Mark Twain: “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc,” Part One

“Joan of Arc, a mere child in years, ignorant, unlettered, a poor village girl unknown and without influence, found a great nation lying in chains, helpless and hopeless under an alien domination, its treasury bankrupt, its soldiers disheartened and dispersed, all spirit torpid, all courage dead in the hearts of the people through long years of foreign and domestic outrage and oppression, their King cowed, resigned to its fate, and preparing to fly the country; and she laid her hand upon this nation, this corpse, and it rose and followed her.” (546)

What moved me while reading Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc was how much Joan’s dilemma and challenge parallels the challenges of today’s young. Joan grew up in a France that was defeated and in decline, but more seriously lacking a vision for itself. And then, after saving France she is made to suffer for her deeds. We have yet to see the second half of this story play out in our world (we hope it will not), but the first part seems quite true to life. Whether it is crushing debt, an increasingly vapid democracy, an unprecedented ecological catastrophe, growing inequality, a perverted image of socialism, or a dying culture, our children are being left quiet a mess to clean up. The argument we should get from Twain’s quite brilliant history Joan of Arc is that those of us old in body or mind, should step aside.

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I have touched on the theme of generations before. Philip K. Dick had an intense fear of the gerontocracy (something I am exploring in the book I am working on). The almost always pessimistic Hawthorne, seemed to think that creative energy and transgressive potential existed in children. Mark Twain clearly believed the same or else he would not have created so many examples of creative and courageous children alongside odious and cowardly adults. Perhaps this tension must exist in the literature of a young revolutionary nation.

I do not want to let my feelings on the old be misunderstood. While I do think we must blame them for most of the mess younger people were left with, we should not ignore the challenges that they overcame. They were left with a mess of their own to clean up. They were faced with the central challenges of the twentieth century: unrestricted capitalism and political tyranny. But they also left us a political and economic system that is in need of a massive recreation. Resolving these problems require that that generation step aside. They control the wealth (we can look at generational income and wealth inequality), they remain in charge of the political system, and in many ways they still control the terms of the debate. One major concern of mine, is that with life-extending technology and declining birth rates, the young of the world will be spending most of their time laboring to keep alive a wealthy and increasingly delusion class of elders. Yes, grandpa, maybe you are living too long.

Now, of course, the solution to this problem is not the repression of elders, but rather the empowerment of youth. And one of the largest hurdles to this is that disgusting idea of adolescence. I do not think it is wise to take physically and (but for public education and a mind-numbing culture) mentally adults and give them an arbitrary label as adolescence. I do not know much of the history of this, but I suspect it began either with industrialization or with public education. And now, unfortunately, adolescence is being extended by sending millions to collages, straddling them with unpayable debts, and forestalling the responsibilities of adulthood into the distant future. This was not a problem in Joan of Arc’s time, when you were either a child or an adult and that transition came with sexual and physical maturity. Joan of Arc was young, but an adult. She proved it in her actions, the sharpness of her rhetoric, her courage, and her ability to inspire others. In this way, she is a grander version of Huck Finn, who triumphed over the greatest moral question of his life, and of his age.

Onto the novel (historical fiction certainly, but heavily researched in archives). The first half covers Joan’s upbringing in Domremy to her emergence as a victorious general of the French armies at the battle of Orleans, where a major English position was maintained, including her rallying of the French king and the nobility and populace of France for the war effort. As for that history-making victory, Twain wrote: “No other girl in all of history has ever reached such a summit of glory as Joan of Arc reached that day. And do you think it turned her head, and that she sat up to enjoy that delicious music of homage and applause? No; another girl would have done that, but not this one. That was the greatest heart and the simplest that ever beat.” (742) As you can see, Twain believed that Joan of Arc was the most impressive person in human history. Often his praise comes off as exaggerated, but we have no reason to believe Twain was not authentic in his praise, even if we may not share his reading of the past.

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Twain started the novel with some discussion of the children of Domremy, the world that created Joan. These children were already cultivating a religious culture distinct from that of adults. Joan plays a role in connected the intellectual courage of children with the piety of mature religion. “All the children pleaded for the fairies, and said they were their good friends and dear to them and never did them any harm, but the priest would not listen, and said it was a sin and shame to have such friends.” (563) Joan’s first moment of courage came in her confrontation with the theology of the priest class. She remains an impressive person in local history, but it was the sight of a dead and mutilated man that spurs her to adulthood and action. “It was a bloody and dreadful sight. Hardly any of us young people had ever seen a man before who had lost his life by violence; so this cadaver had an awful fascination for us; we could not take our eyes from it. I mean, it has that sort of fascination for all of us but one. That one was Joan.” (589) She turns from the horror not to flee but to action, although she would first need to undergo a religious and then a political transformation.

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A significant role of Joan of Arc was in the conquest of cynicism and defeat. One could argue that she got this strength from religious delusion. Twain is less interested in the origin of the courage than in the amazing fact that such courage was possible in a young person. (Perhaps not so amazing for himself who eager gave his young characters this moral courage.)

No less significant for Twain is Joan’s triumph over narrow human expectations about the source of one’s value. She faced much ridicule early in her campaign. “Human nature is the same everywhere; it deifies success, it has nothing but scorn for defeat. The village considered that Joan had disgraced it with her grotesque performance and its ridiculous failure; so all the tongues were busy; insomuch that if the tongues had been teeth she would not have survived her persecutions.” (610) How often has such ridicule stopped people from speaking and creating?

I have not given much thought to Joan of Arc before reading this novel, but now I find her a useful model for the challenges of our day and an argument for the empowerment of youth, a group that needs to be much freer and take much more seriously for the role they can play in historical change.

 

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Mark Twain, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” (1889): Hierarchy and Power

“The most of King Arthur’s British nation were slaves, pure and simple, and bore that name, and wore the iron collar on their necks; and the rest were slaves in fact, but without the name; they imagined themselves men and freemen, and called themselves so. The truth was, the nation as a body was in the world for one object, and one only: to grovel before king and Church and noble; to slave for them, sweat blood for them, starve that they might be fed, work that they might play, drink misery to the dregs that they might be happy, go naked that they might wear silks and jewels, pay taxes that they might be spared from paying them, be familiar all their lives with the degrading language and postures of adulation that they might walk in pride and think themselves the gods of this world.” (263)

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It seems to me that there are two major themes in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. The first, which I will explore in this post, is about the nature of power—both real and imagined—in monarchical and democratic societies. The second, the topic of the second post on this lovely novel, is on technology. The novel came at the end of 1880s, an extremely productive decade for Twain, which saw some of his greatest works, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It was also during this period that Twain was investing heavily into technological innovation. The most infamous of these investments was in the typesetting machine that nearly bankrupted him, despite the substantial income he enjoyed from his writing. This fascination with technology and his growing anxiety with the increasing power of the technocratic, industrial elite inform this text.

The story is of a machinist named Hank from Connecticut who is transported through time to Camelot during the reign of King Arthur. Although he is taken as a prisoner and about to be executed he uses his knowledge of a solar eclipse to (who remembers important dates in historical astronomy?) fool the court—and most importantly the king—into thinking he was a powerful wizard. He displaces Merlin, whose tricks seem commonplace in comparison. As the new power behind the throne (his salary is 1 percent of any increased revenues to the kingdom) he implemented many reforms, introducing newspapers, industry, Sunday schools, and education. But rather than a full transformation of society, he keeps many of these reforms underground, becoming just another (but more successful) wizard. He spends quite a lot of time debunking wizards, who are exposed as the sixth-century versions of nineteenth-century American con-artists.

Twain is very much interesting in lampooning the values of chivalry and the intelligence of the people in early medieval Europe. Whether or not Twain is a technocrat or a technophobe in this novel (both interpretations are possible) he finds little endearing about the world of King Arthur and is miles away from revival of chivalrous literature, popular in America and England at the time. Knights are murderous, vulgar and exaggerate their exploits for their own gain. Everyone in King Arthur’s time is presented as ignorant and easily tricked. The adventures knights go on are often little more than rampaging through the countryside. (Thus the ogres are in actuality pigs.) Merlin’s magic is little more than parlor tricks. In a revisting of some of the themes of The Prince and the Pauper, Hank and Arthur spend some time in as peasants and are sold into slavery. Hank escapes and imposes his control over the knights through modern violence. The church puts an interdict on Hank and his realm, leading to a general rebellion against his little empire—now fully mechanized and industrial. He slaughters the knights with his modern warfare (in either a mocking of the gallantry of the Confederate military in the face of massive modern firepower or in a prediction of the First World War). The masses of bodies trap Hank in his cave, but Merlin’s magic allows him to sleep 1,300 years to return to his home and report on his adventures.

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Almost all the power in the novel is based on lies and deceptions and depends entirely on the gullibility of the people. This is true for the wizards, the knights, the king and eventually Hank. Hank clearly notices this from the start and is fully willing to use their ignorance to his advantage. “Well, it was a curious country, and full of interest. And the people! They were the quaintest and simplest and trustingest race; why they were nothing but rabbits. It was pitiful for a person born in a wholesome free atmosphere to listen to their humble and hearty outpourings of loyalty toward their king and Church and nobility: as if they had any more occasion to love and honor king and Church and noble than a slave has to love and honor the lash, or a dog has to love and honor the stranger that kicks him!” (262) Of course, this does not stop Hank’s manipulation of these characteristics, even as he works hard to find promising people and to bring them into his order of technocrats. It is a question in Tom Paine, the early anarchists, and many other anti-authoritarian thinkers: how was it possible that the few or the one rule the many? As far as Twain is concerned the answer seems to be simple ignorance, an ignorance eagerly cultivated by the elite.

As Hank learns more about England in the early Middle Ages he comes to realize some of the moral implications of power on the people. It dulled their senses and their imagination while also making them a empty vessel that any ridiculous notion can be poured into. They even lost the ability to see the clear truth in front of them. Merlin’s magic, mostly less than illusions, consisted of claims that magic existed even when the truth was obvious that others accepted (much like religion in this regard). That a pig-sty could be a castle for the peasants was evidence of slavish acceptance of what they were told to believe rather than creative imagining.

How is it that a man like Hank is able to work his way into the power structure? He lacks the titles and the heroic “adventures” of the knights. His initial appeal to the court and the people was simply as a much more effective, interesting, and new wizard. He is never quite accepted by the court as a commoner and an outsider, but he has enough of a utility to King Arthur to secure some protection and status, becoming eventually “The Boss,” a technocrat behind the scenes of the formal power. Despite coming from a democratic society, Hank becomes enamored with the idea of despotism. He ponders the possibility of a bottom up revolution at some point, but is much more eager to pursue top-down reforms , finding that to be the prefect form of government. “Unlimited power is the ideal thing—when it is in safe hands. The despotism of heaven is the one absolutely perfect government. An earthly despotism would be the absolutely perfect earthly government, if the conditions were the same, namely, the despot the perfectest individual of the human race, and his lease of life perpetual.” (274) Immediately after this Hank confesses that the despot’s death will ensure an inferior person takes over, turning the best form of government to the worst. Still, he pursues his power as a technocratic despot, with free reign to build his civilization parallel to the medieval barbarism.

I never liked the suggestion that people had to become ready for self-rule. This seems to be where Twain is. Arthur and the knights cultivated and enforced ignorance. Hank accepted ignorance of the people as his starting point and used it to justify his claims of power. However, I am not sure it is a historical law that ignorance and subservience are an essential part of rural societies, or that moral progress is inevitable. My reading of the history of peasant societies shows a rather vibrant tradition of resistance and opposition. Of course, highlighting that would have made for a very different book.

Philip K. Dick, “The Penultimate Truth” (1964)

The Penultimate Truth might be Philip K. Dick’s answer to 1984. In both works, a war is used for social control. The reality of the war is secondary to its function in maintaining an enslaved population. In both works, the government uses the media as a major tool of control by manipulating the truth. The Penultimate Truth differs in two important ways. The first is that it is a fundamentally more optimistic story, believing in the potential of self-sacrifice, solidarity, and struggles. By the end of the story, the truth is exposed and a revolution is affected, putting an end to the media-constructed war. Second, while in 1984, the lies are used to sustain a totalitarian state, in The Penultimate Truth the perpetrators of the scheme area a clearly identifiable class of feudal lords, who have used the war to assert their ownership over the land and create massive fiefdoms. This piqued me because I have been recently wondering if our future is some sort of feudalism. We have the ground work for this already. A small number of (mostly) men own most of the land and wealth of the planet. They separate themselves from the rest via gated communities, sustain a separate moral universe, and in some cases maintain private police forces.

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The war was real, at the beginning. It started on Mars between the colonies of the Western democracies and the colonies of the Eastern bloc. (Philip K. Dick, seemingly unaware of the Sino-Soviet split, often imagined a unified Communist world.) By the time the war reached Earth, most of the people were moved into underground bunkers. While there, they worked in the construction of “leadies,” robots who would fight the war on the surface. Autofacs, it was believed, remained in the surface cities contributing to the war effort, ensuring that these locals were still valuable to the war effort. Their periodic “destruction” justified increased quotas. A year after the war reached Earth, peace returned. The remaining humans seized the land, dividing the world into demesnes. By maintaining the war-time quotas, they were ensured a steady supply of leadies to sustain their life. The people in the bunkers functioned like serfs, redirecting surplus to the landed elite on the surface. To help sustain the lie, a massive infrastructure of film-making and media, convinces the people that the war is continuing. At one critical moment, the city of Detroit is destroyed, increasing the leadie quotas. I do not want to push this metaphor too far, but perhaps the lies serve the same role that the Roman church did in the European feudal world, convincing the people that the best thing for them was to work diligently for their masters.

The major difference, is that the people in the bunkers do not know they are in a feudal situation. They think they are still in a democracy, controlled by Talbot Yancy. The people are reminded of this trough regular speeches, beamed down to the bunkers. He is actually a robot, of course, and his speeches are programmed by surface dwellers.

Philip K. Dick has a strong admiration and faith in the potential for human solidarity and self-sacrifice. That comes through most strongly in the chapters detailing the adventures of Nicholas St. James. He is the president of one of those small bunkers. The lead mechanic is dying of pancreatitis and needs a replacement pancreas. All the artificial organs are reserved for the surface soldiers. Already this introduces questions; why are they needed if the war is fought by leadies? Without this mechanic, the unit is doomed to fail to meet its quota. If it fails too often, the bunker will be dissolved and the fate of the residents will be horrible. Nicholas St. James decides to go to the surface. A brave and self-sacrificing act considering that be believes a war is raging on the surface. Once he is on the surface he quickly learns that the war is over. One reason given by the leadies is that the war had to end but that required lying to the more violent and destructive humans who would want to fight to the last man. The lie sustains a peace. We know, of course, that the lies also ensure the power of the so-called “Yance-men”, the landowners. He later learns that man “tankers” have escaped over the years, residing in massive apartment complexes. St. James find himself in a group of relatively free ex-tankers in Cheyenne, a location notable for still being a “hot spot.” After meeting the future lord of the Cheyenne demesne, David Lantano. Lantano is dark-skinned. He claims this is due to residing in Cheyenne, but the truth is that he is a time-travelling Cherokee. All other Indians were murdered in the ethnic conflicts proceeding the war. Lantano is scheming to put an end to the rule of the Yance-men, something is succeeds in doing. Before this, however, St. James finds the needed artificial organs and voluntarily returns to the bunker, seemingly willing to sustain the lie to help the people of his community.

It is in these moments that we find the key difference between Orwell and Dick. While Orwell sees the regime of lies leading to hostility, children spying on parents, mutual indifference, and brute survival, Dick sees humanity (the spirit, not simply the physical body) as resilient. By returning to the bunker, with an artificial organ, eager to help his family and friends meet an artificial quota, St. James sustains solidarity. In the same way, the community of ex-tankers represented the porous and fragile nature of the fraud.

In contrast, we have the Yance-men. Like the characters in The Game-Players of Titan, these people are self-serving, sociopathic schemers. They work to sustain their power over the bunkers, the escaped tankmen, and each other. It seems most of their days are committed to sustaining frauds and implementing schemes. They surround themselves with either other Yance-men or the leadies they expropriated from the people in the bunkers. Lantano, the one good Yance-man, is actually not of that world.

St. James realized something important by the end of the novel. The fraud may have been implemented by sociopaths and schemers, but it did help protect people from what their immediate response to the end of the war would have been. Had they been told, ten years earlier, that the war was over, millions would have died of radiation poisoning as they went to the surface. At best, however, this could only justify a benevolent and somewhat honest technocracy during a crisis. The decadence of the Yance-men and their power games were surplus to the requirement. It does not matter if power if justifiable on some level. It is nonetheless, sociopathic.

Isaac Bashevis Singer: “Short Friday and Other Stories”: Singer on Sex

This third collection of Singer’s short stories collected by The Library of America was published in English in 1964.  Sex is a powerful theme in many of Singer’s stories.  One one end, it is a normal, expected, and celebrated part of life for married couples.  On the other end, it is the window to temptation and the commonly-used weapon of demons to possess the souls of Jewish men and women.  I am here making a humble effort to reflect on what we can learn about sex from Singer’s dilemma.  It is quite clear to me that Singer is a strong moral conservative.  As I wrote about in the earlier postings, Singer seems to reflect the conservatism of the rural moral economy.  His stories suggest a fear of outsiders, the importance of remaining uncorrupted by sin, capitalism, and change.  Often his heroes are the rabbis to stick to their spiritual orientations despite a changing or besieged world.

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In “Taibele and her Demon” an abandoned woman tells her friends the story of a demon who visits a woman and seduces her and lives with her as “man and wife.”  A man in the community, a teachers assistant, her the story and visits Taibele disguised as “Hurmizah” a demon.  He tells her that he will comes twice a week.  She begins to relish the encounters which are not only sexually satisfying but entertaining, as “Hurmizah” tells her stories of the demonic world.  “Thus Hurmizah described his wives, and told Taibele how he disported himself with them, playing tag over roofs and engaging in all sorts of pranks.  Ordinarily, a woman is jealous when a man consorts with other women, but how can a human be jealous of a female devil?  Quite the contrary.  Hurmizah’s tales amused Taibele, and she was always playing him with questions.” (338)  The relationship starts to have broader effects.  The teacher’s assistant remains unmarried despite being a widower.  (Taibele is abandoned herself and the demonic affair takes on the character of a second marriage for both).  While on one level the story works as a playful celebration of sexual freedom and rule-breaking  (Does she really think he is a demon or does it become an excuse to sustain a fulfilling affair?)  The story is also a warning against these transgressions.  The teacher’s assistant career suffers as rumors spread that he is becoming a werewolf.  In fact, he was becoming sicker due to his excessive late-night rendezvous.  While Taibele begins to become fond of the demonic world.  “Taibele knew that it was sinful to pray for devils, that one must curse them and blot them from memory; yet she prayed to God for Hurmizah.  She cried out in anguish: ‘There are so many devils, let there be one more.'” (342)  Eventually, Hurmizah stops coming, for the teacher’s assistant died and Taibele’s health rapidly deteriorated.

Sexual transgression is explored in “Blood” as well, but here it is overshadowed by the passion of a man for the indiscriminate slaughter of animals.  To story begins as an affair between a married woman Risha and a widower butcher Reuben.  The story begins “The cabalists know that the passion for blood and the passion for flesh have the same origin, and this is the reason ‘Thou shall not kill’ is followed by ‘Thou shall not commit adultery.'” (353)  Risha is almost immediately attracted to the honesty of Reuben’s brutality and indifference to the victims of his profession.  “If someone has to eat meat, someone has to do the slaughtering.” (356) She hires him as a private ritual slaughterer for her family’s estate.  Under a pretext, she returns to Reuben.  Their erotic encounter is mixed with the imagery of slaughter.  “He forced Risha down on his beach-bed and she, thrice married, had never before felt desire as great as on that day.  Thought she called him murderer, robber, highwayman, and reproached him for bringing shame to an honest woman, yet at the same time she kissed him, fondled him, and responded to his masculine whims.  In their amorous play, she asked him to slaughter her.  Taking her head, he bent it back and fiddled with his finger across her throat.  When Risha finally arose, she said to Reuben: ‘You have certainly murdered me that time.'” (358)  She finally got Reuben on the estate by opening a butcher shop, selling low-cost meat.  She helped Reuben work as a slaughter and seamlessly connected those acts with her sexual indiscretion.  They are aroused by the slaughter and often has sex near the dead and dying animals.  “One transgression begets another.  One day Satan, the father of all lust and cunning, tempted Risha to take a hand in slaughtering.”  From this point Risha began to expand her crimes by slaughtering meat herself instead of the kosher-slaughter Rueben.  “She got so much satisfaction from deceiving the community that this soon became as powerful a passion with her as lechery and cruelty.” (361)  This made her rich, especially since she commonly deceived her customers.  “The steaming blood gurgled and flowed.  While the beasts were bleeding, Risha threw off all her clothes and stretched out naked on a pile of straw.  Reuben came to her and they were so fat their bodies could barely join.  They puffed and panted.  Their wheezing mixed with the death rattles of the animals and made an unearthly noise.” (363)  This event was witnessed by a spy of the now unemployed butchers and exposes all of Risha and Rueben’s sins.  When confronted she converted and continued her life as a non-kosher butcher.  She did this only after almost immediately adopted all the worst anti-Semitic claims of the local Gentiles. She dies in the end, having become a “werewolf.”  She had taken to the woods and turned into a “carnivorous animal lurking about at night and attacking people.”  Rueben meanwhile had become a vegetarian.

Singer, a vegetarian who had disgust for the slaughter of animals connected this with adultery and sexual indiscretion.  Again, we find the dangerous association of sexuality with decadence, sin, and crime.

Well, how do you feel about transgression?  Where is the line between resistance to cultural norms, hierarchies, tradition, and patriarchal expectations on monogamy?  When does resistance to consumer culture cross into tyrannical Puritanism?  What is the role of sexual and moral transgression (and in this I suppose we could include meat-eating as vegetarianism/veganism often is often quite Puritanical in practice – based on self-restraint, moral mandates, and denial) in resistance to capitalism?

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “The Spinoza of Market Street”

I ended last post with a suggestion that we can take Singer’s descriptions of a conservative, inward-looking world under threat of external forces as an opportunity for liberation.  What these demons, devils, ghosts and the like challenges was the static moral world of the peasant community.  This is a moral order reinforced in many cultures through folklore.  Grimm’s fairy tales, for instance, often end with a return to normalcy after a threat is confronted or to some for of justice being meet out by the cosmos (think of “The Juniper Tree”).  I wondered last time whether we should embrace the devil and refuse to “serve in heaven”.  No small amount of the moral universe of the religious community and the peasant commune is odious to say the least: oppressive marriages, fear of outsiders, wasteful religious traditions.  And as many of these same themes are worked out in The Spinoza of Market Street I thought I would on this some more.

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I want to take the other approach and try to look at these external threats from the perspective of the peasant moral universe.  It is relatively easy for outsiders, who do not benefit directly from the traditional rural community to see it as backward and reactionary at best, oppressive and delusional at worst.  James Scott has written a great deal about the moral universe of the peasant.  In his Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance he explores this moral universe’s confrontation with modern capitalism.  “The historically given, negotiated, moral context of village life is one in which, if only ideological, the cards are stacked against the newer forms of capitalist behavior.  This moral context consists of a set of expectation and preferences about relations between the well-to-do and the poor.  By and large, these expectations are cast in the idioms of patronage, assistance, consideration, and helpfulness.  They apply to employment, tenancy, charity, feast giving, and the conduct of daily social encounter.  They imply that those who meet these expectation will be treated with respect, loyalty, and social recognition.  What is involved, to put it crudely, is a kind of ‘politics of reputation’ in which a good name is conferred in exchange for adherence to a certain code of conduct.” (Jame Scott, Weapons of the Weak, 184–185).  For Scott, capitalism broke down this moral order based on reciprocity.  The response of peasants in various times and contexts was resistance.  This same argument was made in the field of Chinese history by Roxann Prazniak and Prasenjit Duara.  Both considered how peasants responded to the destruction of what Duara called the “cultural nexus of power,” or, to put it simply, the moral economy of peasant life.  In both authors’ perspective, the destroyer was modernity in its manifest forms.  For these thinkers, the peasant world was conservative, but it was collectively lived and cooperative.  Most importantly, the ruling classes were bound by the same moral universe.  They were a part of it and their right to command the society, to tax it, or to exploit it ended when the survival of the peasants was threatened.  This is perhaps what made “The Gentleman of Cracow” such an attractive figure. He promised to restore the normalcy that was devastated by a drought.

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In The Spinoza of Market Street we start to see evidence of the threats facing the Eastern European peasant community in the later nineteenth century.  As in other peasant cultures of the time, the shtetl was under threat from encroaching capitalism and the state.  In these stories, the state is still largely a distant threat, but it is a threat and it does challenge the moral order of the village.  In “The Shadow of a Crib” a new doctor arrived.  To help secure his position in the town he sided with the values and politics of the town against that of the Russian state.  “The apothecary, the mayor appointed by the Russians, the notary public and the Russian authorities were all partisan to Dr. Chwaschinski.  Since Yaretzky [the newcomer] did not attend church, the priest maintained that the doctor was no Christian but an infidel, perhaps a Tartar — and a heathen.  Some suggested that he might even poison people.  He could be a sorcerer.  Bu the destitute Jews of bridge street and the sand flats patronized Dr. Yaretzky.” (206)  The real test came during the conscription, when he aided the Jews by providing (for a fee) deferments for service.  More broadly than the state, and much more visible in most of the stories, is the mobility caused by a changing world more shaped by capitalism than ever.  Inequality led to greater mobility as poor beggars searched for work.  In “The Beggar Said So” we are introduced to a poor man looking for work as a chimney sweep.  In the cornerstone piece of this collection “The Destruction of Kreshev” the readers are introduced to Mendel.  “No one in Kreshev knew quite where this Mendel had come from.  One story was that he’d been a love child who’d been abandoned in the steets.  Others said he was the child of a convert. Whatever his origins, he was certainly an ignoramus.”  (289)  He was also a sexual threat, famous for seducing the women of the town.    Intellectuals trained in distant cities came in with new ideas.  While “the Spinoza” of Market Street spend his life with the classic Jewish philosopher, others came in with more radical worldviews.  One of the principle characters of “The Destruction of Kreshev” was Shloimele, who married Lise – a precious and intellectually-curious young woman.  Shloimele “had studied philosophy and the cabala, and was an adept in mystical mathematics, being able even to work out fractions which are to be found in the treatise of Kilaim.  It goes without saying that he had had a look at the Zohar and “The Tree of Life” and he knew “The Guide to the Perplexed” as well as his own first name.” (293-294)  This intellectualism leads Shloimele to sexual perversions and became a threat to the town’s stability when he convinced his wife to have sex with Mendel.

It is hard to deny that Singer seems to be on the side of the moral economy as it comes under threat of the modern world.  But let us not hastily paint it as social conservatism run amok.  As the scholars of peasant economies and peasant resistance have pointed out, resistance to the encroachment of capitalism and the state could only emerge from the moral argument.  That moral universe may have much we find repugnant but it nevertheless remains a source of significant power.  In the world today, some of the most significant (if possibly doomed) movements against capitalism come from the rapidly disintegrating peasant world (Zapatistas, Maoist rebels in India).