Friday, March 18, 2011

The Twain Meat

What do you get when you combine Mark Twain and Lewis H. Lapham? A hideously deformed man-beast that nature never intended, a ghoulish compound of living and dead human parts? Probably. Until the peer-reviewed lab results are in, I will take the metaphorical angle on this question and declare that you'd get two reading pleasures combined in one, as in these illustrative passages from Lapham's essay on Twain's recently-published autobiography. Lapham quotes Twain:
We are discreet sheep; we wait to see how the drove is going, and then go with the drove. We have two opinions: one private, which we are afraid to express; and another one -- the one we use -- which we force ourselves to wear to please Mrs. Grundy, until habit makes us comfortable in it, and the custom of defending it presently makes us love it, adore it, and forget how pitifully we came by it ...

Let us skip the other lies, for brevity's sake. To consider them would prove nothing, except that man is what he is -- loving toward his own, lovable, to his own, -- his family, his friends -- and otherwise the buzzing, busy trivial, enemy of his race -- who tarries his little day, does his little dirt, commends himself to God, and then goes out into the darkness, to return no more, and send no messages back -- selfish even in death.
Zing! Lapham concludes by putting Twain's invective in context:
A society that is the sum of its vanity and greed Twain understood not to be not a society at all but a state of war. If in the volume at hand there is too little of his merciless and undiluted wit, there is enough of it to demonstrate why Twain these days is so sorely missed. Democracy is a dangerous business; it allies itself with change, which engenders movement, which induces friction, which implies unhappiness, which assumes conflict not only as the normal but also as the necessary condition of its existence. The idea collapses unless countervailing stresses oppose one another with competing weight -- unless enough people stand willing to sustain the argument between the governing and the governed, between city and town, capital and labor, men and women, matter and mind.

Twain comes down on the side of the liberties of the people as opposed to the ambitions of the state, pitting the force of his intellect against the "peacock shams" of the world's "colossal humbug," believing that it is the freedoms of thought that rescue a democracy from its stupidities and crimes, the courage of its dissenting citizens that protects it against the despotism of wealth and power backed up with platitudes and billy clubs and subprime loans. His laughter turns toward the darker shores of tragedy as he grows older and moves downriver, drawing from the well of his sorrow the energy of his rage. He doesn't traffic in the mockery of the cynic or the bitterness of the misanthrope. He is a disenchanted philanthropist who retains his affection for individuals, a fierce skeptic who thinks that the Constitution is the premise for a narrative rather than the design for a monument or the plan of an invasion.
I say there's no improving on the prose in those passages, nor on the insights they convey.

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I know, I know, the title of this post is awful. You think too much of me if you take me to be someone who can come up with that and then resist using it. Really, all the shame falls to you.

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