Monday, May 24, 2010

Mark Twain, More Bile

Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victim may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
If you consider that quote unusual, it’ll be more unusual after you consider the source: Clive Staples Lewis, famous for Christian apologetics. It comes from Lewis’ 1948 book “God on the Dock,” and is, in many ways, a fitting description of not only the eye-rolling do-gooding we see today both from the religious and non-religious (note he says moral busybodies, not religious busybodies and identifies merely “tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victim,” a tyranny certainly employed by many of any political stripe) and the constant battle over what it means to have a free will. I pondering this quote, I feel that Lewis is saying that if someone is forced to do something for his or her “own good,” rather than because they believe it to be an acceptable thing to do, ya got trouble.

Thinking of these moral busybodies, one of the most egregious examples that comes to mind is the protagonist in Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” Almost nowhere else in literature is the essence of this concept by C.S. Lewis captured so vividly than in the story of Hank Morgan, a do-gooder who tries to impose modern American monetary policy, education and other concepts onto the people of medieval England, for their own good – and how he comes a cropper doing so.

Thus is the conundrum of Mark Twin, and the conundrum of politics, ancient and modern. Everyone’s so busy doing something for the good of others they’re too busy to check to see if they’ve become a moral busybody. (Still don’t believe what you espouse falls into the camp of moral busybodiness? Read the definition of “morality” here. And pry that mind open as you read.

I think of any author, Mark Twin probably recognized this conundrum in society and in himself, and that is why his writing – especially in the latter part of his life – is filled with such bile.

We’ll soon get to hear more of it. His autobiography – which he wrote out longhand prior to his death in 1910 and forbade to be published before a hundred years had passed – will be published this year, and according to historian Laura Trombley, is likely to be bilious, even for Twain. She told the UK’s Independent:
There is a perception that Twain spent his final years basking in the adoration of fans. The autobiography will perhaps show that it wasn't such a happy time. He spent six months of the last year of his life writing a manuscript full of vitriol, saying things that he'd never said about anyone in print before. It really is 400 pages of bile.
Lewis’ quote is certainly open to debate, as there are some moral busybodiness that needed, and needs, to occur, which Twain also recognized:
Another potential motivation for leaving the book to be posthumously published concerns Twain's legacy as a Great American. Michael Shelden, who this year published Man in White, an account of Twain's final years, says that some of his privately held views could have hurt his public image.

"He had doubts about God, and in the autobiography, he questions the imperial mission of the US in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. He's also critical of [Theodore] Roosevelt, and takes the view that patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrel. Twain also disliked sending Christian missionaries to Africa. He said they had enough business to be getting on with at home: with lynching going on in the South, he thought they should try to convert the heathens down there."
All of this certainly makes me curious to read the autobiography once it’s published, though I hope they put out an easy reader version for folks like me who won’t want to pore through its three volumes. And I'm not sure I can pore through 500,000 pages of more Mark Twain bile.

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