S.L. Clemens and J.-J. Rousseau: Similar Dispositions Toward Life?

Right around the time of making a trip to Samuel Clemens’ boyhood home, in Hannibal, Missouri (see my travelogue), I was reading a great deal of Rousseau, and I noticed an interesting similarity.  The realization takes some developing, so I will start with how I arrived at noticing the similarity, before saying what it was.

There is a very good biography of Clemen’s last years (approximately his last decade) by Michael Sheldon, called Mark Twain: Man in White: The Grand Adventure of his Final Years.  It struck me as very, very out of place, with respect to my overall impression of Clemens.  In retrospect, I know that this is because I read much of Twain’s books, while knowing very little about Clemens, the man.  “Grand Adventure” is a really bizarre way of putting such a grim, dismal, and pessimistic end to a life.  It had its ups, don’t get me wrong; for instance, he was awarded his DLitt and doctoral robes from Oxford.  Such, however, fails to underscore what was going on in Clemens, qua an individual struggling with the death of children and wife, and so on.  Though Sheldon was painting, or trying to paint, a moderately cheerful account (or maybe trying to assign Clemens an emotively neutral disposition), the facts were greatly contradictory to this end.  I dismissed the book as being a very good work, though having a very confused tone, one that didn’t seem consonant with the facts, or one that maybe arranged the facts in a way that contradicted the tone.  Matters were made worse, when I read volume one of Clemens’ posthumously published (unexpurgated) Autobiography of Mark Twain, in which Twain just isn’t Twain —it’s just Clemens, who can hardly remember Twain.  Anyone familiar with Twain’s work, in reading Clemens’ autobiography, can tell the difference.  Some of the stories are fondly reminisced, and written in a Twain-like manner, but others seem to lack bounce in their step, and some others really convey pessimistic sentiments.  This is what I was detecting in Sheldon’s book.  As of writing this, I have not read many of the letter of Twain from his last decade, other than those included in the biographies, but I anticipate that many of them are either lamentation filled, grim, and pessimistic, or they are empty reminiscences of times nearly forgotten (still with a hint of lamentation) and in a voice that Clemens no longer had, namely, that of Twain.  This was quite revelation, and it was one of the reasons I was interested in visiting Hannibal.

What I found I my visit to Hannibal was depression.  As I mention in my travelogue, I was certainly psychologically primed to see Hannibal in a depress manner, long before I got there, but I am not at all convinced that I wouldn’t have seen Hannibal in a similar light if I had not travelled along the sea of corn.  What I saw in Hannibal, metaphorically speaking, was that Twain was created out of Clemens’ need to create a life that he did not distain.  Such a life meant fusing fiction with non-fiction, and centering those accounts among the people he loved, even if they were recast, where many people would serve as the constitutive basis for his fictional characters.  I developed, in Hannibal, a strong impression that Clemens needed a way out of life, and that he was able to impose an enormous amount of fantasy on his vision of the world —and I wonder what Clemens scholars would say about all of this.  What my experience of Twain’s literature, in conjunction with this newfound impression, was that the people he loved served as bedrock to his fictionalized reality.  Fascinatingly, this makes an enormous amount of sense to me.  Between his lengthy and sorrowful recapitulation of his brother’s, Henry’s, death on board of the riverboat Pennsylvania, in Life on the Mississippi, and the account Sheldon gives of Clemens in the times his wife and children die (only one survived him), I think there is quite a bit of evidence that Clemens could not support the upkeep of his fantasy-laden view of the world, whenever people he loved died.

I want to take this assertion a little further, because of some things said by Ron Powers, in Mark Twain: A Life, and Stephan Railton, in a lecture series, called The Life and Works of Mark Twain.  In discussing Twain’s deadpan style of delivery, they both made comments that suggested Clemens’ personal assertion was that his sense of humor and his ability to perform deadpan humor with a grave face were products that sprung from the pervasive sorrow he experienced in life.  I wonder if “sorrow” was what Clemens actually said, and, more importantly, if that was quite what he meant.  There is no doubt, in my mind, that there were particularly grim sentiments about the state of the human condition in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whether it was the echoes of Tolstoy wondering, with great excoriation, whether there is a meaning to life at all, as thematic in Anna Karenina; or the highly suggestive piece, entitled Philosophie, by Gustav Klimt; or in Èmile Zola’s general perspective, as in Thèrése Raquin.  I think the difference between these sorts of sentiments exhibited by contemporaries is that Clemens was proactively imposing himself upon (his view of) the world, in a way that Žižek claims we do, but in a very extreme kind of way.  This leads me to believe that Mark Twain probably hated life, when so many of his loved ones, his fantasy’s bedrock, were gone.  This is the only way I can really account for my understanding of Clemens’ last years, incomplete as it may be; and there is the additional consideration that this view seems to have formidable explanatory value, with respect to understanding the rest of his life.  I wonder what kind of conclusion a Žižekian/Lacanian psychoanalysis would arrive at, and whether it would come to some of the same conclusion that I have.

The reason I brought up Rousseau is because he seems to have done the same kind of projection of fantasy upon the world.  Among the similarities, the first six books of Confessions reads very much like The Adventure of Tom Sawyer, in that they seem like life fictionalized, possessing romantic qualities that are real enough to believe if one wanted to, at least, moderately wanted to.  A quick run through Rousseau’s Èmile and Confessions bears out the tremendous similarities between how Twain and Rousseau imposed their individual fantasies upon the world.  I imagine that Rousseau’s inability to maintain his fantasy is what we see in the second half of Confessions, and this appears to me to be isomorphic to what I see in Sheldon’s biography and Twain’s Autobiography, Clemens’ inability to maintain the fantasy that he had, earlier in life.  What I haven’t found in Clemens is the explicit rejection of life; not so with Rousseau.  In his brilliantly written, novel-esque biography, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius (2005), Leo Damrosch tells of how James Boswell, author of the great and famous Life of Samuel Johnson, in visiting Rousseau while Rousseau was a refugee in England, was told by Rousseau: “‘I have no liking for this world.  I live here in a world of fantasies (chimères), and I cannot tolerate the world as it is” (pg. 380).  How do we know this was his true sentiment?  People get agitated, and Rousseau was definitely agitated by his current lot, for one; and for two, he was, in that moment, agitated by Boswell, who Rousseau perceived to be an English version of Diderot.  To counter that, I would say that Rousseau’s sentiments are borne out in books seven through twelve of Confessions.  Despite having started writing it in England, he could have easily changed the disposition he presented in it, upon returning to the continent.  For what it’s worth, I think Rousseau’s position was accurately portrayed in that anecdote of Boswell’s.  I wonder how certain we can be assigning a similar disposition toward life to Clemens.

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