Nathaniel Hawthorne’s final novel was the ”The Marble Faun” and was inspired and strung together from his notebook that he kept in Rome. The intensity of the subject matter and its interplay between the Jewish and Christian themes within a dominant Roman Catholic culture was inherently explosive; material that surpassed the context of his own somewhat provincial Puritan American vantage point and almost seemed to possess him by assuming a life of its own.
Hawthorne hammed the material together as best he could, since all the strands and threads could not be neatly knit into a known form, that would bear some semblance to convention and popular taste. Like many writers he came to seek inspiration in Rome to fill a creative void, or at the least to find some reference points that would link this ancient capital of the world , this dead city and fallen great empire to his work that ultimately defined the great American archetypes he had developed particularly in ”The Confidence Man” and the notion of constant reinvention of identity that pulses through the American consciousness. And with it all the concomitant behavioral issues in these ”untrustworthy narrators”, the tricksters, charlatans and at a deeper level the wandering nomadic spirits, both fleeing a past and arriving at an uncertain future.
Hit literary creation of ”Miriam” was ostensibly based on the marble statue the ”Faun of Praxiteles” which comes to life and is inadaptable in the modern context, with the twist that it can assume or inhabit the physical body of women as well. Miriam is a composite; a secretive identity whose Jewish identity is gradually revealed illustrating a rash of contradictions that are too explosive to be held in check by a conversion to Christianity she had undergone. There are forces within her that articulate a deep and colored history, as she represents a modern manifestation of the Biblical heroines of the Bible; a mixture of feminist warrior, court Jewess, intellectual, and part time stereotypical girl next door. Its a shadowy background; her father is a mysterious banker in Italy and her mother is presumed and assumed to have died soon after Miriam’s birth, but its all wispy and vague ; robust sensuality, passion , violence and guilt in an uneasy alliance.
At the end of the romance, her dearest friends seem finally to have seen a part of her secret life, fragments of which were there from the very beginning. Early on, “suggesting a “certain rich Oriental character in her face” , Hawthorne hints that Miriam is Jewish. Significantly, though, she is not described physically until several chapters later when she shows Donatello her self-portrait as Rachael amid the other drawings of Old Testament Jewish heroines-Jael and Judith-who used their beauty and sexuality to attract and assassinate Jewish oppressors.
All this confirms Hawthorne’s contention “that woman must strike through her own heart to reach a human life, whatever the motive that impelled her” . He illustrates this pronouncement with another of Miriam’s sketches, that of Salome receiving the head of John the Baptist, undermining the heroic, patriotic actions of Jael and Judith through an allusion to the New Testament’s dancing temptress. Salome’s infamous actions reflect the Christian paradigm of feminine evil-the use of sexuality and the lust it provoked in Herod to behead the Baptist-the progenitor of the Catholic practice of conversion itself.
It seems a given that Hawthorne had unresolved issues with women he was trying to deal with, and their is a certain element of fear projection, but beyond the anxiety and apprehensiveness were tangible points of departure in this dialectic between America as New Jerusalem competing for the throne with the New Babylon, or to some a new Babylonian exile.
What Judith, Jael, and Salome have in common is that they are Jewish women who seem fearless in using their sexuality for political ends. Disturbingly for Hawthorne, They are all, even Salome, heroines of the Jewish cause, that he can’t seem to frame within a theological Christian framework. They seem to slip through the cracks in the liturgy dragging already saved souls and fragile identities along with them. For Hawthorne, though, they violate “the idea of woman, acting the part of a revengeful mischief towards man” , also expressed in Miriam’s art through her drawings of “domestic and common scenes” , signifying the proper realm of women serving as lovers, brides, and mothers. In each, Miriam’s figure is seen peeping out in the background “with an expression of deep sadness” , longing, we might imagine, for the domestic bliss evoked symbolically in her portrait of Rachael, wooed by Jacob and destined to become the quintessential Jewish wife/mother of the Old Testament, whose male offspring will lead a nation of people.
But first things first. its a treasure hunt for these Indiana Jones’s to find the Ark of the Covenant and the Menorah of the Temple believed to be still held in Rome, and whose discovery is held to inaugurate the retu
f the Messiah; at which time both the weary and the wicked can rest and put an end to a duality of character. When the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 A.D., they took huge amounts of booty home. Legend has it that religious articles from the Temple, including the menorah, were among them.Vatican officials have always denied the menorah was there, claiming it was melted down for gold or tossed into into Tiber.
Furthermore, Miriam projects her own features into her portrait of Rachael, offering Hawthorne his first opportunity to unveil Miriam’s “Jewish aspect”: “if she were really of Jewish blood, then this was Jewish hair, and a dark glory such as crowns no Christian maiden’s head” . In her art, Miriam offers overt signs of a suppressed and restless, Jewish identity that remains in spite of Catholic conversion.She is the wandering Jewess. Hawthorne still wonders if Miriam “might ripen to be what Judith was, when she vanquished Holofernes with her beauty, and slew him for too much adoring it.”
Miriam as character, by design or by accidental coincidence on Hawthorne’s part, is pursuing the restoration of the menorah and other holy vessels, as an act to rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem “And thou shalt make a menorah of pure gold, of beaten work shall the menorah be made: shaft and branches, bowls, its knops and its flowers shall be of the same.” This menorah or candle-stick (candelabrum) was one of the principle ritual objects of the Holy Tabernacle (Exodus 25:31). Moshe (Moses) had great difficulty in making it and, according to the sages, a candelabrum of fire that descended from the heavens, was the pattern which Moshe imitated. This seven-branched candelabrum was first lit in the desert tabernacle of Moshe. Later, it was transferred to the temple at Shiloh, after the conquest of Canaan by Joshua.
In June 23, 1858, while Hawthorne was arriving in Florence from Rome and preparing to complete his final romance, The Marble Faun, the Papal military stormed into the Bologna home of Momolo and Marianne Mortara, seizing one of their children, Edgardo, then six years old, and forcing the boy into confinement at the Casa Dei Catecumeni (The House of Catechumens) in Rome. The child’s only “crime” was that he was a Jew who had been secretly baptized by the family’s teenage Italian servant, Anne Morisis, when Edgardo was an infant, ill with a supposedly life-threatening disease. Believing that she was saving the child’s innocent soul, and no doubt influenced by the Church’s promise of millenarian rewards for her actions, Morisis had baptized Edgardo, performing a quick, simple ritual that all Jewish families knew to fear in theocratic Italy. Years later, when she revealed her action, Church authorities acted swiftly and decisively, as they had for nearly three centuries, to secure all Jewish converts. Baptism effected immediate conversion: Edgardo had to be removed from the Jewish community to live among the Catholic faithful. In spite of enormous international pressure on the Papacy and the subsequent decline of the Papal States in 1870, Edgardo was never returned to his parents; under the intense, personal supervision of Pope Pius IX himself, he eventually became a priest.
This incident seem to give a sense to the base of Hawthorne’s novel. In his own manner to look at the Jewish Question, by running Miriam through the paces of being hunted in a strange hostile land. Protestant America and Britain could deal with their own version of the problem in a more hypocritiacal detached manner, though at heart harbored the same sentiments as the Vatican though the means they advocated were less crude and grotesque.
”Nevertheless, in 1858, Edgardo’s much publicized abduction and forced conversion exploded into a cause celebre in England, France, and America, fueling public and political protests against the Pope, who seemed confident in his theocratic powers to act in ways that appeared regressively despotic to modern liberal Europe. Protestant England could boast of its enlightened tolerance of its Jews, while actively promoting their Protestant conversion through prominent, private organizations, such as the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews, where the enticements of economic and civil rights, rather than theocratic, police-enforced mandates, would work to solve “the Jewish question.” Protestant conversion of the English Jews reflected the interests of patriotic nationalism, while forced Catholic conversion reflected the grisly, anachronistic practices of the Inquisition, still a palpable threat to the civil and religious liberties of both Jew and Protestant, and, in the Mortara case, a danger to the familial foundation of society. If the Church could violate the principle of family integrity, in obvious contradiction to its own religious teachings, who or what was safe under the totalitarian grasp of the Papal States?”
American Protestant reaction to the Mortara incident was predictably hostile to the Papacy. However, the nature of the rhetoric surrounding accounts of the incident does not suggest pro-Jewish sentiments at all, but rather an inclination to use stories of Jewish persecution as texts for anti-Catholic attacks. On the other hand, Catholics, especially newly arriving Irish immigrants, were viewed with suspicion that their true allegiances resided in Rome and not America, and that Rome’s main intention was to convert Americans to the true faith. While Jews might be viewed as harmless victims, Catholics were a palpable danger.
The connection between Miriam’s Jewishness itself raises possible explanations of her hidden motives and unexplained behavior in a story where full disclosure is blatantly resisted. Miriam moves at the center of the novel, determining most of the action of its characters, including Hilda’s abduction and subsequent release. At the center of Miriam’s characterization lies one of the greatest mysteries in Hawthorne’s fiction. David S. Reynolds has called her a ”likable criminal”. Someone pleasant but inhabited with a larceny of the heart and a morality that is both ambiguous and elastic.
The question of “her crime” repeatedly arises only to be silenced by authorial fears of disclosure-as if the novel itself is subject to inquisitorial intrusions by Church authorities, who listen everywhere and anywhere for traitorous confessions, even in fictions. Ironically, in the end, Hilda and Kenyon can only meet with the author at the top of Saint Peter’s to “utter, here, the secrets which it would be perilous even to whisper on lower earth” -perilous, of course, to them because of their association with Miriam.
Much of the narrative of The Marble Faun records Miriam’s attempts to control events, acting always with what Hawthorne terms “the fitful and fantastic imagination of a Woman . Desperation originates in the direr consequences of her walking the thin line of a converted Jew in “despotic Rome.” However, her sportive nature surfaces in the symbolic re-enactment of her perilous, religious history, and in the way in which she directs each of her friends into roles expressive of her own shifting self-portrayal. She tells her story as a converted Jew symbolically through her suggestive art, her mysterious comments, and her mysterious behavior.If, at the end of The Marble Faun, Kenyon and Hilda regard Miriam with emotional distance, they do so with the realization that they have been touched by a mysterious hand, untainted itself by “a crimson stain” . As Kenyon tells our narrator: “But, after all, her crime lay merely in a glance; she did no murder” . She is both sympathetically and dangerously attractive since the other characters are unable to penetrate her deeper motivations, though to Hawthorne the threat of a dead nation os Israel arising and perhaps enveloping the other faiths is cause for concern; as if her actions are mysteriously directed by the spirits of the Biblical matriarchs.
Legends abound concerning the fate of the menorah. Some say that the Prophet Jeremiah took the temple vessels with him to the desert, where an angel hid them on top of a high mountain. The Maccabees, who purified the Temple after defeating the Greeks, could not find the gold menorah and they prepared a temporary iron one which they covered in white paint. It was the menorah about which the famous story of Hanukkah is told, of the oil, which was supposed to suffice for only one day, and miraculously lasted for eight days. Later, they built a new golden menorah. Following the destruction of the Temple, all of its holy vessels were looted and taken to Rome. The Romans held a triumphal procession in which they carried the booty from the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem through the streets of Rome. Among the items were the golden altar and the menorah. The Emperor Vespasian ordered that these be guarded especially carefully. The procession was subsequently immortalised on the Arch of Titus in Rome.
According to a later theory, the treasures were kept in the monastery in Jerusalem’s Valley of the Cross. In 796, the monks in this monastery were butchered by the Moslem conquerors. There was no trace of the treasure. If that theory can be believed, then maybe the menorah and the other holy vessels are still buried in the soil of Jerusalem. But somehow, Miriam, like many others, believe in the axiom that ”all roads lead to Rome”.