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  • The Pain Economy: Mark Twain’s Masochistic Understanding of Pain
  • M. Christine Benner Dixon

Mark Twain peddles his stories of pain with only a perfunctory apology to the sensitive reader. About to launch into a description of one man’s exceptional tolerance for physical pain, Twain writes, “Do not read the following instances if horrors are not pleasant to you.” It is a fair warning. The subsequent stories are quite grisly: living bodies plunged into fire, limbs amputated, and other such legitimate “horrors.” So what makes Twain think reading about these things would be pleasant for anyone? Perhaps his confidence springs from the fact that he finds pleasure in stories like these. “[The third story] is my favorite,” Twain confesses. “Whenever I read it I seem to enjoy all that the patient enjoyed—whatever it was.”1 In the vignette that follows, the “patient” amputates his own leg in a fire, hobbles ninety-six miles on the stump to see a doctor, and afterward discards the false leg he acquires because he finds it inconvenient. “Whatever it was,” indeed!

Twain doesn’t need to define what exactly that man enjoyed about his pain. The author could see that this character’s pain was valuable, not only to the man himself but to Twain’s readers as well. “We all like to see people in trouble if it doesn’t cost us anything,” Twain writes.2 But maybe it does cost us something. The cost and pleasure of pain form the subject of this essay. The exchange of pain and pleasure amounts to what I will call the “pain economy,” and it carries with it a strict reckoning. The energy surrounding the pain economy and its insistent return to balance underwrites Twain’s creative efforts while also providing a rudimentary moral measure. Only those who suffer have the right to trade pain for pain, to enjoy the suffering of others. Without a down payment of pain, ease and pleasure [End Page 71] translate into debt. The author stands ready with his tally sheet to track the debtors and creditors, and, when necessary, to set the accounts straight.

Twain documents, manages, even practices the pain-pleasure exchange in his writing. By his own account, he discovered the basic functions of the pain economy at the tender age of nine days old, when he

noticed that if a pin was sticking in me and I advertised it in the usual fashion, I was lovingly petted and coddled and pitied in a most agreeable way and got a ration between meals.

It was human nature to want to get these riches, and I fell. I lied about the pin—advertising one when there wasn’t any.3

Eventually Mark Twain learned to work this system professionally, sometimes selling a counterfeit pain, sometimes offering authentic tales of his own suffering. He discovered that people would pay actual money for his accounts of pain, embarrassment, or loss.

Without this remuneration, the author would have no reason to dwell in such unflattering detail, for instance, on his foolhardy purchase of a “Genuine Mexican Plug” from an oily horse salesman. The author/narrator’s suffering in this story is multifaceted and abundant. Within the text, the narrator suffers everything from a mild jealousy for the straight-backed horsemen of the American West, to the loss of his dignity (and twenty-seven dollars) in falling for the salesman’s pitch of the “Genuine Mexican Plug,” to actual physical injury during his first bone-rattling attempt to mount the horse. “Imagination cannot conceive how disjointed I was—how internally, externally and universally I was unsettled, mixed up and ruptured,” writes Twain. A “sympathetic crowd” gathers around the young man, but their words of consolation fall short of true comfort: “Stranger, you’ve been taken in. Everybody in this camp knows that horse. . . . Why, you turnip, if you had laid low and kept dark, there’s chances to buy an American horse for mighty little more than you paid for that bloody old foreign relic.”4 The narrator finds himself stuck with the unruly beast, unable even to give it away, except to a stranger.

The embarrassment of this episode touches...


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pp. 71-87
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