Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Revolution's Path (Graded Blog 5, option 3)

“Then out I came. But I didn’t get any shout. There was a wondering and eloquent silence, for a moment, then a great wave of laughter began to sweep along that human sea, but a warning bugle blast cut its career short.”

This quote comes from chapter 39, in which Hank duels with Sir Sagramore. Throughout the novel, Hank represents the new idea (generally speaking) and Sagramore represents the old ways. It is in this arena that those two philosophies come head to head. I believe Twain is metaphorically representing what happens when a paradigm shifts- when the new idea comes into direct conflict with the old. A terse description of the process of revolution (ideologically, not governmental) is important in any age, 19th century or today.

In this scene, the crowd boos Hank. He looks silly and weak in their eyes. They cheer their knight, the familiar and normal. Twain writes “A chorus of encouraging shouts burst out for him, and one brave voice flung out a heartening word for me.” The reader should especially note Twain’s calling the voice ‘brave’. Twain suggests that it is brave and courageous to be the first to follow a new course of action, to cheer for the better idea over the old one.

Once the audience is settled and the combatants are announces, Hank and Sagramore start toward each other. On every charge from the knight, the yankee ducks out of the way at the last second, to the delight of the audience. This perhaps represents the ways in which an old paradigm will divert effort to squashing a new idea in an attempt at self-preservation. Rarely will the new ideas try to stand ground against such a change. It would be impossible to overthrow something as fortified in people’s minds simply by force. Instead, the new methods and ideas much show their superiority by first circumventing the strengths of the old.

Rather than coexist, it is the responsibility of the old idea to get rid of the new ones. The novelty would gladly stand side-by-side with the paradigm but this is usually unsatisfactory to the old methods. In this vein, Sagramore “changed his tactics and set himself the task of chasing [Hank] down.” After Hank defeats him and several more knights, he faces Sir Launcelot himself, the “very sum of their shining system”. Once that knight falls, Hank declares “knight-errantry is dead.”

Perhaps the best, and truest-to-life scene comes as Hank challenges the whole knight class, simultaneously. In the real-world fight over ideology, this would be the time to pull out the big guns. Twain has Hank do just that, in a literal sense. Only after fully incapacitating a few of the knights does Hank finally reach his goal. Likewise, old ideas do not relent until most of the believers are dead.

This applies to all walks of life, from music to fashion to religion to sexual mores. Take Rock ‘n Roll for example. Elvis Prestley’s hip-shaking was enough to enrage parents, the sentries of the old value systems. Gradually, enough people rallied behind the new style to make it common place. The new wave would have certainly taken its place beside the classic views of appropriate music and dance but it was the believers of the old that took issue! One can see the same pattern in women’s rights issues. It was not a quick process bringing women out of the shadow of men. Slowly, the new style stopped looking silly and weak, like Hank did initially. Women tried dodging the issues, trying to live side-by-side with men in their world but it didn’t work. Men (mostly) had to push the issue. It has taken years for the old views to die away, and taken quite a few “big guns” to do it.

Revolutions in Ideology will never cease to occur. Every time though, the people will have to follow Hank’s path to assert real change. But it will happen. Slowly, but surely. Twain summarizes well in one sentence how the entire chapter relates to today: “Unquestionably the popular thing in this world is novelty.”

1 comment:

Adam Johns said...

Analyzing Hank's importance in terms of a paradigm shift is a good approach. The term originates in Thomas Kuhn's great book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and is highly contentious: philosophers & historians of science (to say nothing of philosophers & historians of technology) differ greatly on whether paradigm shifts are real. Regardless, the idea is profoundly relevant here.

One thing you do here, though, is conflate Hank's beliefs with Twain's. There is, as we have pointed out, often an ironic gap between the two: because Hank finds the voice brave does not necessarily mean that Twain does...

Have you read Kuhn? Your discussion of Hank's struggle with S. is evocative of Kuhn for me (although it's been about 3 years since I've read it myself).

As much as I like your focus on ideological revolutions and crises, thinking of Twain as a proto-Kuhn may be a mistake. After all, Hank's revolution loses: it gets crushed and forgotten. In the process, Twain (who is always, at some level, a believer in both technology and democracy) questions the revolutionary power (or rather, the reality) of technology and democracy.

Do paradigms really shift, in other words?

Very smart people argue that Kuhn's book is the most important work of the last half century or century. Other very smart people argue that he's wrong, and that we don't really go through these sorts of intellectual convulsions...

One minor note - I simply don't understand what you're saying about the women's movement - and shifting over into a discussion of style, as opposed to real change, seems somewhat pointless.