I am a huge fan of breaking binaries. I think this comes to no surprise when taking into account that my interests lie primarily in areas that refuse to be categorized as either X or Y: young adult fiction, graphic novels, queerness, and digital humanities, among others. Perhaps this is why I got awfully excited when encountering Bruno Latour’s work titled We Have Never Been Modern last semester, because in essence, it strives to highlight the fact that the binaries imposed by the advent of modernity fail to endure within a world based on hybridity.
An example of this notion is the supposed division between human and machine: although culture teaches us that there is an obvious separation between organic/sentient human beings and the synthetic machine, note that there are instances in which both categories merge—thus, the distinction between what’s human and what’s a machine becomes increasingly difficult to discern. Touchscreens, for instance, depend on an organic touch. Amputees are experimenting with mechanic and bionic prosthetic limbs. The computer has even shifted the way we manage and process information (after all, why bother remembering when Google can do all the heavy work for you?).
With this in mind, when reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, I was quite struck and captivated with the eponymous statue depicted within the novel’s title. The novel makes specific reference to Praxiteles’ Resting Satyr, a sculpture that portrays a representation of the Greek human/animal hybrid, albeit one that tends to lean more towards the human side of the spectrum. In other words, the subject of Praxiteles’ sculpture does not represent a traditional satyr with a body that is half goat and half human, but rather, it portrays a nude man with pointed ears, wild hair, and a pelt made with a feline skin draping over his chest (see the image above). I thought it was particularly interesting that Hawthorne’s novel puts so much emphasis on the sense of hybridity that the faun embraces. For instance, when the artists—the main characters of the novel—first approach the marble faun, Kenyon remarks on the beauty of the statue in a fashion that verges on the realm of idolatry:
“Nature needed, and still needs, this beautiful creature; standing betwixt man and animal, sympathizing with each, comprehending the speech of either race, and interpreting the whole existence of one to the other. What a pity that he has forever vanished from the hard and dusty paths of life—unless,” added the sculptor, in a sportive whisper, “Donatello be actually he!” (Hawthorne 6)
Notice that the faun inspires awe and admiration not only because it is aesthetically impressive, but also because it embraces a moralistic and thematic idealism that Kenyon in particular is drawn to. The faun refuses to be categorized either as human or animal, and he is depicted as arbitrator between the social and the natural world. However, by pointing out that the figure of the faun has vanished from the social sphere, there is an implication that humans have lost the ability to bridge the opposing spectrums of humanity and naturalism. Kenyon proceeds to draw parallels between the marble faun and Donatello, seeing as the latter’s sense of innocence and naiveté give him an aura of purity that has yet to be tainted by the stain of human experience.
It does not take a genius to realize that Donatello is indeed the organic parallel to the marble faun. Yes, Donatello is explicitly referred to as a faun, particularly during the final chapter of the novel, in which Kenyon refers to him as “our poor Faun” (Hawthorne 291). But the parallels between Donatello and the mythical creature are deeper than we may initially deem. First and foremost, Miriam, one of Donatello’s fellow artists, makes no effort to hide the fact that she considers him to be dimwitted, naïve, and innocent. She even goes as far as to approach Donatello as an animal rather than a human being: “What a child, or what a simpleton, he is! I continually find myself treating Donatello as if he were the merest unfledged chicken” (Hawthorne 7). By approaching Donatello as an animal, he is being attributed a sense of hybridity similar to the one that the faun is known for embracing.
Donatello’s presumed innocence also depicts him as a blank canvas, to some extent. In this case, he is assumed to be no different from Praxiteles’ statue, in the sense that he deemed incapable of embracing darkness. As Miriam posits while scrutinizing the statue: “I suppose the Faun had no conscience, no remorse, no burden on the heart, no troublesome recollections of any sort; no dark future, either” (Hawthorne 6). However, it is obvious that the marble faun isn’t capable of human faculties because it is a non-living entity, which adds to the notion that Donatello isn’t a human in the traditional sense. The statue is free from darkness in both a figurative and a literal sense. It is incapable of suffering moral blemishes and it is also pristine and alabaster—free from markers of color. Note that this absence of color is also used to indicate neutrality in other 19th century American texts such as Melville’s Moby Dick, in which the whiteness of the whale reinforces its epistemological and ideological impartiality while also giving it a sense of visual salience.
I was personally drawn to the idea of Donatello/the faun as a non-modern symbol of the linkage between the natural world and the human world, but I also found it troubling that the only way to maintain a connection between these two worlds was through the embrace of innocence. Incorruptibility is paradoxical to humanity. Thus, if Donatello is the only person we encounter who has reached the age of twenty and still maintains the innocence of a child, and if he seems to be the last remaining member of “race” that has vanished, he certainly has a lot of weight on his shoulders. This, however, is what makes Donatello’s transformation in the novel’s climax so unexpected and slightly heartbreaking. He pushes the Model into the abyss, and this victim not only falls into a dark void of nothingness, but during his fall, he completely shatters the bridges of purity that were keeping the realm of the natural and the human associated.
Through the act of murder, Donatello is no longer a blank marble statue, but rather, he now carries the burden of guilt and experience—his being, or soul, is now daubed in scarlet. Donatello ostensibly comes of age with this murder, and this psychological transition into an “adult” realm carries both benefits and responsibilities. Note that this this transition is made quite vivid and overt in the novel, as evidenced by Miriam’s denotation of Donatello after his heinous deed:
She clasped her hands, and looked wildly at the young man, whose form seemed to have dilated, and whose eyes blazed with the fierce energy that had suddenly inspired him. It had kindled him into a man; it had developed within him an intelligence which was no native characteristic of the Donatello whom we have heretofore known. But that simple and joyous creature was gone forever. (Hawthorne 105).
Interestingly, although innocence is lost, intelligence is gained. Donatello is no longer the dimwitted creature that Miriam encounters at the beginning of the novel. Is Hawthorne approaching experience and intelligence as a rupturing force? Is he somehow implying that it is impossible to unite the estrangements that modernity has imposed upon us? Why did the last surviving unit of the symbolic race of fauns have to sacrifice itself? Furthermore, bear in mind that Donatello developed intelligence through sin. This then leads me to question the seemingly opposing nature of intelligence/experience and innocence. Is innocence tied with stupidity? Is it even possible to possess any degree of intellect while still holding onto goodness and virtue, particularly when innocence is so valued within society? Or does intelligence suggest the donning of our own personal scarlet letters?
Notice that despite his murderous act, Donatello very well has a piece of his “divinity” intact; however, the ending of this novel was extremely confusing and polemic because the original facilitator between the natural and human world is lost within the depths of the Castle of Saint Angelo. Perhaps humanity did lead the faun into a darker future. However, as readers, we are left to wonder whether or not Donatello had “pointed ears” or not. Was Donatello ever truly a faun, or was he approached as a non-modern mediator when he clearly didn’t possess the faculties to deal with this burden? Perhaps this is an inquiry towards the possibility of remnants of hybridity present within this modern world. I am not sure, but as always, the realm of possibility is indeed tantalizing.
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Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun