Mark Twain’s Mysterious Misery-Machine

It rusts away when sprayed by self-knowledge.

We all like to think we’re motivated by self-interest, self-protection, and self-love. Consciously, we are. Unconsciously, though, we operate a misery-machine inside us that churns up self-defeat, self-damage, and self-rejection.

A reference to a misery-machine is made by the character Satan in Mark Twain’s final novel, The Mysterious Stranger. The reference is found in this passage from the book:

Every man is a suffering-machine and a happiness-machine combined. The two functions work together harmoniously, with a fine and delicate precision, on the give-and-take principle. For every happiness turned out in the one department the other stands ready to modify it with a sorrow or a pain—maybe a dozen. In most cases the man’s life is about equally divided between happiness and unhappiness. When this is not the case, the unhappiness predominates—almost never the other. Sometimes a man’s make and disposition are such that his misery-machine is able to do nearly all the business. Such a man goes through life almost ignorant of what happiness is.

This short novel, while nihilistic and grim in places, presents many insights into human nature. Twain’s savvy on matters of human conduct and motivation is consistent, of course, with his greatness as a writer. Perhaps the novel’s most significant insight is the idea that truth about human nature is not as pleasant as we would like. That in itself is not a popular or pleasant idea. That resistance may account, in part, for why the novel is one of his least popular books.

So what is this misery-machine of which he writes? Twain presents only the machine’s finished products—ignorance, self-serving hypocrisy, violence, despair, stupidity, malice, anger, vanity. He didn’t get to the nuts and bolts of the machine itself, which at the time the emerging science of psychoanalysis was beginning to do.

Machines create inner friction. The equivalent process in the human psyche is inner conflict. This is the inner struggle among competing or incompatible needs, drives, wishes, or demands. There are thousands of examples of inner conflict. It can occur, for instance, in the experience of ambivalence when children both love and reject their mother at the same time. Conflict also occurs when, say, an envious person consciously desires some object, while unconsciously being emotionally attached to the painful, unresolved feeling of being deprived of that object.

In another example, a person wants desperately to be recognized and appreciated, at the same time that he or she keeps returning unconsciously to an old unresolved feeling of being unappreciated and seen as unworthy.

In this example, the misery-machine kicks into high gear when it produces a defense that covers up the individual’s temptation to go on feeling unappreciated. That defense might be anger. “Can’t you see how angry I am at so-and-so for belittling me! That proves I’m not secretly willing to indulge in feeling unappreciated and ignored.” The angrier someone becomes, the more likely the anger is covering up the person’s inner determination to indulge in some old unresolved hurt.

In still another example, a person who is failing in his career desperately wants to succeed. Deeper down, however, he can be attached to the painful self-recrimination that comes at him from his superego (inner critic), assailing him for being a loser. He can also be attached to unresolved feelings of being helpless and overwhelmed, because those feelings are a significant part of his identity.

We can turn off our misery-machine when we begin to see clearly (1) how we are unwittingly tempted to recycle and replay unresolved negative emotions from our past, and (2) how we use various defenses to cover up our participation in our suffering.

This knowledge enables us to see correctly just how our misery-machine works. To acquire accurate self-knowledge, we often have to penetrate into the dark side of our psyche. Let’s consider, as another example, a student who eagerly heads off for his freshman year at university. In high school, his scholastic achievement brought him much pleasure. He anticipates the pleasure of learning new knowledge and testing his intellect at a higher level. For the first few months at university he does well. But then, unexpectedly, he starts to procrastinate on his reading and writing assignments. Soon he is dreading each new day as he falls further behind with his studies. If he had done the work and kept up, he would likely be feeling great. Instead, he’s in agony because of his procrastination. His misery-machine is running at full throttle.

What possible self-knowledge applies to his situation? His procrastination may be a symptom of a deeper emotional issue, his unrecognized affinity for the feeling of helplessness. (Read “Neither a Procrastinator Nor a Dawdler Be”). In other words, feeling helpless and overwhelmed—a common infantile impression—can be such a familiar feeling that we don’t know how to step outside of it and stay outside of it. We do, in fact, free ourselves from this attachment to helplessness when we begin to see it more objectively, in the clinical sense, as an anomaly in our psyche.

Another example involves a student who also is starting university. Though she’s always been a bit shy, she’s been quite able to enjoy life. But at university she becomes highly anxious, distressed mostly about her disappointing social life. Her misery-machine, too, is revving up for spell of suffering. What self-knowledge applies to her situation? The challenge of university may have triggered an issue that was latent within her psyche, her repressed sense that she is somehow unworthy and lacking in value. She becomes socially inept as that old issue surfaces, deepening the emotional effect of feeling unworthy in the eyes of faculty and fellow students. Self-knowledge reveals her problem—her emotional attachment to that old feeling. The knowledge helps her to step out of her painful impression that unworthiness represents some actual truth about her. In other words, she can feel better about herself, and likely manage her social life more skillfully, when she penetrates her psyche to expose her unconscious determination (or compulsion) to experience her new life through that painful old emotion.

We can get our misery-machine to rust away by splashing it every day with the cold, clear water of self-knowledge.