Consulting Mother Doortje: An American Aesthetics and Ethics of Uncertainty, Along with Other Diachronic Watersheds in Satanstoe

Robert Daly (SUNY, University at Buffalo)

Presented at the 21ˢᵗ International James Fenimore Cooper & Susan Fenimore Cooper Conference:  Watersheds at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, September, 2017.

Originally published in  The James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal 29.2 (Whole No. 82, Fall 2018): 25-35.

Copyright © 2017, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

— Simon Weil, First and Last Notebooks    

Puzzled in love, as I have been (though I shall not, of course, presume anything about you), Guert Ten Eyck confesses haltingly to his friend Cornelius Littlepage, “I am, perhaps, the only man of my time of life, in Albany, who has not, sooner or later, consulted Mother Doortje” [“pronounced Doort-yay,” according to Cooper’s footnote (258)], a fortune-teller who can link past, present, and future, enabling her clients to add to their episodic view of their lives a more diachronic one.

As we shall see, temporality rules in this account. The effect of this literary strategy is to foreground what Wai Chee Dimock calls “temporal hybridity” (“Non-Newtonian”). Literature is not timeless and apart from our ordinary concerns. It is full of different times and places in which people have known the joys and burdens of interpretation, and these concerns unite author, character, and reader in common problems. As Dimock puts it, we read “not because” literature “is time less but because it is time ful. It is full of time” (182).

For that reason, despite our differences, some of us can sympathize with poor Guert, a young man who wishes, like Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, to be released from ambiguity, who wants “no more trouble, as it is, than to find Mary Wallace so undetermined about having me!” (258). These two friends, no longer children, not yet adults, stand on the watershed of liminality, as does the country itself.

Indeed, the country is in its adolescence, as Cooper makes quite explicit: “This period in the history of a country, may be likened to the hobbledehoy condition in ourselves, when we have lost the graces of childhood, without having attained the finished forms of men” (383). It is a time in which we must develop, sometimes quite quickly, the arts of “persuasion, reflection, and judgment” that Rodolphe Gasché argues are ancillae vitae, aids to or servants “of life, or, rather, of a certain understanding of life” (Persuasion 1). That is a watershed we can, with variations, all remember, and it links us with each other in a network of shared and remembered experience, a good source of stories, most of them comic, at least once they have been translated into narrative. [26]

The comic aspects of the scene are highlighted by Cooper, who enters his narrative with a splendidly deadpan footnote: “*Doortje — pronounced Doort-yay — means Dorothea. Mr. Littlepage uses a sort of corruption of the pronunciation. I well remember a fortune-teller of that name, in Albany, though it could not have been the Doortje of 1758. — EDITOR” (258). That goes, of course, without saying, but Cooper is being both playful and ironic. We do not know how Corny pronounces the fortune-teller’s name, only that he is wrong, a minor fallibility that becomes important, since he recognizes that he has much to learn, therefore undergoes metanoia, or self-correction, therefore avoids more major and lasting fallibilities, some of which overcome his friends and other contemporaries, like Jason Newcome. Corny learns; Jason thinks he already knows. He is quite certain that the culture of his little town in Connecticut is the best, indeed the only necessary, culture. Others need not be learned, only quickly dismissed in the drive to make all culture, not merely a pale copy of New England, but a pale copy of his home town.

Unlike Jason Newcome, Cooper is trying to save an entire, diverse, variegated culture, both the groups and the individual cases, whatever the categories to which they belong. The human community in Satanstoe is based, not on uniformity or even likeness but on contingency and character. As Giorgio Agamben puts it, in his own image of watershed in his book The Coming Community, all being of whatever kind is to be included. Of the phrase quodlibet ens (whatever being), he writes that “the term that conditions the meaning of all the others is the adjective quodlibet. The common translation of this term as ‘whatever’ in the sense of ‘it does not matter which, indifferently’ is certainly correct, but in its form the Latin says exactly the opposite: Quodlibet ens is not ‘being, it does not matter which’ but rather ‘being such that it always matters’” (2.1). In Agamben’s “coming community,” there will be many differences but no states of exception that disallow the humanity of any citizens.

Difference will be real but not exclusive: “Common and proper, genus and individual are only the two slopes dropping down from either side of the watershed of whatever (italics his).” So Cornelius Littlepage is an individual character and dramatized narrator, but he is also characteristic and representative of much larger national and ethical matters: “The being that is engendered on this line of whatever being, and the manner in which it passes from the common to the proper and from the proper to the common is called usage — or rather, ethos“ (20). In short, it’s a case not of either/or but of both/and. “Whatever being” is still Being. Both the [27] proper nouns that denote individuals and the common nouns that denote the general groups of which they are parts, are quite real and matter always already and ever after. The road to this free community is made clear later in Agamben’s argument: “the process of emancipation is as old as the invention of the arts” (48,9).

Let us explore, then, the ways in which Mother Doortje, Corny, and Cooper embrace Agamben’s coming community and what Susan Howe has called “an American aesthetic of uncertainty.” In Souls of the Labadie Tract, she both confesses and asserts: “I believed in an American aesthetic of uncertainty that could represent beauty in syllables so scarce and rushed they would appear to expand though they lay half-smothered in local history” (16).

Local history, in Cooper as in Howe, does not smother, even by half. It is the breath of life. It is what Mother Doortje knows best, and it is one real source of what she sells as prophecy. We are told that she had intelligencers in “the town, in pay, to bring her information, and that she never told anything of the past which was true, that had not been previously communicated to herself” (263). She also does what is commonly called a “cold read”: she pays close attention in the present: “Doortje’s eyes were by no means fixed, but I remarked that they wandered from person to person, like those of one who is gathering information” (263).

But if she is only a grifter, why make so much of her? Cooper acknowledges in a parabasis, a direct address to the reader that serves to lessen aesthetic distance, that “the reader may be disposed to smile” (262), but quickly adds in a footnote: “It is quite evident that Mr. Cornelius Littlepage was, to a degree at least, a believer in the Fortune-Teller’s art. This was, however, no more than common a century since.” Cooper adds that, even in his own time, people in Albany consulted “a celebrated dealer in the Black art” (263), as did the Dutch, the Germans, the English, even the sophisticated French. In the creolized culture of the time, customs and monies mix: “Each of us laid a French crown on the table” (263).

Even in more recent and ever so sophisticated times, as in ours, human beings have remained somewhat credulous: “Mademoiselle Normand existed in the present century, even in the skeptical capital of France” (264).” In a final irony, Cooper concludes the footnote with, “But, the somnambulist is taking place of the ancient soothsayer, in our own times” (264). And there are people who don’t believe in progress.

The subtext of this scene takes some reading. Before the encounter, Cornelius Littlepage (the name is metatextual) is more predisposed to [28] learn from the encounter than are Dirck Van Valkenburgh, Guert Ten Eyck, and the Reverend Mr. Worden. So he pays closer attention to details and becomes more accurate in his interpretations as the scene goes on, even as his companions become less so. His skeptical companions think they already know the truth and will not be tempted, so they pay less attention and are easily taken in. Corny, a dramatized narrator who is also a major figure, is less confident, more uncertain and alert, more aware that he could be wrong and so more inclined to self-correction. He begins the encounter with what Coleridge called the attempt “to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith” (6), and he ends it with a much more informed and accurate view than that of his companions, a view of Mother Doortje’s considerable natural abilities and a conviction that she has no supernatural abilities.

In this regard, Corny is like the artists Janet Wolff studies in The Aesthetics of Uncertainty, for whom art is not a representation of conclusions, but rather an exploration both necessitated and liberated by the absence of conclusion and the presence of ambiguity. Uncertainty links aesthetics and ethics, as Wolff argues in her afterward, “Aesthetics and Ethics in the Twenty-first Century”: “I took ethics as a model for explorations in aesthetics, on the grounds that they face similar dilemmas with regard to asserting value after critique” (137).

In Wolff, as in Cooper, critique is precisely not an assertion of superiority. It is an acknowledgement of uncertainty and an attempt less to assign value than to discover and explore it. Wolff argues that “[t]here is a double layer here, of the ethics of (in) the text and the ethical task of the critic” (140) in our recurring attempts “to consider now the ways in which works themselves mobilize questions of ethics in our multiple encounters with them” (141), as we return again and again to these earlier explorations in order to inform our current ones.

Though brighter than they, Corny is like the night watch in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing. The title is a multilayered pun, one level of which means much ado about noting, about paying attention. Where the nobles are used to being right, or at least to not being corrected, and therefore more certain, more than a little slow on the uptake, the night watch, Dogberry and Verges among them, are known to be comic idiots, compelled by circumstances and others to keep learning all the time. So they penetrate the slander that has suckered the nobles into believing evil and unlikely things about the [29] virtue of the tellingly named young woman, Hero. As early as act 4, scene 2, in lines that Cooper quotes as his epigraph to chapter 13 of Satanstoe, Dogberry reacts to Conrade’s announcement that he is a gentleman by saying, “Masters, it is proved already that you are little better than false knaves: and it will go near to being thought so shortly” (IV, ii. 22-25). Well, he’s too optimistic about its being “thought so shortly.” It takes a long while and a lot of explanation. Finally, late in act 5, scene 1, Borachio, that most accommodating of villains and most patient of teachers, has to explain the con to Don Pedro and Claudio before concluding with words that should haunt us all, “What your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light” (V.1. 238-40).

Satanstoe is similarly, at least in part, about interpretation. It offers readers a case study in how Cornelius Littlepage grows up and learns to make sense of wider worlds, other times and other places. By stating that America was, at this time, in its adolescence and still needed to grow up, it implies that its readers had, and have, much to learn from his example. Early in his narrative Corny announces, “I shall not attempt the historical mood at all,” nor “make a silly attempt to write a more silly fiction” (8). Though he does not specify a genre, I think the book can be read well as a Bildungsroman, a novel on the development of character through the acquisition of knowledge. Corny frequently acknowledges and ponders over his puzzlement, writing that Anneke Mordaunt “was regarding me with an expression of countenance that I did not then know how to interpret” (191) and later that she turned “her face toward me with an indescribable character of fun and feeling in it, as fairly to puzzle me” (192). Much later he makes a clear distinction between the young man who lived the events and the older one who now preserves their traces in his narrative: “These were the notions and sentiments of a very young man, it must be confessed, but I do not know that I ought to feel ashamed of them” (257). Ingenuous hero and dramatized narrator, he is also an audience figure, and we get better at interpreting America even as he does.

Like Howe and Wolff, he embraces an aesthetics and ethics of uncertainty: he lives in a world in which knowledge is predictive and probabilistic rather than necessary and unambiguous. As Gasché puts it: “All necessity, as it enters into public argumentation, thwarts as well the participation of the audience in the making of the argument, without which there cannot be any deliberation worthy of the name” (Persuasion 43). Corny is young and does not even pretend to know it all. In Gasché’s world, this focus on probability makes him more, rather than [30] less, persuasive: “Without applying in advance known concepts or standards to particular actions, judgment singularly discriminates between those actions that cement the public space, thus reanimating it, and those that put it in jeopardy” (Persuasion 222). Like Corny, we remain young in that we go on learning and developing our judgment as we go along. Since we interpret Cooper in his time but for the purposes of our own, that interpretation is aided by some recent ideas.

One is Galen Strawson’s complex distinction between episodic and diachronic “self experience” (190). In youth we, or at least I, tended to be rightly episodic, to have “the sense of being always just beginning” (192), without “any great or special interest in my past” or “a great deal of concern for my future” (194). As we grow older, we tend to balance that view with the diachronic, a tendency to link past, present, and future times, to think in terms of larger narratives and to recognize that “[n]arrativity always carries with it some sort of tendency to revision, where revision involves more” than merely “changing one’s view of the facts of one’s life” (202). This change is clearly not from wrong to right but rather from simple to complex, and one does not have to choose just one, either the episodic or the diachronic view. Rather one has to blend them in a complex and shifting balance.

We do so through various narratives that enable us to acquire through representation knowledge comparatively unavailable, slow, or quite costly in the simplistic and murderous school of experience, knowledge of other times, places, customs, and usages that we can use to complicate our ideas and transform our lives.

Nina Baym observes that Cooper’s work is, like the works of his contemporaries, “the product of two representational modes — a classical mode in which ‘character’ in the sense of unique individuals does not exist, and a romantic mode in which the uniqueness of the individual is the very point of the characterization” (20). He focuses less on individual experiences and individualist characters than on connected narratives and “persons as constituents of social bodies.” The marriage of Cornelius Littlepage and Anneke (Anna Cornelia) Mordaunt (whose middle name always already literarily links her to Cornelius) will produce multicultural children, what Baym calls “the incarnate ‘e pluribus unum’ of the American national seal” (27).

Kay Seymour House focuses on the uncertainty and flexibility of youth, in arguing that “Satanstoe is a young book, and the Albany Dutch are the liveliest group in Cooper’s novels” (103); that one of the book’s main themes “is the rites of passage from boyhood to manhood” (104); and that “Cooper’s narrative, beginning with the boyish escapades of [31] the two heroes, Cornelius Littlepage and Dirck Van Valkenberg, in Albany, ends with the triumphant return of Cornelius and his marriage to Anneke Mordaunt” (107). His story links English, Dutch, African, French, and American Indian cultures and past, present, and future. Corny hopes that his narrative will leave “the old to draw on their experience for its pictures, and the young to live in hope” (440). The detailed knowledge that the present is not merely a repetition of the past affords us hope that the future need not be merely a repetition of the present. He argues, in a nice allusion to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), that “something surely is worthy to be saved from the wreck of the past” (436), and what he saves is precisely the complex intermingling of usages, of customs and cultures.

Cooper is, I think, America’s first cultural comparatist. Though he is less relativist than Melville, he favors a cultural mixing that is sometimes also racial and sometimes not. Susquesus is, for example, pure Onondaga, but he leaves his tribe to live with the Mohawks, then allies with the English and Dutch Americans. Corny doubts his loyalty at first, but this is one of his youthful mistakes that he later corrects. Susquesus proves to be all the more loyal and valuable an ally for his cultural complexity and knowledge.

To go the other way, to aim for a certain, stable, single, mono-cultural purity, is profoundly deleterious. Julia Kristeva warns against the temptation to be “captivated by the mystical calls of the Volk“ (45), to give way, as many have, to a “cult of origins” (2). This cult begins with a “hatred of those others who do not share my origins” (2) and causes one to “withdraw into a sullen, warm, private world” (3) of unitary self, “family, ethnicity, nation, race” (3). Such self-centering begins with a distrust of those others, however defined, who are not just like us, and ends with a distrust of even our own capabilities. For Kristeva, such withdrawal is not inevitable. Instead, one can recognize that “the fact of belonging to a set is a matter of choice” (15-16), and one can choose several memberships and weave them into a “civic coherence” that favors “the emergence of the stoic notion of cosmopolitanism” (20). Corny narrates and Cooper explores the advantages of that notion.

In our own time Elaine Scarry argues for a causal connection between the experience of beauty and the shift of attention away from self: “At the moment we see something beautiful, we undergo a radical decentering” (111), and she quotes Iris Murdoch’s connection between aesthetics and ethics: “anything which alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism is to be connected [32] with virtue” (112). Thus begins, she argues, the development of an ethical character.

A compatibilist regarding the probabilistic determinism of nature and the degree of human free will, Aaron James argues for what he calls “adaptive attunement” as “a distinctive kind of value”: “Being adaptively attuned to a changing natural phenomenon, in part by not needing to control it, is at once a kind of freedom, self-transcendence, and happiness” (27). James argues: “You become successful as a person — ‘happy,’ or in a condition of eudaimonia, the ancient Greek term that roughly means ‘human flourishing’ — by being efficacious without undue control” (88). This efficacy without undue or complete control is both adaptive attunement and a biological adaptation that helps us to survive and thrive in a world of which we are a significant part, but only a part.

Better then to explore Jürgen Habermas’s notion of a public sphere in which two speakers can “use the same knowledge in different ways,” in which “the analysis of rationality can begin with the concepts of propositional knowledge and the objective world” (11) and go on to a theory of communicative action in which language has an extra-linguistic force. In her critique and extension of Habermas, Transnationalizing the Public Sphere, Nancy Fraser argues that “the norms in question must point beyond the present context” (149). Though she does not mention Susan Howe, the process sounds quite similar. Each begins with detailed local knowledge, then expands beyond it. But how? In Emancipation, Democracy and the Modern Critique of Law: Reconsidering Habermas, Mikael Spång supports Habermas’s ideas but doubts that they can be enacted “through the legal medium” (127), and he ends his book with that doubt and question.

One answer may be through customs, usages, representations, literature. They work for Corny, and we watch him learn what Timothy Aubry considers “the skills taught in the humanities”: “to communicate effectively, read subtle social and emotional cues, make persuasive arguments, adapt quickly to fluid environments, interpret new forms of information while translating them into compelling narrative and anticipate obstacles and opportunities before they arrive” (20).

To do that, Rita Felski argues that we need to move beyond our habitual reaction of formulaic critique and, as Heather Love puts it in her essay on Felski, “to articulate a political vision that does not rely on negativity” (369), corny as that may seem at first. Later on, it comes to be adaptive and even salvific. Love quotes Felski’s suggestion that we “make peace with the ordinariness of daily life” (31) and adds: “For [33] those who think that we should be at war with the world, and that now is not the time to give up any weapons in our arsenal, this will strike them as a capitulation. But it is the cornerstone of Felski’s realist, pragmatic criticism and the signature of her respect for a world that exceeds our knowledge of it” (369).

Corny shares that point of view and attitude. He partly anticipates Howe and our other contemporaries in their view that local history, well read, can lead to important general knowledge. As he puts it: “it must be remembered that the loftiest interests of man are made up of a collection of those that are lowly, and, that he who makes a faithful picture of only a single important scene in the events of a single life, is doing something towards painting the greatest historical piece of his day” (8). He also notes, in retrospect, the larger implications: “Without ... literature, to give us simulated pictures of our manners and the opinions of the day, I see scarcely a mode by which the next generation can preserve any memorials of the distinctive usages and thoughts of this” (7).

In 1924, I. A. Richards echoed the ancients in asserting that “the best life is that in which as much as possible of our possible personality is engaged” (Principles 271), and in 1929 he specified that we should use literature not only for its evidential value as a way of learning that certain things are so, but also as a way of learning how to think and act more skillfully, using it not as something “set apart from life” but as something that is a part of life, “a means of ordering our minds” (Practical 327). He quoted Matthew Arnold: “I know not how it is, but their commerce with the ancients appears to me to produce, in those who constantly practice it, a steadying and composing effect upon their judgment, not of literary works only, but of men and events in general.” Richards then added: “If we are neither to swim blindly in schools under the suggestion of fashion, nor to shudder into paralysis before the inconceivable complexity of existence, we must find a means of exercising our power of choice” (Practical 328).

That means was literature, for Arnold, for Richards, and for Joseph North, who built upon their work to argue in 2017 for a materialist and instrumentalist aesthetic, for “literature as a site for ethical and aesthetic education” (188), for “the power and subtlety of its attempt to cultivate our common capabilities” (169), and a way to “cultivate new, deeper forms of subjectivity and collectivity in a rigorous and repeatable way” (127). Literature combines several categories. In it, what Gasché calls “the animating faculty of the imagination” and the “facility of making connections” lead to an “aesthetic theory” that is “primarily a poetics, [34] one that is to a large extent a rhetoric.” Imagination is a “faculty of synthesis,” a “poetical faculty that fashions the faculties of the mind into a living unity” (The Idea 218) of judgment that applies to both aesthetics and ethics. That is what Corny Littlepage’s dramatized narration and Cooper’s writing offer us on the pages of Satanstoe. I say we take them up on it.

Works Cited

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