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.

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).