Friday, July 30, 2010

A raft of hopes

The following piece is an excerpt from what I hope will be a work in progress. --JC

It is, for the two main characters, one of the more tedious Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck and Jim are saddled with the self-styled "Duke" and "Dauphin," a pair of rogues who fleece the denizens of Mississippi River towns any way they can, among them selling tickets for bogus Shakespeare performances and then skipping town before those denizens can execute their plans to exact revenge.  One night after a particularly good haul, Huck and Jim enjoy a rare moment of respite from the increasingly imperious demands of the sleeping hucksters, and converse quietly on their raft.

"Don't it 'sprise you, de way dem kings carries on, Huck?"
"No," I says, "it don't."
"Why don't it, Huck?"
"Well, it don't, because it's in the breed. I reckon they're all alike."
"But, Huck, dese kings o' ourn is reglar rapscallions; dat's jist what dey is; dey's reglar rapscallions."
"Well, that's what I'm a-saying; all kinds is mostly rapscallions, as fur as I can make out."
"Is dat so?"
"You read about them once -- you'll see."

Huck is speaking rhetorically here. Even if there was an obvious way to do so, Jim wouldn't read about them, because he can't: He's illiterate and he's a slave. Depending on his location, learning to read would be discouraged if not illegal (not that it would likely stop Huck, even if, as his current state of mind in harboring a fugitive suggests, he'd be afflicted with guilt about it.)

But Huck is literate. We're told early in the book that he attended school regularly over a period of months, to the point where the tough-loving widow who's raising him says he was "coming along slow but sure, and doing very satisfactory." She's not even embarrassed by him anymore, he reports. Indeed, Huck's education might well have continued a good deal longer had not his n'er-do-well pap returned. Irritated to learn that his son has been in school, pap demands that he read a book. Huck obliges with "something about George Washington and the wars." Appalled, his father knocks the volume away. "If I catch you about that school I'll tan you good," he says. "First you know you'll get religion, too. I never see such a son."

To at least some extent, however, the damage has already been done. Huck summarizes the state of his education this way: he "could spell, and read, and write just a little, and could say the multiplication table up to six times seven is thirty-five, and I don't reckon I could ever get any further than if I was to live forever. I don't take no stock in mathematics, anyway."

But he does take stock in history. There's an unmistakable overtone of pride as he proceeds to explain to Jim why kings of all kinds are mostly rapscallions: "My, you ought to seen old Henry the Eight when he was in bloom. He was a blossom. He used to marry a new wife every day, and chop off her head next morning." Huck not only conflates the factual story of Henry VIII with the fictional one of The Arabian Nights; he attributes the William the Conqueror's Domesday Book to his Tudor successor a half-millenia later. He also confuses him with George III in the following capsule summary of the American Revolution:

Well, Henry he takes a notion he wants to get up some trouble with this country. How does he go at it -- give notice -- give the country a show? No. All of a sudden he heaves all the tea in Boston Harbor overboard, and whacks out a declaration of independence, and dares them to come on. That was his style -- he never give anybody a chance.

Jim listens attentively to this lecture (which goes on a while; Henry VIII apparently had suspicions about his son, the Duke of Wellington). But the pupil doesn't understand why this particular king smells so much. ("We can't help the way a king smells; history don't tell no way," Huck replies.) Jim notes that the Duke is less troublesome than the Dauphin. But, he concludes, "I doan' hanker for no mo' un um, Huck. Dese is all I kin scan'." Huck agrees. "But we've got them on our hands, and we got to remember what they are, and make allowances. Sometimes I wish we could hear of a country that's out of kings." Huck then goes to sleep, leaving Jim on watch as the raft courses the river. He later observes that Jim does not wake him when it was Huck's turn to cover.

This anecdote is funny on so many levels -- and so moving in its conclusion -- that it would be ham-fisted to try and unpack the reasons why. For our purposes, what matters is the way a sense of history informs the way these two people decide the handle the situation in which they find themselves. They're going to make "allowances," even if neither if them feels that the Duke or the Dauphin are using the authority they've arrogated to themselves legitimately. For Jim, such a conclusion is largely the result of moral criteria and situational pragmatism. Such considerations are at work for Huck as well, but he also self-consciously applies the lessons of history, for his sake as well as Jim's, and both make an active decision to abide by that lesson, at least for the time being.

Rarely, however, has a history lesson been so evidently garbled. Of course the key word in the previous sentence is "evidently": in fact, such garbling takes place many multiple times every single day. That's because most people aren't Ph.Ds in history, or history majors, or have even taken a history course since finishing high school (if indeed they do). It's also because those who have enjoyed such privileges have nevertheless been subjected to bad teachers, inaccurate information, or changing generational sensibilities (if not all three). A sophisticated grasp of history is the rare exception, not the rule, and one thing that defines a sophisticated grasp of history is a consciousness of the way that both interpretively and in terms of the information available, the past keeps changing. Yesterday's common sense is tomorrow's myth. Lessons are fluid.

Not that this stops any of us from using history. We couldn't stop even if we tried, even if we're told, and accept, that the very concept of a "lesson" is epistemologically suspect. A sense of time is as deeply human as a sense of place -- or, for that matter, a sense of smell. It orients us. A person who believes -- out of some inevitable combination of lived experienced and received wisdom -- that you can't fight City Hall is likely to act differently than someone who think that history (U.S. history, anyway) is a story of progress.

This is not an argument for historical primitivism. As with many things, informed instincts, conscious thoughts
yield results that we experience as better, just such disciplined attention can help one blow a horn or swing a bat with greater grace and efficiency. I realize this is not a self-evident truth, and that indeed across time and space many people have argued that intellectualizing experience can actually get in the way and impair our experience of the world. Indeed, one of the painful joys of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is watching a child unlearn a 200 year-old lesson that it's wrong to steal someone else's (human) property.

Though it may appear so, I don't believe the satiric exchange I've cited here finally condemns the value of a formal education, historical or otherwise.However appallingly inept, Huckleberry Finn learned, with the help of books about "George Washington and the wars," that kings are rapscallions. Thomas Jefferson would surely be satisfied with -- in fact he explicitly argued in favor of propounding -- this historical judgment, not withstanding Huck's attribution of his Declaration of Independence to Henry VIII. But hey, nobody's perfect, least of all Jefferson.

To be sure, Huck's reading of history confirms both his beliefs and his experience. History almost always does. That isn't necessarily a bad thing; sometimes, as in this case, it's helpful to get reassurance. I'm willing to believe that you pay close attention to versions of history with which you strongly disagree. I'm also willing to bet that it doesn't happen all that often. But even when we place ourselves in the cozy confines of our predispositions, the limits of the human ability to apprehend reality means that there will always be loose ends, unanswered questions, and subversive propositions in the stories of the past that we tell ourselves. It's these things that give history its vitality, its kick. And there's always the possibility that it can keep us honest.

For a society born of revolution, there are consequences in condoning and even encouraging children in the belief that kings are rapscallions, consequences that can be readily accepted and furthered by those, like Jim, that hear them expressed implicitly and explicitly. Huck is wrong on the facts and right on the truth when he expresses the wish for "a country that's out of kings." There were still kings in Twain's time; there are still kings in ours. But where there's history, there's hope. It's just a question of where you look for it.