Mark Twain: “The Innocents Abroad” (1869): Part Two

“Gray lizards, those heirs of ruin, of sepulchers and desolation, glided in and out among the rocks of lay still and sunned themselves. Where prosperity has reigned, and fallen; where glory has flamed, and gone out; where beauty has dwelt, and passed away; where gladness was, and sorrow is; where the pomp of life has been, and silence and death brood in its high places, there this reptile makes his home, and mocks at human vanity. His coat is the color of ashes; and ashes are the symbol of hopes that have perished, of aspirations that came to nought, of loves that are buried. If he could speak, he would say, Built temples: I will lord it in their ruins; build palaces: I will inhabit them; erect empires: I will inherit them; bury your beautiful: I will watch the worms at their work; and you, who state here and moralize over me: I will crawl over your corpse at the last.” (387)

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Mark Twain was inspired to write these words by visiting the “Holy Land.” He saw both the decline of the Ottoman empire and the relics of ancient empires that existed in the Levant. In the same section, Mark Twain suggest that the tourists, himself and his companions on the voyage, were not much better than grave robbers or perhaps necrophiliacs in their fetish of these fallen worlds. He uses the term “tomb-desecraters” for his companions, adding that “whithersoever they go they destroy and spare not.” (390)

The second half of Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad continues the adventures of the band of mostly Christian tourists on board the Quaker City as they explore all the required sites of the Mediterranean. After braving their way through France and Italy (including a risky venture to the known dangerous Mt. Vesuvius). They prepared to head to Russia and the Ottoman Empire, two empires frequently at war. Thankfully they survive all of this and return home safely have their experiences documented by the then obscure Western writer Twain. They will live on in history as some of the great explorers of the nineteenth century.

The dark cloud over The Innocents Abroad is the end of wild spaces. Even the apparently underpopulated regions of the Ottoman Empire that they visited were prepared for the tourists, with all the necessary wares, transportation modes, and proper sites. I suppose it is much worse today, as Holy Land tourism is booming. Twain acknowledges the tedium of tourism when the Quaker City reached a Russian city (Odessa I think), where there was nothing important to see according to the guide books. Of course, this created an interesting moment in which they group could enjoy a slightly more authentic day, without having everything planned, arranged, and commercialized. In contrast is the visit to the pyramids where they were surrounded by people eager to take them to the summit. “Of course we were besieged by a rabble of muscular Egyptians and Arabs who wanted the contract of dragging us to the top—all tourists are.” (496)

I rather enjoyed the moments documented by Twain when the ship’s crew got a good laugh at the tourists’ pretentions and self-confidence. These sailors were more likely than the middle and upper class tourists to be real adventurers. After bumping into the Russia royalty while in Southern Russia during their Black Sea component of their tour, the Americans fell into awe of the spectacle of the empire. I never quite understood what Americans (or British for that matter) saw interesting in the British royal family. I suspect that the answer to why—despite an anti-monarchical revolution—Americans still like to gawk at nobility can be found somewhere in this book. Anyway, on the return to the ship, the sailors had some good fun recreating the silly tourists and the feeble attempts impress the Russian nobility. One suspects the sailors had no such desire to lick the boots of those authority figures. They particularly enjoyed mocking the silly address that the tourists wrote. The sailors have a point, as Twain realizes. It did open with the silly: “We are a handful of private citizens of America, travelling simply for recreation,—and unostentatiously, as becomes our unofficial state—and therefore, we have no excuse to tender for presenting ourselves before your Majesty.” (321)

I think there is something quite fascinating about the Ottoman Empire’s relative success at diversity. This was not uncommon in early modern Asian empires (the Manchu Qing and the Mughals had similar ethnic openness), but did run against the trend of nineteenth century European empires based as they were on scientific racism and nationalism. I am less pro-imperial than I am anti-nationalist, and I find the apparent ease at which the Ottomans lived with diversity fascinating and something we can learn from. Twain certainly noticed that during his visit to Constantinople and other locations in the Empire. At the same time, Twain was impressed with how modern Constantinople seemed to him. He felt the railroad to the city looked out of place.

Twain saves his most depressed commentary on empire for the journey through the Holy Land, which he constantly sees as a tomb, depopulated and abandoned. (Now I know that some ink has been spilled over these descriptions in respect to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The suggestion has been made, I forgot by whom, that Palestinians are an invented people. That Twain saw so few of them in the 1867 suggests that they were not true occupiers of the region. According to my reading, the region was sparsely populated by a diverse group of people,—“particularly uncomely Jews, Arabs, and negroes”— but I will let the experts go at it). The vision of an impoverished and devastated “Holy Land” is clearest in his descriptions of Magdala, full of “vermin-tortured vagabonds,” beggars, and the crippled. It seems Jesus checked out before he completed his task. These places where which were more “wild” in the sense of being untamed by profit motif are easily seen by tourists as backward and dangerous.

palestine

I found the most powerful moments in this book to be Twain’s often sad commentary on the fate of empires and the relationship of a forward thinking people without history to the past. I am reminded suddenly of the Chinese tourist who defaced an Egyptian artifact. Such a crime is only possible from someone who has lost all connection to their own past and is thus unable to respect the past of the others. But how is it better to fetishize the past? In any case, the defacement of the Egyptian tombs started when they were opened up to tourists, not when the Chinese youth took out his carving knife.

The engraving by a Chinese student

The engraving by a Chinese student

Egypt, Open for business

Egypt, Open for business

 

Algis Budrys, “Who?” (1958)

Continuing with the Library of America‘s survey of the “golden age of science fiction,” (collected in two volumes) I read Algis Budry’s Who?  I am struck, after looking at a few of these, how short most of these novels are.  Yes, there are a handful of longer novels from this genre, but the 150-200 page standard seems to dominate.  The vast majority of Philip K. Dicks novels are around 150-200 pages, and contain 12-15 chapters.  I guess this is due to the genre’s connection to magazines or the assumed juvenile audience.  In any case, we should not let this distract us from the brilliance contained in some of these works.  They are short, and yes they often fail to fully develop the ideas they introduce, but they nevertheless have messages for us.  Most of these messages and questions remain useful to us.  Who? asked three major questions.  How does technology shape who we are?  How does technology (and technocracy) undermine our human relations?  And, how – in the modern era – do institutions take the role in defining us, undermining our capacity for self-identification?

budrys

Plot: The Cold War divided the world between the Western allies and the Soviet bloc.  Tensions lead to strictly maintained borders, spying, covert plans for weapons developments, and the incorporation of scientists into the state, war-making apparatus.  A scientist, Martino, is captured by the Soviets after an explosion in his lab.  He was working on a top-secret (and never fully defined) weapons system called K-88.  Martino is returned to the allies months later, with a bionic arm and a metal mask – all necessary to repair the damage caused by the explosion.  The allies task is to now discover if the “man” is Martino.  Actually there are three options.  (1) He is Martino and is capable of resuming work on K-88, without risk to the project.  (2)  He is Martino but brainwashed and therefore now a Soviet spy.  (3) Martino is dead or in Soviet control and this “Man” is an expert spy.  Experiments follow for months.  They are unable to determine with any clarity who the “Man” is, although he professes to be Martino.  Even attempts to follow him, observe his life, and make a psychological diagnosis fail, especially when it is learned that an old college roommate of his was a Soviet spy and the “Man” may very well be that old roommate, making use of all the knowledge about Martino he accumulated – including old girlfriends.  The government gives up and “Martino” retires to be a farmer.  An attempt is made to bring him out of retirement but “Martino” refuses and in the end announces that he is not Martino at all.  Whether this is a biological designation of a result of his changed lifestyle is not clearly stated.  Flashbacks to Martino’s previous life and his time in Soviet custody do not answer the novels’ central plot questions.  All three options are possible at the close of the novel.

Technology and Identity: The significant problem is that technology has separated Martino from the outside world and made it impossible for others to recognize, trust, or interact with him.  “Martino” makes his final claim to be someone else is true.  He is no longer a scientist.  He is isolated from his work and loved ones.  He has taken up a job as a farmer.  “I’m not a physicist.  I’m a farmer.  I can’t do that stuff any more!” (671)  This is a frighting and liberating realization.  As I explored before with the question of desertion in Melville’s work, we often look at our life and express fear at alternatives because they are unknown.  We prefer the slavery of a marriage, a mortgage, a job to autonomy.  To the degree we are our place in society, we fear any alternative.  Martino was forced to find an alternative, weeding crops and applying fertilizer.  His technological upgrades and shortened lifespan forced him into isolation.  In a way he is lucky.  Who would want to return to the shenanigans of Cold War science and weapon’s development?  Martino, when he was a scientist, could think of nothing better to do.  Technology, by defacing him, provided him an escape.  It is also important to note he did not become the technology.  So much cyberpunk and fears about cell-phones and Facebook rest on the assumption that the technology defines us.  This only worked partially for Martino.  Ironically, the mechanization of his body allowed him to become a low-tech farmer.

Technology and Human Relations:  Where technology did negatively affect “Martino” was in his inability to interact in the same way with former colleagues, lovers, friends.  If his identify changed, it was through the abolition of the human dimensions of his life.

The State and Self-Identification: When we identify ourselves and someone else says “Not so fast!” we come face to face with the horror of modernity.  “Martino” declared himself the scientist Martino but without independent verification his claims were a lie.  For the plot, this is just a reflection of Cold War paranoia, but I want to go farther with it.  Our value in society is derivative of our value to the state or capital.  By extension our self-identity matters less than what can be objectively proven and utilized.  “Martino” was only valuable as a scientist, of course.  The other matters of his life only came into view when they could be used to establish his identity.  We all experience this phenomenon during job interviews, border crossings, and banks.  In the not so distant past, Inquisitions simply could not accept ones proclamations as true.  The entire concept of the inquisition was the inability of individuals to be authentically Christian without external verification.  Nation-states do not allow individual identity.  No, identify for the nation-state is a product of education, shared folklore, common language, or a shared history.

Who? does much more than warn us about how technology can change who we are.   Budrys’ real concern is the phenomenon of other people defining us.  In the bipolar world where your values are a product of which side of a line you are on, it is made clear, but it happens to all of us in our working lives.  This is why our resumes tell us what other people should value in ourselves.  They are, of course, incapable of saying who we are.  And we fall into this trap every time someone asks us “What do you do?” and we reply with a job title.