A good deal of Twain criticism falls on deaf ears when we attempt to pour cultural analysis and theories of disaffection into general (lay?) readers. They are, however, keenly tuned to the stories of loss. They don't care about whether Mark Twain or Samuel Clemens is writing; the debate alienates them -- and frankly should alienate a lot of us. It's time we recognized the inherent complexity of the human mind and personality. The Twain/Clemens split has done little to enhance our understanding of the writer. It has stood in the way. It's time to get back to human stories; it is time that we cherish the ghosts that inhabit Twain and his stories.
Susan Harris does, I think, touch on the ghostly quality of Twain's novel when, toward the end of her comments, she turns her attention to the value and character and emotions of the storyteller:
In Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc..., Twain's male narrator
is far more central to his [Twain's] concerns, especially his sense
of alienation, than is the figure that gives the narrator reason
for being. One of the last of his completed novels, Joan of Arc
is marked by grief -- not the grief de Conte consciously expresses
about Joan's martyrdom, but the unconscious grief he represents.
This is the grief of loss, of dislocation, of disaffection. It is the
grief that accompanied the euphoria of late-nineteenth-century
progress, and it is the grief that highlighted Mark Twain's own
progress through life. It is the grief of the age, and like the other
cultural discourses informing Joan of Arc, it reflects a communal
experience refracted through one particular author's sensibility.
Harris here gives us something good and tangible and lasting to hold -- at least at the beginning of her statement. The value in Joan of Arc is in its presentation of an individual's "unconscious grief...the grief of loss, of dislocation, or disaffection." Therein, in fact, lies a tale. A ghost story; or rather, a story told by ghosts.
It is a story that focuses on the power of the night. It is not a power easily passed off as the incursion of the nightmare, the seduction of the incubus or succubus; rather, it is a scare that comes from an awareness of loneliness and a sense of the desolation that shocks in those seconds between the switching off the light and the moment our eyes adjust to the darkness. There is terror in momentary blindness. During my seminar for English majors (we work on questions of canonicity and of the reasons that why and how we read shape our notions of what we should read), we regularly happen upon several night terrors in our reading, and I have been struck at the resonance of fear and uncertainty that lies in the heart of writers and their characters who confront the dark. Hemingway's Jake Barnes, after a particularly grueling night, slowly comes apart at the seams:
My head started to work. The old grievance....
I never use to realize it, I guess. I try and play
it along and just not make trouble for people. Probably
I never would have had any trouble if it hadn't run into
Brett when they shipped me to England....
I lay awake and thinking and my mind jumping
around. Then I couldn't keep away from it, and I started
to think about Brett and all the rest of it went away. I was
thinking about Brett and my mind stopped jumping around
and started to go in sort of smooth waves. Then all of a sudden
I started to cry. Then after a while it was better and I lay in
bed and listened to the heavy trams go by and way down the
street, and then I went to sleep. (38-39)
Some time later after an even worse night, Jake settles, drunk, into bed:
I heard them laugh. I turned off the light and tried to sleep.
It was not necessary to read any more. I could shut my eyes
without getting the wheeling sensation. But I could not sleep.
There is no reason because it is dark you should look at
things differently from when it is light. The hell there isn't!
Jake, of course, is crushed by despair, a despair that has its source in memory and in dislocation and in the dissipation that comes with the breaking of human bodies and human relationships.
That emotional isolation is the battle that Janie Woods fights in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. For Janie, the darkness that houses the human soul becomes palpable as she and Tea Cake await the on-rushing hurricane: "It is so easy to be hopeful in the day time when you can see the things you wish on. But it was night, it stayed night. Night was striding across nothingness with the whole round world in his hands" (150). That sense of foreboding, like the pall of an unavoidable heart attack, returns as Janie looks down at her dead husband: "No hour is ever eternity, but it has the right to weep" (175). The night robs you of hope; hopelessness covers you in darkness.
Jake, Janie, Tea Cake know well the dangers lurking in the darkness. There is no bump in this night. There is crash and burn. And the human soul is the victim of being compelled to face its own crushing solitude. Emily Dickinson had it right:
There is a solitude of space
A solitude of sea
A solitude of death, but these
Society shall be
Compared with that profounder site
That polar privacy
A soul admitted to itself --
And so did Mark Twain:
It is quite true I took all the tragedies to myself; and
tallied them off, in turn as they happened, saying to myself
in each case, with a sigh, "Another one gone -- and on my
account; this ought to bring me to repentance; His patience
will not always endure." And yet privately I thought that it
would. That is, I believed in the daytime; but not the night.
With the going down of the sun my faith failed, and the clammy
fears gathered about my heart. It was then I repented. Those
were awful nights, nights of despair, nights charged with
bitterness and death....
...In all my boyhood life I am not sure that I ever
tried to lead a better life in the daytime -- or wanted to. In
my age I should never think of wishing to do such a thing. But
in my age as in my youth, night brings me many a deep remorse.
I realize from the cradle up I have been like the rest of the race --
never quite sane in the night. (MTOA, 156).
Twain knew the insanity of the night, and he injects his abiding sense of loss into a catalog of characters, especially when he allows those characters to tell their own stories, to give voice to their own isolation and disappointment. Huckleberry Finn's voice comes immediately to mind. Louis De Conte also has just such a voice, a quiet, muffled, gravelly voice tuned by his reflection on loss offers a complex song of death in his Recollections of Joan of Arc.