Friday, October 7, 2016

Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger(s)

I've been less adoring of Mark Twain than others for quite some time, and have written of him unkindly in a few posts here in this very blog.  It may be that my view of him and his work is an example of familiarity, of a sort at least, breeding contempt.  The comedic Twain, teller of tall tales, the Twain of Hal Holbrook, creator of stock characters and folksy dialects, which seems to be the more popular Twain, I find annoying.   But I acknowledge that it may be that Twain did what he had to in order to make a living and thrive in this world and this required pandering, or that the familiar Twain of which I speak is in the nature of a caricature.

One thing I find quite interesting about him, however, is that work called The Mysterious Stranger.  I call it that here, in any case.  There are said to be 3-4 versions of this work, and each has been given its own title.  There is apparently no finished version; finished by Twain in any event.  His executor/biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, himself a writer of fiction and other things, is said to have created a version with an ending by slapping together 3 different versions and doing some creative editing with their texts together with a publisher named Duneka.

This work or more properly these versions or drafts of a work were written during the latter part of Twain's life, and address the subject of religion.  They feature the Prince of Darkness himself, or some versions do, or it may be that this character is merely his nephew, also named Satan.  It also may be that the Satanic figure is intended to be a different figure entirely.  I read that one version features Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.  That obviously isn't the version I've read, and I'm not interested in reading anything about those two characters, though I am willing to imagine, fondly, what the Devil might do to them.

I don't wish to enter into the debate regarding which version is truer to Twain.  I assume I've read the Paine version.  It certainly has its problems.  It must be wondered whether we do any author a service by publishing unfinished work posthumously, especially where the author left different versions of the work lying about at the time of death.  This is an indication that the author was never satisfied with what was written, and in fact never thought it should be read.  In that case, we wrong him by doing so or at the least do something he/she didn't want us to do.

Nonetheless, assuming that some part of the versions written by Twain are present, I think it fair to say that the satire engaged in is not the broad, sometimes knee-slapping, overt satire Twain otherwise indulged in (for example in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court).  It is a grim, serious, and simply written tale, sometimes sinister, sometimes hectoring.  What is most interesting, I think, is the indifference of the Satan-figure to humans in general or particular humans, and especially as to what is called their "Moral Sense."  This he considers a peculiarity of humans and an unnecessary burden.

His indifference is striking.  Unfortunately it's rendered less striking by his propensity to lecture about the defects of human kind.  By all accounts Twain was prone to dwell on our many problems and deplorable nature and conduct, but I like to think that the lectures were inserted after his death.  They become repetitive and are boring, the point being already quite clear.  Also, he inserts himself into human events now and then.

The Satan-figure is quite willing to use his powers to benefit and do favors for some, and seems to have no real malice.  Our happiness or unhappiness isn't of much concern to him, it seems.  As might be expected, when he bestows benefits it's likely things don't turn out well for the person benefited, and as a result of the benefit.  He or she dies, or someone else does, or goes mad.  Episodes of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone come to mind, inevitably.

The overwhelming impression I receive from this work is that the concerns of humans, their deeds, problems, thoughts, and beliefs, even as to matters right or wrong, are small and insignificant and of no interest to Satan, or God, or the universe.  I think the Satan-figure could very well be a substitute for God, despite his name and the fact he refers to himself as an angel. 

Simply put, I think it's the intent or one of the intents of the work to point out that we flatter ourselves enormously by thinking we have any importance in the universe or the Divine Plan, if there is one.  The universe wasn't made for us, and isn't bound by our conceptions of right and wrong.  What happens merely happens, and there need be no reason to it; at least no reason humans would understand or appreciate.

The late Warren Zevon wrote a song called The Vast Indifference of Heaven.  Is this indifference what Twain was contemplating in his later years?  Did it comfort him, appall him, confirm him in his belief regarding our foolishness?  The vastness of the universe suggests that we're creatures of great pretensions, and our concerns with what is not in the power of our wills foolish indeed.  Perhaps Twain was something of a Stoic in that respect, at least.  But I have difficulty believing that he felt the universe to be divine in any sense, or that we shared in any divinity, which would seem to establish he wasn't a Stoic in the ancient sense.

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