Hawthorne, Simmel, and Skepticism

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64) is still considered one of the greatest writers in the American literary tradition. He is associated with darkness, sin, and the gothic. (Melville and Poe were also “dark” writers, but I’m more interested in Hawthorne.) In my view, Hawthorne had a deep skepticism for the Enlightenment. He didn’t think rationality, science, or technology could ever save human beings from themselves. There is no possibility for a truly rational, efficient, enlightened society. Hawthorne might blame this on “original sin” or just human nature.

We can make a link here with Georg Simmel’s thoughts on social conflict. Simmel argued that conflict is an essential factor in human relations, or “sociation.” There is a constant tension between convergence and divergence, or integration and disintegration. Of erotic relations, he says,

How often do they not strike us as woven together of love and respect, or disrespect; of love and the felt harmony of the individuals and, at the same time, their consciousness of supplementing each other through opposite traits; of love and an urge to dominate or the need for dependence. But what the observer or the participant himself thus divides into two intermingling trends may in reality be only one. . .

This, then, probably is often the situation with respect to the so-called mixture of converging and diverging currents within a group.

On Individuality and Social Forms, p . 78-79.

A character like Arthur Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter is eaten away by his sense of sin or remorse. In his short story titled “The Celestial Railroad,” Hawthorne mocks the idea that technology is the answer to our problems. In a fable built on the frame of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the naive narrator takes a train journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. He hears all about the railroad from a fellow passenger name Mr. Smooth-it-away. Here is is early passage:

A large number of passengers were already at the station-house awaiting the departure of the cars. By the aspect and demeanor of these persons it was easy to judge that the feelings of the community had undergone a very favorable change in reference to the celestial pilgrimage. It would have done Bunyan’s heart good to see it. Instead of a lonely and ragged man with a huge burden on his back, plodding along sorrowfully on foot while the whole city hooted after him, here were parties of the first gentry and most respectable people in the neighborhood setting forth towards the Celestial City as cheerfully as if the pilgrimage were merely a summer tour. . . .

One great convenience of the new method of going on pilgrimage I must not forget to mention. Our enormous burdens, instead of being carried on our shoulders as had been the custom of old, were all snugly deposited in the baggage car, and, as I was assured, would be delivered to their respective owners at the journey’s end. Another thing, likewise, the benevolent reader will be delighted to understand.

Hawthorne. “The Celestial Railroad.”

The burden, which in Bunyan’s story is carried on Christian’s back, seems to be sin or the guilty conscience, but these happy passengers are not troubled by any sense of guilt and they care nothing for religion. Hawthorne also ridicules the capitalists who profit from the railroad and coal industries. In another story, “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” Hawthorne warns the reader about what might happen if the advance of science becomes the ultimate end of society.

In the context of social systems theory, what see here is functional differentiation, as religion becomes just one function system among several others and science and economy emerge as function systems. In a functionally differentiated society, there is always conflict because there is no central power steering society. The differences between one function system and another cannot be “smoothed away.”

Hawthorne also recognized the myth of progress, the idea that society is heading teleologically toward greater rationality, prosperity, and harmony. Recalling Simmel’s concept of the tragedy of culture, the more culture, in the form of knowledge and technology, expands, the greater the sense of helplessness felt by individuals. The individual seems to shrink in comparison to the expanding culture that we collectively create. Rather than being a master of some trade (like making shoes from start to finish), everyone learns to perform a specialized task and nobody really understands what they are contributing their labor towards.

Hawthorne’s skepticism is somewhat similar to that of the aristocrats in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.


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