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Hawthorne’s Short Stories

While reading Hawthorne’s short stories, I noticed a deep tension between knowledge and beauty, as if they are two antithetical principles that automatically cancel eachother and cannot coexist. In my opinion, Hawthorne identifies beauty with a heightened kind of knowledge that opposes the earthly one: it is the latent and chaotical knowledge of the unmanifest, a sacred knowledge that reflects the fragile balance of the universe and one which cannot be grasped by the “scientific” mind.

Thus, it does not come as a surprise that beauty most of the times manifests itself through feminity in Hawthorne’s stories, as feminity itself is the source of mystery in many cultures. However, it must be noted that the female protagonists here are simply vessels for the manifestation of beauty – they are objects of contemplation and often strike as being too passive and shallow. Owen Warland, for example, is deeply disappointed that the subject of his adoration, Annie, although part of beauty, cannot resonate with his own ideals – the “spiritualization of matter”. Annie is the only one in the story that actually guesses his intentions, but Owen chooses to underestimate her:

“I have deceived myself, and must suffer for it. I yearned for sympathy, and thought, and fancied, and dreamed that you might give it me; but you lack the talisman, Annie, that should admit you into my secrets. (…) It was not your fault, Annie; but you have ruined me!” Poor Owen Warland! He had indeed erred, yet pardonably; for if any human spirit could have sufficiently reverenced the processes so sacred in his eyes, it must have been a woman’s. Even Annie Hovenden, possibly might not have disappointed him had she been enlightened by the deep intelligence of love.”

The Artist of the Beautiful – N. Hawthorne

It is this underestimation of the power of beauty (as a heightened kind of knowledge) that ultimately brings death in the endings of “The Birthmark” and “Rappacini’s Daughter”. For the man of science knowledge can only exist in order. When beauty pervades within chaos (the mark on Georgiana’s perfect complexion), it points to a distrubing world order, which shatters the scientist’s system of values. That is why Aylmer and Giovanni choose to see the  “physical peculiarities” as signs of the “monstrosity of the soul”. They refuse to aknowledge the universal grace of chaos, riot over it and are punished.

Heiddeger himself choses knowledge over the mesmerizing, poisonous and saturnalic power of beauty, manifested here through youth. Mostly because for him beauty is an illusion and a dream. He is old, wise and knows that scientists can only contemplate beauty in puzzlement, while the “artist” alone can decypher its true meaning and fleeting nature.

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