Donald Trump and the vulgarity of Mr. Twain

The vulgar Mark Twain.

Those who think of Mark Twain as the quintessential twinkly-eyed American sage have another think coming. Last month, Ben Tarnoff delivered the keynote speech at the Eighth International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies, sponsored by the Center for Mark Twain Studies and held in Elmira, NY; the title of his speech was “Vulgarity from Below Versus Vulgarity from Above: Twain in the Age of Trump.” Without mentioning the name of the 45th President of the United States, Tarnoff mused upon what Twain’s own reaction to our current situation may have been, and concludes that it would not have been kind.

Ben Tarnoff in Elmira.

In doing so, Tarnoff with a sly, subversive humor provides an excellent lesson in one of the most important periods of American humor and literary history — the Southwest of the mid-19th century; a good anthology of this Southwest humor is Walter Blair and Raven McDavid’s The Mirth of a Nation, now unfortunately out of print — and urges upon his listeners a new “vulgarity” and “barbarism” based on Twain’s own moral and satiric perspective, which Twain developed before he came east with the 1869 publication of The Innocents Abroad, the book that put him permanently on the map. Tarnoff’s 35-minute speech can be heard below, and it’s worth your sustained attention.

Ben Tarnoff is the author of The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature (Penguin, 2014). He also writes regularly (and extremely well) for The Guardian on technology and politics, and is founder of Logic, a new magazine about technology. Mr. Tarnoff, take it away:

On the periphery

I want to start the month off by recommending Marjorie Perloff‘s Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire, published last year by the University of Chicago Press (a paperback edition will be published in January 2018). The book defines what Perloff calls “Austro-Modernism,” a form of modernist thinking engendered in the years 1914 through 1933, when the Habsburg Empire collapsed and its territories became awash in a bewildering brew of nationalism, anti-Semitism, exile, and blood. Perloff differentiates Austro-Modernism from its German cousin, forged in the political cauldron of the Weimar Republic. As she writes:

Weimar was the workshop for radical ideas, from Marxist theory to Heidegger’s ontological exploration of being-in-the-world to the film theory of Krakauer, Rudolf Arnheim, and [Walter] Benjamin himself. But this is not to say that Austro-Modernism, from Freud to Wittgenstein and Kraus, to Musil and Roth, to Celan and Bachmann, is to be understood as a weaker version of the strong intellectual formation of the Weimar Republic. It was merely different. Given the particular situation of the Habsburg Empire and its dissolution, given the eastern (and largely Jewish) origin of its writers, it developed in another direction, its hallmark being a profound skepticism about the power of government — any government or, for that matter, economic system — to reform human life. In Austro-Modernist fiction and poetry, irony — an irony less linked to satire (which posits the possibility for reform) than to a sense of the absurd — is thus the dominant mode. The writer’s situation is perceived not as a mandate for change — change that is always, for the Austrians, under suspicion — but as an urgent opportunity for probing analysis of fundamental desires and principles. (13; final emphasis my own)

Perloff’s analysis stretches from the “probing analysis” and documentary social satire of Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind to the “probing analysis” and socio-erotic frisson of Celan’s later lyric poetry, with an excellent coda that muses upon Wittgenstein’s obsession with the Christian gospels towards the end of his life. Ironic satire is a dominant mode in the fiction of both Musil and Roth, but it’s a satire that, as Perloff notes, doesn’t lead to political action, but instead to contemplative action. “In the face of war, in the face of the twin evils of Fascism and Communism and of the corruption that seemed to threaten democracy at every turn, one could expose the follies and evils of one’s world, but meaningful change could only be personal,” Perloff writes. “The aim, as Wittgenstein put it — and Musil and Roth concurred — could only be ‘to become a different person.'” (15)

Although all of Perloff’s subjects were German-speakers, many didn’t start off that way. They were born not in the Empire’s capital Vienna — though Vienna remained a shining beacon of ambition for each of them — but rather on its periphery, and in many cases its easternmost periphery, speaking languages other than German. Karl Kraus was born and raised in the town of Jičín (then a part of the Austrian Empire, now a part of the Czech Republic); Joseph Roth was born and raised in the town of Brody, a small town near Lemberg, now Lviv, in East Galicia (then a part of the Austrian Empire, now a part of Ukraine); Elias Canetti was born in Ruse, Bulgaria (an independent nation then, but with close ties to the Empire);  Paul Celan in the Romanian town of Czernowitz (then a part of the Austrian Empire, now also a part of Ukraine). That they can be considered various facets of that common experience that led to Perloff’s “Austro-Modernism” points to the role that the Empire played in their upbringing.

The Habsburg Empire in 1914 was a mess. Franz Josef I was considered a weak and vacillating leader; its polyglot culture made it all but impossible to administer effectively (especially by a somewhat corrupt and inept central bureaucracy); what we now call its “multiculturalism” was just as bewildering. But it was a mess that somehow functioned, and for much the same reasons. The same Empire gave rise to a Central European form of Modernism that produced composers like Arnold Schoenberg, philosophers like Freud and Wittgenstein, writers like Arthur Schnitzler, painters like Klimt and Schiele. Austrian Jews enjoyed particularly broad freedoms following the 1782 Edict of Tolerance issued by Joseph II, and in 1867 Franz Josef I formally bestowed equal rights on the Jewish population of the Empire. Indeed, in recent years revisionist historians like Pieter M. Judson have emphasized its strengths (even if, ultimately, its weaknesses led to its dissolution in 1918), suggesting that its tolerance  could be something of a model for the polyglot multicultural societies of the 21st century.

The cataclysmic collapse of the Empire in 1918 left Austria a rump state. The Habsburgs were gone; in its place an unstable republic, an easy target for neighboring fascists, that would last for only 16 years (the monarchy ruled for nearly 400 years). This left Perloff’s writers, working in the years between the two world wars, with a sense of loss — that they’d been cut adrift from the land and culture of their youth. Kraus and the others weren’t sentimental about what was gone, but they recognized its strengths and opportunities as well, giving rise to what might be called an ironic conservatism in their outlook. Ultimately, the collapse was a collapse of cultural identity as well. Despite the almost unimaginable size of the empire’s territories, Musil, Celan, Roth, and the others shared a historical culture, which inevitably led to a common recognition — a recognition reflected in habits of thought, social conventions, mind, language — of their tragic situation. They harbored no optimism for the restoration of the monarchy in the years after 1918. Indeed, they harbored no optimism at all — except for the possibilities inherent in what a “probing analysis of fundamental desires and principles” might reveal about us as individuals and how we live. For this reason alone, Edge of Irony is worth a look. Adam Kirsch reviews the book at greater length in the June 22, 2017, issue of the New York Review of Books.

I happen to be a child (or, at least, a grandchild) of the periphery of the Austrian Empire myself. My paternal grandfather Maxsym Hunka arrived at Ellis Island in 1914 from Ukraine (probably from Berezhany, Ternopil, then a part of the Austrian Empire, now a part of western Ukraine); he too was an exile from a collapsing world, perhaps sharing (in the peculiar ways of his own situation) in the habits of thought, social conventions, mind, and language of the subjects of Edge of Irony. He was far from an intellectual, receiving only a fifth-grade-level education according to US Census reports from later years. But if there can be said to be a cultural DNA just as influential upon us as our biological DNA, passed down in the form of these habits through the generations, they might generate in us an affectionate affinity for characteristics of our ancestral cultures, its origins barely recognized in our individual histories unless we look for them.

Satire religious, secular, and political

It is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant
of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself …

Juvenal (c. 55-138 AD)
Satire I

The Trump years are proving felicitous for satire. We haven’t yet had a MacBird! (Barbara Garson’s play about LBJ), an Our Gang (Philip Roth’s book-length evisceration of Richard Nixon), or a Mastergate (Larry Gelbart’s play satirizing the Iran-Contra hearings), but The Onion, McSweeney’s, Andy Borowitz, John Oliver, and many others are filling the gap on a daily basis. It’s only a matter of time before somebody or another makes the leap to one of these longer-form lampoons. Not that the stakes aren’t high. “I don’t think [Donald Trump’s] funny at all,” Sen. Al Franken told an audience at Cooper Union’s Great Hall the other night. But as we shall see, even Sen. Franken can’t entirely hold back.

My bedside table these days is awash in books of and about satire. I’ve not entirely finished any of them yet, but they’re enjoyable enough that I want to wave a little flag for each of them.

In 2015, NYU Press published God Mocks: A History of Religious Satire from the Hebrew Prophets to Stephen Colbert, by Terry Lindvall, a Fulbright Scholar who holds the C.S. Lewis Chair of Communication and Christian Thought at Virginia Wesleyan College. His book is a broad survey of satire from a religious perspective, from the Hebrew bible all the way through, obviously, to contemporary late-night television. Characterizing true satire as moral outrage expressed in laughter, Lindvall doesn’t shy away from the scatalogical passages in Hosea and Elijah or the satiric ironies of Christ’s parables and sermons; later, he courses through the usual suspects (Rabelais, Swift, Pope, Monty Python) and a few unusual ones (Robert G. Ingersoll, Soren Kierkegaard). Prof. Lindvall wears his learning lightly, and his exegesis doesn’t get in the way of the jokes themselves. It’s a quick and inspiring read that sends you back to the sources.

Gilbert Highet’s 1962 The Anatomy of Satire, republished in 2015 by the Princeton University Press, tackles the history and techniques of satire from the secular perspective. Best known now for his Poets in a Landscape, profiles of ancient Roman writers, Highet usefully anatomizes the spirit of the genre in its monological, parodic, and narrative forms, covering many of the same writers as Lindvall. Like Lindvall, too, Highet seems to have written for a general audience; it only lacks, for obvious reasons, any coverage of the last 75 years or so of satire — and fecund years they were.

And sometimes moral outrage leads to more than satire: it can lead to politics itself. Former Saturday Night Live satirist Al Franken was elected to the US Senate in 2008, representing his home state of Minnesota; his new book Al Franken: Giant of the Senate, by Al Franken is a memoir that covers his career from elementary school troublemaker through his current status as junior senator. Franken admits that he’s had to tamp down his impulses towards comedy and satire, but apparently he’s secure enough now that they can come to the fore once again. And why not? Franken has proven one of the most effective members of that august body, working with colleagues across the aisle to win legislative victories for his constituents and advance a progressive political and cultural agenda: thankless work in many ways, but it puts paid to the idea that satirists do nothing but complain. And he’s one of the loudest, boldest anti-Trump voices in Congress.

Franken’s name has been floated as a possible 2020 Presidential candidate. It wouldn’t be the first time that a satirist has been elected to high office: in 1989 Václav Havel took the office of the presidency of Czechoslovakia for a ten-year run, and he didn’t do too badly, becoming a moral conscience for the world (though even he, like Franken, had to tread lightly on the irony pedal for most of his term). True, Franken might not be Václav Havel, not by a long shot, and he’s dismissed any ambition for a higher office than the Senate. But, as he might be the first to admit, he is a politician. So we’ll see what happens next year.

Friday music

Below, Marilyn Nonken performs the second of Arnold Schönberg’s Three Pieces (Opus 11) at the Neue Galerie last Wednesday night for a members-only audience.

For those who were unable to be there, fear not: she and her fellow musicians violinist Rolf Schulte and cellist Coleman Itzkoff will perform a similar program for the public at NYU later this year. See you at Cafe Katja later today for a nice big glass of Grüner Veltliner.


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Joseph Koerner’s Vienna

I hope to write a few words about Ilsa Barea’s excellent 1966 book Vienna: Legend and Reality in a few days, but in the meantime I repost here Joseph Koerner‘s Vienna: City of Dreams, a BBC documentary that was first televised in 2007. Koerner’s film is not so much a history of the city as a series of meditations on its place in modernity. It’s beautifully shot, however, and Koerner is a pensive, thoughtful guide. The Victor S. Thomas Professor of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard, he is the creative director of the Vienna Project at Harvard University, also worth a look.