In Lyotard’s ‘Can Thought go on without a Body?’ he discusses human thought and makes many references to how it is a technology. Several passages in this essay relates to Hank’s thoughts of the peasants in Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. The first passage that highlighted this comparison was when Lyotard stated, “Dehumanized still implies human – a dead human, but conceivable: because dead in human terms, still capable of being sublated in thought.” (Lyotard 10). This same idea is shown when Hank takes a walk with the charcoal burner. Hank’s then said, “A man is a man, at bottom. Whole ages of abuse and oppression cannot crush the manhood clear out of him.” (Twain 279). This revelation came after he was disappointed in how the peasants lynched the family thought to have murdered their oppressive lord. So even though these people were oppressed and would do anything for their oppressor, deep down they still had hatred for being oppressed.
Later on in Lyotard’s essay another passage seemed to relate well the above thought from Twain’s work but opened up a new interpretation of it. When discussing the human thought process as a technology he states, “The opposite limit of this symbolic recursiveness resides in the necessity by which it is bound (whatever its meta-level of operation) at the same time to maintain regulations that guarantee its survival in any environment whatsoever.” (Lyotard 13). This passage brings much more depth to Hank’s thought. One important part of that quote is to note “whatever its meta-level of operation”. Being a materials science major, this brings to mind the phenomena that allows steels to possess it’s characteristic strength, a meta-stable phase. This occurs because in the correct environment the material will reside in a phase that is not of the lowest energy but stable none the less. The peasants can be thought of in a “meta-level of operation” by the fact that they are being oppressed and are miserable. Even though Hank believes that a freedman should be allowed to display the manhood he speaks of that is buried in the charcoal burner, in his situation being faithful to his lord and upholding the laws of the country are allowing him to survive in this meta-state. While they are walking in the woods Hank says, “Well, then, let me say my say. I have no fears of your repeating it. I think devil’s work has done last night upon those innocent poor people. That old baron got only what he deserved. If I had my way, all of his kind should have the same luck.” (Twain 279). This was a very new idea to the charcoal burner and allowed him to show his ‘manhood’ as Hank said. In this new environment his thought process was free because others had these similar thoughts. If he was alone in his thoughts a poor peasant as himself would have no chance to survive fighting against the established state of oppression. This had nothing to do with his mind changing, it was his environment that changed so he could express thoughts that would not affect his survival in the current environment.
After reading this essay I think it is important to look at the state of the peasants in Twain’s book differently. They seem to me to come off as merely brainwashed in the novel. These people were just trying to survive in their current environment by any means necessary. After reading Lyotard this passage from Twain’s book also reinforced this idea: “We fought and struggled and succeeded; meaning by success, that we lived and did not die; more than that is not to be claimed.” (Twain 269). The woman dying of small pox was not fearing the imminent death, she was embracing the life she lived. Even though the oppression lead to her death, she was glad to have survived in it and her thoughts in time of death made her at peace now that she wasn’t surviving in a health sense but only in a mental sense. In all of the stories of peasants in this book, this idea of Lyotard’s can and should be seen.
Lyotard, Jean-Francois. “Can Thought Go on without a Body?”
Twain, Mark. A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court. London: Penguin Books, 1986.