David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: cynicism

Mark Twain’s Cynicism and That Last Part of Huck Finn

When I was in high school, I read Huck Finn, and like so many others, I thought the book fell into a hole for its last third, when the Jim-Huck adventures end and Tom Sawyer takes over with some juvenile antics. I had recently read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and so I recall thinking and saying that even the first two-thirds of Huck Finn weren’t as good as Invisible Man (either as a treatment of race or as literature period; I still rate Invisible Man higher!).

But still, the last third of Huck Finn was bafflingly bad compared to what went before. I know that a long time had elapsed before Twain had written that last third, but that didn’t seem to explain the drastic shift in tone and content. As Thomas Powers says in Incandescent Memory:

The last third of Huckleberry Finn is stage-managed for laughs by Tom Sawyer, dropped into the story by authorial fiat. Tom masterminds Jim’s escape from the Phelps plantation according to all the ‘best authorities’ of boys’ literature. Any evening after dark Jim might have walked out of the cabin where he was being held prisoner, but no, Tom insists they must dig him out, and secret letters must be written, and Jim the lonely prisoner must be friends with spiders and snakes, and a whole lot of other nonsensical stuff which we may as well concede is funny in its way and funny to a point. But it is no longer Huckleberry Finn; it is no longer an unflinching tale of the cruelty and wrong of human bondage.

Except it is. It took me many years to go back and reread it because I drifted toward European literature and resided there for quite a while, but when I did, Huck Finn read a bit differently than it had when I was 15. Tom Sawyer becomes the cruel master in a pantomime of slavery and exploitation. Here’s a passage from when Tom is working out a coat of arms and inscription for “Jim the lonely prisoner”:

Tom’d got all that coat of arms business fixed, so now he started in to finish up the rest of that part of the work, which was to plan out a mournful inscription — said Jim got to have one, like they all done. He made up a lot, and wrote them out on a paper, and read them off, so:

1. Here a captive heart busted.
2. Here a poor prisoner, forsook by the world and friends,
fretted out his sorrowful life.
3. Here a lonely heart broke, and a worn spirit went to
its rest, after thirty-seven years of solitary captivity.
4. Here, homeless and friendless, after thirty-seven years
of bitter captivity, perished a noble stranger, natural son of
Louis XIV.

Tom’s voice trembled whilst he was reading them, and he most broke down. When he got done he couldn’t no way make up his mind which one for Jim to scrabble on to the wall, they was all so good; but at last he allowed he would let him scrabble them all on. Jim said it would take him a year to scrabble such a lot of truck on to the logs with a nail, and he didn’t know how to make letters, besides; but Tom said he would block them out for him, and then he wouldn’t have nothing to do but just follow the lines. Then pretty soon he says:

“Come to think, the logs ain’t a-going to do; they don’t have log walls in a dungeon: we got to dig the inscriptions into a rock. We’ll fetch a rock.”

Jim said the rock was worse than the logs; he said it would take him such a pison long time to dig them into a rock he wouldn’t ever get out. But Tom said he would let me help him do it. Then he took a look to see how me and Jim was getting along with the pens.

This is a sick variation on Tom Sawyer’s bad boy antics from the earlier book. He gives Jim what is tantamount to slave labor, and then allows the inefficacious Huck to “help” Jim with it. He has more sympathy for his imagined royal prisoner in his fantasy than for Jim. Tom here is a shallow privileged brat who treats slaves like his own private playthings.

Huck, for his part, quietly goes along with all of Tom’s maneuvers, having lost whatever self-respect and moral uprightness he might have gained earlier in the book. What is life and death to Jim is fanciful, unreal fun and games to Tom.

An ensuing scene in which Tom tries to sell Jim on “making friends” with a rattlesnake is even more disturbing:

Tom: “Yes — easy enough. Every animal is grateful for kindness and petting, and they wouldn’t think of hurting a person that pets them. Any book will tell you that. You try — that’s all I ask; just try for two or three days. Why, you can get him so in a little while that he’ll love you; and sleep with you; and won’t stay away from you a minute; and will let you wrap him round your neck and put his head in your mouth.”

Jim: “Please, Mars Tom — doan’ talk so! I can’t stan’ it! He’d let me shove his head in my mouf — fer a favor, hain’t it? I lay he’d wait a pow’ful long time ‘fo’ I ast him. En mo’ en dat, I doan’ want him to sleep wid me.”

“Jim, don’t act so foolish. A prisoner’s got to have some kind of a dumb pet, and if a rattlesnake hain’t ever been tried, why, there’s more glory to be gained in your being the first to ever try it than any other way you could ever think of to save your life.”

“Why, Mars Tom, I doan’ want no sich glory. Snake take ‘n bite Jim’s chin off, den whah is de glory? No, sah, I doan’ want no sich doin’s.”

“Blame it, can’t you try? I only want you to try — you needn’t keep it up if it don’t work.”

Tom condescends to Jim and is disbelieving at Jim’s lack of gratitude. “Can’t you try?” he says, patronizingly. He also has Jim dress up as a woman in order to escape, in case the humiliation wasn’t already apparent enough. And Jim calls him “Mars Tom” the whole way through.

The heartwarming friendship between Jim and Huck looks awfully hollow by this point. Tom, of course, proves utterly useless during the real escape from the angry mob, when Huck finally has latitude to act on Jim’s behalf once again. Seen in this light, the end is a lot closer to ghastly works like The Mysterious Stranger, in which Twain abandoned all hope for humanity and virtue.

The Mysterious Stranger was adapted rather too closely in The Adventures of Mark Twain, which I’m really glad I missed as a kid (“What’s your name?” “Satan.”):

Returning to Huck Finn: I didn’t realize any of the implications of the last part in high school. I was young and naive. I wish someone had told me. Now it seems obvious.

Update: I have to add this even more grotesque display of Tom’s callousness, when he tells Jim to play music for the rats in his cell and Jim says he doesn’t think the rats will be interested:

They don’t care what kind of music ’tis. A jews-harp’s plenty good enough for a rat. All animals like music — in a prison they dote on it. Specially, painful music; and you can’t get no other kind out of a jews-harp. It always interests them; they come out to see what’s the matter with you. Yes, you’re all right; you’re fixed very well. You want to set on your bed nights before you go to sleep, and early in the mornings, and play your jews-harp; play ‘The Last Link is Broken’ — that’s the thing that ‘ll scoop a rat quicker ‘n anything else; and when you’ve played about two minutes you’ll see all the rats, and the snakes, and spiders, and things begin to feel worried about you, and come. And they’ll just fairly swarm over you, and have a noble good time.”

Yes, dey will, I reck’n, Mars Tom, but what kine er time is Jim havin’? Blest if I kin see de pint. But I’ll do it ef I got to. I reck’n I better keep de animals satisfied, en not have no trouble in de house.”


Nikolai Leskov

Slightly late here, but I did write an essay on Nikolai Leskov over at the Quarterly Conversation, the fantastic and strange 19th century Russian writer. I hope his works are reprinted and retranslated.

My old exegesis on his greatest work, The Enchanted Wanderer, is still available here.


Of the great Russian prose writers of the 19th century, Nikolai Leskov was an outsider. He was not a member of the gentry, he lacked a privileged education, and he wrote about common serfs and the country clergy in their own language. He managed to alienate both the left and right wings of the Russian intelligentsia early in his career, and though his work was popular, critics dismissed it. His work was capable of great darkness and brutal cynicism, but it lacks the angst, romantic and existential, present in so much other prose of the time. (Still, one of his stories was so controversial in its criticisms of the Russian church that it was only published decades later.) And Leskov himself was confused enough as to his own strengths that he said that his brilliant storytelling abilities would be forgotten in favor of his ideas, when, in fact, his legacy lies in the unique qualities of his stories, which are hilarious, unpredictable, surreal, and often baffling.

Walter Benjamin and Irving Howe have both paid great tribute to Leskov (Benjamin’s essay characteristically seems to have more to do with Benjamin’s obsessions than with Leskov himself), but neither of them quite characterizes the sheer peculiarity of Leskov’s best work, where the narrative material is subject to perversion along the lines of Euripides, Kleist, Gogol, or Kafka, though with far less malevolence. Leskov’s structural perversities are in service of a particular, peculiar form of morality, one not as doctrinal or particular as Tolstoy’s or Dostoevsky’s, but one that celebrates humility in the face of fate.



Nabokov succinctly captures the two sides of cynicism–one jaded and pessimistic, the other selfish and contemptuous–in the person of the sadistic Axel Rex:

On such occasions Rex could talk endlessly, indefatigably, inventing stories about non-existent friends and propounding reflections not too profound for the mind of his listener and couched in a sham-brilliant form. His culture was patchy, but his mind shrewd and penetrating, and his itch to make fools of his fellow men amounted almost to genius. Perhaps the only real thing about him was his innate conviction that everything that had ever been created in the domain of art, science or sentiment, was only a more or less clever trick. No matter how important the subject under discussion, he could always find something witty or trite to say about it, supplying exactly what his listener’s mind or mood demanded, though, at the same time, he could be impossibly rude and overbearing when his interlocutor annoyed him. Even when he was talking quite seriously about a book or a picture, Rex had a pleasant feeling that he was a partner in a conspiracy, the partner of some ingenious quack–namely, the author of the book or the painter of the picture.

Laughter in the Dark

4.2.1 Charlus and Morel

There isn’t the frustrating stasis of The Guermantes Way in Sodom and Gomorrah, but nor are there the high moments of lyricism (as with the death of Marcel’s grandmother) or a central, unifying concept (as with Marcel’s obsession with the Guermantes). The volume is livelier, but it is more shapeless, at least until the final chapter.
Having brought up Charlus’s homosexuality and theorized about the secret world of “sexual inverts,” as Proust calls them, Proust is content to let the theme recede for large segments of Sodom and Gomorrah, preferring instead to recollect parties, receptions, and another, far less interesting trip to Balbec. While the proportion of dreary social events to interesting and novel portrayals of homosexuals is probably accurate in relation to Proust’s actual life, the volume sags when it should be advancing forward. And correspondingly, Sodom and Gomorrah is most involving in the two plots that involve homosexuality: Marcel’s romance with Albertine, whom he suspects may be a lesbian, and Charlus’s obsession with his protege Morel.
Charlus and Morel: Morel is a vain, obnoxious young musician, and Charlus has great affection for him, taking him under his wing in a similar manner as he did Marcel in The Guermantes Way, and then some. Charlus’s obsession with Morel is pathetic, but it’s also overtly comical in a way that Proust hasn’t previously allowed. In Swann’s Way, Odette was far more coarse than either Charlus or Morel, but she never lost control as Charlus does periodically:

His explosions of rage were too frequent not to be somewhat fragmentary. “The imbecile, the scoundrel! We shall have to put him in his place, sweep him into the gutter, where unfortunately he will not be innocuous to the health of the town,” he would scream, even when he was alone in his own room, on reading a letter that he considered irreverent, or on recalling some remark that had been repeated to him. But a fresh outburst against a second imbecile cancelled the first, and the former victim had only to show due deference for the fit of rage that he had occasioned to be forgotten, it not having lasted long enough to establish a foundation of hatred on which to build. (678)

Charlus’s freak-outs never get old for me. But the broad humor obscures what I think is the most important point here: Charlus’s inconstancy in his reactions, his abrupt fickleness, is a reflection of the same capricious nature that was shown by Swann’s affections towards Odette. Charlus is not exceptional; he is demonstrative.
The humor extends to burlesques. Charlus challenges Morel to a duel in a fit of pique. On hearing that Morel is going to a brothel, he arranges to spy on Morel in the act, but Morel is told at the last moment, so Charlus only observes him frozen by fright among the women. By themselves these events are trivial, but taken as another slant on Swann’s tragic pursuit in the first volume, they undermine the emotive force of Swann’s journey while reinforcing the (arbitrary) causative forces. The effects, as expected by now, are cynicism and despair.
The shift in tone is, at points, linked directly to Proust’s perception of homosexuality. Consider:

The invert brought face to face with an invert sees not merely an unpleasing image of himself which, being purely inanimate, could at the worst only injure his self-esteem, but a second self, living, active in the same field, capable therefore of injuring him in his loves. (951)

Proust is vague about the connection, but I take it to be this: homosexuals possess a secret that puts them out of conformity with society even as they superficially conform to its mores to the utmost. It is the awareness of this secret, and this dissonance with society, that makes them hyperaware of their own selves, and their own selves as reflected in others, who they are preternaturally inclined to see (a) as more similar to themselves (as “a second self”), and (b) as arbitrary agents. They are therefore more inclined towards arbitrary behavior and more likely to take it over the top. It’s a narcissism that is paradoxically directed outwards, since it causes them to ferret out the similarities of their surroundings to themselves.
Against this backdrop, Marcel’s romance with Albertine plays out under laws that strip it of the nostalgic, but myopic obsession that Swann had when he pursued Odette, and cast it in blank gray tones.

The Little Demon, Fyodor Sologub

The obvious comparison that jumps out is to Gogol. There is a similar dark humor, and a similar cynicism, but those affinities are mostly superficial. While Gogol had larger than life archetypes as characters (the pathetic bureaucrat, the obsessive gamesman, the skinflint), Sologub’s characters are resolutely small and detailed. They hardly succeed at signifying anything other than their own pettiness. The Little Demon was written in 1907, but has nothing of the upcoming Russian futurists about it (though his poetry sure does), nor the power of premonition of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, nor the contemporary feeling of Andrei Bely’s Petersburg. It is more parochial than Gorky. The Little Demon has the claustrophobia of a hellish vision of a small village beyond which no one’s thoughts ever go.

The hero, Peredonov, is a nasty little man, an abusive schoolteacher whose ambition is to become inspector of schools, through the connections of his fiancee Varvara. Unfortunately, Varvara, terrified of Peredonov dumping her for a less repellent woman, has been in league with the old spinster Grushina and has fabricated her connections. Grushina forges letters from a princess in St. Petersburg to Peredonov. Varvara keeps up the charade with increasingly unbelievable antics until Peredonov marries her, by which point Peredonov is quite paranoid, and partly with reason, since most of the people around him really do loathe him and gossip about his peccadilloes. But by the end, he has become completely crazy, unwilling to believe what everyone else knows–that the letters are fakes–and instead chasing after fabricated plots, setting fire to ballrooms, and eventually turning on his dense friend Volodin and slitting his throat, all the while spurred on by the “petty demon” of the title, which taunts him and eggs him on. The hallucinations and unreality is similar to that of Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman,” but there is no redemption, no moment of clarity, only oblivious dark.

In the context of the surroundings, stripped of any nobility, Peredonov occupies a role in his environment similar to that of Pechorin in Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, written in 1840, seemingly as a rebuff to Pushkin’s more romantic view of Russia. Pechorin was the cynical, brash opportunist who was no more moral than the pompous nobles around him, but is incredibly successful at exploting them. Lermontov implied that the logical end of Pechorin’s mindset was an ennui-laden fatalism, but Sologub seems to have another answer: paranoia and compulsive scheming can arise just as easily when those around you are too dumb to even act predictably in their own self-interest.

Sologub fills up the book with other grotesquely picaresque anecdotes, which aren’t as shocking as they might be because the characters are so flat. Three shrill sisters, a pompous windbag headmaster, a succession of increasingly dull officials. But one story stands out and nearly takes over the book, though it’s only tangentially connected with Peredonov’s tale, and that’s the story of Lyudmilla and Sasha. Sasha is a young, persecuted student who Peredonov, in another incomprehensible scheme for promotion and fame, attempts to claim is a girl, and Lyudmilla is a shallow, nasty woman who becomes infatuated with him, driven by dreams of being the queen of a palace full of boys whipping each other. Lyudmilla dresses him up in girl’s clothes, pinches him, induces him to foot-worship, and eventually seduces him. Unlike Peredonov, Lyudmilla manages to completely cover up the affair when his aunt hears about it, with Sasha playing along perfectly.

The material is unnerving if not shocking; it’s of such a base nature that Peredonov’s insanity looks fuzzy in comparison. And Sologub seems to relish it more than the rest of the plot, devoting more and more time to the details of their meetings. (That and the general misogyny, misanthropy, and prurience suggest that Sologub was not a nice man.) Lyudmilla even picks up some pagan pretenses that she initially uses to justify her perversions to Sasha. It could be trash, but Sologub goes a ways towards justifying it by painting them in opposition to Peredonov. While Peredonov runs amok, Sasha and Lyudmilla maintain (or even, in Sasha’s case, establish) their public decency by falling back on a secret vice. The implication is that Peredonov failed because his addiction was public achievement. Sasha and Lyudmilla are undoubtedly doomed as well, but they are doomed in the way that Frank Norris’s McTeague was doomed: tolerated if not respected, they’ll go along until their private life destroys their public life. McTeague eventually abandons his dentistry practice for the promise of gold, but Sologub is a bit lighter than Norris. Sologub gives his characters their private pleasure, while in McTeague, there is clenched-teeth misery only let loose when a young boy urinates in public and humiliates his whole family, in an expression of unbelievably repressed (and oppressed) rage.

That’s not to say that Sologub is sanguine, but the two main plots of Peredonov and Sasha/Lyudmilla strengthen each other. Peredonov would just be a madmen amongst dullards, and Sasha and Lyudmilla would just be perverse caricatures, but each is a reaction to the other, as Charles Bovary’s failures make Emma’s futile dreams deeper. I will not go into detail about how the two aspects, one public and deranged, one private and devious, reinforce each other and how that might apply to the past and future history of Russia, but I’d say there’s something there.

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