Nathaniel Hawthorne on How to Look and Really See

“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 vanishes because whenever we look, we see not as reality is but as we are. 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.

A lovely recipe for how to see the world more clearly comes from 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. When Thoreau looked at nature, he saw only metaphor and parable; when Hawthorne looked, he saw nature on its own terms, letting it mirror back the fractal of itself that is human nature as the light of unfiltered awareness fell on it. In that respect, he was more a Buddhist than a Transcendentalist, more a scientist than a novelist, and always a poet of reality.

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):

The best way to get a vivid impression and feeling of a landscape, is to sit down before it and read, or become otherwise absorbed in thought; for then, when your eyes happen to be attracted to the landscape, you seem to catch Nature unawares, and see her before she has time to change her aspect. The effect lasts but for a single instant, and passes away almost as soon as you are conscious of it; but it is real, for that moment. It is as if you could overhear and understand what the trees are whispering to one another; as if you caught a glimpse of a face unveiled, which veils itself from every willful glance. The mystery is revealed, and after a breath or two, becomes just as great a mystery as before.

Nebular by Maria Popova. (Available as a print, benefitting 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.