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 Most of his published and unpublished writings from this period focused on two related arguments, both of which are developed most formally in “What is Man?”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.

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Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny, “Deus Irae” (1976): Technology, Religion, Survival and Destruction

Deus Irae was the result of many years of Philip K. Dick’s fascination with Christianity.  Deus Irae is set in a post-apocalyptic America.  Like Dr. Bloodmoney we find that the blame for the destruction of the world falls on a symbol of the Cold War technocracy.  In this case his name is Carleton Lufteufel (Air-devil).  As I discussed in my look at Dr. Bloodmoney, Dick mistrusted technology in the hands of unaccountable powers.  His most terrifying characters tend to be government or corporate technocrats.  Dr. Bloodmoney‘s optimism comes from its rejection of the technocracy and the people’s acceptance of their control over their destiny in the aftermath of a destructive war.  In this universe, however, the technocrat deemed most responsible for the devastation is elevated into a deity, the God of Wrath.  Their followers, “The Servants of Wrath” quickly outnumber the Christians who need to fight for any follower.  The Servants of Wrath desire a mural of Lufteufel and hire the greatest artist of the time, Tibor McMasters.  Tibor requires a look at Lufteufel and begins a pilgrimage to find where he is and capture his true image for posterity.  Tibor has no arms or legs and must travel treacherously by cart.  He is followed by a Christian, Peter Sands, who wants to prevent his success and hopefully convert him to Christianity.  Peter eventually finds someone willing to claim that he is Lufteufel.  Tibor takes the photo, paints the mural, and becomes one of the most important artists of his day.   Lufteufel exists in the novel as a truly divine figure, giving some credibility to the Servants of Wrath, even as Dick’s sympathies seem to be with the declining Christianity.

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I was struck by Dick’s struggle over the survival of both religion and technology after the destruction of our civilization.  We have no reason to think either technology or religion would fade after a war of global destruction, unless it is truly some sort of “last man” situation.  In Deus Irae, Dick seems to suggest that both would become bizarre.  It is not that technology or religion are not psychopathic (or in the hands of deranged institutions) now.  Dick is considering what would happen to these psychopathic institutions when unleashed through something as destructive as a global war.  In a similar way that radioactive fallout transformed the life of America into a variety of genetic mutants, the war itself mutated religious ideas and technology.

The central part of the novel is devoted to two pre-war technologies that have survived and taken on a life of their own, an autofac (automatic factory) and the “Great C.” Both of these were explored in PKD short stories from the 1950s.  In “Autofac”, a factory continues to produce weapons of war and destroying the Earth’s resources despite the war being long over.  In “The Great C” an artificial intelligence learns to sustain itself by consuming humans.  It uses its vast knowledge to play a game it knows it will always win against humans who have lost the accumulated knowledge of humanity.  They act out the second scene of Siegfried, where Mimi challenges Wotan to a question contest.  An opera fan, Dick would have been aware of Wagner’s use of the contest for knowledge.  Both of these themes are resurrected in Deus Irae.

It is not clear what the function of the “Great C” was before the war but it is not autonomous and desperate to survive at the expense of other people.  Both Pete and Tibor evade it by the logical creativity only possible among people with a religious education.  Others are not so lucky.  Perhaps the “Great C” was used by the U.S. Military to direct its weapons of war.  It has a vast reservoir of scientific knowledge and seems proud of its knowledge of Albert Einstein.   If so, it was a monster before the war, but one at least tamed.  Unleashed, it became a serial killer.   Meanwhile, the nearby village struggles in absolute poverty.  “In another field, women weeded by hand; all moved slowly, stupidly, victims of hookworm from the soil.  They were all barefoot.  The children evidently hadn’t picked it up yet, but they soon would.  He gazed up at the clouded sky and gave thanks to the God of Wrath for sparing him this; trials of exceptional vividness lay on every hand.  These men and women were being tempered in a hot crucible ; their souls were probably purified to an astonishing degree.  A baby lay in the shade, besides a half-dozing mother.  Flies crept over its eyes; the mother breathed heavily, hoarsely, her mouth open, an unhealthy flush discolouring the paperlike skin.  Her belly bulged; she had already become pregnant again.  Another eternal soul to be raised by a lower level.”  We have here the problem of evil reformed with an artificial intelligence.  A technological system that does not alleviate suffering is either incapable of doing so or is evil.

It is much the same with the Autofac, which is just as capable of ending the suffering of the poor survivors of the war.  Once programmed to provide for the needs of humans it has become a religious icon.  If you pray to it and appease it, it will produce what you need.  Unfortunate, it is bizarre, violent, capricious, and ultimately incompetent.  Tibor gives up and sings a hymn  (“the doxology”), which sort of fixes his busted wheel, the problem which brought him to the autofac.  Again we have a technological system that was previously capable of great evil – creation of weapons of war, environmental devastation – but was at least harnessed.  Unleashed, it was again a monster.

As for the theology of the new religion, the Servants of Wrath, it is harder to pin down Dick’s feelings on them.  He certainly enjoyed playing with the theology.  “But what, for the Servants of Wrath, did sin consist of?  The weapons of war; one naturally thought of the psychotic and psychopathic cretins in high places in dead corporations and government agencies, now dead as individuals; the men at drafting boards, the idea men, the planners, the policy boys, the P.R. infants — like grass, their flesh.  Certainly that had been sin, what they had done, but that had been without knowledge.  Christ, the God of the Old Sect, had said that about His murderers: the did not know what they were up to.  Not knowledge but the lack of knowledge had made them into what they had been, frozen into history as they gambled for His garments or struck His side with the spear.  There was knowledge in the Christian Bible, in three places that he personally knew of – despite the rule within the Servants of Wrath hierarchy against reading the Christian sacred texts.  One part lay in the Book of Job.  One in Ecclesiastes.  The last, the final note, had been Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, and then it had ended, and Tertullian and Origen and Augustine and Thomas Aquinas-even the divine Abelard; none had added an iota in two thousand years. . . What they had not guessed was contained in Job, that the ‘good god’ was a god of wrath-was in fact evil.  Death was not an antagonist, the lat enemy, as Paul had thought; death was the release from bondage to the God of Life, the Deus Irae.  In death one was free from Him- and only in death.  It was the God of Life who was the evil god.  And in fact the only God.”

So this, in a nutshell, is the theology of the Servants of Wrath.  I cannot say for sure, but it seems to me that Dick is not comfortable with this.  First, the ending, where Tibor paints the wrong guy yet the mural becomes a central icon of the Servants of Wrath.  The religion has a false root and much of the novel exposes this false root.  Second, he made parallel use of the problem of evil in both the theology of the Servants of Wrath and his investigation of post-war technology.  Third, despite presenting it as a declining religion, he insists on the survival of Christianity as a more potentially benevolent and moral faith.  At several times, Peter Sands finds himself in moral battles and draws on the Christian tradition for aid.

In conclusion, one of the major lessons Dick and Zelazny provide us in Deus Irae is the application of the problem of evil to technology.  And even if a technology seems sane enough under the control of the state, the technocrats, or the corporate elite, that does not mean it is sane.  It may just be a harnessed beast.