Thursday, March 18, 2010

Truly Outstanding Books: The Mysterious Stranger, by Mark Twain

Poor Satan. The guy just can't get a break. He leads one revolt against God and suddenly people act like he's evil incarnate.

You would think at least Finnish heavy metal band Lordi would support him. I mean they dress up as monsters. But when religious leaders accused them of Satanism they distanced themselves so much from Satan that they wrote a song called "Devil is a Loser". So, what, are they, like, good Christian monsters, then? Come on.

The Ayatollah Khomenei even went so far as to compare Satan to the American government!

In fact, the only people who seem to actually support Satan are a bunch of prissy kids trying to shock their parents. As such it's quite refreshing to read Mark Twain's novella The Mysterious Stranger, which shows our nation's youth a different kind of Satan than the one they've been taught to fear and hate all their lives.

The Mysterious Stranger is, of course, a heartwarming fairy tale about a trio of Austrian kids in the late 1500s who meet Satan and go on a string of wonderful adventures with him. Of course, the Satan who appears in The Mysterious Stranger isn't the Satan who led the revolt against God. It's his nephew, who goes by the same name. But the book is still plenty sacrilicious.

But The Mysterious Stranger goes beyond mere sacriliciousness. Twain's damning of humanity and Christianity aren't just empty shock tactics. He actually has something meaningful that's worth paying attention to even after you've moved beyond rebelling against your parents.

Satan spends a lot of time talking about how he is beyond such human notions as morality and he refers to Moral Sense as a disease. This would appear at first to be the same old Nietzscheist "beyond good and evil" stuff that teenage narcissists love. Such notions are dispelled when he takes the kids on an adventure to a French factory. When the kids are shocked at how horrible the working conditions are, Satan explains:
"It is some more Moral Sense. The proprietors are rich, and very holy; but the wage they pay to these poor brothers and sisters of theirs is only enough to keep them from dropping dead with hunger. The work-hours are fourteen per day, winter and summer—from six in the morning till eight at night—little children and all. And they walk to and from the pigsties which they inhabit—four miles each way, through mud and slush, rain, snow, sleet, and storm, daily, year in and year out. They get four hours of sleep. They kennel together, three families in a room, in unimaginable filth and stench; and disease comes, and they die off like flies. Have they committed a crime, these mangy things? No. What have they done, that they are punished so? Nothing at all, except getting themselves born into your foolish race. You have seen how they treat a misdoer there in the jail; now you see how they treat the innocent and the worthy. Is your race logical? Are these ill-smelling innocents better off than that heretic? Indeed, no; his punishment is trivial compared with theirs. They broke him on the wheel and smashed him to rags and pulp after we left, and he is dead now, and free of your precious race; but these poor slaves here—why, they have been dying for years, and some of them will not escape from life for years to come. It is the Moral Sense which teaches the factory proprietors the difference between right and wrong—you perceive the result. They think themselves better than dogs. Ah, you are such an illogical, unreasoning race! And paltry—oh, unspeakably!"
While Nietzsche considers the exploitation of the workers to be sign that someone is "beyond good and evil", Twain considers it to be a sign that someone is bound by the "Moral Sense".

Twain's view of morality expressed in this book was also dealt with in his essay "Corn-pone Opinions". In it he presented a materialist view of morality that our opinions come not from any abstract ideal but from our material surroundings. As such people's morality is just the views of right and wrong that justify their social position. So those French factory-owners in The Mysterious Stranger and factory-owners all over the world in real life, are not, by their standards, behaving immorally when they exploit their workers. They're just adhering to the morality of factory-owners.

This is reminiscent of the Marxist view of morality, as presented in Leon Trotsky's "Their Morals and Ours". Twain continues with this attitude as Satan introduces the children to the wonders greed, war, prison abuse, colonialism and, this being the 1500s, witch-burning.

Of course The Mysterious Stranger presents an incredibly pessimistic view of humanity. Whenever Satan tries to make people happier it invariably involves killing them or making them go insane (you gotta love fairy tales). When dealing with the fact that witch-burnings eventually fall out of fashion. Satan explains this by saying that eventually the minority who thought witch-burning was wrong shouted louder than the minority who thought it was right and the indecisive majority just switched sides. Also in the realm of pessimism, there's the whole bit where it turns out that the entire universe doesn't exist and is all a figment of the narrator's imagination, and the narrator himself is just a vagrant, useless, homeless thought wandering forlorn among the empty eternities.

The Mysterious Stranger was Mark Twain's last book, unfinished by the time of his death, and he had gotten a bit cranky. In his earlier years, at the height of his popularity, he was, as John Linnell put it, a "plaything of the rich", hanging out with people like John D. Rockefeller Sr. and Ulysses S. Grant. Eventually he started to get disillusioned in all that. He spoke out in support of union struggles as well as the Boxer rebellion in China and the 1905 Russian revolution. He also said the following at a speech for the Knights of Labor
Who are the oppressors? The few: the King, the capitalist, and a handful of other overseers and superintendents. Who are the oppressed? The many: the nations of the earth; the valuable personages; the workers; they that make the bread that the soft-handed and idle eat. (Quoted in Philip Foner's Mark Twain: Social Critic)
Unlike, say, Trotsky, Twain had no personal involvement in any mass movements so all the injustices of the world came off as pretty hopeless. Hence his tendency to lay the blame on "the damned human race".

But that pessimism doesn't make The Mysterious Stranger any less awesome. It is after all, a fairy tale, and fairy tales are meant to scare children. And rather than scare them with witches and demons like in traditional fairy tales, Twain scared them with injustice and exploitation, while letting Satan be a good guy. And that, my friends, makes for a truly outstanding book.

1 comment:

  1. That sounds pretty amazing. I'll have to give it a look.

    It's also interesting to think of how Satan's portrayal in literature changes according to the social framework. Milton's Satan, for example, might have held his head a little dignified had the King of England not been restored.