Thursday, January 5, 2017

What Mark Twain Left Out Of His Angelic View Of Sex - Or, Simps Cribs A Well Worn Passage Though I Doubt He Read The Book

Yeah, I read Letters From The Earth.  It's a bit amusing, not the best Mark Twain but OK.  And like some of his other polemical writing, not exactly a comprehensive view of things but a set-up job, influenced as much by his bitter disappointment that he was, as we all are, NOT favored to go through life without sorrow and hardship.   Considering how much death and hardship he certainly saw in his life, his skeptical thinking and cynical reflection didn't prepare him for the deaths of his children and wife very well.  Lots of those he would have looked down on handled worse far better.

I will say, having read all of the Twain that was available to me from our local library, including Letters From The Earth and some of his posthumously published stuff, when he was good he could be great, when he wasn't he could be pretty bad.  Lots of his humorous stuff has dated right out of being funny.  I think "Life on the Mississippi" is his best book and lots of it droops and sags.   I think Is Shakespeare Dead? is a lot better than Letters and hits the mark more squarely on.  Only you didn't think so, as I recall our go-round on it.  He was far too unconventional for you to process in that piece.   Oh, yeah, and Huckleberry Finn sort of falls apart at the end.  I don't think he was especially good with endings.  That's something he shared with Thornton Wilder.

I also have to point out that Mark Twain's view of sex and sexuality in that passage leaves out a lot of stuff he must have known about.   As a man he would seem to not consider the morality of the grotesque sexual inequality of his time which inevitably was part of the phenomenon of sex.   Since you're a straight, white man, it's no surprise to me that you can leave that out.  Sex during his time was subject to all kinds of consequences, many of which fell far harder on women than on men.  Not to mention the problems of men who had sex with men or women with women.

For instance, take this sample: he has imagined a heaven, and has left entirely out of it the supremest of all his delights, the one ecstasy that stands first and foremost in the heart of every individual of his race -- and of ours -- sexual intercourse! It is as if a lost and perishing person in a roasting desert should be told by a rescuer he might choose and have all longed-for things but one, and he should elect to leave out water!

I have a strong feeling that like most men, Twain had a greatly exaggerated estimate of his sexual performance and the pleasure whoever he had sex with derived from it.  I'm certain you do, though, thankfully, not from personal experience.

I wonder why he didn't talk about the risks and consequences of syphilis, something he, perhaps from his days as a riverboat man, if not before, would certainly have known about.  I can't imagine a man of his experience in the world wouldn't have known people who contracted, suffered the ravages of and died of the disease.   I mean, have you ever really looked at [warning, some of these are truly horrific pictures]  photos of what syphilitic lesions look like?  And that's not including the other aspects of the disease, especially those cases of congenital infection inutero.

And that was only one of the consequences of freely engaging in sex in a human body and not as an angelic fiction constructed by Twain to debunk the religion that he felt, personally, had let him down. Considering how much he made of hookworms, you wonder why he left out an even more serious and widespread affliction which was far more easily avoided by practicing strict monogamy, as promoted in the Bible and by the religion he mocked.   Well, I doubt that point would be as well received by the readers, especially the literary men he probably figured would read it, eventually.   No one likes to hear about the possible consequences of their slipping around.   I mean, how many people quote Eugene O'Neill on the topic from The Iceman Cometh?

Unknown to Twain would have been many other possible diseases that were contracted through sex with an infected person.  Who knows what diseases were being spread unknown or unnoticed, how many deaths were attributed to other things or unexplained?   I doubt the entire catalog of those is known to us today.

Then there is unintended pregnancy, outside of or within marriage.  That's another thing which I would imagine Twain would have known about from a male perspective, the gender those consequences generally fall less seriously upon.  You can read the contemporary advocates for birth control on those consequences, especially for women for whom a pregnancy could prove life threatening or fatal.  You can find that all over the world, today.

And there is rape, sexual bondage, prostitution, forced marriage, .... For real people living in real life sex isn't the unmitigated fun that Twain presented it as being and he would have known that.  But, as with straight men today and a rather disgusting number of gay men who love to practice or imagine themselves as the dominant partner in sex that is always on their terms, for their pleasure and for their benefit, he chose to leave it out.

But, then, Twain has an angel making his case.  As a Catholic I've never been especially impressed by the Protestant conception of angels.  As I've grown up and considered the discription of them in the Bible, where they don't seem to appear without fear and even dread being part of the experience,  I'm not especially impressed with how most Catholics think of them.  A cousin of mine was disgusted when her parish - reorganized so the lousy Bishop could sell the church to pay out the fines to sex-abuse victims - voted to change its name to "Our Lady of the Angels".  She said, considering how most people thought of angels they may as well have called it "Our Lady of the Fairies".   What the fuck would a Protestant angel know about the less than heavenly consequences of human sex?   Most people don't seem to be able to think about those in a realistic manner without encouragement.

In looking for the text of "Letters" online, I came across the fact that Dan Savage did a stage version of it.  Dan Savage is, as I've pointed out, the greatest advocate for marriage inequality within gay marriage through his claims that the best marriages, committed, caring, FAITHFUL, uninfected, relationships among gay men are extremely unlikely if not impossible.   I strongly suspect he has done as much as anyone recently to encourage dangerous and irresponsible sex, so it doesn't surprise me he'd promote Twain on the topic.

Update: Yeah, when Huck and Jim just happen to wash up at the plantation of the aunt and uncle of Tom Sawyer who just happens to be visiting and can identify them and the news comes that Jim was set free and can live happily every after, it's just such a totally convincing set of coincidences, isn't it.

By the way, though he didn't specify that,  it's a point that that literary illiterate Borges pointed out as well,  that the end of Huckleberry Finn was problematic and sort of falls apart.  Up till that point the book is quite great, though, like Homer, he nods in places. On the other hand,  Thornton Wilder has a habit of just killing people morosely off to tie up the loose ends.  I'll never quite forgive him for doing that in The Eighth Day which could have, as well, been a great novel if he'd only been able to figure out a better ending for it.  I think he mistook having bad endings for his most attractive characters as a sign of quality, replacing gloom for profundity in the British manner.

You don't know how funny it is that someone like you who made a living passing judgement on other peoples' work, takes such offense at someone pointing out that not all of Twain stands the test of time.  Lots of his writing was throw away junk for quick money.  And I expect he knew it.   Though I wouldn't dignify the crap that you write with the word "criticism" even those guys who know what they're talking about are vampires on people who take the risk of producing something, most of which is bound to fail.  It's hard to produce good, never mind great work in the arts.  It's easy to produce crap, like you do.

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