Tuesday, June 12, 2007

We Take Requests Here at CitizenSE

A Japanese colleague of mine whom I've responded to here before recently asked me what I had on the sketch "The Intelligence Office." I emailed him back with some quick ideas and promised an update here. This is it (or maybe the first part if I can't finish it between classes today!).

As you can see here, the only time I've previously blogged on "The Intelligence Office" is to link it to Faulkner's Thomas Sutpen in an aborted larger argument aiming to show Hawthorne's intimate knowledge of the importance of international trade (including the slave trade) on the fortunes of Salem, colonial New England, and the northeastern United States. The narrator's comment, "Judging from its description, it was beautiful enough to vanish like a dream, yet substantial enough to endure for centuries," could apply to the idea of America as easily as it could to the estate of the "man of deplorable success." And indeed there are several sharp ripostes at American politics and imperialism sprinkled throughout the sketch.

But as you can see from the following excerpt from my email response to my colleague--

I think "The Intelligence Office" is a very interesting sketch. If you have time, I strongly recommend Kristie Hamilton's arguments on the importance of Hawthorne's sketches in general, in The Cambridge Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne (2004) or in her book America's Sketchbook (1998).

My own interest in the sketch is different from her emphasis on Hawthorne's anticipation of modernist (and even postmodernist) aesthetic and social issues. I'm interested in the 19th C and earlier resonances of his emphasis on "proper place" (which I use to investigate Hawthorne's ideas on race, class, and gender politics).

--what I am most interested in is the way "The Intelligence Office" provides evidence that Hawthorne in the early 1840s was engaging his culture's interests in the relations between the external and the internal, the material and the spiritual, the physical and the psychological, the real and the symbolic, between manners and morals, appearances and essences, in everything from transcendentalism and romanticism to phrenology and physiognomy to the American School of Ethnography. If you read the sketch alongside such earlier meditations on these subjects as "Fancy's Show Box," "Roger Malvin's Burial," and "Young Goodman Brown," you'll see it reworking that earlier interest in the relations between thoughts and actions. And if you read it alongside contemporary or later tales and sketches like "A Virtuoso's Collection," "The Procession of Life," "The Birth-mark," "Rappaccini's Daughter," "The Christmas Banquet," "Earth's Holocaust," and "The Custom House"--or novels like The House of the Seven Gables and The Marble Faun--you'll see Hawthorne's abiding interest in classification schemes of all kinds.

The scholarly work I'd most recommend for understanding the context for Hawthorne's engagement of these issues is Samuel Otter's brilliant study Melville's Anatomies--I can't think of a better evocation of the times or investigation of an author's engagement with them than any other recent work except Eduardo Cadava's Emerson and the Climates of History, and Otter more systematically analyzes the various attempts to know (human) nature in the antebellum period than Cadava.

As for myself, I find Hawthorne's suggestion at the beginning of the story and confirmation at the end that the agent of the sketch's "Central Intelligence Office" to be the "Recording Spirit" a fascinating anticipation of Destiny in Neil Gaiman's Sandman series of comics and graphic novels. Certainly Hawthorne is engaging religious themes that energized the Puritans--the difficulty of reconciling God's omniscience, omnipotence, and benevolence--when he has the agent reveal

"My agency in worldly action--my connection with the press, tumult, and intermingling, and development of human affairs--is merely delusive. The desire of man's heart does for him whatever I seem to do. I am no minister of action, but the Recording Spirit!"

Thus the opening simile--"He looked like the spirit of a record--the soul of his own great volume--made visible in mortal shape"--and the intermediate elaboration of the book of life metaphor within it--

Human character in its individual developments--human nature in the mass--may best be studied in its wishes; and this was the record of them all.... It would be an instructive employment for a student of mankind, perusing this volume carefully, and comparing its record with men's perfected designs, as expressed in their deeds and daily life, to ascertain how far the one accorded with the other. Undoubtedly, in most cases, the correspondence would be found remote. The holy and generous wish, that rises like incense from a pure heart toward heaven, often lavishes its sweet perfume on the blast of evil times. The foul, selfish, murderous wish, that steams forth from a corrupted heart, often passes into the spiritual atmosphere, without being concreted into an earthly deed. Yet this volume is probably truer, as a representation of the human heart, than is the living drama of action, as it evolves around us. There is more of good and more of evil in it; more redeeming points of the bad, and more errors of the virtuous; higher up-soarings, and baser degradation of the soul; in short, a more perplexing amalgamation of vice and virtue, than we witness in the outward world. Decency, and external conscience, often produce a far fairer outside, than is warranted by the stains within. And be it owned, on the other hand, that a man seldom repeats to his nearest friend, any more than he realizes in act, the purest wishes, which, at some blessed time or other, have arisen from the depths of his nature, and witnessed for him in this volume. Yet there is enough, on every leaf, to make the good man shudder for his own wild and idle wishes, as well as for the sinner, whose whole life is the incarnation of a wicked desire.

--allows the story to be read as a gloss on abstract, even universal problems of theology and ethics. But I think even this version of the sketch is an interesting anticipation of Gaiman's Endless.

Now, the classic take on the sketch is Melville's claim in "Hawthorne and His Mosses" that the seeker after Truth is Hawthorne's own self-portrait, although I wonder whether the person the narrator jokes is "invariably out of place" and who cries in anguish--

"I want my place!--my own place!--my true place in the world!--my proper sphere!--my thing to do, which nature intended me to perform when she fashioned me thus awry, and which I have vainly sought, all my lifetime! Whether it be a footman's duty, or a king's, is of little consequence, so it be naturally mine."

--might be an ironically distanced sketch of a younger self. Of course, it's also possible to see in the figure of the Recording Spirit himself Hawthorne's own wishes for his art, or to argue that Hawthorne dispersed his own wishes and desires throughout a range of characters, so I'm not sure how productive this line of argument ends up being. The seeker after Truth's comment to the Recording Spirit could well be Hawthorne's commentary on the sketch itself:

"And what are you?" said he. "It will not satisfy me to point to this fantastic show of an Intelligence Office, and this mockery of business. Tell me what is beneath it, and what your real agency in life, and your influence upon mankind?"

So the sketch could just as easily be linked with Hawthorne's exploration of various writer analogues--whether artist or scientist--in his fictions of the 1840s and 1850s, and thus be autobiographical at a remove, in the sense of exploring the functions and powers of literary texts and the roles of authors in the antebellum U.S.

In the end, though, I would emphasize that Hawthorne's idea of the Intelligence Office is connected to the Herald's Office that runs throughout his writings in this same period. I've blogged on heraldry in Hawthorne's and others' fiction a little bit here already, so I won't say too much more right now. But it would be both interesting and informative to explore the ways the Intelligence Office discloses Hawthorne's interests in subjectivity (a la Pfister, Gilmore, Goddu, and others who look at the emergence of the middle class and domestic/affective life in this period) and the Herald's Office in genealogy (a la Bentley, Yellin, Carton, and others who look at the emergence of whiteness and classification schemes/racial sciences in this period).

No comments: