Reflections on the Uses of Disgust in Twain’s Animal Stories (A Quarry Farm Testimonial)

EDITOR’S NOTE: We occasionally feature testimonials from recent Quarry Farm Fellows and Residents, which combine conversational illustrations of their research and writing process with personal reflections on their experiences as Twain scholars, teachers, and fellows. Applications for Quarry Farm Fellowships are due each Winter. Find more information here.

Aleksandra Hernandez is a Postdoctoral Associate in the Department of English and an Affiliated Faculty Member in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Miami. Her book project, (Un)Civilized Humans: Empathy, Disgust, and the Representation of Animals in America (1850-1900), investigates the representational methods used by writers in this period of American history to draw attention to the norm-transgressing nature of violence, and to distance readers from humanity’s barbaric and violent tendencies. Other research interests include: American pragmatism, pragmatist aesthetics, environmental ethics, interspecies ethics, animal minds, animal studies, care ethics, ecofeminism, and the history of distributed cognition. Her articles have appeared or are forthcoming in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment, Journal of Modern Literature, and Hypatia.

My time at Quarry Farm was unlike any other experience. Although I was there to research Twain’s thoughts about humans’ relationship with other animals, I couldn’t help but be taken in by Twain’s thoughts on human nature represented in the vast archive and treasures available at Quarry Farm and Elmira College. It is this seemingly unrelated reading through which I realized that his writings about the problem of evil and the extent to which the environment shapes our behavior were foundational to his thoughts about animals.

As a scholar interested in classical pragmatist philosophy, I couldn’t help but notice the tremendous influence Charles Darwin had on Twain’s later work. I was struck, in particular, by the Darwinian echoes in Twain’s Vienna letters to Howell, echoes that in my mind informed Twain’s philosophical reflections in his later works. Twain makes a very compelling argument for determinism in What is Man?, a piece often dismissed as temporary musings of a man who has become disillusioned with life, a man grieving the loss of the most precious people in his life, a man who had become cynical and disgruntled about the human condition.

This critical reception could not be further from the truth: Twain’s deterministic philosophy is not cynical nor the product of a shift in mood. Rather, What is Man? is the culmination of his thoughts on human nature over a long period of reading and reflection. His views, I believe, are presented by the Old Man—presumably old Twain—as facts arrived at by a temporary truth seeker who has settled on a view, as we all must, near the end of his life. The arc of our lives is such that we must find peace in our pursuits of truth and be satisfied with the insights that our experiences have yielded over the course of our lives. Twain found his answer to a question that, I believe, drove his reading and writing.

His answer to the question, what is human nature?, however, is not presented as the Truth, but is rather a theory that all temporary truth-seekers after him must continue to probe and question. Sherwood Cummings illuminates how Twain’s vast reading in the sciences shaped Twain’s philosophical thinking. While I too find Twain’s immersion in science to be foundational to his philosophy, I believe that his absorption of the major tenets of The Descent of Man have shaped his thoughts about human’s relationship with other animals in ways that are deeply intertwined with his reflections on human nature.

Humans are not unique and above the rest of the animal kingdom; rather, they are corporeal beings whose environment shapes the kinds of people they will become. Having fully absorbed the Darwinian tenet that humans have descended from the same origin as other animals, Twain came to the conclusion that humans are born neither good nor evil. Instead, he came to believe that humans have the potential to become good or evil, a potential that is shaped by our cultural environments.

The sort of behaviorism that Twain espouses, however, is not as simple as it at first appears, insofar as outside influence is not the only factor that shapes our behavior, nor the only influence on the kinds of people we’ll become. Temperament and education are also key factors. Humans are born with particular temperaments, and it is in our nature to realize our inner drives.

We are complex beings, though, with a vast number of character traits, some of which can become more dominant than others. For example, if the most important good for me is to become famous in an environment where fame and economic prosperity converge and sometimes become indistinguishable, I am bound to pursue wealth, regardless of the harm it might cause others. Training at an early age, however, can shape my perception of what being famous might look like, beyond being wealthy and powerful; moreover, in an environment where the fame overlaps with other virtues such as courage and altruism, my inner drive to pursue fame might be a force for good.

Changing the environment is not straightforward but it is possible by training the young. And it is incumbent on those individuals who possess the right kinds of temperaments to devote their lives to the community. Twain might be said to have increasingly thought of himself as one such individual, and it is no coincidence that as his thoughts on human nature crystalized, he felt compelled to write on behalf of the so-called dumb creatures—that is, to use his fiction to train individuals in an effort to shift the cultural environment and the nature of humans’ outside influences for the greater good.

Puck, March 1905

Twain deeply admired animals, and in particular dogs, as their temperament is such that they are prone to loyalty, no matter how their humans treat them. As we see in “A Dog’s Tale,” dogs’ goodness is a foil to humans’ proclivity to do evil. Evil, cruel behaviors are depicted in the story as abominable, aberrant, and revolting, in contrast to the dog’s gentleness, down to the lick of the hand of the abuser. At the same time as Twain elicits sympathy for animals then, he distances readers from violence, raising the question of the role the emotions play in changing humans’ outside influences.

The emotions, it turns out, are the primary mechanism which compel us to fulfill the drives of our temperaments. Fear of death drives the man with the temperament of a coward to protect himself in the face of death. But fear of public disapproval might drive the coward to valiantly fight in a war. Fear of public disapproval is a powerful tool to enact change. The gaze of disgust can bring about our fear of public disapproval, thereby discouraging us from engaging in violent practices. The more people disapprove, the more likely laws will be implemented to discourage animal abusers from harming animals.

Disgust is a boundary-making emotion, as it designates “outside” from “inside.” The emotion evolved to protect our bodies from impurities and harmful pathogens, and the delineation of “in” versus “out” equally applies to the boundaries of the body politic. Who belongs in our community? We have seen the way disgust has been used to marginalize and exclude groups of people on the basis of race, gender and sexual orientation. Indeed, as Martha Nussbaum has argued, humans project disgust onto those whom we perceive as outsiders based on the fear of our animality, of our decay-prone bodies, and of women.  But can disgust be a force for good?

Twain shows us that it can—that violence is aberrant, norm-transgressing, and that those who participate in it can be and must be marginalized from the community. Indeed, this use of disgust is precisely the strategy that many women writers deployed at the end of the 19th century to advocate for the humane treatment of animals. Twain’s participation in this cultural shift cannot be underestimated, as Shelley Fisher Fishkin has shown us. And yet, projective disgust is not the answer, for to invoke the language of disgust in connection with our human animality is not only dehumanizing, but is also denigrating to other animals. Twain and his contemporaries show us an alternative to projective disgust that does not lean on the disparagement of animals and humans. This type of disgust—moral disgust—is not always based on the fear of animality and mortality, and it thereby does not always invoke the language of projective disgust. As his writings on animals showed me over and over again, Twain was not revolted by worms, snakes, slugs, or even flies, animals largely considered to be universal disgust elicitors, suggesting that the language of projective disgust has no place in a just world for Twain, a world where humans are not above the other animals.

The great insight that I took away from Twain, then, and which has completely shifted my thinking, is that disgust has a powerful role to play in creating a world that maximizes good and marginalizes evil. I have much to thank Quarry Farm for affording me the time and space to arrive at this insight.