January 6, 2018

OUR GODFATHER (self-reference alert)

The Moral Conservatism of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Russell Kirk, Imaginative Conservative)

That part of the American past which was his especial province, Puritan New England, exerted an influence in the long run substantially conservative. Though born of a stern dissent, Puritanism in America soon displayed a character more demandingly orthodox, according to its own canons, than the comparative leniency from which it had fled. In The Scarlet Letter, retrospectively in The House of Seven Gables, in many of the Twice Told Tales and Mosses from an Old Manse, that Puritan spirit is described with inimitable perspicacity: fiercely censorious, resolute, industrious, allied with free political institutions, introspective, repressive of emotion, seeking after godliness with a zeal that does not spare self-pity or even worldly ambition. The Puritan character, for all its lasting influence upon the American mind, stands poles apart from the common aspirations and impulses of modern American life. Suspicious of alteration and expansion, repressive of self, Puritanism detests the hedonistic appetites that predominate. Puritanism is moral conservatism in its most unbending form: and of all the varieties of mutiny that the modern world suffers, moral revolution is the most violent. Because of Hawthorne, America has not been able to forget wholly the Puritans, either their vices or their virtues.

Yet this achievement, magnificent in a lesser man, is merely incidental to Hawthorne's chief accomplishment: impressing the idea of sin upon a nation which would like to forget it. Hawthorne was never mainly an historical romancer; his burning interest was morality. Writing such artful moral allegories as had not been produced since Bunyan, he chastened American optimism by declaring that sin, in quality and in quantity, is virtually constant; that projects of reform must begin and end with the human heart; that our real enemy is not social institutions but the devil within us; that the fanatical improver of mankind through alteration is, commonly, in truth a destroyer of souls.

Belief in the dogma of original sin has been prominent in the system of every great conservative thinker--in the Christian resignation of Burke, the hard-headed pessimism of John Adams, the "Calvinistic Catholicism" of Newman, the stern vigour of J. F. Stephen. With Hawthorne the contemplation of sin is his obsession, almost his life. "True civilization," wrote Baudelaire in his journal, "does not lie in progress or steam or table-turning. It lies in the diminution of the marks of original sin." Though so radically different in mind and heart, Hawthorne and Baudelaire were close together in this view. By heroic effort, Hawthorne suggests, men may diminish the influence of original sin in the world, but this struggle requires nearly their undivided attention. Not that Hawthorne is a true Puritan, or perhaps even a strict Christian. His novels are not tracts. He dissects the anatomy of sin with a curiosity insatiable and even cruel. In The Scarlet Letter, and again in The Marble Faun, he suggests that sin, for all its consequences, may be an enlightening influence upon certain natures: although it burns, it wakens. Perhaps our regeneration is impossible without sin's agency. "Is Sin, then--which we deem such a fearful blackness in the universe--" he makes Kenyon speculate in The Marble Faun--"is it, like Sorrow, merely an element of human education, through which we struggle to a higher and purer state than we could otherwise have attained? Did Adam fall that we might ultimately rise to a loftier paradise than his?"

But whatever sin affects, we must reckon with it as the greatest force which agitates society. In The Blithedale Romance, as in a half-dozen short stories, Hawthorne describes the catastrophe of well-intentioned humanitarianism between moral blinkers. He did not convince America of the necessity for taking sin into every social calculation. It remains merely an uncomfortable theory to men of the twentieth century, and an age that has beheld human beings consumed in the furnaces of Auschwitz or worked to death like old horses in the Siberian arctic, still pretends that it is no more than a theological sham. Even a critic like Mr. R. C. Churchill, often astute, an inheritor of the old English Liberal tradition, writes doggedly (in his recent Disagreements) of "the barbarous, pre-civilised notion of Original Sin"--although a Fabian like Mr. Grossman now admits its reality. Hawthorne did not make the doctrine of sin popular, but he left a good many people uneasily mindful that it is possibly true. This is his powerful conservative achievement.

"A revolution, or anything that interrupts social order, may afford opportunities for the individual display of eminent virtues," wrote Hawthorne in his sketch The Old Tory; "but its effects are pernicious to general morality. Most people are so constituted that they can be virtuous only in a certain routine." This is Burke's mind, through and through. Hawthorne returns to this theme of moral conservatism throughout his works, but his most lengthy analysis of the destroying power of sinful impulse, once revolutionary moral precepts are practised, is The Blithedale Romance. In that novel, he turned his back, with good-natured contempt, upon the idealists and radicals of Brook Farm, upon Emerson and Alcott and Ripley and Margaret Fuller and "all that knot of dreamers." For they had forgotten the sinfulness of man, and with it, the proper functions and limits of moral action. When the story is done, the fanatic reformer who is its chief character, Hollingsworth, is grimly resigned to attempting the reformation of one criminal only--himself. "The besetting sin of a philanthropist, it appears to me," Hawthorne says through the mouth of Coverdale, "is apt to be a moral obliquity. His sense of honour ceases to be the sense of other honourable men. At some point of his course--I know not exactly when or where--he is tempted to potter with the right, and can scarcely forbear persuading himself that the importance of his public ends renders it allowable to throw aside his private conscience."

The kerfuffle over Leon Kass and Hawthorne's story The Birthmark was the proximate cause of this blog. 

Posted by at January 6, 2018 7:06 PM