Mark Twain: Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays (1866-1870)

“It is hard to tell which is the most startling, the idea of that highest achievement of human genius and intelligence, the telegraph, prating away about the practical concerns of the world’s daily life in the heart and home of ancient indolence, ignorance, and savagery, or the idea of that happiest expression of the brag, vanity, and mock-heroics of our ancestors, the ‘tournament,’ coming out of its grave to flaunt its tinsel trumpery and perform its ‘chivalrous’ absurdities in the high noon of the nineteenth century, and under the patronage of a great, broad-awake city and an advanced civilization.” (418)

The five years after the American Civil War were quite productive for Twain and played a key role in setting up his later fame. He continued in journalism moving from the West coast to New York. In 1867, Twain went on a tour of Europe and the Holy Land on the ship Quaker Village, the record of which became the bestselling The Innocent’s Abroad. In 1870, while based in Buffalo, he got married and began work on his next book, Roughing It.

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In my last post, I questioned if “The Petrified Man” was a real report or not. I could not tell at the time. According to a followup by Twain in 1870, it was indeed a satire. “As a satire on the petrification mania, or anything else, my Petrified Man was a disheartening failure; for everybody received him in innocent good faith, and I was stunned to see the creature I had begotten to pull down the wonder-business with and bring derision upon it, calmly exalted to the grand chief place in the list of the genuine marvels our Nevada had produced.” (391) While I am reading this, there is a media spectacle in Taiwan about a baby killed by a family member who put salt in the baby formula. It has become a massive media event. While the tragedy is no doubt real, I wonder if it was not real if someone would need to create it. For the people who consume news as entertainment, how important is it if the news is real of not? It certainly would not provide less pleasure by being fake. In the 1870 piece, Twain seemed actually baffled that anyone would have taken his satire as truth, but perhaps he had too much faith in the desire or readers to consume spectacle. Of course, it is better if “the Truth” is reported, but since it rarely is anyway, perhaps falsehoods can do as good of a job. I think there would be some value added to a return to the more playful frontier journalism that Twain explored in his early writings. We already have the phenomenon where many young people get their news from confessed satire (“The Daily Show”).

It is hard to identify a singular theme in Twain’s writings from these five years, but one thing I noticed is that he is analyzing the expanding power of the state over individuals. There was some of this his early Western writings, but the state was less pronounced. If anything, we saw the absurdity of attempts to create strong state structures. In contrast, you had more of a rough-and-wild feel, as with the jumping frog story. With the move East, Twain spends more time engaged with the actual institutions of power. In a brilliant short dialogue, Twain has a “slum child” talking to a “moral mentor.” While the mentor attempts to convince the child that God is the center of all creation, the child sees the origins of all things in the “Chief Police,” suggesting that he was the most important figure in his life as a marginalized urban-dweller. After learning that God created the grass the child attempts to explain what he did with it. “Puts it in the Hall park and puts up a sign, ‘Keep off’n the grass–dogs ain’t allowed.” (255) Many works from this period explore the failings of the justice system, which he suggests is simply part of the spectacle of public life in a democracy. His hostility toward the institutions of industrializing America is reflected in “Disgraceful Persecution of a Boy” about a boy who stoned a Chinese. He defends the boy while pointing out a deep contradiction in America, between the institutional systems of control and the extralegal racist society. “And for this he was arrested and put in the city jail. Everything conspired to teach him that it was a high and holy thing to stone a Chinaman, and yet he no sooner attempts to do his duty than he is punished for it.” (381) I am likely going too far beyond Twain’s intention to say this, but this could also apply to the odd logic that regulated the lives of the urban poor with prisons, asylums, and police while also proclaiming the need for an entrepreneurial spirit for all citizens. The poor were fettered, punished for being poor, and then told they were unsuccessful because of sloth. But this was the ideology of the Gilded Age, and our own.

Regulating the urban poor, Sing Sing

Regulating the urban poor, Sing Sing

For more on his attitude toward anti-Chinese sentiment you can look at his “Goldsmith’s Friend Abroad Again,” which also takes on the issue of the institutional oppression of the working poor in America.

Twain is observing what seems to him to be a world becoming progressively worse and more irrational. This comes out in “The New Crime,” in which he posits that murders no longer take place because insanity is becoming the root cause of criminal activity. “Formerly, if you killed a man, i twas possible that you were insane–but now if you kill a man, it is evidence that you are a lunatic.” (353) In the same way, kleptomania replaces theft. (We could add for our time that “sex addition” replaces good old-fashioned adultery.) While the piece is a satire calling for the criminalization of insanity, his serious undercurrent is that society itself seems to be losing its moral bearing and the legal structures of the age were incompetent to properly define the problem.  He repeats this analysis in “Our Previous Lunatic.”  In another piece he points out that “Let [the American Board of Foreign Missions[ forward no more missionaries to distant lands for the present. God knows they are needed here at home.” (432)

Philip K. Dick, “A Scanner Darkly” (1977)

Those of us tuned into popular culture are familiar with David Simon’s critique of the so-called “War on Drugs.”  In brief, he argued through his journalistic writing and the television series The Wire that the War on Drugs targeted the minority underclass and the urban working poor, created dysfunctional police systems, ruined individual lives as well as the urban institutions more and more of us rely on.  The tragedy, Simon points out, is that deindustrialization is making us less necessary to the economy at the same time that the institutions that could defend us became corrupted and criminal.  Like Zygmunt Bauman, he sees a larger number of “wasted lives.”  More and more human kipple, to borrow Philip K. Dick’s term from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.  I mention him, because as important as Simon has become to contemporary social criticism, Philip K. Dick was exploring many of these same themes in the 1977 novel A Scanner Darkly, which is his investigation of the “War on Drugs.”

I do not recall seeing the term used in A Scanner Darkly.  The history of prohibition of drugs and alcohol is old in this country, but the modern war on drugs began sometime in the 1970s with the creation of national drug enforcement agencies and new national laws on drugs that trumped local enforcement (and accommodation) efforts.  If this was in the newspapers and TVs of the 1970s, I do not know.  They certainly were by the 1980s.  As the epilogue to A Scanner Darkly makes clear, Philip K. Dick was deeply affected personally by the counter culture’s use of drugs.  He had largely turned from it, in disgust, by the 1970s.  A Scanner Darkly shows that Dick clearly thought drugs were a horrendous evil.  He goes so far as to make the street name for his new drug “Death.”

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The plot of A Scanner Darkly explores the descent of an undercover drug enforcement agent known to his friends as Bob Arctor.  His use of Substance D (“death”) leads to his inability to properly interpret reality, dividing his consciousness into the police officer and the drug addict.  Eventually he is used up by the system and sent to a rehab clinic, which is actually a cover for the production of Substance D.  The film version of this novel is follows the book quite well (being the only major film adaptation of a PKD work to do this).

One thing we can say right away is that there seem to be three groups at play in the novel.  The first group is the disempowered people scraping by, addicted to drugs, but surviving at the margins of the economy.  This group is represented by Arctor and his friends Barris and Frink and his girlfriend Donna (also an undercover agent it turns out).  Like in later cyberpunk novels, this underclass appears to be quite large.  The second group is the police and the enforcement agencies.  This is the same situation we saw in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. The police have resources and powers, but are committed their energies to the destruction of this large underclass of drug addicts.  (Here we see the same critique as David Simon would later make.)  A third group, examined only in the background is the “square” public who support the police state with their taxes and political energy.  They are fearful of the expansion of the drug culture and want to protect their families.  Bob Arctor begins the novel meeting with a group of these paranoid citizens.  As we rarely see them again, we can suspect they live in gated communities and suffer few, if any, of the negative consequences of the war against Substance D.

Individuals in the underclass see their life destroyed.  Arctor (at least his drug addicted side) will live out his life with a fried brain in a rehab clinic.  Frink tries to kill himself.  In the macro sense, it is hard to argue that the police are winnings.  Drugs are easily available on the streets.  The underclass has its own networks and institutions as well.  As with the current war on drugs, it was a war of attrition that rarely brings clear victory.  If it is unwinnable, what is the purpose of fighting the drug culture?  In part it is a media event.  A major bust to put the public at ease and help defend the institutions of the police.  Of course, it is tragic for all of those directly involved, police and users.

Another theme in the novel is the relationship between a surveillance society and paranoia.  This is made most clear with Bob Arctor again, who is paranoid all the time about being watched and it also the watcher.  In fact, all sides in the drug war are paranoid.  The users and dealers are always on guard against police actions, the police need to be careful about the motives of every informer, and the people in the gated communities are fearful that the next knock on the door will be an armed drug addict looking for cash.  Some of this paranoia (maybe all of it) is justified.  In the case of Arctor and his friends, there are police watching them.  The house is bugged.  They are not even capable of purchasing a bicycle without paranoia (of course some of this is the drugs).

We should also note that the affect of Substance D on people is not so unlike the effect liquid modernity has on people.  It splits our mind, divides our attention, causes displacement, a lack of solid grounding, paranoia, odd and irrational behavior.  Substance D users embrace liquid relationships as well.  Many of the themes in Dicks novels from the 1960s emerge again, but in this novel they are expressed as the consequence of the use of a horrible drug.  Sadly, as the fate of Bob Arctor shows, the purpose remains some baseline economic exploitation.  Thinking back to my earlier posts on Dick (this is number 29), I cannot think of any example where a liquid material reality has a purpose other than exploitation.