Wednesday, March 5, 2014

More Twain

Still reading the Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2. It goes down best in bite-sized chunks.

In earlier posts about both Volume 1 and Volume 2, I complained that Twain's novel method of writing his autobiography--dictating whatever stories happened to pop into his head depending on that day's news, a letter from a friend, or a long-buried memory--gave a great sense of immediacy but didn't lend itself to introspection. Reading the book feels wonderfully like sitting on the porch listening to Clemens spin yarns and gripe, but doesn't dig into what he really thought about the Great Questions. Back in March 2011, deep into Volume 1, I wrote that "Readers wanting Twain to declare his true opinions on race, religion, and so on may be disappointed. He never really tackles a big topic and says, 'Here is what I think about that and why.' Did Twain believe in God? I don't know and he doesn't say."

Well, in Volume 2 (dictations of June 1906) Twain lets God have it with both barrels.

He's got no use for the capricious fire-and-brimstone Old Testament God but, maybe surprisingly, even less regard for the gentler New Testament God, whom he considers a hypocrite who was maliciously stingy with his miracles. How good and merciful could God really be if the millions of people who'd never heard Jesus's Good Word or were born before his time could never, according to the theology of Twain's day, get into Heaven? What kind of raw deal is that? At least you knew where you stood with the old angry God.

Twain also draws a line of critique from the contemporary work of Charles Darwin, but not the obvious one. Rather, Twain embraces Darwin's insight that natural selection is built on death: terrible, cruel, bloody death. "The spider was so contrived that she would not eat grass, but must catch flies, and such things, and inflict a slow and horrible death upon them, unaware that her turn would come next. The wasp was so contrived that he would also decline grass and stab the spider, not conferring upon her a swift and merciful death, but merely half paralysing her, then ramming her down into the wasp den, there to live and suffer for days, while the wasp babies should chew her legs off at their leisure. In turn there was a murderer provided for the wasp, and another murderer for the wasp's murderer, and so on throughout the whole scheme of living creatures in the earth . . . . The ten-thousandfold law of punishment is rigorously enforced against every creature, man included." Where, wonders Twain, is the merciful good in such sadism?

Nor is he much convinced of virgin birth or Heaven, considering the testimony hearsay of the flimsiest kind. "If we should find, somewhere, an ancient book in which a dozen unknown men professed to tell all about a blooming and beautiful tropical paradise secreted in an inaccessible valley in the centre of the eternal icebergs which constitute the Antarctic continent--not claiming that they had seen it themselves, bu had acquired an intimate knowledge of it through a revelation from God--no Geographical Society in the earth would take any stock in that book."

Yet for all his criticism, Twain never declared himself an atheist. That seemed to be a bridge too far for him, and he spoke well of faith in other contexts. I infer that Twain probably believed in an Almighty Creator, he just didn't think that any of the world's religions had a very good handle on Him (I'm reading between the lines; other readers may reach different conclusions). Nor did Twain have a high opinion of His work.

"In His destitution of one and all of the qualities which could grace a God and invite respect for Him, and reverence, and worship, the real God, the genuine God, the Maker of the mighty universe, is just like all the other gods in the list. He proves, every day, that He takes no interest in man, nor in the other animals, further than to torture then, slay them, and get out of this pastime such entertainment as it may afford--and do what he can to not get weary of the eternal and changeless monotony of it."

Fin de Siecle
One unexpected reward I'm getting from reading Twain's autobiography is much greater insight and respect for his literary successors. The autobiographical excerpts above are from 1906. They are complex, ornate sentences that sound stiffly old-fashioned to our 21st Century ears. They take effort to follow. Keep in mind that Twain's autobiography was dictated and faithfully transcribed by his secretary. That's how he spoke.

Not 20 years later, along came writers such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Woolf, who read as very modern. Sentences are direct, descriptions are spare, dialog sounds like how people actually speak. It's like the difference between Dutch Old Masters and Picasso.

I'm no literary historian, but the shift from 19th to 20th Century style must have been seismic for both readers and writers. I get why Hemingway et al were a big deal in a way I didn't before. To put it in more modern pop culture terms: nobody too young to have seen "Star Wars" in 1977 can really appreciate how it was like nothing anyone had ever seen before. It influenced everything that followed, which they grew up immersed in. I've heard people criticize "Citizen Kane" or Hitchcock films for being "too cliche," not understanding that Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock pioneered those narrative and cinematic techniques that only became cliche after everyone copied them.

It's very difficult to put yourself in a pre-Lucas, pre-Welles, or pre-Hitchcock state of mind and see them fresh. But I begin to feel that reading Twain has put me in a pre-20th-Century-literature state of mind that deepens my understanding of the great changes to come. The 1920s must've come as a hell of a shock to a lot of book lovers.

Insult of the Day #12
I can't leave a post on Twain without providing the next in a series of Mark Twain Insults of the Day. Today's target: humanity.

There are many pretty and winning things about the human race. It is perhaps the poorest of all the inventions of the gods, but it has never suspected it once. There is nothing prettier than its naive and complacent appreciation of itself. It comes out frankly and proclaims, without bashfulness, or any sign of a blush, that it is the noblest work of God. It has had a billion opportunities to know better, but all signs fail with this ass. I could say harsh things about it, but I cannot bring myself to do it--it is like hitting a child.


Xtreme English said...

spectacular post! Thanks, Brian!

Brian Fies said...

Thanks for reading and commenting! Always appreciated.

Mike said...

Twain may have dictated his memoirs, but he knew he was doing it -- had you met him in the street, he might well have spoken more plainly. Unless he were consciously playing the role of Mark Twain rather than speaking to you as your neighbor, Sam Clemens.

I do agree that the post-WWI writers were more direct, but I'd have to go back and read Crane's "Maggie, Girl of the Streets" or some Jack London to refresh my sense of their style, because now I'm not sure how much I was projecting "plain language" on the more graphic subject matter.

Meanwhile, having just read a bunch of Theodore Roosevelt, he was wonderfully plain-spoken, as was his pal, Jacob Riis, but, then again, they were writing nonfiction.

Brian Fies said...

I thought about London circa 1905-10, but wasn't sure if he was regarded at the time as a boys' adventure writer, which would've played by different rules.

Great point about Teddy Roosevelt. Twain had a very low opinion of TR, considering him the worst sort of populist panderer. I wonder if their contrasting literary styles had anything to do with that.... If I ever want an advanced degree in English, I think I just found my thesis topic.

Point being, around the turn of the century the old way of writing was out and a new one was storming in, and the guard changed relatively quickly (I think). I think that would've been an interesting time for an attentive reader to live through.