Big Books of American Literature: Alchemies of Mind
Day 20: Tuesday, April 4, 2006
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

"The Profit of Unconscious Cerebration"

"I made the great discovery that when the tank runs dry you've only to leave it alone and it will fill up again in time, while you are asleep--also while you are at work at other things and are quite unaware that this unconscious and profitable cerebration is going on. There was plenty of material now, and the book went on and finished itself without any trouble." (Bernard DeVoto, Mark Twain in Eruption, 1940)

I. Looking back for a bit

Applying Amelie Rorty's "mini-history of the passions" to The Scarlet Letter gives me a half-dozen "new" (I mean, old!) ways of thinking about what happens when we juxtapose the forest and the scaffold, Hester's claim that "what we did had a consecration of its own" (140) with Dimmesdale's lament that "we violated our reverence each for the other's soul" (181). What interested me (and you?) the most was Rorty's description of the consequences, for women/mothers, of the "terrible story Rousseau had to tell":

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1753)

Hepburn Family (Image from website
for "Katharine Houghton Hepburn Center,
Bryn Mawr College)

Consider, for instance (Steph!) , Sara Ruddick's Maternal Thinking
(contra "scientific thinking," which sets up experiments by attempting to control all variables):
A mother can never stop looking, but she must not look too much. Attentiveness to a creature who perseveres in its own being and at the same time is perpetually at risk is peculiarly demanding...mothers develop a mental habit or cognition style which I call 'scrutinizing'....But scrutiny must be tempered by a metaphysical attitude which...I call 'humility'....In a world beyond one's control, to be humble is to have a profound sense of the limits of one's actions and of the unpredictability of the consequences of one's work (71-2).

Mothers might be said to negotiate with nature on behalf of love. Nature can be thought of as a respected opponent with whom they are watchfully and sometimes antagonistically engaged...the work of protective love is likely to encourage in her a cognitive capacity for double focus....Negotiation with nature on behalf of love, harassed by daily demands, yet glimpsing larger questions, mothers acquire a fundamental attitude toward the vulnerable, a characteristic protectiveness that I call 'holding'....a way of seeing with an eye toward maintaining the minimal harmony, material resources, and skills necessary for sustaining a child in safety (77-79)

I would like to think more with you about/propose to you the possibility that we conceptualize Hester as an alternative to Roussau's non-citizen mother, as (even?!) a model citizen. Remember her plea to the governor to be permitted the continued care of her daughter? "God gave me this child! requital of all things else....She is my happiness!--she is my torture, none the less! Pearl keeps me here in life! Pearl punishes me too! See ye not, she is the scarlet letter, only capable of being loved, and so endowed with a million-fold the power of retribution for my sin." (Ch 8)
Her daughter is wilful, an independent creature:
The child could not be made amenable to rules. In giving her existence, a great law had been broken; and the result was a being, whose elements were...all in disorder; or with an order peculiar to themselves....It was as if she had been made afresh, out of new elements, and must perforce be permitted a law unto herself. (Ch. 6, Ch. 10)
And in raising her, Hester becomes likewise....? Hester was little accustomed, in her long seclusion from society, to measure her ideas of right and wrong by any standard external to herself....her life had turned, in a great measure, from passion and feeling, to thought....Hester Prynne...assumed a freedom of speculation. (Ch. 13)
What does The Scarlet Letter tell us, about one of the key conundrums Rorty's talk invited us to think about: the relation between independent thinking and social obligation?

(In the language of David Ross:)
Was Hester profit-maximizing?

II. What does Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have to contribute to this conversation?

Find a (new) partner and tell her: The novel opens w/ a literary gesture:
"You don't know abt. me, w/out you have read a book....made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth mainly...." (7)

Very quickly (in Chapter 2) it turns into a satire on the falseness of books (romances), insufficient guides in practical matters. Tom Sawyer instructs his gang in absurd procedures: "Because they are in the books, that's why... do you want to do things regular, or don't you? Don't you reckon that the people that made the books knows what's the correct thing to do? Do you reckon you can learn 'em anything?" (13)

Such conversations highlight the wisdom of Huck, a social outcast whose realistic, practical sense is brought into focus by his foil, Tom Sawyer, a romantic guided by BOOKS he doesn't quite understand.

Pap beats his son for a-swelling himself up, learning to read (21)
Huck, who didn't want to go much before, goes now to spite Pap (24)
however, when his father catches him and takes him up the river,
he finds it "lazy and jolly, with no books or study" (24).

I opened this course with Emerson's musing, "books are for scholars' idle times..."
A gift of my grad school friend Robert Sanderson, who added,
"...I will be idle no more," went mountain climbing and died.

If we really are to take this book seriously, we have to take seriously its critique of a reliance on book-learning as a guide to behavior.

Cf. my Uncle Millson: "That's the problem w/ books!"
(i.e.: they "tell the truth, mainly....")

My central claim for the next two weeks will be that what this book invites us into/challenges us to is not the discipline of hard study, but rather an engagement in play and humor, a reliance on the unconscious that evokes....

well, let's see what it evokes.

Let's look first @ the scene in Chapter 2 when Tom "must play something" on Jim (10).
Re-read/perform this, From Spike Lee's Huckleberry Finn
What just happened??

Cf. Shelley Fisher Fishkin, In Praise of "Spike Lee's Huckleberry Finn" by Ralph Wiley

Cf. The Grace of Revision, the Profit of "Unconscious Cerebration," or What Happened When Teaching the Canon Became Child's Play

HF is impatient w/ being in a rut:
"dismal regular and decent" (7);
"all I wanted was a change, I warn't particular" (8)
"next morning I said it was getting slow and dull,
and I wanted to get a stirring up, some way" (47)
"I went right along, not fixing up any particular plan, but just trusting to Providence to put the right words in my mouth when the time come....for I'd noticed that Providence always did put the right words in my mouth, if I left it alone" (173)

"words Providence puts in his mouth" are imagined roles/assumed identity/spontaneous storytelling/tall-tale-telling Sarah Mary Wms,
Goerg Elexander Peters
child w/ shipwrecked family, smallpoxed family
Gorge Jackson fell off steamboat
child w/ dead family (Duke, Dolphin)
easily fabricated stories of disaster, death
his perception of world filled w/ death;
also trying out identities, playacting, doesn't know who he is
(tries to help villains on steamboat): murderer self one day?

this kind of play child's play; also way Twain understood his creative process
(from Forrest Robinson. "An 'Unconscious and Profitable Cerebration': Mark Twain and Literary Intentionality." Nineteenth-Century Literature 50, 3 (December 1995): 357-380)

writing makeshift, fragmentary, prone to drastic contradictions
no fully worked out formal scheme, no clear enduring self-conscious design
many disjointed episodic travel narratives, unfinished works,
"characteristic surrender to mind's natural drift,"
focus on dramatic incidents free of structural constraints
"characters are not made, they just grow"--the way TS, HF came to exist
"I couldn't to save my life sit down and deliberately plan out a diagram... every book I ever wrote wrote itself."
"little slips, little inexactnesses, many desertions of a thought before the end of it is reached--real narrative, vastly better than artificial
"methodless method" of the human mind over narrative writing, always disappointing
admired improvisation; authenticity from lack of conscious design
no restraint, expediency, policy, diplomacy, tedious analyses:
"can't stand Hawthorne and those people:
see what they are at before they get to it and they bore me to death"

literary creation independent, unpredictable, unconscious
"mill whose machinery never stands idle:" unconscious cerebration

Mark Twain, like Huckleberry Finn, took pleasure in speaking spontaneously,
in noting the surprising things that arose
(jokes, for instance, could be very productive, the source of new thoughts....

For Thursday:
--as Lauren has already begun to do: Irrational? But of course!
I am sitting in Guild and we just finished our class with David Ross about 15 minutes ago and I keep thinkning about what Anne said about how the literature that we have read in this class is all about characters that behave irrationally. Isn't that true of all novels? Let me back up for a second. Economics studies trends. Economists are interested in group behavior and studying statistics and polls and finding out what the majority is up to at any particular point in time. They are concerned with the mainstream, with conventions and what some might call conformity. That's BORING. Who wants to read a novel about group trends for entertainment purposes? That's not Literature, (with a capital "L"), that's observational social science. That's graphs and charts and numbers. I want to hear stories about mavericks, individuals pioneers--the subversive freaks who behave unconventionally and do NOT conform. They're the one's that do interesting things. They're the ones worth writing about, and the ones that MOST people would prefer to read about. I want to read about the guy who wakes up in the morning and thinks he's a cockroach. I want to know more about the king that gouges out his eyes because he unwittingly kills his father and marries his own mother. I want to hear about the Puritan woman who has an affair with her minister, bears his child and is shunned from the community. Interest in the individual is not particular to the novels we've read in this class--that's entertainment.

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