Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Sifting through the Creases in Twain’s “About Smells”

Scratched onto the corner of my desk on the first day of junior high were the words “Sucking Mr. Patterson”, underneath which was a drawing of a part of anatomy that I would not recognize for several more years (in full disclosure, I also didn’t know what “sucking” entailed, only that it was most likely derogative). When I got home, I did not tell my parents about this message sent to me by some unknown student so confident in his assertion – so convinced that this image should be preserved for the next generation – that he chiseled it into the desk over what must have been several class days. I have, indeed, never told anyone about this message, and yet it is the first memory that surfaces whenever I sit at a desk I have never sat in before, or sharpen a new pencil. The words on the desk sounded coarse whenever I tried to rehearse saying it out loud then, and so I stuck with other memories, other images. Yet the words are as tangible as if I were running my finger over them now, as I did so often then.

Such was the memory that surfaced upon reading “About Smells”, a brief essay by Mark Twain that appeared in a May 1870 version of The Galaxy. In this essay Twain responds to a recent sermon given by Reverend Thomas De Witt Talmage, a prominent Presbyterian minister during the mid- to late-19th century. In his sermon, Talmage declares that the “working man”, should he wish to avoid making “one-half of Christendom sick at their stomach”, should bathe himself properly before attending service. He concludes by stating that he himself will “have nothing to do with this work of evangelization” if this issue continues to persist. Twain – in typical ironic fashion – responds to Talmage by pointing out the necessarily vulgar work of the original followers of Jesus (“St. Matthew without stocking or sandals; St. Jerome bare headed, and with a coarse brown blanket robe dragging the ground”). Addressing the belief that Jesus himself was a carpenter – a Mike Rowe-level dirty job that doubtless generated its fair share of smelly individuals – Twain insinuates that Talmage would not make for a very effective disciple, regardless of his fresh pine smell.

With regards to analysis, it is not, I believe, relevant to spend time expounding upon the thread of sarcasm that runs rampant within this particular Twain essay, as said sarcasm is not only a generally agreed upon marker of the author’s style, but also a component that has been run into the ground by academic analyses. It would thus be more beneficial for this brief platform that I find myself standing upon today to attempt to illuminate the connections that may be made between Twain’s 19th century censure and the 21st century essayist – a title that many of us are still attempting to claim for our own.

In describing the differences between the church’s early predecessors and their eventual mutant offspring Talmage, Twain deduces that the real disparity is that “Dr. T. has had advantages which Paul and Peter and the others could not and did not have. There was a lack of polish about them, and a looseness of etiquette, and a want of exclusiveness, which one cannot help noticing” (emphasis mine). Here, Twain is recognizably contrasting the very words that Talmage may have used to describe himself – polish, etiquette, exclusiveness – with the negation of their meaning – lack, looseness, want. In so doing, Twain is attempting to collapse the ethereal quality of Talmage’s church environment by pointing out that the church itself once belonged to those same “working men” that he now rejects.

What, then, can we – as writers, as readers, as living, breathing templates of today’s “essay”, which sways Jenga-like with each new contribution – take from Twain’s “About Smells”? Namely, that we must remember that the essay must not only acknowledge the “villainous odour” of everyday life, but also invite said odour onto the page itself. Too often young writers – I’m including myself in this category – tend to edit their pieces to within an inch of their lives, sometimes cutting out the more unpleasant steps of their writing process in order to reserve room for other, more pleasing components. This is periodically done, unfortunately, for the sake of misguided artistry (“An artist finds beauty in everything.” “An artist thrives on heartbreak because it spurs tragically beautiful poetry.”). On and on, until nothing survives but the mindless repetition of dried tears and brave faces.

Too often I find myself wanting to skip over the ugly details hidden in the creases of my writing, not because they are too difficult to give flesh to, but because they are simply unappealing to my sensory lens. By avoiding these details, however, I neglect to acknowledge the benefits of turning the toaster over to see the crumbs – it is these crumbs that, like Twain’s church predecessors, construct the very foundation of what we as essayists should be attempting to do through our work, which is to dig deeper into the folds of life, acknowledging that no space – not even holy ones – are immune to the scent of work, of real heartbreak, of the simple confusion of not knowing how to manage grief. Those readers who are unable or unwilling to locate the beauty in their own troubles will find no solace in the writer’s neglect of these troubles; they will look elsewhere for another who is willing to acknowledge the exposed pain that comes before the acceptance, only because they themselves are dwelling in that pain, that messiness.

A modern adaptation of the writer’s grasp on the grotesque can be seen in the following excerpt from Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay”, taken from a point in the narrative when the speaker remembers a doomed last-ditch attempt at reconciliation with her then-boyfriend, Law:

Everything I know about love and its necessities   
I learned in that one moment   
when I found myself

thrusting my little burning red backside like a baboon   
at a man who no longer cherished me.   
There was no area of my mind

not appalled by this action, no part of my body   
that could have done otherwise.

I am drawn back to this passage because it so vividly offers space to the physical monstrousness of one person’s heartbreak, without attempting to package it in a way that the rich, poetic language eclipses the vulgarity of the scene. Carson’s nakedness – both metaphorical and literal – invites the “villainous odour” of the situation to enter the room. In so doing, Carson (like St. Matthew, like St. Jerome) addresses the fact that life is often messy, and vulgar, and once too often not present anywhere on the page. The essay, unlike fiction, has not only the capacity but the obligation to expose what can only be exposed on our watch, which is the understanding that to sacrifice the grotesque (the strange smell wafting from across the pews, for example) at the alter of aesthetics is to avoid altogether what can be learned by dwelling upon the crude words on a desk, left by a stranger whom we may never meet.  

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