May 082013

Patrick J Keane smaller

Patrick J. Keane’s essay on Twain and Nietzsche is a dark and beautiful threnody on the lonely preoccupations of two great thinkers cut off from men and God by their own ruthless logic, their speculative courage and their self-honesty. A dense, thoughtful, lovely piece of writing.




In a May 1899 review of two translations of Nietzsche titled “Giving the Devil His Due,” G. B. Shaw introduced a concept he expanded on the following year in “Diabolonian Ethics,” published as part of his Preface to Three Plays for Puritans. In that essay, Dick Dudgeon, the hero of one of those plays, The Devil’s Disciple, is enlisted in a Diabolonian tradition whose lineage stretches from Prometheus through the Blake of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell to “our newest idol,” the Nietzschean Superman. In his original review, Shaw included Mark Twain in the tradition, though what he gave with one hand he abruptly took away with the other: “Mark Twain emitted some Diabolonian sparks, only to succumb to the overwhelming American atmosphere of chivalry, duty, and gentility.” The patronizing charge, which preceded Twain’s various Satanic fictions, was repeated precisely two decades later by an admirer of Twain, H. L. Mencken, a satirist as aware as Mark Twain was of how a heterodoxy-hating American public, its “pruderies outraged,” could bitterly turn on a dissenter, “even the gaudiest hero, and roll him in the mud.”[1]

Though this brief examination of late Mark Twain will conclude by emphasizing the liberating power that attends an unflinching confrontation of terrible, even appalling truths, the initial focus is on the decision by the gaudiest and best-loved American literary icon to withhold from publication his most vehement attacks, not only on institutional Christianity and collective hypocrisy, but on the Christian God himself. The charge of Shaw and Mencken that Twain had succumbed to pressure was expanded upon and personalized in The Ordeal of Mark Twain (1920) by Van Wyck Brooks, who claimed that a beloved and believing Livy tamed her husband, fueling the notion that Twain’s creativity fell victim to a destructive female dominance. While that may be a myth, Twain’s wife hated his deterministic treatise What is Man? and his daughters, Jean and Clara, disapproved of his essay “Reflections on Religion,” as well as the “Diabolonian” fictions Letters from the Earth and “The Chronicle of Young Satan” (part of the Mysterious Stranger papers). That familial disapproval may have become dramatized in Twain’s notoriously divided self as psychomachia: an internal and infernal dialogue between Blakean angel and devil. Most of these texts remained unpublished during Twain’s life. What is Man? was not released while Livy was alive, and “Letters from the Earth,” Satan’s devastating account of human folly and divine cruelty, written in 1909, the year before Twain’s death, went unpublished until the year of Clara’s death, 1962, when, at the outset of a turbulent decade, it put a suddenly revolutionary and “relevant” Twain on the New York Times best-seller list.

This context of public and familial disapproval illuminates Mark Twain’s most significant self-alliance with, and most guilt-ridden distinction from, the iconoclastic German philosopher who, using his “hammer” not as a brutal sledge but as a philosophic tuning-fork, exposed the hollowness of some of our Christian culture’s most cherished “idols.” Dictating to his secretary Isabel Lyon, who saw her employer and Nietzsche as kindred spirits, Twain observed on 4 September 1907:

Nietzsche published his book and was at once pronounced crazy by the world—by a world which included tens of thousands of bright, sane men who believed exactly as Nietzsche believed, but concealed the fact, and scoffed at Nietzsche. What a coward every man is! And how surely he will find it out if he will just let other people alone and sit down and examine himself. The human race is a race of cowards; and I am not only marching in that procession but carrying a banner.[2]

Though Nietzsche was an enthusiastic reader of the novels of Mark Twain, whose exuberant humor and “fooleries” he embraced as an antidote to Germanic stodginess, Lyon had to push Twain, in August 1906, into listening to and reading passages of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Despite his resistance and gruff dismissals (“Oh damn Nietzsche!” he shouted on August 8), Twain gradually expressed appreciation of Nietzsche’s irreverence. On August 27, he “slapped his leg hard” and shouted “Hurrah for Nietzsche!” when Lyon reported the philosopher’s description of “acts of God” as “divine kicks”—a  humorous deflation of the punitive Judeo-Christian God that tallies with similar attacks by Mark Twain.[3] The “Letters” Twain’s Satan sends back to Heaven reporting on his visit to Earth—alternately hilarious, racy, and, as the series goes on, increasingly embittered—convey Twain’s satiric j’accuse directed at an unjust and uncaring God:  a charge characteristically complemented by sympathy for God’s theologically misguided but suffering creatures.


Whenever tempted to become impatient with the misanthropic pessimism of later Mark Twain, flaunted even before the series of familial tragedies that struck him like a thunderbolt in the final decade and a half of his life, we should remember as well his immense empathy for the innocent who suffer. Many have been able to reconcile the doctrine that we are presided over by a loving deity with the facts on the ground: a long history of natural disaster, human evil, and “divine kicks.” Those able to accommodate themselves to the contradiction include readers of the Bible who choose to ignore unpleasant passages of scripture rather than abandon belief in a benevolent God. There are others, “those to whom the miseries of the world/ Are misery, and will not let them rest.” I’m quoting the Induction to The Fall of Hyperion (I.148-49) by John Keats, a great and deeply empathetic poet who saw, even in his tragically brief life, too much misery in the world, too much gratuitous suffering, especially by the innocent, to justify belief in a providential Design and a benign God. Charles Darwin felt the same way; so did Mark Twain.

His 1907 note strikes several major themes in Twain’s thinking, not least his characteristic sense of guilt, this time for lacking Nietzsche’s courage. Of course, Mark Twain also courageously defied rather than “succumbed” to conformist pressures. Within two years of Shaw’s 1899 review, outraged by the spectacle of his country shouldering the white man’s burden by wading through the blood of 200,000 Filipinos slain in the process of “liberating” them, Twain was emitting more than “sparks,” in fact aiming, in “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” a satiric flamethrower at an unholy marriage of religion and politics: that noxious American mixture of jingoistic bombast and pious hypocrisy that plagues us still. Given the ferocity of Twain’s anti-imperialist protests against U. S. foreign policy (as well as British, German, and Belgian imperialism), Shaw, like those who greatly exaggerated rumors of Mark Twain’s death, would seem to be premature in depicting his “Diabolonian sparks” as extinguished by that smothering “American atmosphere.”

But there is a distinction between politics and religion when it came to what Twain was willing to reveal and to conceal. Politically, he often spoke out, risking his cherished and long-cultivated reputation with an adoring public by exposing American complacency and hypocrisy. He did so with a potent mixture of satiric wit and relentless honesty: a powerful challenge reminiscent of Jonathan Swift, whose scathing political satire in Gulliver’s Travels he admired and echoed. Excoriating American imperialism cloaked in crawthumping religious piety, Twain stood up courageously and publicly to the powers that be in “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” (1901). Unfortunately, he did acquiesce in a single editorial rejection of his brief but devastating satire, “The War Prayer” (1905)—posthumously published during World War I, appropriately re-situated among the poems of soldiers who, having experienced the gas-attacks, rats, and carnage of trench-warfare, bitterly rejected the old Horatian lie that it is sweet and fitting to die, or to kill, for one’s country.


When the targets were God and religious hypocrisy, Twain’s attacks are less Swiftian than Nietzschean. And yet Twain begins his self-contrast with the German philosopher by claiming “I have not read Nietzsche…nor any other philosopher,” choosing to go instead “to the fountainhead,” that is to say, to “the human race.” In a convenient reciprocity, he insists that “Every man is in his person the whole human race,” and that “in myself I find in big or little proportion every quality and every defect that is findable in the mass of the race.” This sounds remarkably like Twain’s fellow American and Nietzsche’s mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, on the paradox of originality and the immersion of even the most self-reliant individual in a pool of shared ideas, a literary form of the Transcendentalist “Over-Soul.”  At the same time, it allows Twain to maintain his independence. In fact, in asserting from the outset that he had not “read Nietzsche,” Twain was anticipating a notably defensive Freud, who dubiously insisted that he avoided Nietzsche.[4]

Unlike Freud, Twain was not a covert student of Nietzsche; yet his note displays genuine insight into the philosopher he claimed not to have read: the recognition that Nietzsche had dared to say aloud what many in his age were thinking but refused to acknowledge, most notably the terrifying as well as liberating ramifications of the Death of God. This refusal amounted to an individual and collective act of “bad faith” and “repression” (a concept Nietzsche preceded Freud in delineating). In an act of sanctimonious hypocrisy that disgusted him, people (Nietzsche accused) continued to pay pious lip-service to a creed in which they, consciously or unconsciously, no longer believed. It was a “lie.” “By lie,” he said in The Antichrist, “I mean: wishing not to see something that one does see; wishing not to see something as one sees it.”[5] This modern Great Refusal amounted to a craven repression of the realization, one shared by late Twain, that institutional Christianity was a “slave morality” threatening individual independence, binding “free spirits” and their instincts (a “natural or ‘healthy” morality celebrated by Nietzsche and embodied by Huck Finn)[6] to an authoritarian moral code dominated by a simplistic and guilt-inducing distinction between conventional Good and Evil. That explains why all those “sane” conformists and cowards, who “believed exactly as Nietzsche believed,” concealed the fact, scoffed at Nietzsche, and called him “crazy”—a craven procession in which Twain sheepishly admitted he was not only marching but carrying a banner.

Twain may end with a characteristic final twist of “humor,” yet the passage as a whole is nothing if not serious. In 1907, when he wrote these words, Twain knew all too well what it meant to “sit down and examine himself” and then to courageously stand up to the powers not only of the state but of the church (Livy and his clergyman friend Joe Twichell were particularly  distressed by Twain’s emphasis on the role of Christian missionaries in enabling and cheering on  American and European imperialism). He did so by wielding his chosen weapons of humor and satire, laughing his targets off the stage, but always expressing authentic indignation. He then published the truth as he saw it—or tried to publish, or, yielding to the external or internal resistance he faced in his efforts to tell the truth, elected not to publish at all. Those in his vast audience who had always wanted “their” Mark Twain, rigged out exclusively in cap and bells, were surprised or disappointed when, during his most creative decade, he ventured into still funny but serious territory in Huckleberry Finn (1885), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), and Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894). But he knew, or was made to know by family and friends, that the public would be unwilling to follow him when, in quest of the truth as he saw it, he emulated his most beloved character by “light[ing] out for the territory.” Determined to break free of those who would “sivilize me,” Huck, at the end of Huckleberry Finn, sets forth to seek freedom beyond the restraints of Christian civilization. But Twain was headed into the heart of darkness itself, in the form of those troubling late “dream”-centered texts he chose not to publish, and was sometimes unable even to finish.

Despite Twain’s final self-deprecating phrase, his note reveals that he is, in spirit, with Nietzsche. To employ a Joycean portmanteau adjective singularly apt when it comes to Mark Twain, he may be “jocoserious” in depicting himself carrying that “banner.” But, hyperbole aside, the self-indictment is genuine. Twain’s skepticism about institutional religion was hardly a secret to readers of some of his irreverent tracts. For the most part, however, he did not stand up publicly regarding his considered verdict on the ultimate Power. When it came to his most vehement assaults on free will, immortality, and the God of Christianity, Mark Twain behaved with something resembling the cowardice he attributed to himself in the comparison with Nietzsche. Though he worked on them for a dozen years (1897-1908), he never put into final form the subversive, literally Diabolonian Mysterious Stranger manuscripts, in which Young Satan and No. 44, both of whom genially but potently ridicule Christian hypocrisy, also pronounce the human race cowards and sheep, especially those who attack in public what they themselves believe in “their secret hearts.”  And he deferred to posthumous publication his Satanic fiction Letters from the Earth as well as his assault on God’s “all-comprehensive malice” in “Reflections on Religion,” written in 1906, the same year he had 250 copies of What is Man? printed “anonymously” and for private circulation among friends.

In fact, in his Prefatory note to the privately-printed What is Man? Twain says of these papers (which he had been brooding over for a quarter-century) that “Every thought in them has been thought (and accepted as unassailable truth) by millions upon millions of men—and concealed, kept private. Why did they not speak out? Because they dreaded (and could not bear) the disapproval of the people around them. Why have I not published? The same reason has restrained me, I think. I can find no other.” Ten years earlier (Notebook, 10 November 1895), finding it strange that the world was “not full of books” scoffing at the “useless universe” and “violent, contemptible human race,” Twain wondered “Why don’t I write such a book? Because I have a family”—a “family” he wished not to outrage, or to injure, and, presumably, to continue to feed by not alienating the vast audience that bought his books. Whatever the role of Livy, and his determination to ease her final years, in this remark, and in the Preface to What is Man?, Twain anticipates the self-censorship he would acknowledge a year later in numbering himself among those who agreed with Nietzsche on religion but concealed the fact. Though he had confided to his wife (and to his close clergymen friend, Joe Twichell), that he did not believe in the divine inspiration of the Bible, described in “Reflections on Religion” as “the most damnatory biography that exists,” Twain did not want to hurt Livy. But she had died in 1904, and he still chose not to publish his most blasphemous attacks.


In his 1919 Smart Set essay, Mencken concluded that Twain’s dread of disapproval was partly internal since “his own speculations always half-appalled him. He was not only afraid to utter what he believed; he was even a bit timorous about believing what he believed.” This seems to me rather less true of Twain than of Nietzsche, whose relentlessly inquiring spirit led him to the discovery of dark truths he himself believed were “terrible”: truths—as he plaintively remarked in an 1885 letter to his friend Franz Overbeck—he wished in vain “somebody might make…appear incredible to me.”[7] But most of Mencken’s pointed but affectionate judgment seems on target:

Mark knew his countrymen. He knew their intense suspicion of ideas, their blind hatred of heterodoxy, their bitter way of dealing with dissenters. He knew how, their pruderies outraged, they would turn upon even the gaudiest hero and roll him in the mud. And knowing, he was afraid. He [and here Mencken quotes Twain himself from his prefatory note to What is Man?] “dreaded the disapproval of the people around him.” And part of that dread, I suspect, was peculiarly internal. In brief, Mark himself was also an American, and he shared the national horror of the unorthodox.[8]

Though Mencken finds some pusillanimity in Twain’s role in deferring to posthumous publication some of his most shocking documents, I prefer his critical but more empathetic stance to Shaw’s arch dismissal of Twain’s insufficient emission of Diabolonian sparks. If Mencken goes too far in that final phrase about Twain’s alleged timorousness in actually “believing what he believed,” the rest of his charge seems confirmed by Twain’s own admission in the Preface to What is Man? and in his private placing of himself, carrying a banner no less, in that procession of cowards that scoffed at Nietzsche, even though they believed, or disbelieved, more or less as he did.


Of course, Nietzsche is not merely an iconoclastic Nay-sayer. For all his bleak determinism, atheism, and existential loneliness, he insisted that his was an essentially affirming spirit. His terrible truths were countered by an exuberant embrace of amor fati, gaya scienza, and what Yeats described, with tonal accuracy, as that “strong enchanter’s…curious astringent joy,” and which he transformed into the “tragic joy” of such late poems as “The Gyres” and “Lapis Lazuli.”[9] For Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, the enemy of the “spirit of gravity” is “laughter.” Twain’s Satan, in the “Chronicle of Young Satan,” recommends the same antidote to contemplating folly with “petrified gravity.” Faced with such examples of “colossal humbug” as papal infallibility, “only Laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand.”[10]

But there was of course a more-than-satiric function of elevated spirits and balancing humor. When an interviewer asked him on Thanksgiving Day, 1905, “What is it that strikes a spark of humor from a man?” Twain responded: “It is the effort to throw off, to fight back the burden of grief that is laid on each one of us. In youth we don’t feel it, but as we grow to manhood we find the burden on our shoulders. Humor? It is nature’s effort to harmonize conditions. The further the pendulum swings out over woe the further it is bound to swing back over mirth.”[11] In a passage intended for “The Death of Jean,” but omitted from that moving Christmas Eve 2009 essay, Twain (sounding remarkably like Emerson when his nineteen-year-old wife Ellen died) acknowledged that “My temperament has never allowed my spirits to remain depressed long at a time.”[12]


A similar final affirmation can be found in Mark Twain’s conflicting attitudes toward “truth”: at times, as in What is Man?, it is subjected to the most extreme skepticism, elsewhere,  even (or especially) in the much-discussed and disputed finale of The Mysterious Stranger, the hard truth can be seen as liberating us from facile optimism and religious delusion. A number of critics have found light in the cosmic and seemingly nihilistic darkness of the final chapter of The Mysterious Stranger. A particularly perceptive discussion of the ambiguous but potentially positive ramifications of that chapter occurs in Ryan Simmons’s 2010 online essay, “Who Cares Who Wrote The Mysterious Stranger?[13] Simmons poses a philosophic thought experiment. We can imagine that God exists, in which case the world is “meaningful,” though, given human limitations, we are unable to perceive how it is “all part of God’s perfectly coherent and beneficent plan.” Conversely, we may imagine that “those who are honest” conclude that the “God we have assumed, and even worshipped, cannot exist”—the position, though Simmons never mentions him, of Nietzsche. The final chapter of The Mysterious Stranger would seem to urge us to conclude that God either does not exist or is so sadistic that it would be better if he didn’t: a God who “cursed” his human “children with biting miseries and maladies of mind and body”; who “mouths” justice and mercy and yet “invented hell.”[14] If such a God did not exist, has the world, Simmons asks rhetorically, “truly become meaningless in his absence?” Or is it that, in delegating responsibility to God, we have “failed to take responsibility for events ourselves.” It may well be the case that “the meanings of the world are opened up, more available to us, if we remove the putative ‘author’ of the world, God, from the equation.” Rather like Descartes’ “evil demon” (though Simmons fails to note the really striking similarity between the final chapter of The Mysterious Stranger and Descartes’ provisional skepticism in Meditations on the First Philosophy), Twain’s mysterious stranger, by “demonstrating that people’s foundational convictions are in error,” forces us “to acknowledge what, at some level, we must already suspect: that the world is a less just, less orderly, less happy place than we typically pretend,” and that we ourselves are cosmologically “inconsequential.”

But, Simmons argues, The Mysterious Stranger “troubles knowledge not finally in order to advocate a radical skepticism,” but to discover whether such “impoverished abstractions” as the “moral sense” can “be filled with meanings.” Nietzsche, who pronounced the world intrinsically meaningless given the Death of God, also believed that we humans can “create meaning.” The song he sang on the train returning him to Basel after his complete mental breakdown in Turin in January 1889 is interpreted in this spirit by the character Walter Berger in Malraux’s The Walnut Trees of the Altenburg: as a “sublime” revelation as “strong” as life itself, proof that “the greatest mystery is not that we have been flung at random between the profusion of matter and of the stars, but that within this prison we can draw from ourselves images powerful enough to deny our nothingness.”[15]

Consider the final nihilistic vision presented by the mysterious and semi-Satanic No. 44 to August Fendler at the climax of Twain’s final, fragmentary novel: “Nothing exists: all is a dream. God—man—the world,—the sun, the moon, the wilderness of stars: a dream, all a dream, they have no existence. Nothing exists save empty space and you,” with August himself, “flung,” as it were, “at random,” reduced to a Cartesian cogito, a “Thought,” a vagrant, useless thought “wandering forlorn among the empty eternities.” Tonally, this is even more reminiscent of the Nietzschean madman’s famous description of the emptiness of a vertiginous universe bereft of the God we have murdered—“Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night and more night coming on all the while?”—than it is of the literary source actually echoed in the two final chapters of The Mysterious Stranger: Prospero’s beautiful but nihilistic assertion that “we are such stuff/ As dreams are made on,” and that the “great globe itself…shall dissolve/ And like this insubstantial pageant faded,/ Leave not a rack behind.”[16] And yet the Death of God, though devastating to the radically spiritual thinker who felt compelled to announce it, also marks the true advent and liberation of Man; and Prospero, an agent of liberation, is himself “set free”—first by Ariel and, finally, in response to his “Epilogue,” by the prayers and applause of the audience in the theater.

Many, perhaps most, readers understandably see in the finale of The Mysterious Stranger a reflection of Twain’s profound and anguished loneliness in the final years of his life (Tom Quirk has made this point most poignantly), even as a retreat into solipsism. In their essay on “Twain and Nietzsche” in The Jester and the Sages, Gabriel Noah Brahm, Jr., and Forrest G. Robinson note that “Satan [they mean No. 44] is careful to highlight the liberating significance of his message”; and two of the contributors to the 2009 Centenary Reflections on The Mysterious Stranger, David Lionel Smith and John Bird, stress the unflinching affirmation of that existential loneliness and the “imaginative freedom” that ensues. I myself would emphasize the impact of The Tempest, not only Prospero’s speech, but the dominant motif of the play: being “set free.”[17]

I therefore share Simmons’s tentatively positive conclusion. Rather than a retreat into embittered solipsism, this disputed text—in which No. 44 presents August with terrible truths which nevertheless, he claims, have “set you free”— is best seen “as an inquiry into the nature of what is regarded as truth.” The implication is that were truth-seekers to “respond proportionately” to the truths that are available, “a better world would become possible from their acts.” A significant but seldom remarked aspect of The Mysterious Stranger is the “simple possibility that an anti-humanistic message will, ironically, lead to moral and humanistic behavior—that, in distinguishing ourselves from gods, people will remember to act like moral humans.” Recognizing the truth, are we humans capable of altering our lives for the better—“or are we condemned by our very knowledge to accept the inevitability of our own self-annihilation?” In instructing his readers to “Dream other dreams, and better,” the mysterious stranger, does not necessarily “detonate” the world—as Bernard De Voto had claimed Twain had done in order to remove his own personal sense of “guilt and responsibility.” Instead, Simmons concludes, Twain “opens it up radically to new and demanding possibilities, possibilities that deprive us equally of our delusions and of an excuse.”

But the opening of those possibilities demands that “we recognize the truth,” the truth that can set us free. An acknowledgement of proportion, of the place we humans truly occupy in the vastness of space, microscopic as well as cosmic, is at the cognitive, imaginative, moral, and therapeutic heart of Mark Twain’s final fantastic voyages—“The Great Dark,” “Three Thousand Years Among the Microbes,” and, above all, the assertion by No. 44 that “It is all a Dream, a grotesque and foolish dream,” and August a “Vagrant Thought…wandering forlorn” through empty, interstellar space. This is the bleak but somehow bracing vision whose truth August acknowledges in the final sentence of The Mysterious Stranger: “He vanished, and left me appalled for I knew, and realized, that all he had said was true” (405). I will conclude by returning to this question of truth: the courage it takes to face it, however difficult it may be, and the liberation, however limited that may be, that attends an unflinching confrontation of available truths, especially when they are “terrible truths.”


In a March 19, 1904 letter to his friend William Dean Howells, Mark Twain acknowledged that no matter how closely he—or an authorized biographer and others in the Family Circle—might monitor the official and flattering story-line, truth would out: “An autobiography is the truest of all books; for while it inevitably consists mainly of extinctions of the truth, shirkings of the truth, partial revealments of the truth, with hardly an instance of plain straight truth, the remorseless truth is there, between the lines, where the author-cat is raking dust upon it which hides from the disinterested spectator neither it nor its smell…—the result being that the reader knows the author in spite of his wily diligences.” Along with Twain’s affectionate observation of the sanitizing and camouflaging efforts of cats, one detects a grudging admiration for the relentlessness of truth. In an earlier, unpublished letter to his brother Orion, written in 1880, precisely between The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (which Huck kicks off by specifically accusing the author of Tom Sawyer of mixing with the truth some “stretchers”), Twain prophesied: “I perceive that when one deceives as often as I have done, there comes a time when he is not believed when he does tell the truth.”

Increasingly in his final, “dark” years, Twain felt there was a “truth” he had to tell—a hard and lonely truth. Isabel Lyon, reading the “What is Man?” manuscript in 1905, and adopting Twain’s “Gospel” as her own Nietzschean “gospel,” thought that, for at least “some,” it could “put granite foundations under them and show them how to stand alone.” On the morning of August 31, 1905, after she had played the orchestrelle for him, Twain invited her to his upstairs study, where

he read aloud to me a part of his Gospel—his unpublishable Gospel. But Oh, it is wonderful…full of wonderful thoughts—beautiful Thoughts, Terrible Truths—oh such a summing up of human motives—& if it belittles…does it belittle?—every human effort [,] it also has the power to lift you above that effort & make you fierce in your wish to better your own conduct—such poor stuff as your conduct is—[18]

Few of us will find in What is Man? as many wonderful or beautiful thoughts as Isabel Lyon did. True, beneath the rigid determinism that demands to be accepted, lock, stock, and barrel, and the relentless critique of altruism, there is the Old Man’s moral admonition to “train your ideals upward…toward a summit where you will find your chiefest pleasure in conduct which, while contenting you, will be sure to confer benefits upon your neighbors and the community.”[19] It was to this “conduct” that Lyon was probably referring when she said that What is Man? had the potential “power” to “lift you above” yourself in a “fierce” wish to “better your own conduct.” But what she most emphasized were those shared pitiless truths Lyon felt made Nietzsche and Twain kindred spirits—“Terrible Truths,” which could, for some, “put granite foundations under themand show them how to stand alone.”

That seems, consciously or not, an endorsement of Nietzsche’s celebrated insistence, in Twilight of the Idols, that “what does not destroy me makes me stronger”: the prophet who (a point to which the Nietzschean Lyon may be alluding in making Twain’s her own “Gospel”) brought his own “glad tidings,” antithetical to the Christian “gospel.” Few have looked deeper into the nihilistic abyss than Nietzsche, and yet he called himself, in Ecce Homo, a “man of calamity” who remained an affirmer: “I contradict as has never been contradicted before and am nevertheless the opposite of a No-saying spirit. I am a bringer of glad tidings like no one before me.”  This is Nietzsche’s conscious “opposite” to the supposed glad tidings of Christianity—itself, according to Nietzsche, “the opposite of that which he had lived,” he being Jesus, the “evangel” who “died on the cross,” only to have the noble example of his life subverted by his disciples into the “ill tidings” of that “dysangel,” Christianity.As it happens, Twain explicitly agreed with Nietzsche that the last Christian died on the cross. “There has been only one Christian. They caught him and crucified him.” This 1898 entry in Twain’s Notebook seems tantalizingly close to Nietzsche’s more celebrated assertion, published three years earlier: “The very word ‘Christianity’ is a misunderstanding: in truth, there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.”[20]

In emphasizing the capacity of “truth” to “set us free,” I am not just putting a positive spin on the final chapter of The Mysterious Stranger, in effect joining Albert Paine, who rearranged the text to end on that positive note. I have no desire to ally myself with the man who altered the manuscript of The Mysterious Stranger in 1916 and remained committed for a decade more (as he told his contact at Harper’s in a franchise-protecting letter of 1926), and well beyond that, to guarding and preserving the hagiographic “traditional” image of Mark Twain. My intention, instead, is to stress the paradox of freedom within constraint, and to connect what No. 44’s young interlocutor agreed was appalling but “true,” with the words Jesus spoke to those who came to believe in him, rather than in what Nietzsche and Mark Twain would agree was the falsification that followed: “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). In turn, that setting free became for Shakespeare the verbal formula of the ultimate “project” of The Tempest—as I think Mark Twain realized in the course of writing the Tempest-influenced finale of The Mysterious Stranger.


For in his final decade, at the end of his life and tether, this most iconic of public figures, speaking “as Samuel Clemens rather than as Mark Twain,” made, as Hamlin Hill has noted, a rare “attempt at complete honesty.”[21] A desperately lonely truth-seeker often feeling defeated in a world of mendacity, he would have been pleased by Isabel Lyon’s image of him providing, in the form of “Terrible Truths,” “granite foundations” upon which a selective few might “stand alone.” Despite their shared determinism and denial of free will (though not “free choice”), neither Mark Twain nor Nietzsche approaches the sublime pinnacle of lonely thought, the ghostly solitude, of Spinoza, that “precursor” revered by Nietzsche. And yet, Nietzsche (and, at the end, Mark Twain) was even lonelier. Spinoza’s “way of thinking,” Nietzsche told Franz Overbeck in that important 1885 letter, “made solitude bearable,” since he “somehow still had a God for company,” while “what I experience as ‘solitude’ really did not yet exist. My life now consists in the wish that it might be otherwise with all things than I comprehend, and that somebody might make my ‘truths’ appear incredible to me” (in The Portable Nietzsche, 441). No one did. And, in Twain’s case, when it came to his Old Man’s philosophy of mechanistic determinism, he was not even open to counter-argument.

One would like to think that that was not true of self-divided Mark Twain himself. And yet in the very last of his works to be written for publication, the first in a projected series of essays from notable figures asked to identify “The Turning-Point of My Life,” Twain rejected the titular premise and reaffirmed his deterministic philosophy. In his case, he insisted, there was no one pivotal moment that led him to his literary career; every event was a “link” in an inexorable “chain,” not only in his own life, but traceable back to the dawn of history. There was no singular event, nor any willed plan; everything was determined by the combination of external “circumstances” and one’s innate “temperament,” over which one has no control. Writing just a few months before his death, Twain leavened the grim determinism of What is Man? with an entertaining narrative and genuine humor. All would have been changed had there been a different couple in Eden, he concluded his essay. His “disappointment” in Adam and Eve, was “not in them, poor helpless young creatures—afflicted with temperaments made out of butter; which butter was commanded to get into contact with fire and be melted.” But what he “cannot help wishing is, that Adam and Eve had been postponed, and Martin Luther and Joan of Arc put in their place,” that “splendid pair equipped with temperaments not made of butter, but of asbestos. By neither sugary persuasions nor by hellfire could Satan have beguiled them to eat the apple.” Twain concludes: “There would have been results! Indeed, yes. The apple would be intact today; there would be no human race; there would be no you; there would be no me. And the old, creation-dawn scheme of ultimately launching me into the literary guild would have been defeated.[22] “Results,” indeed! In this, Mark Twain’s final display of balancing “humor,” the pendulum, swung out over “woe,” swings back over “mirth.”

A disciple of Nietzsche, W. B. Yeats, basing himself on Kant’s Third Antinomy (thesis: necessity, antithesis: freedom), pronounced himself “predestinate and free,” and Nietzsche’s own mentor, Emerson, deliberately juxtaposed “Fate” and “Power,” the first and second essays in The Conduct of Life.  In reading Yeats and Emerson, and certainly in reading Nietzsche and Mark Twain, we should address rather than evade the profound questions they raised. Rather than sinking into what Yeats called, in his great poetic sequence Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen, “the half deceit of some intoxicant from shallow wits,” we should confront the dark, deterministic regions of the mind they illuminated. We might then, with what Isabel Lyon would call their “Terrible Truths” and “granite foundations” under us, work toward something resembling, if nothing so grand as a new birth of freedom, a series of individual liberations with the potential to set others free as well. Of course, there is no need to repair to Lincoln or Lyon. Twain’s own Mysterious Stranger tells Man, in the immediate form of young August Fendler, that “I your poor servant have revealed you to yourself and set you free”—precisely the role played by Ariel, the liberated servant who goes on to set his master free, triggering Prospero’s renunciation of “vengeance” in favor of “virtue” at the turning point (V.i.14-32) of The Tempest. No. 44 may be speaking, but he is, after all—both in his most dismaying utterances and here, in offering the chapter’s sole glimpse of a possible freedom beyond the solipsistic and nihilistic nothingness—a theatrical mask amplifying the voice of his creator, the self-divided, skeptical, but still truth-seeking Sam Clemens/ Mark Twain. The same is true of divided Nietzsche, who—despite his radical insistence that all “truths” were perspectival, a matter of “optics,” and that there were “no facts, only interpretations”—also burned his candle at the altar of “truth,” and deplored “lies,” a word that appears frequently in his work, especially in The Antichrist.



For all their affinities, and despite the badgering of Isabel Lyon, Twain read little of Nietzsche, while Nietzsche, who loved his American humor, and cant-puncturing “laughter,” devoured every work of Twain on which he could lay his hands, though always cherishing, as his favorite, the novel his mother had read to him, to spare his eyes, in 1879, when he enthusiastically recommended Tom Sawyer to his friend Overbeck (the letter appears in The Portable Nietzsche, 73). In his essentially vegetative life after his complete breakdown a decade later, Nietzsche, now mentally a child, was once again in her care. “On his good days she took him on walks and let him play the piano. Sometimes she read to him, ‘in a soothing monotone,’ from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.[23] It seems a final instance of rondure. Mark Twain came in and went out with Halley’s comet lighting up the sky, though, at the end, “he had,” as Paine said, “slipped out of life’s realities, except during an occasional moment” of lucidity.[24] In the case of Nietzsche, there was a decade-long mental eclipse with no illumination at all, let alone any final burst of celestial light. All the more reason, therefore, for us to be strangely moved to learn that his early favorite among Mark Twain novels was there again at the end—still being read to him by his mother, but this time to a person sitting in darkness.

— Patrick J. Keane


Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Shaw, “Giving the Devil His Due,” Saturday Review, LXXXI (May 13, 1899), iii. “Diabolian Ethics,” in Bernard Shaw, Complete Plays with Prefaces, 6 vols. (Dodd, Mead, 1963), 3:xliv-li. Mencken, “Mark Twain,” Smart Set, October 1919, reprinted in H. L. Mencken on American Literature, ed. S. T. Joshi (Ohio University Press, 2002).
  2. Autobiographical Note, in The Mark Twain Papers, Bancroft Library, University of California-Berkeley.
  3. Isabel Lyon Diary, in The Mark Twain Papers, Bancroft Library.
  4. Freud feared cooptation by a psychoanalytically precocious precursor who might leave him with no worlds to conquer. He admitted his anxiety of influence in 1931: “I rejected the study of Nietzsche although—no, because—it was plain that I would find insights in him very similar to psychoanalytic ones.” Quoted by Peter Gay, Freud: A Life for Our Time (Norton, 1988), 46. But Freud’s claimed ignorance is belied by many of his own remarks about Nietzsche, who had, he told his biographer Ernest Jones, “a more penetrating knowledge of himself than any man who ever lived or was likely to live”(Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (Basic Books, 1961), 2:344. Freud’s denial of serious reading of Nietzsche is belied as well by, for example, the traceable impact of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals on his own Civilization and its Discontents.
  5. The Antichrist §55, in The Portable Nietzsche, trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann (Viking, 1954), 640.
  6. “Every naturalism in morality—that is, every healthy morality—is dominated by an instinct of life…Anti-natural morality—that is, almost every morality which has so far been taught, revered, and preached—turns, conversely, against the instincts of life: it is a condemnation of these instincts….All that is good is instinct—and hence easy, necessary, free.” (Twilight of the Idols, in The Portable Nietzsche, 489-90, 493-94). Huck, who embodies natural or instinctual morality in his own novel, explicitly endorses instinct in Tom Sawyer Abroad: “for all the brag you hear about knowledge being such a wonderful thing, instink is worth forty of it for real unerringness.” In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom Sawyer Abroad, Tom Sawyer, Detective, ed. John C. Gerber, Paul Baender, and Terry Firkins (University of California Press, 1980), 337.
  7. The Portable Nietzsche, 441. Though this letter (2 July 1885) is not among those in Christopher Middleton’s Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche (University of Chicago Press, 1969), the crucial phrase appears in a footnote (244n57). His translation is almost identical to Kaufmann’s: “My life now consists in wishing that everything may be different from the way in which I understand it, and that someone may make my ‘truths’ incredible to me.”
  8. “Mark Twain,” 31.
  9. The Letters of W. B. Yeats, ed. Allan Wade (Macmillan, 1955), 379. Both poems mentioned are clearly “Nietzschean.”
  10. The Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts, ed. William M. Gibson (University of California Press, 1969), 164-66.
  11. Mark Twain: The Complete Interviews (University of Alabama Press, 2006), ed. Gary Sharnhorst, 522-23.
  12. Cited by Paine, Mark Twain: A Biography, 4: 1552. The passage began, “Shall I ever be cheerful again? Yes, and soon. For I know my temperament. And I know that the temperament is master of the man….A man’s temperament is born in him, and no circumstances can ever change it.” Though Emerson realized that he would “never again be able to connect” the beauty of nature with “the heart & life of an enchanting friend,” his “one first love,” he acknowledged his own “temperament,” one that has made many judge him to be unfeeling. Five days after Ellen’s death, he wrote in his journal: “This miserable apathy, I know, may wear off, I almost fear when it will….I shall go again among my friends with a tranquil countenance. Again I shall be amused, I shall stoop again to little hopes & little fears & forget the graveyard…” Emerson, Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, 3:226-27.
  13. Swimming against the tide, Simmons prefers, as does James M. Cox, the 1916 version cobbled together by Albert Bigelow Paine. Paine was faced with three unfinished and partially overlapping manuscripts. However brazen his editing of the material and the emasculation of Twain’s polemic against God as conventionally conceived, he and his collaborator at Harpers, Frederick Duneka, did succeed (as Mark Twain hadn’t) in producing, not only a commercially viable book, but a coherent and readable text, one which, says Simmons, “despite its problematic history, is in my view the most interesting and significant variant for critics to address.” Though he refers almost exclusively to the 1916 text, he is still focusing on the chapter that concludes both the Paine-Duneka version and the manuscripts as presented in William M. Gibson’s scholarly edition, published in 1969 as The Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts.
  14. The Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts, ed. William M. Gibson (University of California Press, 1969), 405.
  15. Malraux, Les Noyers de l’Altenburg (Gallimard, 1948), 99. The song was Nietzsche’s poem “Venice.” In the novel, Walter assists Franz Overbeck in bringing Nietzsche back to Basel.
  16. The Tempest IV.1.146-58, and Epilogue.. Twain, The Mysterious Stranger, 404, 405. Nietzsche, The Gay Science §125.
  17. The references in this paragraph are to three volumes published by the University of Missouri Press: Tom Quirk, Mark Twain and Human Nature (2007), 274; Brahm and Robinson, in The Jester and the Sages: Mark Twain in Conversation with Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx (2011), 22. Smith, “Samuel Clemons, Duality and Time Travel,” and Bird, “Dreams and Metaphors in No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger,” both in Centenary Reflections on Mark Twain’s No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger (2009), 187, 197, 198, 213-15.
  18. Quoted in Laura Trombley, Mark Twain’s Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final, Years (Knopf, 2010), 63-64.
  19. Mark Twain: What is Man? and Other Irreverent Essays, ed. S. T. Joshi (Prometheus Books, 2009), 55.
  20. Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, in The Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann (Modern Library, 1968), 783. The Antichrist §39, in The Portable Nietzsche, 612. The statement is often reduced to the even more succinct “The last Christian died on the cross.” The Antichrist was published in 1895, a half-dozen years after Nietzsche’s breakdown.
  21. Hill, Mark Twain: God’s Fool (Harper, 1973), xxiii.
  22. Harper’s Bazaar (February 1910), 118-19; reprinted in 1917, in What is Man? and Other Essays.
  23. Griffin, “ ‘American Laughter’: Nietzsche Reads Tom Sawyer,” The New England Quarterly (March, 2010), 129-41 (141). The internal quotation—the affecting detail about the mother’s “soothing monotone”—is taken, Griffin tells us, from David F. Krell and Donald Bates, The Good European (University of Chicago Press, 1996), 51.
  24. Paine to Mr. and Mrs. William H. Allen, April 25, 1910, quoted in Hill, Mark Twain: God’s Fool, 265.

  7 Responses to “Mark Twain, Nietzsche, and Terrible Truths that can Set Us Free — Patrick J. Keane”

  1. If we only ask questions whose answers do not include the potential to destroy us, then we aren’t really asking questions at all.
    Who can say they believe in God, if they haven’t first understood the possibility that they very well might be wrong? If you ask a man whether or not he believes in stones, as he walks along a gravel path with you, he will look at you like you’re a fool. He will say, “Who doesn’t believe in stones? They’re right in front of us.” To which our philosopher would say, “Yes, you know that they are there, but do you believe in them? Isn’t believing not knowing, and not knowing essentially understanding that there are a number of possibilities— say ‘stones exist,’ and ‘stones don’t exist’ or even ‘stones exist, but I can’t see them’ and from that number of real and (relatively) equivalent possibilities, choosing one to assert its truth, its approximate factuality based solely on personal preference and desire?”
    So, knowing is not believing. We do not believe in stones; they are there for us to see. The things we believe in, like God, the character of people we count on, justice, mercy, etc. are all possibilities that we choose from a pool of potentials; to believe in others is to show them what we see in them, even though our faith in them can be snatched away at any moment; o believe in justice or mercy is to see a possibility that we can replace in the future we make with our own actions; to believe in God is to choose a path that can never be validated by phenomena observable while we are alive. Belief is a constant state of doubt, and surrender, and it is doubt and surrender which humbles us and opens us to becoming something greater than a mere observer of stones.
    What Twain, and Nietzsche both railed against was self-deception masked as belief. True believers, to reappropriate the cliché, true believers can never act unilaterally, as those who confuse belief with knowing, those who use the unknowable as an excuse for war, and oppression and the kind of know-nothingness so prevalent in our political discourse today. True believers, like Twain and Nietzsche
    To some, the problem of belief is too daunting, too unsettling to consider. To me, it seems that in our willingness to look into the horrifying question of belief is at the heart of both despair as well as joy.
    Thanks, Pat.
    John Rigney

  2. First I bumped into Pyrrhonian skepticism, ricocheted into Spinoza, was redirected to Nietzschean nihilism, found brief solace in Emerson’s kindnesses and came out laughing with Twain.
    Great piece-thanks.

  3. Enviable, top-quality writing on a highly interesting intersection of two atheists who put their centuries to shame. I had known about Emerson and Nietzsche but had no idea Twain, an American icon in Southern literature (where I am, and where I am from), was fond of the man.

    • Many thanks,John, Mike, and Jeremy. I came to think of this essay as individuals needful, too “clotted,” and occasionally unclear. Your gracious comments helped redeem it a bit on my eyes. And those are interesting thoughts of you own, John.

      (In re-reading the essay, I notice that at one point I misdated “On Man.” It should, of course, be 1909, not 2009. That essay can SEEM contemporary, but it’s not THAT contemporary.)

      • I don’t know how that meaningless phrase, “individuals needful,” came into my opening sentence. I’d meant to type “”unsuccessful.”

  4. Wonderfully erudite essay, deeply thought-provoking. Excellent brain food, a gourmet repast! Many thanks

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.