Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Hunger, by Knut Hamsun and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

I did not exactly intend to read these novels in dialogue with one another, but they do function surprisingly well as such. (Also, this allows me to get two books out of the way and nearly up-to-date in terms of posting on what I've been reading. The reason for my hiatus is simply that I'm finding it very difficult to articulate my thoughts about Ian McEwan's Atonement, which I read before these two. Hopefully, I will be able to get that post finished soon.)

The terms of this comparison, I'm afraid, will suffer from a few rather flat factors—Hamsun is a relatively obscure novelist; Twain's name is iconic. Hamsun's novel is extraordinarily difficult to like, even if it has other distinctions; Twain's is chockablock with rowdy and ready pleasure. And more consequentially, there are, one might well say, no two narrators whose temperaments diverge more greatly than Hunger's nameless(?) raver and Huck Finn.

Yet there was something that spoke through Huck (I read the Twain second) that repeated the resonances of Hamsun's tremulous bellow. I knew of only one critic who has written on Hamsun at any length, James Wood, so I turned to him for guidance. Principally, he says two things about Hamsun's narrator (who gives, at one point, with apparent deceit the name Andreas to a police officer—that's how I'll call him). The first is that Andreas's peculiar habits, which consist mostly of proclaiming an imaginary bestiary of various sins and moral shrinkages to unfortunate bystanders—policemen, shopboys, strolling women, blind beggars—these habits mark Andreas as one who desires most deeply to be known. Andreas thrusts himself at all and sundry falsely—that is, imaginatively—in order that his lies will be discovered, and that he in his actuality will be known.

This self-presentation has both a practical (which Wood doesn't mention) and a spiritual purpose. The practical purpose is quite clear from the content of a number of Andreas's lies—Andreas is, in reality, starving, often homeless, and perpetually desperate, but he lies any number of times by telling persons often disadvantaged to judge (blind, also destitute, or gullible) that he is actually well-off, or at least not in any need of money. Andreas, I believe, terribly desires that they will contradict him and force him into accepting charity. This does happen a couple of times, with dramatically salubrious effects for both body and soul.

The effect is so dramatic because it links up to the spiritual purpose of Andreas's strange and insistent prevarications. (Here I'll just quote Wood's argument)
The young man, one feels, would like the old man [the victim of one of Andreas's accostingly deceitful stories] to rebuke him for lying, to expose him for what he is. Then, guiltily, he attacks the old man for what he [the old man] should be feeling—he should be disbelieving. In other words, the narrator wants to be punished. But remember that the narrator lied for no good reason; he just felt like it. In other words, he sins so that he can be punished, and is angry when he isn't punished. He sins for punishment, and instead of punishing himself, he punishes the old man for not punishing him.
Andreas is begging for the redemption that comes from being recognized by another as a sinful creature. For, to combine Luther and Lacan for a brief, frightening moment, we can only enter into subjectivity (self-knowledge, limited) by being held in the eyes of another as a sinner. Ideally, this other seeing you in your sin would be God, who could instantly redeem you, but for Hamsun, who is trying to resist belief in God, the redemption is displaced downward onto other human beings. Physical redemption (food, or the means to pay for it) is given by being recognized as a starving, destitute wretch. Spiritual redemption (self-knowledge, or the means to glimpse it) is given by being recognized as a base, mendacious, twisted sinner. The terms are the same, the desire the same.

How does this fit into Huck Finn? one should well be asking. Well, here goes. First and most obviously, Huck, like Andreas, lies constantly. Motivated for the most part by different reasons, Huck still seems to share with Andreas a desire to be found out. Although the traditional reading of Huck Finn is that he honestly wants to escape the "sivilizing" influences of all that lies on the banks of the Mississippi, there is also, I sincerely believe, a touch of a kid who wants someone to scoop him up lovingly and take him home. Huck wishes for redemption just as surely as Andreas, and his lies are, unlike the Duke and Dauphin's, not an attempt to cover up, but a plea for exposure, the necessary precursor to acceptance.

But the real comparison between the two books and their narrator-heroes lies deeper still. One of the most poignant and most cruelly comical passages in all of Huck Finn, I believe, is where Huck is wrestling the question of whether he can bear to wreck his soul by steering the little raft onto the Ohio River, drifting Jim into freedom. Twain, writing nearly twenty years after the close of the Civil War, is mocking the moral sense which would say that helping a slave escape is sinful—dreadfully so, in fact. Huck, like Andreas, wracks himself (though not as hard or as consistently) for his sins, and he also looks for punishment—often in the form of superstitious retribution (the rattlesnake skin, etc.). Contrasted with Tom Sawyer, who seems blissfully indifferent to the morality of his actions (though Tom follows a code—the comic one of misinterpreted cavalier honor—even more ascetically), Huck is practically pietistic in his interior debates and insistence upon the likelihood of damnation as a result of his wicked ways.

Huck, of course, decides that "it warn't no use for me to try to learn to do right [i.e. turn Jim in]; a body that don't get started right when he's little ain't got no show—when the pinch comes there ain't nothing to back him up and keep him to his work and so he gets beat." In the pinch, when slave hunters approach the raft, Huck finds he "warn't man enough—hadn't the spunk of a rabbit" and justifies his 'cowardice' by saying "what's the use you learning to do right when it's troublesome to do right and ain't no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? I was stuck. I couldn't answer that. So I reckoned I wouldn't bother no more about it, but after this always do whichever come handiest at the time." We cheer at Huck's inner moral sense overcoming his received ethical code, and we smile at Twain's mordant moral inversion. Not quite as poetic as Milton's "Evil, be thou my good," but immensely pleasant.

However, a moment's reflection leads us well past the point where Twain simply revalues "good" and "evil" in the context of helping runaway slaves; Twain is really, I believe, saying a great deal more. Here is another quote from Wood's essay on Hamsun, which I hope will clarify what I mean.
the young man is continually berating himself for sinning, continually attempting to bring himself into line. Hamsun shows us not only that a structure of sin and punishment [in Hamsun's case, of a particularly Lutheran bent] impels and determines his actions, not only that the narrator in turn tries to use this structure of sin and punishment to seize a control which he can never possess, but also that such a structure is a wholly inadequate means of explaining a human being's motives, or our judgment of those motives.
Wood's title of the Hamsun essay is "Knut Hamsun's Christian Perversions," but I would argue that in this passage, Wood is arguing away from a simple perversion of Christianity, and asserting instead that Hamsun has shown Protestantism's ethical accounting armature to be basically inhuman in the sense that it in no way measures up to the depth of even one human consciousness. This is not a new argument for either Hamsun or Wood to make, but it is something quite different from a simple inversion or even a clever perversion. I would argue that it is not even a Nietzschean revaluation of all values hitherto as I believe it is commonly understood—a migration of a loose constellation of values onto another plane—but rather the flooding of all values into a single affirmation—of the human, of the individual, of the great and solitary value of the novel—realism. For realism (at in Wood's formulation) is, I believe, a form of Huck's "do[ing] whichever come handiest at the time"—a formulation no one in their right mind reads as grubby pragmatism or pale relativism, but rather as a statement of consummate morality, the morality of belief in the self and in the human. Realism, Wood propounds, is constituted by the fact that "fiction is proved by what it discloses, and is thus always a running test case of itself." This is Huck's "simple" morality, an always unfinished, constantly tested and self-testing morality, one that, as Wood says of fiction "moves in the shadows of doubt, knows itself to be a true lie, knows that at any moment it might fail to make its case." Morality is always, only, ever a true lie, and it, like fiction, may at any moment fail to make its case—to ourselves, or to others. This admission of the possibility of failure and the lying nature of morality's truth are precisely what religion has always sought to forestall, its certainties calcifying the joints of Huck's inarticulate but stunningly open profession of doubt.

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