Gesture, Revelation, and "Natural Language"
If the detective story of Pudd'nhead Wilson moved purposefully from a universe of potentially meaningful signs to a sign rooted (though perhaps not so securely) in the body, it also submitted the body itself to this process, winnowing its reliable surfaces from the possibly dissimulative. Wilson discounts face, hair, height, and "form" as bodily signs that can be counterfeited, duplicated, disguised, hidden, worn away, or otherwise rendered illegible; fingerprints, quite differently, are "physical marks which do not change their character, and by which [one] can always be identified—and that without shade of doubt or question" (108). Wilson's purpose here parallels a nineteenth-century tradition that pursued both certainty of meaning and stability of character. The still influential physiognomy of Johann Caspar Lavater declared that stature, gait, bearing, gesture, and handwriting revealed the inner self, but were less reliable than more permanent facial features—forehead, eyes, nose, mouth, chin, profile—which he thought indicated unchanging mental powers and character. Phrenology, too, put its greatest store in the skin surface that contoured the sturdy skull, and in enduring signs of character rather than in the fleeting and potentially manipulable symptoms of interiority manifested in movement and facial expression.
Why, then, do Twain's fictional moments of revelation hinge as often on gesture as on the more permanent bodily indices? In The Prince and the Pauper , while the bodies of Tom Canty and Prince Edward are apparently indistinguishable, finally throwing the official proof of royalty onto the shaky grounds of memory, Tom's mother, having sensed that there is something strange about her "son," devises a convincing test. Knowing that ever since some gunpowder burst in Tom's face he casts his hand before his eyes when
he is startled out of his dreams or musings, she tries awakening and startling the boy a number of times, only to find that the "habitual gesture" is not there (115–17). Later, during the aptly named royal "recognition procession," the real Tom suddenly spies his mother in the throngs along the route, "and up flew his hand, palm outward, before his eyes; that old involuntary gesture born of a forgotten episode and perpetuated by habit!" Mrs. Canty, assured of his identity, runs to him, embraces his leg, and kisses it (304). A similar gestural revelation occurs in Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896), in which a convoluted network of lies, mistaken identities, misperceptions, and legal argument that pins the murder of Jubiter Dunlap on Uncle Silas Phelps is exploded when Jubiter, attending the trial disguised as a "deef and dummy," reveals himself to Tom by nervously and unconsciously engaging in his idiosyncratic habit of drawing an imaginary cross on his cheek with his finger.
These two characters' disguises are undone by involuntary, unconscious gestures, and certainly Mark Twain's interest lies in the contrast between their calculated disguises and their uncontrolled, gestural self-betrayal. Habitual gesture functions here as a hallmark of truth because it escapes the control of conscious feigning. Ultimately, however, such gestures resembled indexical signs not only because they bypassed consciousness, but also because, according to the scientific theory Twain avidly read, gestural circuits too were physical and physiological, a kind of bodily chain.
Darwin's Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals , whose sections on gestural expression as habit and reflex action Twain had heavily underscored and annotated, had the general aim of identifying what Darwin called "true expression," by which he meant expression neither conscious nor conventional, expressions that are automatic responses of human organisms and no longer prompted or fully controlled by the will.Most expressive movements, Darwin ultimately claimed, were innate, inherited residues of movements useful for survival—as a sneer is the residual effect of baring the canine tooth (352). Gestural expression was "natural" in this sense, universal and automatic rather than acquired and willfully used as a language is, difficult to suppress or falsify, and therefore apt to expose people's real thoughts and emotions.
One of Darwin's concerns was to make distinctions between emotionally expressive actions that were "reflexive" in the sense of being actions purely and simply of the nervous system—relays from sen-
sory to motor nerves—and more complex actions that happened similarly outside of volition but were the products of habit. His study, however, effectively weakened this distinction as it argued that in the evolutionary process habits useful for survival were implanted into reflexes (39–40), that habitual actions had a physiological basis in the tendency of nerve force to travel in well-worn channels (69–71), and that habitual gestures were difficult to distinguish from reflexive ones (35–36). For Mark Twain this muddling—the confusion between signs relayed by physical circuits and habitual signs whose origins presumably lay in consciousness—obviously demarcated a territory of concern. The genesis of Tom Canty's gesture of both protection and fear clearly enough lay in reflex. But Twain roots it equally in habit, pointedly foregrounding the uncertainty.
When in 1896 Twain read William James's version of emotional expression in The Principles of Psychology (1890), he would have had even more reason to class gestural emotional expression with indices in the category of physically transmitted signs. In James's theory the body does not actually "express" the emotions; rather, emotion is simply how our adaptive, survivalist, bodily, reflexive responses feel: anger is what it feels like to hit someone, fear is what it feels like to tremble. Emotions have physical causes, are directly linked to the body—indeed, consist solely of bodily symptoms, and come "from parts below," without the mediation or interference of ideas, cognition, or any "cerebral processes" (II, 472). Here lay a justification for a materialist rooting of signification and for elevating gestural "expression" above any conscious dissimulation. Yet this version of the body's revelations still failed, it seems, to gain Twain's full consent. Jubiter Dunlap's gestural index of fear is the tracing of a cross on his cheek. In the same way that Twain complicates the index by placing the cultural icon of the cross in Pap's bootprint, he questions the innate circuit of gesture by making it issue in this most familiar example of a cultural symbol.
Gesture becomes a site for questioning the possibilities of representation, for separating and melding the categories at stake in Twain's concern over reference and realism: the physical and the conventional, materialism and language. In his play Cap'n Simon Wheeler, the Amateur Detective: A Light Tragedy , written in 1877, Twain presses the Darwinian suggestion that most expressive gestures are innate by ranging this universalism up against conceptions of codifi-
cation and language. Amateur detective Wheeler, eager to mimic the professionals, imitates the pacing, frowns, and gestures of a detective thinking out a problem. When his admiring wife, Jenny, tells him that he goes "through the motions as elegant as any detective I ever saw," Wheeler responds:
It's a big part of the business, too, to do it right.—I mean when there's people looking at you. Ah, when a detective's under the public eye, it's beautiful to see him go through the motions—beautiful! Why Jenny dear, you watch a detective, and you can follow his line of thought right straight through, just the same as a deef and dumb scholar can foiler his teacher's meaning when he stands on the school platform making signs . Now here—I'll do the head-shakes and nods, and so on, and I'll give you the language of each one as I make it. (271)
And Wheeler does perform a series of head-shakes and nods, all the while providing Jenny an interpretation of the thoughts and thought processes these gestures signify. However, the meanings he attributes to his gestures are preposterous, involving the impossible divining of his incoherent theories about the crime and detecting from the way in which he puts his nose in the air or slaps his forehead. The legibility and reliability of gestural signs are cancelled not only because they apparently rely on expertise and artifice—business, elegance, and theatrical beauty, as Wheeler suggests—but also because no concrete connection exists between Wheeler's babble of words and his babble of gestures.
A humorous send-up of stage detectives, of the detective-story tradition that a careful observer (like Poe's August Dupin) can discern another's private thoughts from facial and bodily expression, and of the notion that the signs of the body (both detective's and criminal's) could be reduced to a key, the Wheeler play nonetheless seriously engages the proposition that language and codification can infect and derail gestural expression. In a scene near the end of the play, the presumably murdered Hugh Burnside returns to town disguised as a deaf-mute tramp. He encounters a group that includes a character, Charles Dexter, who has studied "deaf and dumb signs," and Burnside "proceeds to make absurd signs and say 'Goo-goo' etc ." Dexter, unable to make any sense of Burnside's "extravagant signs and noises," laments that his "noble dream is dead!"—for he had imagined that sign language might serve as a "universal language," a natural language that would allow communication with "Christian and savage,
learned and ignorant." Millicent Griswold, however, the heroine of the play, rejoins that "there is one sign that is universal—the symbol of compassion," and she puts a coin in the "tramp's" hand, and he makes "signs and 'Goo-goo' of gratitude " (270).
As gesture moves toward language, Twain seems to suggest here, and toward codifications that lose gesture's corporeal grounding, it falters. Darwin had distinguished between expressive gestures rooted in practical survival and other gestures which, while perhaps seeming "natural," have actually "been learnt like the words of a language"—including "the finger-language used by the deaf and dumb" (352–55). The problem with Wheeler's "head-shakes and nods" is that he must teach "the language of each one," and the problem with sign language is that it is a language, and requires "a deef and dumb scholar" to make sense of it. Yet, the legibility of the isolated gestural sign, Millicent's sign of emotion, of compassion, apparently persists. We must infer, it seems, that such an act as her almsgiving, in which a deed and its meaning become indistinguishable, successfully roots the sign of the interior in its practical expression, much as Darwin rooted "true expression" in acts of survival. It is as if representation in languages is surpassed by both enactments and literal embodiments. Security of meaning then lies in materialism and pragmatism, in circuits of physical impression and concrete issue instead of in the resemblance of metaphor or the arbitrariness and relational meaning of language.
It is no accident that Mark Twain joined the question of the meaningfulness of gesture and language to the "deef and dumb" acts of Hugh Burnside and Jubiter Dunlap. Peter Brooks, in The Melodramatic Imagination , argues that nineteenth-century melodrama, in its attempt to negotiate what people were experiencing as a crisis in meaning precipitated by a perceived deficiency in language, turned both to gesture and to a generic deaf-mute figure. Melodrama took the body as a natural, universal medium whose expressions existed prior to the corruption and alienation worked upon meaning by words, Brooks argues, and it designated gesture as a means to recover immediacy, purity, and clarity of meaning (66–67). It concomitantly took the mute role as the repository, or embodiment, of unspoken, nonverbal sense, as "the virtuoso emblem of the possibilities of meaning engendered in the absence of the word" (62).
The prominence and import of the mute figure on the nineteenthcentury stage heightens the significance of the duke's claim, in Huck -
leberry Finn , that he has special skill in impersonation because he has played "a deef and dumb person on the histrionic boards" (208). But, of course, like Hugh Burnside's "deef and dumb" impersonation, and Jubiter Dunlap's, and Injun Joe's in Tom Sawyer , the duke's performance as the deaf-mute William Wilks takes this melodramatic emblem of truth as a mask . True, Jubiter Dunlap, in accord with the natural eloquence of muteness, exposes himself through unconscious gesture; but the other characters successfully hide behind their veil of silence. And in the case of the duke, the supposed capacity of the deaf-mute figure to render meanings that words otherwise obscure is pointedly used itself to swindle the Wilkses.
Through the king's explanations in Huckleberry Finn , Twain introduces the idea that the feelings of the heart are more important than those of the head, and that words somehow obscure those feelings—with the implicit suggestion that other means of expression do not. The king's thanks for the sympathy and "holy tears" of Peter Wilks's townsfolk, he claims, come "out of his heart and out of his brother's heart, because out of their mouths they can't, words being too weak and cold" (213). And although the king makes no claims for the universal expressiveness of "deef and dumb signs," which he acknowledges must be learned (250), after he "signs" to the duke the suggestion that they turn all of Peter Wilks's money over to the nieces, the king declares that the duke's joyous hugs will "convince anybody the way he feels about it" (216). This apparent emotional outpouring is supposed to surpass words, but Huck knows not only that the duke's deaf-and-dumb language is just "a lot of idiotic signs" (209), but also that the gestural expressions of emotion are "rot and slush" (213). In this case, the arbitrariness of deaf-mute language is underscored by the duke's signs, and the emotional gesture is rendered specious by its theatricality. However, as evidence of Twain's continuing preoccupation with both the promise and the uncertainty of gestural expression, the same novel supplies Huck's well-known moments of self-betrayal by the body.