Mark Twain depicted Lucifer as ambiguous, attractive and psychopathic. Image Source: The House of Vines.
October marks the start of harvest season in the Northern Hemisphere. Hallowe'en is just around the corner. Every year, the site Countdown to Halloween runs a blogathon so that interested blogs can comment on the season in any way they see fit (I highly recommend Gothtober). This blog participated in 2011 and 2012 (see those posts here); this year I am participating again.
2013's All Hallows' Eve Countdown at Histories of Things to Come will offer horror-themed posts with a twist. These posts will mostly address how horror straddles the dotted line of acceptability: how horror can have non-horrific origins; how horror's marginal aspects become mainstream (not always in a good way); how horror carries mixed messages; or how horror stories convey moral messages. Posts in the countdown will be more or less every other day; there will also be some regular, non-countdown posts this month.
Mark Twain (pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (30 November 1835-21 April 1910)). Image Source: University of California Press.
Today's post concerns some of the darker writings of the famous American writer Mark Twain. Twain's real name was Samuel Clemens; he took his pseudonym from sailing Missouri steamboats on the Mississippi river in the late 1850s, where mark twain was the call which meant 'safe water' at two fathoms, or twelve feet deep.
Twain ordered that his autobiographical papers be sealed for one hundred years after his death. The first volume of his full, three-volume memoir - a huge collection of anecdotes and recollections - appeared in 2010. Volume 1 became a 440-page best-seller (you can order it here, the iTunes app is here, and the book is online for free here; you can also read over 2,400 of Twain's letters online here). This month, University of California press is publishing Volume 2 (736 pages, here).
Clemens's debts were paid in full by 1898. He then traveled to Vienna, Austria, with his family and resided for part of his stay at the Hotel Krantz. Image Source: This is Mark Twain.
The first volume of the 2010 autobiography contained some scandal, particularly Twain's condemnation of his former secretary Isabel Van Kleek Lyon:
he accused her of putting him under a hypnotic trance for "two or three years", hence denying responsibility for ... [an] arrangement [in which at one point he had granted her power of attorney over his affairs]. In a remarkable rant in a private letter, he also called her "a liar, a forger, a thief, a hypocrite, a drunkard, a sneak, a humbug, a traitor, a conspirator, a filthy-minded & salacious slut pining for seduction".
Carl Dolmetsch described this dark period in Twain's life*, especially Twain's depiction of Young Satan, as being influenced by his time visiting Vienna. Twain lived in Vienna in 1898 and 1899 and produced (before, during and after this period) several texts about Satan as a youth: The Great Dark; The Chronicle of Young Satan; No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger; Which Was the Dream?; and Schoolhouse Hill. These were later clumsily combined by editors and are together viewed as an attempt at an incomplete, final novel, The Mysterious Stranger.
A central image in Twain's meditation on evil is life without conscience. He joked about this aspect of Satan, who was:
"a person who has for untold centuries maintained the imposing position of spiritual head of four-fifths of the human race, and political head of the whole of it, must be granted executive abilities of the loftiest order." What particularly appealed to ... [Twain's] creative imagination was what it might be like to be a totally conscienceless, amoral being with cosmic powers and eternal life, a creature possessing ultimate freedom.
The Satan character who enters Twain's Central European version of his Missouri hometown is sometimes called 'Philip Traum,' a young master of dreams. Traum enchants the local kids by molding a town of tiny people and bringing them to life. But when his diminutive creations make too much noise while he is talking, he crushes them pitilessly. When the children begin to cry at his action, he responds:"It was 1702** - May. Austria was far away from the world, and asleep; it was still the Middle Ages in Austria, and promised to remain so forever. Some even set it away back centuries upon centuries and said that by the mental and spiritual clock it was still the Age of Faith in Austria. But they meant it as a compliment, not as a slur, and it was so taken, and we were all proud of it."
This image symbolized Twain's fascination with "misfortune, disaster, catastrophe so huge and cataclysmic that it cannot be remedied, ameliorated, even assuaged by ordinary means." This is also the focus of The Great Dark, in which Satan arranges for a family to shrink to microscopic size - so small that God will no longer notice them - and sends them on a terrifying sea voyage on a drop of water on the head of a pin. In the end, their adventures are revealed to have been only a dream."Don't cry," Satan said, "they were of no value.""But they are gone to hell!""Oh, it is no matter, we can make more."
With disaster came dissociation, a confusion over identity and reality. Satan becomes a 'Superintendent of Dreams' in these stories because Twain was influenced by Sigmund Freud's contemporary theory on the Id, the Ego and the Super Ego. Freudian theory prompted Twain to toy with characters who were doppelgangers or who had three-part identities (see my related posts here, here and here). Twain wondered if we are different selves in our dreams and reality. Finally, in No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger, Satan no longer has a name, he is merely a number:
"What is your name?"
The boy answered quietly, "Number 44, New Series 864,962."
Everybody's eyes came open in a stare. Of course. The master thought perhaps he hadn't heard aright; so he asked again, and the boy answered the same as before, "Number 44, New Series 864,962."
There is something of Satan as the virtual reality in the computer, Satan the Postmodern egotist, or even Satan the downloaded immortal intelligence, in Twain's vision of the fallen angel:"What a hell of a name!" ejaculated Hans Katzenyammer, piously.
"you are not you--you have no body, no blood, no bones, you are but a thought. I myself have no existence; I am but a dream--your dream, a creature of your imagination. In a moment you will have realized this, then you will banish me from your visions and I shall dissolve into the nothingness out of which you made me."
Thus, Twain combined a philosophical contemplation of good and evil with a fascination with contemporary science and technology - from Freud's psychology, to Tesla's electricity. Twain's hybrid literary result lay somewhere between religion, the paranormal, and bitter sarcasm."In a little while you will be alone in shoreless space, to wander its limitless solitudes without friend or comrade forever—for you will remain a thought, the only existent thought, and by your nature inextinguishable, indestructible. But I, your poor servant, have revealed you to yourself and set you free. Dream other dreams, and better!"
"It is true, that which I have revealed to you; there is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a dream—a grotesque and foolish dream. Nothing exists but you. And you are but a thought—a vagrant thought, a useless thought, a homeless thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!"
(*All references unless otherwise indicated in this post are to Dolmetsch's work: Carl Dolmetsch, Our Famous Guest: Mark Twain in Vienna (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press,1992), 229, 276-278, 286, 288-290, 296; for earlier posts referring to this book, see here and here.)
See all my posts on Horror themes.
See all my posts on Ghosts.
Check out other blogs observing the Countdown to Hallowe'en!NOTES FOR READERS OF MY POSTS.
If you're not reading this post on Histories of Things to Come, the content has been scraped and republished without the original author's permission. Please let me know by following this link and leaving me a comment. Thank you.