July 5, 2017

“Gotta Light?” — “Twin Peaks” Meets “The Scarlet Letter” on Hawthorne’s Birthday 

the minister, looking upward to the zenith, beheld there the appearance of an immense letter, — the letter A, — marked out in lines of dull red light. 

—Nathaniel Hawthorne, from The Scarlet Letter

Like Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was born on July 4, 1804, David Lynch knows how to sear his brand into the brains of his audience. Some viewers are still trying to shake the surreal image of the thing that slithers into the first-kiss sanctity of sleeping innocence at the end of Episode 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return. Those of us who have survived the first eight weeks of this most unsettled and unsettling series were given a July 4 holiday break on Sunday. Who knows why? Maybe Lynch is allowing us a week off to ponder the feast of excesses in “Gotta Light?,” his latest serving of killer coffee and spiked cherry pie. Or maybe this is his subtle way of marking the birthday of his predecessor in the never-ending investigation of the American mystery. 

Probably some version of “gotta light?” was in play in the summer of 1851, when Hawthorne and Herman Melville were smoking cigars and talking through the night in the early days of the brief embattled friendship that changed the course of American literature. I can see it: the creator of Hester Prynne holding his stogie steady while the creator of Captain Ahab extends a flaming lucifer. Flash forward a hundred years and “gotta light?” is a cinematic staple leading to close-ups of faces lit by the flare of a match or the flame of a lighter, the tip of the cigarette glowing, the smoker exhaling the hazy essence of film noir. In Twin Peaks, however, “gotta light?” is the Open Sesame to annihilation, since the fireworks of Episode 8 are launched in the dawn hours of July 16, 1945, born of the mushroom cloud rising over White Sands New Mexico.

“A Divine Mystery”?

When Henry James proclaims Hawthorne “the most beautiful and most eminent representative” of American literature,  “beautiful” refers both to his looks and his works, as can be seen in the portrait reproduced on the cover of Brenda Wineapple’s biography. The likeness was painted in May 1850, when Hawthorne was 46, two months after the publication of The Scarlet Letter. The face in the painting brings to mind D. H. Lawrence’s claim in Studies in Classic American Literature that Hawthorne “knew disagreeable things in his inner soul” and “was careful to send them out in disguise.” For Lawrence, the surface of American art disguises “the inner diabolism of the symbolic meaning. Otherwise it is all mere childishness.”

According to Wineapple’s biography, Hawthorne’s wife Sophia saw “a sad sweetness” in the portrait that made her catch her breath: “No one has ever drawn or painted anything of Mr. Hawthorne comparable to this.” An unnamed source in the biography has Sophia admitting after her husband’s death: “I never dared gaze at him, even I, unless his lids were down. It seemed an invasion into a holy place. To the last he was in a measure to me a divine Mystery, for he was so to himself.”

Setting the Town on Fire

When Lawrence, in his jousting jesting confrontational style, refers to that “blue-eyed darling Nathaniel,” he’s probably thinking of the Charles Osgood portrait painted ten years earlier from the same angle, in which the smiling 36-year-old author is all unshadowed sweetness — except Lawrence would say, “so fair and smooth-spoken, and the under-consciousness so devilish.” As it happens, the smiling man in the earlier portrait had already explored diabolism in tales like “Young Goodman Brown” (1835), “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (1844), and “The Hollow of the Three Hills,” which begins with reference to “those strange old times, when fantastic dreams and madmen’s reveries were realized among the actual circumstances of life.” Then there’s “The Devil in Manuscript” (1835), published under a pseudonym, wherein a young writer burns all his manuscripts, convinced that “the fiend” has infected the writing (“Oh! I have a horror of what was created in my own brain!”). After discovering that the sparks from his personal conflagration have “sent forth the fiend” by causing the whole community to catch fire, the writer is delighted: “Huzza! Huzza! my brain has set the town on fire!” According to Brian Harding’s introduction to Young Goodman Brown and Other Tales” (Oxford World Classics 1987), Hawthorne frequently spoke of how he’d burned his own manuscripts, his way of adding a darker edge to his legend.

The Wakefield Factor

Last week, even as I was asking myself how many people in 2017 ever gave a thought to James’s “beautiful” and “eminent” American author, I noticed that a film with the title of one of Hawthorne’s tales was playing at the Garden Theatre. It seems that in 2008 the novelist E.L. Doctorow had reimagined Hawthorne’s “Wakefield,” and that his extended, updated version has been adapted by Robin Swicord for a film starring Bryan Cranston. Presumably Cranston was drawn to the part because the double-life aspect of the story resonated with his career-defining role as a high school science teacher turned crystal-meth overlord.

What Hawthorne calls Wakefield’s “unprecedented fate” is to leave his wife and family behind, moving into a house on a nearby street, disguising himself, and then returning 20 years later. In her biography, Wineapple suggests that Hawthorne is “relishing an ordinary man’s extraordinary caprice.” As if to distance himself from any identification with the character, Hawthorne sets the story in London and keeps Wakefield at arm’s length (calling hin “a crafty nincompoop” and his scheme “a long whimwham”). The notion of total withdrawal from the “business of life” had always intrigued him, as he confesses in a letter quoted by Brian Harding: “By some witchcraft or other — for I really cannot assign any reasonable why and wherefore — I have been carried apart from the main current of life, and find it impossible to get back again.”

Going to Extremes

On a day of sun and shadow, wind and rain, I read my way into the heart of The Scarlet Letter, feeling something like awe for the character of Hester Prynne; the force and scope of Hawthorne’s creation; the meeting in the woods when she saves the minister’s soul, casts off the letter A and unbinds her hair, “dark and rich, with at once a shadow and a light in its abundance.” In the same passage you have the Shakespearean glory of wild little Pearl, the product of their sinful union, the elf-child, the sprite.

It was Henry James’s description of a particular scene in The Scarlet Letter that sent me back to the novel. As much as he admires the book, James thinks “the symbolism” is overdone. He cites the otherwise “masterly episode” in which “Mr Dimmesdale, in the stillness of the night, in the middle of the sleeping town, feels impelled to go and stand upon the scaffold where his mistress had formerly enacted her dreadful penance.” As the minister, Hester, and Pearl stand there together, “a light gleamed far and wide over all the muffled sky. It was doubtless caused by one of those meteors which the night-watcher may so often observe burning out to waste in the vacant regions of the atmosphere. So powerful was its radiance that it thoroughly illuminated the dense medium of cloud, betwixt the sky and earth. The great vault brightened, like the dome of an immense lamp.” What troubles James is that “almost immediately afterwards” Hawthorne has the minister beholding an immense letter A in the skymarked out in lines of dull red light.” It’s here, he claims, that Hawthorne “is in danger of crossing the line that separates the sublime from its intimate neighbour,” which tempts the thought “that this is not moral tragedy, but physical comedy.” James neglects to mention, however, that Hawthorne prefaces the vision with a long paragraph about “revelations from a supernatural source” and then says straight out, “We impute it, therefore, solely to the disease in his own eye and heart” that the minister beheld it.

Taking Liberties

All that celestial excitement brings me back to Episode 8 of Twin Peaks, a series that rarely fails to cross the line between the ridiculous and the sublime, moral tragedy, physical comedy, and sheer mayhem. If he were filming The Scarlet Letter, David Lynch wouldn’t hesitate to put a giant letter A in the sky over his creation (in a recent episode we saw the flame of a child’s soul shooting heavenward), and he might do the same with the face of Hester Prynne, as he does, in effect, when we see Laura Palmer’s face in the golden sphere spinning free of the cosmic eruption set off by the White Sands nuclear mushroom.

While it was the convergence of Twin Peaks and Hawthorne’s July 4 birthday that reminded me of the connection, Lynch hints as much back in the first season when Audrey Horne passes as Hester Prynne during her fling as a prostitute at One Eyed Jacks.