In Alan H. Goldman (ed.), Mark Twain and Philosophy. Lanham, MD 20706, USA: pp. 125-136 (2017)

Chris A. Kramer
Santa Barbara City College
According to Manuel Davenport, “The best humorists--Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Bob Hope, and Mort Sahl--share [a] mixture of detachment and desire, eagerness to believe, and irreverence concerning the possibility of certainty. And when they become serious about their convictions--as Twain did about colonialism…they cease to be humorous” (p. 171). I agree with the first part, but not the second. Humor does require disengagement, but not completely such that one has no emotional interest in the subject of the humor. Humor does require some degree of commitment to value, but, as Davenport rightly notes, it “despairs of absolutes.” Following Bertrand Russell, “humorous” and “serious” are not antonyms. Davenport does not provide examples of Twain’s attempts at satire that fail to be humorous due to being serious. I will examine some of the very serious issues Twain addresses through irony and humor, and make the case that his commentary and argument, though serious, is still funny while not falling into frivolity. There is a philosophical thread running through his scathing humor, and it largely centers around his raising awareness about, and then deflating, what I would call a “spirit of seriousness”, borrowing from Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir. For De Beauvoir, expanding on Sartre’s conception, a spirit of seriousness manifests from serious people who attempt to find comfort in the firm, unchanging foundations and values that are seen to be pre-determined, and thus unquestionable. In Twain’s case, it is arrogance and a presumed sense of certitude. This destructive combination sustains many of the institutions (some of them quite “peculiar”) that he attacks: racism, slavery, colonialism, excesses of capitalism, and the often dogmatic and oppressive nature of organized religion: “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know; it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.” Complacency, self-satisfaction, disinclination to self-monitoring, all lead to closed mode, or rather, to sustaining a serious mode which can spillover into a “spirit of seriousness” if not checked. The quickest path to a feeling of being certain is cultivated ignorance, where doubt and confusion, ambiguity and fluidity are glossed over. This feeling or attitude, the “spirit of seriousness”, is what Twain confronts with serious humor, motivating his readers to consider where their ideals and reality contradict
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