Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

All Hallows' Eve Countdown: Mark Twain's Young Satan

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".
This account was written late in Twain's life, after an 1893 bankruptcy and the 1896 death of his daughter, Susy; the death of his wife Olivia in 1904 and the death of his daughter Jean in 1909. These experiences, together with the rift with Lyon, reveal a growing darkness in Twain's outlook.

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.
With The Chronicle of Young Satan, Twain produced a Central European Gothic type of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer story. His original opening criticized organized religion by placing Satan's arrival in an old European land of faith:
"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."
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:
"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."
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.

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."
"What a hell of a name!" ejaculated Hans Katzenyammer, piously.
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:
"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."
"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!"
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.

(*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.)

Mark Twain in the lab of Nikola Tesla, spring of 1894. Image Source: Wiki.

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  1. Just spent a good half hour looking at a couple of your interesting notes. So glad you visited my blog and made a comment so that I found you and your writings!

    1. Hi Ontario Wanderer, thanks for your comment. I love your blog. It is so true to the Ontario landscape.

  2. Of course, all this fascination with the devil is perhaps normal in a primarily Christian culture at this time of the year. But I hope you do not forget to include the Pagan origins of Samhain, aka Halloween which has absolutely no connection with the Christian church, including it's "devil" Satan. While there is the opening of the doors 'tween this world and that, which the Christians appropriated, it is, after all, the Pagan New Year's Eve. It is a time for communing with ancestors and preparing for birth of the new year.

  3. Thank you for your comment, Anon. You'll forgive my saying so, but the revival of ancient tradition in the modern era and the conviction that there is an unbroken line between this time and ancient times is very, very modern.

    Twain's impressions reflect an earlier stage in a process by which modern spiritualism was pressed into the service of exploring the ego rather than expanding the blind faith of the soul. At the turn of the previous century, Twain could not have taken a secular critique or modern revival of pre-Christian mythologies (ideas with which we are very familiar) for granted. Twain's comments and story-telling around Satan are critical of Christianity, but are also shaped by that faith.

    Even as a skeptic, Twain retained a spiritual sense as an ironic humanist. He got away with a lot at the time by using humour. But the fact that he sealed his memoirs for one hundred years shows that he was very aware that people of his time could only absorb so much of his ideas. That is why we look at his newly published stuff now with such interest. Was he as far ahead of his time as he thought he was? Dolmetsch made the point that Twain by the time of his Vienna visit was already world-weary, had suffered tragedy, and so absorbed a real darkness into his work that was not funny at all.

    The horror of Twain's idea of Satan (who appears in various guises in these later gothic stories) is not how we might open the door between this world and the next once a year and commune with our ancestors, but how we might think we are doing that when really we are playing with illusions and have lost our way. He speculates on the great lie of spiritual enlightenment. He represented Satan in terms of a solipsistic disconnection from the natural world, a break between internal reason and responsibility to the outside world. In other words, the terrifying abomination that Twain considered was the delusion of getting totally lost inside the maze of an ego, filled with deceptive beliefs of escape to greater knowledge and faith, but always circling back, no longer truly able to find something larger. For Twain, Satan is not the stereotypical antagonist of Christian faith but a representative of how we believe in fanciful stories of what we are doing and where we are going - but actually not getting anywhere. It's the illusion of neo-gnostics who are facing an anti-gnostic world. Twain was very critical of the dogmatic and doctrinaire aspects of organized religion; but he also suggested that if people got lost enough in their illusions of freedom from dogma, they would become something worse.

    His metaphor of Satan can be expanded in terms of Plato's cave metaphor, where people chained see their shadows on the wall, but never question their own existence as viewers of the shadows. With a piece like 'The Great Dark,' Twain implied that we would actually *become* the shadows on the wall, but would not realize that. We would think we had power to see, have physical identity and integrity, and in fact have become so totally lost so as to lose what we are - and become what we perceive.