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The Symbol of the Hieroglyphics in the American Renaissance

Author(s): John T. Irwin


Source: American Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 2 (May, 1974), pp. 103-126
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
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THE SYMBOL OF THE


HIEROGLYPHICS IN THE
AMERICAN RENAISSANCE*
JOHN T. IRWIN
TheJohnsHopkins University

THE NAME OF JEAN FRAN(OIS

CHAMPOLLION APPEARS IN SOME OF THE

mostimportant
literary
worksof the AmericanRenaissance(Emerson's
"History,"Poe's Eureka,Thoreau'sWalden,Melville'sMardiandMobyDick,to namea few),yetformostmodern
readersitis a namethatrequires
an identifying
footnote.
Champollion
wastheFrenchman
whoin 1822decipheredEgyptian
hieroglyphic
writing
withtheaid ofthebilingual
textofthe
Rosetta stone-a discoverythat marked the beginningof modern
Yet surelythatis a pieceofinformation
Egyptology.
thatprovokes
another
question.WhywouldChampollion
be mentioned
in worksseemingly
so remotefromhisachievements
as Thoreau'saccountofa stayat WaldenPond
or Melville'sstoryofthehuntfora whitewhale?ThatEuropeandAmerica,
duringthe period 1800-1850,weresweptby a wave of interestin the
ofEgyptis nowadaysone ofthelesswell-remembered
antiquities
facetsof
19thcentury
history.'
WhenNapoleoninvadedEgyptin 1798,hewasaccomandfifty
from
paniedbya groupofa hundred
scientists
andartists(mostly
theAcademiedesInscriptions)
whosetaskwas theinvestigation
oftheconWiththesurrender
queredterritory.
oftheFrencharmyinEgypt(1801),the
Britishclaimedas spoilsof warall theantiquities
gathered
bytheFrench
scientists.
was theRosettastone,whicharrivedin
Amongtheseantiquities
EnglandinFebruary
1802.
By 1806a soldieroffortune
namedMohammed
Alihadforced
theTurks
*This paperwas deliveredat the 705thmeetingof The JohnsHopkins PhilologicalAssociation.The authorgratefully
acknowledgestheadviceand encouragement
givenhimbyProfessors
Don CameronAllen,Earl Wasserman,LaurenceHolland and Hans Goedickeduringitscomposition.
'Eric Iversen,The Mythof Egyptand itsHieroglyphics
in European Tradition(Copenhagen:
Gec Gad, 1961),pp. 124-45.

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104

AmericanQuarterly

himas PashaofEgypt,andduring
to recognize
hislongreignheencouraged
thecompetition
between
inhis
theFrenchandEnglish
agentsd'artoperating
a competition
country,
thatresultedin the flooding
of Europeand then
Americawitheveryshapeand formofEgyptian
In a toneat once
artifact.
Olympianand Yankee,EdwardEverettremarked
in the NorthAmerican
Review(1823),"Since thedaysof theRomans,whoplundered
Egyptof
obelisksand transported
wholecolonnadesof marblepillarsfromItalyto
thismagnificent
kindofrobbery
neverflourished
morethan
Constantinople,
atthepresent
moment."2
AtthetimeEverett
revival
inAmericawasjustbeginwrote,
theEgyptian
ning.In 1823an Egyptian
tothecityofBostonby
sarcophagus
waspresented
a Smyrnamerchant
namedvan Lennep.3In 1826 two mummieswere
at Peale's MuseumandGalleryofFineArtsinNewYork.These
displayed
In 1832
curioslatercameintothepossession
oftheshowman
P. T. Barnum.4
ColonelMendesCohenofBaltimore
returned
fromEgyptwithsixhundred
to establishthe firstprivatecollectionof ancient
and eightyantiquities
Egyptianartifactsin America.5This collection,donatedto The Johns
HopkinsUniversity
in 1884,is stillin existence.6
In thesummer
of 1835an
Englishman
namedChandlerwhowas touringtheUnitedStateswithan
exhibitof mummiesand theirburialparaphernalia
stoppedin Kirtland,
Ohio-at thattimetheheadquarters
of JosephSmithand theLatter-Day
Saints.TheSaintsboughtfromChandler
a groupofartifacts,
amongthema
a late versionof the Book of the Dead and a hypopapyruscontaining
cephalus,a diskplacedundertheheadofa mummy.
The writings
on these
twoobjectsweretranslated
byJosephSmithandpublished
in a smallbook
entitledA Pearl of Great Price. The papyrusand the inscribeddisk
represented,
accordingto the Prophet,a recordbegunby Abrahamand
finished
byJoseph
wheninEgypt.7
At thesametimethatEgyptian
inAmerica,
antiquities
werearriving
the
Egyptianstylein architecture
was changing
the appearanceof American
towns.The styleleftits markon structures
as variousas theWashington
Monument
in New
to theGroveStreetCemetery
(1848-85),theentrance
Haven, and the New York Halls of Justice(1836-38)8-thefamous
"Tombs"whereMelville'sBartleby
diesandofwhichthenarrator
remarks,
2NorthAmericanReview,17 (1823), 233.
3JohnA. Wilson,Signs and WondersUpon Pharoah(Chicago: Univ.ofChicago Press,1964),
p. 37.
4Ibid.

5Ibid.,p. 38.
"The Cohen Collectionis presently
housedin thearchaeologicalmuseumin GilmanHall, The
JohnsHopkinsUniversity.
'Wilson,pp. 37-38.
8Ibid., pp. 36-37.

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TheSymboloftheHieroglyphics

105

"The Egyptiancharacterof themasonryweighedupon me withitsgloom."9


As one writerhas noted,the most importantmoderatinginfluenceon the
was theEgyptianrevival.
Greekrevivalin Americanarchitecture
therewas an academic
Besidesthepopularinterestin Egyptianantiquities,
interestas well,and the numerousarticleson Egyptin Americanscholarly
magazinesoftheperiodgivesomeindicationofthis.Of thesemagazines,The
NorthAmericanReviewis at once themosttypicaland themostinfluential.
In 1823it carriedan articleon theZodiac of Denderah,thesame zodiac that
Melvilledescribedsomeyearslaterin Moby-Dick(see note2). The authorof
theNorthAmericanReviewpiece was EdwardEverett,teacherof Emerson,
secretaryof stateunderFillmore,and haplesspredecessorof theGettysburg
Address.In 1829 HenryWheaton,the notedlegal historianand diplomat,
publishedin theNorthAmericana 25-pagereviewof one of Champollion's
to an Egyptiansubjectwitha 30-page
works.'0In 1831Everettagain returned
articleon hieroglyphics."For thesemen the issue of real importancein the
Egyptian revival was clear-not styles in architectureor mummiesor
writing,
of thehieroglyphic
obelisks,butratherChampollion'sdecipherment
whichhe had announcedin the famousletterto MonsieurDacier in 1822.
Everettassertsthat"the discoveriesof M. Champollionare perhapsthemost
of a merelyliterarykind,whichthehistoryofmodernlearning
extraordinary
contains."1 Discussing the controversybetween Champollion and the
ofdecipherment,
Everettdecidesin
EnglishmanThomas Young overpriority
favorof Champollion,butnotes"if themathematicaldiscoveriesof Leibnitz
and Newtonare the mostbrilliantwhichthemodernworldhas producedin
exact science,thoseofYoung and Champollionare entitledto thesame rank
in criticallearning,and are destinedto throw,we doubtnot,a floodlighton a
chapterof the historyof mankind,hithertoalmost a blank."'3 Everett's
articlewas in parta responseto a 50-pageessay in theDecember1826 issue
of the British EdinburghReview" in which the controversybetween
ofthestrugChampollionand Young had appearedas simplya continuation
gle betweenFrance and Englandforthe treasuresof Egypt.Naturally,the
Edinburghreviewerhad decided in favor of Young, though he made
Champollion'sbooksthebasis forhisdiscussionofthehieroglyphics.
thatmostoftheearlyreviewsof Champollion'sworkcomIt is significant
binepraiseforhis achievementwitha summarydismissalof thenearlyfour
of thehieroglyphs
thathad precenturies'worthof symbolicinterpretations
9Selected Tales and Poems by Herman Melville, ed. Richard Chase (New York: Holt,
Rinehartand Winston,1950),p. 130.
"'HenryWheaton,NorthAmericanReview,29 (1829), 361-88.
"NorthAmericanReview,32 (1831), 95-127.
12NorthAmericanReview,32:109.
AmericanReview,32:113.
"3North
Review,45 (1826-27), 95-147.
"4Edinburgh

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106

AmericanQuarterly

ceded his discovery.Everettin his 1831 article for the North American
characterized
theworkof FatherAthanasiusKircher,themostprolificofthe
17th centurymetaphysicalinterpreters,
as "utterlybaseless" and "laboriouslyabsurd,"addingthat"absurditieslikethesecontinuedto be broached
on thissubject,down to the presentday." Thus, "the astrologicalsymbols,
composingwhatwas called the zodiac of Denderah,have been pronounced
withinthepresentday,a Psalm ofDavid."'5
The moderntraditionof interpreting
the hieroglyphics
as metaphysical
emblems,of whichKircheris perhapsthehighpoint,had begunin 1419with
the discoveryof Hor Apollo's Hieroglyphica,and its continuancethrough
fourcenturieshad made the words"hieroglyphic"and "emblem" synonymous."6Yet, forhardheaded19thcenturygentlemenlike Everett,the relationshipof Kircher'sstyleof exegesisto Champollion'stranslationsseemed
to be that of the fancifulart of interpretation
to the logical scienceof interpretation.
It would be a mistake,however,to thinkthat Champollion's
discoveriestoppledthe school of metaphysicalinterpretation.
It continued,
oftenusingmisreadings
of Champollion'sworkas justification
foritsefforts.
The tensionbetweenthesetwokindsofinterpretation
significantly
influenced
American literatureduringthe firsthalf of the 19th century.It is that
influence
whichI wishto trace,duringthecourseofthisessay,intheworksof
Emerson,Thoreau,Hawthorneand Melville.
In the process of decipheringthe hieroglyphics,
Champollionhad, of
necessity,to examinetherelationship
betweena signand whata signstands
for.He foundthatthe hieroglyphics
werea compositewriting,
thatis, that
threedifferent
typesof signswereused at thesame timein anygiveninscription.In thewordsof theEdinburghreviewer,
thesetypeswere:" 1.figurative
characters,whichliterallyrepresented
the object meantto be expressed;2.
symbolic,tropic,or aenigmaticcharacters,whichexpressedan idea by the
image of a physicalobjecthavingan analogytrueor false,director indirect,
near or remote,withthe idea to be expressed;and 3. phoneticcharacters,
which,by the images of physicalobjects,represented
soundsmerely."'7Of
thislasttype,J.G. H. Greppoin hisEssay on theHieroglyphic
SystemofM.
Champollion (Paris, 1829) noted that "phonetic signs form the most
considerablepartofall kindsof Egyptiantexts,"and he added:
Theadoption
ofphonetic
signs,(whichmustbe posterior
totheuseofthetwoother
kindsofsigns-theonlyelement
ofprimitive
writing,
as thereis reasontobelieve),
wouldnotdestroy
thehomogeneousness
ofthewriting
wheretheywereemployed.
The threekindsof hieroglyphic
signs,differing
onlyin theirmodeofexpression,
werealikein regardto theirmaterial
forms;and theyall presented
imagesof
5NorthA mericanReview,32 (183 1), 101.
6See Don CameronAllen,Mysteriously
Meant (Baltimore:JohnsHopkinsPress,1970),pp.
107-33:and LiselotteDieckmann,Hieroglyphics
(St. Louis: WashingtonUniv.Press,1970).
"EdinburghReview,45 (1826-27), 144-45.

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TheSymboloftheHieroglyphics

107

physical
objectsthatweredesigned
either
to represent
thoseobjectsproperly,
orto
recallsymbolically
ideasrelatedto theobjects,or lastly,to express
phonetically
articulations
whichweretheelements
ofthewordsin thespokenlanguage.The
figurative
signswereemployed
forthenotation
ofthemostsimpleideas,thoseof
sensibleobjects;thesymbolical
signsdenotedverysimpleabstract
ideas;andthe
phonetic
characters
served
toexpress
themostcomplicated
ideas,suchas couldnot
be represented
bytheothertwoordersof signs,and couldnotbe rendered
intelligibly,
exceptbymeansof wordswritten
downbythehandin a manner
correspondent
totheirpronunciation.""
Greppo gives formto two importantassumptions:first,that the figurative
and symbolicsignsrepresentan earlier,moreprimitive
stateof hieroglyphic
writingthanthe phoneticsigns,and second,thatthedevelopmentfromthe
figurativeto the phoneticis the movementfromwritingable to present
simple,concreteideas to writingthat can conveycomplex,abstractideas.
This developmentof the phoneticfromthe figurative
involvedin its most
basic formthe use of a signto standnot forthe objectthatit depictedbut
simplyfortheinitialsoundofthename forthatobject.Thus,in Egyptianthe
to
wordforhawkwas ahe, and thesignforhawkcould be used phonetically
representthe sound of the lettera. Put in termsof signand significant,
we
could say thatEgyptianwritingprogressedfroma statein whichtherewas a
necessary,emblematicconnectionbetweena signand whatit standsforto a
state in whichforthe most partthatconnectionhad become arbitraryand
conventional.
Interestingly
enough,such a viewof thedevelopmentof Egyptianwriting
schoolsof
was capable of satisfying
boththemetaphysicaland thescientific
a value
interpretation.
What matteredwas whetherone consideredsimplicity
or complexitya value. The metaphysicalinterpreters
workedin a Christian
traditionthatunderstoodman's presentstateas fallenfroma pristinesimplicity.In his unfallenstateman did not need a complex,abstractlanguage.
He was in such harmonywithhis environment
thathe used thelanguageof
nature,the languageof naturalsigns-that worldof objectscreatedby God
to standas emblemsof spiritualfacts.But sincethefallwas fromsimplicity
to complexity,
thefartherman movedaway fromhis originalstatethemore
complexand involvedhis languagebecameand themoreobscurebecamethe
old emblematicrelationshipbetweena signand what it standsfor.For the
scientific
school,on theotherhand,thedevelopmentof hieroglyphic
writing
could supportan exactlyoppositereading.The movementfroma writing
made up wholly of figurativesigns capable of presentingonly simple,
concreteideas to a writingcomposed largelyof phoneticsignscapable of
themostcomplex,abstractideas demonstrated
bothevolutionand
presenting
progress.The metaphysicaland scientific
interpreters,
then,wouldnot have
8Essay on the HieroglyphicSystemof M. Champollioh,trans.withnotes and illus. Isaac
Stuart(Boston:Perkinsand Marvin,1830),p. 46.

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108

AmericanQuarterly

disagreedabout the directionof the developmentof hieroglyphic


writing.
Whattheywouldhave disputedwas themeaningand value ofthatdirection.
Part of theimportanceof Greppo'streatiseon Champollion'ssystemis that
its authortriesto operatein boththe metaphysicaland scientific
modes at
once. The completetitleof his workis Essay on theHieroglyphic
Systemof
M. Champollion,Jun., and on the Advantageswhichit offersto Sacred
Criticism.

Greppo's book is importantfor our purposes because an English


translationofit,done bytheAmericanIsaac Stuart,was publishedin Boston
in 1830,and thistranslationwas used by Sampson Reed as a sourceforhis
in the October 1830 issue of the New Jerusalem
articleon hieroglyphics
Magazine,'9and it was reviewedby EdwardEverett'in
theJanuary1831issue
of The NorthAmerican(see note 11). BothEverettand Reed wereimportant
formative
influences
on Emerson.Everettwas Emerson'sfavoriteteacherat
Harvard,whileReed, theforemostAmericanmemberoftheSwedenborgian
New Church,was themanwhomEmersoncalledhis"earlyoracle."20During
the 1820s and 1830s Emersonwas so takenwithReed's philosophythathe
keptup witheverything
thatthe New Churchspokesmanpublished.Reed's
essay on thehieroglyphics
is a good exampleof metaphysicalinterpretation
applied to scientificdata. He begins,"Many of our readersmay already
know,thata keyhas beenfoundto themeaningofthehieroglyphics
ofEgypt
... and it is certainlyamongthesignsof thetimes,amongtheproofsofthe
coming of a new era, that enquiries,so long urged in vain, are at last
answered."21Most of Reed's New Churchbrethrenwouldhave recognized
the phrase "a key . . . to the meaning of the hieroglyphics" as an allusion to

Swedenborg's book The HieroglyphicalKey to Natural and Spiritual


Mysteries,bywayof representations
or Correspondences.22
At leastso itwas
understoodby a Mr. J. D. of New York Citywho,in a letterto the editor
publishedin the February 1831 issue of the New JerusalemMagazine,
praised Reed's articleand assertedof the hieroglyphics
that "such is their
intimateconnexionwiththedoctrineofcorrespondences,
as revealedto us in
the New Jerusalem,that none but a New Churchmanwill ever be able
to decipherthem."23No doubt Mr. J. D. was referring
thoroughly
to that
portionof Reed's article in whichhe discussed the class of signs called
"anaglyphs" by Champollion. Champollion thoughtthat the anaglyphs,
thoughconnectedwith hieroglyphicwriting,were not true hieroglyphics
butrathersymbolicpicturesemployinghieroglyphic-like
themselves,
figures.
He backed up thiscontention
bypointingoutthat"mostofthefigures
which
'9NewJerusalemMagazine,4 (1830-31), 69-76.
20Kenneth
WalterCameron,EmersontheEssayist(Raleigh,N.C.: ThistlePress,1945),I, 292.
2"Reed,p. 69.
22Dieckmann,
p. 156.
23J.D., New JerusalemMagazine,4 (1830-31), 233.

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TheSymbolof theHieroglyphics

109

compose the anaglyphs, are accompanied by small legends in true


hieroglyphic writing, which explain them."24 But Reed, borrowing
theirmeaning,says thattheanaglyphs
Champollion'sphrasesand reversing
are the true hieroglyphicwritingas shown by the fact that they have
"legends" writtenin phoneticsigns near them"containingtheirsignification." Reed adds that, in spite of Champollion's discoveries,these true
hieroglyphics
"still remainobscure,and probablywill be so untilan examinationis made of themin a different
spiritand manner,and on a different
ground,fromthepresent."25
If one of the points that the metaphysicaland scientificschools of init
terpretation
disputedwas therelativevalues of simplicity
and complexity,
is clear fromReed's articlethatanotherpointat issue was therelativevalue
of mystery.
Implicitin Reed's doubtthatChampollion'sphoneticsignswere
the truehieroglyphics
was the traditionalbeliefthatthe hieroglyphics
must
contain the mysterious"wisdom of the Egyptians." Since the phonetic
writingthat Champollionhad translatedcontainedno such occult lore, it
could notbe thereal hieroglyphic
writing.The anaglyphs,on theotherhand,
weredifficult,
ifnotimpossible,to construe;theirmeaningwas obscure;ergo,
they must be the true hieroglyphicsin which the Egyptianpriestshad
encryptedtheirmysterious
wisdomto keep it fromtheeyes of the profane.
Such writingcould onlybe decipheredby an initiate,by one oftheselectfew
who knew "the doctrineof correspondences,
as revealedto us in the New
Jerusalem."We mightnote herethatthe metaphysicalinterpreter's
interest
in thesimpleand thenecessarywas perforcean interestin thehiddenand the
mysterious,for to his way of thinkingthe old emblematicrelationship
moreobbetweenwords,objectsand spiritualfactshad becomeprogressively
scureto man's fallenintellect.And we mightnote,on theotherhand,thatthe
scientific
interestin the complexand the conventionalwas an
interpreter's
oftheworld.
impulseto greateropennessand to thedemystification
In thecourseofhis article,Reed makesnumerousmistakesin interpreting
Champollion'swork-at one momentconfusingphoneticsignsand demotic
writing,at the next momentmixingideographicsignsand anaglyphs-yet
these alterationscannot all be accidental.They are due at least in part to
Reed's assumptionthatChampollionas a scientist,
as an observerofthesurofthefactsthat
facesofphysicalnature,missedthemetaphysical
significance
he observed.Champollion'sdiscoveriesare not to be belittled,but,as Reed
implies,theydo needto be correctedand qualifiedbysomeonewitha broader
and a deeperinsight.
perspective
A similarattitudemarksEmerson'sreference
to Champollionin his essay
"History." In theessay Emersonexpoundsonce again his centraltheme:the
therecapituemblematicrelationshipof thelittleand thelarge,specifically,
24Greppo,
p. 201.
25Reed,p. 7 1.

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110

AmericanQuarterly

lation, withinthe individuallife, of the entirecourse of human history.


Emersondeploresthosestudentswho stop at the surfaceof historicalfact,
and he urges,"We mustin ourselvessee thenecessaryreasonofeveryfactsee how it could and mustbe."26For him,thereare two kindsof students:
"Some men classifyobjects by color and size and otheraccidentsof appearance;othersby intrinsiclikeness,or by therelationof cause and effect.
The progressof theintellectis to theclearervisionof causes,whichneglects
surfacedifferences"
ofhistoryis equally
(II, 12). He continues,"The identity
intrinsic,
thediversity
equallyobvious.Thereis, at thesurface,infinite
variety
of things; at the centre there is simplicityof cause" (II, 14). As a
metaphysicalinterpreter,
Emersonidentifiesthe simple and the necessary
withthehidden,withthatwhichis beneaththeobvioussurfaceofthings.Ifin
studyinghistoryone understands
that"it is thespiritand notthefactthatis
identical"(II, 17), theneverydayexperiencewill alwaysbe "verifying
some
old predictionto us and converting
intothingsthewordsand signswhichwe
had heard and seen withoutheed" (II, 18). That is, underthe impulseof
metaphysicalinsight,the arbitrarylanguage of convention("words and
to revealonce morethenecessary,emblematiclansigns")willbe penetrated
his doctrineof
guage of nature("things")fromwhichit sprang.Illustrating
emblematiccorrespondences,
Emersonsays thatthe childwho has suffered
underthetyranny
of an adult,whois himselfat themercyofthe"names and
wordsand forms"of a repressivedogma, understandsfromthe core of his
ownbeing"the priestcraft
oftheEast and West": "The factteacheshimhow
Belus was worshippedand how thepyramidswerebuilt,betterthanthediscoverybyChampoliionofthenamesofall theworkmenand thecostofevery
tile" (II, 28-29). CertainlyEmersondid not mean by thisremarkto scorn
Champollion'sachievementbut simplyto putit in its properplace: to point
out that science remainsancillaryto metaphysics,that the physicalfact
servesthe spiritualfact.Indeed, one can judge fromthe followingentryin
Emerson'sjournal how importanthe consideredChampollionto be: "In the
year 1832 died Cuvier,Scott, Mackintosh,Goethe,Champollion,Leslie."27
It is impressive
company,and inthelate essay"Behavior"fromTheConduct
of Life Emersonagain includedChampollionin a distinguished
list,thistime
rankinghimwithAristotle,Leibnitzand Juniusas one ofthemostimportant
grammarians
in history(VI, 190).
It is not surprisingthat Emersonwould be interestedin Champollion's
work,forthe symbolof thehieroglyphics,
throughtheinfluenceof theneoPlatonists and the American Swedenborgians,was already central to
26TheComplete Worksof Ralph Waldo Emerson,CentenaryEdition,ed. E. W. Emerson
(Boston: HoughtonMifflin,1903-4), II, 10. Unless otherwisenoted,all subsequentquotations
fromEmersonare takenfromthisedition.
27Journals
and MiscellaneousNotebooksof Ralph Waldo Emerson,ed. W. H. Gilmanet al.
(Cambridge:HarvardUniv.Press,1966),VI, 346.

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TheSymbolof theHieroglyphics

111

Emerson'sthought.In hisfirstbook,Nature(1836), Emersonasserts,"Every


to thoseinquirieshe wouldput"
man's conditionis a solutionin hieroglyphic
(I, 4). In theessay "Self-Reliance"he notesthatforpeople in timespast the
king "was the hieroglyphicby which they obscurelysignifiedtheirconsciousnessoftheirownrightand comeliness,therightofeveryman" (II, 63).
as one ofthose
In Representative
Men EmanuelSwedenborgis characterized
forwhomthe worldis "a grammarof hieroglyphs"(IV, 142). In the essay
"Poetryand Imagination"Emersonsays thatthepoet "shall use Natureas
emblemperhis hieroglyphic"
(VIII, 65). The conceptof thehieroglyphical
vades Nature." 1. Wordsare signsofnaturalfacts.2. Particularnaturalfacts
are symbolsof particularspiritualfacts.3. Natureis thesymbolofspirit"(I,
25). For anyone who has missed the point, he adds, "The world is
emblematic"(I, 32).
Nature,Emersonwas readingan
Duringtheperiodin whichhe was writing
to G. Oegger'sLe VraiMessie (Paris,
Englishtranslationof theintroduction
in his own work:
1829), and he quotes a sentencefromthis introduction
"'Material objects,' said a French philosopher,'are necessarilykinds of
scoriae of the substantialthoughtsof the Creator, which must always
preservean exact relationto theirfirstorigin;in otherwords,visiblenature
musthave a spiritualand a moralside"' (I, 35). Oeggerwas a Swedenborgian, and the translationthat Emersonused in manuscriptduringJulyand
ElizaAugust 1835 was probablymade by the Americantranscendentalist
in 1842 as The True
bethPeabody.28Miss Peabodypublishedthistranslation
Messiah, or The Old and New Testaments,examinedaccordingto thePrinofthe
ciplesof theLanguageofNature.Oeggersaysthatin hisinterpretation
to penetrate"to thatlanguageof Nature,which,as
Bible he is attempting
every one will easily conceive, must have preceded all languages of
He continues,
convention."29
wasmade
ofconvention,
ofnature
tothelanguages
Thepassagefromthelanguage
thelatter
oftracing
thattheywhomadeitneverthought
degrees
bysuchinsensible
mencouldnotnameobjects,
theymustshow
backto theirsource.... Primitively,
theimmediate
ofseeingandshowing
object
faculty
them.... Whenthatprimitive
wasweakened,
ofsentiment
emblem
then,only,exterior
ofthought,
andthenatural
moreparticuofgestures,
spokenat first
signscametojoinit.Thencethelanguage
oftheface,whichat
andtheparticular
composition
larlybytheeyes,themouth,
signs,suchas arestillfound
conventional
sounds,andall exterior
introduced
length
andwriting
thoseoffered
byhieroglyphics
amongthedeafanddumb;and,finally,
theScripture.30
In Nature Emersongivesa similaraccountof thisoriginallanguageand its
2"Cameron,11,83n.
29Ibid.,p. 84.
30Ibid.,p. 92.

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subsequentdecline:"As we go back in history,languagebecomesmorepicturesque,untilits infancy,when it is all poetry;or all spiritualfactsare


by naturalsymbols.The same symbolsare foundto make the
represented
originalelementsof all languages.... A man's powerto connecthisthought
withits propersymbol,and so to utterit, dependson the simplicityof his
character,that is, upon his love of truthand his desireto communicateit
withoutloss. The corruptionof man is followedby the corruptionof language" (I, 29).
Oeggermaintainsthattracesofthelanguageofnaturecan stillbe foundin
the languagesof convention,and Emersongivesus an exampleof thisprinciple whenin Nature he worksback throughthe meaningsof conventional
languageto therootsoftheoriginalsymboliclanguage:"Everywordwhichis
usedto expressa moralor intellectualfact,iftracedto itsroot,is foundto be
borrowedfromsome material appearance. Right means straight;wrong
thecrossingof a
meanstwisted.Spiritprimarilymeans wind;transgression,
line; supercilious,the raisingof theeyebrow"(I, 25). Emersonis operating
herein a traditionwhose mostlearned 18thcenturylocus in Englishis the
opening chapter on radicals of Jacob Bryant'sAn Analysis of Antient
Mythology(1774-76).3' In an attemptto systematizeancientmythology,
names and
Bryantbeginsby establishingthe earliestformsof mythological
showingtheirderivationfroman emblematiclanguageof objects.Oeggerrethelanguageof theBible by meansof
marksof his own attemptto interpret
thelanguageofnaturalobjects:"He whohas theleastidea oftheemblemsof
readstheBibleas ifwitha microscope.... It is
natureand theirsignification,
read bymeansofChampollion'ssystem."32
likeEgyptianhieroglyphics
emblemrepresents
fora writerlike Emersona basic
As thehieroglyphical
of the natureof the universe,so it dictatesthe formthathis
understanding
writingmusttake in treatingthatuniverse.In a sense,an Emersonianessayis
is alwaysthe
emblem.The strategy
simplytheexplicationof a hieroglyphical
same: he presentsthe emblemin all its outercomplexityand then,via the
he penetrates
theemblemto revealitsinnersimdoctrineofcorrespondences,
plicity,to show the hidden relationshipbetweenouter shape and inner
meaning.Indeed, most of his essays beginwitha verseepigraphthatis an
of thethemewhichtheproseessaydeciphers.The emblemcan be
encryption
a humanconceptlike history,an emotionlike love,a virtuelike prudence,a
geometricshape like the circle,or a powerof the spiritlike the intellect.It
can be a typeof man as in "The Poet" or a seriesof greatindividualsas in
Men (1850). Yet evenwhenhe deals witha greatindividual,it
Representative
is alwaysto treathimas a type,to presenthislifeas an emblem.The titlesof
31A New Systemor, An Analysis of AntientMythology(London: Payne, Elmsly,White,
Walter,1774-76),I, 1-128.
32Cameron,
II, 88.

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TheSymbolof theHieroglyphics

113

the essays in RepresentativeMen make this clear: "Plato; or The


Philosopher,""Swedenborg;or The Mystic,""Napoleon; or The Man ofthe
World." The subjectsof Emerson'sessaysneverbecomemereallegoricalpicDue to thefallenstate
whosemeaningis self-evident.
tures-representations
emblem
of the humanintellect,it is of the veryessence of a hieroglyphical
that,whileit is obviouslya pictographwithall of its partshavingmeaning
and all intendedto be explicated,whatit is a pictureofis notso obvious.The
sense of the people and thingsthat Emersonwritesabout is thattheirreal
to involveoneselfin
themis necessarily
meaningsare hidden,thatto confront
wherebythe surfaceis penetratedand inner
a process of interpretation
necessityrevealed.
If thehieroglyphical
emblemis centralto Emerson'sthoughtand style,itis
no less importantto the workof his friendand protegeThoreau.Thoreau's
Walden(1854) is basicallya seriesof explicatedemblems.In his accountof a
symbolicyear spentin the microcosmicworld of Walden Pond, Thoreau
of his house,his economy,his
presentsthe readerwithdetaileddescriptions
theanicountryside,
hisdiet,his reading,hiswalks,thesurrounding
farming,
mals, birds,fishand flowers,theseasons,theweatherand so on. He depicts
emblemswhosemeaningsare hiddenfrom
all of thesethingsas hieroglyphic
the majorityof men because the pettyconcernsand busynessof lifehave
degradedthe powersof intellectand observation.Thoreau's descriptionsof
the externalshape of his world are at the same time explicationsof that
world'sinnersignificance.
examplesof thisemblematictechniquein Walden,
One of thebest-known
and certainlyone thatis mostgermaneto a discussionof thesymbolof the
is Thoreau's descriptionof the thawingof a sand bank in
hieroglyphics,
spring.The streamsof sand, he says, are a kindof "hybridproduct,which
obeys halfway the law of currents,and halfway that of vegetation.As it
flowsit takes the formsof sappy leaves or vines,makingheaps of pulpy
as you look down on them,
spraysa footor morein depth,and resembling,
the laciniated,lobed and imbricatedthallusesof some lichens;or you are
remindedof coral, of leopards' paws or birds' feet,of brainsor lungsor
bowels,and excrementsof all kinds.It is trulygrotesquevegetation,whose
formsand color we see imitatedin bronze, a sort of architecturalfoliage... ."33 Thoreau adds thatseeingthissand foliageproducedon a single
as ifin a peculiarsenseI stoodin thelaboratoryof
springday,"I am affected
the Artistwho made the worldand me-had come to wherehe was stillat
work,sportingon this bank, and withexcess of energystrewinghis fresh
designsabout. I feelas ifI werenearerto thevitalsoftheglobe,forthissandy
is somethingsucha foliaceousmass as thevitalsoftheanimalbody.
overflow
33Walden,ed. J. LyndonShanley(Princeton:PrincetonUniv. Press, 1971), p. 305. All subsequentquotationsfromWaldenare takenfromthisedition.

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You findthus in the verysands an anticipationof the vegetableleaf. No


in leaves,itso laborswiththe
wonderthattheearthexpressesitselfoutwardly
idea inwardly"(p. 306). Thoreau,in his attemptto finda singleformunon hisworkofthree
derlying
thevarietyofnaturalforms,showstheinfluence
men"-Goethe, Swedenborgand Plato. Cerof Emerson's"representative
natural
tainlyThoreau'simageof thevegetableleafas a basic, all-pervading
formderives fromthe central idea in Goethe's Die Metamorphoseder
Men, Emerson,
Pflanzen(1790). In his essay on Goethe in Representative
summarizingthe great German writer'swork in natural science, says,
". . . Goethesuggestedtheleadingidea formodernbotany,thata leafor the
eye of a leaf is the unitof botany,and thateverypart of a plantis onlya
leaf to meeta new condition;and, by varyingtheconditions,a
transformed
leaf may be convertedintoany otherorgan,and anyotherorganintoa leaf.
In likemanner,in osteology,he assumedthatone vertebraofthespinemight
be consideredthe unit of the skeleton:the head was only the uppermost
vertebratransformed"(IV, 275). Goethe's attemptto finda single,basic
offormsinexternalnatureand to showthatthe
formbeneaththemultiplicity
multipleformsderivefromthat basic formis an analogue of Emerson's
of nature's hieroglyphical
emblems
efforts
to penetratetheoutercomplexity
thatunitesthem.EmersonsaysthatGoethe
and discovertheinnersimplicity
in his scientific
a keyto manypartsofnature,
"has contributed
investigations
throughthe rare turnforunityand simplicityof his mind" (IV, 274-75).
The phrase"a keyto manypartsof nature"recallsthe workof anotherof
Emerson's representative
men-Swedenborg's The HieroglyphicalKey to
or CorreNatural and Spiritual Mysteries,by way of representations
spondences.In his essay on Swedenborg,Emersondiscussesthe Swedish
mystic'sownversionofthetheorythata basic formunderliesthemultiplicity
of naturalforms:"The ancientdoctrineof Hippocrates,thatthe brainis a
gland; and of Leucippus,thatthe atom may be knownby the mass; or, in
Plato,themacrocosmbythemicrocosm;and,intheversesofLucretius,
'Theprinciple
entrails
made
ofallthings
Ofsmallest
bone,ofsmallest
bone;
entrails;
toone;
dropsreduced
Blood,ofsmallsanguine
ofsmallsandscontracted;
earth,
Gold,ofsmallgrains;
Smalldropstowater,
sparkstofirecontracted,'
Lib.I, 835
and whichMalpighihad summedin his maxim,that'natureexistsentirein
leasts,'-is a favoritethoughtof Swedenborg.... The unitiesof each organ
are so many little organs, homogeneouswith theircompound.... This
fruitful
idea furnishes
a keyto everysecret"(IV, 113-14). In his essay "The
MethodofNature" Emersonsoundsa Goetheannotewhenhe speaksofthat
"catholiccharacter"ofphysicalnature"whichmakeseveryleafan exponent

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TheSymbolof theHieroglyphics

115

of theworld" (I, 201). Goethenot onlysaw theleaf and thevertebraas the


basic unitsof plantand animallife,he also viewedthemas tworelatedforms
of a still morebasic form.Thoreau,in his descriptionof the thawingsand
bank,makesthissame connectionbetweenthevegetableleafand theanimal
body. Moreover, the imageryin Thoreau's descriptionremindsone of
Emerson's translationin his Swedenborgessay of the passage fromLucretius.Thoreau,afterpointingout thatthesandyfoliageof thebank is "an
anticipationof thevegetableleaf," remarksthatin thisphenomenonone can
also "see perchancehowblood-vesselsare formed.... In thesiliciousmatter
whichthewaterdepositsis perhapsthebonysystem,and in thestillfinersoil
and organicmatterthefleshyfibreor cellulartissue.Whatis man buta mass
of thawingclay?The ball of the humanfingeris but a drop congealed.The
fingers
and toes flowto theirextentfromthethawingmass ofthebody.. . . Is
notthehand a spreadingpalm leafwithits lobes and veins?The ear maybe
regarded,fancifully,
as a lichen,umbilicaria,on theside ofthehead,withits
lobe or drop.... Each roundedlobe of thevegetableleaf,too, is a thickand
nowloiteringdrop,largeror smaller;thelobes are thefingers
oftheleaf. . ."
(pp. 307-8). The basic formthatunitesthe animal body and the vegetable
leafis, forThoreau,thelobe or drop.Consideringhow greattheinfluence
of
Plato was on bothEmersonand Thoreau,I thinkwe arejustifiedin seeingbehindthisimageof thelobe or dropanotherimage-the Platonicsphere,that
basic, perfectformwhich,Plato says in the Timaeus, God gave to the
universe.Emersonbegins"Circles," one ofhis mostPlatonicessays,withthe
epigraph:
Naturecentersintoballs,
And herproudephemerals,
Fast to surfaceand outside,
Scan theprofileofthesphere;
Knewtheywhatthatsignified;
A newgenesiswerehere.

In thesame essay he says thatthecircleor sphereis "thehighestemblemin


the cipherof the world" (II, 301) and that"throughoutnaturethisprimary
figureis repeatedwithoutend" (II, 301).
What is mostsignificant
forour purposesin Thoreau's descriptionof the
thawingsand bank is thathe connectsthe attemptto finda basic unifying
formbeneaththemultiplicity
of naturalformswiththeattemptto penetrate
the language of conventionand discoverwithinit the originallanguageof
nature,that basic verbal formwith its emblematicrelationshipbetween
wordsand things.Remarkingthat"the worldexpressesitselfoutwardlyin
leaves,it so laborswiththeidea inwardly,"Thoreau continues,"The atoms
have alreadylearnedthislaw, and are pregnantby it. The overhanging
leaf
sees hereitsprototype.
whetherin theglobeor animalbody,itis a
Internally,

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moistthicklobe,a wordespeciallyapplicableto theliverand lungsand leaves


of fat,(Xeuow),labor, lapsus, to flowor slip downward,a lapsing;Xo3ols,
globus,lobe, globe; also lap, flap,and manyotherwords),externally,
a dry
thinleaf,evenas thefand v are a pressedand driedb. The radicalsoflobe are
lb, thesoftmass of theb (singlelobed,or B, double lobed,) withtheliquid1
behindit pressingit forward"(p. 306). This essay in creativeetymology
remindsus of Emerson'ssimilarefforts
in Natureand of thewholetradition
represented
by the chapteron radicals in Bryant'sAn Analysisof Antient
Mythology.Thoreauwantsto illustrate
thattherelationship
ofthelobe to the
leaf is that of innerformto outer form,that the lobe is the moist,thick
internalunitwhoseexternalequivalentis the drythinleaf. A proofof this
relationship,
says Thoreau,is to be seen in theveryshape of thewordslobe
and leaf. The radicalsofthewordlobe are lb, "the softmass of theb (single
lobed, or B, double lobed,) withthe liquid I behindit pressingit forward."
This descriptionsuggests,of course,theimageof thesand bank where"first
therepushesforwardfromthethawingmass a streamofsoftenedsand witha
drop-likepoint" (p. 307). If the basic creativeprocessin termsof natural
formsis theaccretionof fluidmatterintoglobesor lobes,thenthewordlobe
is an emblemof thatprocessand of the formthatit creates,forwe can see
thatin thewordtheliquidI likethemoistureinthesandbankpressesforward
againstthe softmass of the b and thatthe shape of the letterb is nothing
morethanthatsame liquidI witha dropor lobe appendedto it likethesandy
lobes of the bank. In a similar mannerthe shape of the word leaf is
emblematic:thata leaf is simplythethin,dry,outerequivalentofthethick,
moist,innerlobe is reflected
bythefactthef in leafand thev in leaves are a
"pressed and driedb." That is, if the lobe on the letterb werebrokenoff
duringsome fancifulprocessof pressingand dryingsuch as naturalscience
collectorsof the 19thcenturyused in preserving
once-living
objects,thenwe
would be leftwith two shapes that resemblethe lettersf and v. In this
imaginativeexercise,Thoreau showsus thatwhatwe had consideredto be
phoneticsignsbearingonlyan arbitrary,
conventionalrelationship
to theobjects theyrepresent,
are, to theinitiatedeye,hieroglyphic
whose
signs
shape
is an obscurepictureoftheobjectstheystandfor.
Having penetratedtheemblematicworldof naturalformsto discoverthe
formand thenhavingpresentedas an analogueofthis
simple,inner,unifying
processthepenetration
ofthelanguageofconventionto discovertheoriginal
languageofnaturein whichwordsare emblemsofthings,Thoreauconcludes,
"Thus it seemedthatthisone hillsideillustrated
theprincipleofall theoperations of Nature. The Maker of this earth but patented a leaf. What
forus, thatwe mayturnovera
Champollionwilldecipherthishieroglyphic
newleafat last?" (p. 308). The answerto thatquestionis, obviously,Thoreau

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TheSymbolof theHieroglyphics

117

himself.He says lateron, "The earthis nota merefragment


ofdead history,
stratumuponstratumliketheleaves ofa book,to be studiedbygeologistand
antiquarieschiefly,
but livingpoetrylike the leaves of a tree,whichprecede
flowersand fruit-nota fossilearth,but a livingearth"(p. 309). Thoughhe
invokesthe name of a scientifictranslatorlike Champollion,Thoreau the
poet,in the leaves of his own book, givesa metaphysicalreadingof whatis
intheleavesofthebook ofnature.
written
withEmerson'sand Thoreau'sviewofthehieroglyphics
Contrasting
on the
one hand and withChampollion'son the otheris theattitudeof writerslike
Hawthorneand Melville.For them,the veryfactthattwogroupsof learned
menwithdiffering
assumptionsabout thenatureof realitycould look at the
same object and come up withexactlyoppositeinterpretations
was an illustrationthattruthwas functionaland subjectiveand thatmeaningwas an artifact.To theirway of thinking,
the enigmatic,ambiguouscharacterof the
was its verysignificance,
forit was thischaracterwhichallowed
hieroglyph
the hieroglyphical
emblemto supporta varietyof possibleinterpretations.
The hieroglyphics
werethelinguisticanalogueofan enigmaticexternalworld
whose essence was mysteriousbut whose shape was ambiguousenoughto
sustain almost any interpretation
that man projectedon it in the act of
knowing.NeitherHawthornenorMelvillebelievedin an absolutetruth;they
thoughtthattruthvariednotonlyfromcultureto cultureand fromage to age
butevenfrompersonto person,thatquestionsof meaningwerefinallyquestionsof value,and thatChampollion'sscientific
readingof thehieroglyphics
had not renderedthe nearlyfourcenturiesof metaphysicalinterpretations
either worthlessor meaningless.Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics,17th
and 19thcenturyscientific
centurymetaphysical
interpretations,
readingsare
in a sense all of equal value, in thateach is a representative
productof the
orderingpowerofthehumanimaginationin successivehistoricalepochs.The
sensethatvalue and meaningare a functionof historicalprocessand thatat
any givenmomentin historyman findsthe truththathe needs to findare
center
insightsthat, in the works of Hawthorneand Melville, frequently
aroundtheimageofthehieroglyphics.
to overestimatethe importanceof the
Certainly,it would be difficult
of
to
ofa novellike TheScarletLetter.
the
the
structure
symbol
hieroglyphics
Hester'sinsigniais a hieroglyphic
emblem,and themanuscriptthataccomit
its
is
panies
apparentexplication.I say "apparent"becausetheverypoint
of thenovelis notto presentus withtheone truemeaningof thehieroglyph
butratherwitha hostof possiblemeaningsfromwhichto choose. In his first
descriptionof thescarletletter,Hawthorne,by pointingout thattheinsignia
is the productof a lost skill in embroidery,emphasizes its mysterious,
nature:"It had beenwrought,
as was easyto perceive,withwonhieroglyphic

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derfulskill of needlework;and the stitch(as I am assuredby ladies conversantwithsuchmysteries)givesevidenceof a now forgotten


art,notto be
recoveredevenbytheprocessofpickingout thethreads."34
Gazingat theletter,he adds, "Certainly,therewas some deep meaningin it,mostworthyof
interpretation,
and whichas it were,streamedforthfromthemysticsymbol,
subtlycommunicating
itselfto my sensibilities,
but evadingthe analysisof
my mind" (p. 50). The "deep meaning" remainsambiguousto the end.
Hawthornenevertells us that Hester's scarletA stands for
Significantly,
adultery.Rather,he reportsthataftersome yearshad elapsed duringwhich
Hester devotedherselfto charitableactions "many people refusedto interpretthe scarletA by its originalsignification.
They said that it meant
Able; so strongwas HesterPrynne,witha woman'sstrength"
(p. 196).
The situationof multipleperspectivesin which an enigmaticobject is
variouslyinterpreted
by one individualwhosepointof viewchangesor by a
seriesofindividualswhoeach have a different
pointofviewis thegreatrecurringmotifin The Scarlet Letter.At thestarta dual viewpointis introduced
forHawthornepresentshimselfnotas
intotheverystructure
ofthenarrative,
theauthorofthestorybutratheras itsrevisorand elaborator.He tellsus that
whenhe discoveredthe embroideredletterin the Salem custom-househe
written
foundwithit an explanatorymanuscript
by an 18thcenturysurveyor
ofthecustomsnamedJonathanPue and thatit is thismanuscript
thathe has
made thebasis of his ownwork.The ScarletLetter,then,is a storysetin the
17thcentury,
ostensibly
written
byone man in the 18thcentury,
and redacted
by anotherman in the 19thcentury.The divergencein historicalperspective
thatthisfictionnecessarilyentailsbecomesthesubjectof directcommentin
thenovelwheneverMr. Pue's narrativeincludeseventsthatappearto have a
supernatural
explanation.Perhapsthemoststrikingexampleof sucha commentaryis to be foundin Hawthorne'sdescriptionof the nightsceneat the
scaffoldwhenDimmesdale,Hesterand Pearl are startledby theappearance
of a meteor.The descriptioncontainsat once Hawthorne'smost explicit
statementon the hieroglyphicalnature of the scarlet letterand on the
essentialambiguity
ofthehieroglyphic
emblem.He says,"Nothingwas more
all meteoricappearances,and other
common,in thosedays,thanto interpret
thantheriseand set of
naturalphenomena,thatoccurredwithless regularity
sun and moon, as so manyrevelationsfroma supernaturalsource.Thus, a
blazingspear,a swordofflame,a bow,a sheafofarrows,seeninthemidnight
Indianwarfare.Pestilencewas knownto havebeenforeboded
sky,prefigured
by a showerof crimsonlight"(p. 188). He pointsout that sometimesthe
butoftener
was seenbymultitudes,
phenomenon
34TheComplete Worksof NathanielHawthorne,RiyersideEdition,ed. George P. Lathrop
(Boston: HoughtonMifflin,1883), V, 49-50. All subsequentquotationsfromThe Scarlet Letterare takenfromthisedition

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TheSymbolof theHieroglyphics

119

itscredibility
restedonthefaithofsomelonelyeyewitness,
whobeheldthewonder
through
thecolored,magnifying,
mediumof hisimagination,
and distorting
and
inhisafter-thought.
shapedit moredistinctly
It was,indeed,
a majesticidea,that
intheseawfulhieroglyphics,
onthecope
thedestiny
ofnationsshouldbe revealed,
ofheaven.... Butwhatshallwesay,whenan individual
discovers
a revelation,
addressedto himself
alone,on thesamevastsheetofrecord!In sucha case,itcould
onlybe thesymptom
ofa highly
disordered
mentalstate,whena man,rendered
morbidly
self-contemplative
bylong,intense,
andsecretpain,hadextended
hisegotismoverthewholeexpanseofnature,
untilthefirmament
itself
shouldappearno
morethana fitting
pageforhissoul'shistory
andfate.
We imputeit,therefore,
solelyto thediseasein hisowneyeandheart,thatthe
minister,
looking
upwardto thezenith,
beheldtheretheappearance
ofan immense
letter,-the
letter
A,-markedoutinlinesofdullredlight.Notbutthemeteor
may
haveshownitself
at thatpoint,burning
a veilofcloud;butwithno
duskily
through
suchshapeas hisguilty
imagination
gaveit;or,at least,withso littledefiniteness,
thatanother's
guiltmight
haveseenanother
init.(pp. 188-89)
symbol
The tone of voice in this passage is surelyironic,forwhen Hawthorne
speaks of that disorderedmental state, that morbid self-contemplation
whereinman's egotismextendsitselfoverthe wholeexpanseof natureuntil
eventhefirmament
is "no morethana fitting
page forhis soul's historyand
fate,"he is commenting
on his own conditionas muchas on Dimmesdale's.
The feelingof beingtrappedin the self,the post-Kantianviewthatwhat a
man knowsis not an objectiveexternalworldbut simplythe internalstructureof his ownmindprojecteduponan essentiallyindeterminate
ground,the
sense of the shatteringof all absolutes because of the loss of objective
knowledge-theseare whatthe conceptof the hieroglyphic
emblemevokes
forHawthorne.His remarkthatthemeteor'sshape as it passed throughthe
cloud was of so littledefiniteness
thatanotherman mighthave seen it as an
entirelydifferent
symbolreceivesits fulfillment
on the morningafterthe
scaffoldscene. The old sexton,commenting
on GovernorWinthrop'sdeath
thepreviousnight,says to Dimmesdale,"But did yourreverencehear of the
portentthatwas seenlastnight?A greatredletterin thesky,-the letterA,whichwe interpret
to standforAngel.For, as our good GovernorWinthrop
was made an angelthispast night,it was doubtlessheldfitthatthereshould
be somenoticethereof!"(p. 192).
In essence,it is but a repetition
of themultipleperspectivism
of thenight
scene at the scaffoldthat formsthe novel's conclusion.On the day of the
ElectionSermonwhenDimmesdalehas reachedthe peak of his career,he
once again mountsthe scaffold,thistimeto acknowledgeHesterand Pearl,
to accepthisguilt,and to revealtheletterimprinted
on his chest.It is a scene
thatobviouslycaughtHawthorne'simagination,forit producedsome of his
best writing-a scene whose emotional power sweeps up spectatorsand
reader alike into its climax of revelation,retributionand eleventh-hour

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repentance.And yetthenextchapterbeginswiththedeflating
remark:"After
many days, whentime sufficedforthe people to arrangetheirthoughtsin
referenceto the foregoingscene,therewas morethan one accountof what
had been witnessedon thescaffold"(p. 305). Most of thespectatorstestified
to havingseen a scarletletterimprinted
on theminister'sbreast,butas to its
origintherewerevariousexplanations,all of whichwereconjectural.Some
believedthat the letterwas a self-inflicted
penance,othersthat it was the
resultof Roger Chillingworth's
magic and poisonousdrugs,and stillothers
thatit was themark"of theeveractivetoothof remorse,gnawingfromthe
inmostheartoutwardly."Hawthorneadds, "The readermay choose among
thesetheories"(pp. 305-6). Indeed,therewereeven those who deniedthat
therewas anymarkwhateveron theminister's
breast,nor,theysaid, had his
dyingwordsacknowledgedeven the slightestconnection"withtheguiltfor
which Hester Prynnehad so long worn the scarletletter"(p. 306). They
explainedthat Dimmesdale,realizingthat death was near, had decidedto
make the mannerof his death a parable. "By yieldingup his breathin the
armsofthatfallenwoman,"he meant"to impresson hisadmirersthemighty
and mournfullesson,that,in the view of InfinitePurity,we are sinnersall
alike" (p. 306). Hawthorneobservesthat this versionof the storyis "an
instanceof thatstubbornfidelity
withwhicha man's friends-andespecially
a clergyman's-willsometimesupholdhis character;whenproofs,clear as
the mid-daysunshineon the scarlet letter,establishhim a false and sinstainedcreatureof the dust" (pp. 306-7). Once again, Hawthorneis being
ironic.He calls theproofsof Dimmesdale'sguilt"clear as the mid-daysunshineon thescarletletter,"butnoon lightis no absolute,it is simplyone in a
series of constantlychanging lights. Throughoutthe novel Hawthorne
consistently
evokesthe relativity
of truthto one's perspective
withimagesof
objectswhosesignificance
radicallyalterswiththechanginglight,and indeed,
he characterizeshis own viewpointas novelist(and the imaginativealterationsthatit creates)in the famousimage of everydayobjectsilluminatedby
and moonlightand reflected
firelight
in a mirror.Further,Hawthornetellsus
whattheseclear proofsof Dimmesdale'sguiltamountto: "a manuscriptof
old date, drawnup fromtheverbaltestimony
of individuals,some of whom
had knownHesterPrynne,whileothershad heardthe tale fromcontemporarywitnesses"(p. 307). Not onlyis theauthority
ofthemanuscript
based on
hearsay, but it is an authoritythat Hawthornehimselfhas called into
questionat variouspointsin thenoveland in exactlythesame waythatDimmesdale'sfriendsquestionedtheminister'sfinalconfession.As theyclaimed
that his dyingactionswere intendedto be parabolic,so Hawthorne,when
dealingwiththemanuscriptaccountsof thereputedwitchMistressHibbins,
suggeststhather reportedactivitiesmay not be the literaltruthbut onlya
parable(pp. 144,265).

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aroundattemptsto inClearly,The Scarlet Letteris a novelconstructed


terpret a series of essentially ambiguous hieroglyphs. The central
emblemis the letter,but the letterhas an equally important
hieroglyphic
humancounterpart-thechildPearl. Hawthornecalls Pearl "the scarletletterin anotherform;thescarletletterendowedwithlife"(p. 127),and it is the
ofitsmakerthat
effort
to discoverin the"character"ofthechildtheidentity
formsone oftheprincipalsourcesofthenovel'saction.RogerChillingworth
explicitlyposes the problemto the eldersof Salem: "Would it be beyonda
philosopher'sresearch,thinkye, gentlemen,to analyze thatchild's nature,
and fromitsmake and mould,to givea shrewdguessat thefather?"(p. 143).
who is in search of
But it is not onlythe wrongedhusbandChillingworth
Pearl's father,it is thechildas well. When Pearl asks hermotherwhereshe
came fromand Hesterreplies,"Thy HeavenlyFathersentthee," Pearl cries
out,"He did notsendme! ... I have no HeavenlyFather.... Tell me! Tell
me!. . . It is thouthatmusttellme!" (p. 124). Pearl's rejectionof a heavenly
to Hester'sown
fatherin hersearchfora humanfatherformsa counterpoint
situation,forwhileHesterknowsPearl's humanfather,theheavenlyfather
remainshiddenfromher and she searchesforsome traceof his existencein
the hieroglyphof her daughter.Hawthornetells us that Hester was a
freethinker:
"The world'slaw was no law forher mind.... She assumeda
freedomof speculation,thencommonenoughon the otherside of the Athad theyknownofit,wouldhave heldto be
lantic,butwhichour forefathers,
a deadliercrimethanthatstigmatizedby the scarletletter"(p. 199). Hester
of the
wantsto believein theexistenceof a God who createdthehieroglyph
worldas an obscureimage of himselfand who standscreditforits ultimate
butwhenshe looks at thehieroglyph
thatis Pearl shesees not
decipherability,
of a humanmother.
the lineamentsof a heavenlyfatherbut the willfulness
Hawthornesays that Pearl was "the living hieroglyphic,in which was
revealed the secret" that Hester and Dimmesdale "so darkly sought to
hide,-all writtenin this symbol,-all plainlymanifest,-hadtherebeen a
prophetor magicianskilledto readthecharacterofflame!"(p. 248). Looking
at thishieroglyph,
Hestersees onlya projectionofherself.
to Pearl as a "livinghieroglyphic"
may wellbe an
Hawthorne'sreference
ironicallusionto Emerson'sfamousdictumthat"everyman's conditionis a
solutionin hieroglyphic
to those inquirieshe would put." Hawthornewas
skepticalof the ease withwhichthe opaque emblemof the worldbecame
transparentforEmerson,and it is worthnotingin thisregardthatthough
Hawthornesays thatbothhe and Mr. Pue believedPearl's futurewas happy,
yet he refrainsfromgivingus any definiteknowledgeof this.The ultimate
else in the
fate of his livinghieroglyphicremains,like almost everything
novel,a matterof conjectureat last. WhetherHawthorneis makinga thrust
at Emersonis itselfa matterof conjecture,but we can be fairlysure that

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Hawthorne'sfriendMelville had Emerson's remarkin mind whenhe introduced into Moby-Dick a character whose condition is literallyhiI refer,ofcourse,to Ishmael'stattooedfriendQueequeg.Melville
eroglyphic.
saysthatQueequeg's "tattooinghad beentheworkofa departedprophetand
seer of his island,who,by thosehieroglyphic
marks,had writtenout on his
bodya completetheoryof theheavensand theearth,and a mysticaltreatise
on theartofattainingtruth;so thatQueequeginhisownproperpersonwas a
riddleto unfold;a wondrousworkin one volume;but whosemysteries
not
even himselfcould read, thoughhis own live heartbeat againstthem;and
thesemysteries
weretherefore
destinedin theend to moulderaway withthe
livingparchmentwhereontheywere inscribed,and so be unsolvedto the
last.935
As in The Scarlet Letter,the essentiallyundecipherable
characterof the
hieroglyphis a continuingmotifin Moby-Dick. Melville describesthe
markingson the sides of the spermwhale as "hieroglyphical;
thatis, ifyou
call those mysteriouscypherson the walls of pyramidshieroglyphics,
then
that is the properword to use in the presentconnexion.By my retentive
memoryof the hieroglyphics
upon one Sperm Whale in particular,I was
muchstruckwitha plate representing
theold Indiancharacterschiselledon
the famoushieroglyphic
palisades on the banks of the Upper Mississippi.
Like those mysticrocks, too, the mystic-marked
whale remains undecipherable"(p. 305). If,as Melvillesays,"you call thosemysterious
cyphers
on the walls of pyramidshieroglyphics,"
thenMoby Dick withhis "pyramidicalwhitehump"(p. 180) and hismystic-marked
browis thecentralenigin thenovel.But as thehieroglyphic
matichieroglyph
letterin Hawthorne's
novel had its humancounterpart,
so the whitewhale has in the personof
Ahab its hieroglyphichuman equivalent in Melville's novel. Ahab is
describedas beinglike a "pyramid"(p. 127),as havingan "Egyptianchest"
(p. 182),and themarkson hisbroware likethehieroglyphic
markingson the
foreheadof the spermwhale.That undecipherability
is theessentialcharacteristicofthehieroglyph
forMelvilleis made clearin Ishmael'sdiscussionof
the whitenessof the whale. Moby Dick's whitenessstrikesIshmael witha
"vague,namelesshorror"(p. 185),butIshmael'sfeelingis notso mucha horrorthatis vagueand namelessas a horrorofthevagueand nameless,a revulsion at the ultimatelyindefinite
and indeterminate
natureof theworldsymbolizedbythecolorwhite.He says,"Is itthatbyitsindefiniteness
itshadows
forththe heartlessvoids and immensities
of the universe,and thusstabs us
frombehindwith the thoughtof annihilation,when beholdingthe white
depthsofthemilkyway?Or is it,thatas inessencewhiteness
is notso mucha
35HermanMelville,Moby-Dick, eds. LutherS. Mansfieldand Howard P. Vincent(New
York: Hendricks,1952),p. 477. All subsequentquotationsfromMoby-Dickare takenfromthis
edition.

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TheSymbolof theHieroglyphics

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color as thevisibleabsenceof color,and at thesame timetheconcreteof all


colors; is it forthese reasonsthat thereis such a dumb blankness,fullof
meaning,in a widelandscapeofsnows-a colorless,all-colorofatheismfrom
whichwe shrink?"(p. 193).
The hieroglyph
oftheworld,represented
by Moby Dick, is undecipherable
not because it bears no meaningat all but because its veryindefiniteness
allows it to bear any and everymeaning,and since it means everything,
it
means nothing.Melville's focusingon the essential"indefiniteness"
of this
color thathe takesto represent
thetruthabouttheexternalworldremindsus
of Hawthorne's remark that the shape of the meteor's track which
Dimmesdale saw as a scarlet letterwas of "so little definiteness,
that
another'sguiltmighthave seen anothersymbolin it." It is a characteristic
19thcenturypredicament:
withtheloss of beliefin an externalabsoluteand
in thepossibilityof objectiveknowledge,theselfexpandsto fillthevoid,but
at the momentwhenthe selfbecomesthe absolute,at the momentwhenit
sees thateverything
is a projectionof itself,thentheselfrealizesthatit has
become nothing,that it is indistinguishable,
"a colorlessall-color." Hawthornespeaks of that "disorderedmental state, when a man, rendered
morbidlyself-contemplative"
extends"his egotismoverthewholeexpanseof
nature." And in one of the most chillingpassages in 19thcenturyfiction,
Melville says, ". . . when we consider that other theoryof the natural
philosophers,that all otherearthlyhues ... are but subtiledeceits,not
actuallyinherentin substances,but only laid on fromwithout;so that all
deifiedNature absolutelypaints like the harlot,whose allurementscover
nothingbut the charnel-housewithin;and when we proceed further,
and
considerthatthemysticalcosmeticwhichproduceseveryone ofherhues,the
greatprincipleof light,forever remainswhiteor colorlessin itself,and if
operatingwithoutmediumupon matter,wouldtouchall objects,eventulips
and roses,withits own blank tinge-ponderingall this,thepalsieduniverse
lies beforeus a leper;and likewilfultravellers
in Lapland,whorefuseto wear
colored and coloringglasses upon theireyes,so the wretchedinfidelgazes
himselfblind at the monumentalwhiteshroudthat wraps all the prospect
around him. And of all these thingsthe Albino whale was the symbol.
Wonderye thenat thefieryhunt?"(pp. 193-94).
Melville knowsthat thereis a terribleironyat workhere.The external
worldappearsto be a void,butifall thevariousappearancesofthatworldare
onlyprojectionsof the self,thenthe real void is withinthe self.And if,for
Ishmael, Moby Dick has come to symbolizethispredicament,
thenthe attemptto huntdown the whale and kill it is a quest thatmustultimately
be
self-destructive.
Realizingthis,we understand
theironicsignificance
of what
Ishmaeltellsus ofhimselfat thebeginningofthenovel.He saysthatwhenhe
grows"grimaboutthemouth,"whenitis "a damp,drizzlyNovember"in his

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soul, whenthe "hypos" gettheupperhand,he goes to sea: "This is mysubstituteforpistoland ball. Witha philosophicalflourishCato throwshimself
upon his sword;I quietlytake to theship" (p. 1). Ishmael'svoyage,then,is
intendedto be an alternative
to self-destruction.
In a sense,itis becauseAhab
acts outso completely
theself-destructive
potentialin IshmaelthatIshmaelis
freedofhavingto act itout forhimselfand thusescapesto tellthestory.
The qualitiesattributed
to Moby Dick inthenovelare simplytheprojected
attributes
of his pursuersand, in particular,thechiefof hispursuers-Ahab.
Moby Dick is representedas a malign deitybecause Ahab who does the
representing
is, as Ishmaelsays,"an ungodly,god-likeman." Because ofthe
essentialindefiniteness
of the whitewhale,Ahab "shadows forth"his own
dark selfon Moby Dick. The whale'sintelligent
is Ahab's own,the
malignity
whale'subiquityis buttheself'sownsensethat,look whereitwill,itsees only
some aspect of itself.Ahab's sense of the self's inescapablepresenceis apparentin the chaptercalled "The Doubloon" where,examiningthe coin
nailedto themast,he interprets
itshieroglyphic
markings-threemountains,
one bearing a flame,one a tower and one a crowingcock-as personal
emblems:"The firmtower,thatis Ahab; thevolcano,thatis Ahab; thecourageous,the undaunted,and victoriousfowl,that,too, is Ahab; all are Ahab;
and thisroundgold is but theimage of therounderglobe,which,likea magician'sglass,to each and everyman in turnbut mirrorsback his ownmysteriousself" (p. 428). As an illustration
ofthisremark,therestofthechapter
is a studyin multipleperspectivism.
Starbuck,Stubb,Flask, theManxman,
Queequeg, Fedallah and Pip successivelyapproachthe coin and findin its
designan embodimentof theirown subjectivestates.Havinginterpreted
the
zodiac aroundthe coin's edge as a symbolof thestagesin man's life,Stubb
Afteroverhearing
stepsaside to observetheotherinterpreters.
thecomments
of the Manxman,Stubb says, "There's anotherrendering
now; butstillone
text.All sorts of men in one kind of world,you see" (p. 431). And when
Queequeg approaches,Stubb remarksthat his tattooingmakes him look
"like thesignsof theZodiac himself"(p. 431). The processofinterpretation
has come full circle, for when the tattooed Queequeg stands beforethe
emblematiccoin, thehieroglyphic
subjectconfronts
thehieroglyphic
object.
And finallywe understandthatthe hieroglyph
of the worldis doublyundein itself,and in its veryindefiniteness
it allowsthe
cipherable.It is indefinite
individualsubjectto projecton it thestructure
of a selfas undecipherable
as
the world.The wholeprocessis circularand maddening.So Ahab says that
theroundcoinis an imageoftheroundglobewhichlikea mirrorreflects
each
man's mysteriousself. It is a commonplacethat the image of the circle
dominatesMoby-Dick,and certainlyit is thatimagewhich,forMelville,unthe hieroglyph,
derliesthe wholeprocessof interpreting
yetnot in the same
way that this was true for Emerson and Thoreau. When Emerson and

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TheSymbolof theHieroglyphics

125

world,they
Thoreau penetratedthe outer complexityof the hieroglyphic
form-the
of naturalformsa singleunifying
foundbeneathits multiplicity
circleor Platonic sphere,the basic shape that God gave to the world.For
themthecirclewas an image of unity,harmonyand hope. But forMelville
one. It is the
oftheworldis a different
thecirclethatgovernsthehieroglyph
knowingprocessin whichmanprojectstheself's
of a self-enclosed
circularity
groundand thenreads it back. For
personalstructureon an indeterminate
Melvillethe circleis an image of terror-an image of the prisonof the self
and ofendless,meaninglessrepetition.
ofthethawingsand bank in Walden,Thoreau
At theend ofhisdescription
exclaims,"The Maker of thisearthbut patenteda leaf.What Champollion
forus, that we may turnover a new leaf at
will decipherthishieroglyphic
last?" As we pointedout earlier,it is a rhetoricalquestion,forThoreau has
leaf,and the styleof life
himselfjust finisheddecipheringthishieroglyphic
thathe describesin Waldenis meantto showhis readershow theycan turn
over a new leaf in theirown lives. At the end of the chapterin whichhe
markingson the whale's foreheadand associates
describesthe hieroglyphic
themwiththe markingson Ahab's brow,Melvilleexclaims,"Champollion
But thereis no Champollion
decipheredthe wrinkledgranitehieroglyphics.
to decipherthe Egyptof everyman's and everybeing'sface. Physiognomy,
like everyotherhumanscience,is but a passingfable. If then,Sir William
Jones,who read in thirtylanguages,could not read the simplestpeasant's
face in its profounderand more subtlemeanings,how may unletteredIshmael hope to read the awfulChaldee of theSpermWhale's brow?I putthat
browbeforeyou. Read it if you can" (p. 345). And he adds, "If the Sperm
a Sphinx,to the phrenologisthis brain seems
Whale be physiognomically
it is impossibleto square" (p. 346). We need
which
that geometricalcircle
to
onlyrecallthattheanswer theSphinx'sriddlewas man.
If it is truethattheliteraryworksoftheAmericanRenaissanceare thebethatself-consciously
in America,a literature
ginningofa symbolistliterature
theme,then,to judge from
itscontinuing
makestheprocessof symbolization
eventsthat focusedthe atthe worksthemselves,one of the contemporary
tentionof Americanwriterson thelinguisticaspectsof thesymbolicprocess
Moreover,the dewas Champollion'sdeciphermentof the hieroglyphics.
providedthese Americanwriterswith a
ciphermentof the hieroglyphics
metaphorwhichtheycould use to examine the symbolicprocess froma
variety of viewpoints. In decipheringthe hieroglyphicsChampollion
into
whathad been a symbolof the divineand the mysterious
transformed
somethinghuman and conventional;he discoveredthat the hieroglyphics
werenotemblematicbutphonetic,thatas signstheystoodnotfornaturalobwas notnecessarybut
jects but forhumansoundsand thustheirsignificance
arbitrary.So much of what Champolliondiscoveredabout the supposedly

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simple,necessary,pictographicworldof the hieroglyphs


tallied withwhat
men in otherfieldswerediscoveringabout theirown traditionalpicturesof
theworld.And to some AmericanwriterslikeHawthorneand Melvilleithad
in writtenlanguagewas not
occurredthatthe relationof signto significant
in theexternalworldbutratherthat
merelya copyof symbolicrelationships
theserelationships
wereinherent
in themind'sorderingoftheworldthrough
languageand as suchwerelinguistically
imposedon theworld.I submitthat
in tracingthe influenceof Champollion'sdecipherment
of thehieroglyphics
on these 19thcenturyAmericanwriters,we findourselvessuddenlyat that
pointin intellectualhistorywhenquestionsthathad once been consideredto
be metaphysicaland that were transformedduring the 17th and 18th
centuriesintoepistemological
questionsare in theprocessofbecoming,inthe
worksof a writerlike Melville,linguisticquestions-not questionsof what
reallyis, norhowdo we knowwhatreallyis, butratherhowin our knowable
modeloftheworlddoes our languagecreatewhatreallyis. In thisregardlet
me pointout threefactsabout Moby-Dick. First,the book beginswithan
etymologicalsectionin whichMelvilletracestheoriginsof theEnglishword
"whale" and thengivesus thewordfor"whale" in thirteen
otherlanguages,
two of whichhe invents.Second, he providesus witha collectionof 79 extractsfromworldliteraturerangingfromtheBook of Genesisto Nantucket
folksongsthroughwhichthehistoryofthewhaleas a verbalentityis evoked.
And finally,in the chapter called "Cetology" where he attempts a
"systematizedexhibitionof thewhalein hisbroadgenera,"nothingless than
"the classificationof the constituents
of a chaos" (p. 129), Melvilleorders
thischaos by arrangingthewhalesaccordingto theirsizes,and theordering
metaphorthathe presentsforthisarrangement
is the sizes of books. Thus,
thereare threemajordivisionsofwhales-folio, octavoand duodecimo-and
the subdivisionsrange fromchapterone of the folio(the spermwhale) to
chapterthreeof the duodecimo(the mealymouthed
porpoise).As indicated
by the book metaphor,the orderimposedon the worldof whales is a linguisticorder.Melvilleremarksthatin thischapterit is chieflywithnames
thathe has to do and thatwherever
thecommonnameofa whale"happensto
be vague or inexpressive"(p. 138) he suggestsanother.It is onlyfitting
that
the name of Melville'sbook is the name of thewhalecreatedby thebook's
language,and more fittingstillthatthe book's chiefcharacter,in hunting
downthatwhale,is seekingto confront
theultimatereality,forwhatMelville
impliesat everyturnin his novelis thatforman the~ultimaterealityis language.

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