Mark Twain and the importance of deceit in civilization– “Is He Living or Is He Dead?”

Having recently taken into my home yet another waif of a volume found on my local library’s “free” shelf, I began to peruse it this morning and found that Mark Twain, as many of you already know by having read his works, is not only a yarn-spinner but a liar extraordinare.  And he’s proud of the fact!  At least, his writing persona is proud of the fact in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way.  And all you have to do is think back on almost any Twain fiction, essay, or diatribe to see that lying is not only one of his favorite topics, but one of his favorite pastimes, from “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to the smallest and least significant essay.  If he’s not advocating a falsehood, he’s practicing one in the full knowledge that the reader is most likely in on the joke, though different readers may have different reactions, some readers being complacent and some of them uncomfortable.

The volume I found myself closeted with this morning was entitled The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg and Other Stories and Essays, and was a reprinted volume put together from several other reprinted volumes at some point in time by P. F. Collier and Son Co. in a Harper Brothers edition, a publishing history that reeks of some of Twain’s own invented lines of fictional descent and which would have delighted the great man himself.  In an aside in an essay entitled “My First Lie, and How I Got Out of It,” Twain remarks, “….[A]ll people are liars from the cradle onward, without exception, and…they begin to lie as soon as they wake up in the morning and keep it up, without rest or refreshment, until they go to sleep at night.  If [my parents] arrived at that truth it probably grieved them–did, if they had been heedlessly and ignorantly educated by their books and teachers; for why should a person grieve over a thing which by the eternal law of his make he cannot help?  He didn’t invent the law; it is merely his business to obey it and keep still; join the universal conspiracy and keep so still that he shall deceive his fellow-conspirators into imagining that he doesn’t know that the law exists.”  Of course, in this essay Twain writes a lot about “the lie of silent assertion,” in which people pretend that nothing is wrong when something actually is.  But this quote still distributes itself equably over many situations when people lie out loud about something, as well as practicing the silent lie of assent.

The story in question which I’m commenting on today is one called “Is He Alive or Is He Dead?” from the same volume, and its comedy relies on the fact that often people don’t know 1) who a famous artist is 2) whether he or she is alive or dead and 3) what the value of his or her paintings actually is.  Nor do they want anyone to know that they don’t know, another stock comic device as well as often being an actual fact about people.  In this story, four starving artists (the actual famous artist François Millet makes a cameo appearance) are trying desperately to think of a way to make a living, when nearly no one will buy any of their pictures.  The narrator is one of them, and he lists Millet and two other artists (whom he names Claude Frère and Carl Boulanger) who are in this predicament.  Putting their heads together, they decide to achieve fame via the well-known assertion that dying often makes an author or artist famous whereas he or she could not achieve this status in life by any means.  Taking this as the inspiration for their deception, they “make” Millet the artist who will “die” (actually in their plan he retreats to live in private, hiding while pocketing his share of the proceeds), and so they all paint lots of pictures and studies and sketches as “students” of “the famous Millet” (as they talk him up to people they meet), and he paints many pictures as well.  The other three give out that he is dying or near to dying when they try to sell his paintings and their own studies, and of course the ploy works, and they all become not only respected but much richer than they would otherwise have been.

This case of fradulent art practice is one with which many people can sympathize as long as it’s a case of comedy written by Twain, in which the in extremis condition of starving while trying to make a living off something as high-minded as one’s art provides the average reader with the impetus towards sympathy.  But an art dealer, for example, even one gifted with a genuine interest in tangled histories of art provenance, might be smiling or grimacing even a little more wryly than the average reader in following the artistic quartet’s adventures.  For, there’s a formula to be used in bringing off this kind of artistic triumph, and it goes something like this:  a) a serious situation or need that most or all readers can sympathize with; b) an ingenious idea, so ingenious that the reader feels the temptation of the characters’ own desire to see it employed; c) a discussion of whether or not it’s honest and safe, a strategem which allows the author to engage the reader even more thoroughly by exploring what most people ask themselves about any course of action, whether they have the moral stomach for it and whether it’s any use to try it.  This is a key element in the formula, because it enables the writer to get the convinced reader even more fully on the characters’ side.  Next follows d) at least one example of the stratagem successfully employed, and then the plot is taken as having been acted upon, so there’s no reason not to go on practicing the deceit in question (in terms of the moral equation which says “to lie once is to lie always,” not true if you believe in reformation of character, but nevertheless true in the sense of the story’s fictional structure).  In this case, this last step is a continuation of the fiction that the famous artist (Millet, having become famous in fiction as well as being famous in non-literary fact) is dead.

The entire story is enclosed within an exterior story in which one of the four artists, now a rich man (whom the external narrator “disguises” by naming him “Smith”) tells him the inset story of the four artists because they have seen another rich man (who it turns out is Millet, living under an alias) go out the door of the hotel, and “Smith” wants to tell the narrator the tale.  Why he should want to reveal Millet’s secret to a comparative stranger is the one weak point in the story, but it’s more or less successfully glossed over by the knowledge most people have of quick familiarities between people who travel and end up telling their own life stories to people they meet on the way, comfortable in the knowledge that most likely they won’t see them again.

But there’re two more layers of deceit practiced in this story, and one is that of “Smith,” who see “Millet” and tells the external narrator the story:  it’s the layer in which someone tells an incredible story, and then as proof takes a match out of their pocket and says challengingly, “You don’t believe me?  Here’s the match I had in my pocket when it happened!”  Of course, Smith doesn’t say this to the narrator, but he might as well have–for what’s to prove that the man named Smith isn’t a congenital liar who just happens to see the man he calls “Millet” and dreams up a tale about him, or a creatively inspired liar (a writer!) like Twain?  And then, there’s Twain himself, that arch-fabulist of all fabulists, behind the scenes, no doubt chuckling over every word, even from wherever he is now (and we all know where we go when we keep company with The Father of Lies, as the devil is popularly called)–yet who can help but believe that when confronted with such a solid satirical moralist (as Twain often is) that some god didn’t pass him along to heaven anyway?


Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments

6 responses to “Mark Twain and the importance of deceit in civilization– “Is He Living or Is He Dead?”

  1. Such an idea as fleecing art collectors would still be valid today, especially as some people believe true ‘art’ can be made by anything (elephants, monkeys). That is the true skill of Twain’s work: all his ideas seem to be applicable regardless of the time period his reader lives in.

    A show I flicked past last night described lies as the ‘glue that holds society together’, in reference to the white lies we tell each other. Sometimes truths can be so horrid or unpalatable we spread a lie to keep our view of the world acceptable.


    • I always appreciate the way in which you so carefully and seriously consider what I’ve written about. I only hope you’ve gotten as much fun as I have from the things Twain (and others) write about.


  2. I grew up reading Twain and enjoyed every minute of it. In many ways he challenged conventional thinking but audiences accepted him because he kept them holding their sides laughing!


  3. Yes, imagining’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?


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