Friday, July 28, 2017

The Innocents Abroad - Mark Twain

One of the greatest (the greatest?) American literary humorists takes his traveling bag on a tour of western Europe, the Middle East, and back across Mediterranean Africa. As William Dean Howells noted in a contemporary review of the work, Twain lampoons the "standard shams of travel" which are sometimes forgotten by the tourist. It is somewhat refreshing to know that such standard shams were experienced one hundred and fifty years ago, as they are today. In Twain's expert cynicism such shams sparkle. Tour guides he notes, are all the same - even referring to a never-ending stream of them by a single name: Ferguson. Each city, Venice, Paris, Constantinople has its own Ferguson. Some of the standard discomforts are enjoyable, some intolerable: the French seem to no way grasp the use of soap.Yet, Mr Twain's most withering gaze is turned towards his fellow travelers; all well on their way to becoming professional bores.

In both his compatriots and his destinations it is not the expected, but the unexpected which is so illuminating and invigorating. When stuck under quarantine outside Athens, they quietly slip ashore for a moonlit excursion up to Parthenon and through town. A journey across Sinai is at turns exhausting and a space for mental relaxation. Throughout, Twain's irony and humor shines. The Innocents, protestant Americans with seemingly no history, are alternately lost among, overwhelmed by, and totally incapable of grasping the significance and even occasional absurdity of civilizations tempered by time. The new world and old collide, revealing humor and transcendence in both.