Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Mark Twain and the Ghost of Joan of Arc -- part two

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 --
                                    Finite Infinity.

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.

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