Figuring Freedom as Religious Experience: Mark Twain, William James, and No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger
- Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
- University of Arizona
- Volume 52, Number 1, Spring 1996
- pp. 95-123
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JASON G. HORN Figuring Freedom as Religious Experience: Mark Twain, William James, and No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger ii~T believe the pragmatic way of taking religion to be the JLdeeper way. It gives it body as well as soul, it makes it claim, as everything real must claim, some characteristic realm offact as its vety own." So concludes William James in the final pages of The Varieties of Religious Experience, a study devoted to exposing and examining the spiritual claims upon reality. "What the more characteristically divine facts ate, apart from the actual inflow of energy in the faith-state and the prayer state, I know not" James confesses, but that "they exist" is the beliefhe risks nurturing in his own life: The whole drift of my education goes to persuade me that the world of our present consciousness is only one out of many wotlds of consciousness that exist, and that those other worlds must contain experiences which have meaning for our life also; and that although in the main their experiences and those of this world keep discrete, yet the two become continuous at certain points, and higher energies filter in. (463) These points at which James believes the divine and mundane converge and interact, or at which we encounter inexplicable facts, bring us to the principal concern of this essay: Mark Twain's fictional account of "other worlds" of consciousness. Arizona Quarterly Volume 52, Number 1, Spring 1996 Copyright © 1996 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004-1 6 10 o6Jason G . Horn Exploring those enigmatic relations that flourish within the darker interior of the self provides an illuminating focus for reading No. 44, TL· Mysterious Stranger, Mark Twain's last and most radical work.1 However, that radicality has often been denied due attention by a critical tendency to read it as an artistic failure or solely in terms of the gtief and looming despair suffered by its author in his last years. Yet Twain's imaginative power reached its peak in this tale of an almost unwittingly self-exploting mind, one that by leading us into and through the interior life of its protagonist fictionally opens those otheT worlds of experience acknowledged by James in his Varieties. No 44, in fact, brings to a kind offinal fruition Twain's complex ideas touching on the selfas he brings to a crescendo his life-long struggle with the problem of human freedom in the face ofapparent necessity. In reconciling his ambivalences about the nature offree and conditioned being, Twain turns to an extremely unorthodox religious conception ofhuman nature, one positing a divided selfas the necessary condition for a Godlike, creative freedom. Reading Twain's No. 44 against James' Varieties helps us understand this radical move. While the humorist from Hannibal may seem like an unlikely companion for the professor from Harvard, the fact is that after meeting in Florence in 1892, Mark Twain and William James entered into and nurtured a friendship weaving their often complementary strands of thought. They wrote to each other, wrote to others about each other in letters, and each wrote about the other in workbooks, notebooks, and copy texts. Aside from both being members ofthe Society for Psychical Research, which offered years of intellectual acquaintance, Twain and James were united politically as Mugwumps (disenchanted Republicans who placed independent thought over party allegiance), and as members ofthe Anti-Imperialist League, they united their voices against the country's imperialistic maneuvers. Twain often turned his mind in hard-to-define directions, especially in his fictive explorations of consciousness. And it is here that James provides us with the necessary plumbline for sounding the voice ofMark Twain. Twain's markings, underlinings, and comments in the margins of his copy of the Varieties reveal that he took a special interest in James' theory of a divided self. James' theory, however, expands upon his previous notions of a hidden or subliminal self, a level of thought outside ordinary margins of experience, and Twain's No. 44 can be read Mark Twain and William James97 as a fictional model incorporating the manifestations of this Jamesian subliminal self and its capabilities. Moreover, in the story Twain accounts fictionally...