Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), America’s finest author, distinguished himself from all others by his direct address to the issues between the Catholic tradition and the American Protestant society. This religious contest was the quintessential emphasis in his fourth and final novel, The Marble Faun (1860). It is about Jewish guilt and obligation, Catholic art and beauty, and Protestant objectivity, with its silent, naked faith. I am grateful to have learned through American literature the drama of religious faith and conviction, and happy to know that such an eminent luminary as Hawthorne found the focus of religious faith the source of all true drama. I feel exceedingly privileged to have inherited this concern from the culture that planted itself on Indian land.
The Marble Faun takes place in Rome. Two Americans (a young female artist, Hilda, and her male friend Kenyon, also an artist), a Jewish woman Miriam–yet another artist, and their young Italian amico, one Donatello, uneducated, unrefined, and of raw attraction and completely superstitious. Ironic that the Italian, the direct heir of Rome and the Church, was void of all either stood for. Hilda was a New England girl, and in her the crisis of faith is most pronounced and triumphant.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1804-1864.
In this perfectly fabulous archive of religious agony, Hawthorne lets ambiguity resolve itself. This is the miracle of the tale. In one of the most remarkable passages in American literature, the chapter “Alters and Incense,” Hawthorne lays Hilda to the task of differentiating the Catholic way from the Protestant way. While the book dramatizes the draw of art, fine art, Hilda is saved from idolatry precisely by her perfect sense of art. In this inimitable story, the difference between Catholicism and Puritanism has nothing to do with theology, but only the inefficacy of human art.
In a depressed, unhappy, anxious state of mind, Hilda enters the Ara Coeli, and the nave of St. John Lateran. Hilda seems ensorcelled by the Virgin Mary. Here are key passages from the chapter:
Had the Jesuits known the situation of this troubled heart, her inheritance of New England Puritanism would hardly have protected the poor girl from the pious strategy of those good fathers. Knowing, as they do, how to work each proper engine, it would have been ultimately impossible for Hilda to resist the attractions of a faith, which so marvellously adapts itself to every human need. Not, indeed, that it can satisfy the soul’s cravings, but, at least, it can sometimes help the soul towards a higher satisfaction than the faith contains within itself. It supplies a multitude of external forms, in which the spiritual may be clothed and manifested; it has many painted windows, as it were, through which the celestial sunshine, else disregarded, may make itself gloriously perceptible in visions of beauty and splendor. There is no one want or weakness of human nature for which Catholicism will own itself without a remedy; cordials, certainly, it possesses in abundance, and sedatives in inexhaustible variety, and what may once have been genuine medicaments, though a little the worse for long keeping.
Hawthorne’s assessments of the Roman Catholic faith exceed any other in refinement, detail, and emotional analysis. He comes to an astounding moment of commentary, which he gently places in the mind of his fictional character, Hilda, the New England Puritan heiress:
Often and long, Hilda lingered before the shrines and chapels of the Virgin, and departed from them with reluctant steps. Here, perhaps, strange as it may seem, her delicate appreciation of art stood her in good stead, and lost Catholicism a convert. If the painter had represented Mary with a heavenly face, poor Hilda was now in the very mood to worship her, and adopt the faith in which she held so elevated a position. But she saw that it was merely the flattered portrait of an earthly beauty; the wife, at best, of the artist; or, it might be, a peasant girl of the Campagna, or some Roman princess, to whom he desired to pay his court. For love, or some even less justifiable motive, the old painter had apotheosized these women; he thus gained for them, as far as his skill would go, not only the meed of immortality, but the privilege of presiding over Christian altars, and of being worshipped with far holier fervors than while they dwelt on earth. Hilda’s fine sense of the fit and decorous could not be betrayed into kneeling at such a shrine.
And the triumph of true art, in the artist:
She never found just the virgin mother whom she needed. Here it was an earthly mother, worshipping the earthly baby in her lap, as any and every mother does, from Eve’s time downward. In another picture, there was a dim sense, shown in the mother’s face, of some divine quality in the child. In a third, the artist seemed to have had a higher perception, and had striven hard to shadow out the Virgin’s joy at bringing the Saviour into the world, and her awe and love, inextricably mingled, of the little form which she pressed against her bosom. So far was good. But still, Hilda looked for something more; a face of celestial beauty, but human as well as heavenly, and with the shadow of past grief upon it; bright with immortal youth, yet matronly and motherly; and endowed with a queenly dignity, but infinitely tender, as the highest and deepest attribute of her divinity.
And so Mr. Hawthorne, son of the Puritans, faults the Catholic faith for its very art! What a stunning arraignment. The art of Rome fails to incarnate the divine after all. Thus was the purity of “art” Hawthorne invested in the young New England female. She failed to convert to Catholicism, though tempted, because the Catholic art did not offer the true person of God. Thus, idolatry is rejected on the principle of perfection, rather than the simple “thus saith the Lord.” The network of visual aids failed to incite the spiritual. For all it’s glory, the house of sacred icons provided no home for the weary, wondering heart.
In literary fact, however, we must note that this search of a woman to find solace in the heart of another woman, more experienced, more motherly, was the closing theme of Hawthorne’s first novel, The Scarlet Letter (1850). Speaking of the “victim”/heroine of the dark tale, upon her long last return to her isolated abode on the New England shore, Hawthorne observes:
And, as Hester Prynne had no selfish ends, nor lived in any measure for her own profit and enjoyment, people brought all their sorrows and perplexities, and besought her counsel, as one who had herself gone through a mighty trouble. Women, more especially–in the continually recurring trials of wounded, wasted, wronged, misplaced, or erring and sinful passion–or with the dreary burden of a heart unyielded, because unvalued and unsought came to Hester’s cottage, demanding why they were so wretched, and what the remedy! Hester comforted and counselled them, as best she might. She assured them, too, of her firm belief that, at some brighter period, when the world should have grown ripe for it, in Heaven’s own time, a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness. Earlier in life, Hester had vainly imagined that she herself might be the destined prophetess, but had long since recognised the impossibility that any mission of divine and mysterious truth should be confided to a woman stained with sin, bowed down with shame, or even burdened with a life-long sorrow. The angel and apostle of the coming revelation must be a woman, indeed, but lofty, pure, and beautiful, and wise; moreover, not through dusky grief, but the ethereal medium of joy; and showing how sacred love should make us happy, by the truest test of a life successful to such an end.
And so, in the case of Hilda, another New England girl, heiress of the Puritan faith, Hawthorne notes that mighty Rome, even the Virgin Mary, has not fulfilled the heart of the needy. The glorious art, humanity’s finest, has failed to uplift. The conception is obviously awry. God was not in man, but in Christ.
This is heavy thought for Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 2011. But these are heavy times. The solutions to our problems today shall not be found on the surface. We must sound deeply the ocean of own souls. We are sometimes thankful for the wrong things. Illegitimate desire, satisfied, is something to be feared, not grateful for. So, asking my readers’ pardon for such dark, brooding thoughts, on our national holiday of Thanksgiving, let me simply suggest that we ponder the American inheritance. What is the faith America was based on? Why was the American government formed? To what end was it designed? Why could it not have been instituted in Europe? Why did the Puritans come here, to a foreign place?
For that cause, we give thanks. But we must know and understand that cause, or our thanks is amiss.