Samuel L. Clemens aka Mark Twain (1835-1919)
We are going to assess the meaning of Clemens’ work from the perspective of P-A which will give it meaning unintended by the author. And just as we classified Thoreau’s Walden as a memoir, we will do the same thing with Life on the Mississippi although it has been labeled a “reminiscence” with a “regional romance” plot which is true, but it is much more profound than these labels indicate. Life on the Mississippi was first published in 1883 a year before the publication of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Life on the Mississippi works well as an allegory of the human “spiritual journey” or even more profoundly understood as a depiction of the meaning of life itself because we see Twain struggling with the meaning of life and his own identity. To put it another way he was asking: What is the nature of reality? Who am I? and What is my relationship to this life experience?
As he tried to remember his boyhood in Hannibal, Missouri, Twain could recall what we would call today the adolescent yearning for celebrity. For example, among boys today it could be the yearning to be a star basketball player in the NBA. Among his boyhood friends he recalls that it was leaving Hannibal to join the circus, become a pirate, or learn to be a steamboat river pilot. This yearning was to have the “rewards of adventure that meeker town boys never knew” was the first intimation that there was much more to life than what had been experienced by the “masses” of people in the small towns in 19th century America. And indeed, there was much more to life than could have been imagined by most humans living on the planet then or now.
It was the “calling” of river pilot that the young, naïve but talented young man decided to pursue. And the unavoidable happened. As the young begin to seek adventure, the common experience sooner or later is disappointment. And so it was with young Sam Clemens. “At first the adventure was a glorious one. But soon, the more he knew about the river, the less romantic it seemed.” The fault, of course, was not in the river’s failure to deliver adventure but in the nature of “romance” itself. The phantasmagorical nature of “romance,” as a human invention, an element of the false self, ultimately and inevitably leads to disillusionment. Chasing this mirage will result in the final realization that it will continue to recede until we must admit that it was never “there” in the first place. “There was no such thing as permanent landmarks; that the river channel was never the same, but always variable. But worse was the experience of piloting in the dead of night, with no landmarks to observe and only deep blackness all around.”
So it is for all of us. We are navigating in the dark when we are contained in the old human narrative where we do not understand the changing nature of reality. We begin to experience suffering, life becomes unsatisfactory because we are continually craving what cannot be attained and running from what cannot be escaped. Reality can be jolting! “Then there was the fascinating [and terrifying] behavior of the river itself. Prosperous towns would be isolated by the new cutoff and reduced to insignificance; towns and islands in one state would be moved up or down and into another state, or, as sometimes happened, into an area that belonged to no state at all!”
It is the nature of human beings lacking in awareness to spend much of their lives seeking security and power only to have it all melt away. “Within a few years the association [of river pilots] was the most indestructible monopoly in the country. But its days were numbered. First of all, the railroads came in and river transportation was gradually abandoned in favor of rail traffic. Then, too, the Civil War reduced navigation to a mere trickle and dealt a deathblow to river commerce. The steamboat was no longer an important means of transportation.”
Unfortunately, as human beings we have a great capacity to deny reality and project our longings onto a “form” that reflects back our illusions that are long-gone or were never there in the first place. Later in life, long after he had left the river, Clemens returned incognito to travel again on the Mississippi. “He listened tolerantly to the man who told him wild and improbable stories about the river, and to a fellow traveler who explained very explicitly, how everything worked.”
Even an older and wiser Mark Twain could still fall prey to the temptations of greed that emanated from the false-self need for security. “Mark Twain decided to search for a large sum of money left by a murderer whom he had met in Germany. He and his companions made plans about the ten thousand dollars soon to be in their possession, and they asked to get off their boat at Napoleon to look for it. Unfortunately, the Arkansas River, years before, had swept the whole town into the Mississippi.”
The ego around which the human personality is constellated is enthralled by elements of the unconscious and the collective unconscious. Clemens was living the life of a sleepwalker looking like nothing so much as a rudderless riverboat. Running aground is the predictable outcome and he senses to some degree the illusion of P-B. “He visited Louisiana and expressed horror at the sham castles that passed for good architecture. He read Southern newspapers and saw in them, as in so many Southern traditions, the romantic sentimentality of Sir Walter Scott, an influence that he regretted, hated, and held responsible for the South’s lack of progress.”
Another element lurking within our subconscious strata is the shadow, which often insists that it be projected onto some “form” in the world usually another individual or collective of individuals. Clemens “heard about senseless feuds that wiped out entire families.” And, as is still true today, charlatans abound especially in the realm of religion. Clemens “had an experience with a spiritualist who grew rich on the credulous and the superstitious.” He was looking for something that he had projected onto the river long ago from within himself. He would never find it “out there” because “the color and romance of the Mississippi had faded forever.”
Had he looked for the meaning of his life within himself he would have found the indwelling wisdom that would have enabled him to navigate the river of life with unfailing skill and with rewards far surpassing any buried treasure. But first, he would have had to have the insight that the Universe and the Mississippi River is “friendly,” but not anthropomorphic. This is the mistake that “T. S. Eliot and Lionel Trilling [made when] calling the river a ‘God.’ It watches over Huck and Jim but also demands wrecked houses and drowned bodies as propitiating sacrifices.” This pagan and childish conceptualization of any aspect of the natural world will lead as it did in Twain’s life to deep human suffering.
Samuel Clemens’ experienced life as ultimately unsatisfactory as do most human beings. It will always be thus as long as we insist on denying the nature of reality and as long as we insist on seeking meaning along the banks of the fierce and shifting river that will always eventually wash away our fantasies. The true treasures of life lie on the high ground within the awakened individual beyond the reach of the raging river of unconsciousness.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in books by Roy Charles Henry.