Sunday, March 26, 2017

Twain abolishes himself - There would have been results! Indeed yes.

Harper’s Bazar asked a number of authors to write on the topic “The Turning Point of My Life.”  I believe Twain’s response was his last published piece (Feb. 1910) during his lifetime.  It was not quite the last thing he wrote – that was the almost unreadable “The Death of Jean” (Christmas 1909), a howl of pain on the sudden death of his youngest daughter.

A month ago I was writing bubbling and hilarious articles for magazines yet to appear, and now I am writing – this.

So, back to the bubbles.  “Turning Point” does include, briefly, an account of Twain’s career – how I became a writer – but it is just one more data point in his decade-long argument about determinism.  All events, all endeavors, are the result of circumstance and temperament, itself pre-determined by who knows what.  We do what we do because we are the way we are, moving within a vast chain of events outside our control.  Twain became a writer because Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon – it’s a long, long chain – and because Adam ate the apple and because Sam Clemens had the measles when he was twelve.

The whole village was interested, and anxious, and sent for news of me every day; and not only once a day, but several times.  Everybody believed I would die; but on the fourteenth day a change came for the worse and they were disappointed. (932)

And there were other steps, similarly unplanned, that made Twain a printer, or a riverboat pilot, or a silver miner, or a humor writer.

Leaving the Rubicon incident away back where it belongs, I can say with truth that the reason I am in the literary profession is because I had the measles when I was twelve-years-old. (935)

“Turning Point” is the friendly, public face of Twain’s fatalism, laid out in tedious detail in the What Is Man? pamphlet (1906), a Platonic dialogue in which the Old Man browbeats the Young Man into scientistic, psychologistic determinism, man as not a higher animal, but a middlin’ animal, somewhere below the ants.

As is normal in a Platonic dialogue, the victim sticks to the examples, rather than going after the premises, in this case taking a long time to realize that he is trapped in a logically closed system where examples are useless, even when the Old Man openly admits this to the case.  Having once sought the Truth, and having believed that he has found it,

[t]he rest of my days will be spent in patching and painting and puttying and caulking my priceless possession, and in looking the other way when an imploring argument or damaging fact approaches.  (781)

Refreshing!  Determinism is Twain’s solution, to his own psychological satisfaction, to the problem of evil.  His late life obsession with Satan and Bible stories is part of his writing on theodicy.  Twain does not seem to want God and creation to be evil, so he prefers to abolish free will.  It’s all out of our hands.  The great problem with this strain of Twain’s writing is that he mostly seems to be arguing with idiots, like the Young Man in his dialogue.  Sunday school fundamentalists who do not understand their own arguments.  I see why these people are frustrating; still, maybe it would be better to give up arguing with strangers on Facebook, so to speak.

On the other hand, who does this with more spirit and laughs than Twain?  He ends “Turning Point” with an alternative world, in which the first man is Martin Luther and woman Joan of Arc, “equipped with temperaments not made of butter, but of asbestos,” who resist Satan, and God.

There would have been results!  Indeed yes.  The apple would be intact to-day: there would be no human race; there would be no you; there would be no me.  And the old, old creation-dawn scheme of ultimately launching me into the literary guild would have been defeated.  (938)

Twain ends his career – this is the end of the piece – by abolishing himself.  This is how the Library of America Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1891-1910 ends.  It is a bold move, and cosmically funny.


  1. (This might be a duplicate comment; Blogger might have devoured my first attempt.)

    Yes! Neither Clemens nor Twain could escape the Calvinist brainwashing of his childhood. I am paraphrasing here, but Clemens said: any adult who thinks he has abandoned and replaced the religious training of his childhood is fooling himself. As a Christian malgre lui myself, I am in full sympathy with the man's assessment of the inescapable influences of a Calvinist childhood. Both Ron Powers and Justin Kaplan have important background information on this aspect of Clemens/Twain in their biographies.

  2. The inescapable influences of any childhood.

  3. I like your comparison of Twain arguing with fundamentalists and people on Facebook. Sadly, some things never change.

  4. We all need to spend some time making futile, pointless arguments in order to develop our rhetorical skills. That part I understand. But Twain is already a master. Yes, the Noah's Ark story makes no sense - obviously! The Noah's Ark section of "Letters from the Earth" is savage and hilarious, but as a piece of argumentation it seemed a bit beneath Twain. As Tim said, sixty years later he is still arguing with his childhood Calvinism, which, admittedly, is still all around him.

  5. Twain was a great fan of Robert Ingersoll. My guess is that he was making some private experiments in Ingersoll's vein, probably because he couldn't stop himself. The big religious mystery for me is the "Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc." Why did an anti-clerical francophobe like Twain write that book?

  6. I haven't read the novel, but I had exactly that question about the 1904 article "Saint Joan of Arc," which seemed entirely admiring and, what's worse, sincere! I was baffled.

  7. Anti-clerical? Hmmm....
    Methinks Clemens/Twain did protest too much. In some ways, Clemens was a bit like Hazel Motes in Flannery O'Connor's _Wise Blood_, running away from Christ and God but not being particularly successful in his escape.

  8. Maybe I should note that the late texts I have been describing are not so much anti-Christian as anti-Biblical. Twain was outraged that people still took what he saw as the fictions of the Bible so seriously. It is the Hebrew Bible that really gets him worked up, not the Gospels.

    Joan of Arc, whatever she was, is not a Biblical character.

  9. Yes, anti-clerical, in the sense that he often satirized organized religion. He goes after Catholicism as a bar to progress in "Connecticut Yankee," phony religious relics in "Innocents Abroad," and Biblical literalism in "Letters to the Earth." Protestant hypocrisy gets a sound drubbing in "Huck Finn" and "The War Prayer." That doesn't mean he was irreligious or atheist; many devout Christians would agree with him.

    I read "Joan of Arc" some time in the last century, so I don't remember much about it, except that he treated her more respectfully than Shakespeare or Voltaire did. When he wrote the book, she had not yet been canonized.

  10. "Letters from the Earth," I mean. Oh, those prepositions.

  11. The anti-clericalism was ongoing. Twain's primary belief was that people are fools, mostly.