Nathanial Hawthorne, Henry Miller, and the “Unpardonable Sin” (and Red Dog)

Back in college, my English professor, at the end of class, said to us, “Your homework assignment is to think about what is the ‘unpardonable sin,’ the one sin that even God won’t forgive.”

Heavy stuff.

So, like a good college kid, I went back to my dorm, played video games, listened to Oasis’s “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory,” and pounded six Red Dogs.

In college we called him Natty Haw'
In college we called him Natty Haw’

The next class I got my answer and it came from an unlikely source: my main man Nathaniel Hawthorne!

But before I tell you what, precisely, the “unpardonable sin” is — we need you to keep reading, after all – some context is first in order. Here’s an excerpt from “Hawthorne and the Unpardonable Sin” by Sheila Dwight:

The Christian concept of the “unpardonable sin” stems from a warning the New Testament given by the apostles Matthew, Mark, and Luke, that those who sin against the Holy Ghost will not be forgiven either in this world or the next.

Theologians throughout the ages had their own various interpretations on the meaning of the unpardonable sin, but it was not until the advent of the Puritans with their emphasis upon the Scriptures that ordinary individuals began to concern themselves about the great transgression.

[However] the laity, along with the theologians, were not quite sure just what the sin entailed. It was interpreted variously as pride, rejection of the Word of God, despair of salvation, etc. Hawthorne, always fascinated by the problematical nature of evil, was deeply intrigued by the concept of such a thing as an unpardonable sin…

Ultimately, most critics feel that Hawthorne believed the unpardonable sin to be a “separation of the intellect from the heart,” also phrased as the “deliberate destruction of the Spirit of God in Man.”

More practically, the unpardonable sin is “. . . divorcing one’s head from one’s heart and oneself from humanity.” That’s what my professor, in essence taught me, and the latter piece — detaching one’s self from humanity, leaving behind your fellow man — is what we’d like to briefly look at today, particularly within the context of Miller’s life and work.Unknown-Henry-Miller-9781611458992

Detaching one’s self from humanity isn’t a novel (pun intended) idea. It’s “no man is an island” re-worded. And the concept is littered across both Eastern and Western thought. But what happens when someone — a seeker, an artist, a painter, a writer — does precisely that to find a higher truth? What happens when they turn their back on humanity — and we’ve all had the urge — to instead focus on self-purification, self-examination, and self-searching, etc?

Is that an unpardonable sin??

Or to look at it the other way, what if everyone chose that path? Who’d drive the city buses? Who’d harvest the wheat? Who’d mass-produce Red Dog?

34100675097When framed through that lens, the tendency to detach one’s self from humanity does come across as self-centered, narcissistic, and, while perhaps not unpardonable, socially disruptive.

This struggle — the juxtaposition between intense self-examination versus engagement with the wider world — is evident throughout Miller’s work and it jumps off the pages in Arthur Hoyle’s riveting book, The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur, which I was recently reading and while examines Miller’s Big Sur years.

In it we see the tension between Miller’s misanthropy versus his unbridled exuberance. Miller the crank vs. Miller the effusive romantic. Miller, the man holed up on Partington Ridge in Big Sur, removed from the world, walking two miles a day to the post office, typing away in relative solitude versus Miller European, cosmopolitan, jazz-loving omnivore.

Not going to Hell: Miller in Big Sur
Not going to Hell: Miller in Big Sur

Fortunately, Hawthorne give us some wriggle room. “Leaving behind your fellow man,” after all, is a relative concept. Miller, high up on his ridge in Big Sur, was nonetheless devouring letters and communicating with fans and friends around the world. He hung out and talked deep into the night with his neighbors. He raised a family.

Now let’s turn 20 miles south down Highway One to the New Camaldoli Hermitage, populated by devout monks, who, on the other hand, are even more isolated, holed up, geographically removed, and completely detached from humanity and their fellow man.

Ultimately, we can step back and, armed with this analysis and relative interpretation of Hawthorne’s theory, we can make a highly theological-informed argument that, for all his transgressions, Hawthrone’s Puritan God forgives Miller.

It’s the monks, on the other hand, who are the ones who need to worry.

What a concept!

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