Letters from Hell: Mark Twain and “Satan” (part 2 of 3)

3 May

Sinner though he was, Mark Twain had no patience for hypocrisy.

Noting the shock of his fellow pilgrims at the supposed immorality of the Turkish Sultan, Twain comments ironically: “They say the Sultan has 800 wives.  This almost amounts to bigamy.  It makes our cheeks burn with shame to see such a think permitted here in Turkey.  We do not mind it so much in Salt Lake, however” (Innocents 368)—a criticism of American assumptions of moral superiority as applicable on the Yearning for Zion ranch today as in 1869.

Even when the writer only comments on foreign practices, he draws a clear parallel between sinful pagans and the self-righteous pilgrims.  Twain’s condemnation of Constantinople’s moral climate could apply just as easily to a great number of American Christians as well—the general level of morality, he writes, is bad: “There is no gainsaying that.  Greek, Turkish, and Armenian morals consist only in attending church regularly on the appointed Sabbaths, and in breaking the ten commandments all the balance of the week” (Innocents 369).

This perhaps universal tendency to distort true morality while upholding only the outer appearance of religion received Twain’s most biting criticism in The Innocents Abroad.

Throughout the book, our correspondent continually returns to the issue of false relics and money-making shrines—exposing what one scholar described as “the mercenary-mindedness and hypocrisy of the clergy” (Enson 9).

In Genoa, for instance, the vaunted chapel of John the Baptist failed to impress as “we had seen St. John’s ashes before, in another church” (Innocents 165); likewise with Christ’s cradle and the many crowns of thorns across Europe.  “Isn’t this relic matter a little overdone?” Twain asks impatiently—“We find a piece of the true cross in every old church we go into, and some of the nails that held it together.  I would not like to be positive, but I think we have seen as much as a keg of these nails … As for the bones of St. Denis, I feel certain we have seen enough of them to duplicate him, if necessary” (Innocents 165).

Interestingly, Twain’s criticisms of extortionate devotional practices echo—a couple hundred years after—the disgust of sixteenth-century Protestant reformers.  Rather than teach the true faith, Martin Luther and his coterie cried, the Catholic Church promoted superstition and darkness—a position Twain seems to have sympathy for in his treatment of “the overshadowing Mother Church” (Innocents 267).

In Genoa, the clerics making a living off of doctored relics embody the corruption of religion Twain criticized—“every now and then one comes across a friar of orders gray,” he writes, “with shaven head, coarse robe, rope girdle and beads, and with feet cased in sandals or entirely bare.  These worthies suffer in the flesh, and do penance all their lives, I suppose, but they look like consummate famine breeders.  They are all fat and serene” (Innocents 164)

The description of the fat, flushed friar comes straight from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Twain’s insinuation is hardly more flattering—these ecclesiastical authorities, he seems to suggest, probably aren’t wearing hair shirts on their off time. Most ridiculous, perhaps, is the burial shrine of Adam that Twain finds in Jerusalem—a site where “there is no question that he is actually buried … because it has never yet been proven that the grave is not the grave in which he was buried” (Innocents 567).

But tautology, Twain suggests, is not what faithful Christians really need.

Across the world, common people of all religions truly do suffer and starve—in an asceticism not of their choosing.  Imagining himself a modern Roman on a pilgrimage of his own to the United States, Twain writes: “I saw there a country which has no overshadowing Mother Church, and yet they survive … In American they do not plow with a sharpened stick.  If I dared, I would say that sometimes they used a blasphemous plow that works by fire and vapor and tears up an acre of ground in a single hour” (Innocents 271).

Twain is not one to pen a blindly-patriotic panegyric to American values—the smugness of the American Christian comprises a great number of his jabs at religion—but the satirist does address this conflict between old and new:

The Holy Land’s religious quackery enraged him.  The Biblical sites—Adam’s tomb, the grave of Lazarus, the manger of Christ’s birth—left him cold, for it was patently absurd to his rational eyes that such things existed.  This fraud, coupled with the squalor and misery of the Holy Land’s peoples, proved to him that the iron hand of superstition and priestcraft was still too strong in the Old World.  (Morgan 12)

Continuing on this theme, Twain later compares such “quackery” and “priestcraft” to the example of Jesus Christ’s ministry to the poor: “Christ knew how to preach to these simple, superstitious, disease-tortured creatures: he healed the sick” (Innocents 474).  As a satirist, Mark Twain’s humor often had a more fundamental goal than making readers laugh—improving the world, representing “the optimist as pessimist” (Morgan 1).

In The Innocents Abroad, Twain’s optimism surfaces in his account of his friend the Doctor’s “impromptu hospital” set up in a small Syrian village.  “I believe they thought he was a god,” Twain describes; “What reverent and worshiping looks they bent upon that dread, mysterious power, the Doctor! … His reputation is mighty in Galilee today” (Innocents 474).

By comparing the Doctor in his charitable acts to Christ, Twain only widens the chasm between true morality and the practices of organized religion he contemns at in The Innocents Abroad.

This is part 2 of 3 excerpts from a paper I wrote for a University of Alabama American Studies course.  My works cited will be included at the end of part 3, so if you use any of these, please cite me–not only because I have a lifelong dream of being cited in a bibliography (because I do), but because there’s a special circle of hell just for plagiarists where you’re forced to edit inaccurate Wikipedia articles for all eternity.  Don’t go there.  Please.

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