Marianne's Reviews > The Business of Reflection: Hawthorne in His Notebooks

The Business of Reflection by Robert Milder
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Jun 13, 11

bookshelves: favorites, hawthorne
Read in May, 2011

       As a student of metaphysics and all things mystical ; ) something that has always struck me in Hawthorne’s writing is his inclination, often manifested as a kind of longing, to understand the various things, ideas, and people he encountered – most often not to understand in an intellectual way, but to know a thing, to somehow recognize its actual spiritual or metaphysical nature and, depending on the level of resonance, either accept it and take it into himself or reject it. Much more than simply an observer, Hawthorne brings his attention fully to the presenting moment, then plumbs the depths of that moment first with his physical eyes and then with his inner eye, taking each thing that manifests to his awareness in turn until the enchantment turns to exhaustion, or just before. He devotes his time and attention as willingly to a randomly-encountered anthill as to an intricate Italian masterpiece, though he gives himself most easily to natural or accidental encounters, stepping back from the contrived and overly-demanding. Hawthorne often describes studying an object or contemplating an idea until he could make it “his own,” as if attempting to be one with that thing, bridging the apparent gap between himself and the other. And he dares to honor his own vision, even if that vision is a fresh perception that stands at odds with what he (or someone else) felt about the same subject a few “Nows” ago. As I suggested above, in giving himself to the present moment however, he is often overwhelmed and nearly rebellious if too much is being asked of him at once, such as in a museum exhibit or a crowded social scene in which he is expected to participate.
       Oftentimes it seems clear that Hawthorne is tapping deeply into the spiritual substance of a thing. And if that thing or idea resonates with his own nature – if it meets his own ideals and aesthetic sense – his satisfaction is complete, and there can be no doubt about that object’s beauty and goodness. If, however, a thing proves itself unreachable or worse, discordant (which happens often enough!), he becomes disillusioned, sometimes unforgiving. In these cases when he is unable to achieve that kind of sympathy with a thing, he either places the blame for the failure on himself as if he is somehow lacking in capacity, or he blames the object itself for being “other” in some way. Though not formally placed within the transcendentalist circle of his time (except for the little nest that was his family, he typically places himself outside of stamped and branded collectives or causes), his explorations are highly, highly metaphysical. He spiritualizes nearly everything, and signs and symbols, seen and unseen, are everywhere. I would love to call him a Gnostic (ritual-like bathing and all that!), but out of respect for his own hesitations toward once-and-for-alls, I will refrain from labeling him in that way!
       These are just a few of the things that draw me to Mr. Hawthorne’s reflections and stories – there is always so, so much more to say! Though he is sometimes sarcastic and a bit harsh when it does not seem warranted, I recommend Miller’s Salem Is My Dwelling Place as a companion to Reflection for a deeper sense of Hawthorne and the people around him (especially wife Sophia whose metaphysical musings are extraordinarily beautiful!). I am always glad for the surviving notebooks and letters, hopeful that in reading them, I am not intruding too casually into sacred and often secret spaces. Here are a few favorite passages from the Notebooks:

“Last evening there was the most beautiful moonlight that ever hallowed this earthly world; and when I went to bathe in the river, which was as calm as death, it seemed like plunging down into the sky. But I had rather be on earth than even in the seventh Heaven, just now.” (81)

“Oh, how blest should I be, were there nothing to do! Then I would watch every inch and hair’s breadth of the progress of the season; and not a leaf should put itself forth, in the vicinity of our old mansion, without my noting it.” (93-94)

“Walden Pond was clear and beautiful, as usual. It tempted me to bathe; and though the water was thrillingly cold, it was like the thrill of a happy death. Never was there such transparent water as this. I threw sticks into it, and saw them float suspended on an almost invisible medium; it seemed as if the pure air was beneath them, as well as above. If I were to be baptized, it should be in this pond; but then one would not wish to pollute it by washing off his sins into it. None but angels should bathe there.” (97)

Upon encountering Emerson in the woods:
“In the midst of our talk, we heard footsteps above us.... and, behold, it was Mr. Emerson, who, in spite of his clerical consecration, had found no better way of spending the Sabbath than to ramble among the woods. He appeared to have had a pleasant time; for he said that there were Muses in the woods to-day, and whispers to be heard in the breezes.” (81)

“Mr. Emerson – the mystic, stretching his hand out of cloud-land, in vain search for something real....” (77)
“Mr. Emerson (that everlasting rejecter of all that is, and seeker for he knows not what).” (85)

“My wife went to church in the forenoon; - but not so her husband. He loves the Sabbath, however, though he has no set way of observing it; but it seldom comes and goes without— but here are some visitors; so this disquisition must rest among the things that never will be written.” (86)

“It is our duty to support a pig, even if we have no design of feasting upon his flesh; and for my own part, I have a great sympathy and interest for the whole race of porkers, and should have much amusement in studying the character of a pig. Perhaps I might try to bring out his moral and intellectual nature, and cultivate his affections. A cat, too, and perhaps a dog, would be desirable additions to our household.” (73)

“I have seldom seen anything more beautiful than the cove … and the more I looked, the lovelier it grew. The trees overshadowed it deeply; but on one side there was some brilliant shrubbery which seemed to light up the whole picture with the effect of a sweet and melancholy smile. I felt as if spirits were there—or as if these shrubs had a spiritual life—in short, the impression was undefinable; and after gazing and musing a good while, I retraced my steps through the Irish hamlet, and plodded on along a wood-path.” (98)

Upon encountering Tennyson at the Exhibition in England:
“Tennyson is the most picturesque figure, without affectation, that I ever saw.... Gazing at him with all my eyes, I liked him well, and rejoiced more in him than in all the other wonders of the Exhibition.” (174-175)
(Of course, Hawthorne did not attempt to actually meet Tennyson. He was content to simply observe Tennyson observing art and resisted the urge to follow him through the exhibits : )

“In the Pantheon, it was pleasant, looking up to the circular opening, to see the clouds flitting across it; sometimes covering it quite over, then permitting a glimpse of sky, then showing all the circle of sunny blue. Then would come the ragged edge of a cloud, brightened throughout with sun-shine; all, whether sun or shadow, passing and changing quickly, not that the divine smile was not always the same, but continually variable through the medium of earthly influences. The great slanting beam of sunshine was visible all the way down to the pavement, falling upon motes of dust or a thin smoke of incense, imperceptible in the shadow. Insects were playing to-and-fro in the beam, high up toward the opening. There is a wonderful charm in the naturalness of all this; and it is natural enough to fancy a swarm of cherubs coming down through the opening, and sporting in the broad sunbeam, to gladden the faith of worshippers on the pavement beneath; or angels, bearing prayers upward, or bringing down responses to them, visible with dim brightness as they pass through that pathway of heaven’s radiance, even the many hues of their wings discernible by a trusting eye; though, as they pass into the shadow, they vanish as the motes do. So the sunbeam would represent those rays of divine intelligence which enable us to see wonders, and to know that they are natural things.” (209-210)


"The human Heart to be allegorized as a cavern; at the entrance there is sunshine, and flowers growing about it. You step within, but a short distance, and begin to find yourself surrounded with a terrible gloom, and monsters of divers[e] kinds; it seems like Hell itself. You are bewildered, and wander long without hope. At last a light strikes upon you. You press towards it yon, and find yourself in a region that seems, in some sort, to reproduce the flowers and sunny beauty of the entrance, but all perfect. These are the depths of the heart, or of human nature, bright and peaceful; the gloom and terror may lie deep; but deeper still is this eternal beauty." (63)

“How instantaneously did all dreariness and heaviness of the earth’s spirit flit away, before one smile of the beneficent sun. This proves that all gloom is but a dream and a shadow, and that cheerfulness is the real truth....” (82)

“Until we learn to appreciate the cherubs and angels that Raphael scatters through the blessed air, in a picture of the Nativity, it is not amiss to look at a Dutch fly settling on a peach, or a humble-bee burying himself in a flower.” (224)

“I was unquiet, from a hopelessness of being able fully to enjoy it. Nothing is more depressing than the sight of a great many pictures together; it is like having innumerable books open before you at once, and being able to read a sentence or two in each. They bedazzle one another with cross-lights. There never should be more than one picture in a room, nor more than one picture to be studied in one day; galleries of pictures are surely the greatest absurdities that ever were contrived; there being no excuse for them, except that it is the only way in which pictures can be made generally available and accessible. We went first into the Gallery of British Painters, where there were hundreds of pictures; any one of which would have interested me by itself; but I could not fix my mind on one more than another; so I left my wife there, and wandered away by myself, to get a general idea of the Exhibition. Truly, it is very fine; truly, also, every great show is a kind of humbug. I doubt whether there were half a dozen people there who got the kind of enjoyment that it was intended to create;—very respectable people they seemed to be, and very well behaved, but all skimming the surface, as I did, and none of them so feeding on what was beautiful as to digest it, and make it a part of themselves.” (172-173)

“I used to admire the Dying Gladiator exceedingly; but, in my later views of him, I find myself getting weary and annoyed that he should be such a length of time leaning on his arm, in the very act of death. If he is so terribly hurt, why does he not sink down and die, without further ado?” (231)

Having been pressured to give a speech at dinner which was then misrepresented and misquoted by the English press: “But it is an absurd world; so let this absurdity pass with the rest.” (160)

At the Louvre: “I was wearied to death with the drawings, and began to have that dreary and desperate feeling which has often come upon me, when the sights last longer than my capacity for receiving them....” (182)

“At the Last Day, I presume—that is, in all future days, when we see ourselves as we are—man’s only inexorable Judge will be himself, and the punishment of his sins will be the perception of them.” (210-211)

“But indeed, old things are not so beautiful in this dry climate and clear atmosphere as in moist England. The marble, it is true, grows black or brown, and shows its age in that manner; but it remains hard and sharp, and does not become again a part of Nature, as stone walls do in England; some dry and dusty grass sprouts along the ledges of a ruin, as in the Coliseum, but there is no green mantel of ivy kindly spreading itself over the grey dilapidation. Whatever beauty there may be in a Roman ruin is the remnant of what was beautiful originally, whereas an English ruin is more beautiful, often, in its decay than ever it was in its primal strength.” (189)

       “During this moon, I have two or three evenings, sat sometime in our sitting-room, without light, except from the coal-fire and the moon. Moonlight produces a very beautiful effect in the room; falling so white upon the carpet, and showing its figures so distinctly; and making all the room so visible, and yet so different from a morning or noontide visibility. ... –all objects, that have been used or played with during the day, though still as familiar as ever, are invested with something like strangeness or remoteness. I cannot in any measure express it. Then the somewhat dim coal-fire throws its unobtrusive tinge through the room—a faint ruddiness upon the wall—which has a not unpleasant effect in taking from the colder spirituality of the moonbeams. Between both these lights, such a medium is created that the room seems just fit for the ghosts of persons very dear, who have lived in the room with us, to glide noiselessly in, and sit quietly down, without affrighting us. It would be like a matter of course, to look round, and find some familiar form in one of the chairs. If one of the white curtains happen to be down before the windows, the moonlight makes a delicate tracery with the branches of the trees, the leaves somewhat thinned by the progress of autumn, but still pretty abundant. It is strange how utterly I have failed to give anything of the effect of moonlight in a room.
       The fire-light diffuses a mild, heart-warm influence through the room; but is scarcely visible, unless you particularly look for it—and then you become conscious of a faint tinge upon the ceiling, of a reflected gleam from the mahogany furniture; and if your eyes fall on the glass, deep within it you perceive the glow of the burning anthracite.
       I hate to leave such a scene; and when retiring to bed, after closing the sitting-room door, I re-open it, again and again, to peep back at the warm, cheerful, solemn repose, the white light, the faint ruddiness, the dimness, -- all like a dream, and which makes me feel as if I were in a conscious dream.” (106-107)       
       
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