Friday, October 11, 2013

Reading Mark Twain...'Christian Science'

Reading Mark Twain...'Christian Science'
     'Christian Science'....Mark Twain, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1907

     I was continuing my task of reading anything available, in print or on the internet, when I came upon this book, over a century old, in the recesses of one of my storage boxes. The volume life in 1899 in The Cosmopolitan magazine. This is the first half of the book. The second half, a worthy addendum to the first, also began life as a periodical series in the North American Review in 1907 even though it had been written about 4 years (Twain's estimate) earlier. The two halves were collected into book form in  the same year.

     At the time of composition Christian Science was the "cult of the day" in the USA, the very heartland of cults. It was actually newsworthy unlike its embalmed modern cadaver. A few decades earlier the Mormons were the most prominent item in the American bestiary of outrĂ© religious opinion, but their appeal was minimal in comparison to Mary Eddy's creation.

     The appeal was so great put forward his opinion that CS would grow powerful enough to challenge the Catholic Church itself. He was obviously mistaken on that point, probably because as an American he had a poor appreciation of more sophisticated ways for shepherds to fleece their flocks than those employed by upstart cults in the USA. He based his belief on the supremely authoritarian organization of Christian Science, and the well demonstrated business acumen of its founder.

     The latter was pretty well the only thing that he found to praise Eddy's cult. His book is an extended demolition of the honesty, consistency and writing ability of Eddy. It also touches on Eddy's pretense to originality. As he drives his bulldozer through the Church's edifice the whole polemic is enlightened by Twain's well known wit and sarcasm.

     An examination of CS' documents and Eddy's other writings presents a picture of a very poorly disguised totalitarianism. Eddy is seen to be a grasping tyrant who evolved from a desire for riches to a person whose main desires were for fame and worship. She, in fact, evolved towards an underhanded claim to divinity. In the end she was divided between seeing herself as the modern Christ and seeing herself as the modern equivalent of her Virgin Namesake.

     Twain tears her written output to shreds. Probably an easy task. He does, however, have an admiration for the writing skills of the author of 'Science and Health', the cult's second Bible. He found it impossible what he considered the lucid and coherent style of this book with the confused muddle of pretty well everything else that Eddy put to paper. Thus he formed the opinion that Eddy's book was either ghost written or lifted in bulk from another author.

     While it is obvious true that Eddy borrowed the ideology of her cult from others - some of this Twain mentioned - I think that MT goes a bit too far in attempting to prove that 'Science and Health' had a hidden author. He relied on literary detective work that left too much to the imagination.

     Twain made one major concession to CS' methods. He recognized the power of suggestion and the efficacy of the placebo. Christian Science's methods of "healing" do occasionally seem to work. They are, however, no more efficient than those of a hypnotist. As an aside Eddy did have an earlier association with a hypnotist. In a later feat of bad temper (or bad faith perhaps) she forbade her devoted flock to have anything to do with hypnotism - on penalty of excommunication.

     Personally I think that MT goes too far in his estimation of what hypnotism could do. I am sure, however, that he would agree with the common sense observation that no hypnotist or purveyor of religion has ever performed the miracle...of...curing..an...amputee.

     Altogether this is an amusing little book on a topic that has, mercifully, shrunk into to obscurity. I wonder how Twain would treat the far more numerous cults of our own day.

1 comment:

Mr. Beer N. Hockey said...

Good to see you back. As for me, anything with the word Christian in it, unless preceded by Hans, has never required anybody as sharp as Mark Twain to de-bunk it for me. Too bad there are so many people busying themselves trying to make science just as easy to to dismiss as bafflegab.