The Jester and the Sages: Mark Twain in Conversation with Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx. By Forrest Robinson, Gabriel Noah Brahm, Jr., and Catherine Carlstroem. University of Missouri Press, 2011. Pp 174. Hardcover. 5.25 x 8.5". ISBN 978-0-8262-1952-7. $35.00.

Amazon sales commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project,
University of California, Berkeley, CA.

The following review appeared 24 January 2012 on the Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © 2012 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Martin Zehr

This volume's "conversations" convey commonalities of thought in the changing worlds inhabited by Mark Twain, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and Karl Marx although the discussions underscore much already known to be lurking beneath Twain's "jester" persona. We can trace Twain's preoccupations with philosophical questions through direct sources, especially his own writings. Secondary sources, notably, Tom Quirk's Mark Twain and Human Nature (Univ. of Missouri Press, 2007), explore documented influences in his thinking, e.g., Charles Darwin, Thomas Carlyle, William Lecky and Adolphe Quetelet. Recently, Shelley Fisher Fishkin's Mark Twain's Book of Animals (Univ. of California Press, 2009), mine Twain's writings to produce a cogent, cumulative depiction of a facet of Twain's morality, his pervasive empathy, for inhabitants of the universe outside "the damned human race." Within the human race, moreover, the legacy of Jim Zwick, punctuated by Susan Harris's recent work on Twain's anti-imperialism, underscores an acute, studied awareness of the economic oppression discussed by the authors in the context of the "jester's" "conversation" with Marx.

Robinson, Brahm and Carlstroem present the sages as ". . . figures of undoubted authority and influence who continue to enjoy large audiences . . ." (p. 3) and connect Twain's thinking to some of the prime emergent intellectual forces of his era. The reader is given "staged . . . comparisons" which resemble free-standing journal articles. The first, with Nietzsche and Twain, has been reprinted, in "modified form," from Nineteenth Century Literature, 60 (2005), pp. 137-62. The intention, as stated by the authors, is "to deploy consensus readings of the sages as a foundation for expanding the consensus reading of the jester" (p. 3). The authors are thoroughly versed with respect to the theory and reading of the "sages," such that the separate sections could well be read as solid primers of their subjects, and their Twain bona fides are certainly beyond question.

The first "conversation" focuses on Friedrich Nietzsche's critique of western, Christian-grounded morality, a "slave" morality responsible for binding its adherents in chains forged of guilt and a conscience constructed of fixed ideas of right and wrong. Twain's late-life philosophical deterministic discourse in What is Man? and his condemnation of the stranglehold of "invented bad conscience" in "The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut" are strong evidence for the proposition that the "funny-man" and the creator of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1885) and The Genealogy of Morals (1887) are on common ground. Nietzche's concept of ressentiment, a primary source of human misery, is mirrored in Twain's own condemnations of guilt, conscience and the repressive force of what he terms "that mongrel Moral Sense… whose function is to distinguish between right and wrong." Twain would, the authors argue, share Nietzsche's opinion that conventional morality requires adeptness at the "art of simulation" or, as Twain famously put it, the "lie of silent assertion," which, among other things, allowed for the unquestioned acceptance of slavery the young Clemens witnessed during his Hannibal childhood. The general pessimism of Twain and Nietszche is tempered, according to the authors, by their implicit recognition of the potential for humankind of identifying and throwing off the shackles of constructed morality and conformity which presumably destroyed the blissful perfection of man's pre-moral era. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is cited as an example of the interplay between this childhood innocence and the "bad faith" requirements of civilization that provoked ideas of written rebellion for Twain and Nietszche, who despite their dissent from the civilizations they inhabited, or because of it, also shared a conviction regarding the necessity of humor.

The second, and longest, of these "conversations," "Twain and Freud," is also the most problematic. Unlike Nietzsche and Marx, whose proponents and detractors would have little argument regarding their categorization as moral philosopher or economic theorist, Freud considered himself the founder of the "science" of psychoanalysis or, as Forrest Robinson states, having a ". . . faith in science." While Freudian ideas continue to exert a pervasive influence in literature and entertainment, the notion of Freud as scientist has long been rejected, even before Einstein refused to support Freud's self-promoted attempts to obtain the Nobel Prize in the 1920s. Psychoanalysis continues to attract a cult of adherents outside the mainstream of scientific psychology and psychiatry, but, from its beginnings, despite its popularity and cultural impact, Freud's self-generated conclusions regarding human nature have repeatedly failed the test of scientific scrutiny and, in some instances, have been a documented source of human suffering, e.g., the eruption of cases of "repressed (false) memory syndrome" in the 1980s in which families were torn apart and criminal prosecutions initiated on the basis of assertions made by mental health professionals predisposed to uncritical acceptance of Freudian theories. Literary studies, however, continue to demonstrate a conspicuous blind spot to the long-established academic acceptance of psychoanalysis as a "science" in name only, akin to the status of alchemy and astrology.

Given the above caveat, if we approach a discussion with Freud as its focus, categorizing him instead as a philosopher of human nature, then the comparison of the ideas of the "sage" with Twain's has, at the very least, entertainment value. In Robinson's essay, Freud and Twain are shown as sharing ideas of repression, in Twain's case, the repression of guilt, and in Freud's, the repression of sexual instincts. With Freud, for whom "biology is destiny," guilt is present at birth, while, for Twain, likely in more agreement with Nietzsche in this regard, guilt is acquired ("Training is everything."), a product of living in a society which teaches, and reinforces, Christian morality. Both writers were fascinated by the study of dreams, and the author of The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) might well have recognized some of his own thinking in this regard in No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger. "My Platonic Sweetheart," and "Which Was the Dream?" are among other Twain writings discussed in this section.

Repression and guilt are, as Robinson points out, concepts central to the writings of the sage and the jester, and both would likely have little disagreement on the subject of the destructive power of repression and its role in the creation and maintenance of unhappiness. Robinson notes Twain's observation, that "Civilization is Repression," is consonant, in a general way, with the "renunciation of unrestrained instinctual pleasures" outlined by Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930).

With these shared viewpoints, however, Robinson over-emphasizes the similarities in their concepts of human nature. For Freud, the instinctual, birth-born impulses are the primary determinants of behavior, while, in Twain's writings, infused with the determinism he shares with Freud, there is much more of an emphasis on outside influences, "circumstances," and "training," vital components of his "Corn-Pone" analysis. Indeed, as Tom Quirk has observed, "Twain's imaginative apprehension of behavioristic science . . . was in essential agreement with the facts of science and psychology" (Constructing Mark Twain: New Directions in Scholarship. Univ. of Missouri Press, 2001, p. 199). A strong argument could be made that Twain's emphasis on training and circumstance places him squarely in the camp of the behaviorists, and What Is Man? contains more shared ideas with B.F. Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971) than it does with Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams.

Robinson tends to over-emphasize similarities in the lives of both men. As Robinson notes, Twain and Freud "came from large families in the throes of economic hardship," but it's highly unlikely that the young Freud, who entered a university at age 17 and subsequently attended medical school, ever experienced the degree of penury that ended Sam Clemens's formal education at a young age and forced his indenture as a printer's devil to Joseph Ament. A major difference, however, is attributable to the variety and extent of their interactions with the world at large, much more extensive for Twain, with his myriad careers and extensive travel. Freud, on the other hand, was indefatigably devoted to a single career and, had it not been for the Nazi Anschluss of 1938, would have spent the last four decades of his life in his Bergasse apartment. The last fact, moreover, underscores a limitation that was never a factor for Clemens-Twain, namely the pervasive anti-Semitism Twain observed during his stay in fin-de-siecle Vienna.

The final "conversation" in this series, between Twain and Karl Marx, explores their shared condemnation of the economic injustices which were the direct product of the unrestrained capitalism of the era and its byproduct, the economic and political imperialism both decried. Robinson and Carlstroem introduce this section with the observation of William Dean Howells that Twain was "a theoretical socialist and a practical aristocrat," a remark which underscores much of the analysis of the Twain-Marx discussion. Twain was a "member of the elite capitalist class that he singled out for criticism," evidence of a hypocritical "bad-faith denial" charge that couldn't be leveled at Marx. Given this disparity in their respective entanglements in the system of economic divisions they inhabit, both exhibit moral outrage at critical components of capitalist-generated oppression, e.g., religion and the self-deception inherent in assumptions underlying the illusion of progress. Twain tempers his attitude regarding religion with the acknowledgement "that illusions could afford precious solace to sore minds," a backhanded endorsement of Marx's famous dictum, "Religion is the opiate of the masses." Marx, despite his condemnation of the economic and political injustices wrought by capitalism, appears more optimistic than Twain regarding the possibility of solutions through change of the external structures that have created and reinforced the maintenance of inequities. Twain, by contrast, is shown to be more cynical in this regard, based on his assumptions about human nature, which render the problems much more resistant to amelioration.

More than in the preceding "conversations," the authors discuss the problematic aspects of comparing the positions of the sage and the jester, in this case based, not on their respective sympathies, but on what they term the "ambivalence and contradiction (that) pervaded his (Twain's) life and works (p. 89). Marx not only exhibits single-mindedness in his philosophical explorations, but lives a life which doesn't present conspicuous contradictions to his major ideas. Twain, on the other hand, while sincere in his sensitivity to the economically and politically oppressed, nonetheless aspires to membership in the economic aristocracy that Marx insists is responsible for the alienation of the proletariat from the products of their labors. The same Twain who mocks the rush to entrepreneurial riches in The Gilded Age answers a reporter's question about the "taint" of the Standard Oil wealth of his friend Henry Huddleston Rogers by asserting that, yes, it is tainted, "T'ain't yours, and t'ain't mine." The discussion reinforces the perception of Twain as a psychologically complex figure for whom single labels are inadequate.

This book's title inevitably begs the question, who are the intended readers? Twain is the designated jester who, according to the authors, is the focus of this tripartite analysis, which, according to the blurb on the book's jacket, ". . . rescues the American genius from his role as funny-man . . ." For the serious scholar/reader, Twain hasn't lacked for "rescuers," at least since the pioneering work of Philip Foner (Mark Twain: Social Critic, 1958), Lou Budd (Mark Twain: Social Philosopher, 1962), Hamlin Hill (Mark Twain: God's Fool, 1973), and countless others, including those listed in this book's introduction. Even the general public, through exposure to the continuous controversies surrounding Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or the 2001 film biography by Ken Burns, is aware of the woefully inadequate depiction of Twain as a "mere humorist." The unelaborated "jester" designation, at this point in Twain's posthumous career, seems antiquated, a straw man put forth for easy counter-argument.

Twain's immersion in the philosophical tides of his era are not to be interpreted as the "jester's" wholesale endorsement of the thought castles constructed by these "sages," which, it is noted, is not the intent of the authors. Nonetheless, they have certainly accomplished their expressed aim of highlighting Twain's overlapping thinking with respect to the moral, religious, economic, political and personal explorations which dominated the respective careers of these "sages," who, for better or worse, have had a lasting impact on critical thought and popular culture. The ultimate irony engendered by a reading of this book is the conclusion that, considering Twain has something to say to each of these sages, arguably based on study and life experience at least as rich and varied as each of the "conversationalists," the appellations may be misapplied.

Martin Zehr, Ph.D., J.D., of Kansas City, Missouri is a clinical psychologist in private practice.