Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

"That Indefinable Nothing, That Inestimable Something": Empathy and the Miraculum of Art in the Marble Faun

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

"That Indefinable Nothing, That Inestimable Something": Empathy and the Miraculum of Art in the Marble Faun

Article excerpt

Art is omnipresent in Hawthorne's The Marble Faun: three of the novel's characters are artists, its title refers to both a character of the novel and a work of art, and Rome with its "museum world" (Lounsbery 242) provides the novel's setting. In fact, the multitude of references to art in The Marble Faun, interspersed with lengthy descriptive passages from the author's Italian Notebooks which turn Rome into a "precinct of American leisure territory" (Millington 17), indicate for some critics the novel's inferiority. "There is too much about Rome, and too much about art," Hyatt H. Waggoner concludes. "They are a burden the story is simply incapable of carrying" (223). "Throughout the novel, the characters navigate a Roman landscape littered with artistic masterpieces," Les Harrison similarly comments (47). Art in The Marble Faun has been discussed from various perspectives, such as its relation to the novel's central themes of sin and guilt and the conflict between the Old and the New World (Scrimgeour 21, Jehlen 153 ff.), or the dichotomy of Classical, "erotic" art and Victorian, "non-erotic" art (Baym 104), or art's status in the context of the mid-nineteenth century's "disquieting proliferation of printed texts and visual images" (Lounsbery 234).

However, The Marble Faun exceeds what Gary J. Scrimgeour formulates as "the use of art as a thematic element" (19). Beneath and beyond its linking of art to the central theme of the Fall Myth and the surfeit of art provided by the Roman setting, the novel approaches art--its contemplation and creation--on a level at once more general and more fundamental: more general, since it is not related to the novel's plot or themes, and more fundamental, since it addresses the very essence of art itself. Independent of the "thematic use of art" and beyond the inquiry into its status in the age of mechanical reproduction, The Marble Faun unfolds Hawthorne's understanding of art as a "miracle" (56, 57, 271, 304), as "that indefinable nothing, that inestimable something" (60), and thus as essentially non-thematic.

I. Approaching the miraculum

What makes for an adequate approach to art? How can we contemplate art? Dealing with "critical interpretation and imaginative creation" (Carton, The Marble Faun 16), The Marble Faun discusses these questions with the same intensity as it does the problems of sin and guilt. In the second chapter of his novel, Hawthorne has Kenyon, the sculptor, claim: "It is the spectator's mood that transfigures the Transfiguration itself. I defy any painter to move and elevate me without my own consent and assistance" (17). Kenyon's statement draws on an aesthetic of the sublime and opposes it with an aesthetic of the subject that counteracts the notion that the beholder is transfigured; rather, he suggests, the beholder is the agent of the transfiguration. Significantly, Kenyon speaks in his allusion to an aesthetic of the sublime of the "painter," not the painting, as elevating and moving him; the work of art also plays only a subordinate role in the aesthetic of the subject he suggests, since the "spectator" or aesthetic subject "transfigures" the Transfiguration into an aesthetic object and thus subordinates it. "Then you are lacking a sense" (17), Miriam aptly comments. The sense Kenyon is "lacking" is an openness not to the painter and his assumed intentions but to the work of art itself.

It is not only Miriam who objects to Kenyon's approach to art but also Hawthorne's narrator in the chapter "The Emptiness of the Picture Galleries":

   A picture, however admirable the painter's art, and wonderful his
   power, requires of the spectator a surrender of himself, in due
   proportion with the miracle which has been wrought. Let the canvas
   glow as it may, you must look with the eye of faith, or its
   excellence escapes you. There is always the necessity of helping
   out the painter's art with your own resources of sensibility and
   imagination. … 
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