Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Best Dude: Mark Twain
There haven't been many great Americans. I certainly am not one. Chances are, you're even less of one (dear reader). But Mark Twain, as much as he would try to deny it, is one of the few Americans who actually got it right. He was great. The Best Dude.
It's easy to think, "oh yeah, Mark Twain. Tom Sawyer guy, humorist. Whatever." We learned about him when we were kids, and even then we were taught that he was a "great American". What most of our teachers get wrong though is why he is indeed a great American. It's not because he spoke out against racism in Huckleberry Finn or because he is now deemed the "father of American literature." Twain was great because he knew how full of shit both he and his country was. And he didn't shy away from that truth. He dealt with it regularly and hilariously.
I hate quotes. Whether it's a single Bible verse or the last line of a presidential speech, I can't stand seeing those little double-hooks at the front and back of the sentence. Of course, nobody satirized the wise quote-bearer better than Kirsten Dunst's awful character in Eternal Sunshine, but I'm going to try my best to outdo her here.
A quote may be found on a bumper sticker, a facebook or twitter update, on the lips of a self-righteous Christian hoping to embellish himself by passing the name "C. S. Lewis" through his teeth, and the crafty journalist looking for that on-the-record little bit of gold that will get his story on the cover. Quotes are like hefty shots of Jack Daniels. You get a big buzz right away, but you never experience all the flavor that comes in the patient, slow sips of Blue Label.
Quotes are horrible. But, there are two instances in which you'll hear me making use of them. First is The Big Lebowski. And again, this is not as simple as it sounds. It's not just because Lebowski is "quotable" that I quote it. Ignorantly quoting things without an appropriate context is what the film is about. The Dude is often taking others' words and using them for his own (attempted) self-aggrandizement.
"In the parlance of our times"
"This will not stand, man"
"I got a rash, man"
"Sometimes you eat the bar, and uh..."
Every time The Dude quotes, he has no idea what he is talking about. But he knows that it sounds a little bit smarter when he does. The Coen Brothers are making commentary about the intellect of the common man in their film. It's not just a stoner comedy. They're showing us something about ourselves, and we're oftentimes too stupid to realize how much they're making fun of us.
So when we quote Lebowski, it should be realized how we're bringing ourselves all the way down to the idiocy of The Dude and Walter. But I quote from the film because I support the Coens' satire. I'm going to play their game. (But I've read the rules beforehand.)
The only other time I'll quote is when it came from the pen or mouth of Mark Twain. Twain did what the Coens pulled off so brilliantly in The Big Lebowski, only he did it first, and even better. What it required of him was an astute awareness of his own arrogance and insecurity. He was well aware of the immediate power of the quote, and so often used it for his own humor. This quote sums it up better than what I could ever write myself:
"It is my belief that nearly any invented quotation, played with confidence, stands a good chance to deceive."
Right there, Twain shows us that you can never be sure of a quote. It's a brilliant idea about the battles between truth and fact, mystery and fiction. He has the ability to take topics that philosophers and professors have written hundreds of pages about and boil them down into single sentences.
And that leads me to my next point as to why Mark Twain is the best dude: his writing is incomparable.
We all learn from English teachers and The Elements of Style that we must cut out all the fat. Avoid flowery language. But nobody makes or breaks this rule better than Twain. Twain is so good, so smart, he's able to take theological and political issues that have plagued the world for all of history and make an inspired, funny, thoughtful statement in less than a hundred words.
And yet, he can get unsavorably flowery in his writing. But always with complete awareness of his own bullshit.
Sometimes, the man who is heralded the "Father of ..." anything, has earned that title. Unfortunately, I'm not sure if Mark Twain has any living children in American literature today.
But his life lasted longer than it should have. The pain and suffering that the man endured cruised well past existential dread and depression. He endured a life so miserable that we haven't yet given it medical definitions. And yet he endured. This, dear friends, is why I believe Mark Twain is the best dude.
And he didn't just grin and bear life. That would have been weak. Twain didn't grin when he woke up the next day. He looked around at his country, the Christians, his own self, and frowned a great mustached frown. And then took up his pen.
His weapon was humor. And it kept him alive for 75 years. What he maintained was cynicism. He didn't buy into that idea that cynicism was a youthful endeavor. He held onto it until the end. Cynicism led to satire and humor, and the most enjoyable adventures ever encountered in any work of fiction (American or otherwise).
He didn't take things lightly, but he brought a sort of light into the hearts of many troubled souls. A common hero even to this day, it would be a perfect time for Americans to open up some of their dusty, old Mark Twain books again for a little communal wisdom. After all...
"The universal brotherhood of man is our most precious possession."
"When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained."
"We are always more anxious to be distinguished for a talent which we do not possess, than to be praised for the fifteen which we do possess."
"The radical of one century is the conservative of the next. The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out the conservative adopts them."
"A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read."