Return of the Outcast

I still reek of campfire smoke and pine sap.  Or maybe it’s my imagination.  My brain is just beginning to regain its accustomed functions.  Our several days in the high Sierra were devoted entirely to the elemental and the sensory.  Thin air does something to the brain, I think, and prevents it from working in abstractions.  For a week I was merely my body: sweating at noon, shivering at dawn, eating and drinking when necessary, marching over granite domes and through primeval woods, content to smoke my pipe at night above the glowing embers, below the glowing galaxies.  All intellect was banished.

Or not quite banished.  I did read some Hawthorne.  The flavor of plain food is improved in proportion to one’s general discomfort and filthiness in the wild, and words work in similar fashion.  Not that Hawthorne is plain, or if he seems so it’s a case of proverbial still waters.  But reading and rereading his little story Wakefield was an intense delight to me.  A youngish husband in the city one morning leaves home and wife as usual and on a whim takes up lodgings a block away to vanish into anonymity for twenty years.  He watches from a near distance as he is missed and mourned and all but forgotten.  Out of an eccentric selfish act he is made witness to his own final irrelevance.  Then as an old man, passing by on a rainy night, he opens the door and takes up his place again beside his widowed wife, as if the interlude had lasted no more than a couple days.

Hawthorne wants sometimes to be a moralist – it’s his Puritanical inheritance.  Happily, he fails more often than succeeds.   He suffers, I think, from a condition common to those of us for whom certainty of faith is lost but its power in biography and culture is still keenly felt.  He senses like seeds in a bed the moral significances of striking events “even should we fail to find them done up neatly and condensed in the final sentence.”  He senses them, that is, and communicates them, but their facile interpretation has become impossible.  At the end of Wakefield he writes:

Amid the seeming confusion of our mysterious world, individuals are so nicely adjusted to a system, and systems to one another, and to a whole, that, by stepping aside for a moment a man exposes himself to the fearful risk of losing himself forever.  Like Wakefield, he may become, as it were, the Outcast of the Universe.

It’s not quite a moral, we were warned, but perhaps it expresses something of Hawthorne’s own sense of displacement, of being lost in a wilderness of untamed significances.  It’s an experience mirrored in miniature by my own return from the mountains.  Amid the self contained city, knit in by highways, baffled by the errands and imperatives of others and the neglected expectations of work and custom, I almost prefer to go back and lose myself in the high and lonely places.

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