The Jester and the Sages: Mark Twain in Conversation with Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx

The Jester and the Sages: Mark Twain in Conversation with Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx

The Jester and the Sages: Mark Twain in Conversation with Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx

The Jester and the Sages: Mark Twain in Conversation with Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx

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The Jester and the Sages approaches the life and work of Mark Twain by placing him in conversation with three eminent philosophers of his time—Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and Karl Marx. Unprecedented in Twain scholarship, this interdisciplinary analysis by Forrest G. Robinson, Gabriel Noah Brahm Jr., and Catherine Carlstroem rescues the American genius from his role as funny-man by exploring how his reflections on religion, politics, philosophy, morality, and social issues overlap the philosophers’ developed thoughts on these subjects. Remarkably, they had much in common.

During their lifetimes, Twain, Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx witnessed massive upheavals in Western constructions of religion, morality, history, political economy, and human nature. The foundations of reality had been shaken, and one did not need to be a philosopher—nor did one even need to read philosophy—to weigh in on what this all might mean. Drawing on a wide range of primary and secondary materials, the authors show that Twain was well attuned to debates of the time. Unlike his Continental contemporaries, however, he was not as systematic in developing his views.

Brahm and Robinson’s chapter on Nietzsche and Twain reveals their subjects’ common defiance of the moral and religious truisms of their time. Both desired freedom, resented the constraints of Christian civilization, and saw punishing guilt as the disease of modern man. Pervasive moral evasion and bland conformity were the principal end result, they believed.

In addition to a continuing focus on guilt, Robinson discovers in his chapter on Freud and Twain that the two men shared a lifelong fascination with the mysteries of the human mind. From the formative influence of childhood and repression, to dreams and the unconscious, the mind could free people or keep them in perpetual chains. The realm of the unconscious was of special interest to both men as it pertained to the creation of art.

In the final chapter, Carlstroem and Robinson explain that, despite significant differences in their views of human nature, history, and progress, Twain and Marx were both profoundly disturbed by economic and social injustice in the world. Of particular concern was the gulf that industrial capitalism opened between the privileged elite property owners and the vast class of property-less workers. Moralists impatient with conventional morality, Twain and Marx wanted to free ordinary people from the illusions that enslaved them.

Twain did not know the work's of Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx well, yet many of his thoughts cross those of his philosophical contemporaries. By focusing on the deeper aspects of Twain’s intellectual makeup, Robinson, Brahm, and Carlstroem supplement the traditional appreciation of the forces that drove Twain’s creativity and the dynamics of his humor.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826219527
Publisher: University of Missouri Press
Publication date: 12/30/2011
Series: Mark Twain and His Circle , #1
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 174
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Forrest G. Robinson, Professor of Humanities at the University of California-Santa Cruz, is the author or editor of ten books, including The Cambridge Companion to Mark Twain. He lives in Santa Cruz. Assistant Professor of English at Northern Michigan University.

Gabriel Noah Brahm, Jr., is the coeditor of Prosthetic Territories: Politics and Hypertechnologies. He lives in Marguette, Michigan.

Catherine M. Carlstroem is a Lecturer in the Humanities at the University of California-Santa Cruz. She lives in Santa Cruz.

The Mark Twain and His Circle Series, edited by Tom Quirk and John Bird

Read an Excerpt

The Jester and the Sages

By Mark Twain

University of Missouri Press

Copyright © 2011 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8262-1952-7

Chapter One

Twain and Nietzsche

Gabriel Noah Brahm Jr. and Forrest G. Robinson

In early July, 1906, Mark Twain's secretary, Isabel Lyon, was advised by a friend to read Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra. A week later, on July 13, she exclaimed in her diary, "'Zarathustra' has arrived!" Lyon was immediately taken with the book. "Here I am," she reported the next day, "reading 'Thus spoke Zarathustra' and I do not pretend to be qualified to say how wonderful I find it." Her enthusiasm seems to have spread through the household. A month later, on August 8, Lyon records that "the King [her nickname for Mark Twain] wanted to see my Zarathustra. It pained me to give him up, but I did it. And after the King had looked through it he said, 'Oh damn Nietzsche! He couldn't write a lucid sentence to save his soul.'" Lyon goes on, "Somehow I am glad he doesn't like Zarathustra. Very, very glad—but I shall be able to quote some passages to him—some telling passages—for Nietzsche is too much like himself."

Twain's initial response to Nietzsche, it seems clear, was like Freud's, a retreat from familiarity prompted by the glimpse of a spirit "too much like himself" for comfort. A kindred ambivalence surfaced two days later. "The King says, 'Damn Nietzsche' when I offer a quotation for the King's approval. First he damns—but then he approves with his head on one side in his quaint listening attitude." Lyon continued for several months to plumb the depth of the analogy between the two writers, and by early autumn fell to praising her employer for his defiance of the "criminal" Christian God, "the one who made man so that he has to sin and can't help himself." "Like Nietzsche," she continues, Twain's "cry was not one of weak pity for the human, but of fierce condemnation for the creator of the devils that war within the human breast." Nor, quite evidently—and quite despite his gruff dismissals—was the humorist unmindful of his kinship with the infamous German. In an autobiographical dictation on September 4, 1907, he declares that he has not read Nietzsche, but acknowledges at the same time a certain familiarity and sympathy with the German's ideas. "Nietzsche published his book," Twain declares, "and was at once pronounced crazy by the world—by a world which included tens of thousands of bright, sane men who believed exactly as Nietzsche believed but concealed the fact and scoffed at Nietzsche" (MTP).

While it is perfectly clear that Mark Twain was aware of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, there is no evidence that he more than glanced at the book, or that its author was a direct influence in any of his writings. Twain's philosophical ideas had pretty much jelled by the time Isabel Lyon brought Nietzsche to his attention. Her acute perception of a likeness between the two writers was undoubtedly triggered by her familiarity with What Is Man? the Socratic dialogue and "Gospel of Self" that Twain was preparing for publication in the spring of 1906. What Is Man? gives voice to ideas that had been smoldering for decades and that Twain felt compelled to write down and preserve for posterity. But because the book was relentless in its exposure of human selfishness, he elected to issue it in a small and anonymous edition for private circulation. Lyon, who helped with the proofreading, was an enthusiastic admirer of the subversive sentiments on display in What Is Man? It is "so absorbingly interesting," she wrote in her diary, "that once you begin a galley, you can't stop until you've read all the batch. And Mr. Clemens does like it so much! It is his pet book." It is a reasonable surmise, then, that Lyon's enthusiasm for Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which she received just a few weeks later, was fueled by its perceived intellectual kinship with her employer's defiant little tract.

Others have followed Lyon in glimpsing an affinity between Twain and Nietzsche. Carl Dolmetsch finds no evidence of direct influence, but observes nonetheless that Nietzsche's ideas were "commonplaces" of the "European intellectual milieu" that Twain entered during his residence in Vienna in 1897–1899, when he first set to work on What Is Man? Jennifer L. Zaccara is equally measured in what she describes as Twain's "acceptance of a Nietzschean worldview." It is a virtual certainty, she argues, that the American would have become aware of Nietzsche's nihilism during his stay in Vienna. She is quick to add, however, that "Twain came to a nihilistic vision on his own ... and that he nurtured this dark view of the world over the years" before the Austrian sojourn. We concur entirely with Zaccara that Twain's intellectual debt to Nietzsche was small, involving little more than confirmation of an enduring trend. At the same time, however, we have found that the similarities between the thought of the two writers are closer and much more numerous than the scholars have recognized. The link that Isabel Lyon glimpsed in 1906, and that Dolmetsch and Zaccara briefly elaborate, is one matching element among many others in the separate but parallel ideas of Nietzsche and Twain on the human condition. Indeed, we suspect that had the two writers met and compared views, they would have experienced a stunning shock of recognition.

Though we assign Nietzsche's work to philosophy and Twain's to literature, both writers were brilliant psychologists with a common and compelling interest in the submerged wellsprings of human behavior. Both were maverick moralists given to immoralist masquerades. Both shared Freud's interest in the unconscious, his inclination to trace modern discontent to the tyranny of suppressed or unacknowledged psychic phenomena, and his generally dark prognosis for civilization at the end of the nineteenth century. Indeed, both were at times disposed to view the world as a madhouse. "The earth," Nietzsche exclaims in The Genealogy of Morals, "has been a lunatic asylum for too long" (GM 227). Twain's Satan takes the same view, writing back to hell that earth "is a strange place, an extraordinary place, and interesting. There is nothing resembling it at home. The people are all insane." But even as they condemned the modern world, both writers tended to exempt humans from responsibility for their condition. The belief in free will, they agreed, was as groundless as the unseen engines of behavior were real. Nietzsche was persuaded of what he described as "man's complete lack of responsibility for his behavior and for his nature," while Twain never wearied of blaming God or temperament or circumstance for human degradation. "Why do you reproach yourself?" asks Satan. "You did not make yourself; how then are you to blame?" (MS 250). The writers were alike, then, in mingling contempt for humans with a belief in their essential innocence.

The madness of the world was most broadly manifest for Nietzsche and Twain in hegemonic Christian civilization. "I can think of no development that has had a more pernicious effect upon the health of the race," the German declares, than the Christian ascetic ideal. "It may be called, without exaggeration, the supreme disaster in the history of European man's health" (GM 280). For his part, Mark Twain took the view that there had never been "a stupider religion" than Christianity,9 that in time it would be recognized "that all the competent killers are Christian" (MS 137), and that modern Christendom might best be imagined as "a majestic matron, in flowing robes drenched with blood. On her head, a golden crown of thorns; impaled on spines, the bleeding heads of patriots who died for their countries—Boers, Boxers, Filipinos; ... Protruding from [her] pocket, [a] bottle labeled 'We bring you the Blessings of Civilization. Necklace—handcuffs and a burglar's jimmy.'" Though his indictment was broader than Nietzsche's, Twain certainly shared the philosopher's view that Christian civilization was most lethal in its infliction of psychological suffering on individual believers. He returned to this point on numerous occasions, but nowhere more memorably than in The Mysterious Stranger, where Satan inveighs against

a God who could make good children as easily as bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who could have made every one of them happy, yet never made a single happy one; ... who gave his angels painless lives, yet cursed his other children with biting miseries and maladies of mind and body; who mouths justice, and invented hell—mouths mercy, and invented hell—mouths Golden Rules, and forgiveness multiplied by seventy times seven, and invented hell; ... who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man's acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon himself; and finally, with altogether divine obtuseness, invites this poor abused slave to worship him! (MS 404–5)

Nietzsche traces the malaise of modernity back to the ancient origins of what he describes as "slave morality." "All truly noble morality," he writes, "grows out of triumphant self-affirmation. Slave ethics, on the other hand, begins by saying no to an 'outside,' an 'other,' a non-self, and that no is its creative act" (GM 170–71). Such ressentiment, closely linked for Nietzsche with Christianity, arose historically out of the hatred of the weak for the strong, of the slave for the master. But because their survival necessitated the repression of the craving for power and revenge, the weak internalized their aggressive instincts. The result was an intensification of consciousness, and with it the development of a punishing conscience. Having turned his desire for outward revenge inward upon himself, the now "guilt-ridden man seized upon religion in order to exacerbate his self-torment to the utmost" (GM 226). To the very considerable extent that slave morality achieved hegemony in the Christian West, revenge upon the masters, now themselves humbled and disciplined by the new dispensation, was achieved. But the victory, earned at the price of surrender to "the most terrible sickness that has wasted man thus far," was of course no victory at all. Driven by furtive resentment of all that is noble and free, and inwardly tormented by remorseless guilt, humankind was in thrall to a parched, punishing regime. "What a mad, unhappy animal is man!" Nietzsche declares (GM 226).

It is perhaps the most painful irony of all that humans are innocent of the terrible guilt unleashed upon them by their proud but utterly groundless morality of good and evil. "My demand upon the philosopher is known," Nietzsche proclaims, "that he take his stand beyond good and evil and leave the illusion of moral judgment beneath himself." Where there is no possibility of wrong there can be no real guilt, only its crippling illusion. "The bite of conscience," he insists, "like the bite of a dog into a stone, is a stupidity." The historical assault on the free outward play of instinct was for Nietzsche the commencement of all our mortal woe. "Every naturalism in morality," he argues, "every healthy morality—is dominated by an instinct of life.... Anti-natural morality—that is, almost every morality which has so far been taught, revered, and preached—turns, conversely, against the instincts of life." More directly and succinctly still: "All that is good is instinct—and hence easy, necessary, free."

Who that has read Mark Twain's most famous novel can fail to be reminded of Huck's words at the end of chapter 18, when he has escaped the murderous, moralizing Christian civilization along the shore and rejoined his friend Jim on the raft in the middle of wide Mississippi? "We said there warn't no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don't. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft" (HF 155). The fugitive boy's feelings directly reflect those of his maker, who enjoyed drifting down great rivers precisely because of the peace of mind—and most especially the freedom from nagging guilt—brought on by the journey. Ten days of rafting on the Rhone in 1891, Twain wrote to his friend, Joseph Twichell, left his "conscience in a state of coma, and lazy comfort, and solid happiness. In fact there's nothing that's so lovely." A kindred sentiment surfaces to view in the title of Twain's unpublished manuscript The Innocents Adrift, a section of which was posthumously published in Europe and Elsewhere. "To glide down the stream in an open boat, moved by the current only," and thereby to experience "a strange absence of the sense of sin, and the stranger absence of the desire to commit it," was for Twain the height of attainable mortal bliss.

But of course neither the writer nor his most famous protagonist were able for very long to avoid the shore, and the inevitable anguish awaiting them there. Huck's subsequent "adventures" present constant and baffling challenges to his sense of right and wrong. At one crucial juncture, when his instinctive loyalty to Jim draws him into conflict with conventional values, he rounds toward a Nietzschean perspective on morality. "Well, then, says I, what's the use you learning to do right, when it's troublesome to do right and ain't no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? I was stuck. I couldn't answer that. So I reckoned I wouldn't bother no more about it, but after this always do whichever came handiest at the time" (HF 128). Despite his resolve, Huck underestimates the subtle and tenacious authority of the moral scheme in which he is entangled. In time, however, when complete disenchantment finally sets in, he decides to sever all ties with Christian civilization. "I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest," he reflects, "because aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can't stand it. I been there before" (HF 362).

Twain and Huck are closely akin to Nietzsche in their approval of instinct, of all that is easy, natural, and free, and in their corresponding impatience with Christian civilization and its irrational tyranny of conscience. During his long, varied, and often tumultuous life, guilt was the humorist's special curse. "The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut," in which Twain claims to have murdered his odious conscience, makes comedy of what was in fact a permanent blight on his spirit. "Remorse was always [his] surest punishment," observes Albert Bigelow Paine. "To his last days on earth he never outgrew its pangs." The moral burden was compounded by his perverse habit of blaming himself on occasions when others were the victims of suffering for which he had no direct responsibility. Years after her father's death, Clara Clemens paused to comment on this dominant strain in his makeup. "If on any occasion," she observed, "he could manage to trace the cause of someone's mishap to something he himself had done or said, no one could persuade him that he was mistaken. Self-condemnation was the natural turn for his mind to take, yet often he accused himself of having inflicted pain or trouble when the true cause was far removed from himself." Twain's moral anguish takes clear if oblique expression in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. "If I had the remaking of man," muses Hank Morgan, "he wouldn't have any conscience. It is one of the most disagreeable things connected with a person; and although it certainly does a great deal of good, it cannot be said to pay, in the long run; it would be much better to have less good and more comfort" (CY 219).

Like Nietzsche, Twain was increasingly persuaded of both the groundlessness and the destructiveness of the conventional Christian distinction between good and evil. During the last decade or so of his life, his views coalesced in a bitter attack on what he called "the Moral Sense." Satan, the "hero" of The Mysterious Stranger, speaks quite clearly and directly for Twain in excoriating humanity as a

paltry race—always lying, always claiming virtues which it hasn't got.... Inspired by that mongrel Moral Sense of his! A Sense whose function is to distinguish between right and wrong, with liberty to choose which of them he will do. Now what advantage can he get out of that? He is always choosing, and in nine cases out of ten he prefers the wrong. There shouldn't be any wrong; and without the Moral Sense there couldn't be any. And yet he is such an unreasonable creature that he is not able to perceive that the Moral Sense degrades him to the bottom layer of animated beings and is a shameful possession. (MS 72–73)


Excerpted from The Jester and the Sages by Mark Twain Copyright © 2011 by The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Abbreviations xiii

Introduction Forrest G. Robinson 1

1 Twain and Nietzsche Gabriel Noah Brahm Forrest G. Robinson 8

2 Twain and Freud Forrest G. Robinson 33

3 Twain and Marx Catherine Carlstroem Forrest G. Robinson 89

Conclusion Catherine Carlstroem 135

Works Cited 145

Index 149

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