Romancing the Subaltern
(a critical response to Lauren Berlant’s “Fantasies of Utopia in The Blithedale Romance“)

Yes! Here’s some more on Blithedale for ya, Abhay!

Lauren Berlant’s careful reckoning of utopian and tragic crosscurrents in The Blithedale Romance blazes an interpretive trail through the text, but her own destination, in “Fantasies of Utopia”, is somewhat pedestrian. The application of Jacques Ehrmann’s historiographical dyad to Coverdale’s narrative brings some of its fundamental tensions sharply into focus, and, given the terms of the investigation, it is perhaps inevitable that the figure of the “hitherto unwedded bride” should take center stage in Berlant’s analysis. However, it is upon this point, and, more pecisely, this inevitability, that her argument founders.  Is Hawthorne’s Romance merely a parable designed to expose the inability of American political discourse–and its most characteristic representational mode–to accurately reflect (or reflect upon) the complexities of the historical record? Or does the text, in fact, revel in these limitations, pushing off against its own weakness by transforming its narrator’s failed sympathies–and his scarred subjects–into “undead brides”, which bring the promise of life after the “death-in-life-of narrative”?

The relevance of Jacques Ehrmann’s twinned spatio-temporal modes of thought to The Blithedale Romance is indisputable; but the more important question is whether Berlant substitutes an elucidation of Ehrmann’s theory for an interpretation of the romance. She moves quickly, and very convincingly, to establish the parallels between her chosen theoretical frame and Coverdale’s (and his culture’s) speculative tics–but this interpretive haste puts the reader on the defensive. Berlant’s model of the erotics of “willful ignorance” opens up fascinating new routes into the text; but, in her drive to make her theory “tell the whole story”, she is no more successful than Coverdale (or any of the other characters) is.

The conundrum is well-delineated, and its political significance is clear: in order to maintain itself, utopian drive (whether toward a “perfect community”, or toward “perfect communion” with an object of romantic desire) must stave off the will-sapping lessons taught by history (which, from this point of view, can only be a record of failure); and yet, untempered by the humility that comes with experience, this same drive will inevitably batten upon the suffering of others–a suffering which, for reasons made clear in the first clause, cannot be acknowledged. What is less clear is whether this scheme (and its sin qua non–the hymen) can bear the interpretive weight–vis-a-vis this specific text–implied by Berlant’s laundry list of hymenal figures:

Zenobia’s virginity and/or hidden sexual history, Coverdale’s bachelorhood, Priscilla’s virgin strength, Hollingsworth’s agreesively sexual “availability” to Zenobia, Priscilla, and Coverdale (5)

In other words–did Hawthorne actually write this book in order to “exhibit the problem of constructing a knowing historical discourse, one that honors individual and collective fantasy while revealing corruption in their local operations” (28)? Or does  this conclusion depend upon the author’s own “utopian repressions”?

The stakes of Berlant’s interpretive power play are clearest in this summary:

To write the complete American history on its utopian trajectory would be to write the history of scandal (mass killing) and to read a series of failures; thus what we get instead is a record of the obsessions of a failed (his)storyteller and a bachelor to boot (Coverdale), who writes about a failed world-historical figure (Hollingsworth), a dead “unwedded bride” (Zenobia), and a pallid yet self-satisfied audience (Priscilla), the single-minded reader who gets what she wants–a “great man” whose authority she never questions (23).

Many of these statements are questionable in themselves, but her elisions are even more telling. For example–where does the Westervelt/”Veiled Lady” plot fit into this scheme (and how does this revise her description of Priscilla–the performer–as a figure of the “audience”)? What are the consequences of Berlant’s failure to address Coverdale’s actual involvement in the failed world-historical undertaking, to say nothing of his pretensions/claims to the status of “poet”, as opposed to (failed) historian? Most importantly, what about the Coverdale/Zenobia relationship itself–which is far more complex than Berlant’s reductionist insistence upon the narrator’s obsession with her sexual past?  

The argument that an untoward focus–by “friendly” and “unfriendly” witnesses alike–upon the foibles and sexual peccadilloes of American political agents has served, time and again, to distract a prurient/naive public from the limitations of the political discourse itself makes a great deal of sense–but does it really make the best sense of The Blithedale Romance ? Is this text merely an ironical re-enactment of the same old story of universal hope betrayed by private lust–simultaneously pandering to and sneering at a tenaciously hopeful (because committed to an aesthetic of inexperience) reading public?

The key to Berlant’s interpretation is this passage (from the chapter entitled “The Crisis”):

Altogether, by projecting our minds outward, we had imparted a show of novelty to existence, and contemplated it as hopefully as if the soil beneath our feet had not been fathom-deep with the dust of deluded generations, on every one of which, as on ourselves, the world had imposed itself as a hitherto unwedded bride (119).

The eponymous “crisis” results from Hollingsworth’s “proposal”, and Coverdale’s rejection of it–with the implication that this decisive shift  in mental “orientation” (refocusing the “projector” inward), by one (or, rather, by two–for Hollingsworth’s project is here revealed as the unambiguous fruit of a “monstrous egotism”) of its burgeoning pillars, is almost solely responsible for the destruction of the community. To stick with Berlant’s terms–the hymen-figure in this chapter is knowledge of a comrade-in-arms’ private reasons for locking arms in the first place. In order for the community to remain operative, its origin in the condition of alienated subjectivity must be shrouded in a veil of silence. So far so good. This supports Berlant’s argument in fine style–and yet, this “crisis” comes halfway through the novel, and the remainder of the book is not, as one would have to believe, in order to accept her thesis, merely a “working out” of this moment of recognition (and simultaneous loss of faith).

In fact, a far more profound crisis–the retrieval of Zenobia’s body–comes one hundred pages later, and here, despite Berlant’s confident assertions, neither the figure of the hymen nor that of the “unwedded bride” will do. Coverdale’s famous assertion that

Zenobia, I have often thought, was not quite simple in her death. She had seen pictures, I suppose, of drowned persons in lithe and graceful attitudes. And she deemed it well and decorous to die as so many village maidens have, wronged in their first love, and seeking peace in the bosom of the old familiar stream,–so familiar that they could not dread it, –where, in childhood, they used to bathe their little feet, wading mid-leg deep, unmindful of wet skirts. But in Zenobia’s case there was some tint of the Arcadian affectation that had been visible enough in all our lives for a few months past (218).

is ironic in that it is the not the dead woman but the narrator himself who betrays “affectation” in this passage–by drawing his astonishing conclusions from the fact that the corpse’s arms will not remain in the pose that accord most closely with the ballad he composes on the spot. Moreover, the specific content of this conceit (what Berlant rightly identifies as a vulgar/reductionist “love plot”) had been given to him, in the preceding chapter, by Zenobia herself, who, while alive, demonstrates very few signs of being so fully in thrall to the apolitical discourse of romance.

The conversation between the doomed woman and her diffident eulogist offers a direct refutation of Coverdale’s (possible) and Berlant’s (explicit) wish to reify her as a (dead) avatar of the “hitherto unwedded bride”. Exasperated with her interlocutor/judge, she gives him mocking license to “put his soul’s ache into [her ballad]”, and exclaims that: “the whole universe, her own sex and yours, and Providence, or Destiny, to boot, make common cause against the woman who swerves one hair’s breadth out of the beaten track” (206). Zenobia ought to have placed Coverdale–as narrator–at the top of her list of powerful conspirators, and she does so, implicitly, when she opts out of the story. Zenobia doesn’t “conceal” any more information from Coverdale than the will-less Priscilla does–and she is quite capable of compelling him to accept any version of the truth that suits her. The trouble is that no version suits her,  any more than “truth”/certainty itself does. If Zenobia is “not simple” in death, it is because she was complex in life. Coverdale’s lament that, in his sophisticated age, “we cannot even put ourselves to death in whole-hearted simplicity” (218), depends upon his assumption that this was ever possible, and that, moreover, he would recognize such simplicity, if he ever saw it. This is the ending that his “ballad of Zenobia” requires–and has required since he first began to “long for a catastrophe” (145)–the collapse of the distinction between the “political woman” and the “heart-broken village-maiden” (or, the “unwedded bride”–who is fated to be “known”, and feared for the same the reason), and yet, he cannot fit her corpse to match his expectations.

The reason that Zenobia never tells Coverdale “the secret of her life”, is that she has no secrets (at least, no secret that Coverdale will accept as the “key to her personality”). She simply is life–which is never simple. Likewise, in death, she haunts the narrator, as she haunts Hollingsworth, from beyond the “death-in-life of narrative” (Berlant, 25)–just as Priscilla, her sister (and counterpart), whose sham-life, blown about by fate, through narration (or, in Westervelt’s case, through stage direction), haunts both male characters (by presenting them with an alternative to the romantic quest that may be more seductive than desire itself). Neither Zenobia (the ghost of female subjectivity), nor Priscilla (the hyper-suggestible, zombie-like object–“always already” a bride), represent anything like Berlant’s “hitherto unwedded bride”. They are more like “undead brides”–twin agents who assault the logic of the male symbolic order (epitomized by the Utopian/unrealizable promise of communion), both from within the citadel of its most characteristic institutions (marriage, “the romance”), and from without.

Works Cited and Consulted

Berlant Lauren. “Fantasies of Utopia in The Blithedale Romance,” in The American Literary History Reader, Gordon Hunter, ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1995.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Blithedale Romance. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1978.

Good Afternoon Friends!


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