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Mark Twain’s writing is always quotable, usually funny, and occasionally sublime. There are, of course, the odd missteps. For example, I find A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to be a very uneven mix of sunny humor and dark, cynical satire. And I was generally unimpressed when I recently cracked open Innocents Abroad. But tastes vary, and no body of work can be all chefs d’oeuvre.
Even Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not unalloyed genius. Earnest Hemingway advised readers of Huckleberry Finn to quit before the final chapters. But, at least in my opinion, almost everything before Hemingway’s recommended cutoff point is excellent. The book begins with a notice: “PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” Despite this stern warning against looking for meaning in the book, it is impossible not to see something important in Chapter XXXI.
By that point in the book Huckleberry Finn and Jim have travelled a considerable distance down the Mississippi River together. Huck is running from his abusive father and Jim is running from slavery. Eventually, they fall in with two traveling grifters. These frauds try to earn quick money by giving dance lessons and lectures on temperance, “missionarying, and mesmerizing, and doctoring, and telling fortunes, and a little of everything.” They are, however, generally unsuccessful. Eventually, they decide on a more profitable scheme: they betray Jim and sell him back into slavery.
It is under these circumstances that Huck is faced with a moral crisis. He sees two options. One option is to contact Jim’s “rightful” owner, in the hopes that Jim may return to his previous slavery rather than the possibly harsher slavery with of his new masters. Or he can attempt to help Jim escape bondage yet again. It may seem easy, from the reader’s point of view, to see what the “right” thing to do is. The problem for Huck is that he has been taught that what is lawful is good, and what is unlawful is bad. And, according to the laws of man and God, Jim is meant to be a slave. To defy those laws is to become a social pariah and invite eternal damnation.
Huckleberry, as the narrator, describes his inner turmoil. He knows that helping a slave to get his freedom, according to society, is about the most wicked, low-down, rotten thing that he could do. He’d be positively ‘shamed to death to face his friends and neighbors after doing such a despicable thing. Moreover, he believes truly that “everlasting fire” is the reward for aiding Jim’s escape. He sincerely, desperately wants to be good. But being good means he must abandon his friend when he needs him the most. Huck tries to pray, but can’t because he cannot repent wanting to help Jim. And if he cannot repent, he cannot be saved. So he makes his choice:
“All right, then, I’ll GO to hell” …
It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head, and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.
Twain later wrote that Huck’s inner conflict was the collision of “a sound heart and a deformed conscience.” Society had played Huck a cruel trick by convincing him that virtue was evil and evil was virtuous. So while he believed honestly that he was irredeemably wicked, he was actually irrepressibly good. His sound heart overcame his deformed conscience.
Beer of the week: Bud Light Orange – Like some of Twain’s writing, this beer seems caught between being for children or adults. On the one hand, it smells and tastes like an orange lollipop. It occasionally even causes that peculiar pain you can get in the back of your jaw when eating citrus candies. On the other hand, it is beer. In fact, although it is too sweet, it is not quite candy-sweet. It actually tastes a bit like beer. But whoever Bud Light Orange is for, it ain’t me. (Although I honestly would try it as the base for a float with vanilla ice cream, because I am a kid at heart.)
Reading of the week: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain – There is not much more to be said about this excerpt that I didn’t say above. But I really do find this to be one of the most moving pieces of writing I’ve ever read.
Question for the week: How can we avoid having our consciences deformed by a misguided society?
It has been said that cross-examination is the attorney’s opportunity to testify. That is because on cross-examination, lawyers are allowed to ask leading questions. So the lawyer shapes the testimony, and the witness is simply asked to confirm it. The witness doesn’t have a chance to explain himself or expand on his answers; he is simply expected to say “yes” or “no” on cue. And, as any Socratic interlocutor knows–or quickly learns–giving a series of yeses and noes can often lead to an indefensible position. On redirect examination, the other attorney may be able to get out any explanations or expansions needed to rehabilitate the witness, but it may be too late.
Once one recognizes the power that the questioner has, The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe becomes infuriating. The titular fowl answers gives the same one-word answer to every single question. The narrator recognizes almost immediately that the word “nevermore” is the raven’s “only stock and store.” And yet, the narrator still frames every single question to the raven in a way that is guaranteed to disappoint him! Instead of asking questions that call for negative answers, he continually seeks positive answers.
Here are a few places he could have greatly improved his interview with the raven:
Q: [Will I ever] forget the lost Lenore[?]
Q: Will I continue to be tormented by the loss of Lenore?
Q: Shall [my soul] clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore[?]
Q: Will I remain separated from Lenore?
See? Once the narrator knows the answer that is coming, all he has to do is arrange the question to suit that answer. Instead, things get worse and worse as he keeps asking the wrong questions. And when it is time to rid himself of the bird, he makes the same mistake.
Q: Take thy beak from out my heart and take thy form from off my door!
Q: Do you plan on staying here long?
It’s almost like the narrator didn’t really want to forget Lenore and be rid of the avian manifestation of his grief.
Beer of the week: Sorachi Ace – This farmhouse ale from The Brooklyn Brewery is brewed with the somewhat unusual Japanese hybrid hops variety of the same name. The beer is quite light in color and slightly hazy, with a foamy white head that dissipates quickly. The aroma is yeasty and lemony. The beer is crisp and bright, and finishes with a bit of spice and a lingering tartness that hangs in the back of the throat.
Reading of the week: Apology by Plato – Expected The Raven, didn’t you? Well that poem has already been used as a weekly reading, so although it is certainly worth rereading (which can be done here,) I picked Socrates’s cross-examination of Meletus for this week. Nearly two and a half millennia later, this portion of the Apology remains a masterclass in cross-examination.
Question for the week: In what contexts do you carefully frame questions to your advantage?
This is the third in a series of four posts on Epicureanism (and South American beers.) The rest of the posts can be found here.
Step 3: καὶ τἀγαθὸν μὲν εὔκτητον – What is Good is Easy to Get
According to Seneca, The Garden of Epicurus bore the following inscription: “Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.” As a result of the Epicurean focus on pleasure, Epicureanism is often misunderstood as decadent and gluttonous. We associate Epicureanism with good food, good drink, and plenty of both. But that is not a fair characterization.
“By pleasure,” writes Epicurus to Menoeceus, “we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of merrymaking, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest disturbances take possession of the soul.” Good things are those that satisfy our basic needs. Striving for more than our minimum requirements actually decreases our pleasure because it makes us anxious. Because luxuries are hard to acquire, the effort to get them results in a net loss of pleasure. To say nothing of the unpleasant aftereffects of overindulgence.
As Montaigne put it, “If you found your pleasure upon drinking of the best [wine], you condemn yourself to the penance of drinking of the worst. Your taste must be more indifferent and free.” Why spoil your palate on expensive wine and deny yourself the pleasure of cheap wine? There is more pleasure in prudently settling for the basics than anxiously scrambling after the best.
Beer of the week: Chaski Porter – Given Montaigne’s dictum about settling for cheap wine, I suppose that I should have paired this week’s reading with a cheap beer. But I got this Peruvian porter from Barbarian Cerveceria Artesanal at a very good price, and by drinking only one at a time, I maximize the pleasure while minimizing anxiety over my beer budget. Chaski is very carbonated. It is dark brown with a rocky, tan head. The aroma has hints of soy sauce and chocolate. The beer is a bit thinner than expected, with coffee notes dominating. I am not a big porter drinker, but Chaski is pretty good.
Reading of the week: Of Drunkenness by Michel de Montaigne – The philosophy of Montaigne is difficult to pin down. It is not accurate to call him an Epicurean, but he was certainly influenced by Epicureanism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy relates that Montaigne’s Essays quote one verse out of every sixteen in Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things.
Question of the week: Is there not a certain pleasure in working toward and attaining something beyond our basic needs?