Saturday, April 30, 2016

Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad


Opening Passage:

For months the great pleasure excursion to Europe and the Holy Land was chatted about in the newspapers everywhere in America and discussed at countless firesides. It was a novelty in the way of excursions—its like had not been thought of before, and it compelled that interest which attractive novelties always command. It was to be a picnic on a gigantic scale. The participants in it, instead of freighting an ungainly steam ferry—boat with youth and beauty and pies and doughnuts, and paddling up some obscure creek to disembark upon a grassy lawn and wear themselves out with a long summer day's laborious frolicking under the impression that it was fun, were to sail away in a great steamship with flags flying and cannon pealing, and take a royal holiday beyond the broad ocean in many a strange clime and in many a land renowned in history!

Summary: The Innocents Abroad is an extremely varied and variable work, ranging from the fairly serious to the bitterly satirical to the lightly self-depreciating; it lampoons tourists and travel books but also at times stops a moment in wonder at the scene; it mixes enjoyment and impatience and boredom, sometimes in very quick succession. In this it is perhaps the travel book that most perfectly captures the impression of travel abroad as an experience. It is lopsided in how it handles it, due to Twain's tendency to the acidic and the acrid, but it shows more of the actual experience of travel than most travel books do.

The work is often quite biting, but even at its most acerbic it brings out two aspects of travel that both are major features of human nature and lead us often to make fools of ourselves: our passion for story and our taste for cashing this out physically. One of the constant satirical elements throughout the work is the often considerable disparity between places as described by people and places as actually experienced. Especially in the Holy Land, Twain mocks the descriptions given by the most travel books (often described or paraphrased under thinly veiled modifications of name, like 'Grimes' for William Cowper Prime). But there are many other manifestations of this. The tour guides always play up the importance of the place, to a point that is sometimes fantastic (the most hilarious cases of this in the book are in Genoa). More tellingly, travelers themselves filter their experience through the descriptions they have heard, so that instead of saying what they actually experienced, they simply repeat what other people have said the experience is (the most notorious case of this is in the attack on "Old Masters" before The Last Supper in Milan, for which Twain was rather sharply criticized on occasion, and the funniest is perhaps in Nazareth when different pilgrims keep coming up and describing the local women as 'Madonna-like').

There is not much point in going places just to be in other places. We travel in order to add things to the stories we tell about ourselves and to guarantee that our story will not be in quiet, boring isolation, but link up in various ways to stories we like to hear. Thus we tell stories -- fantastic ones if we cannot get historical ones -- about why this or that place is a place to be, or this or that thing is a thing to do. It is something we do everywhere, but it becomes obvious that it is being done when we are put in new situations, and when we come up against other people doing the same thing in ways that are unfamiliar to us. It is boring, and depressing, and oppressive, to be nowhere of significance for no reason of significance; but a local legend, however slight or however silly or however blatantly false, at least gives us material to work with. Twain is fairly good at recognizing this aspect, and it is the basis for some of the better humor of the book. He is aware that it doesn't really matter for the purposes of the travel that the story being told by the tour guide is just utterly and fabulously impossible, or so implausible as to strain any credibility, or even obviously a money trap for tourists, if it gives you something to tell a story about. Even if you think their story utterly ridiculous, it gives you the opportunity to tell a great story about how ridiculous it was. Even if you find it exasperating or irritating, you can turn evil to good later with jokes about how exasperating and irritating it was.

He is not so very good at recognizing that he is doing the same kind of thing. This is a bit odd, since hyperbole is a standard instrument in his repertoire, but he sometimes seems to lose track of the extent to which he is exaggerating. This is most obvious in the most bitter and biting parts of the book. Twain hates hypocrisy, and the bathos that it generates, and he has a taste for hunting it down without mercy. I suppose ruthless hypocrisy-hunting is a very, very American vice; but it is a vice, and, what is more to the point, it is an artistic vice as well as a moral one. Twain is effusive and generous if he comes expecting hypocrisy and finds none -- as in his praise of the Convent Fathers of Palestine, which briefly jars him into recognizing his failing -- but we are talking about human beings, who instinctively protect their ignorances, weaknesses, and malices with masks. If you hunt for hypocrisy, you will usually find it somewhere. And incessant hypocrisy-hunting can spoil jokes, ruin beauty, disturb peace, stir up spite, and crab with meanspiritedness the work of saying things well. Twain recovers from these spoilages quickly, because the work is constantly passing on to other things; but they happen frequently.

Human beings, however, do not merely tell stories, cannot merely tell stories, with words; they must have physical objects as well. I was a bit surprised at the extensive role of relics in the book. Of course, a lot of the places they visit are holy sites that preserve relics and purported relics, whether it be the bone of a saint or a yet another bit of the True Cross or a rock of historical importance. But one of the things we find throughout is the tendency of travelers to relic-hunt themselves -- chipping off bits from a wall, taking away water from a river, and so forth. Twain notes how much damage is done by this practice, but also how completely ineliminable it seems to be. We feel the need for our stories to have physical manifestations, and we get them however we can get them. It is a matter of self-preservation that our modern tourist spots make up artificial souvenirs for tourists to take as proxy-relics rather than carrying off the main attractions, as they are naturally inclined to do.

It is always difficult to know how seriously to take subtitles, particularly in a humorous work. The subtitle of The Innocents Abroad is The New Pilgrim's Progress. Part of the reason is surely just that the book is a sort of pilgrimage and a great deal of it is spent making fun of the pilgrims. One wonders, though, if there is something more to it. I'm reminded a bit of Hawthorne's "The Celestial Railroad", in which the bite and humor of the story lies in the sharp contrast with Bunyan's work, and I wonder if there is some of that here, as well. The voyage is a pilgrimage, but it is a pleasure excursion as well. The two are not mutually exclusive (as we see in The Canterbury Tales), but Bunyan's Christian is certainly not on a pleasure excursion at all, and I wonder if the contrast is one of Twain's subtler jokes -- for he is at times capable of subtle jokes, although he pretends not to be.

Favorite Passage: This is a long paragraph to excerpt, but many of Twain's better passages are his long ones, in which he can find the best mix for his humor, which requires that appreciative joking outweigh sarcasm; Twain can do the latter in an instant, but always needs a bit of a development for the former.

The donkeys were all good, all handsome, all strong and in good condition, all fast and all willing to prove it. They were the best we had found any where, and the most 'recherche'. I do not know what 'recherche' is, but that is what these donkeys were, anyhow. Some were of a soft mouse-color, and the others were white, black, and vari-colored. Some were close-shaven, all over, except that a tuft like a paint-brush was left on the end of the tail. Others were so shaven in fanciful landscape garden patterns, as to mark their bodies with curving lines, which were bounded on one side by hair and on the other by the close plush left by the shears. They had all been newly barbered, and were exceedingly stylish. Several of the white ones were barred like zebras with rainbow stripes of blue and red and yellow paint. These were indescribably gorgeous. Dan and Jack selected from this lot because they brought back Italian reminiscences of the "old masters." The saddles were the high, stuffy, frog-shaped things we had known in Ephesus and Smyrna. The donkey-boys were lively young Egyptian rascals who could follow a donkey and keep him in a canter half a day without tiring. We had plenty of spectators when we mounted, for the hotel was full of English people bound overland to India and officers getting ready for the African campaign against the Abyssinian King Theodorus. We were not a very large party, but as we charged through the streets of the great metropolis, we made noise for five hundred, and displayed activity and created excitement in proportion. Nobody can steer a donkey, and some collided with camels, dervishes, effendis, asses, beggars and every thing else that offered to the donkeys a reasonable chance for a collision. When we turned into the broad avenue that leads out of the city toward Old Cairo, there was plenty of room. The walls of stately date-palms that fenced the gardens and bordered the way, threw their shadows down and made the air cool and bracing. We rose to the spirit of the time and the race became a wild rout, a stampede, a terrific panic. I wish to live to enjoy it again.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.

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