Tag Archives: satire

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.


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.


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.


Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (or, how historical fiction gets really weird)

27 Sep

Click for the original article in the Crimson White. That's right. Print.

Armed with a flame gun, an axe and an unshakeable conviction in the rightness of his cause, the 16th President of the United States stands ready to fight for the nation his fathers brought forth four score and seven years ago—a nation free from the tyranny of vampires.

In the grand tradition of completely making things up and then pretending you have historical documentation, author Seth Grahame-Smith brings us his latest masterpiece (and I use the term very, very broadly), “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” The history is atrocious; the explanations are reductive; and suspension of disbelief while reading is patently impossible. But isn’t that the case for all conspiracy theories? And I guarantee you’ve never heard anything like this one before.

Grahame-Smith made waves some years ago with the publication of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” Protectors of the Jane Austen canon were outraged! Fan fiction writers quailed at the thought that Mr. Darcy, the object of their ardent affections, might be undead! Book critics, wiping misty tears of frustration from their horn-rimmed glasses, bemoaned the public’s abysmal literary taste (or lack thereof). Voltaire and Mark Twain rolled over in their graves, and then, realizing that the novel was about zombies after all, thought better of it. I mean, the book wasn’t even satire. But readers enjoy an iconoclast, and shattering Jane Austen fans’ smug propriety was undoubtedly part of the appeal.

“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” seems to cause a similar sort of furor, a riotous mix of anger and enthusiasm. And with the title so refreshingly transparent, I don’t even need to include a plot summary to explain why.

Elementary school social studies teachers taught us that “Honest” Abe Lincoln was born in a log cabin somewhere in backwoods Kentucky. In American popular mythology, he epitomizes the everyman who rose to the highest position of power in the land (contemporaries might have given the honor to Andrew Jackson, but that whole Trail of Tears thing has understandably disillusioned modern Americans).  Grahame-Smith tells us that Lincoln was traumatized as a child by the death of his mother at the hands of rapacious vampires.

American civ professors emphasize the complexity of causes leading up to the Civil War. Grahame-Smith informs us that it was little more than Lincoln’s fanatic fight against vampire slaveholders. And all this on the basis of a “lost journal” that somehow fell into his possession, along with a handful of doctored photos scattered throughout the novel.

As a history major, I find the idea repulsive. But this book isn’t meant to be taken seriously. It isn’t meant to be an enduring classic. And, unless I have seriously overestimated the American public, there isn’t going to be a “DaVinci Code” debacle like we saw in 2003. Like he did with Jane Austen in “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” Grahame-Smith is parodying the conventions of biography itself.

Hey, maybe this is satire after all.

Most of the humor of the novel comes from the ridiculous juxtaposition of an absurd plot with Grahame-Smith’s staid, stuffy, David McCullough-esque writing style. He doesn’t break character for so much as a sentence, and halfway through readers might find themselves accepting Abe Lincoln’s flame gun as an accessory as natural as his stovepipe hat.

Ultimately, I’m ambivalent about “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” But I will say one thing in its favor: at least the vampires don’t sparkle.


Readers might also like… “The McSweeney’s Joke Book of Book Jokes” by McSweeney’s; “Android Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy and Ben Winters; “The Zombie Survival Guide” by Max Brooks.

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.

Letters from Hell: Mark Twain and “Satan” (part 1 of 3)

3 May

Mark Twain—or Samuel Langhorne Clemens, to use his Christian name—began his career as a humorist gamboling through Europe and the Holy Land, and taking an equally “wild romp through Scripture” (Ensor 19).

Treating the Bible as less-than-divinely inspired storybook of inconsistent literary quality and his fellow Christian travelers as less-than-divinely guided men and women of inconsistent moral quality, Mark Twain turned his travel book The Innocents Abroad into a satirical commentary on the hypocrisies of the supposedly pious American pilgrim.

His earliest published book and the work most popular during his lifetime, Twain’s Innocents contrasted the outward show of religiosity on the steamship Quaker City with the internal uncharitablility—even cruelty—of so many professing Christians.  Yet as sharp as his tone can be in The Innocents, these early jabs at human follies pale beside Twain’s later writings on religion; his correspondence from the Quaker City “was nothing compared to his attacks on the cruelty of God himself” (Enson 84).

From his first travel writings to his last—the fictional Letters from Earth, written by Twain alias Satan on the absurdity of human religion—Mark Twain’s criticism of religion broadened from a human to literally cosmic scale.  Irreverent in his earliest writings, the famous American satirist continued to prove at the end of his life that nothing was sacred—neither subject matter, human nature, nor God himself.

Religion always interested Mark Twain—though interest did not always inspire reverence.  In the port town of Hannibal, Missouri, reverence for the Bible loomed as large in the traditional community as the Mississippi River itself—and Twain, with his active imagination and cheeky disposition, used this scriptural inundation to good effect.

At Sunday school, for example, a young Sam Clemens put into play a rather un-Christian, Tom Sawyer-like scheme: seeking to earn the reward of library book borrowing privileges, Sam dutifully memorized Bible verses, though “according to his autobiography he simply recited the same five verses … every Sunday, and his teacher never seemed to be aware that he had heard them from the same person before” (Enson 3).

But eager as he may have been to reap reward without work, Twain’s indolence did not imply ignorance.  After reading through the Bible in its entirety as an adolescent (Enson 2), Mark Twain “inherited from his biblical training … the will to disbelieve, but also a lifelong fascination with the mythology taught” (Enson 4).  Twain revealed both this Christian heterodoxy and biblical acumen in his treatment of religious topics in The Innocents Abroad.

During the pilgrims’ visit to Egypt, Twain provides a prime example of his irreverent attitude toward the Bible and its hallowed stories.

At his pen, Jacob’s son Joseph—of the famed Technicolor dreamcoat—became less a Church father than a normal young man: lustful, and slightly unfilial.  Twain begins by twisting the orthodox story of Joseph’s imprisonment by Potifar.  While the biblical account holds that the spiteful Mrs. Potiphar cried rape only after she failed to seduce the upright Joseph, Twain remarks: “Joseph got into trouble with Potiphar’s wife at last, and both gave in their versions of the affair, but the lady’s was plausible and Joseph’s was most outrageously shaky” (Innocents 492).  A humorous retelling in itself if only for including sexual innuendo about a dignified patriarch, Twain’s implication is more pointed—it’s the “shaky” story that became canon.

Joseph in Egypt invites more “slangy versions of Bible stories” (Enson 7), with Twain turning the poignant reunion scene between Joseph and Jacob into an encounter more believable of a wealthy young man and his impoverished elderly father: “So Jacob went down into the land of Egypt, and tripped and fell upon Joseph’s neck; but Joseph caught him all right, and said ‘Go slow, Governor’” (Innocents 492).  And just to add contrast, the reunion of Jacob’s eleven other sons and their long lost brother drips with sentimentality, Twain adding the cue for: “(slow music.)”  (Enson 19).  Irreverence was the very bedrock of The Innocents Abroad.

Twain’s subversive character stood out on the Quaker City, whose composition reflected the reputable versus subversive conflict in microcosm:

Little time was required for Twain to discover that his fellow passengers were not his notion of ideal companions.  Many of them were advanced in age, and almost all of them disgustingly pious.  The irreverent westerner soon gathered around him a group of cronies—including his future brother-in-law—and had little connection with the respectable majority group.  (Enson 15)

And nothing on the Quaker City struck Twain and company as disgusting as “The Pilgrim.”  “Such tranquil stupidity, such supernatural gravity, such self-righteousness, and such ineffable self-complacency,” he writes of the “gray-bodied, dark-winged, bald-headed and preposterously uncomely bird” he and his friends spend an afternoon observing in the Marseilles Zoological Gardens (Innocents 101).

This old bird—a likely intentionally poor disguise for his sober, elderly, and overtly pious traveling companions—was for Twain “the most comical looking creature that can be imagined” (Innocents 101).  In a later letter, Twain quipped: “What a hell of a heaven it will be, when they get all these hypocrites assembled there!” (Smith 5).

This is part 1 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.

Medieval Innovators

6 Apr

We’ve a somewhat iconoclastic culture.

There’s not much in America too sacred or time-honored to escape the gleefully malicious

Here’s an example for all you Catholics out there, since we know the Pope got some serious bad PR this last Lenten season.  From mathematician and satirist Tom Lehrer, circa  1965:

The American humorist par excellence, Mark Twain, made a name for himself poking fun at the upper crust of New England society in The Innocents Abroad—a travelogue of his time as a subversive among the reputables on the first U.S. cruise vacation.  (Neither priest, nor Parisian, nor any passenger escaped his pen.)

H.L. Mencken—probably best known for covering the Scopes “Monkey Trial” (see E.K. Hornbeck in Inherit the Wind)—got everyone else.

And hitting on the most incendiary issues of today, a rebel vlogger across the pond even dared to criticize that most vaunted book—Twilight.

I’m of the opinion that this is just one facet of a larger cultural trend—loving the innovator.

If there’s anything Americans don’t value—save the Bill of Rights, in theory—it’s tradition.  Nothing’s off limits, and nothing’s too far (see the 1960s).  Nobody’s looking backwards; it’s all about what’s new.

Why was there so much hype about the iPad, anyway?  I was hearing awed whispers about the fabled “Apple Tablet” long before the newest tool in Steve Jobs’s plot to take over the world was unveiled.    First sales weren’t as high as expected this past weekend, after all, and I’m still crossing my fingers for Amazon to win the ebooks/ereader war (mainly because I already have a Kindle…)

In any case—Steve Jobs has a reputation as an innovator, the technological visionary of the new millennium, and possibly for the rest of time if he sticks around for the Singularity.  We want ingenuity, creativity, anything anything new.

I’m all for forward ho!—and thoroughly looking forward to the “Nerd Rapture,” as I’m told those heathen Luddite doubters call the Singularity (just wait—they’ll be sorry when they’re not among the elect)—but it’s still fascinating to look back and see just how different things were way back when.

[I realize that my last post was about consistency throughout history—well guess what? There’s also chaos!  And vast cultural changes.  The past is an alien, alien place, and pretty scary sometimes.]

In late-medieval Europe, mid-16th century—also known as the Reformation, or, as I like to call it, “That-Time-When-Martin-Luther’s-Mental-Breakdown-Led-to-a-Theological-Revolution-and-Everything-Went-Effing-Crazy”—reformers were tripping over each other trying to argue that they weren’t innovators.  “Innovation,” in fact, was a pejorative word.

Strange, because John Calvin’s name is almost synonymous with (literal) iconoclasm of the period.  Down with superstition!  With empty ritual and the cult of saints!  Down with papal tyranny, false prophets and false sacraments!  That sounds pretty radical—and of course, it was.  But like innovation means something different to us now, so does tradition.

Survivors of the Catholic school system or of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine classes (aka, CCD, or those kids who messed up everything in our desks) will know that the Catholic Church bases its authority on two things: Scripture, and Tradition.  Scripture’s pretty obvious—it’s that book with the cross on it.  Tradition, however, isn’t contained in any one book.  It’s the theory and praxis of centuries (millennia?) of institutional development: papal bulls and decrees and encyclicals, ceremonies and ritual, writings of Church fathers and Church doctors (some women in there, surprisingly).

This is the tradition the Protestant reformers were Protestanting against.  For Luther and the gang, Scripture was the only basis for orthodoxy—anything else was the work of the papists trying to ensnare you and your property.

[I’ll let Karlstadt and Eck debate it out at Lepzig—as I’ve said, my salvation lies in the prophecies of Ray Kurzweil.]

And yet, despite their tirades against tradition of the papacy, Protestant reformers made very clear that they had tradition too—that of the original, first-centuries Apostolic church.

John Calvin’s Response to Sadoleto is a great example.  The Reader’s Digest version:

Where last we left off, Calvin was fleeing Paris under suspicion of heresy and being a really good speechwriter.  He headed from Paris to Basel (in Switzerland), then from Basel to Italy (where he hung out with a pro-Protestant duchess and got a nice suntan), then back to Basel again, from Basel to Paris, and Paris to Strasbourg—or that was the plan.  The French Valois dynasty was in the middle of a war with (of course) the Spanish Hapsburgs, and so Calvin was detoured into a city on the edge of a lake, near the French border: Geneva.

So it’s summer 1536 and Calvin arrives, gets bullied by fellow predestinarian William Farel into staying, and the two of them take over the city.  Or, kind of.  The city council and local Genevans start getting cold feet about the whole crypto-theocracy thing, so they throw Calvin and Farel out of town (a couple years later they invite them back and everything goes to hell, but that’s another story—and Calvin would probably argue that everyone went to heaven.  Ah well).

After Calvin got booted, the clever Catholic Cardinal Sadoleto decides that it’s his time to jump back into the fray and try to bring back the city from the edge, back into the fold of the Mother Church.  Basically, he writes an open letter encouraging a return to Catholicism, arguing that Calvin and co. were nothing more than a bunch of (wait for it…) innovators.

Code for: no respect for authority, for sanctity, for tradition.  The Catholic Church had been around, after all, for 1,500 years.  That’s a long time, and a big rival for lone men like Luther and Calvin to take on with only the strength of their consciences and heretical vernacular bibles.

But though the city had turned out Calvin, they hadn’t turned aside Protestantism, and searched in vain for someone to respond to the cardinal’s claims.  I imagine you can guess that those fickle, fickle Genevans turned back to Calvin.  And Calvin, being a genius and really fast writer, got his reply out in a matter of days—including possibly the best medieval burn I’ve read this semester:

You call us crafty men, enemies of Christian unity and peace, innovators on things ancient and well-established, seditious, alike pestiferous to souls, and destructive both publicly and privately to society at large.  I am unwilling, however, to dwell on each of these points.

But… You know, Sadoleto, and if you venture to deny, I will make it palpable to all that you knew yet cunningly and craftily disguised the fact, not only that our agreement with antiquity is far closer than yours, but that we have attempted to renew that ancient form of the church which, at first sullied and distorted by illiterate men of indifferent character, was afterward flagitiously mangled and almost destroyed by the Roman pontiff and his faction.

First of all—how awesome is it to accuse someone’s colleagues of being illiterate and then throw down a word like flagitiously.  Ouch.  That’s almost as harsh as double predestination itself.

But most importantly— innovation was cearly not desirable.

And yet, like it or not, the times they were a’changin’.  A very literate populace devoured the letters as fast as they could be printed.  Of course, there’s a certain delicious irony in denouncing innovation by means of the most influential invention in human history (excepting fire…maybe): the printing press.

I’ll leave you with the words of Thomas Cromwell, via James Frain and The Tudors: “It’s called a printing press, my Lord, and it will change the world.”

You’re Crazy! — Dunbar and Catch-22, again

28 Mar

The first time Dunbar and Yossarian enter the hospital together, they spend their brief rest tormenting the Texan over his supposed “murder” of the soldier in white; the second time, they tag team Nurse Duckett and debate who gets the credit of insanity for Dunbar’s dream; the third and final time, when the soldier in white returns, Dunbar completely snaps—along with his and Yossarian’s rapport.  Suddenly, the two officers are no longer on the same wavelength.

[Major Major Major Major spoilers below… get it? get it?  For a more light-hearted look at Dunbar and Yossarian, see: Boredom Makes You Live Longer]

The second half of Catch-22 takes a particularly dark turn as most of the sympathetic characters in the novel begin, as Joseph Heller describes Dunbar and the Chaplain doing, “wasting away” (330).

The sheer absurdity of Yossarian and Dunbar’s casual wordplay and improvisation during briefings before missions or chance meetings at the hospital disappears as the other squadron’s bombardier begins to crack—going as far, for example, as categorically refusing to drop his bombs anywhere near the Italian village in chapter 30, risking a court-martial “without a word even to Yossarian” (330).

At times, Dunbar still shares Yossarian’s thoughts almost exactly—hiding in the brush after Sergeant Knight’s drunken celebratory machine gun fire panics the camp, the two recognize each other solely by the sound of their gunshots as they fire at each other.  And like Yossarian, who wakes with the horrible thought that “Milo was attacking the squadron again” (360), Dunbar immediately assumes the same: “‘They took ten years off my life,’ Dunbar exclaimed. ‘I thought that son of a bitch Milo was bombing us again.’”

But by the latter half of the novel Dunbar becomes more brooding than bored, terrifying both the friends of Nately’s whore and the naked generals keeping her captive with a “look of mean dislike and hostility” (354) on his face.

He terrifies Yossarian as well in the hospital when the two are faced with the reappearance of the soldier in white.  As Dunbar screams, “Yossarian froze in his tracks, paralyzed as much by the eerie shrillness in Dunbar’s voice as by the familiar, white, morbid sight of the solider in white covered from head to toe in plaster and gauze” (363).

And while Yossarian will agree with his friend that the soldier is, indeed, the same man from chapter one, “he shouted with dread” when Dunbar insisted that the plaster cast was empty, “stunned by the haggard, sparking anguish in Dunbar’s eyes and by his crazed look of wild shock and horror” (365).

Unlike earlier scenes, in which the two men defend each other’s idiosyncratic views on war and death to doubters such as Clevinger, Yossarian for the first time isn’t on the same page as the other bombardier, and shouts something he rarely imputes to anyone as a pejorative—“You’re crazy!” (365).

By the time the squadron “disappears” Dunbar, the witty banter that served as welcome comic relief during the first half of the novel has mostly disappeared as well—a reflection of the rapidly dropping morale of the all the men and approaching fates of a number of other sympathetic characters: Dr. Stubbs’s transfer to the Pacific, the Chaplain’s interrogation, Nately’s death as a result of “Milo the Militant” (368) manipulating Colonel Cathcart into raising the number of missions.  And there’s probably nothing less humorous than Yossarian’s pilgrimage through the Eternal City—scenes of gore, brutality, and blood punctuated by the bleak observation, “What a lousy earth!” (412).

Yossarian, who had previously fought Dunbar with witty repartee for the honor of being pronounced clinically insane by the hospital psychiatrist, has had a change of heart— commenting now that, in the “night filled with horrors,” he “thought he knew how Christ must have felt as he walked through the world, like a psychiatrist through a ward full of nuts” (415).  Absurdity that had brought laughs now turns simply dark—“nothing warped seemed bizarre anymore” to Yossarian, “in his strange, distorted surroundings” (412).

Notably, and sadly, the change came just shortly after Yossarian labeled his own good friend “crazy” himself.

Like I said, I can pick out the ones who die.

Boredom makes you live longer: Dunbar, Catch-22

17 Mar

(Foil of Yossarian’s and somehow endearing, for saying barely a sentence per fifty pages)

I’ve realized in the last few months that I have the uncanny ability to spot the supporting characters in a novel for whom that grim reaper called an author always manages to get right when I think the coast is clear.  I’m like a divining rod for fictional death.  (Lone exception: Percy Weasley)

I haven’t finished Catch-22 yet, but with this macabre talent in mind I’m beginning to get worried for Dunbar, the laconic officer who doesn’t appear often but has managed to win enough of my affection to merit a response paper for a U of A satire seminar, which I’ve included for the sake of anyone who wants to read about a foil of Yossarian’s in the first half of the book:

When the reader meets Yossarian, he’s befuddling doctors with a medical condition that both is and is not jaundice—and the absurdity only grows from there.  In line with the nature of the title military regulation, almost every event and conversation Yossarian and company (squadron, actually) have in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 abounds in contradiction and tautology.  At one point or another, after all, nearly every character accuses someone else of being crazy.

Second only to Yossarian in alleged insanity—in the opinion of Clevinger, at least, supposed voice of reason—is Dunbar, who also happens to be second only to Yossarian as a character introduced in the novel.  His companion from the hospital and the only man the bombardier doesn’t include among “the people Yossarian wanted to machine-gun” (18) in the officers’ club, Dunbar and Yossarian share a crucial trait: they don’t want to die.

Finishing each others’ sentences in the hospital, playing off of each other while tormenting the irritating Texan, the two officers’ characters appear as close as their infirmary beds.  “Outside the hospital there was nothing funny going on,” Heller notes; “The only thing going on was a war, and no one seemed to notice but Yossarian and Dunbar” (16). Among brothers-in-arms like Clevinger, Haverly, and McWatt—“the craziest combat man of them all probably, because he was perfectly sane and still did not mind the war” (60)—their desperate love for life seems, ironically, unrequited by most.

But while similar in this respect, Dunbar also serves as a foil for Yossarian in the first half of the novel: his fatalism and passivity highlighting more vividly the proudly-proclaimed coward—“‘I’m not ashamed, Yossarian said. ‘I’m just afraid.’” (102)—in his anger, desperation, and active attempts to outwit, outplay, and outlast all his fellows as a survivor in war.

Dunbar, unlike Yossarian, accepts the fact that death comes for everyone, and has committed himself to a somewhat unorthodox theory and practice of life extension: the cultivation of boredom.  The men Yossarian despises and heaps imaginary violence upon, such as Clevinger with his accusations of “antisocial aggressions” (19), are welcomed by his laconic friend.  “Dunbar loved shooting skeet because he hated every minute of it” (38), Heller explains, and “Dunbar liked Clevinger because Clevinger annoyed him and made the time go slow” (19)—activities that he insist literally count eleven-times-seventeen years to the hour.

Though a different tactic than Yossarian’s flying tackle employed on Major Major (Major Major) for the sake of information on how to get grounded, Dunbar’s ideas are, like Yossarian’s, less absurd than they seem at first read.  When Dunbar defends himself to Clevinger with the observation that “You’re inches away from death every time on a mission.  How much older can you be at your age?” (39), it may be the sanest sentence in the book so far.

An atheist, Dunbar’s simple, matter-of-fact assertions that “There is no God” (126) may be less colorful than Yossarian’s comparison of the Supreme Being as an incompetent bungler with a “warped, evil, scatological mind” partial to tooth decay (179)—nevertheless, disbelief in an afterlife makes survival, for the sake of whatever life, paramount:

“Be furious you’re going to die” (179), Yossarian says—”What else is there?” his friend asks.

America loves the Anti-Hero

8 Mar

In an early episode of J. J. Abrams’s Alias, a CIA psychoanalyst profiles Jennifer Garner’s character, Sydney Bristow.  Seated in a dark, cell-like room with electrodes secured to her forehead, Sydney is nevertheless completely self-possessed—as one of this most covert branch of the CIA’s top agents, our protagonist never flinches and answers every question with equanimity.  And because she’s entirely honorable, even if a spy, Sydney answers “No” to one of the shrink’s more interesting questions:

Have you ever been so enamored of a crook or criminal’s cleverness that you hoped he would escape the law?

Sydney Bristow may have answered in the negative in 2001, but not so America today.  Some of the most popular shows on television in 2010 feature figures who Sydney certainly wouldn’t spare an hour on a Tuesday night for: anti-heroes.

But if the villains we hate to love are televised now, there’s certainly literary precedent: Mervyn Peake’s Steerpike, Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff, Othello’s Iago, along with Prometheus, Icarus, Lucifer (or is that just me? But honestly—bringing an army of rebel angels against God is kind of awesome), and others.

I could write a research paper on anti-heroes such as Steerpike (in fact, I did in an American Literature course gone awry), but one of the best examples I’ve read recently can be found in George S. Schuyler’s satire Black No More.

The back-cover plot summary says it best:

Black No More is the story of a dapper black rogue of an insurance man who, through a scientific transformation process, becomes Matthew Fisher, a white man.  Matt dreams up a scam that allows him to become the leader of the Knights of Nordica, a white supremacist group, as well as to marry the white woman who rejected him when he was black.  Black No More is a hysterical exploration of race and its self-serving definitions.  If you can’t beat them, turn into them.

In Black No More, George Schuyler creates in Max Disher (alias Matthew Fisher) a character who doesn’t comfortably fit in either the protagonist or antagonist camp.  From his first appearance in the novel, Max’s moral rectitude is ambiguous: “Max was tall, dapper and smooth coffee-brown.  His Negroid features had a slightly satanic cast and there was an insolent nonchalance about his carriage” (3).

But this emissary of the Lord of Darkness truly comes into his own as the white supremacist demagogue Matthew Fisher.  In the course of ten pages, Matthew hardly makes a move without employing his “usual ironic expression”: he “smiled sardonically,” “jeered” at his friend Bunny Brown, “retorted sarcastically” to the unfortunate victims of his labor union schemes, “enjoyed their confusion,” “pretended to be sympathetic” to the union leaders he ruins, and surveys his white rabble with “cynical humor mixed with disgust” (84-95).  He employs the loyal Bunny to burn the Givens’s old family home—unexpectedly, but certainly fortuitously, causing wife Helen to miscarry—and, at the height of his reign as a “devil of ambition” (151), calmly weighs the pros and cons of the serial murder of his future children.

Sharp, supremely manipulative, and hungry for power, Matthew Fisher is hardly an admirable man.  Yet his expert political maneuvering remains compelling—and hysterical in a cringe-inducing way as he begins to speak of the Knights of Nordica as “my side” (86) and insist that “What we want is a status quo” (87).

Today, the morally suspect genius is probably even more in favor than during Matthew Fisher’s debut in 1931.

FOX’s House, M.D., for example, follows brilliant doctor Gregory House as he sidesteps legal and ethical guidelines in the pursuit of diagnosing complicated and unbelievably rare (really, five seasons in it’s getting harder to believe so many people in New Jersey have anthrax and eastern equine encephalitis) diseases.  Of course, House cares little for the feelings of either his patients or staff, whose fates he twists around his flame-painted walking cane.  As friend and conscience James Wilson comments in a recent episode: “You are the manipulative, yet benevolent, puppet-master.”

ABC’s cult hit Lost, as well, features its share of evil geniuses—most prominent among them the brilliant, slightly sociopathic, Benjamin Linus.  His own hired hit man possibly kills less characters on screen than Ben, among them (spoiler alert):

Two of Widmore’s Tuareg agents in the Sahara (shot), the demigod Jacob (stabbed), rival John Locke (shot, then strangled after Locke’s resurrection), and hundreds of Island hippies including his father (poison gas).  And those just the ones he dispatches personally.

As for satanic features, it’s doubtful any actor in the world today could equal Michael Emerson’s shiver-inducing stare or sinister tenor.  In a recent interview with Jimmy Fallon, Emerson was asked to read the poem “Little Boy Blue,” quote, “as creepy as you can”—the result being this:

(I think I can safely assume that you’re with me on the fact that Ben Linus killed the boy who looks after the sheep and buried him under the haystack.  Right?)

The anti-hero is certainly popular, as skyrocketing ratings for shows like House and Lost prove, but neither Gregory House nor Benjamin Linus in all their manipulative glory can match Matthew Fisher for sheer absurdity.  House and Lost have their satirical elements—Lost, after all, is a televised debate over faith and science with characters named John Locke, David Hume, Charlotte Staples (read C. S.) Lewis, and a mother-son Hawking-Faraday pair)—but neither are as focused as Black No More.

Matthew Fisher’s anti-heroic qualities are heightened by his context: a formerly-black insurance salesman running a white-supremacist organization and, ultimately, a presidential campaign. The incongruity is shocking enough—the back-cover plot summary in itself is hilarious.  Matthew’s genius might make him an anti-hero, but it’s this context that makes the reader shriek.

Black No More is a short, far from sweet, and absolutely successful satire.  Four stars.