Tag Archives: literature

In Defense of Well-Read Internet Trolls*

10 May

I learned something yesterday: If you’re going to write a blog about as contentious and controversial a topic as the characterization of classic characters in American fiction (and do it with alliteration), you’ve really got to grow a thick skin.  Everyone has the right to disagree.  And that is something I will defend unto my last keystroke.  I, Isabela Morales, the Scattering’s sole author, do so swear.

See what I did there?  I used my name.  I did that because I personally believe that if I’m ashamed to put my John Hancock to something I publish, then it isn’t really worth publishing.  But hey, we can’t expect everyone to follow that rule.

Come now, does this look like the face of a “brutish faux intellectual” to you?

Anonymity is a valuable and important part of our online experience.  Why then do we, as a culture, tend to despise, denigrate, deride, and disdain people who post more-than-moderately critical comments without revealing their names?  I am here to say that I believe every would-be Internet troll has the right to write unnecessarily aggressive things about academic blog posts without inspiring offense on the part of the author.  Which is why I want to post this not-at-all-spiteful public letter of apology for forcing my objectionable prose on last night’s anonymous commenter.  You see–

In spring 2009 I was taking a course on American humor and satire at my now-alma mater the University of Alabama.  Every week, our professor assigned us brief writing assignments—analyzing either a chapter or character from the book we were reading as a class.  The essays from those classes that I’ve posted on the Scattering have consistently been some of my most popular for years now (maybe because they’re possibly the only useful things I’ve published here), and if anyone can explain why my paper on Mark Twain and religious satire has been translated into Spanish more than it’s been read in English, that would be kind of cool to know.

In any case—the last book we discussed that semester was Catch-22, the bleakly funny (anti-)war novel by Joseph Heller.  The short essay I posted from class was my comparison of leading man Yossarian and his glum number two, Dunbar.  I flatter myself that I provided a few good pieces of evidence to support my claim that Dunbar is Yossarian’s foil; and of course, like a good little college student, I used in-line parenthetical citations for all my quotes (this was before the history department converted me to CMOS).

This all seems like a very long time ago to me, but how easily we forget that the Internet is eternal: once on Google, always on Google.  And it would seem that someone found my little essay today and didn’t find it useful at all.  In fact, he/she seems kind of pissed off that it exists.  I hope, with this letter, written as a public post for completely non-self-indulgent reasons, I can assuage some of Anonymous’s worries.

Ahem.

Dear Anonymous,

I just wanted to let you know how very appreciative I am that you took the time to peruse my “ancient” blog posts until you found one worthy, or perhaps unworthy, as you would have it, of comment—and this especially because reading my character analysis of Dunbar in Catch-22 so clearly caused you great mental agitation and psychic pain.

As an avid reader myself, how acutely do I know the distress that comes when one is thrown into collision with unpalatable prose!  Please know that I extend to you my greatest admiration and, indeed, perhaps even awe, for setting yourself at the vanguard of the Internet’s blog writing style soldiery!  I don’t think that anyone who read the remarks you left on my post of 17 March 2009 could possibly imagine you as anything other but a white knight of wordpress—charging down the RSS feeds of book reviewers with the same courage and conviction that the chevaliers of old (dare I say, of olde?) charged down the jousting lists.

But because I fear that the weight of public opinion might come down against someone who hands down breathtaking accusations and criticism under the name “Anonymous,” I have decided to publish your comments more broadly—for the sake of showing every one of my readers just how much I care what they think about my writing style.

Despite this article being ancient, the following bothers me and so i’ll comment here. I hope you have relaxed your prose by now, but I’m not going to put myself out verifying.

“second only to Yossarian as a character introduced in the book” – this is annoying. Stop trying to sound pretentious when you simply mean “the second character introduced in the book.”

It doesn’t work and is appalling. Had several complaints leading up to this point, but after this sentence I stopped reading.

That being said, it’s your prerogative to write as you will. You simply come off brutish in your faux intellectualism.

Cheers

Me being pretentious in front of a picture of UA’s founding librarian, my role model in all things, including 19th-century prose.

Anonymous, I completely understand why you wouldn’t want to put yourself out verifying whether or not I have relaxed my prose by reading any more recent posts, considering how dreadfully my writing style irks you.  In fact, I must now regretfully inform you that my prose, if anything, has only grown more contrived, affected, and overblown in the last two years.  And now that I will be entering a doctoral program in history next fall, I can only sigh and resign myself to the fact that I will doubtless be swept away by the currents of stilted academic prose by the time I’m through.

Alas!  Alack!  I should probably leave it at that, to spare you any more agony, but there’s just one thing–

I wonder how you found this post to begin with?  Were you searching for essays about Catch-22 online?  Because if that’s the case, I would trouble you just one more time to ask whether the actual substance of the essay had any bearing on your research.  I hate to think that my grandiloquent diction is getting in the way of my ideas.

Oh, and if I can keep your attention for another moment (and I only make this extended reply because your browser history certainly does not include the search “cliffnotes catch 22”), I’d like to say something about that particular line that you quoted:

Educated people like you and me have probably come across the literary technique of “parallelism” before—you know, constructing your writing in such a way that the grammar of one phrase, say, echoes an earlier sentence.  That’s what I was going for what I started my sentence with “Second only to Yossarian in alleged insanity, Dunbar…” and ended it with “… is also second only to Yossarian as a character introduced in the book.”

Clearly, I failed in that.  Oh well, we all try these things when we’re young, don’t we?

And last of all—hopefully I haven’t taken up too much more of your time or left the taste of poor diction in your mouth, giving you that fuzzy feeling on your tongue that comes when you go to sleep without brushing—I’d like to say a few words about your word choice.

You are indeed a master wit!  I don’t think I’d ever be clever enough to call a complete stranger “pretentious” while myself using terms like brutish and faux intellectualism.  I can only surmise that you wanted to use satire to comment on an analysis of satire.

Which is why I love you, Anonymous.  And how I do love you for this.

Cheers! —IM

* If you can make it through my stilted prose and pretensions to some modicum of literacy, this, Dear Anonymous, is what we faux intellectuals like to call “satire.”  Or perhaps it’s just what my mom likes to call “passive aggressive.”  Why don’t you let me know.

WWJAT: What Would Jane Austen Think?

4 May

I was intrigued when Hank Green of Vlogbrothers fame announced last month that he was writing/producing a youtube series based on that most popular of all public domain novels: Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen.

It’s an interesting idea — setting the story in the modern day, changing some names around (from Mr. Bingley to Bing Lee the med student), and making Elizabeth Bennett a communications student vlogging about her life (and, of course, the marriage schemes of her Southern Belle mother).

It’s not like we haven’t seen plenty of adaptations.  The movies, the fanfiction-esque spin-off series of books, the zombie apocalypse version by the author of soon-to-be-film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (clearly, some of these adaptations have been truer to the book than others).

About this “The Lizzie Bennett Diaries,” however, I have mixed feelings.

The youtube series is cleverly written and entertaining.  The actress who plays our heroine is gives us a great sense of the original Elizabeth Bennett’s rebellious (and occasionally sullen) streak; Lydia’s s preening flirt (a coquette, as Austen would have said); and Jane is sickly sweet.  In terms of characterization, all is well with the world.

Nevertheless, Jane Austen’s novel wasn’t chick lit or paperback romance.  The emphasis on marriage, expectations of women in 19th-century England, and class dynamics in a stratified, straight-laced society made Pride and Prejudice a pointed social commentary.  As of the latest episode, I’m not sure that Hank Green’s version has that yet.

Still, it’s worth the watch: check it out on youtube and decide for yourselves whether anything has been lost in translation.  I’d love to hear what y’all think (and I say that completely non-sarcastically).

#historymajornotes Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God; Anne Bradstreet needs some lovin’

20 Sep

This is not an online comic.  Once, I had dreams of fame for my Protestant Reformation doodles, but I gave that up when it quickly became apparent that:

1. I can’t draw.  And

2. Protestant Reformation comics kind of have a limited audience.  (For the record, when I told my Reformation/Counter-reformation professor that I thought he looked like Johann Froben, he thought it was hilarious.)

But I still draw things in the margin of my notes, and I’m just conceited enough to put them online for the world.

Today, in the American lit class that feels like a history class (because the literature we’re reading is pretty much a bunch of Puritans griping about how hard it is to save people’s souls), the prof informed our class that, quote: “When I was your age, I thought Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God would be a really cool name for an indie rock band.”  Probably not what Johnny Edwards had in mind.  And cool, of course, is used in a very loose sense.

I’m an atheist, and that sermon still provoked some serious existential dread.  Let me share a passage:

If you cry to God to pity you, he will be so far from pitying you in your doleful case, or showing you the least regard or favour, that instead of that, he will only tread you under foot.

And though he will know that you cannot bear the weight of omnipotence treading upon you, yet he will not regard that, but he will crush you under his feet without mercy; he will crush out your blood, and make it fly, and it shall be sprinkled on his garments, so as to stain all his raiment.

So… what happened to “Jesus loves you”?  Anyone?  Anyone?  Buehler?

Meanwhile (and by meanwhile I mean mid-17th century), Goody Bradstreet the poet’s missing her husband, absent upon public employment.  The prof says it’s as close to Puritan erotica as you’re going to get:

… My Sun is gone so far in’s zodiac,
Whom whilst I ‘joyed, nor storms, nor frost I felt,
His warmth such frigid colds did cause to melt.
My chilled limbs now numbed lie forlorn;
Return; return, sweet Sol, from Capricorn;
In this dead time, alas, what can I more
Than view those fruits which through thy heat I bore?
Which sweet contentment yield me for a space,
True living pictures of their father’s face.
O strange effect! now thou art southward gone,
I weary grow the tedious day so long;
But when thou northward to me shalt return,
I wish my Sun may never set, but burn
Within the Cancer of my glowing breast,
The welcome house of him my dearest guest …

Which is all nice and sweet, but we know what she’s really saying is:

Macabre, monstrous, gruesome and ghastly Gormenghast: Why aren’t we reading it in the States?

16 Apr

After three years living in Tuscaloosa, I’m beginning to despair that I’m the only person in the state of Alabama who’s read anything by Mervyn Peake.  If I get that Lifestyles columnist gig on the campus paper, the first thing I’m doing is plugging Titus Groan and Gormenghast like crazy.  Mervyn Peake is the grandfather of steampunk, the dedicatee of Perdido Street Station, and the forerunner of PKD’s psychological madness.  In sum:

Why aren’t we reading him in the States?


I realize this is an indie speculative fiction blog, but Mervyn Peake is so little-known in this dear city (and state… and country) of mine that I’m going to give him a well-deserved blog post–for in truth, he deserves a blog of his own.  One that deals in Literature with a capital L.

So, a little background:

Mervyn Peake was a brilliant, badass English artist, illustrator, poet, and writer–today, he’s best-known for his Titus books (Titus Groan, Gormenghast, Titus Alone, and, in a few short months, the posthumous Titus Awakes).  He was the child of medical missionaries in China, a soldier in WWII, a war artist, an author and, tragically, a victim of Parkinson’s Disease.  I’m no fan of C.S. Lewis in general (he reminds me of a smug, Modernist Thomas More), but I can agree with him on this: “[Peake’s books] are actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before, and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience.”

Mystical-sounding?  Definitely.  But it’s about as good a description of Mervyn Peake’s writing as anyone could give.  Peake’s poetry and the Gormenghast books are less about plot, shall I say?, than effect.  It’s often categorized as fantasy, but Peake doesn’t write about elves or magic.  His writing is surrealist, gothic, and something of a social comedy.  And threading through the themes of stagnant tradition and freedom and oppression, there’s that element of madness.  Gormenghast is grotesque, gory, ghastly, mystical, lyrical, monstrous, mind-bending, and inarticulably beautiful.  His characters are strange, sympathetic, and Machiavellian by turn, and he names them with Dickensian flair (Steerpike, Flay, Fuchia and Sepulchrave, the Earl of Groan).

I had Titus Groan on my bookshelf since I was eight.  Didn’t pick it up until I was eighteen, of course, but that’s another story.  This story, in fact (hey, you clicked on the link; you get the self-indulgent, semi-autobiographical book reviews):

A very long time ago, my dear beloved mother took me to a used book store.  I wandered around the disorderly stacks of books, sneezing, because unlike many people who love the smell of musty old books (the same people, I might add, who sniff haughtily and turn away when they see my Kindle 2 with the Dharma Initiative decal) stale, yellowing paper just makes my eyes water.  Unless it’s part of a 19th-century historical manuscript collection–then it’s cool.  Anyway–

Seriously--wouldnt this give you nightmares when you were eight?

I came to a straight-backed wooden chair piled with books.  Sliding down the side was a book with a brightly-colored cover, Titus Groan.  My mother was at the check-out, so I grabbed the book, ran back to her, and smiled, as always quite pleased with myself, when she purchased it without a second glance as the clerk bagged up her nth copy of Jane Eyre.  For better or worse, she let me read whatever I wanted from the moment I could.

Of course, when we got home and I looked more closely at the cover, I was a little disturbed.  And the title was a bit frightening too.  So I hid it at the back of the bookshelf and trained my eyes to slide over it every time I looked up there.

Ten years later, college freshman me was packing boxes to ship to the University of Alabama, surreptitiously taking books from the family cache and slipping them into my suitcase with the justification that having read them more than my sisters, they were “mine.”  But Titus Groan really was mine, and I read it my first semester, and praised Palgolak that serendipity had led me to the best series I’d ever (and still have ever) read.

The book shortly fell apart, and is currently held together with scotch tape.  My copy was thirty years old when I got it, and I’ve never worried about breaking spines.

Neither was Steerpike… but that’s another story too.  And how about, instead of me boring you, you read it yourself?  This has the Scattering’s eternal seal of approval.

Here’s the link to Titus Groan on Amazon

Retro Sci-Fi Reviews: Gotta Catch ‘Em All

18 Jan

How many times have I told this story?  Once upon a time, it was the year 2000.  I was ten, having just survived Y2k, had a new appreciation for life.  I was going to branch out–put away Oregon Trail once and for all and play that weird computer game my mother bought, “Alpha Centauri.”  Or something like that, I don’t know, maybe my timeline’s off… it was so very long ago, after all.

In any case.  Grandpa Bob–better known to badass Cold War rocket engineers everywhere as Robert Schindler–had a similar idea.  For whatever reason (maybe I’d already shown interest in Captain Picard at such an early age), he decided to give me some of his old science fiction books (along with a very enlightening work of hagiography entitled Heroes of Our Faith).  There were two collection of old-timey science fiction stories: the 1962 A Century of Science Fiction and the 1974 Before the Golden Age: A Science Fiction Anthology of the 1930’s.  Yes, the apostrophe is really there between the 0 and the s.  Cue shudder.  They’re both hardback, and were purchased used in 1985 for 85 cents and $1.25, respectively, if anyone cares.

A Century of Science Fiction was edited by a man named Damon Knight, who’s famous for writing the story that inspired the classic Twilight Zone episode of the same name, “To Serve Man.”  Before the Golden Age was edited by Isaac Asimov, who’s famous for writing… absolutely everything.  Even at that age (and now that I think about it, it was probably more like 1998–like I said, the timeline’s wonky), I knew who Isaac Asimov was, mostly because my mom told me for years that she once served him when she was a waitress in college, even though it turns out that her memory was wrong and it was really Norman Mailer.  Except that that’s a Gilmore Girls episode, and I really have no idea where I’m going with this.

Oh yes.

That second book–Asimov’s–was the first place (and this I’m absolutely certain of) I ever learned about: cosmic rays, time travel, evolution, advanced alien life forms keeping humans as pets, aliens who aren’t actually trying to take over the world, historical counterfactuals, rudimentary cryogenics, parasites, the atmospheric composition of the  planet Venus, hive minds, brains in vats, and alternate universes.  Many of those stories have stuck with me for over a decade, even after one read–names of characters, settings, and most especially the wonderful plot twists.  The other book?  Well, I didn’t really read it.

But by 2003 I was hooked, and ended up subscribing to Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine for only about a year (I cancelled in 2004… or maybe 2005? because some of those stories were just too provocative.)  Still, they stuck with me too–only I couldn’t remember the titles.

Over a year ago, I embarked on a quest to find two of the short stories I knew I had read in some issue of those magazine.  And after weeks of online research (and actually calling old used bookstores up for information–I’m that committed), I found the issue I remembered.  Jackpot.

Am I right, or am I right? This book cover is terrifying.

I was not so lucky with two of the other stories I remembered.  They weren’t in any magazine I could track down, and they weren’t in the Asimov anthology, and as far as I could tell, they weren’t in the forgotten anthology either.  I didn’t try too hard with that one, admittedly–I don’t know what, but something about it was always a little off-putting.  They wouldn’t be in there anyway–I never read it.  So I put feelers out on some SF forums and got… nothing.

Last night I pulled out A Century of Science Fiction again, just paging through the Table of Contents.  These stories had such frustratingly vague titles!  “Reason,” “The Star,” “Another World”?  These could be about anything–my mind jumped immediately to the conclusion that they were about, respectively, Thomas Aquinas,the Nativity and Epiphany, and the Rapture.  Which mostly says something kind of disturbing about me.

There was also a story listed with the title “Unhuman Sacrifice.”  I thought it seemed like something I, as a 10-year-old, would pick out of the line-up.  Which also says something disturbing about me.  When I opened up to page 152, however, I was disappointed: there was some crazy preacher trying to fix a translation machine (huh, maybe I wasn’t too far off before).  Not at all the plant people I was expecting.  And then I turned to the last page, because of this story, the thing I remembered most was that final line.

And there it was.

I was elated.  Thrilled.  I literally shouted aloud, alone in my dorm, “I FOUND YOU, DAMMIT!”  It was really friggin’ exciting.  A great victory for the memory of Isabela Morales.  I came up with the idea that I would blog about the 1958 story, so between classes today I re-read it in full.  And still, the waters of my mind were troubled, because there was one last story I needed to find.  That one I really thought would be in the Knight anthology, but I just didn’t have the patience to go through ever story and fish for key words like “strangle” and “invisibility” and “opium den.”  And then I realized: I’ve never been patient.  When I was ten, having finished “Unhuman Sacrifice,” I would have chosen the path of least resistance–start on the story directly after.

There is was, “Aliens Among Us,” with the telling subtitle–“What is it?”

I was elated. Thrilled.  I literally pulled out my phone with a triumphant laugh and texted to my dear Charlie:

AAAAHHHH!  I found the other story I’ve been searching for for years!  I have all 6… GOTTA CATCH EM ALL!

And so, after this long and frustrating quest, and even longer and more frustrating blog post, I would like t0 announce that indie science fiction reviews are hereby and forthwith to be supplemented by reviews of those epic stories of a bygone age, starting with “Unhuman Sacrifice.”  Look for it, like, tomorrow.

Literature in a Facebook Note (review: Isobel, by Darren Scothern)

7 Jan

Let’s talk about Facebook.

Like most people, my list of friends includes the requisite number of half-remembered acquaintances who managed to creepily track me down despite the fact that my profile picture is Ben Linus’s face and I’m pretty sure I never gave them my name anyway.  They’re the people whose statii overflow with cliched observations about the transient nature of love or heartache or whatever.  They’re the kind of people who post their terrible rambling poetry on their profile as notes and get comments like “omg i know exactly what u mean!!!1!!1” or “you’re so brave!” or “UGH get over yourself” (and before you ask, no, that last one isn’t my comment… not to say that I don’t like it).

I’m not a fan of those people.  I’d even come to the conclusion that Facebook notes were useless and pathetic by their very nature until yesterday, when I read Darren Scothern’s novella Isobel. Darren Scothern is an award-winning horror/science fiction writer who’s bringing back the Facebook note in a big way–posting Isobel in serial installments on his wall before publishing on the Kindle platform in November 2010.  I still don’t quite know what’s going on–but whatever it is, it’s freaky and fantastic.  As the book description on Amazon says: “Take a trip into insanity.”

Isobel follows our narrator on his confused quest to research a peculiar rock band–but that quickly gives way to hallucination, madness, blood, psychosis, blood, sex, and a mysterious woman named Isobel powering a wheelchair (or is she?) and grinning from under her copper hair.

And that’s as coherent as I can get.  The fact that the narrator’s a horror writer writing in first person doesn’t clear anything up either.  As he writes in the intro:

How much of what follows in what you are about to read is true, and how much is just fantasy, I can’t tell you.  But, there is some of each.

That’s all.

And therein lies the genius.  Like Mark Z. Danielewski’s famous House of Leaves, Isobel is a highly stylized piece of writing less about the plot than the literary effect: surreal, confusing, dissonant, dark, dreamlike (or druglike), and utterly, utterly disturbing.  It’s the perfect example of cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling’s definition of “slipstream”–a quote, by the way, I have on my Facebook page:

“This is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.”

When done wrong, you get the worst type of postmodernist fiction.  When done right, you get the horror/SF amalgamation of Danielewski or Scothern.  And needless to say, it’s not easy to do right.  I don’t throw around the word “brilliant” very often (unless I’m talking about myself, naturally), and I almost never call something I review “literature,” but Darren Scothern’s writing fully deserves both descriptors.

I’ve heard it said somewhere that you know a book or a story is “literature” when you walk away from it feeling changed.  Isobel does that–in the most disturbing way.  Who’d have thought you could get that from a Facebook note?

Reading time: An hour… two hours… It took me longer, but then, I felt compelled to read the story twice.

Recommendation: This is one of the best (if not the best) piece of indie fiction I’ve reviewed on this blog, ever.  This post (if you couldn’t tell already) is an unqualified recommendation.

Availability: Isobel, along with Scotthern’s other short story collections, are available as Amazon ebooks (Isobel for $2.99).

Ayn Rand wrote science fiction? (book review: Anthem)

3 Jul

Ayn Rand’s name was everywhere a couple months ago, when Tea Partiers started brandishing “Who is John Galt?” signs to protest increasing government intervention in the economy.  It’s a reference to her magnum opus, Atlas Shugged, the 1,200 page economic epic of railroads, utopia, and a collapsing welfare state.  Add some of the passionate sex scenes Rand’s (in)famous for (see: The Fountainhead), and you’ve got a bestseller.

Interestingly, in the midst of our own economic downward spiral and government bailout fad, 2009 was Atlas Shrugged’s best year in sales—ever—which is pretty impressive considering it was published in 1957.  Right now, it’s #1 in Literature/Classics on Amazon.  Or in other words, Dagny Taggart just pwned Elizabeth Bennet.

But a decade before Atlas Shrugged hit the shelves, Ayn Rand wasn’t writing charged political thrillers or 60-page radio speeches.  She was writing science fiction.

De-individuation is the most horrible future novelists and television producers have given us.  We recognize that.  We hate Big Brother and we hate the Borg.  We want them destroyed!  Nobody, after all, likes a Hive Mind.

Anthem (1946) tackles this dystopian nightmare in an elegant 75 pages, three years before Orwell and decades before Star Trek.

Equality 7-2521 is a man struggling against a completely collectivized society—to the point that the word “I” has disappeared completely from the vocabulary (which makes the first-person narrative… plural, and unique).  Anthem is the story of the discovery of his individuality—and an anthem (see what I did there?) to the value and power of the human mind, human creativity, and, well, the human.

It’s classic Ayn Rand philosophy in a short, highly readable format that’ll stick with you.  For Ayn Rand newbies, it’s a great introduction to her ideas (take it from last year’s Ayn Rand Institute intern).  For veteran readers of her more famous fiction and nonfiction, Anthem shows a different, more innovative side to her writing that might be refreshing after spending a month or two (or three… four…) on Atlas Shrugged.

Verdict? A one-afternoon read, and well worth the time.  Makes me wonder what the genre would be like if she had kept writing science fiction… somewhere in the multiverse, Ayn Rand’s having drinks with Isaac Asimov.  I’m sure of it.

Anthem can be downloaded wirelessly and completely free at Amazon.

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

3 May

Mark Twain’s first, and bestselling, book serves a dual purpose as both humor and travel writing—an example of both subversive satire and the tradition of respectable travel correspondence from the European world of high culture and privilege.

For this reason, “it would be a great mistake to suppose the book is just a big package of Mark Twain’s jokes… It is the panorama of Europe and the Holy Land as they were seen by one who went abroad with no illusions; who carried about with him a shrewd pair of American eyes” (Stowe 147).

Though brash and uncultured to both the reputable pilgrims he travels with and the European aristocrats he travels to, these shrewd American eyes of Twain’s provide him with the perspective to see through the hypocrisies of the superficially pious and the low moral standards of the Old World’s supposedly high culture.  If “until very late in the [nineteenth] century the United States was widely believed to lack … traditions, glamour, polish, and culture” (Stowe 5), then the westerner Twain embodied this assumption writ small—essentially in The Innocents Abroad Mark Twain paints both himself and Americans in general as subversives.

But in his later “travel writings,” Twain expands his scope; his Letters from the Earth, written nearly half a century later, turn the entire human race into a subversive class, and reveal the hypocrisies of a supposedly reputable God.

Unpublished until well after his death, the Letters from the Earth explore the very darkest rooms in the religious edifice.

Casting himself as the archangel Satan, Twain writes as if a shocked observer of the insignificant little planet of Earth, which thinks itself so great.  “The people are all insane, the other animals are all insane, the earth is insane, Nature itself is insane.  Man is a marvelous curiosity” (Letters 7), Satan writes back home to his friends in Heaven, St. Gabriel and St. Michael:

Moreover—if I may put another strain upon you—he thinks he is the Creator’s pet … he even believe the Creator loves him; had a passion for him; sits up nights to admire him; yes, and watch over him and keep him out of trouble.  He prays to Him, and thinks He listens.  Isn’t it a quaint idea? … He prays for help, and favor, and protection every day; and does so with hopefulness and confidence, too, although no prayer has ever been answered.  (Letters 7)

Again, Twain’s answer—or rather, Satan’s—is to look to man and his own achievements, not superstition.

“The poor’s only real friend is their fellow man” (Letters 32), Satan asserts, echoing Twain’s comparison of the Doctor to Christ, supposed friend of the poor.

And yet, “if science exterminates a disease which has been working for God”—God being the omniscient, omnipotent creator of germs and microbes—“it is God that gets the credit, and all the pulpits break into grateful advertising raptures … He has been thinking about it for six thousand years, and making up his mind.  The idea of exterminating the hookworm was his.  He came very near doing it before Dr. Charles Wardell Stiles did.  But he is in time to get the credit of it.  He always is” (Letters 34).

By this point in his writing, Twain does not even give glancing credit to the teachings of Jesus Christ.  “It was as Jesus Christ,” in fact, that God “devised hell and proclaimed it”—torment for mortals even beyond Life’s “fever-dream made up of joys embittered by sorrows, pleasures poisoned by pain” (Letters 44).  God has for Twain become nothing less than the “Great Criminal” (Letters 36)—“it is wonderful,” Satan remarks drolly, “the thorough and comprehensive study which the Creator devoted to the great work of making man miserable” (Letters 32).

Perhaps Christ healed the sick, Twain allowed in The Innocents Abroad, but, writing in the last years of his career and life, the satirist considers who created sickness and torment—temporal or eternal—to begin with.  But this seems to make sense as Satan interprets the Bible—“I the Lord thy God am a jealous God” means to him, “I the Lord thy God am a small God, a small God, and fretful about small things” (Letters 27).

In Letters from the Earth, God represents the greatest hypocrite of all: a being who receives praise and reputable status while working the most widespread immorality Twain can imagine.  “If he has a motto,” Satan suggests of God, “it would have read, ‘Let no innocent person escape’” (Letters 49).

Human beings, after all—Satan argues—came into being through no act of their own, have no control over their temperament or circumstances, and attempt to live under religious strictures that are “as I have said: every statute in the Bible and in the lawbooks is an attempt to defeat a law of God—in other words an unalterable and indestructible law of nature” (Letters 39).  In this grim set of letters, Satan’s comment here segues into one of the more humorous examples of religious absurdity: rules regarding sexual conduct.

“During twenty-three days in every month,” Satan explains to his friends back home, “from the time a woman is seven years old till she dies of old age, she is ready for action, and competent … but man is only briefly competent, from the age of sixteen or seventeen thenceforward for thirty-five years” (Letters 40).

By Satan’s logic, these biological facts reflect the Law of Nature, which he and all the archangels had previously agreed, was interchangeable with the Law of God (Letters 4).  Thus, if anything, a woman ought to control a harem of men, as “no woman ever sees the day that she can’t overwork, and defeat, and put out of commission any ten masculine plants that can be put to bed to her” (Letters 41).  Astonishingly, human religion has subverted this law of nature, and restricted woman to one man.  Satan, for his part, is outraged.

Readers can fairly safely impute this outrage to the man behind the persona, Mark Twain—or even deeper down, Samuel Clemens.

Satan reflects a number of attributes characteristic of the irreverent Twain: Satan’s visit to Earth was less a pleasure trip than a forced exile as punishment for the archangel’s impudence—“Satan had been making admiring remarks about certain of the Creator’s sparkling industries—remarks which, being read between the lines, were sarcasms” (Letters 6).  Satan, in effect, is a satirist.  Of course, the exiled angel’s footnote that he plans to publish his correspondence on this little parochial planet Earth only bears out the interpretation.

Thus as dark as his tone may grow and as viciously as he writes—exploring human nature’s cruelty as second only to God’s—the narrator remains the same man as the writer of The Innocents Abroad.  And all of these religious writings reflect an influence dating back to his childhood in Hannibal, Missouri—

Raised in “a community where many people revered the Bible as the Word of God, as virtually a letter direct from the hand of the Almighty” (Enson), Twain countered with his own letters.  Though employing an increasingly dismal tone, the letters from Twain and Satan remain those of an optimist—attacking the superstition and hypocrisy he saw as a major cause of human suffering.  And while Twain never separated himself from the “rest of the damned human race … no doubt he honestly believed, as he said countless times in public and private, that he was a moral coward” (Smith xvii), his own works make Twain himself a hypocrite.

Rather than cowardice, Mark Twain’s fearless irreverence merits the virtues he imputes to his alter ego Satan: “There was some aimless and halting conversation about matters of no consequence,” Twain writes of the archangels, “until at last the archangel Satan gathered his courage together—of which he had a very good supply—and broke ground” (Letters 3).

Works Cited

Ensor, Allison. Mark Twain & The Bible. Lexington, KY: University Of Kentucky Press, 1969. Print.

Morgan, H. Wayne. American Writers in Rebellion, from Mark Twain to Dreiser. Berlin: Hill & Wang Pub, 1965. Print.

Smith, Janet (ED). Mark Twain on the Damned Human Race. New York: Hill And Wang, 1962. Print.

Stowe, William W.. Going Abroad: European Travel in Nineteenth-Century American Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. Print.

Twain, Mark. Letters from the Earth. Bernard DeVoto ed. New York, Evanston, and London : Harper & Row, 1962. Print.

Twain, Mark. The Innocents Abroad. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2003. Print.

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.

Marital Alliances in Indian History, Part 1 of 2

1 Apr

Marriage as a tool of statecraft represents one of the oldest means of legitimating rule or conquest—in myth or history.

In the Sanskrit epic of the Mahabharata, “whose core probably reflects Indian life at about 1000 B.C.” (Wolpert 37), for example, marriage surfaces as a metaphor for the Aryan penetration of the Gangetic plain in the first millennium BCE: the great tale begins with the story of King Santanu and his abiding love for the personified river, the goddess Ganga.

The other major epic of ancient India, the Ramayana, similarly reflects the maneuvering and stratagems of Aryan marital alliances, with the king’s politicking three wives each plotting for the accession of her own son to the throne.

But most significantly, the Ramayana hints at the ever-present religious climate within which these machinations take place: “we see how powerful a force religious law, or dharma, has become in dictating ‘proper’ behavior, even for a monarch” (Wolpert 40).  This enduring concept of social or religious duty throws a singular cast over Indian marriage arrangements—even a match made with the most realpolitik of considerations in mind necessarily occurs against this backdrop of dharma, the “all-comprehensive” (de Bary 218) and universal law.

As dharma’s macrocosmic scope encompasses and forms “the foundation of the universe” (de Bary 220); on the microcosmic level, marriage and the ashrama or life stage of the Householder is the foundation of society, the family, and when used for political purposes, the state.

In this worldview, the codification of marriage practices, rules, duties, and obligations in Sacred Law—smriti, human tradition—ensures the smooth functioning of society.  Central to this is the strictly-regulated caste system: proper behavior of the four primary varnas—the Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra—frames the “essence of all dharma… for the sake of solidarity and progress of society as a whole” (de Bary 224).

Because of the centrality of the householder’s role, with this “second stage of life often characterized as the basis and support of the other three” (de Bary 230), smriti laboriously categorizes marriages within and among the Indian castes.

Taking into consideration the children of mixed marriages, their offspring, and so on, the superficially simple structure of four classes breaks down into “more than three-thousand real castes, subcastes, mixed castes, and exterior (untouchable) castes” (de Bary 226), a veritable labyrinth of genealogy which is, nevertheless, systematized in Sacred Law.

Classifications pivot on the concept of hypergamy, in which the husband belongs to a higher class than the wife, and the taboo against hypogamy, in which a wife’s status ranks higher.

While man and wife from within a single caste join in a so-called “unblemished marriage” (de Bary 227), and most hypergamous unions prove acceptable, children resulting from hypogamous marriages occupy the very lowest positions in society—the Candala, offspring of a Brahman woman and Shudra man, for example, are so despised as to be “excluded from all considerations of dharma” (de Bary 227).

A clear breach of proper social order, Candala and other low castes—such as the Parasava children of a Brahman man and Shudra woman—represent an analogous rift in the religious order as well, and so are divorced entirely from both spheres.

“Since the Aryans brought with their Caucasian genes a new language, Sanskrit, and a new pantheon of gods, as well as the patriarchal, patrilineal family and three-class structure of priests, warriors, and commoners” (Wolpert 26), institutions of social cohesion that facilitated political and cultural dominance began enter India before 1000 BCE, but endure and continue to exercise cultural influence well into the Classical Age, ca. 320 to 700 CE.

Mrichakatika, or “Little Clay Cart,” a play written by King Shudraka—contemporary of Kalidassa, known as the “Shakespeare of India” for his secular literature—relates the story of an hypogamous union between Carudatta, an impoverished Brahman man, and Vasantasena, the courtesan with whom he falls incurably in love.

Strangled for her violation of the social order, Vasantasena’s body is found by another mournful courtier who had admired her as well, and laments that her social status could not have matched her high moral distinction:

When thou, sweet maid, art born again,

be not a courtesan reborn,

but in a house which sinless men,

and virtuous, and good, adorn (Shrudaka 128)

The social significance of even supposedly private and personal feelings is further highlighted in “Little Clay Cart,” as the play is “the only Sanskrit drama to include a legal trial scene” (Wolpert 92).

But smriti pertains to the form of marriage as well as the agents within it—eight distinct types of marital arrangements are described in the Asvalayana Grhya Sutra, along with the corresponding social and religious value applicable to each.

The Brahma form of marriage, for instance, consists of a father giving away his daughter “after decking her with ornaments and having first offered a libation of water”; after consummation, “a son born to her after such a marriage purifies twelve descendants and twelve ancestors on both her husband’s and her own sides” (de Bary 231).

Ritual offerings and requirements lessen down the line of marriage categories, as does the commensurate spiritual merit.

A Prajapatya marriage, for example, purifies only eight descendents and ancestors, and requires just the injunction to the bride and groom to “Practice dharma together” (de Bary 231)—indicating that though the ceremony is simpler and the participants perhaps of lower status, the union still falls within the bounds of the universal social order.

Again, Classical literature illustrates the dangers of a “love-match,” a coupling outside of the traditional forms and structure.  Kalidassa’s Shakuntala follows the story of the titular forest nymph and the king who falls in love with her—performing the simple Gandharva rite, or “love-match” (de Bary 231) agreement between man and woman, the mis-matched lovers wed.

When the nymph’s “‘bewitching youth’ so enthralls the king that he forgets his wife and courtly responsibilities entirely” (Wolpert 91), Kalidassa depicts the tragic consequences of abandoning duty and dharma: heartbroken when the king ultimately returns to his monarchical obligations and promptly forgets her, Shakuntala:

tossed her arms, bemoaned her plight,

accused her crushing fate

Before our eyes a heavenly light

in woman’s form, but shining bright,

seized her and vanished straight” (Kalidassa 61)

But duties to provide for and protect wives also accompany the obligation of a woman not to transgress social boundaries—“the highest dharma of all four classes,” the Manu Smrti asserts, is that “husbands, though weak, must strive to protect their wives” (de Bary 233).

A man who neglects this duty could prove as contemptible—and meet as unfortunate a fate—as the brazen Vasantasena or Shakuntala, even at the highest levels of society.

The historical drama Devicandragupta, or “The Queen and Chandra Gupta,” describes just such an incident in the court of Chandra Gupta II, who ruled from CE 375 to 415.

Inheriting the throne as the eldest son, Chandra Gupta’s brother Rama subsequently “proves himself weak and treacherous by promising to surrender his wife to a barbaric Shaka ruler who had defeated him in battle” (Wolpert 90), a breach of the dharma which required he protect and care for his wife.

Recognizing this transgression and the unworthiness of his brother, Chandra Gupta supposedly dresses as a woman, takes the queen’s place, and murders the Shaka king in his harem—returning to court to kill Rama as well, and marry the widow he saved.  Though the popular tale may be apocryphal, it reveals the value Chandra Gupta attached to dharma at his court, particularly in marital alliances, of which he arranged many during his reign.

This is an excerpt from a paper written for an Asian Civ course at the University of Alabama.  Please remember that all plagiarists go to hell, and in Alabama, they get stoned.

Works Cited:

de Bary, Theodore. Sources of Indian Tradition. Introduction to Oriental Civilizations.

New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.

Gordon, Stewart. When Asia Was The World. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Da Capo Press, 2008.

Kalidassa, Translations of Shakuntala, and Other Works. Arthur W. Ryder. New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., 1914.

Shrudaka, The Little Clay Cart. Harvard Oriental Series. Volume Nine, Arthur W. Ryder. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University, 1905.

Wolpert, Stanley. A New History of India. 8th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.