erected the public/private distinction that so many liberals have found troubling. Rorty, however, meant no more and no less than what Jefferson meant by the separation between church and state—keep your private life out of the government, and the government will stay out of your private life.

The formulation of “man’s metaphysic,” the philosophical expression of the democratic ethos, that Rorty favored when talking about religion was as a “utilitarian ethics of belief.” The staging point is Jefferson’s incarnation of Mill in his swerve from Locke—the point of life is happiness, and let all be free to pursue it as they choose, just so long as their pursuits don’t infringe on the pursuits of others. Because we all have a right to our own private pursuits, just so long as they do not infringe on each other or public projects, Rorty argues that James formulates a new philosophy of truth and knowledge to suit the new cultural ideal created by the signing of the Declaration of Independence. A utilitarian ethics of belief suggests, first and foremost, that the only claims that should be met are the claims made by actual people. A generalized update of Peirce’s disposal of Descartes’ fake doubt, this assertion doesn’t mean we can’t use hypotheticals or the examples of literary texts in our deliberations, but simply that their occasion must be, in James’ words, “live, momentous, and forced.”

Of course, what is as up for deliberation as any decision we may face is whether a particular choice is genuine, whether it is live, momentous, and/or forced. Abstract philosophizing, such as it is above the fray of life, must be careful not to pronounce too sharply on the denizens below, though it is tempting. James found this temptation in Clifford’s demand that the religiously pious give up the charade of warranted belief in the face of science’s advance. James and Rorty push back: the scientistically pious are as bad as the religious—perhaps everyone should hand in their clerical collars.

In Rorty’s efforts to fend off scientific reductionism and intellectual rationalism, however, he employs a mishandled strategy in several of his papers. The general strategy is this: by deploying the public/private distinction, we may separate out two kinds of demands respectively. Public demands are those we find when making laws, setting tax code, or when a nation struggles in the face of a neoconservative induced economic depression. For these kinds of demands, we need a thin level of discourse with which we can argue out disagreements. We may not always agree that the terms of debate are the best ones, but what is only required is that they are thin enough to not be too disagreeable to anyone. For private demands, on the other hand, disagreeability of terms of expression are grounds for considering the demand to be unforced. Unhappy with your boyfriend’s constant demand for attention? Get a new boyfriend. Don’t like the fact that women can’t be priests? Become a Methodist. Don’t like the Monopoly guy’s stupid face? Play Sorry. One doesn’t always have to set up a new shop somewhere else, one can alter their tradition from the inside (just look at poor Gary Wills), but unlike one’s government, switching private allegiance can be a bit easier.

Rorty’s strategy with religion, then, is to privatize it. On the one hand, we have the thin level of public discourse with which to debate public policy. On the other hand, we have as many modes of private discourse as we have private communities made up of like-minded, happiness pursuers. Something might seem initially wrong with this—when did science become a private path towards happiness?—but it is imperative that the pragmatist approach at this high level of abstraction construe science as such. Science is a private path because it is not political discourse. It is a job, for one thing, and then, on occasion, it is a source of intense private pleasure for some, with no end of scientists who enjoy waxing poetic about the relationship of science to the universe. Most importantly, however, science—though it may inform public discourse—is not itself the mode in which we interact with our fellow democratic citizens on issues of joint societal determination.

“Private projects versus public discourse” is not, however, the way Rorty often construes the distinction, most prominently in “Religious Faith, Intellectual Responsibility, and Romance.” Rorty there construes “the supposed tension between science and religion as the illusion of opposition between cooperative endeavours and private projects.”[fn.2] This is a mistake, and we can begin to see the road it takes us down by noting the fact that most religions (or, at least, most people involved in a religion) are still by and large traditions of group worship. Those atheists among us might not see the connection between what a scientist does with other scientists and what a pastor does with his parishioners, but we can’t make the mistake a wresting control of the religious believer’s right to self-description (not at this level, at least). A utilitarian ethics of belief is the philosophical formulation of a democratic citizen’s ethos qua citizen. It is a high-falutin’ way of putting the right to privacy. As a citizen, just so long as the other citizens’ projects of self-creation, pleasure, or redemption do not conflict with your ability to pursue your own, there should be no objection. As we put on different hats, however, or start distinguishing between the short-term and long-term effects of various options, legitimate objections might start being raised.

This might be just a slight mistake on Rorty’s part here, a kind of over-assertive preference for the Protestant turn against creed towards a personal relationship with God. And we might take Rorty’s preference for Tillich over Barth as a misguided intervention by an outsider. Rorty certainly has a right to these preferences, and to articulating them in the hopes of persuading others to reject creed, but not as part of the overall package of a utilitarian ethics of belief. Rorty leads himself this way because of his earlier identification of the issue between science and religion as “cooperative v. private,” but this leads to a formulation that is just empirically false on its face for any self-respecting Wittgensteinian. After noting that the heart of classical and contemporary pragmatism is the notion of a “holistic view of intentional content,” that “beliefs have content only by virtue of inferential relations to other beliefs,” a Sellarsian move which effectively substitutes objectivity-as-intersubjectivity for objectivity-as-correspondence, Rorty wonders rhetorically, “what becomes of intersubjectivity once we admit that there is no communal practice of justification – no shared language game – which gives religious statements their content?”[fn.3]

Rorty rightly supplies the answer in our ability to “use the attribution of such beliefs to explain what is going on,”[fn.4] but this is an outsider’s view, the external view of Davidson’s radical interpreter, the field anthropologist dropped in the middle of an alien society, trying to understand their language and culture (which one does holistically and at the same time). Certainly there might be no shared language game for enthusiasts (as Rorty is) of Whitehead’s definition of religion as “what the individual does with his own solitariness,”[fn.5] but traditions of group worship, let alone theological articulation, fly in the face of “no communal practice of justification.” An internal view of the language game used by Southern Baptists or Anglicans, if we are Wittgensteinian and Sellarsian enough, would most certainly include practices of communication and understanding intelligible to its practitioners.

I don’t think this does a whole lot to Rorty’s overall point, however, in regards to pragmatism, religion, and the requirements of democracy. It simply means that when Rorty redescribes “intellectual responsibility” as “simply responsibility to people with whom one has joined a shared endeavour”[fn.6] we take that to include religious communities. Rorty, in his defense of private projects, says that the religious believer legitimately lapses intellectual responsibility with regards to her religious beliefs because all we need do is make “a distinction between what needs justification to other human beings and what does not,”[fn.7] but what we really need are more nuanced, contextual distinctions between different types of communities to whom we owe responsibility, and when and how. Rorty is entirely right to construe intellectual irresponsibility as “the wrongness of pretending to participate in a common project while refusing to play by the rules,”[fn.8] he just needs to be more sensitive to the desire of others to spend their alone-time with others.


[1] From his “Maeterlinck’s Philosophy of Life” in The Middle Works, vol. VI.

[2] Philosophy and Social Hope, 149

[3] Ibid., 159

[4] Ibid.

[5] Whitehead, Religion in the Making, (New York: Macmillan Company, 1926), 16

[6] PSH, 151

[7] Ibid., 154

[8] Ibid., 151

Friday, February 20, 2009

American Lit Notebook: Whitman I

Every class we had for American Lit, we were required to write a single page about our reading. I've pulled them together, unedited. So they will read a little odd, as my audience was my professor, and occasionally they refer to lectures (though that is rare).

References are to the individual lines of each poem.

I should also note that Bloom is hiding behind my reading of Whitman (particularly the vocabulary deployed).


Whitman: “Song of Myself,” I

The poet of Emersonianism, Whitman quickly states his subject-matter with “I celebrate myself, and sing myself.” (v. 1) It is not that Whitman is himself singing, it is that he’s singing a song called “Myself.” The first thing Whitman must set to move out of the way is the past, a recurrent theme during the Romantic period. “Creeds and schools in abeyance,/Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten.” (10-11) What Whitman seeks is “original energy.” (13)

In the second section Whitman sets out on his leisurely, light voyage, sniffing “shelves crowed with perfumes.” (14) Books stand in for the past and by likening books with odors, he imbues them with an optional ephemerality, a wafting buoyancy that the past rarely displays. Whitman will not let the past intoxicate him, but instead wishes to find Nature and “become undisguised and naked,” seeking “for it to be in contact with me.” (19-20) It is interesting and significant that Whitman should be naked, for in the long Platonic tradition of standing reality apart from her appearances, it is most often reality that we wish to see naked. Whitman has already internalized the Kantian Copernican shift that Emerson saw clearly—reality is always naked and it is us who need to shed our encumbrances.

This shedding maneuver climaxes with the section’s last stanza:
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
If with the first line Whitman states his premise, “what I assume you shall assume,” (2) the conclusion of the second section states his “intricate purpose.” (382) Persons, and indeed the whole cosmos (“earth and sun”), are likened to poems and that is the originary power we are seeking. We are ever-elongating texts, songs whose melodies may repeat motifs and accumulate harmonies, but whose true power lies in the note not yet sung, a repetition of what the first note was also—new. Whitman’s design is Emersonian. He realizes that the only way for us to follow him, as in Emerson, is to be non-didactic, even anti-didactic (“not look through my eyes”), though of necessity something is taught, something imparted, something passed from Whitman to the reader. Whitman and Emerson can be seen to be teaching forms, while leaving content to their newly self-reliant auditors, but Whitman is so strong a poetic power, so keen to protect its originality and newness, that he recognizes that any repetition will diminish him, take from him, like a metaphor dying. And so Whitman wishes also to block us from that (“nor take things from me”). Whitman’s method (which, given his poetic paranoia, we should wonder if it is his actual method, or simply the one he’s putting on the screen) is to take in all around and then filter what you find from yourself. An echo of Emerson’s dark anxiety, “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty,” (Emerson 139) Whitman finds the path to the origin of all poems as an emptying gesture, taking in the past so as to ebb it all away, leaving us with only what is uniquely us.

Whitman: “Song of Myself,” II

Stanza 24 sees a continuance of Whitman’s Emersonianism. It begins grandly, “Walt Whitman, a kosmos….” (v. 497) “Kosmos” is the transliteration of the Greek word, which otherwise in English is “cosmos.” Whitman’s use of the Greek, rather than English, may be just fancy, but it is notable that in Greek kosmos is the noun form of a parent verb that means something like “to set in order, or arrange,” with aesthetic and moral overtones (whereas the English “cosmos” has no verb counterpart and so hangs more statically). Leaving aside the Greek roots, “cosmos” has come down to us as more or less coextensive with “universe.” What is significant is the article, “a kosmos,” not “the kosmos” as would be expected if we were talking about the only one of something, like the universe.

This is a tone of paradoxicality that Whitman breeds and thrives on throughout the poem—Whitman, “me myself,” is both universe and multiverse, one voiced and several, individual and society, everything and nothing and something. Whitman gives “the sign of democracy,” which is that he “will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.” (v. 506-7) This should strike us as a tremendous move of equality, similar to Gloria Allred’s current legal argument about the recently passed Prop. 8 in California banning gay marriage—under California’s equal protection clause, if some class is forbidden marriage, all shall be forbidden marriage (and so the reductio ad absurdum).

However, notice the fourth line of the stanza: “…no stander above men and women or apart from them.” (v. 499) This is, again, a democratic move, eliminating the hierarchical nature of other modes of government and being. It also strikes a tone of solidarity, “or apart from them.” This figure, neither above nor apart, tends to meld in Whitman into a homogenizing relativism. Whitman will be the voice of “many long dumb voices,” (v. 508) but these are the voices of not only the inhumanly silenced, like slaves, but also the wicked, like thieves. By eliminating hierarchy, Whitman also seems to be eliminating value judgments. Whitman calls these voices “forbidden,” (v. 516) which suggests that these voices are silenced by an external authority, and that “by me” they are “clarified and transfigur’d.” (v. 518) What they are is him, the kosmos, nobody apart from anybody, all the same—him.

Whitman: “Song of Myself,” III

As I meditated on previously, Whitman is the poet of a paradoxical democracy and we can see one of his techniques in his gargantuan lists, lines that begin similiarly, and in most cases exactly, to each other, but are filled in differently. In stanzas 31 and 33 we encounter two more substantial lists. On the one hand Whitman’s lists have the effect of lighting areas that were commonly neglected by the so-called “higher arts” and so can be seen to be a kind of “poetry for the people.” By taking “low” subject-matter, particularly bodily and sexual (for example, v. 520’s “bowels” and 819’s “thighs and lips”), he is able to extend the purview of art and discourse to areas previously “forbidden.” (v. 516)

The problem with Whitman’s lists is that while they call attention to a vast array of items, “the buzzard,” “the snake,” “the elk,” (v. 679-81) “the native,” “the foreign,” “the homely woman,” “the handsome,” (v. 774-5), they are also pallid images with no life outside of their brief mentions in a litany that is expressly built to blend, and therefore homogenize. Metaphors and similes work to break down contrastive effects, they take two different things and bring them together through the verb “to be” or the preposition “like,” but while both poetic figures require two different things to create the effect, if overused they die and the items lose contrast, becoming not metaphoric but literal. As with Whitman’s lists, they are homogenizing tropes, blending all together to make equal and the same.

Whitman, however, seems to see us coming. Whitman is dancing in this poem, enacting a sequence of poetic defense, shifting his posture in time to the music of our protests. If we might protest that his poetry reduces us, Whitman will reply: “If I, you, and the worlds, and all beneath or upon their surfaces, were this moment, reduced back to a pallid float, it would not avail in the long run” (v.1191). Whitman’s true goal, he will remind us, is to get all of us to become ourselves. He meditates quite frequently on himself, and “any thing is but a part,” (v. 1195) no doubt of himself, that kosmos, but Whitman is “the teacher of athletes” (v. 1234) and we are all, to ourselves, a kosmos.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Rorty, Religion, and Romance

*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.


Rorty never produced a lot of work on the specific topic of religion, but what he did write has a certain intensity that cuts to the quick of the consequences he sees for pragmatism on culture. The two pieces in Philosophy and Social Hope show well two sides of Rorty’s personality, and their two corresponding sides of his view of religion. Whenever I read “Religious Faith, Intellectual Responsibility, and Romance,” I almost begin to think I should start talking about God more. When I follow it as I always do with the succeeding piece, “Religion As Conversation-stopper,” I’m reminded why I don’t. The former is Rorty’s tender-minded reading of James’ “The Will to Believe,” his empathetic defense of the religious experience in the face of scientific reductionism and intellectual rationalism. The latter is Rorty’s viper quick, and slightly catty, defense of the Jefferson compromise with religion in the public sphere. These two papers correspond to the two sides of Rorty’s infamous private/public distinction in his political philosophy: as a private project, as personal path to redemption, religion is as equally valid as any other path, just so long as it does not encroach on others’ paths. This is the concession to the public sphere all projects—religious, philosophical, or other cultural manifestation—must make. And just so long as these projects are not shared with others, they become practically inappropriate to public deliberation because not shared.

David Hall said some years ago, about half way through Rorty’s mature phase, that Rorty probably chose Dewey over James as his philosophical hero, if only subconsciously, because he was too close to James and couldn’t get any traction in talking about him. I think Rorty and James’ personalities were too close, both humanist intellectuals less interested, in the end, with science than Dewey because they both felt personally more attached to conversation with their fellows than fidgeting with the stuff surrounding us. Like true humanists, they felt conversation far more important to life and the legacy of humanity than technology, even if they understood on some level that none of our progress would be possible without science and its more practically-minded offspring. Still the best discussion of James’ philosophy and personality is Santayana’s chapter on him in Character and Opinion in the United States and I suspect much of what he says there could go as well for Rorty.

Rorty’s orientation to life is reflected straightaway in his essay on James when he says, “One of James’s most heartfelt convictions was that to know whether a claim should be met, we need only ask which other claims … it runs athwart.” (“Faith,” 148, italics his) The ellipsis blots out some of James’s words from “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” where he says, “we see not only that without a claim actually made by some concrete person there can be no obligation, but that there is some obligation wherever there is a claim. Claim and obligation are, in fact, coextensive terms; they cover each other exactly.”[fn.1] We see here immediately the instinctive humanism they both felt, the conversational inquisitiveness that drove them. Where there are not real threats, we should not see real tensions in belief. The inquiry that philosophy should take is not into some smooth, unchanging object called Truth or Reality, but into what obligations, and what kind exactly, we have to each other because of the beliefs we find ourselves with. And as obligations come into conflict do we find ourselves with the obligation to shift our beliefs.

Rorty’s first face to religion is a defense of the religious experience. Rorty’s more ecumenical name for religious experience, in that wide, quasi-universal sense we find our latter-day I’m-not-religious-but-spiritual types using, is “romance.” The underlying reason for this choice, I think, is ultimately conversational. Whether talking about our love for God or our love for our husband and children, this love—in conversation with others—is often intensely felt, difficult to convey, and sometimes inscrutable. Love is deeply personal. The only thing more universal than the fact that everyone loves is the idiosyncratic variety of the objects of our affection.

And because our love often subsists in ephemeral waves of crashing euphoria, we find it difficult to describe what it is we are actually feeling. So it is that we often keep these feelings to ourselves, or rest content in short phrases and beaming faces, only occasionally expressing them to our reciprocating objects or fellow enthusiasts (the mutually culpable typically being more forgiving of clumsiness). Some, though, think themselves quite good at expressing their awkward innerness, and a few of these actually are—we call these latter “poets.” For the rest of us, however, our muteness should not be taken as a sign of unfeeling or uncaring. All similarity is an imagining by analogy, and this pragmatist point about how language functions is merely punched up the fact of seemingly inexpressible experience.

Rorty’s own minimalism on the topic of romance—and experience—I believe, are evocative of a personal shyness in regards to his own powers of expression and, more importantly, of a rhetorical gesture of space clearing—by outlining the space of romance and refusing to populate it in any detail with his own words of power, Rorty seeks to defend our right to our own words. His passivity is designed to actively engage our own imaginations, to fill this space with ourselves. This is a supremely Emersonian and Whitmanian endeavor. Rorty’s gesture is neither command nor assertion—it is a sweeping arm of protective welcome and a suggestive come-hither look of experimental freedom. Strong poets impress upon us metaphors that dominate our consciousness, but the metaphors of Emerson and Whitman were designed to hold open the world to each of our imaginations, to clear a space from dominance so that we may each plant our own gardens of delight and fantasy.

If this face owes far too much to reading Romantic poetry and not enough to religious creed, then so much the worse—so Rorty would say—for creed. Rorty’s second face to religion is slightly irritated by the still existing presumption that readers of Wordsworth or Blake don’t have consciences according to American law. Rorty enforces the secular, democratic separation of church and state with an admittedly small amount of peevishness. Western democracies institutionalized the separation of religion from government in order to protect the freedom of people with different religions. In practice, Rorty again enforces this protection by thinking about conversation—what do you do when somebody proposes public policy on the basis of a religious belief you don’t share? How do you debate that? And in Rorty’s view, this goes for basing them on Nietzsche as much as on Christ.

Conversations, in Rorty’s manner, come in two different kinds—some we don’t have to agree with the person’s terms, and can just empathize and seek understanding, because the conclusions drawn in their thinking have nothing to do with us. Whether they love Carol or not, it shouldn’t exactly matter to us since we aren’t the ones going to bed with her. But other conversations, these don’t just demand understanding, but agreement in terms because the entire point of them is to lock down societally-binding conclusions and direction. So what needs to be created is a public language, if ever so thin, in which to debate these questions without begging the question over any particular side.

There is a third face, however, that Rorty displays to religion, though not so much in the two essays in Philosophy and Social Hope. This face might be summed up in pragmatism’s historicism—if religion began as the first attempts of primitive humanity to explain their surroundings, then surely some of these are outmoded. This face is conscientiously stern in open debates about where our culture should be heading. Dewey, on par, was better at this than James, and so was Rorty, which might explain Rorty’s overt affinity with Dewey, given his shyness. James was much more the phenomenological adventurer, exploring our current consciousnesses and sussing out the real tensions. Dewey, on the other hand, had more of an historical sense and was better at telling evolutionary stories of how we got these tensions—and where we might go to relieve them.

For pragmatists, beliefs are tools. They are inherently artifactual. We created non-linguistic practices like carpentry to help keep ourselves dry and we created linguistic practices to help tell other people how to do it. We created physical tools, like hammers, to help bind wood together and we created intellectual tools, like logic, to help bind our beliefs together. Every habit, every practice that was created throughout history was done so in response to a felt need. The question pragmatists wish us all to face down, religious or otherwise, is what were our needs and do we still have them? If Rorty’s private and public face to religion are somewhat oriented towards the past and present, the third face of historicism looks to the future with a somewhat open-ended, though no less urgent, question: So we know where we’ve been, now where should we go?


[1] In The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, p. 194 of the 1956 Dover edition. Italics James's.

Friday, February 06, 2009

American Lit Notebook: Hawthorne II

Every class we had for American Lit, we were required to write a single page about our reading. I've pulled them together, unedited. So they will read a little odd, as my audience was my professor, and occasionally they refer to lectures (though that is rare).

References are to the Portable Hawthorne, edited by William C. Spengemann.


Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter, I

I suspected at the time of writing that my harsh judgment of “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” was perhaps a bit overhasty and that I was missing something. Post-lecture, placed in the context of a bald American nationalism and seeing the conflicted Rousseauian spirit of the mob scene, I see more clearly its power. Rousseau’s chained freedom is precursor to Emerson’s all-is-mediated and they form the conflict at the heart of an American form of life. What is clear from the miss, however, is that of the two kinds Henry James called Hawthorne’s “stories of fantasy and allegory” and his “little tales of New England history,” I clearly am most at home in the former (being more algebraic in Emerson’s sense), whatever James’ denigration of it. The Scarlet Letter, on most scores, moves back to this form, though it must in a more complicated sense.

The first interesting facet of the story to be noticed is Hawthorne’s relation to the writing of it. The Scarlet Letter does not present itself as simple piece of made-up fiction. Hawthorne presents it as a recorded narrative, like an historian. “Finding it so directly on the threshold of our narrative, which is now about to issue from that inauspicious portal, we could hardly do otherwise than pluck one of its flowers and present it to the reader.” (160) Hawthorne’s figural gesture of plucking one flower to present creates the illusion of a larger reality in which the story sits, which is the illusion of reality, realness. Hawthorne isn’t, of course, pretending that he’s telling us about something that actually happened. What this gesture does is create a mask behind which Hawthorne can hide, essentially creating an Author persona that mediates between Hawthorne and the story.

This allows Hawthorne to use an ironic aside to his readers throughout the story. For instance, “On the other hand, a penalty which, in our days, would infer a degree of mocking infamy and ridicule, might then be invested with almost as stern a dignity as the punishment of death itself.” (162) The question of what Hawthorne thinks about his contemporary situation is completely blocked behind the mask of the Author. What we are left with is an irony that reflects back on us the question of whether the statement itself is true or not: have we moved past the Puritanism of two hundred years ago? This is the constant question forced upon us by Hawthorne through the Author.

The great question in force, it would seem, is that of the nature of sin. I’m guided her by a comment of D. H. Lawrence’s at the outset of an essay on Hawthorne: “Sin is a queer thing. It isn’t the breaking of divine commandments. It is the breaking of one’s own integrity.” This is a distinctively Emersonian transvaluation of sin and gets something importantly right about the common project of mid-19th century American writers. Hester Prynne wavers a good deal on the scaffold, though almost always keeping a bold face to the crowd. What is fascinating is her summons of strength at the moment of truth: “Never!” she tells Dimmesdale, looking not at the crowd or her questioner, but straight into “the deep and troubled eyes of the younger clergyman.” (178) And though her second cry breaks a bit, the strength of her will, having traversed the chapter’s rising sense of agony, is thunderous, and could only adhere to one of singular character. I take the “wildness of her nature” (188) to signal Hester’s authentic self, the one that thundered “Never!” in the face of society’s shame, and that her great sin is that she holds out hope for a reunion with Dimmesdale. Her wildness is chained in New England, the truth of which she must hide from herself, the great strike against sincere authenticity: “doubtless it was so, although she hid the secret from herself, and grew pale whenever it struggled out of her heart, like a serpent from its hole.” (189) The serpent, Satan’s form in Eden, “the tempter of souls,” is here the form of her love for Dimmesdale.

Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter, II

Much of the middle section of The Scarlet Letter is given over to the development of Chillingworth and Dimmesdale, two characters, I must confess, I find far less fascination with than Hester and Pearl. But part of the growing power in Hester and Pearl lies in their relations to the two, so pass through them we must.

Pearl, in her earlier chapter, is shown to be a vast font of unpredictable, unlawful power, akin by her perceivers to an imp and delivishness. I think this marks the unmistakable odor of a rising feminism. The rules of the past are being broken, and though Hester rests between the past and the future, she does wish “to create an analogy between the object of her affection, and the emblem of her guilt and torture.” (209) Pearl embodies her own passion and wildness, her own break with the past, her sin, and so is consistently held, as Chillingworth cogently sees, as having “no law, nor reverence for authority, no regard for human ordinances or opinions, right or wrong, mixed up with that child’s composition. … Hath she any discoverable principle of being?” Dimmesdale responds, equally cogently, “None,—save the freedom of a broken law.” (237) The wild unpredictability of Pearl depicted by Hawthorne, I think, is his correct apprehension of the unseen vistas of the future to which we in the present must hammer out. This is the romantic Coleridge’s (or was it Wordsworth?) suggestion that we create the taste by which we are judged given its American twist in Emerson’s call for internal, authentic self-reliance, setting out our own rules for ourselves, for Whitman’s vision of democracy and the eratic, yet internally compelled Pearl, with her as yet undiscovered principle of being.

The “melancholy prophecy of decay” (225) in Dimmesdale’s voice is partly found in this breakdown of law, impelled as he is “powerfully along the track of creed,” which was “essential to his peace” “while it confined him within its iron framework.” (228) It is again noteworthy that the breath of fresh air Chillingworth gives Dimmesdale, amidst the “musty fragrance, be it sensual or moral” of his books, is the unfamiliar counterpositions of “other moral scenery” (ibid.). But Dimmesdale’s sin lies elsewhere, too, in D. H. Lawrence’s supposition that sin is lying to yourself. Dimmesdale is unaware of Chillingworth’s hunt because of a “certain morbidness” which “rendered him suspicious of all mankind,” (234) a malady we first saw at the close of “Young Goodman Brown.” What Dimmesdale then conjures are sick self-rationalizations, putting him further from himself. He wraps himself in the cloak of God, reasoning that humanly revelations “are meant merely to promote the intellectual satisfaction of intelligent beings.” (235) If I read Hawthorne aright, with his belief in the power of symbols, when Dimmesdale declares that there can be “no power, short of the Divine mercy, to disclose, whether by uttered words, or by type or emblem, the secrets that may be buried with a human heart,” (ibid.) Hawthorne is marking Dimmesdale’s blindness and self-interested swerving from justice, which ultimately is an authenticity to oneself.

Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter, III

Emerson and Thoreau are always pulled together, taken to be from common stock, but less often do we match Hawthorne with the so-called Transcendentalists. Chapter 13, “Another View of Hester,” however, maps on quite well with the Romantic view of nature American Transcendentalists were known for and seems to throw Hester into the mode of a prophet.

After Hester and Pearl’s encounter with Dimmesdale on the stockade, Hester recesses into herself, spending the chapter meditating on her situation, which is suggestively called “Another View of Hester.” In Hester, Hawthorne set up a strong dichotomy between outward and inward appearance, a conflict that manifests itself in deliberation over action, the greatest muddle between our private internals and public externals. To begin, Hawthorne rings a strong Emersonian bell when he says, “Little accustomed, in her long seclusion from society, to measure her ideas of right and wrong by any standard external to herself…,” (261) one that even carries Thoreau’s hermetic influence.

Her seclusion, however, is forced by Puritan society, a decision she in part agrees with. She herself views her time with Dimmesdale as a sin and lives her life as Puritan virtue would have it: “it could only be a genuine regard for virtue that had brought the poor wanderer to its paths.” (262, italics mine) But the doubleness of Hester’s behavior always remains—“This might be pride, but was so like humility….” (263) Though Hester acts like a Puritan, and does as a matter of course, believe in its virtues, her outward behavior passes through the third-person reported ambiguities (“pride or humility?”) to their mirror opposite in her mind, the world of thought where she acts as a true radical. What is interesting is that, like Thoreau, Hawthorne emphasizes the outward, behavioral aspect of this inward turn.
“Standing alone in the world,—alone, as to any dependence on society, and with little Pearl to be guided and protected,—alone, and hopeless of retrieving her position, even had she not scorned to consider it desirable,—she cast away the fragments of a broken chain.”

This mirroring of Hester’s Puritan virtue with her “emancipated,” radical theories, the outward behavior with the inward, ineffectual thinking is central to reading Hawthorne’s tale as an allegory for the human condition. Hester, like humanity, sits astride her warring passions and cool thinking, her puritanical behavior and radically feminist thought. The height of the allegory is achieved at the end, as Pearl, embodying the free, yet-unforeseen future, “that unknown region where Pearl had found a home,” (354) leaves her mother, who must return home to New England. Hester is shackled to the past, straddling past and future. Hester birthed the future, but she herself cannot be a part of it. If “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” suggests that the most fluid time for social norms—and so the only moments for transcendence—are during revolutions, Hester must come back because we cannot exist in total, permanent revolution.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Quote of the Day 2

Once again, instead of New Me or Old Me, let's have some Repeated Me:

"What the pragmatist is suggesting ... is that reductionism is a special case of redescription and realism (in the sense of pluralism, the attempt to "save the appearances") is a special case of pragmatism. What both special cases hinge on is a so far fruitless and conversation stifling essentialism. After brushing aside essentialism, what is left is our ubiquitous power to create new descriptions and our particular power to choose which descriptions we use for which purposes. This means that a scientist can go on reducing color to wavelengths in the laboratory without worrying about whether red doesn't exist and that a poet can go on writing sonnets about love without worrying about whether the Freudian next door will say that it's all in his id."

--The Parable of the Reductionist