Mark Twain: Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays, 1906–1910

Who devised the blood? Who devised the wonderful machinery which automatically drives its renewing and refreshing streams through the body, day and night, without assistance or advice from the man? Who devised the man’s mind, whose machinery works automatically, interests itself in what is pleases, regardless of his will or desire, labors all night when it likes, deaf to his appeals for mercy? God devised all these things. I have not made man a machine, God made him a machine. I am merely calling attention to the fact, nothing more. It is wrong to call attention to a fact? Is it a crime?

The last five years of Mark Twain’s life were devoted to religious speculation. Most of his published and unpublished writings from this period focused on two related arguments, both of which are developed most formally in “What is Man?” The first of these is about the lack of human agency (“man as a machine”). The second argument is about the basic self-interest of human and the impossibility of real selflessness. These are essentially related because Twain believed that humans were by nature and design selfish and could not choose to be altruistic. This extends the problem of evil in an interesting way. God is the direct cause of human evil as the creator of a flawed animal.

“What is Man?” was published during Twain’s lifetime, but not under his name. It is presented in the form of an extended dialogue between an old man and a young man. The young man is idealistic and a believer in selflessness, individual merit, and freedom. The old man breaks down all of these concepts by showing that people are machines with set natures, like animals, and do all things out of selfishness. Even the charitable person, who gives his last cent to a poor woman is doing this either for self-satisfaction or for the praise of others. The dialogue ends with the young man pleading to the old man never to publish his ideas, as they will have a horrible effect on human society.

These arguments are very troubling to libertarians, but these are ideas that need to be taken on, especially since people have been making compelling arguments that free will may be a myth. What meaning can liberty have when free will is an illusion? Often these arguments can be used to justify the state, prisons, police, and asylums. We require protection from our fallen nature. The best we can hope for is freedom in the form of amor fati, acceptance and love of fate.

What this argument does give us is a rejection of hero worship and the claim that the wealthy and powerful are somehow worthy or more deserving of their share of the world’s bounty.

Personal merit? No. A brave man does not create his bravery. He is entitled to no personal credit for possessing it. It is born to him. A baby born with a billion dollars—where is the personal merit in that? A baby born with nothing—where is the personal demerit in that? That one is fawned upon, admired, worshiped, by sycophants, the other is neglected and despised—where is the sense in it? (737)

Perhaps in this we can extract a type of argument for socialism, since individual merit does not account for individual success. But it does not see very convincing as an argument for freedom.

A second major late work of Twain’s was not published during his life is “Letters from Earth,” which consists of reports by the devil to God about the progression of his creation. It is largely a restatement of “What is Man?” but adds some mockery of Biblical literalism and the manifestation of religion among the humans. He also adds that people seem to take satisfaction in the reality of the problem of evil.

Then, having thus made the Creator responsible for all those pains and diseases and miseries above enumerated, and which he could have prevented, the gifted Christian blandly calls him Our Father! It is as I tell you. He equips the Creator with every trait that goes to the making of a fiend, and then arrives at the conclusion that a fiend and a father are the same thing. (905)

As with his arguments for political hierarchy, Twain believes that humans prefer to be unfree, not responsible, and controlled.

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Several months ago, I questioned the utility of cynicism when looking at Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. Although Twain is much more thoughtful than Bierce in his lampooning of human nature and human motivations, the result is the same comfortable inaction. Twain is probably aware that he is establishing a self-fulfilling philosophy. By arguing that optimism is an odious immaturity and saying that moral progress is impossible, he justifies inaction and therefore a lack of moral progress. Even if Twain’s cynicism is largely right (at least for humanity since the rise of civilization), his arguments can easily be used to accept the world as it is. While this attitude may have helped give birth to the Duke and the King, it did not create Huck Finn and cannot explain his moral progress and courage.

It seems to me there is little liberty to be gained in attempting to define human nature. Perhaps that is my prejudice as a historian. Even the worst historians can tell you that humans have lived in a great diversity of social structures with a great diversity of values. Mark Twain’s approach in later life, moving from a critique of an expanding and overly optimistic America to a condemnation of all of human, strikes me as rather lazy and without benefit. On this, I am with the young man in “What is Man?”

I will leave this systematic reading of Twain’s works troubled that the same mind that created Huck Finn could leave the world so burdened by cynicism, constantly repeating the argument that man is a selfish machine. I wonder if he had to repeat it so many times to convince himself.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stories (1843-1844)

“Fight for your hearths? There will be done throughout the land. FIGHT FOR YOUR STOVES! Not I, in faith. If, in such a cause, I strike a blow, it shall be on the invader’s part; and Heaven grant that I may shatter the abomination all the pieces.” (“Fire-Worship,” 848)

New household technology: the stove

New household technology: the stove

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote his most important stories after he quit his job at the Boston Custom House, married, and moved into the “Old Manse” of Concord. This move drew him into the transcendentalist circles. Freed from work and enjoying domestic bliss (we assume), Hawthorne exploded with creativity. He is still working almost exclusively with short stories and A Scarlett Letter is still five years in the future.

I suspect Hawthorne was happily married from the stories of this era, because only someone who is content can be so openly hostile to the institution. I suspect that those who are the most miserable create stories of happy marriage, either through faking it or through dreaming of an alternative situation. The brutal honesty Hawthorne shows in his writing, I guess, was part of his relationship with Sophia Peabody and made for a happy time of it. In any case, marriage is a strong theme of the stories from the Old Manse period. I would also like to touch on the question of technology, which Hawthorne presents with great ambivalence in these stories. In this way, Hawthorne is taking on two of the pillars of civilization itself.

These stories were mostly written at the "Old Manse," and appeared in this collection in 1852

These stories were mostly written at the “Old Manse,” and appeared in this collection in 1852

This set of stories includes: “The Birth-mark,” “Egotism; or, the Bosom-Serpent,” “The Procession of Life,” “The Celestial Rail-road,” “Buds and Bird-Voices,” “Little Daffydowndilly,” “Fire-Worship,” “The Christmas Banquet,” “A Good Man’s Miracle,” “The Intelligence Office,” and “Earth’s Holocaust.” Almost all of these stories are allegorical, touching on various aspects of human nature. However, they also speak to the social and the trauma of civilization. In this way, I think we can approach an optimistic reading of these tales, suggesting that the human heart is not so fallen as struggling in a fallen world. The fact that so many seem to speak to the inevitable failure of reform movements suggest that much of the darkness in these stories rests on the influence of society.

“The Birth-mark” is a well-known and often anthologized tale about a scientist who marries the beautiful Georginia, who after the marriage becomes obsessed with her one imperfection, a small red mark on her cheek. Like the social reformers of Hawthorne’s time, he simply cannot accept even one corruption from the ideal. He then sets out to apply his scientific knowledge to eradicating that imperfection. He achieves this, but it comes at the cost of Geroginia’s death. “As the last crimson tint of the birth-mark — that sole token of human imperfection — faded from her cheek, the parting breath of the now perfect woman passed into the atmosphere, and her soul, lingering a moment near her husband took its heavenward flight.” (780) One reading of this that I find interesting is about the near sociopathic obsessions within a married couple. As soon as the scientist married, he became obsessed with this singular defect in his wife. At the same time, she becomes so willing to become perfect that she sacrifices her life. Overtime, rather than becoming accustomed to each other, the birthmark drives both deeper into obsession. “Until now, he had not been aware of the tyrannizing influence acquired by one idea over his mind, and of the lengths which he might find in his heart to go, for the sake of giving himself peace.” (767) If we read the story as an allegory for reform movements, the chilling aspect of the story is that human knowledge indeed makes it possible to create a perfection. Georgina, as the subject of Utopian experimentation, is in awe of her husband’s technical and scientific knowledge and surrenders her will to his efforts. At the moment of her death, she praises her husband’s quest for perfection through science, embracing his Prometheanism. “You have aimed loftily! —  you have done nobly! Do not repent, that, with so high and pure a feeling, you have rejected the best that earth could offer.” (780)

This is also what takes place in “Fire-Worship” but with a more open hostility to the destructive side of the technological spirit. Interestingly, the main focus of “Fire-Worship” is the domestic hearth, again connecting marriage and technology as companions in the process of civilization. It opens: “It is a great revolution in social and domestic life — and no less so in the life of the secluded student — this almost universal exchange of the open fire-place for the cheerless and ungenial stove.” (841) It is not an anti-technological message in itself. Fire has a place in the home, but it is the stove that destroys a form of community, a certain vernacular spirit that lived on in the ashes and fireplaces of thousands of homes. “The easy gossip–the merry, yet unambitious jest–the life-long, practical discussion of real matters in a casual way — the soul of truth, which is so often incarnated in a simple fireside word–will disappear from earth. Conversation will contract the air of debate, and all moral intercourse be chilled with fatal frost.” (847) The stove suggests the same type of technological progress condemned in “The Birth-Mark”

Clearly, fire makes a dramatic appearance in “Earth’s Holocaust” as well. In this story, fire takes the form of a massive crucible with the power to cleanse society of its old to prepare the world for a new age. Old music, old knowledge, money, liquor, law, weapons, and clothing all get thrown into the massive bonfire. In previous stories, Hawthorne cast the occasional dispersion on the old and ancient, pointing out the dangers of living permanently in the past and forgetting the child-like spirit of recreation. In “Earth’s Holocaust” it is clear that Hawthorne is reconsidering some of this, seeing some value in the preservation of old knowledge, but his main purpose here is to again warn against putting too much hope in technology (symbolized in the fire) as a solution to our problems. The throwing in of liquor and Hawthorne’s repeated use of “reformer” in the text shows that he was again considering the bold schemes of nineteenth-century social reformers. The conclusion of the story warns that a new age cannot be born without the cleansing of the human heart as well, but I wonder to what degree the human heart exists without the civilization that was tossed into the fire. Here he exposes a (in my view) unfortunate Puritanism, emphasizing the totally fallen human.

In the space I have left, I was to touch on a story that attempt a taxonomy of human civilization. “The Procession of Life” shows unambiguously that the human heart is not singularly evil or good. If anything unites humanity it is Love, but that feeling is constrained by the harsh boundaries between groups. “We have summoned this various multitude — and, to the credit of our nature, it is a large one — on the principle of Love. It is singular, nevertheless, to remark the shyness that exists among many members of the present class, all of whom we might expect to recognize one another by the free-masonry of mutual goodness, and to embrace like brethren, giving God thanks for such various specimens of human excellence. But it is far otherwise. Each sect surrounds its own righteousness with a hedge of thorns.” (803) It is thus our social categories that divide us, not our hearts.

Take what you want from that. I need to run.