Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The private, the public, and Hawthorne

A friend at Random House sent me virtually every 19th century novel in Modern Library imprint, and I'm re-reading The Scarlet Letter now. A passage today struck me:
One day, leaning his forehead on his hand, and his elbow on the sill of the open window, that looked towards the grave-yard, he talked with Roger Chillingworth, while the old man was examining a bundle of unsightly plants.
"Where," asked he, with a look askance at them,—for it was the clergyman's peculiarity that he seldom, now-a-days, looked straightforth at any object, whether human or inanimate,—"where, my kind doctor, did you gather those herbs, with such a dark, flabby leaf?"
"Even in the grave-yard here at hand," answered the physician, continuing his employment. "They are new to me. I found them growing on a grave, which bore no tombstone, no other memorial of the dead man, save these ugly weeds that have taken upon themselves to keep him in remembrance. They grew out of his heart, and typify, it may be, some hideous secret that was buried with him, and which he had done better to confess during his lifetime."
"Perchance," said Mr. Dimmesdale, "he earnestly desired it, but could not."
"And wherefore?" rejoined the physician. "Wherefore not; since all the powers of nature call so earnestly for the confession of sin, that these black weeds have sprung up out of a buried heart to make manifest, an outspoken crime?"
"That, good Sir, is but a fantasy of yours," replied the minister. "There can be, if I forbode aright, 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. The heart, making itself guilty of such secrets, must perforce hold them, until the day when all hidden things shall be revealed. Nor have I so read or interpreted Holy Writ, as to understand that the disclosure of human thoughts and deeds, then to be made, is intended as a part of the retribution. That, surely, were a shallow view of it. No; these revelations, unless I greatly err, are meant merely to promote the intellectual satisfaction of all intelligent beings, who will stand waiting, on that day, to see the dark problem of this life made plain. A knowledge of men's hearts will be needful to the completest solution of that problem. And I conceive, moreover, that the hearts holding such miserable secrets as you speak of will yield them up, at that last day, not with reluctance, but with a joy unutterable."
It recalled a conversation I had last week with an old friend. We got to talking (writing, actually) about whether truly private experience is possible. My friend recounted many experiences in which he had intimations of things which we might term "private": intimations of the death of loved ones, clairvoyant or telepathic experiences, and that sort of thing. One of the things that Hawthorne keeps coming back to is the social and personal skirmishes across the public/private border. A woman has a private affair that bears public fruit in the birth of her child and results in her being very publicly humiliated. Her husband abandons his public claims and ties to her and assumes a new identity. He attaches himself to her lover, a minister, who holds the knowledge of his sinful affair deep within his own heart, where it nonetheless becomes known and visible to the husband. Throughout, the public and private have a way of bleeding into one another. Never really saw this before (of course, you don't see much the first time around).
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