- The View from the Raft:Huck Finn’s Authentically Nietzschean Perspective
In the thematically central chapter 31 of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck, after vainly trying to pray for guidance with respect to his actions relating to Miss Watson and her slave Jim, reaches the disappointing conclusion that “you can’t pray a lie—I found that out.” This is, of course, a prelude to the climactic turn in Twain’s novel: Huck’s decision to “go to hell” rather than send Jim back into slavery. But in an equally significant sense, Huck’s discovery that he “can’t pray a lie” is pivotal in its own right—as Huck’s profoundly clarified moment of what we might call existentially authentic self-consciousness. He wants to assure God that he will “do the right thing” by writing Miss Watson to tell her where she can find Jim, “but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it.” This plainly echoes Claudius’ dilemma when he tries to pray in Hamlet but finds that, since he is unwilling to give up the fruits of his sin, and is therefore not truly repentant, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: / Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” But we can find a more proximate, and in that sense more pertinent, analogue in the works—especially The Genealogy of Morals, The Gay Science, and Thus Spoke Zarathustra—of Twain’s controversial contemporary Friedrich Nietzsche.
Nietzsche, like Twain, focuses on such matters as “the fictitious and fanciful motives to which men [ascribe] their conduct.”1 He proposes that “the religious person is an exception in every religion,” and concludes that ordinary prayer forms have “been invented for those people who really never have thoughts of their own and who do not know any elevation of the soul or at least do not notice it when it occurs”2—discernments that tie in well with Huck’s experiences both before and after his soul-searching moment [End Page 76] in chapter 31. This scene is, in fact, the novel’s most poignant point of intersection of a pair of motifs in play throughout—those of prayer and lying. From Miss Watson’s bringing the slaves in to pray and taking Huck into the closet to pray, to Huck’s own foolish prayers for fishing line and hooks, to the prayers of the searchers on the ferry-boat that they will find Huck’s body, to Emmeline Grangerford’s prayers, to the “pretty ornery preaching” directed toward the hypocritical Grangerfords and Shepherd-sons, to the King’s scandalous behavior at the camp meeting, to Colonel Sherburn’s contemptuous reference to prayer, prayer and religion in the novel have been much more about appearance, manipulation, and greed than genuine spirituality. Only the Widow Douglas and Mary Jane Wilks have seemed to have any inkling of an authentic relation to prayer and religion. Meanwhile, Huck has often had little or no compunction about his own lies. Between lying and telling the truth, he has been more than occasionally willing to go with “whichever come handiest at the time.”
As Gabriel Noah Brahm and Forrest G. Robinson point out, it is unlikely that Twain had read Nietzsche at all when he wrote Huck Finn. But he was surely aware of the intellectual turn, to some degree reflected in the literary realism with which he was associated, away from the conventional-but-jaded notions of morality and value that drove such characters as Miss Watson and toward a focus on the more deeply valid meaningfulness of individual experience and the importance of authentic (i.e., deeply self-searching) self-consciousness as a guide to action. But while Brahm and Robinson rightly identify the novel’s denunciations of deceit and self-deception as Nietzschean, they conclude that, most vitally, “Mark Twain and Huck are closely akin to Nietzsche in their approval of instinct, of all that is easy, natural, and free”3—a formulation that (by mobilizing a few extractions from much broader countervailing contexts) tends to oversimplify both Nietzsche and Twain. And closer examination of Nietzsche’s trajectory in...