Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Double, the Dream Traveler and Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger

Mark Twain’s last major work of fiction was born at the site of an ancient Celtic ferry crossing on Lake Lucerne, in the summer of 1897, after the tragic death of his daughter Susy. Writing, as always, was his therapy for grief and disappointment. On the lake, he wrote for nine hours a day, seven days a week. A cluster of drafts emerged that he called “The Chronicles of Young Satan”.  Eleven years later,he was still working on it, off and on. The novella was published posthumously as The Mysterious Stranger.
     On the title page, Mark Twain described it as “Being an Ancient Tale Found in a Jug, and Freely Translated from the Jug.” This was another of his insider’s jokes. In addition to the jesting allusion to booze, the line is echoed by a remark made by the Mysterious Stranger halfway through the story: “One cannot pour the starred and shoreless expanse of the universe into a jug”.
     The Mysterious Stranger is set in a medieval Austrian village in the time of the witch burnings. The title character appears to boys on a wild hilltop as a handsome youth with magical powers, which he first demonstrates by lighting a pipe by pure will. He proceeds to demonstrate rather greater powers, creating miniature people out of clay and destroying them when he is bored with them. He can transport himself and others to distant places – China, the Moon – instantly. He can fold time so that lengthy journeys in other lands occupy only instants in the ordinary environment.
      He can change people’s fates, and demonstrates again and again that the smallest alteration in one of the links of fate can make a radical difference in the outcome. Getting up two minutes later than was in the plan can make the difference between life and death. His interventions (such as ensuring a boy gets up two minutes later than destined) may be anonymous and natural-seeming, or showy (as when he knocks down a whole troupe of witch-hunters at the narrator’s request, breaking a rib in every person).
       He is invisible unless he chooses to be seen. He can easily take possession of chosen subjects, moving over them like “transparent film” before he goes inside. He spins moralizing stories – sometimes illustrated by grand panoramas exhibiting the whole sweep of history, from Cain and Abel on – to prove the idiocy of the “moral sense” in humans. He insists that it is humans who create right and wrong and then most often choose wrong. At the end of the tale, he contends that there is no heaven and hell, no God, no afterlife, no larger meaning – that everything we experience is “only a dream”. In the last words of the story, the narrator (speaking for the author?) agrees.
 This Satan at first identifies himself as an “angel” and says he is the nephew of the more notorious Satan. All angels, he says, are indifferent to humanity. But he is capable of doing humans a good turn – which often proves to be the gift of early death (even by being burned as a witch) in order to avoid lengthy suffering that would otherwise ensue.
     He gives himself a name for the times, Philip Traum, which means Philip Dream. He is an attractive figure. Animals love him. His arrival energizes people. He seems to enjoy playing with humans, but there is an edge of cruelty to his play, like that of a boy digging into an anthill. He presents a very bleak picture of humanity, and its capabilities, insisting that no human ever voluntarily changes his prearranged fate – while hinting an infinite parallel event tracks and outcomes available through the slightest change. His circus tricks, his talking cat (a cornucopia cat called Agnes), and his way of producing vast effects by tiny tinkering in a person’s life are echoed in Bulgakov’s version of the devil in Moscow in The Master and Margarita.
      Playing in and around the novella are themes that have long haunted Mark Twain: the theme of the double, and the separate life of a dream self that travels freely outside the body. He describes “the presence in us of another person, not a slave of ours but…with a character distinctly its own.”  Musing on Jekyll and Hyde again, he describes them as “dual persons in one body, quite distinct in nature and character and presumably each with a conscience of his own.” He speculates in his Notebook that “two persons in a man have no command over each other.” They “do not even know each other and…have never even suspected one another’s existence.”
      He distinguishes the double from another aspect of the self that operates independently from the ordinary personality, and is not confined to the body. “We have a spiritualized self which can detach itself and go wandering off upon affairs of its own.” This is not the double, the “partner in duality.” He notes, “I am not acquainted with my double…but I am acquainted (dimly) with my spiritualized self and I know that it are one, because we have common memory.” This “spiritualized self” is the dream traveler, at home in many worlds.
   “Waking I move slowly; but in my dreams my unhampered spiritualized body flies to the ends of the earth in a millionth of a second. Seems to - and I believe, does....
“I do actually make immense excursions in my spiritualized person. I go into awful dangers...I go to unnamable places, I do unprincipled things; and every vision is vivid, every sensation - physical as well as moral - is real.”

1 comment:

Lalenya said...

Great information! He was so brilliant! Like you! Merci!!