Summer of the Black Veil: Summer Chronicles 2020 #2

by on June 29, 2020 · 0 comments

in Health, Under the Perfect Sun

By Jim Miller

It’s the summer of the black veil, and a good number of us are none-too-happy about it.  While many understand it as a reasonable public health mandate that serves to protect others, and, in fact, makes it possible for us to be more in the world during a pandemic with less fear of doing potential harm, others see it as an instrument of oppression.  Of course, the obvious explanation for this response is the facile politicization of masks in the service of Trumpism, but could there be something deeper going on as well?

If we go back to the 1917 flu pandemic, we know that anti-mask politics in the service of “freedom” were evident then even as many more people died than have at present, so there is a precedent for the current derangement.  But perhaps, at another level, the fear of the mask speaks to a profound American aversion to any sort of emblem of isolation.

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil,” we are presented with the tale of Parson Hooper who suddenly appears one day in his solid Puritan town sporting a black veil comprised of “two folds of crape,” which almost entirely conceal his features.  As the story proceeds, we learn that the Minister’s gloomy shade unsettles not just his flock but the entire community.  The once beloved preacher scares young children, unnerves his townspeople, grimly influences politics, and creates an ongoing scandal.

Indeed, the only people who want to see Parson Hooper are dying sinners who find him a suitable person to confess to.  Hooper himself shudders at his visage in the mirror and forces even his future wife to abandon him. After she begs him to remove the veil, he explains, “I, perhaps, like most other mortals, have sorrows dark enough to be typified by a black veil.” And with that, the good reverend loses the last person who truly loves him.

Nevertheless, he persists.

As the story concludes, it is now Parson Hooper’s time to meet his maker and, despite the desperate pleading of those at his bedside, he steadfastly refuses to relent and exclaims:

“Why do you tremble at me alone?” cried he, turning his veiled face round the circle of pale spectators. “Tremble also at each other! Have men avoided me, and women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled, only for my black veil? What, but the mystery which it obscurely typifies, has made this piece of crape so awful? When the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend; the lover to his best beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin; then deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I have lived, and die! I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!”

Hawthorne had a contemporary inspiration for his story, an incident in which a Maine clergyman wore a black veil for the rest of his life after he accidentally killed a beloved friend.  Of course, as with all of his stories, “The Minister’s Black Veil” was not a simple retelling of this history but an allegorical tale that speaks to the fundamental loneliness of human lives.

Perhaps, this particular example of what Hawthorne called his “blasted allegories” is one that reaches across time to remind us that the single thing that Americans have been loath to recognize from the beginning is how our vaunted individualism, which has been thoroughly radicalized over the centuries, ultimately builds walls between us, and though we love to celebrate our distinct individuality, the truth of our existential loneliness is something we deeply fear.

So today, in a time of deep uncertainty, with the specter of our mortality haunting us in a way most of us have never experienced, the symbol of our separation from each other is simply too much for some of us to face.  Can it really be that we have always been destined to live and die alone, our truest selves hidden even from those we love?  We leave our houses for our summer of fun and lo!, on every visage, a black veil!  Perhaps the mask is a mirror that some of us just can’t bear to look into for too long.  It mocks our feeble pretensions that we are standing on solid ground, that there has ever even been anything solid we can count on in the end.  Hence the heedless, irrational fury of the opposition to a simple piece of cloth.

Ah Parson Hooper!  Ah humanity!


In the summer of 1967, the great Brazilian writer, Clarice Lispector, began a seven-year stint as a writer for Jornal de Brasil (The Brazilian News) not as a reporter but as a writer of “chronicles,” a genre peculiar to Brazil.  As Giovanni Pontiero puts it in the preface to Selected Chrônicas, a chronicle, “allows poets and writers to address a wider readership on a vast range of topics and themes.  The general tone is one of greater freedom and intimacy than one finds in comparable articles or columns in the European or U.S. Press.”

What Lispector left us with is an eccentric collection of “aphorisms, diary entries, reminiscences, travel notes, interviews, serialized stories, essays, loosely defined as chronicles.”  As a novelist, Pontiero tells us, Lispector was anxious about her relationship with the genre, apprehensive of writing too much and too often, of, as she put it, “contaminating the word.”  It was a genre alien to her introspective nature and one that challenged her to adapt.

More than forty years later, in Southern California—in San Diego no less—I look to Lispector with sufficient humility and irony from my place on the far margins of literary history with three novels and a few other books largely set in our minor league corner of the universe.  Along with this weekly column, it’s not much compared to the gravitas of someone like Lispector.  So, as Allen Ginsberg once said of Whitman, “I touch your book and feel absurd.”

Nonetheless the urge to narrate persists. Along with Lispector, I am cursed with it–for better or worse. So, for a few lazy weeks of summer I will, as I have for a few years now, try my hand at the form.

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