Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Mark Twain Knew the Truth

A few months ago, I observed Mark Twain's birthday by listing several of his noteworthy statements.

Today, the 100th anniversary of his death, I wanted to try to focus on a single quote. I think he had perhaps the most brilliant mind ever produced in America, and I wanted a quote that could be said to be representative of his wisdom to mark the occasion.

But Twain's wisdom was far reaching. He was wise enough to know there isn't one great truth in the world. There are many truths.

Perhaps that was what made him such a prolific writer. In his long career, he was constantly stumbling onto truths about the things that define the human experience but could only be told in context. Individual interpretations would vary.

His writings clearly connected with people, prompting many of his contemporaries to list his name among the greats. That was something he lamented. "I was sorry to have my name mentioned as one of the great authors," he said, "because they have a sad habit of dying off. Chaucer is dead, Spencer is dead, so is Milton, so is Shakespeare, and I'm not feeling so well myself."

Once, he did try to address the meaning of life in a lesser known and posthumously published work, "Letters From the Earth," which is really a collection of short stories, many of which focus on God and Christianity. The book takes its title from a story that is a series of letters from Satan to Gabriel about what he has seen on earth and the strange, often contradictory beliefs that humans have.

"Man is a marvelous curiosity," Satan writes. "When he is at his very, very best he is a sort of low grade nickel–plated angel; at his worst he is unspeakable, unimaginable; and first and last and all the time he is a sarcasm."

And Twain seemed eager to share his feelings about life and death:
"Life was not a valuable gift, but death was. Life was a fever–dream made up of joys embittered by sorrows, pleasure poisoned by pain, a dream that was a nightmare–confusion of spasmodic and fleeting delights, ecstasies, exultations, happinesses, interspersed with long–drawn miseries, griefs, perils, horrors, disappointments, defeats, humiliations, and despairs — the heaviest curse devisable by divine ingenuity; but death was sweet, death was gentle, death was kind; death healed the bruised spirit and the broken heart, and gave them rest and forgetfulness; death was man's best friend; when man could endure life no longer, death came and set him free."

I've always had the feeling that Twain would have been an interesting person to know.

His achievements were known far and wide, but Twain still said, "I have been complimented many times and they always embarrass me; I always feel that they have not said enough."

He didn't struggle with immodesty. Perhaps that was why he felt free to say what he thought — even when he expressed his opinions with his tongue resolutely pressed against his cheek.

"Honesty is the best policy," he told his listeners, "when there is money in it."

Well, honesty is sorta the same thing as truth, isn't it? And Twain certainly had his beliefs about truth.

The Baltimore Sun, in an article commemorating the centennial of Twain's death, today refers to an article that ran in the Sun about a commencement address Twain delivered the year before he died. Twain wanted to share three nuggets of wisdom he had acquired in his life — "First, girls, don't smoke — to excess. I am 73½ years old and have been smoking for 73 of them. But I smoke ... in moderation; only one cigar at a time.

"Also, never drink — to excess.

"The third admonition is, don't marry — to excess."

Dave Rosenthal of the Sun writes, "I'd love to see someone deliver that commencement address today, in our world of political correctness. But Twain was able to speak his mind — and the truth — in a humorous way, without insulting his audience. That was his real genius."

As a writer, he could say, with some justification, that "[m]ost writers regard truth as their most valuable possession and therefore are most economical in its use." And he knew it often took courage to speak the truth.

He didn't hesitate to observe, "It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare."

People often turn to the Bible for truth and as a source of moral courage. In the Bible, Timothy warns that the love of money is the root of all evil — yet so many are unable to resist its seductive nature.

Twain understood the value of money, but I don't know if he loved it. "I am opposed to millionaires," he wrote, "but it would be dangerous to offer me the position."

I often get a good laugh from Twain, even when I read something I have read many times before, like when he advised young people to "[a]lways do right. This will gratify some people, and astonish the rest."

Of Twain it can truly be said that he knew how to tell a story — whether there was a moral to be taught or not. And folks who are on the UCLA campus today can get ample evidence of that. A 13–hour reading marathon of Twain's works is planned there today.

It can also be said that he knew something of proportionality. And today, as we remember his death the day after the 11th anniversary of the Columbine shootings and two days after the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, it is worth pausing and reflecting on something he wrote about proportionality in an unfinished manuscript. After all, don't most losses seem insignificant in comparison to those events?

"Nothing that grieves us can be called little," Twain wrote. "By the eternal laws of proportion, a child's loss of a doll and a king's loss of a crown are events of the same size."

Of course, if we're going to consider Columbine and/or Oklahoma City, it may be more appropriate to think of this observation: "The fact that man knows right from wrong proves his intellectual superiority to the other creatures; but the fact that he can do wrong proves his moral inferiority to any creature that cannot."

Even a century after his death, Twain remains relevant to current conversations.

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