Nathaniel Hawthorne on How to Look and Really See

“The mystery is revealed, and after a breath or two, becomes just as great a mystery as before.”

“One can’t write directly about the soul,” Virginia Woolf wrote. “Looked at, it vanishes.” This is true of any soul — our own, that of another, that of the world. It disappears because we can see the reality we have, not what it actually is. We see the rest of nature — including each other — through eyes gauzed with preconception, our distracted vision blurred by the thousand thoughts that come alive before the mind’s eye at any given moment, more vivid than the living reality before us.

This is a wonderful recipe to help you see the world clearly. Nathaniel Hawthorne (July 4, 1804–May 19, 1864) — perhaps a lesser novelist than Woolf, but a greater one than Melville in Melville’s own estimation, lovesick as he was, and a far greater observer of nature in his novels than all the journaling Transcendentalists combined. Thoreau saw nature only as metaphors and parables. Hawthorne saw it on its terms. He let nature reflect back what it saw, which was the unfiltered light of his awareness. This is why he was closer to a Transcendentalist than a Buddhist, more scientist than novelist, but a poet of truth.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

In the high summer of 1851 — a year after The Scarlet Letter interrupted Hawthorne’s long obscurity to catapult the middle-aged author into celebrity — he took his five-year-old son Julian to the lake near the little red shanty they had rented in the Berkshires. Sitting at the water’s edge, Hawthorne wrote in a journal entry later included in Julian’s tender two-volume biography of his parents, Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife (public library | public domain):

It is best to read or be absorbed in thoughts before you can get an impression of the landscape. This will allow your eyes to become attracted to it, and then capture Nature before she changes her face. Although the effect is temporary and fleeting, it lasts for only one instant. The effect is similar to being able to hear and comprehend the whispers of trees. It’s almost like you can catch a glimpse at a face, unveiled. It is revealed and, after just a couple of breaths, it becomes as big as the previous mystery.

NebularMaria Popova. Prints are available for The Nature Conservancy.

Complement with James Baldwin on the revelation that taught him to truly see and Georgia O’Keeffe on the art of seeing, then revisit Hawthorne on the edges of consciousness and his stirring meditation on life, death, and what fills the interlude with meaning, composed while watching his young daughter interact with his dying mother.

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