Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Within the Domain of Chaos": Nathaniel Hawthorne, Lucretian Physics, and Martial Logic

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Within the Domain of Chaos": Nathaniel Hawthorne, Lucretian Physics, and Martial Logic

Article excerpt

"The Union," declared Hawthorne in 1860, "is unnatural, a scheme of man, not an ordinance of God." For Hawthorne, the idea of national unity did not merit the shedding of blood; if it were to become a question of war for such a cause, he would "go for a dissolution of the Union."(1) As the crisis loomed and finally broke, Hawthorne's views remained conflicted, never settling unswervingly on total belief in the war. One line of inquest might pursue the matter of why Hawthorne possessed insufficient political commitment to allow himself to stop worrying and love the war. But we might also think to ask what philosophy might underwrite Hawthorne's belief that the Union was "unnatural" (a term we now reflexively identify as ideological). Unnatural ... according to whose nature?

The year 1860 also presents an aesthetic puzzle from Hawthorne's literary career, in the publication of The Marble Faun. The strange open-ended form of this novel has been much remarked upon: what the earliest reviewers noted as its "inconclusive and hazy" form reflects Hawthorne's stated desire to write in a manner "not satisfactory to the natural yearnings of novel-readers."(2) This formal dissent from a literary market that demanded tightly unified narrative, I will argue, relates closely to Hawthorne's ideological dissent from an emerging Northern consensus that called for a war to preserve the Union.

I propose that Hawthorne encountered in the teachings of Lucretius a philosophy that underwrites these positions: Lucretius, who celebrated a physics of chaos and lamented the ascendancy of martial ideology; Lucretius and his disorderly Nature of Things, his hymn to the beautiful turbulence of Venus and his dirge for an empire ruled by Mars. Hawthorne's Chiefly About War Matters (1862)-with its tell-tale byline, "BY A PEACEABLE MAN"--made public the author's refusal to embrace the dominant Northern ideology of war. Attention to Hawthorne's reading of Lucretian physics will permit us to see how this latter ideological dissent registers in both the content and the form of The Marble Faun. Hawthorne's unorthodoxy in both aesthetics and politics coincides with his philosophy of science, a philosophy that adopts the Lucretian tradition to the nineteenth-century world of fluid and thermodynamics.

A first step in the present essay will be to demonstrate that Lucretian physics serves as a significant source for Hawthorne's writing. For this purpose, the tale of "Wakefield" (1835) furnishes the strongest early example; and, when we consider the pairing of this tale with "The Gray Champion" (from the same year), the ideological stakes begin to become evident. Sections one and two of the present essay explore the Lucretian insights to be gleaned from these two tales. The final three sections of this essay examine how Hawthorne drew upon these early insights in developing a critique of martial logic--a term which Hawthorne's engagement with Lucretian dynamics will allow us to define with some care. The Marble Faun (1860), the last of Hawthorne's novels to be published in his lifetime, presents a full and timely culmination of this critique.

Hawthorne and the Nature of Things

Late twentieth-century scientific investigation in the relatively new field of "chaos theory," led by such luminaries as Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, has issued in a renewed interest in the non-linear dynamics expounded by Lucretius. As Katherine Hayles observes, recent work on Lucretius by philosopher of science Michel Serres has done much to make non-linearity an attractive concept for appropriation by literary discourse. Serres proposes that a dynamic Lucretian physics offers an alternative to the Platonic order that has "been predominant in the West through a long, bloody history of war and conflict."(3) As we will see, Hawthorne presents the Lucretian alternative with precisely the same sense of what lies at stake in its refusal: violence. …

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