1. DeusXMachina

    DeusXMachina Member

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    I think Mark Twain is full of shit

    Discussion in 'Book Discussion' started by DeusXMachina, Apr 24, 2018.

    Just finished The Prince and the Pauper. It's the classical story of mistaken identities - a noble and a slum boy change their places, with all the shenanigans that ensue. The plot is not really a revolution, but it's Twain, and Twain is always worth a read.

    He is also known to break the fourth wall, and he does this in a way that makes me think that there's one thing that Mr. Clemens wasn't lacking: gigantic self-esteem as an author. He didn't only not write to suit the expectations of an audience, no. Quite the contrary - he challenges his readers, and sometimes, at least that's my impression, he makes fun of them.

    In this novel - and it's one of his earlier ones, published 1871 - there's a scene where the poor beggar boy who took the place of the crown prince endures for the first time the ceremony of getting out of bed in the morning. And I don't know how meticulous Twain was in his research about the life of 16th century British royalty, but this here must be pure bullshit - and I'm pretty sure he knew it.

    At this point, I envision Twain sitting at his desk, cackling maniacally and adding item after item to this list of honorific horrors, wondering if and when his readers will give up and start to skim. I also believe he was brimful of shit, because, without being an expert in 16th century British royal ceremony, I doubt that the Archbishop of Canterbury's and the Lord High Admiral of England's duty encompassed the clothing of the dauphin. I also doubt that Hereditary Grand Diaperer is a real title (or the Brits are even weirder than I ever thought). It would make an awesome band name, though.

    But Twain isn't done with his readership. With the vanishingly low possibility in mind that one or another stubborn reader may still be alert and actually read what he's written, word by word, he ups the ante. Something goes wrong with the hose!

    This is hilarious. Poor Head Keeper of the King's Hose, to get beheaded for a missing truss.

    I only learned now that "to hose" also means "to trick, to deceive". Go figure.

    I guess I would have skimmed as well over the whole passage if I hadn't listened to an audiobook. But as I was stuck in a traffic jam with nothing else to do, I actually paid attention - and it had me laughing loudly at the end.

    This cannot be meant to be taken seriously. Not even in Twain's time 150 years ago, when the capacity to suffer through endless, long-winding, detailed, over-the-top, expository, blatantly told-not-shown description was arguably one of the main qualifications of a reader.

    And I wonder - are there modern authors who have the chuzpe to test their readers that blatantly? How would you react if you got the feeling that your favourite author doesn't take you seriously? Would you dare to do it yourself? I mean, Twain was known to be a brat, even in his time, and I guess he easily got away with an attitude like that. But his situation is hardly comparable to the one of contemporary authors trying to find any readers at all.
     
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  2. Tenderiser

    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor Community Volunteer

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    I haven't read the book but when I read your excerpt posted above, I immediately thought it was supposed to be comedic.

    Yes. I mean, there were books published in the last decade called John Dies at the End and This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don't Touch It. Both hugely successful.

    If I get the feeling my favourite author is trying to make me laugh, great! If I thought my favourite author had disdain for me as a reader, which is what your question suggests to me, not so great.

    To me, all Twain did was write something funny... and yeah, an awful lot of modern authors did that. But you seem to think he did something more than that, which I'm not quite getting...?
     
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  3. matwoolf

    matwoolf Contributor Contributor

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    It's q a famous scene, it's funny, no?
     
  4. Wreybies

    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Supporter Contributor

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    There can be no doubt that Twain is/was absolutely fucking with the reader. He is regarded as a humorist, after all. And whether or not one feels fucked with is a matter of opinion, background, anglophone nation of origin, etc. His Huckleberry Finn remains one of the most frequently and regularly banned books in the U.S.A because of exactly that fact. It's usually cited that what makes that book so ban-worthy in the eyes of the sensitive is the verbal content, objectionable expletives, but that's just a way for He Who Wishes to Ban to feel positive, if not righteous, about the choice to ban. What really makes that book ban-worthy is the way it not only asks the reader to question his/her theory and thought pattern on racism (all sides of the equation), but does so in a way that is not at all kind or coddling in the manner of asking said question. And on the flip side of things, his A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is not so much a critique of the British cultural experience, but an outright eyeroll at the phenomenon of American romanticizing of said cultural experience. Basically two middle fingers flipped at two separate audiences with one deeply dismissive and derisive story.

    Do I think think there are other writers with that kind of chutzpah? Sure. @Tenderiser gives some good examples above.

    Do I think it's an auspicious moment to be such a writer, or want to be such a writer in the anglophone sphere? Just my 2p, but my opinion is no. It's been my experience as of late that the current political climate in most of the anglophone sphere has yet to pop the bubble that's needed for us to get to the other side where this kind of thing can be appreciated again. Life in the anglophone world is too much of a cat-fight standoff Youtube video right now, all bristly growls, groans, hisses, and the occasional swat. Literalism seems to be the word of the day for too many readers. The kind of literalism that gives rise to Party Approved Literature™ with no hint of subtext or interpretation away from whatever bundled pamphlet of party doctrine is being espoused, and this is about the only bi(multi)partisan phenomenon that truly exists because all sides, red and blue, conservative and liberal, theist and nontheist, all of them are playing the game.

    As always, just my 2p.
     
  5. Tenderiser

    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor Community Volunteer

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    (Quote snipped for length). I think I understand your point... What about The Hate U Give, probably (?) the most successful novel of 2017?
     
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  6. Wreybies

    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Honestly (no reason to lie) never heard of it until just reading your post. Skimming the wikipage, the question arrises of: Does it have a narrative point of view that is espoused by a particular side of the argument on racism? If so, then its success doesn't seem unexpected to me. Twain's Huckleberry Finn doesn't take a side. It asks (tells?) all sides reading it that their question, at its core, is broken, which is why no resolution is forthcoming.
     
  7. Tenderiser

    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor Community Volunteer

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    No idea; I haven't read it. The 'U' is enough to put me off.

    Which question are you referring to in your last paragraph? I also haven't read Huckleberry Finn. I feel very uncultured now. :D
     
  8. Wreybies

    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Supporter Contributor

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    The question the story posses concerns the moralistic engagement of racism (from both sides) rather than a dispassionate practical engagement. When I read it (several times from high school through uni), the conclusion I came to again and again is that Twain is pointing out to readers that as long as we moralize the issue, we get nowhere. If we want to remove the problem, then a more practical engagement is needed, and that engagement may well include the curbing of certain rights to expression and free speech that we espouse with religious fervor.

    He makes a similar observation in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (can you tell I wrote several papers on both?? :D) His criticism in that story is to the tune of "maybe America would be the place we keep dreaming of if Americans stopped fapping away at the idea of noble peered society". Important to note that at the time of Twain, the phenomenon of Dollar Princesses was very much a thing.
     
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  9. Tenderiser

    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor Community Volunteer

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    Interesting. *adds Huckleberry Finn to TBR list*
     
  10. graveleye

    graveleye Active Member

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    do yourself a favor and read Tom Sawyer first. Huck Finn is sort of a continuation of Tom Sawyer.
     
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  11. BayView

    BayView Contributor Contributor

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    The Sellout by Paul Beatty won the Man-Booker prize, and it's satiric in a reasonably Twain-ian way... I didn't really "get" it myself, or maybe I did but I was expecting more. I'm not sure. But it certainly got a lot of acclaim despite its satiric nature.
     
  12. DeeDee

    DeeDee Senior Member

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    That's like somebody criticising Picasso for putting too many eyes on a face. Or wondering why Jackson Pollock is flinging all that paint around :D. In short, there is an explanation for those things, they mean stuff and have a purpose. The long version contains a lot of waffle about different stylistic approaches, writer's tools and other technical stuff. Isn't Twain studied at school? They should provide a pretty good explanation of why those things you didn't like are actually considered good.
     
  13. 123456789

    123456789 Contributor Contributor

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    I remember at the end of Tom Sawyer, during high school graduation or some equivalent, there is a valedictorian reading some of her horrible purple prose. Amazing that Twain could capture ridiculous experiences we still have today.
     
  14. DeusXMachina

    DeusXMachina Member

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    1. No, Twain is only on very rare occasions studied at non-english-speaking schools. Nonetheless I can say that I've certainly read more of his work than most native speakers.
    2. Where did I say that I didn't like it?

    Perhaps I should've put these paragraphs in a larger context, but they do not only stand out in this text, they're also something entirely different than the very obvious message he conveys with his satirical work, as Wreybies so eloquently pointed out - only someone who lives literally under a rock wouldn't know what he's getting at with, for example, the Yankee. Twain is a lot of things, but subtle is not one of them.

    These paragraphs are just an easteregg, hidden in rambling that is stylistically far over the top even in the context of this novel. And no, every effort to dissect this passage with writer's tools, different stylistic approaches an other technical stuff would just make Twain rotate in his grave with laughter. No message, just bullshit, and I was delighted that I actually found it. I'm sorry, but I'm easy to amuse.
     
  15. Iain Aschendale

    Iain Aschendale The Caliph of al-Abama Contributor

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    Sorry, but my first reaction was "Of course Mark Twain was full of shit, that's what made him famous!" It's like asking if Hunter Thompson was stoned or... sorry, my literary history is failing me right now, but yeah, he was.

    The other thing is:

    We in the modern (and by modern, I mean Google) age forget (or, for younger people [and this isn't an attack on them] don't know) how fucking hard it used to be to "look things up." To scroll back just twenty-odd years, primitive SEO used to ensure that almost any term you typed into AltaVista would return a porn site. The porn sites would open with a white page that was really white on white text of the entire dictionary, then redirect to the dirty stuff almost immediately. Before that, rolling back before, say, 1995, it was all done at the local library. You might have a chance of finding that sort of information if you had a lot of time, a helpful librarian, and the New York or Boston or Philadelphia library at your disposal, but the reading material that Twain's audiences had access to was probably limited to the family Bible, the newspaper, and whichever magazine he was published in that time around. For the reader, just titles like Hereditary Grand Diaperer would have been fun to read and wonder if they were real or not, and probably some of them went to their graves believing they were.

    Twain stands tall in a line that includes Ambrose Bierce, Dave Barry, Hunter Thompson, PJ O'Rourke, Erma Bombeck and far more whose names aren't bubbling up right now, and they are all, to a (wo)man, full of shit.
     
  16. Custard Cream Man

    Custard Cream Man New Member

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    Thanks for sharing! The film 'Coming To America' had a similar scene, where Eddie Murphy's character is put through a preposterous morning regime. Now I'm thinking that must be a nod back to Twain's scene. I guess hyperbole is partly what makes satire so enjoyable.

    "The royal penis is clean, your highness"
     
  17. jannert

    jannert Member Supporter Contributor

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    One of the things I love about Mark Twain's writing (and I've read a lot of it over the years) is that it's so difficult to pinpoint what he's trying to do. It makes him interesting, and worth thinking about. As a humorist he makes people laugh (really laugh ...he's very funny) but then suddenly a piece can turn so serious that you're saying 'oh shittttt,' while you're still laughing.

    Some of his flaws were common to the period he lived in. For example The Innocents Abroad (a very early piece) was hysterically funny in places, but it relied upon his American audience believing that foreigners and foreign parts were funny because they do things differently 'over there', and don't speak perfect English, etc. I don't know how much of that tendency to disparage foreigners was done for effect, and how much of it was done because that was, truly, his own view.

    The line between satire and self-satisfaction can be very thinly drawn.
     
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