Academic journal article Arthuriana

Revolutions and Final Solutions: On Enlightenment and Its Dialectic in Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

Academic journal article Arthuriana

Revolutions and Final Solutions: On Enlightenment and Its Dialectic in Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

Article excerpt

In Twain's novel, force and its legitimate uses and the engagement of the Arthurian past with the present-also the central concerns of other important Arthurian narratives-are elaborated in a singular way, consistent with the 'dialectic of enlightenment' as understood by Theodor Adorno and Max Horckheimer. (WH)

Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, published in 1889 and provided with illustrations of important characters and scenes by the artist Dan Beard, lends itself to an analysis focusing on force and its legitimate uses, and the engagement of the past Arthurian time with the present, which have also been the principal characteristics of other prominent Arthurian narratives.1 This essay differs from others that have also observed Twain's uneasy relationship both to the Middle Ages and modernity,2 in that it remains largely focused on the malleable, formative possibilities of the traditional Arthurian story, which provides room for original literary experimentations such as that of Twain's projection of a twentieth-century Connecticut Yankee into the imaginary world of the Round Table. The consideration of Twain's text as Arthurian narrative is justified not least by the Arthurian frame the author gives to his narrative, which is formed by explicit references to and citations of Malory.3 The narrator Mark Twain, in his introductory 'Word of Explanation,' tells us that he is sitting during a stormy evening on a visit to Warwick castle dipping into 'old Sir Thomas Malory's enchanting book,'4 and the ensuing passage about Sir Lancelot cited from Malory occurs immediately before the arrival in Twain's room of the Yankee, who then begins to tell his story. At the other end of the narrative, in the book's penultimate chapter 'War!,' the action begins with Clarence relating news to the Yankee about the adultery of Lancelot and Guenevere and the ensuing conflicts culminating in Arthur's battles with Mordred, which has all been published as an article in the Yankee's newspaper and which he praises as 'a good piece of war correspondence.'5

Twain's narrative is an Arthurian one, though in ways that differ significantly from other versions of the traditional story as handed down by authors such as Malory and that consequently condition the ways in which uses of force and the engagement of a present time with the Arthurian past are rendered. Not only is its hero Hank Morgan, the 'Connecticut Yankee,' projected from the present into the Arthurian past, thus bringing about the possibility of its unique confrontation of medieval and modern cultures, but this hero is also cast as a staunch advocate of Enlightenment, and thus as a critic of all dogmas, particularly the political and economic domination of society by nobility and Church that repressed or restrained the individual's use of one's own reason and self-determination based on that use of reason.6 The indebtedness of the Yankee's thinking to basic ideas of Enlightenment is articulated early on in Twain's narrative, but as the story progresses we are presented a much more differentiated and troublesome view of the Yankee as Aufklärer, particularly in his thoughts about the French Revolution and the bloodshed of the Terror. Some European intellectuals, artists, and poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were put off by the Revolution, and repulsed by the blood bath of the Terror into which it descended, and began to doubt-or saw their existing doubts confirmed-about whether Enlightenment in the form of the criticism of traditional authorities could really lead to the betterment of human affairs-or, seen from an Arthurian perspective, to restraints in the uses of illegitimate force.7 The turn to the Middle Ages for narrative materials and ideas by Romantic and Victorian poets during the nineteenth century can be seen, among other things, as a questioning or rejection of the idea that traditional authorities are to be criticized and, hence, as a questioning of basic tenets of Enlightenment and their political outcomes, a point to which I return in my conclusion. …

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