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American Imago 62.1 (2005) 35-58

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"An Agony of Pleasurable Suffering":

Masochism and Maternal Deprivation in Mark Twain

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"Among you boys you have a game: you stand a row of bricks on end a few inches apart; you push a brick, it knocks its neighbor over, the neighbor knocks over the next brick—and so on till all the row is prostrate. That is human life. A child's first act knocks over the initial brick, and the rest will follow inexorably."
—Mark Twain, The Mysterious Stranger


Mark Twain never wore black leather. There is nothing to attest that he ever asked to be whipped or beaten, and there is no record of his ever having attended an S&M club. His autobiography reveals no proclivity for sexual depravities or self-mutilation. By most definitions, Mark Twain was no masochist. Yet this essay will show the pervasiveness of masochistic scenes and themes in Twain's writing and seek to demonstrate that their origin lies in the deprivations he suffered at the hands of his mother, Jane Clemens, which led to unconscious fears of passivity, effeminization, and infantilization. Superimposed on this bedrock were Twain's ambivalent relationship with his father, John Clemens, and his guilt over the deaths of his siblings in childhood.

The term "masochism" did not exist until 1886, the year that Twain celebrated his fifty-first birthday, when Richard von Krafft-Ebing introduced the notion to the world in Psychopathia Sexualis, where he defined it as "the perfect counterpart of sadism," a "peculiar perversion of the sexual life in which the individual affected, in sexual feeling and thought, is controlled [End Page 35] by the idea of being completely and unconditionally subject to the will of a person of the opposite sex" (1886, 86). Intriguingly, when Twain came to Vienna during his 1898 European tour, he had a conversation with Krafft-Ebing in which the two luminaries discussed the psychology of lynching and mob violence (Fisher 1922, 59–61). On this basis, along with the overwhelming popularity of the text, Carl Dolmetsch has concluded that "it seems quite unlikely Twain could have escaped reading Psychopathia Sexualis" (1992, 264).

Freud, too, attended Twain's public reading in the Hapsburg capital. "I treated myself to listening to our old friend Mark Twain in person," he wrote to Wilhelm Fliess on February 9, 1898, "which was a sheer delight" (Masson 1985, 299). Indeed, according to Dolmetsch, "there is sufficient circumstantial evidence to indicate that Samuel Clemens and Dr. Freud probably met more than once in 1898 and that they may even have had a polite social acquaintance" (1992, 265). Dolmetsch further proposes that in Twain Freud found "a writer he found more useful for exemplifying his theories than any other in English save Shakespeare" (268).

Freud's admiration for Twain finds repeated expression in his writings. When asked by Hugo Heller to list "ten good books," Freud (1907) included Twain's Sketches (246). In "The Uncanny" (1919), he interrupts a discussion of a frightening dream: "Or one may wander about in a dark, strange room, looking for the door or the electric switch, and collide time after time with the same piece of furniture—though it is true that Mark Twain succeeded by wild exaggeration in turning this latter situation into something irresistibly comic" (237). And in a footnote to Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), Freud recalled his 1898 experience and cited Twain's story, "The First Melon I Ever Stole," to illustrate the "enhancing of morality as a consequence of ill-luck" (126).

In critical studies of Twain, it is customary to emphasize the shift from the satirical humor of The Innocents Abroad (1869) and Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) to the brooding cynicism of his later works. Even in those texts that belong to his "light" period, however, Twain manifests a fascination with human psychology, including the relation between love and pain and between pleasure and...


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