Tag Archives: Mark Twain

The Book of Mormon and the Delicate Balance of Religious Satire

(I saw The Book of Mormon on Broadway last weekend, and I have a lot of thoughts. Assume that there will be spoilers below.)

1289926514-Mark TwainUnbeknownst to most modern readers, Samuel Clemens spent most of his final decade on earth obsessing and writing about a small religious movement that seemed to be taking the world by storm: Christian Science. In a series of articles that were published in book form in 1907 under the title Christian Science and in an unfinished short story that Clemens thought of as a sequel to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and called, I shit you not, “The Secret History of Eddypus, World Empire,” the pre-eminent American satirist had a heaping ball of fun at the expense of Mary Baker Eddy’s followers but also just at people in general.

Finding it at best unfunny and at worst incoherent, most scholarly readers tend to set this particular part of Twain’s opus aside and back away very slowly. Without understanding the complex debates about religion and religious freedom in which the writer was engaging, these texts remain nearly incomprehensible to the twenty-first century reader. Granted, many of Clemens’s contemporaries thought so too. While his critique of Eddy was uncompromising, Twain refused to conform to the prevailing public narratives about Christian Science. Having tried just about every form of non-traditional medical treatment available during his lifetime, dared to take seriously their claims about spiritual healing (as did William James). Likewise, he rejected the positivist narrative that linked religion as a whole to ignorance that could simply be combated with secular knowledge and instead linked Christian Science to recursive historical cycles of human fallibility in a way that implicated both religion and (small “s”) science.

The_Book_of_Mormon_posterThe point is that though religion in general offers plenty of fodder for ridicule, good religious satire is really, really hard, a comedic problem that even one of the most successful humorists in American history struggled to render intelligible to his audience in a way that was both funny and honest. And that is why what Trey Parker and Matt Stone manage to accomplish in The Book of Mormon is perhaps nothing short of miraculous and why it is one of the most poignant and insightful things I have ever seen on Broadway in addition to being really, really funny.

Recognizing hat when it comes to the truth claims of the Latter Day Saints, they are dealing with low-hanging fruit, Parker and Stone take what could have been a succession of easy jokes and instead reflect on issues of faith and religious exceptionalism through a story that treats the spiritual and material struggles of all of its characters as both comedic and entirely serious and real. And that’s why, I think, it has managed to capture the imaginations of both religious and non-religious people in spite of its epic profanity (the refrain of one song is literally just “Fuck You, God” over and over and over again, and at one point, Jesus has a boner) in ways that Bill Maher just never will.

The protagonist of The Book of Mormon is Elder Price, a Mormon golden boy from Salt Lake City who thinks of himself as a protagonist in every possible way. About to embark on his two year mission, he sees the experience as an opportunity to continue proving himself worthy to God by being awesome. The people he is allegedly going to help and his companion, Elder Cunningham, are merely supporting players in the ongoing drama of his life. Naturally, the script he has written for himself gets disrupted when it turns out that Elder Cunningham is a nerdy beta male with a compulsive lying problem and that they are being assigned, not to Orlando, but to an impoverished Ugandan village where 80% of the population has HIV and a warlord who shoots people in the face and demands that all women be circumcised.

Trained to believe that his sacred texts offer answers to all of life’s possible problems, Elder Price is unprepared for the fact that nothing he has to say about a dude who dug up some golden plates in upstate New York has is even remotely relevant to the bleak circumstances of these people’s lives. And he is equally disillusioned by the fact that his Mormon brethren have nothing to offer him in the face of his doubt but the recommendation to “Turn it Off” (in my opinion, the funniest number in the entire musical), just as they do with pesky problems like being attracted to other men and being forced to contemplate their own mortality.

Elder Price’s subsequent melt down essentially ushers him out of the limelight, and his character development happens in the background as other characters start to come to the front. One of these is Nabalungi, the daughter of the village leader, who thinks that maybe these white guys and their weird religion will offer them a path toward a better life. The other is Elder Cunningham, who due to his partner’s hasty exist, is in a position to play missionary to the villagers. The problem is that he has never read The Book of Mormon and gives in to the impulse to start making shit up when someone asks him why, exactly, God thinks FGM is bad. What results is a village full of converts to a weird religion that is a hybrid that is part Joseph Smith, part JRR Tolkein, and part George Lucas in a kind of absurdist redux of the LDS origin story. But, of course, because that religion is tailored for them, it is actually relevant to their immediate circumstances.

But what is remarkable is that while there is plenty of absurdity to be had, the text never treats any of these characters–from the impossibly naive Elder Price to the increasingly megalomaniacal Elder Cunningham to the benighted Nabalungi and her family–as contemptible.  They are presented sympathetically with inner lives worthy of taking seriously. There are extremely thorny issues of race, gender, and the consequences of imperialism, but Parker and Stone manage to convey the horrors of, say, rape, while also making jokes about it. It is a particularly vertiginous kind of balancing act that feels like it could come crashing to earth at any second but somehow never does precisely because they manage to remember that these are people who deserve our empathy. So, you can have a song in which a group of Mormon teenagers, elated by the number of baptisms they have racked up (though they have no idea why), sing “We Are Africa” with all of the gross ethnocentrism and exceptionalism that implies, and yet they are never exactly villainous. Likewise, when Elder Price returns to sing “I Believe” in the moment where he re-commits to his inherited vision of Mormonism just before his final fall, he can say a bunch of weird stuff (“I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri”) without becoming an object of ridicule.

And the same goes for the Ugandans who, to the surprise of both the Mormons and Nabalungi, interpreted pretty much everything Elder Cunningham said in the light of myth and metaphor. Her disillusionment and anger with the fact that she was lied to is real and justified, but her community has transformed the message into something so much bigger than their dubious prophet. The play essentially takes the Jamesian position that what matters about religion isn’t its truth claims but the affective resources it gives both to the individual and the collective to rise above circumstances, resist oppression, make ethical choices, and form interpersonal bonds. The Ugandans, along with the Mormon missionaries who have been soundly rebuked by the Mission President, create a new religious community that, like the original Latter Day Saints, exists outside of institutional structures and remains intensely meaningful despite the improbability of its origins.

This is a height of comedy and profundity that something like Religulous will just never be able to attain. Because what works about this musical, like what works about most comedy that has to do with religion, is that its sense of the ridiculous is mingled with genuine affection both for the Mormons and for the Broadway tropes it satirizes.



A Writer’s Time

I want to take a moment to say thanks to SKM from Shakesville, who so thoughtfully includes me in the blogaround from time to time.  I’m consistently shocked and flattered when I find out that such well-respected bloggers read this site and actually think enough of it to recommend it to others.  The Shakesville blogaround has also introduced me to some other kick-ass feminist and academic bloggers, and I was thrilled to find out about this post by Maud Newton on the “tricky valuation of a writer’s time.”  I was particularly struck by this quote from E.B. White:

[T]here is nothing harder to estimate than a writer’s time, nothing harder to keep track of. There are moments — moments of sustained creation — when his time is fairly valuable; and there are hours and hours when a writer’s time isn’t worth the paper he is not writing anything on.

This is a much more succinct and, I think, poignant statement than the many posts I’ve made on this subject.  I am always fascinated and surprised when I learn about the writing processes of authors whose work I consider to be transcendent.  On some level, I’ve long believed that they wrote effortlessly and continuously, never wanting for an idea.  Of course, that isn’t true.  I’ve been reading the Ron Powers biography of Mark Twain (who Maud credits as a source of inspiration), and while the guy obviously wrote prolifically, he also went through long periods where nothing got done.  The well of inspiration would go dry, and the only solution was to set the project aside until the well filled up again (Twain used this actual metaphor).

Theodore Dreiser experienced the same problem.  After the publication of Sister Carrie, it took almost ten years for him to complete another novel, and he nearly starved to death and had to resort to manual labor (for which he was completely unsuited) until he eventually got a job as an editor.  Even as established and famous authors, both men regularly missed publisher’s deadlines and endured long periods of total unproductivity.

I’m not sure if that’s reassuring or depressing.  At the very least, it perhaps points to the need to keep a day job.


Mark Twain Thought Chivalry Sucked Too

A dude who thinks chivalry is terribad

Feminists don’t like the whole idea of chivalry much, no? I mean, ask this feminist, and I’ll probably tell you that yes, you should give up your seat to that pregnant lady, and yes, if you see me walking toward a door with a lot of heavy books in my hands, I would thank you for holding it open for me. But that’s because I would totally do the same thing for you! That’s called being polite! What feminists are really complaining about with the whole chivalry thing is that it’s something dudes sometimes use to prove how studly they are to other dudes by infantalizing women in the process. For example, dudes sometimes feel the need to beat up other dudes whenever the lady they are with is insulted. Now once again, if we are in company together and someone says something offensive about me, or another lady, or ladies in general, it is perfectly acceptable for you to speak up with a “wow, not cool” sort of comment, because again that’s just being polite. But if your immediate reaction to an insult directed at the woman you are with is something more like, “That’s MY woman you’re talking about!11!11  YOU HAVE IMPUGNED MY GENTLEMANLY HONOR, YOU KNAVE!!!1!!11 HULK RAGE!11!1!!1” then I am not so cool with that. As Amanda Hess of the Sexist helpfully explains, when a woman is, say, harassed on a street while in the company of her gentleman associate, she may feel anger on her own behalf because someone thought she was a hooker, but she also feels:

A secondary source of shame, derived from the possibility that someone “may have thought [her fiance] was with a hooker.” Since the woman’s fiance is responsible for her shame as well, he may have a similarly conflicted reaction: (a) anger at the harassers who devalued her based on her gender, and (b) shame that he is associated with a woman who is considered by other men to be valueless. Chivalry encourages him to take personal offense to this, inciting one of two reactions: (a) engaging in a verbal or physical altercation with the harassers in order to compensate for the woman’s shame with a display of manhood; and/or (b) chastising the woman for bringing shame upon him, i.e. “Don’t embarrass me in front of other men”; “Don’t go out looking like that”; “See what you made me do.”

Chivalry has long performed the task of recasting violent oppression as benign paternalism, and you know who recognized this way back in the nineteenth century? Mark Twain. That’s not a name that gets invoked by feminists very often, and for good reason. True to his status as a nineteenth century male, Mark Twain’s gender politics were pretty appalling. I’m trying to think of one female character in one of his novels that isn’t a ridiculous stereotype, and yeah, no. But Mark Twain held many other radically progressive views. He was critical of the American imperial project at a time when the country was clamoring for the expansion of American influence abroad. He was a pacifist, and he hated most organized religion (though I think his own religious views were pretty complex). He also thought that the word chivalry pretty much encompassed everything that was wrong with the United States during his lifetime.  I’m not exaggerating.

See, U.S.-Americans learned about chivalry from Sir Walter Scott, the early nineteenth century author of such novels as Rob Roy and Ivanhoe. In these novels, knightly dudes did knightly things like fight duels (often over women). These knights were always part of a powerful noble class, whose rank was more or less granted to them by God Almighty and whose right to hold that rank was never, ever challenged. Everyone else–i.e. poorer people and women, i.e. a huge percentage of the population of the historical period these novels purported to depict–was pretty much the exclusive property of the male members of that noble class and fawningly served them and existed primarily to provide the picturesque backdrop for the nobles’ heroic pursuits.

The dude Twain blamed for that whole Civil War thing

According to Mark Twain, white Americans, particularly those residing in the South, read about this and said, “This is totes awesome. We totally need something like this right here in the U.S. of A.  And luckily it just so happens that we have a subjugated class of non-persons who can provide our picturesque backdrop built into our society.” In short, Twain argued that the Southern infatuation with Sir Walter Scott-style chivalry was responsible for the perpetuation of slavery and the Civil War. As he says in Life on the Mississippi:

There, the genuine and wholesome civilization of the nineteenth century is curiously confused and commingled with the Walter Scott Middle-Age sham civilization; and so you have practical, common-sense, progressive ideas, and progressive works, mixed up with the duel, the inflated speech, and the jejune romanticism of an absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried. But for the Sir Walter disease, the character of the Southerner–or Southron, according to Sir Walter’s starchier way of phrasing it–would be wholly modern, in place of modern and mediaeval mixed, and the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is. It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations. For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them. Enough is laid on slavery, without fathering upon it these creations and contributions of Sir Walter.

The newer, sexier Old South

While Twain fully acknowledges that slavery predated the influence of Scott, he argues that Scott provided a heroic language with which to describe slavery and violent oppression, a language that continued to be prevalent even after the Civil War. After Reconstruction was disastrously abandoned, there was a market for fiction that presented the Old South in this highly romanticized fashion. Take, for example, Thomas Nelson Page’s short story “Marse Chan,” a piece of dialect fiction in which a former slave wistfully reminisces about the beautiful, long lost time before the war, in which his heroic master was crossed in love and fought duels. The reason this is told from the former slave’s perspective is to convey the not so subtle subtext that those nice white Southerners treated their slaves so well. See?  The slaves actually liked it!  Stories like this were essential in promoting white solidarity throughout the country after the war, by depicting the Southern lifestyle as quaint and picturesque rather than the human rights catastrophe that it actually was.

Twain’s 1890 novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was basically a book length critique of chivalry. In that novel, Twain uses various forms of anachronism to remind us, first of all, that our entire understanding of chivalry is based on a set of myths surrounding King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, a mythology that is heavily mediated by novelists who were writing a millennium after King Arthur allegedly lived. Entire monologues delivered by the medieval characters are cribbed straight from Sir Thomas Malory’s La Morte D’Arthur, which was written in the fifteenth century, in order to mock those who had mistaken mythology for actual history.  The hero of the novel, Hank Morgan, is essentially the surrogate for the white Yankee audience(this dude is from Connecticut and is also totally smug about it). Transported from the late nineteenth century to the “sixth” (the sixth century in this book is essentially just a Sir Walter Scott novel), he spends most of the first act noticing how stupidly the people who inhabit this entirely fictional conception of the medieval period behave, with the implicit message being “HEY SOUTHERNERS, YOU LOOK EFFING RIDICULOUS WHEN YOU DO THAT.” He also observes that the entire system of chivalry seems to exist to perpetuate the completely unearned privilege of a few people, namely the King, his knights, and the Church, the result being that everyone else is essentially a slave.

The violence inherent in the system

Twain’s depiction of “sixth century” slavery in this novel could have been lifted directly from Harriet Beecher Stowe or Frederick Douglass or Harriet Jacobs. While this is a comic novel, he is unsparing in his depiction of slavery as a moral outrage. We see couples torn apart, children taken from their mothers, people being savagely beaten. Even worse, Twain shows how violent oppression turns oppressed people on one another. Everyone who isn’t a nobleman or a priest is essentially treated like an animal, but some of them ultimately internalize their own oppression and act as enforcers of the system in order to attain slightly higher status or even just survive. When he witnesses a group of peasants hunting down some other peasants who burned down their lord’s castle in an act of rebellion against that lord’s arbitrary uses of violence, Morgan says:

It reminded me of a time thirteen centuries away, when the “poor whites” of our South who were always despised and frequently insulted, by the slave-lords around them, and who owed their base condition simply to the presence of slavery in their midst, were yet pusillanimously ready to side with slave-lords in all political moves for the upholding and perpetuating of slavery, and did also finally shoulder their muskets and pour out their lives in an effort to prevent the destruction of that very institution which degraded them.

However, the novel implicitly critiques its narrator as well. Morgan’s smug sense of superiority to the sixth century noblemen is analogous to that of the privileged white people of the North, many of whom expressed disgust over slavery and the backward ways of the South but did absolutely nothing about it. In one scene, Morgan watches a young woman being beaten by a slave driver and utterly fails to intervene, because he fears offending the privileged people he is traveling with:

I wanted to stop the whole thing and set the slaves free, but that would not do. I must not interfere too much and get myself a name for riding over the country’s laws and the citizen’s rights roughshod. If I lived and prospered I would be the death of slavery, that I was resolved upon; but I would try to fix it so that when I became its executioner it should be by the command of the nation.

It is worth pointing out that by this point in the novel, Morgan has gone from regarding chivalry with rank disgust to regarding it with a kind of aesthetic appreciation. By virtue of having a nineteenth century knowledge of technology in the sixth century, he has risen to power and privilege and has even begun to see quaint beauty in the system he originally detested, a system that he is now benefiting from. In this passage, we see how that privilege has shaped the way Morgan determines who counts as a “citizen,” whose “rights” are worth respecting, whose “command” matters when it comes to abolishing slavery. I won’t spoil the end of the novel for you. It’s one that you really should go read for yourself, as it’s quick and funny and sneakily profound. Suffice it to say that for all it’s humor, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was sort of shockingly ahead of it’s time (if you read the contemporary reviews, you can see just how much of its subversiveness floated under the nose of Twain’s readers), simultaneously unveiling the role that language and literature play in supporting systems of power decades before Foucault and revealing the horrifying consequences of industrialized warfare decades before the World Wars.

Kids these days

But many of Twain’s other novels contain critiques of chivalry and “Sir Walter disease.” Remember when you read Huckleberry Finn in high school and got to that part at the end where Tom and Huck decide to free Jim but Tom makes everyone engage in this ludicrous role play of a typical captivity narrative (I think The Count of Monte Cristo is his inspiration) and your teacher didn’t really know what to do with that? (Ok, maybe she did and what I’m about to say is not news to you. What I’m about to say did not originate with me). Some people think that final episode makes the entire book a colossal literary failure, but there is a purpose behind it. See, from the beginning of that novel (and in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom Sawyer is established as the type of kid who likes to act out the scenarios of his favorite books. Absurd shenanigans ensue.  Huckleberry Finn, as a coming of age story, is essentially all about what happens when we forget to put aside our childish ways and use those sorts of games to structure real, adult lives. (I suppose there is also an argument to be made that Huck Finn demonstrates how the systems of privilege and entitlement that structure adult lives begin with childhood play.)  Consider the Duke and the King, two con artists who adopt these sham titles because the Southerners around them will believe in that shit. Then you have the Sandersons and the Grangerfords slaughtering each other over a feud that absolutely no one remembers due to the fetishization of “Family Honor” as a grand, abstract concept.

What Twain is doing with Tom’s little captivity role play is showing how these childish fictions can become serious business. In the process of this little charade, Jim is recaptured, and Tom gets shot. But that episode isn’t just about the ridiculousness of patterning real life after a novel–though that’s pretty much what Twain’s critique of the South and Sir Walter came down to–it’s that enacting the narratives of chivalry requires taking away the autonomy of non-privileged people (Jim and to a certain degree Huck) in order to allow Privileged White Folks (Tom) to live out these self-aggrandizing narratives. Tom’s conception of himself as a Hero is entirely predicated on the fact that Jim has no choice but to play along because his very bodily survival depends on Tom’s benevolence and cooperation, just as the ability of White Southerners to perform chivalry as a class depended upon the existence of a permanent underclass that could be treated as personal property and kept wholly dependent on their masters.

In short, U.S. Americans have a long history of using the rhetoric of chivalry in order to deny autonomy and personhood to certain types of people, and that’s essentially what we’re talking about when feminists critique it. I wouldn’t even begin to argue that the situation of the harassed woman on the street who feels shame on behalf of her partner–because a slight against her is a slight against him, since she belongs to her in some way–is suffering from a form of oppression equivalent to that experienced by black slaves in the American South, or even African Americans in the U.S. today. But it is part of the same cultural logic that says that the performance of Dudely Heroism requires a woman to perform a circumscribed, subordinate role.  Furthermore, it justifies that necessity of that subordinate role by casting it as necessary for her own protection, because in the cultural logic of chivalry, women and other people who are treated as the personal property of white dudes are too ignorant and fragile to take care of themselves. Better they suffer indignities at the hands of one responsible, gentlemanly white man than find out what might happen if they had, you know, bodily autonomy, because dear God, what might happen then?

And this, dear readers, is what chivalry hath wrought.  So saith Mark Twain.