- Platonic Parody:Mark Twain and the Quest for the Idea(l) in “My Platonic Sweetheart”
In a remarkable but little known essay, “My Platonic Sweetheart” (1898), Mark Twain describes how came to him recurrent visions of an eternally young sweetheart, in dreams repeated throughout life.1 Although her age always remains the same, her name and appearance change in each of the dreams: once called Alice, she is also “Helen” and “Agnes.” Often, these dreams start out by situating Twain’s dream persona and his sweetheart in a locus amoenus. This “pleasant place,” however, soon disappears as the dream irrevocably ends in loss: loss of the sweetheart, and loss of the narrator in a world without meaning, “empty and of no worth” (121). What is more, on closer inspection the locus amoenus appears to contain within its description the seeds of an imminent degradation. The essay is a fascinating piece not so much because the narrator’s interest in dreams echoes Freud’s technique of interpretation as formulated a year later in The Interpretation of Dreams, but because the dream space is invested with an aesthetic and philosophical dimension latent in many of Twain’s earlier writings.
In “My Platonic Sweetheart,” Twain does refer to dream interpretation, mentioning the “habit of writing down [his] dreams of all sorts … and trying to find out what the source of dreams is” (121). As Susan Gillman shows in her analysis of the piece, the longer, unpublished version originally contained extensive conceptualization of selfhood and its various levels of consciousness.2 Yet, unlike Freud, Twain does not analyze the imagery of his dreams, and the symbols remain dense, obscure, and frantic. The text tells us nothing more than that a man-of-war-bird undergoes several arbitrary metamorphoses—turning successively into a kitten, a tarantula, and a star-fish (122–23). As readers, we are granted occasional glimpses [End Page 58] of potential meaning, which in a manner characteristic of Twain’s refusal of hermeneutics is never fully exploited.
Instead of engaging with dream analysis, Twain’s text enters an ancient religious and philosophical battleground disputing whether a transcending truth or uniting principle can be said to exist beyond the chaos of our daily lives. This is the question of metaphysics, “theoretical philosophy as the ultimate science of being and knowing.”3 The author of “My Platonic Sweetheart” places his essay within a long-standing para-philosophical tradition indebted to classical Cynicism, such as that described by Foucault in The Courage of Truth.4 Although this Cynic tradition runs alongside Platonic idealism, it has always questioned its premises and refused the ontologies it attempts to establish. In American philosophy, William James’ pragmatism challenged idealist and metaphysical thinking in its own way, rejecting “abstraction … and pretended absolutes and origins”5 in favor of a malleable truth established through events, action, and practice: pragma, in Greek.
At the turn of the century, para-philosophical thinkers proclaimed the death of metaphysics with increasing insistence. Twain’s dream narrative expresses a heightened, concentrated anxiety which brings together various doubts that had been covert in his earlier writings. It is therefore not surprising that, as Gabriel Noah Brahm and Forrest G. Robinson have shown, strong parallels exist with Nietzsche’s philosophy: the German philosopher famously proclaimed the death of God.6
Yet, unlike Nietzsche, the author of “My Platonic Sweetheart” continues to be the satirist he has been ever since he started his writing career in the West of the 1860s. For that reason, it is undeniable that with Twain philosophy and satire remain closely interconnected, as Jennifer Gurley convincingly argues in her article devoted to What Is Man?, a philosophical dialogue in which Twain has an authoritarian Old Man teach a Young Man deterministic truths about human existence.7 Gurley points out that Twain had a thorough knowledge of Plato’s dialogues, having read them to his wife Livy by 1874 (250).
Interestingly, most critics have ignored the Platonic subtext in “My Platonic Sweetheart,” and only taken the adjective “platonic” to mean a chaste, non-sexual kind of love.8 The lower-case adjective discounts the reference to one of Antiquity’s most central philosophers and...