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                         A Quite Curious and Illuminating Biography of Mark Twain

                                                                                                                            April 21, 2016

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born in rural Missouri on November 30, 1835 and he died on April 21, 1910 in southwestern Connecticut, just 106 years ago.  When he was born, the famous Halley’s Comet was visible in the skies, and the next time the comet returned was the year he died.  Halley’s Comet has a highly elliptical orbit that brings it inside Earth’s orbit from the outer reaches of our solar system once every 75 years.  It is remarkable that two of the near approaches of this famous comet to the Sun coincided with the birth and death of Samuel Clemens. 

In the year 1909, by then internationally known as Mark Twain, he wrote: "I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835.  It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it.  It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don't go out with Halley's Comet.  The Almighty has said, no doubt: 'Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, and they must go out together.'" 

Sure enough, Mark Twain died the day after the comet’s closest approach to the Sun in 1910.

This biography is intended to shed light on Mark Twain’s formative influences, motivations, character, and deep psychological impulses.  The deservedly famous writer and public speaker was extraordinarily prolific in writing letters, and because many of his letters were saved over the years, one of the most extensive collections of correspondence ever written by a famous person still exists.  These letters provide a fascinating look into the persona of this man, richly adding to the perspective provided by his writings, his autobiography, and the record of his lectures, extensive travels, personal associations and social activism. 

Late in life, Sam bragged that, as Mark Twain, he had become “the most conspicuous person on the planet.”  He once wryly noted that he was “born modest, but it didn’t last.”  In 1897, he wrote: "I am not an American.  I am the American.  I am the human race compacted and crammed into a single suit of clothes, but quite able to represent all its massed moods and inspiration.  I am only human, though I regret it."  I chuckle appreciatively and sigh an existential Ha!

The Purpose of These Words

The purpose of this biography is to explore the sensational cultural phenomenon of one of America’s greatest historical characters, and to apply his humor, wry wit, occasional exuberant cheerfulness, wise insights and irreverently trenchant observations to our modern day challenges and conundrums. 

Mark Twain is highly relevant to people in the world today for a number of good reasons.  For one, he cultivated open-minded, even revolutionary attitudes toward vital concerns like the curious nature of human follies, political corruption, war, slavery, discrimination, and attitudes of disrespect for women.  His thoughts on these topics can give us a deeper context to discover the greater truths that lie beneath many of the conflicts and social antagonisms and reactionary movements in the world today.

Mark Twain had a facile and mischievous faculty for being able to mock absurdities like political extremism and dogmatic religious fundamentalism.  His light-hearted approach toward beliefs that were patently preposterous is an attitude that could help us today in our way of seeing the growing insanity of religious fanatics in their ruthless power grabs and unholy alliance with extreme social conservatism.  We could surely benefit from an effective new means of derailing obstructionist opposition to forward-thinking ideas, social progress, ecumenical understandings, and initiatives that facilitate peaceful coexistence and protect the environment and make our existence more likely sustainable.  Mark Twain’s humorous perspectives have been as powerful and influential -- and as serious -- as earlier salvos by the great philosopher Voltaire against the crushing infamy of socially nefarious and wrongheaded doctrines promoted by established religious and political authorities.

Mark Twain coined the phrase “Gilded Age” in a book he co-wrote in 1873, and he gave us valuable perspectives concerning the negative impacts of irresponsible corporate activities, wealthy “robber barons”, and the deep inequalities in the society of his times.  His early thoughts about these topics thus provide a provocative point of view that could motivate us to make honest investigations into our own increasingly inegalitarian modern age with its unfair concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few and the ratcheting up of disparities between the “haves” and the “have nots”.  This fresh way of seeing could give us new purpose in investigating how and why we are creating socially harmful, risky and instability-stoking increases in inequities between people.

Mark Twain was angered by the brutal conquest of the Philippines by the United States after the Spanish-American War and during the Philippine-American War. This emotion-charged personal reaction gives us a valuable perspective on imperialism and aggression in war.  He was upset by activities of American missionaries, who he regarded as a front for imperialism, so he summonsed them back, declaring:  “Come home and Christianize Christians in the States.”  In our new age of terrorism and militaristic counterterrorism and U.S. armed occupations of other countries and drone bombings, the need has grown more urgent than ever for new fair-minded movements to arise.  The world today is dominated by an econopolitical system that is effectively dictated by wealthy people and multinational corporations prepossessed with the drive to maximize profits.  One of their favorite ways of accomplishing this is by foisting costs onto others, making the need for progressive sensibilities increasingly urgent.  A powerful movement is needed that should be guided by sensible ideas, smart understandings, fairer dealings, greater moderation, and more empathetic attitudes.

The historian Will Durant once wrote, “a sense of humor is born of perspective, so it bears a near kinship to philosophy;  each is the soul of the other.”  A modern Twainian perspective offers us hope of altering the dysfunctional status quo and helping make the world a healthier, safer and saner place.  The Earth Manifesto is a philosophical effort to “save the world”, and it is my hope that the hook of achieving a better understanding of Mark Twain’s life and worldviews will be effective in advancing this goal, and to do so from a more modern, feminine and heart-centered perspective.

An Overview of the Life of Sam Clemens

Since Sam Clemens was born in 1835 and died in 1910, he witnessed far-reaching changes during his lifetime.  The ideas of three men who lived contemporaneously with Mark Twain have had some of the most profound impacts in human history on the way we understand the world.  These three men were Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein, and they helped to launch revolutionary new understandings of biology, psychology and the physical nature of the universe into human awareness.

Sam Clemens grew up in a Missouri culture that accepted slavery and then was involved in fighting a terrible Civil War over the issue.  Missouri was a border state that sent men, armies, generals and supplies to both opposing sides during the conflict, and it endured a neighbor-against-neighbor war within the state that took place as the larger national war unfolded.  More than 600,000 people died in that horrible War Between the States.  In the span of his lifetime, Clemens saw the emancipation of slaves by Abraham Lincoln followed by sadly inadequate postwar reconstruction efforts in the South.  He also witnessed numerous violent conflicts with Native Americans.  He lived through times of extraordinary economic turmoil, including the financial panics of 1857, 1873, 1884, 1893 and 1907.  He was alert to the nature of the Gilded Age of robber barons and extreme inequalities.  He spent years in the Wild West, which was experiencing rapid growth after the legendary California gold rush and the Comstock Lode silver strike in the Nevada Territory.  During his lifetime, communications improved from correspondence carried by Pony Express riders to communications by electric telegraph and then the telephone.  Transportation improved from horses and covered wagons and steamboats to railroads, automobiles and early airplanes.  Steam power was largely replaced by the internal combustion engine and electric power.  The world’s population increased by more than 50% from 1.1 billion to 1.7 billion while he was alive, and the United States expanded from 25 states to 46 states. 

As these events were unfolding, Sam spent most of his boyhood in Hannibal on the west bank of the mighty Mississippi River.  Hannibal at the time was a small town about one day’s steamboat journey up the river from St. Louis.  Sammy was a mischievous boy, full of fun and games and all manner of pranks and mischief.  He had an idyllic but adventurous boyhood, as one may surmise from the novels he later wrote about characters like Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Becky Thatcher.  Sam happily regarded youth as a lovely thing, especially in retrospect, “and certainly never was there a diviner time to me in this world,” he later noted of his childhood.  Bravo!

The Early Life of Samuel Clemens

Sam was born into a poor family, and he received only a rudimentary education.  But he was an avid reader and became a lover of books and later a lifelong advocate of public libraries.  As a teenager, he worked at a variety of jobs in Hannibal.  His most significant early occupation was as an apprentice doing typesetting in the burgeoning newspaper printing business, where he eventually began to write stories for newspapers.  He dreamed of becoming a respected riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River, and eventually wrangled his way into a position as a pilot’s apprentice, where he spent two years learning the intimate features of the treacherous, ever-changing river between St. Louis and New Orleans. Such knowledge was vital to a steamboat’s safe passage, and the undertaking fed his love for travel and adventure, so he reckoned this period of his life was marvelous. 

The fabled Golden Age of Steamboats on the Mississippi River lasted less than a century, but Oh Boy! was it eventful.  The first steamboat to navigate the Mississippi was named the New Orleans.  It was a coal-fired side-wheel steamboat that set off from Pittsburgh on October 20, 1811 and made its way down the Ohio River to the Mississippi, and then down south, traveling through seven states and arriving in New Orleans on January 10, 1812.  While the steamboat was en route, the region suffered some of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded in North America on a fault centered near New Madrid, Missouri.  The quakes caused shocking ruptures in the land, and the mighty Mississippi even flowed backwards for a period of time.  A geographer and geologist named Henry Schoolcraft was so moved by the scary and calamitous nature of the shaking earth that he turned to poetry:

 “The rivers they boiled like a pot of coals,

     And mortals fell prostrate, and prayed for their souls.”

By the time Sam Clemens was born in 1835, more than 250 steamboats were plying the Mississippi, primarily on the route from St. Louis to New Orleans.  The number of steamboats proliferated rapidly, and reached a peak of perhaps 1,200 in the 1850s.  Many perils plagued riverboat transportation, and these dangers made the average lifespan of a steamboat less than five years.  Floating ice in the upper reaches of the river during the spring thaw could sink boats, and many were lost due to hidden snags or submerged sandbars.  Collisions were an ever-present danger, and both floods and tornados caused shipwrecks.  Numerous fires and boiler explosions destroyed boats, and thousands of lives were lost in these calamities.  Who knows what God had against this mode of transportation?!

It was during this time, in May 1858, that Sam met Laura Wright, a 14-year-old niece of a friend of his who was also a riverboat pilot.  Imagine the scene when Sam spent two of the most memorable days of his life in Laura’s company in the bustling and bawdy port city of New Orleans way back then.  It was said that there were so many steamboats tied up along the Louisiana waterfront that you could walk a mile from boat to boat without touching the riverbank, and the sounds and smells and frenzied energy of the French Quarter were no doubt colorful, pungent and stimulating.  The city of New Orleans was famous for its music then, as it is now, and steamboats often offered live entertainment in the form of brass bands or banjo-playing minstrels. Loud, lively steam calliopes were popular, featuring upbeat tunes that created a carnival-like atmosphere. Later, the South became home to music infused with plaintive soulfulness that reflected the feelings of those who lived their lives in endless toil.  Ragtime, jazz and the blues all incorporated the offbeat syncopation of rhythms inspired by soulful African roots. 

The young lass Laura struck Sam’s fancy with such infatuation that, decades later, he would still think of her distinct charms.  Her sweet Victorian character was an idealized fantasy for him, and he found her to have a cheerful presence, a precocious wisdom, and an alluring pure innocence.  She became a source of inspiration to him for the rest of his life, and he used her memory to model some of his female characters in his novels around her image.  She was a magnificent muse for his imagination, and he later wrote that he regarded her as his “dream-sweetheart”.  

After two years as an apprentice under a pilot named Horace Bixby, he became a licensed pilot himself on paddle-wheel steamboats.  He loved the exciting work as a riverboat pilot, but then -- dang it! -- commerce up and down the Mississippi was rudely and abruptly interrupted by the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.  Sam joined a local group of Confederate militia in Missouri when the war broke out, but he resigned after two weeks, joking later that “I was incapacitated by fatigue through persistent retreating”.

Soon after the start of the war, Samuel “absquatulated to the territories”, heading off with his brother Orion on a stagecoach journey across the Great Plains and over the Rocky Mountains and through Salt Lake City to the rough-and-tumble Wild West towns of the Nevada Territory.  In the aftermath of the Gold Rush to California, this region was in the throes of a mining frenzy for riches of silver and gold and other minerals.  The famous Comstock Lode near Virginia City was in the process of becoming the single most valuable source of silver in all of world history. 

The Comstock Lode was discovered in 1859. Soon thereafter, Virginia City and its environs were transformed from a sparsely populated near-wilderness area into a mining boomtown.  As can well be imagined, change was chaotic when adventurous risk-taking miners from all over the world descended upon this area and indulged in a carelessly destructive mania of mineral mining and hard living.  The obsessive gold-fever enthusiasm of the miners in the Old West is legendary.  “They came to the Comstock to get rich!  Some did, most didn’t, and many died trying.” 

Samuel Clemens began calling himself Mark Twain while writing for the Territorial Enterprise, a newspaper in Virginia City, when he was 27 years old in February 1863. He signed off, “Yours, dreamily, Mark Twain”, and this pen name was to become the most famous in all of American letters.  Most observers point out that “mark twain” was a nautical shout to a riverboat pilot from a leadsman on the boat’s bow who was charged with plumbing the depth of the water ahead.  It meant “mark two fathoms deep”, or twelve feet, which was the depth of safe water for Mississippi riverboats. 

Virginia City was a boomtown that had many saloons and ‘houses of ill repute’, and even an opera house.  It had a seedy “Barbary Coast” area with many different ethnic groups and lots of gambling, drinking, prostitution and crime.  Interestingly, frontier newspapers of the nineteenth century tended to routinely print rumors, personal attacks, racist invective and flat-out fabrications, and they were little concerned with fair or accurate reporting.  They shamelessly promoted commercial interests, as for instance the Solid Muldoon did in the Ouray region of western Colorado when it lobbied for the dispossession of the native Utes.  Why?  Oh, yes, the Ute Indian Tribe held title to much of the San Juan Mountains where prospectors and real estate profiteers were seeking their fortunes.  The Solid Muldoon was published by David Day, who once had 42 libel suits pending against him, and he regarded them almost proudly, “like a row of combat medals.”  A roadside interpretive sign near Ouray points out:  “Slanted though they were, publications such as the Solid Muldoon were the only news sources available, making them very influential in shaping opinion -- and events.”  (Manipulating opinion, and skewing the lives of many!   It might be regarded as an early precursor of Fox News.)

Mark Twain worked for the Territorial Enterprise as a full-time reporter and journalist for twenty months until May 1864, and then he went to California, where he lived until March 1866.  By the end of 1865, he was very poor and in debt, so he sought a commission to write letters for publication by the Sacramento Union newspaper for $20 apiece on a journey aboard a steamship to the Sandwich Islands (now known as the Hawaiian Islands).  These letters proved to be entertaining and popular, so they helped launch his career as a writer. 

When Mark Twain stayed in bawdy San Francisco at various times between 1863 and 1867, it is entirely possible that he went up to the top of Twin Peaks.  The view to the west of this prominence from a proper vantage point on a clear day reveals the mysteriously mystical but very real Farallon Islands.  These rocky islands lie 27 miles northwest of the Golden Gate. The islands teem with seabirds like Tufted Puffins and Storm Petrels, and with “charismatic megafauna” marine mammals like harbor seals, sea lions and elephant seals.  This aquatic wilderness was the scene of an awesome display of the living world’s mysterious, beautiful and daunting natural order when wildlife enthusiasts on a whale-watching expedition in 1997 reported having witnessed an attack just south of the Farallons in which a killer whale lifted a great white shark right out of the sea.  Ouch!

Twenty-four hundred miles to the west and south of the Farallon Islands lie those mythic-sounding Sandwich Islands.  Mark Twain spent more than four months there in 1866, traveling, absorbing a wealth of experiences, and writing captivating sketches.  He later developed a highly entertaining and creative series of lectures about the curiosities of those Sandwich Islands, real and invented. 

In the years to follow, Mark Twain became famous for his humorous stories about a wide variety of topics, including his celebrated story about a jumping frog contest in Calaveras County in the Sierra Nevada foothills.  He would regale crowds with tales of the Sandwich Islands as well as his Roughing It adventures in the Wild West and his 1867 “Innocents Abroad” travels to Europe.  He later recalled that The Innocents Abroad marked a turning point in his life, because the book led to his remarkable literary success after he turned to writing novels like Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Mark Twain became an American icon because of his clever humor, captivating lectures, great novels, incisive social commentary, insightful journalism, philosophical thinking and opinionated persona.  He gave public talks to overflowing audiences for decades, frequently provoking uproarious laughter and receiving great acclaim for his performances.  He was down-to-earth and neighborly in his lectures, and he spoke with a deadpan delivery, drawling dryly and making dramatically effective use of pauses to heighten anticipation and amusement.  He asserted that the judicious usage of pauses in verbal expression can have “exceeding value”, and he exemplified this virtue in his often-hilarious talks. 

His lampooning wit and whimsical observations and practical jokes were a kind of genius that sprang from a perceptive awareness of the natural pretensions, vanities, follies and fraudulent behaviors of humankind in general.  His clever ability to humorously depict these foibles endeared him to his big audiences. He often related ludicrous stories and expressed astonished bemusement, and was genuinely funny with his appealing and captivating delivery. Not only was he a canny observer of life, but he also startled his audiences with his eloquence, unpretentiousness and accessibility.

I highly recommend the filmmaker Ken Burns’ almost poetic film Mark Twain, for it is a production that provides excellent images and insights into the life and character of Samuel Clemens.  It is available on Netflix.  Check it out!

Formative Influences, Including the Genesis and Revelations of The Innocents Abroad

Mark Twain loved to travel.  Once he had left Missouri, he rarely returned to the Midwest for the rest of his life.  He lived primarily in the Northeast, and spent more than eight years living abroad during the 1890s.  His extensive travels during his life reflected the fact that he enjoyed the variety and cultural experiences involved in traveling.  Like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, he loved freedom and he hated routine.  Similarly, most people like variety and do not like routine, and many people have desires for freedom, adventure, travel, escape and even an ardor for undertaking a heroic odyssey of some sort.  There is no doubt that travel broadens one’s horizons and perspective, and Sam would likely have agreed that all who wander are not necessarily lost.  Ah, wanderlust!  (But make no mistake about it, “wherever you go, there you are.”)

Each of us also has contrasting urges to put down roots and find a calm and connected balance in our often hectic lives.  Most of us would consider it ideal to have a secure base in life from which we would be somewhat free to make our own individualistic and adventurous excursions. Such situations foster variety, which is a nice existential spice, stimulating and rather satisfying.

Mark Twain’s first travels to Europe and the Middle East were on a five-month voyage from New York City to the Mediterranean and the Holy Land in 1867 aboard an elegant side-wheel steamship named the Quaker City.  He accompanied a group of 75 other passengers on this trip, most of whom were staunchly religious.  Their pilgrimage to the Holy Land revealed to him a shocking reality of beggars, filth, appalling conditions, desolate landscapes, squalid ruins, braying donkeys, melancholy dogs, ignorantly superstitious people, petty frauds, vandalism and historical falsifications.  As he ruefully observed later, “It is an awful trial on a man's religion to waltz it through the Holy Land.”

After returning from his voyage aboard the Quaker City, he assembled and revised the many stories he had written for newspapers about the journey.  He then published a book with the full title of The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress.  He was ostensibly striving to piggyback his book on the shoulders of the extraordinarily successful 1678 classic by John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is To Come.  This was a simplistic Christian allegory that is oddly one of the most widely published works of literature in history.  Faithful and Pliable would so attest.  Interestingly, The Innocents Abroad became the best selling of Mark Twain’s works during his life.

By the time the Quaker City returned to the East Coast, Mark Twain regarded people who believed in a literal “Second Advent” of Jesus Christ with severe skepticism.  He had seen that believers in this biblical myth seemed to relish the idea of innocent non-believers being slaughtered in mass during foretold apocalyptic End Times even more than they appeared to actually look forward to a time of potential fellowship and love and peace and beauty and glory and redemption in an idyllic afterlife in Heaven.  In keeping with this point of view, Mark Twain portrays people in his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as being far more devoted in their religious observances to self-righteous attitudes and ‘duty to God’ than to brotherhood with the poor or concerns for the downtrodden.  Mark Twain once remarked:  “This thing of stretching the narrow garment of belief till it fits the broad shoulders of a wish, is too much for my stomach.”

A deeper investigation into End Times concepts of religious fundamentalists is explored in Rapture Mania: Bizarre Beliefs and Epic Epiphanies.  Zone in!  Read about the bizarre ‘Rapture Index’, and the wiser idea of a Sustainability Index that would help us collectively see ways to accomplish vital greater good goals like reducing injustices, mitigating inequalities, solving existential problems, building peace, stopping rainforest destruction, protecting wetlands, mitigating global warming-induced climate change, reducing the production of toxic wastes, protecting biological diversity, and discouraging risk-laden rapid growth in human numbers and potential disastrous population overshoot.

An Aside Concerning Theodore Roosevelt

Mark Twain loved leisure time.  Since he had traveled around the world more extensively than almost anyone else alive in his day, he had earned the right to consider it a luxury to stay in bed until late morning.  His penchant for enjoying leisure time contrasts distinctly with the inclinations of Theodore Roosevelt, another iconic figure who was a contemporary of his, though almost 24 years younger.

Roosevelt lionized “the strenuous life” and criticized a life of what he described as “ignoble ease”.  He personally lived his life in ways consistent with this active philosophy, bustling with incredible energy and intrepid undertakings before and during and after his Presidency.  His nearly fatal journey down the River of Doubt in Brazil in 1914 makes an amazing story of its own.  This river was an uncharted tributary of the Amazon that snakes through one of the most treacherous jungles in the world.

While I deeply admire Mark Twain’s iconic persona and the effect he has had in America and around the world, I also admire the character of Theodore Roosevelt.  After he had become President in 1901, he sought to protect America’s national resources from corporate greed.  One of his signature accomplishments during his terms in office was to conserve forests and fresh water resources and wildlife habitats.  His conservation convictions were so strong that he succeeded in having 230 million acres of land set aside for the public in the form of five National Parks and 150 national forests, along with 51 federal game preserves and bird sanctuaries, 18 national monuments, and 24 fresh water reclamation projects. Among the National Parks he established was the extraordinarily beautiful Crater Lake National Park and the impressive Mesa Verde National Park.

Think about this great accomplishment.  “It was an astounding record, unprecedented and against all odds; for much of what the president did he had to do despite Congress,” declared biographer Philip McFarland.  “But Congress and the property interests that Congress by-and-large spoke for -- the lumbermen, ranch owners, mine owners, commercial hunters, the beef and other trusts -- fought him along the way. The Constitution had charged the House of Representatives with spending the people’s money;  and Joe Cannon, Speaker of the House, wouldn’t spend one cent of it, he said, on scenery!”

“Others protested the government’s interference in what belongs to all of us.  Why was the President meddling with that?  Those were our lands out there, our forests, property to purchase and use as we chose.  They were, yes, the young president agreed, except that ‘we’ and ‘our’ included Americans yet unborn, who far outnumbered the nation’s current inhabitants.” 

This is a valuable perspective for us today, because any assessment of the collective best interests of all humankind are shifted substantially when the best interests of generations of people yet to be born are taken into account!  (Let’s begin to do it, and reject the conflict-of-interest-filled ambitions of power-abusing conservatives and rash resource exploiters, in all future elections!)

Theodore Roosevelt is also somewhat of a hero in my mind because he was a Republican who fought the corrupting influence of powerful corporations.  During his tenure as President, the Department of Justice brought more than 40 lawsuits against huge corporate trusts.  Dozens of big corporate entities were busted up into smaller organizations so that they wouldn’t be able to abuse monopoly power so easily.  Today’s Republicans, operating in our Big Money corrupted political system, are veritable cowards and pandering pushovers by contrast!  And the libertarian anti-environmentalism of Tea Party Republicans casts a dim light on the respectability and integrity of their public service. To me, their rigid ideological unwillingness to compromise seems ludicrously misguided.  I do declare!

Theodore Roosevelt spoke these words in 1910 in a speech titled The New Nationalism:

“At every stage, and under all circumstances, the essence of the struggle is to equalize opportunity, destroy unfair privilege, and give to the life and citizenship of every individual the highest possible value both to himself and to the commonwealth.”  Right on!  He continued:

“I stand for the square deal.  But when I say that I am for the square deal, I mean not merely that I stand for fair play under the present rules of the games, but that I stand for having those rules changed so as to work for a more substantial equality of opportunity and of reward for equally good service.”  Excellent call, Theodore!

Roosevelt also spoke in The New Nationalism about the epic and contentious strife between Capital and Labor.  This conflict has been intense since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and it has been a “conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess.”  And it is “a struggle of freemen to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will.”  These sure are percipient, highly relevant words today!

Remarkably, President Roosevelt was among the first to support a kind of universal health insurance plan.  He did so because he believed that no country could be strong whose people were sick and poor.  More than 100 years have passed since Roosevelt’s presidency, and today there sadly are millions of people without health insurance who get their “health care” in emergency rooms.  There is still sensationally strong opposition by “conservatives” to sensible and fair-minded reforms that would make healthcare fairly available to all, and they even seem to oppose a smart emphasis on preventative measures and making medical care more affordable.  Dignity in dying?  They’re against it!

Of course, almost anything can be judged in dramatically different ways.  Consider the fact, in light of these virtues of Theodore Roosevelt, that Mark Twain once wrote in private that he regarded Roosevelt as "far and away the worst president we have ever had.”  Clemens expressed this sentiment because of Roosevelt’s excessive enthusiasm for war, and because the President had subjected Henry Rogers, one of his personal friends and a financial savior, to a vituperative verbal lashing.  Rogers at the time was the vice-president of Standard Oil and a famously shark-like capitalist who was known as Hell-Hound Rogers.  The jury is still out on both Roosevelt and Rogers, as it is on us all.

On Early Rising

Mark Twain definitely did not like to get up early.  He wrote an article about the misadventures of a trip made “at an hour in the morning when all God-fearing Christians ought to be in bed.”  In this humorous sketch titled Early Rising, As Regards Excursions to the Cliff House, he made note of the really rude contrast between the anticipated pleasures of an early morning excursion out to Ocean Beach in San Francisco and the actual nature of the experience. 

Expectations and reality often do not coincide, as most everyone knows.  We may make plans in good hopes of enjoying some pleasure in them, but as travelers can attest, plans can go awry, and distinctive inconveniences -- or worse -- can occur.  It turns out that unexpected and fortuitous pleasures are often of a richer variety than those we intend.  Adventures, interestingly, are in actuality often real considerable inconveniences that we regard in retrospect as more noteworthy than more mundane experiences.  Things may fortuitously turn out better than we expected (for a while), but of course the certainty of our own personal deaths provides us with a cogent context in which to see our lives and to appreciate Being Here Now.  Philosophers point out that rather than regarding our mortality as lamentable, we should use this reminder to focus on living well, and realizing What Really Matters, and appreciating any good fortune we have, while it lasts.  Eat, drink, and be merry?!  And strive to leave a positive legacy.

Mark Twain on Belief, Fate, God, and Satan

The circumstances surrounding Samuel Clemens’ towering achievements after humble beginnings contributed to his occasionally megalomaniacal self-image, as revealed in his correspondence with others.  Fortunately, he had a contrasting inclination to be slyly self-deprecating, and he was able to laugh at himself occasionally, which is a quite healthy attitude to have in life. 

Early in his career he had realized that ridiculing others could be an occupation that would generally be met with anger and criticism in reaction, and it was fraught with a certain measure of hypocrisy.  Ridiculing the fool within is a vein that can be much more profitably and safely mined.  A collateral benefit of this approach is that one’s own fool is a fairly good representative of the fool in others.  All miners know that some veins are richer than others to exploit, and Mark Twain had discovered that the specific veins of absolute certitudes and ethnocentric convictions of righteous religious superiority are like the Comstock Mother Lode of folly and ludicrously hypocritical small-mindedness.

Fate has a fickle finger, whether or not one believes in any sort of circumstantial determinism.  A particular concatenation of events led to an agonizing death of Sam’s younger brother Henry in June 1858.  Henry was in the wrong place at the wrong time when a boiler exploded on the steamboat Pennsylvania, killing 250 people.  Sam had gotten Henry his job working on steamboats, so he felt anguished guilt and terrible self-reproach when his brother suffered an excruciating death from severe burns. This event contributed to his belief in the randomness of good and bad luck in life, and to his skepticism concerning religious claims that there is an all-knowing, all-powerful Christian God who is providential and paternalistic and caring and loving. 

This tragic accident reinforced Mark Twain’s doubt as to whether a benevolent force exists in the cosmos, and these feelings eventually became subsidiary themes in his novels and written sketches and public talks.  The tragedy also contributed to his fascination with parapsychology and dreams, particularly in the wake of a dream that had foretold Henry’s death in striking detail, like a bona fide premonition.  In my personal experience, most accidents and calamities arrive without being announced, so even in the year 2012, with 2020 hindsight, I expressed the opinion that it is hard to explain the principles, beyond coincidence, by which a phenomenon such as premonition might operate.

Mark Twain lived in times where superstitions and fears of “sin” and “Hell” had powerful portent.  Remember that religious authorities fervently promoted a concept of “eternal damnation” in those days, and beliefs in supernatural causes were widespread.  Today we might be more inclined to be skeptical, though most people might agree with novelist Joseph Conrad, who wrote in 1911:  "The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary;  men alone are quite capable of every wickedness."  Yes, indeed -- and tragically so!

Advances in knowledge in the past century have definitively corroborated the fact that geophysical events like earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and severe storms have natural causes.  Some people attribute such things to an angry God that is supremely peeved about moral transgressions, but those folks are generally merely revealing deep biases and judgmental prejudices and superstitious ignorance. Such projections onto a deity reflect fears, anger and spite that can be used as a basis for real evils like harsh discrimination, ethnocentric hatreds and even brutal violence against minorities, immigrants, poor people, women, gay men, lesbians, or those who believe in different gods.

Mark Twain had become disillusioned when he was young with teachings in the New Testament that asserted people would get what they asked for, if only they prayed hard enough.  Prayer just didn’t seem to yield hoped-for results, and besides it was so self-oriented and “so ignoble” to him.  His novels convey the strength of fears and superstitions that were inspired by religion in his day, especially among black slaves.  His books also reflect the author’s suspicions that fate may be largely determined by happenstance and luck.

“Then I see a snake, a puff adder gliding along as smooth as silk.  This is the queer part I’m trying to tell.  I don’t shoot off like a rocket and lam out of there, I just lay quiet watching it come along the ground till it reaches my foot where it stops, surprised I’m still there, not scared or nothing...  I knowed right off it’s a sign, but the meaning of it was a mystery.”

                                                      --- The Further Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Greg Matthews

Have you ever experienced a coincidental circumstance that seemed to you like a sign?  All manner of such occurrences may take place, but assessing the meaning of them puts me in a frame of mind to contemplate John Fowles observation in The Aristos:

“ … below the surface, we do not know;  we shall never know why;  we shall never know tomorrow;  we shall never know a god, or if there is a god;  we shall never even know ourselves.  This mysterious wall around our world, and around our perception of it, is not there to frustrate us, but to train us back to the now, to life, to our time being.”

Samuel Clemens’ mother had suffered a number of misfortunes in her life, but she had a spirited love of living and she managed to maintain a “sunshiny disposition”.  This seems to be an excellent attitude to maintain in life.  See and appreciate the positive! 

In his later days, Sam was plagued by disappointments and hardships and tragedies, so he harbored a conviction that the dark forces of ‘Satan’ may have more influence in human affairs than the bright forces of ‘God’ and ‘angels’.  He had an almost compulsive fascination with seemingly malevolent forces in the universe, recognizing that bad fortune is often the result of circumstances, and that adversities are often made worse by the harsh and heartless inhumanity of criminals, murderers, corrupt government officials, dictators, religious fundamentalists, robber barons, die-hard ideologues, and other such-like villains.

A Digression Concerning Sam Clemens Parents

I only recently stumbled across the rich online archive of New York Times articles about Mark Twain that span the period from 1867 to 1970.  I read with lively interest the article from February 5, 1928 about Mark Twain’s mother and an interview with the woman who was a real life character model that Mark Twain used in his novels for Becky Thatcher.

Mark Twain’s mother was Jane Lampton Clemens.  She was a great lover of fun.  "She preferred folks who were full of life, liked anything gay, and hated the solemn and morbid."  So stated Aretta L. Watts, who wrote this article in the New York Times in 1928 about Mrs. Laura Hawkins Frazer, a boyhood sweetheart of Mark Twain’s who figured prominently in his novels as Becky Thatcher.  At the time of the article in 1928, Mrs. Frazer had reached the age of 90 but still had vivid memories of the Clemens family.  To her, of course, the famous humorist was Sam, not Mark.

"Sam was always full of mischief," said Mrs. Frazer, "and liked to tease his mother.  For this she often reprimanded him.  She never knew what he was going to do next."

Mrs. Clemens was quite the opposite of her husband, who was a dreamy sort of person.  He was proud, silent and austere, and seemed to have little luck in business.  It was of his sojourn in Florida, Missouri before the family moved to Hannibal that Sam later remarked about his father, 'He had no particular luck except that I was born.'

Jane Clemens was like Sam in that she possessed a dry sort of humor.  "In all her likes and dislikes Mrs. Clemens was quite decided.  She cared for almost anything spectacular -- parades, picnics, circuses, shows of all kinds.  She found delight in going to market, enjoyed mingling with people and bringing them home with her.  Her house was filled with guests oftener perhaps than she could afford."

“Mrs. Clemens, and in fact all the family, liked the colored people around Hannibal.  The colored people liked her, and would do almost anything for her.  They always called her Aunt Jane or Miss Jane.  She was never a Puritan in any sense, but she tried to raise her children to be good and dutiful.”

In 1849, when Sam was 14 years old, gold seekers on the way to California were streaming through Hannibal and “many of the men and boys, including Sam, got the gold fever.  Mrs. Clemens excitedly watched the covered wagon processions go through.  Sam, not content with mere watching, expended his energy with the gang playing at mining;  they borrowed skiffs and went down the river three miles to the cave where they would stake their claims and pretend to dig gold."

These reflections take me back to the life and times of the great author, and provide fodder for contemplation.  Sam’s father, it is said, had once been well off, but had lost his money, so when they came West to Missouri, "they were very poor but mighty fine people."  Being might fine people is commendable!

The Light and the Dark

Things had gone so well in his life, by-and-large, that by the age of 50, Sam Clemens was astonished at the extent of his good fortune.  He had a happy family and an extensive group of friends and was living a storied existence in a large mansion in Hartford, Connecticut.  Since he had come from very modest roots and had achieved great fame as Mark Twain, he was proud to have earned substantial wealth and worldwide accolades.

Sam Clemens’ immense success by the age of 50 can be seen as his glory years.  Wouldn’t you know it, these years were followed, in contrast, by some very challenging times in the last quarter-century of his life, when he had good cause to feel bereft and adrift due to the tragic deaths of his beloved daughter Susy in 1896 and his wife Livy in 1904.  He also had squandered huge sums of money and invested poorly, and his publishing firm Webster & Company was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1894.  Feeling the financial pinch as early as 1891, the Clemens family had been obliged to move to Europe to save money and get their financial house in order.  In the summer of 1895, Sam and Livy and their oldest daughter Clara sailed forth on an around-the-world cruise and lecture tour to pay off debts.  By 1898, he had earned enough to honorably succeed in that task. 

One of the most tragic events during this period was the death of his first daughter Susy.  She was the family favorite back in those innocent days long ago “when such open partiality was commonplace”, according to biographer Philip McFarland.  Susy provided a fertile source of inspiration to her father, who regarded her as a prodigy.  “She is the most interesting person I have ever known, of either sex,” declared one good family friend.  “She knows all there is of life and its meanings,” said another about her when she was still a teenage girl. 

Susy secretly wrote a biography about her father in 1885-1886, starting when she was 14 years old.  It was titled Papa: An Intimate Biography of Mark Twain.  She kept it under her pillow, and she wrote nearly 20,000 words before breaking off in mid-sentence and never continuing it.  Samuel observed late in his life, writing of this biography by his daughter:  "I had had compliments before, but none that touched me like this;  none that could approach it for value in my eyes.  It has kept that place always since."

In Susy’s biography, she asserted that her father did not like going to church, because he loved to hear himself talk, but couldn’t bear to hear someone else go on and on and on, like a preacher.  She clearly loved and admired her father, but she also shared some of his personal faults, as she wrote, like having a quick temper and being somewhat absent-minded.  Hmmm … well, stuff happens.

Sam Clemens openly admitted that he thought of Susy when he wrote his Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc:  "Susy at 17, Joan of Arc at 17.  Secretly, I drew Joan's physical portrait from Susy at that age, when I came to write that book.  Apart from that, I had no formally appointed model for Joan but her own historical self.  Yet there were several points of resemblance between the girls, such as vivacity, enthusiasm, precocious wisdom, wit, elegance, mental penetration, and nobility of character.”  Wonderful qualities!

Susy Clemens thought the world did not accurately understand her papa.  They saw Mark Twain as "a humorist joking at everything."  But Susy saw him as much more than that, and she was determined to set the record straight.  In her biographical journal, Susy documented her world-famous father -- from his habits (good and bad!) to his writing routine to their family's colorful home life.  Her biography was “frank, funny and tender”, and it gives rare insight and a compelling perspective of this American icon. 

Susy was reputedly charming and attractive, with “dark eyes full of intelligence and an alert eager manner.”  She attended Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania in 1890-91, just five years after it was founded to give young women academic opportunities that many young men took for granted.  She later expressed strong emotional longing for an intimate friendship that she had forged with Louise Brownell, a fellow classmate at Bryn Mawr.  Susy had sent Louise more than three dozen letters that have survived in the historical record, and she expressed a love-filled, romantic and passionate longing for Louise in these letters.  One observer noted that in dealing with what might be regarded as a lesbian relationship today, “There was as yet no clear notion in the 1890s of a fixed gender identity determined by the object of one’s desire.” … “College girls could develop ‘smashes’ on one another and have intimate romantic relationships without such choices or activities constituting an ‘identity’ as we have come to know it in the twenty-first century.”  Victorian times, yet innocent …

Susy tragically died at the age of 24 in Hartford while her parents and her sister Clara were on their years-long lecture trip around the world.  Perhaps there is nothing quite like tragedy and loss, remorse, and adversity to catalyze the imagination and provoke daunting dreams and provide intense and provocative insights.  Sam Clemens experienced vivid dreams of disaster and calamities after she died.  So in the story The Enchanted Sea-Wilderness, he imagined a story of a sweet, heroic and much-loved St. Bernard dog that was abandoned aboard a flaming ship.  And in The Great Dark, he conjured up a man with a happy family peering into a microscope at infinitesimal creatures in a drop of water, and then the man enters a dream world where the family is aboard a ship under sail on that very same drop of water in perpetual darkness among grave dangers.

Sam Clemens felt a deep sense of loneliness later in his life after Susy had died.  His wife Livy died in 1904 and then a final sling and arrow of tragic angst and sorrow pierced his heart in the last year of his life when his youngest daughter Jean died of a sudden epileptic fit while taking a bath at night on Christmas Eve.  As a result of the many adversities of his last twenty years of life, the aging man can be forgiven for having harbored doubts about the existence of a benevolent God. 

An Aside on Passages in Life

Every person is on his or her own individual life journey, and we all go through our own personal life passages.  I find it interesting that some famous men like Mark Twain achieved triumphant success in their lives but then experienced dramatically different stages in their lives as they got older.  Ludwig van Beethoven and Carl Jung were two others who had been exceptionally successful in the middle years of their lives and then experienced serious adversities that forced them to become much more philosophical in their waning years.  Being Mortal, one never knows what fate is in store. 

Beethoven has been called the “first rock star” for the fame his virtuoso piano playing and brilliant musical compositions engendered after he had moved from his native Germany to Vienna, Austria.  He had three distinct stages in his life, the most notable being his “heroic period” when he wrote pieces like his Symphony No. 5, with its famously booming opening notes.  Then his musical compositions underwent a transition to a third period, when his health was faltering and he was losing his hearing, and his music has a more meditative character and reflects a pensive, muted and transcendent spirit. 

Likewise, Carl Jung had achieved great fame early in his career as a psychologist, but later in life he experienced a “metanoia” life crisis and sought healing in “the spirit of the depths”.  It was during these years that he created his deeply meditative Red Book as a reflective response.  Carl Jung’s life and fascinating perspectives are explored in Transcendental Musings: A Bugle Horn Sounds for Solidarity of Purpose.

The Value of Great Literature and Artistic Perspectives in Better Understandings

History itself is like a turbulent river, a great confluence of people, ideas and events.  The course of history, like the course of a river, can be reshaped by distant storms.  Since the remote days of our ancestors’ incipient awareness, human beings have strived to comprehend reality and things that are mysterious and ineffable, implacable or sublime.  The history of philosophical ideas and understandings can be seen as a series of stages that began as superstition, then evolved into theology, and were later explained by abstruse metaphysical abstractions.  Finally, today they are understood in a more comprehensive way through the coupling of direct experience with scientific observations, hypotheses and experiments that reflect the functioning of the world in accordance with natural causes and effects.  Like a river, life undergoes evolutionary change, and it does so highlighted by "punctuated equilibrium" events.  Notably, our interpretations of reality profoundly influence the way we believe reality to be, whether our perspectives are accurate or not.

    “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”

                                                                                            --- Albert Einstein

Great literature can provide us with deep understandings by presenting compelling ideas and universal themes and underlying motifs.  Literary passages often use subtle but powerful symbolism.  In the days before the visual imagery of mediums like photography and television, such themes and motifs and symbolism appealed to reader’s imagination much more cogently than the concrete and numbing specificity of more modern forms of media with their rapid sequences of images.  Unfortunately, mass media today tends to be obsessed with sex and violence, and the modes of media that inform us are filled with bad news, conflict, war, ideology and brazen propaganda.  And mass media is interrupted, all too frequently, by shallow, distracting, subliminally manipulative commercial messages.

Symbolism can be simple, transparent and allegorically plain, as it was in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, with its characters Christian, Evangelist, Obstinate, Pliable, Worldly Wiseman, Faithful, Hypocrisy and the like.  Symbolism can also be complex, abstruse and even shadowy, as in Melville’s Moby Dick, in which the deranged Captain Ahab sees an evil malignity and despair on an all-consuming scale, and then projects these feelings as an embodiment onto a great white whale. 

The symbolism in Mark Twain’s stories is one of their most noteworthy facets.  The Mississippi River symbolized a godlike force to him, with its unpredictable and impersonal natural forces of currents, floods, snags, fog and other dangers.  The river also represented adventure, escape, and the essence of freedom.  Like a river with a turbulent flow, every person's life metaphorically swirls with complexity.  We are all affected by inexplicable eddies, unfathomable undercurrents, unconscious biological imperatives, seductions of status and power, labyrinthine undertows of ambiguity, and motivating desires for material goods.  Mark Twain recognized that each and every one of us, himself included, has comic foibles, tragic flaws and stunning failures, as well as individual promise and rich potential.

Naturalists and psychologists alike recognize that wisdom can be gained through insights gleaned from close observations of natural phenomena, and from insightful introspections into human nature.  Time spent by a lovely river that cascades out of majestic mountains, for instance, allows one to reflect on life, and may reinforce understandings of the value of going with the flow, of letting be what is, and of making the best of whatever comes our way.  “Breathe in slowly and deeply, and breathe out, letting go.”  (Repeat!)

The Jewish Buddhist Sylvia Boorstein once sagely observed, “We don’t get a choice about what hand we are dealt in life.  The only choice we have is our attitude about the cards we hold and the finesse with which we play our hand.”  Yay for positive thinking!  While hiking in areas with swift streams that must be crossed, it becomes clear that one should pay close attention and focus on maintaining balance and being nimble as you go.  These are good lessons for coping in life! 

“All great books are symbolical myths, overlaid like a palimpsest with the meanings that men at various

   times assign to them.”

                                 --- Clifton Fadiman, in his Introduction to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick

Symbolism can be an essential way of apprehending and understanding reality because it contains a compellingly sensuous and intrinsically visual quality.  Literary symbolism can reveal much about the conscious and unconscious aspects of an author’s life experiences and passions and ways of thinking.  Symbolism is interpreted by readers according to their own personal perceptions, emotions, biases, cultural conditioning, worldviews and projections.  Thus, symbolism can be a kind of Rorschach test that evokes feelings and reveals readers even unto themselves. 

In an actual Rorschach test, intricate inkblots are used as a psychological tool to assess a person’s subjective interpretations of abstract visual images.  This can reveal fascinating insights into the subject’s personality and mental projections and emotional make-up and thought processes.  Aha!  See the extensive exploration of world literature and philosophy contained in the Earth Manifesto essay Inspiration, Imagination, and the Deep Well of Human Impulses for associated insights.

A Subjective Perspective of Storytelling and its Significance

Storytelling is one of humanity's oldest creative traditions.  The telling of stories began as oral histories that were passed down through many generations in various cultures, long before the invention of alphabets and the written word.  Languages themselves are like rivers, ever changing and flourishing and sometimes drying up and dying away. 

Some people wax philosophical and say that storytelling is an effort to achieve a kind of immortality.  Just think about this.  Sam Clemens has achieved the enduring attention of millions of people around the world, and his novels continue to be discovered long after his death.  Many of his writings have been published posthumously in the century since he died, and articles and books continue to be written about him, so in many ways he has indeed achieved a kind of immortality.

In a literal case of storytelling contributing to longer life, the famous Arabian Nights is one heck of a fantastic tale, and one that Sam Clemens happened to hold in high regard.  It is a story about a beautiful, wise and clever woman named Scheherazade who married a Persian king notorious for marrying a succession of virgins and then executing each of them the morning after he married them.  He supposedly did this because his first wife had been unfaithful to him, and so he was intensely motivated to prevent any other woman from committing such mortifying infidelity.  Scheherazade told the king compelling stories night after night, weaving unfinished tales in such a captivating manner that he was kept in thrall, eager to hear more, and more, and more, and thus he ended up sparing her life again and again and again for 1,001 nights. 

Scheherazade’s tales were entertaining, but they also taught morals and kindness.  These stories progressively enlightened the king, and he finally made her his Queen.  Storytelling saved her life, staving off the premature mortality that would otherwise have been her fate at the hands of her rashly despotic husband.  In many of the stories Scheherazade told in Arabian Nights, characters are waylaid by chance and circumstance, thus making preordained destiny and inevitable fate seem like plausible things in which to believe.  This may have been one reason Samuel Clemens loved the stories in the Arabian Nights so much.  He found them to be among the most creative and original tales in the history of literature, and they provoked his thinking about circumstance and chance in the meandering course of life.

Samuel Clemens also respected his contemporary, the brilliant novelist Charles Dickens, as well as the famous theatrical plays of the Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare.  Sam marveled at Thomas Paine’s fearlessness and power, as expressed in books like The Age of Reason, and he loved Miguel Cervantes’ fabulous stories of the knight-errant Don Quixote who traveled around the La Mancha region of Spain on his horse Rocinante with his sidekick Sancho Panza.  Don Quixote’s ridiculous behavior, tilting at windmills, led to a new word, “quixotic”, meaning “romantic without regard to practicality”.  Ah, Dulcinea, to dream the impossible dream!

A wide variety of techniques such as the ‘frame story’ (containing stories within stories) have been used in literary composition to captivate readers.  Two of the most famous examples of frame stories are the Arabian Nights and The Canterbury Tales.  Though Mark Twain began his writing career as a journalist, a humorist and a travel writer, he later created some of the greatest American novels by using his mastery of telling stories and tall tales in his own unique kind of frame narratives, such as the adventures of Huckleberry Finn seeking freedom that take place during a raft journey with the escaped slave Jim as they floated together down the sometimes turbulent Mississippi.

Mark Twain’s greatest novels are notable for the use of vernacular speech by his characters that authentically reflected the Negro culture of the South and the anything-but-genteel culture of the Wild West during Gold Rush days. Vernacular refers to the native language and colloquialisms of a region or locality.  The use of vernacular made Mark Twain’s stories more evocative and accessible to the general public, I reckon.  Most of the original editions of his novels were extensively illustrated, a fact that gave his readers an additional way to appreciate and enjoy his works.

Mark Twain kept notebooks that he filled with observations as “his way of processing experience.”  Many people regard him as a keen observer and a deep philosophical thinker, and he was able to interweave his rich personal experiences, great sense of humor, and vivid imagination into highly entertaining stories.  His fervent brain drove him to observe astutely and to express himself both authentically and facetiously, and even sometimes eloquently.  He also had a way of writing things that are wildly exaggerated and even preposterous, and he often wantonly made things up.  He was fond of adjusting facts and exaggerating circumstances to make a good story.  Albert Bigelow Paine, his biographer, explained that he had “curious confusions of memory and imagination that more than once resulted in a complete reversal of the facts.”  I wonder if that’s ever happened to anyone else?!

“You know, I never told the truth in my life that someone didn’t say I was lying, while, on the other hand,  I never told a lie that somebody didn’t take it as a fact.”

                                                                                                --- Mark Twain

A Slithering Aside on Snakes and Humor

Here is a funny passage that demonstrates Mark Twain’s wonderful creativity.  Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer were mischievous boys, oh, I reckon so!  They knew that women generally were not fond of snakes, and this sure warn’t something they learned in Sunday school.  The boys, just for some fun, collected “a couple dozen garters and house-snakes” in a bag and hid them in a bedroom of the home of Tom’s Aunt Sally.  The snakes soon got loose:

 “No, there warn’t no real scarcity of snakes about the house for a considerable spell.  You’d see them dripping from the rafters and places, every now and then;  and they generly landed in your plate, or down the back of your neck, and most of the time where you didn’t want them.  Well, they was handsome, and striped, and there warn’t no harm in a million of them;  but that never made no difference to Aunt Sally, she despised snakes, be the breed what they might, and she couldn’t stand them no way you could fix it;  and every time one of them flopped down on her, it didn’t make no difference what she was doing, she would just lay that work right down and light out… And if she turned over and found one in bed, she would scramble out and lift a howl that you would think the house was afire … Why, after every last snake had been gone clear out of the house for as much as a week, Aunt Sally warn’t over it yet;  she warn’t nearly over it;  when she was setting thinking about something, you could touch her on the back of her neck with a feather and she would jump right out of her stockings.  It was very curious.” 

Ha!  Those boys were real rascals.  Bravo for Mark Twain’s humor!

Note that all the ideas in this biography are, in a sense, elaborations of the observations and philosophies contained in the 121 Soliloquies of the original Earth Manifesto, published in October 2004 (Book Nine, and Part Seven online), AND of such treatises as the ‘magnum opus’ of the Earth Manifesto, Comprehensive Global Perspectives: An Illuminating Worldview (Book Seven).  At the moment I write this, none of these writings have ever been read in full by anyone.  Make history!  The imaginative reflections in Inspiration, Imagination, and the Deep Well of Human Impulses alone would be well worth the time spent, in my humble opinion.  And speaking of tall tales and the truths they may embody, I encourage readers to check out Tall Tales, Provocative Parables, Luminous Clarity, and Evocative Truths:  A Modern Log from the Sea of Cortez.  This story advances the brilliant ideas of writer John Steinbeck in the context of my own excursion to the Sea of Cortez with a group of great gal friends seven or eight years ago.  

The Liberating Effects of Writing under a Nom de Plume

Sam Clemens was fascinated with switched identities, imposters, twins, multiple personalities, relativistic uncertainties, confused identities, and the true reality behind appearances.  He explored these things in short stories like The Siamese Twins, and in novels like Pudd’nhead Wilson and The Prince and the Pauper.  I suspect that this interest may have been correlated to his adoption of a nom de plume.  His use of a pen name seems to have inspired his interest in dual personas and situational ambiguities, and it also gave free rein to his alter ego.  It may even have had the substantial effect of helping liberate his creativity.

Mark Twain once wrote, “In religion and politics, people's beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination.” He bemoaned the unfortunate “decay of independent thought”.  Everyone has their own bright ideas, to be sure, but they are not always consonant with reality.  Most ideas are like “Corn Pone Opinions”, inherited or learned as a result of the ways parents bring up their children or through the repetitive indoctrination by churches or other forms of peer and social conditioning.  All too many people have swallowed questionably-valid conservative political ideologies and religious dogmas “hook-line-and-sinker”. 

This is why Mark Twain’s intellect, clever wit and irreverent satire were brazenly directed at people’s behaviors and the frequent odd folly of their actions. His laughter at preposterous beliefs, sanctimonious piousness, narrow puritanism, hypocrisy and literal interpretations of the Bible stem from such genial cynicism.  He had been enveloped from boyhood in a culture steeped in conventional propriety and Victorian modesty, yet despite this fact, he personally indulged in “sinful behaviors” like smoking heaps of cheap cigars from a young age and occasionally drinking alcohol intemperately. He fell prey to a gold rush mentality, gambled, used profane language, wrote with biting satire, and sometimes acted with distinct vindictiveness toward people he perceived as having wronged him. 

Of course, trying to definitively define Mark Twain is fraught with difficulty.  His character was full of many contradictions, so all commentaries about him are only partly true.  He had a kind of split personality:  he was “an agnostic, almost anarchistic enemy of established everything”, as Malcolm Jones wrote in a Newsweek article titled “Our Hippest Literary Lion”, and yet he became a somewhat bourgeois man who “married above his station” and loved to hobnob with rich and famous people.  In his final decade of life, Mark Twain lived large and sumptuously, “a first-class life”, according to Michael Shelden in Mark Twain: Man in White. 

Malcolm Jones also noted the curious fact that few people quote Mark Twain's contemporary, Walt Whitman, a man who defined the shape of American poetry much like Mark Twain defined its prose.  Whitman once said, "Do I contradict myself?  Very well then, I contradict myself."  So be it.

A ‘Second Advent’ of Mark Twain

Picture Mark Twain sitting in his octagonal gazebo at Quarry Farm in western New York State, writing and reflecting atop a knoll overlooking a lovely river valley.  Among the many books that he wrote is the illuminating satire, Letters from the Earth.  It was not published until 1962, more than 50 years after his death, because of its scathingly irreverent and satirical nature.  He had considered the short book to be too blasphemous and sacrilegious for his times.  He had once written:  “We never become really and genuinely our entire and honest selves until we are dead -- and not then until we have been dead years and years.  People ought to start dead, and then they would be honest so much earlier.”  Yes, that’s a witty perspective!

At the time Samuel Clemens made this observation, he was no doubt thinking about all the things he had written that he was afraid to publish during his life.  In Letters from the Earth, for instance, he ridicules people’s concepts of heaven, expressing astonishment that there is so much singing and harp playing in heaven, and yet such a complete lack of respect for intellectual accomplishments or interest in sexual intercourse, which are such unmistakable features of many people’s preoccupations while they are alive. 

Hear Mark Twain’s astonishment for yourself about mankind having left sexual relations out of his conceptions of Heaven:

“… the human being, like the immortals, naturally places sexual intercourse far and away above all other joys -- yet he has left it out of his heaven!  The very thought of it excites him;  opportunity sets him wild;  in this state he will risk life, reputation, everything -- even his queer heaven itself -- to make good that opportunity and ride it to the overwhelming climax.  From youth to middle age all men and all women prize copulation above all other pleasures combined, yet it is actually as I have said:  it is not in their heaven;  prayer takes its place.”

LOL!  Yours truly, Tiffany B. Twain, considers it even more exceedingly odd that Churches leave the healthy expression of human sexuality out of their moral conceptions of life while we are alive.  The purpose of sex is not only for reproduction, not any more than the purpose of food is merely to keep us from starving to death.  For those who prudishly and atavistically oppose the use of contraceptives to prevent unwanted pregnancies, I editorially observe, get a life!

In Letters from the Earth, Mark Twain also made a telling comment concerning the Christian Bible:  “It is full of interest.  It has noble poetry in it;  and some clever fables;  and some blood-drenched history;  and some good morals;  and a wealth of obscenity;  and upwards of a thousand lies.”

I’d bet anything that in another advent of Mark Twain’s life today, he would complement the observations like those he made in Letters from the Earth with more modern inclusions, ones that I imagine would resemble a humorous version of the ideas contained in the essays of the Earth Manifesto, and in particular the epistle Revelations of a Modern Prophet.

 “A little rudeness and disrespect can elevate a meaningless interaction to a battle of wills, and add drama to an otherwise dull day.”

                                             --- Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes

Mark Twain was intently interested in geology and paleontology.  His interest led him to write A Brace of Brief Lectures on Science in 1871.  If he were to be resurrected today in some sort of miraculous Second Advent, he would be startled and impressed with the extraordinary advances in scientific understandings that have been made since his death, especially in arenas of astronomy, astrophysics, geology, biology and the electrochemical nature of the workings of the human brain.

An extensive discussion of geology precipitated out of this biography and became Gaia’s Geological Perspective: Episodes Since Genesis, an essay that delves into things like the astonishing geological processes by which the Hawaiian Islands were formed, and how the gold came to be in “them thar hills”, and how marine limestone rock layers that formed at the bottom of the Indian Ocean much later came to be found at the top of the world’s highest mountain range, the Himalayas.  One of the most important insights in this Gaia essay is one that Mark Twain would have been fascinated to have been able to hear and understand, long before geologists discovered the true nature of the genesis of the beautiful volcanic Hawaiian Islands.  This is the surprising discovery of the processes of plate tectonics and the causative relationships between a hot spot deep in Earth’s mantle, below the overlying oceanic crust, and the formation of these volcanic mountains.  These are understandings that are included in Gaia’s Geological Perspective along with further reflections on Mark Twain’s thinking, and they are hereby incorporated into this biography by this reference.

Mark Twain would have loved to be able to more fully comprehend the processes by which the current Hawaiian Islands were formed, and to understand that a 4,000-mile-long chain of former Hawaiian islands, which have been eroded down to underwater seamounts that still tower above the deep ocean floor, march all the way across the Pacific Ocean to the planet’s deepest sea trenches near the Kamchatka Peninsula and the western end of the Aleutian Islands of southwest Alaska.

In a Second Advent of Mark Twain, he’d probably even try to put all the scientific developments made since his death in 1910 into an extensively articulated elaboration of modern developments in human thought.  As likely as not, he’d marry this astute analysis with a satirical barrage of sly observations about the ridiculous follies of human nature and the fascinating pathos of the human condition.  Maybe he would even surmise that the waste in our societies is meretricious, and the level of political corruption is abominable, and neo-Gilded Age inequalities are dastardly, and aggressive American militarism is so misguided and costly as to be lame brained insane.  He would probably be extremely cynical about the ruthless U.S. military police-state occupation of Middle Eastern nations, for he had once declared:  “An inglorious peace is better than a dishonorable war.”

During Mark Twain’s extensive travels throughout his lifetime, he was deeply concerned with the exploitation of all native peoples, with the exception of American Indians, whom he largely scorned in keeping with the prejudices of his times.  He was aghast at the stupidity and barbarity that were rampant in American culture.  This is one reason he opposed U.S. imperialism and jingoistic leadership. 

At the time Mark Twain co-wrote The Gilded Age – A Tale of Today in 1873, there were about 1.5 billion people on Earth.  Today, human numbers are approaching 7.5 billion.  What would the perceptive social critic in Mark Twain have thought of this ominous trend, and of its attendant glaringly daunting problems?  He loved inventions, so he would be astonished at technological advances since his day, but in his cynicism about human folly, he would likely direct scathing sarcasm at the new set of absurdities that accompany our immoderate consumer activities and aggression and current day fundamentalist forces that so stubbornly oppose sensible international family planning policies.

In a Second Advent, Mark Twain would probably suggest that we courageously dare to doubt primitive mythological conceptions of the universe.  I imagine he would valiantly strive to attain greater clarity of perception, and with his astute critical thinking abilities, he might even focus on the wisdom of cultivating social and emotional intelligence in our daily lives.  He would clothe his lessons in humor, but he would surely use satirical wit to refute blind beliefs of moralistic, judgmental, hypocritical, evangelical, fire-and-brimstone ideologues and their narrow-minded brethren.  He would be especially cynical about attitudes that negatively affect others, instead of being true virtues like generosity of spirit and love and neighborly respect and “Christian” compassion.  And he would also, in this day and age, likely be incisively serious about the need for us to clearly recognize the intensifying impacts that our growing human needs and desires are having on the health of Earth’s ecosystems.  He thus might conclude that aggregate behavioral changes should be encouraged and incentivized so that we begin to give greater respect and protections to the oceans, atmosphere and natural habitats! 

Creativity, Intelligent Design and the Church

Mark Twain loved science and rational thinking, so he would have heaped praise on the amazing discoveries made in genetics in recent decades.  He would have been astonished by confirmations of Darwin’s scientific theory of evolution by natural selection that paleontologists have found in the fossil record, and by those discovered in the genetic record by geneticists and molecular biologists.  He would have found an expanded basis for heaping ridicule on the stubborn intransigence of Creationists in their embrace of denial, ignorance and blind belief in biblical literalism. 

He might have particularly appreciated a stunning rebuke given to disingenuous dogmas of Intelligent Design that came out of a trial in a federal court in Pennsylvania in 2005.  In this legal challenge, science teachers opposed religion-motivated members of the Dover Area School Board who had advocated questioning the scientific theory of evolution in biology classes.  Judge John Jones, a conservative judge who heard this widely watched case, eventually decried Intelligent Design as manifesting “breathtaking inanity”.  He asserted that this dogma consisted of untestable hypotheses grounded in religion, not in science.  He sensibly noted that Intelligent Design had been introduced for religious reasons as a form of repackaged Creationism.  With poetic irony, one month before Judge Jones made his ruling in this case, voters in the Dover Area cleaned house by electing 8 out of 9 people to the school board who did not hew to orthodox religious views that question the extensive evidence of biological evolution.  For deeper insight into this case, watch the Nova episode titled Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial.  It is available on Netflix.

 “God made the Idiot for practice, and then He made the School Board.”

                                                                                                              --- Mark Twain

Charles Peirce’s 2009 book Idiot America – How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free discusses the Dover Intelligent Design case in Chapter Six: God and Judge Jones.  Charles Pierce also examines such idiotic undertakings as the bizarre Creation Museum that opened in 2007 near the town of Petersburg, Kentucky, a town that lies about 400 miles east of Hannibal.  This fake “museum” depicts people riding dinosaurs that have been saddled up to show that the two species existed contemporaneously, in a ridiculous attempt to deny the fact that more than 65 million years separated the times that dinosaurs last lived and the evolutionary arrival of Homo sapiens.

“Like so much of the blasted landscape of Idiot America,” Pierce writes, “the Dover trial was a war on expertise …”.  Intelligent Design was being “sold in such a way that people would speak loudly and authoritatively in its support;  then, enough people would believe it to make it a fact, and they would believe it fervently enough to make it true.”  Ha!  Hmmm … The tradition of Mark Twain’s skepticism and ridicule lives on in America today!

Churches in the U.S. are making brazen efforts to market themselves and their ideological dogmas, as if emulating a clever sloganeering sales pitch for a “Gospel According to Wal-Mart.”  These efforts have served to cheapen almost everything worthwhile about their faiths, even their ostensible virtues as moral institutions.  The manipulation of faithful folks into giving support to reactionary politics makes our nation more anti-progressive and somewhat stupid, and anti-feminist, and less flexible, and less adaptable in dealing with overarching challenges.  “Churches, evolve!”

An Entertaining Aside

Mark Twain made a good point when he once wrote:  “It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”  Sam Clemens was much more familiar with the Bible than anyone I personally know, and he felt that people who swallow the biblical whale of a story as literal truth, rather than regarding it as myth and allegory, are far more gullible than a child who fervently believes in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, or a medieval Boogeyman.  After even a small dose of virgin births, resurrections after death, a planet-wide flood, 500-year-old men, and assertions that “There were giants in the earth in those days”, most people begin to seek more metaphorical meanings in their holy books, and in the ways they interpret such telling stories.  And they should soundly reject all encouragements and glorification of the slaughter of others. 

Religious fundamentalists, perplexingly, feel that only a properly literal and inflexible belief in their dogmatic doctrines and mythological stories is adequate to demonstrate honorably obedient faith.  These are people that become dangerous when they tread close to the lunatic fringe.  They generally have been indoctrinated from childhood in a belief that their holy book is wholly holy, so they blindly hew to bizarre notions and follow the most absurd paths.  Taken to the extreme, they are even willing to murder abortion doctors, blow themselves up to hurt others, or launch “holy wars”.

Mark Twain’s humorous scorn for the God portrayed in the Christian Bible is revealed in his exclamation that the Bible is “the most damnatory biography that exists in print anywhere.”  He had been brought up as a Presbyterian, and he regarded that faith as preferable to being in the mainstream of Christianity with its domineering Vatican hierarchy, meddling missionaries, and hypocritical faithful.  He even had some forgiving pride in Presbyterian moderation, observing: “You never see us Presbyterians getting in a sweat about religion and trying to massacre the neighbors.”  Ha!  That’s an excellent call, especially in light of violent conflicts between monotheistic religions in the world today.

Other Churchy Considerations

I love conservative Judge John Jones’ phrase “breathtaking inanity”, which he had used in referring to Intelligent Design ideologies.  Mark Twain, even in his grave, might be envious that he had not come up with those words himself to describe preposterous religious fundamentalist doctrines.  He would sigh with suppressed glee, nonetheless, at the richly cogent nature of this characterization. 

Mark Twain heaped sardonic ridicule upon those who mindlessly touted biblical certitudes, presumably because of the variety of conflicts such attitudes create.  He once indicated that the frivolousness of his literary work had one overriding serious purpose:  “the deriding of shams, the exposure of pretentious falsities, and the laughing of stupid superstitions out of existence.”  He famously wrote:  “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand,” so it is curious in this light that a revival of religious evangelism in the U.S. in the last few decades has brought into question the effectiveness of both rational thinking and ridicule against the pitched defenses of dogmatic unreason. 

Religion often presents its doctrines as a believe-it-or-else-go-to-hell proposition.  This is patently absurd.  Four of the Ten Commandments, and oddly enough the FIRST FOUR, are concerned with the proper honoring of a jealous Lord God and His holy word and the Sabbath day.  Of all the possible missing injunctions against bad human behavior, like Thou shalt not rape, Thou shalt not sexually abuse children, Thou shalt not persecute others for their personal religious beliefs, Thou shalt not commit violence against thy spouse, and dozens of others, God overlooked them all and spent four-tenths of his Commandments obsessing over any person taking “the name of the Lord thy God in vain”.  It is as if cursing is one of the worst sins, or that believing in some more likely truth than the existence of a loving jealous wrath-prone vindictive and inscrutably capricious male God is a threat to human well-being. 

I personally believe that social cohesion is becoming increasingly important as the world gets more crowded, and that monotheistic rigidity of ideological beliefs is dangerous.  The need is growing for people to collaborate together to solve problems, and should take precedence over compulsions to find righteous self-justifications in beliefs in One and Only One True God.  Demagogues who demonize others and obstruct progress are the real losers!

Fear and insecurity have remarkable motivating power.  This contributes to the unexpectedly strong staying power of established religions.  People have deep hopes for a caring personal God, and for a better life in some ‘hereafter’, so they are easily manipulated from a young age by religious authorities and the indoctrinating catechisms they teach.

    “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is an absurd one.” 

                                                                                                         --- Voltaire

The principal theme of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was that the Roman Catholic Church is ultimately an enemy of the people because it embodies the established evils of churches, especially when they manipulate religious believers for monetary and political purposes.  The Catholic Church purports to serve noble spiritual functions, but such laudable purpose is subverted by an adherence to political conservatism and an acceptance of abuses of power.  In Connecticut Yankee, the protagonist visits early medieval England and accuses the church of helping perpetuate the ills of sixth-century society.  The ills of those days included a pathetic perpetuation of extreme social inequalities, a blind subservience of the masses to authority, and a supposition that persons in the nobility had hereditary rights and deserved prerogatives.  Occupy these ideas!

Established churches have extremely sordid histories of violently opposing any evolution in their dogmas, other than shrewdly deceptive ones.  The creative transmogrification of creationism into creation science and then into intelligent design, for instance, were shrewd ploys to try to sell an archaic mythology as science, not religion.  That attempt has been done with such blatant duplicity and a dose of downright incompetence that it has always remained transparently full of holes.  Church leaders presumably think that once any part of their supposed truths are seen to be hogwash, then a closer examination might be made of all their claims, even by loyal believers. 

Many thousands of women were burned at the stake during the Middle Ages by the Catholic Church for what were minor offenses that Church leaders saw as threats to their hegemony.  Galileo was confined under house arrest in 1633 for the rest of his life after he dared contradict the Church’s antediluvian dogma that asserted the Earth is the center of the Universe.  The Church refused to admit the error of its geocentric worldviews for more than 350 years after the persecution of Galileo.  Three hundred and fifty years!  Finally, after Pope John Paul II commissioned a curiously long 13-year investigation into the Church's condemnation of Galileo, the Church formally admitted that it had erred in condemning Galileo, and that ‘Gosh, by the way, Copernicus and Galileo were right, the Earth actually does orbit around the Sun’.

Let’s hear from the famous astronomer and philosopher himself!  Galileo Galilei stated:

 “I do not feel obligated to believe that the same god who has endowed us with sense, reason, and

   intellecthas intended us to forego their use.”  -- Hallelujah!

Conservative religious authorities demand fidelity and obedience, even to the most oddly antiquated aspects of the dogmas of church, temple or mosque establishments.  To disagree and thus be a heretic or infidel is dangerous worldwide, even still today. The Mormon faith makes Utah the most bone-headedly conservative state in the Union.  Shariah Islamic Law can be intensely sexist, barbaric and cruel.  For example, the death penalty can be applied under Shariah law for ‘crimes’ of blasphemy, adultery and homosexuality, and theft can be punished by amputating a thief's hand.  Shariah law holds that both “fornication” and public intoxication should be punished by flogging. 

People’s adherence to religious dogmas is, in some ways, a barbarous waste of moral energy.  As John Fowles wrote in The Aristos, such misguided thinking is “like keeping ramshackle water mills on a river that could serve hydroelectric dynamos.”  Much more positive outcomes could be achieved if these formidable energies, along with the enormous amounts of time and money devoted to Churches, were to be redirected into more moderate, salubrious, wholesome and peaceable channels. 

Imagine, for instance, if we could transcend the terrible conflicts over religious supremacy that are taking place between crusading Christianity and opposing Islam in the world today, as manifested by the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the U.S. and the retaliatory military occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the on-going drone assassinations of Islamic extremists (and assorted innocents in the vicinity) in places like Pakistan and Yemen.  American involvements in the region have for years used air supremacy to bomb insurgents, yet terrorist extremism seems to be gaining power, as has the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.  The costs of these conflicts are terribly high in a world so much in need of wiser investments of money and energy.

Think how different the world would be if more people studied big picture open-minded progressive ideas that are future-respecting and insightful and enlightened -- rather than ideas that are closed-minded, myopic and narrowly parochial.  The synapses of our brains have a remarkable neuroplasticity, and maybe with broader ways of seeing, these synapses would build new circuits and snap into new and providential perspectives and understandings that would revolutionarily affect our societies in positive ways.  This might even make it easier for us to work together to achieve greater good goals!

Consider what a difference it would make if more people studied progressive ideas today than study the Bible and Quran.  The world would be a better place if millions of people explored and debated ideas that are socially and ecologically intelligent, like those articulated in the Earth Manifesto, instead of studying improbable stories, archaic commandments, bizarrely cartoonish concepts of a Supreme Being, and the divisive, antagonism-provoking supremacism of monotheistic religions. 

Religious devotion may not be a barbarous waste of time, energy and money from the perspective that religious beliefs can have considerable value in people’s lives, and they can provide compensatory consolation, structured values and social connections.  They represent a convenient vehicle for people to express their deep spiritual needs -- sing out loud! -- and they can be a good outlet for people to indulge their hopes and assuage their fears and insecurities.  But when fervent convictions cross the line and begin contributing to progress-opposing political activities, or when they provide strong support to politicians who rationalize harm to the environmental commons, or when they act to impose or perpetuate a host of harshly discriminatory biases or outright violence, then they should be rejected!

A fuller exploration of religion and true spirituality can be found in Revelations of a Modern Prophet.  Check it out!

Stories, Facts and Telescopic Illumination

Science and rational thinking, in contrast to religious orthodoxy, promote ideas that are consistent with the evidence of experience.  Science adaptively incorporates incisive understandings that are better whenever new insights or advanced scientific instruments come along that provide more accurate ways of seeing the world.  To believe blindly, with no evidence other than the distilled and manipulative hearsay of ‘holy books’, is like taking an irrational and stultifying plunge from the vaulting battlements of reason. 

John Fowles notes in The Aristos that there may be an “emotional heroic-defiant appeal” to such stubborn adherence to indoctrinated dogmas.  But it’s “as if, finding myself in doubt and in darkness, I should decide, instead of cautiously feeling my way forward, to leap;  not only to leap, but to leap desperately;  and not only to leap desperately, but to leap into the darkest part of the surrounding darkness.”  OMG!!

Galileo significantly improved telescopic lenses more than 400 years ago, in the year 1609, allowing him to observe four moons orbiting the planet Jupiter.  This surprising discovery helped confirm the theory, first advanced in 1543 by Nicolaus Copernicus, that the solar system operates on a different principle than one that involves everything revolving around a stationary Earth.  This knowledge effectively displaced the Earth from the center of the Universe in our understandings, whether we liked it or not.  The Catholic Church refused to admit this fact for centuries;  its leaders seem to have preferred to burn people at the stake for heresy for refusing to conform to their narrow, dogmatic and erroneous version of reality.  Dastardly!

Telescopes and microscopes are instruments that have vastly improved our ability to see the cosmically big and the extremely small in the universe.  The insights gained from such expanded vision should not be denied merely because they contradict primitive understandings of the world.  Seeing is believing!  The photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope provide us, for instance, with extraordinary pictures of things like “The Pillars of Creation”, huge clouds of interstellar gas and dust in the Eagle Nebula in which new stars are being created.  The Hubble Space Telescope also gave us a beautiful view of “The Perfect Storm” in the Swan Nebula, revealing another hotbed of star formation, along with thousands of other almost artistic visions of astrophysical reality.

The greatest advance in the resolution of telescopes since Galileo’s day was achieved after the Hubble Space Telescope, launched in April 1990, had its optics properly focused in December 1993 and helped revolutionize our human understanding of the universe.  Its images have been used to determine that the universe is almost 14 billion years old, and to confirm the “existence and ubiquity of black holes”.  Hubble images have surprised scientists with discoveries about deep space and early developments in the universe, and they have helped us learn more about the planets in our own neighborhood of the cosmos.  These images have led to a “recent revolution in human conception of the universe” that has more-or-less “done away with the old sense of a benign firmament filled with twinkling lights.  In its place looms a forbidding realm of surreal violence and weirdness.” 

It is interesting to Mark Twain fans in the Midwest that the 43-foot long Hubble Space Telescope is named for Missouri-born astronomer Edwin Hubble, the first scientist to discover, back in the 1920s, that the Milky Way is not the only galaxy in the universe, and that in fact, there are hundreds of billions of other galaxies.  Edwin Hubble also was the first scientist to establish that the universe is physically expanding, as if from an initial colossal Big Bang impulse.

Our understandings have come a remarkably long way since the days of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Copernicus and Galileo.  Nonetheless, ultimate mysteries do remain.  We are insecure seekers of the agent behind Creation, and seekers of a universal purpose in existence.  Most people’s heads spin when they think too hard about these ultimate mysteries, so they tend to choose to believe in simplistic explanations that just happen to be provided by manipulative ideologues and evangelical preachers. 

Every God ever conceived by human beings is an anthropocentric personification of forces, human archetypes or attributes of our own better or worser natures.  Gods are a convenient receptacle for our hopes and fears, and they reflect a need that we feel for some sort of absolute in a relative world.  Gods provide a good channel for our spiritual impulses and prayers, our thanksgiving and our curses, and our powerful desires for hope and meaning and a belief in an afterlife to compensate for the slings and arrows of misfortune that will inevitably afflict each of us in life.

Divine personifications tend to take the form of a ‘She’, or a ‘He’, like the Great Mother Goddess of primitive humankind or the Father God of patriarchal religions, or Goddesses of infinite love, wisdom and virtue, or the tyrant God of the Old Testament who seems to crave adulation and command faith, obedience and sacrifice.  Mark Twain poked fun at absurdities involved in this entire God-inventing business because he found it to be so pathetically affiliated with odd rationalizations, discriminatory biases, deep hypocrisies, and violently merciless conflicts, pogroms, Inquisitions and wars. 

Intelligent Athenians 2,500 years ago likely understood that their gods and goddesses were metaphorical personifications of natural forces and principles.  How could evangelicals today actually think that their anthropocentric God is a real Supreme Being, rather than a metaphorical personification?  How could people today be more gullible in some ways than our ancestors long ago in classical times?

Science is not static like most religions.  Vastly more expansive understandings have been revealed by science since the days of Sam Clemens.  Astrophysicists today use sophisticated instruments like mass spectrometers to confirm that countless galaxies of matter are hurtling through space in a billions-of-years long unfolding of the cosmos through space and time.  Nonetheless, many people who cling to literal interpretations of the Bible still obtusely adhere to primitive explanations of our origins.  In 1650, Irish bishop James Ussher proclaimed that he had traced the lineage of Jesus and the ancestral life spans given in the Old Testament of the Bible back to the time of Adam and Eve, and he declared that God created the Universe on Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC. --- Really!!!

Some Biblical literalists have blindly believed this genealogy ever since, despite the fact that such beliefs have grown increasingly ridiculous in the light of more accurate understandings.  As Mark Twain once perceptively wrote:  “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” 

It is fine to “believe what you know ain’t so” -- it’s a free country! -- as long as such beliefs do not have negative impacts on others.  But the aggressive promotion of religious doctrines that condemn all people who believe differently is proving to be inimical to the prospects of peace and justice on Earth.  It may even be dangerous to the survival of our species to have large segments of the population cling to primitive beliefs in denial of crucially important social, environmental and ecological understandings. 

Repressive and regressive forces supported by stubbornly rigid believers in established religions are having many impacts that are much more detrimental than they are positive in our societies.  We should strive for better understandings of the emotional motives behind blockheaded inanities that deny more accurate ways of seeing the world.  This is why we should formulate public policies that encourage good education and broad-minded critical thinking.  It is simply becoming ever more urgent and necessary for us to deal effectively with the daunting problems facing us, and to insist on finding ways to transform our societies into fairer and more sustainable ones.  The time has come for us today to strive with greater collective commitment to actually achieving a more propitious destiny. 

A Whale of an Illuminating Story

In Sam Clemens boyhood, cities were illuminated by burning whale oil made from the blubber of slaughtered whales.  Jonah in the Bible might have felt prodigious vindication at the poetic justice of this development, for surely Jonah was mortified at having been swallowed alive by a whale back in the days of old.  I’m just speculating, because if Jonah was anything like the LORD God that is found in the Old Testament, he could easily have held a grudge against an entire species throughout all of eternity for the supposed wickedness of a single action.  Forgiveness does not seem to have been in fashion back then.  After all, the whale had “vomited out Jonah upon the dry land”, and some of the whales’ descendants might have been given some small break for that consideration, instead of having been mercilessly hunted by mankind nearly to extinction in the last two centuries.  I suppose that the experience was extremely ignominious for Jonah, to have been swallowed whole and then to be required to spend the biblical interregnum of three days, cramped and clammy in the belly of “a great fish”, before being resurrected in so rude a way at God’s direction!

Ironies abound in our world.  Urban and rural illumination is achieved today by using electric lighting, not whale oil, and most electricity is generated by burning coal, oil or natural gas.  Good God! --- Here we are using fossil fuels formed from fractious deposits of organic matter that originated in Geologic Periods eons ago like the swampy Carboniferous (an era hundreds of millions of years ago), and yet something like 40% of people in the U.S. still claim they don’t believe in evolutionary change!

The most basic fact about the Universe is that everything changes and everything is in constant motion.  Countless galaxies are hurtling through space, as if away from some colossal explosion of initial genesis.  Each of these galaxies consists of billions of big balls of burning matter.  Planets, asteroids, comets and other stellar debris orbit around each burning star, just as our home planet and a bunch of other matter orbits around the Sun.  The atmosphere of the Earth is also in motion; winds and air currents and jet streams and gaseous agitation are continuous phenomena.  Oceans are in motion with daily tides, undulating waves, flowing currents and turbulent upwellings.  Even the crust of the Earth moves slowly in giant slabs called “tectonic plates”, and earthquakes and volcanoes reveal the continuous nature of these subterranean forces at work.  And every electron of every atom of every molecule of everything on Earth is in constant motion in every moment.

Motion is change, and everything is changing all the time.  All things change, ironically, in accordance with unchanging “laws of nature” that are described by scientific disciplines like physics, chemistry, geology and mathematics.  This irreversible sequence of altering matter through time and space can be seen as a kind of physical evolution.  This evolution of the Earth is evidenced in the formation and lithification of sedimentary rocks, fossilization, mountain building, erosion, chemical weathering, glaciations, volcanism, and sudden earth movements.  Geophysical changes like this demonstrate the continuous evolution of our home planet.  The photograph on the front cover of this Book Two shows the aftermath of a rock cliff collapse onto the beach of a sandy Pacific cove that is a beautiful example of the punctuated equilibrium nature of some of an infinite number of such changes.

Charles Darwin’s scientific theory of biological evolution by means of natural selection grew out of a recognition that all forms of life are found nearly perfectly adapted to the conditions that pertain in the habitats and ranges where they live.  This adaptation of life to an infinite number of changing ecological niches is compelling evidence of biological evolution. 

Tidy new evidence surfaced in early 2015 that provides extraordinary confirmation of Darwin’s theory of evolutionary adaptation by means of natural selection in response to changing conditions.  Think about this surprising new proof, which scientists call a “null hypothesis” confirmation.  Certain types of microbes have been found living in extremely stable sediments under the deep sea floor, and fossil evidence indicates that these microbes have remained evolutionarily unchanged for more than two billion years.  Just imagine this.  Our ancestors at the time of the Cretaceous Extinction 65 million years ago were early primates that resemble the lemurs found in Madagascar today.  Since then, our ancestors evolved into a marvelous succession of new species along the branching tree of life that included tarsiers then monkeys, then gibbons, orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees and early Homo species before finally evolving into Homo sapiens -- human beings.  Yet over a period of time that is more than 30 times longer than the last 65 million years, life forms found in deep ocean sediments have remained unchanged!  (See the Wikipedia entries for The Ancestor’s Tale for detailed information about the path traced backwards in time from today to meet humanity’s cousins as they converge on common ancestors of all species of life.)

Anyway, it really is astonishing that more than one third of Americans preposterously believe that life has not evolved.  What sophistry!  (Sophistry is superficially plausible reasoning that is actually fallacious, like much faulty thinking that characterizes the beliefs of right-wing conservatives.)  It is stunning that so many people deny modern understandings just to cling to primitive myths and dogmas. 

In April 2009, many people were fearful that an outbreak of ‘swine flu’ in Mexico would spread into a global epidemic.  This flu virus was widely understood to be one that was mutating.  No matter how fervently we stick our heads in the sand, the factual evolution of a virus can strike us, and such antigens can make an end-run around our miraculously well-adapted immune system defenses, whether or not we believe in evolution.  Rapidly mutating varieties of flu viruses strike fear into our hearts, and yet religious fundamentalists still deny that species of life have changed since “the Beginning”.

Clearer thinking is important at this juncture in human affairs.  Mark Twain was particularly sensitive to the personal peculiarities of the human animal, making note of people’s Corn Pone Opinions and remarkable sincerity of self-deceit and amazing propensities to indulge in self-justifications, foolish follies, and bizarre leaps of faith.  Can’t we restructure our societies in recognition of these aspects of human nature, and through a process of wiser understanding, achieve a goal of creating fairer, more sensible, more peaceful and more sustainable societies?  (Yes, we could;  and, Yes, we should!)

Let us shake ourselves awake, elevate our sights, and momentarily escape the workaday cares that command our attention and practically devour our souls.  We are like quixotic knights absurdly tilting at quiescent windmills, mistaking them for monstrous giants and hoping for glory in combat and vanquishment.  More likely than not, however, such distorted vision will leave us in a sorry condition, as it did with Don Quixote upon the plains of La Mancha.

The Big Picture

We live in a world of universal hazard, with Chaos pitted against Order.  In this situation, “the whole” is indifferent to every individual thing in it.  In this whole, nothing is unjust or good or bad;  all is relative.  Things are fortunate or unfortunate to one individual or another, but not to the whole.  One person’s gain is often another person’s loss.  Nature is supremely indifferent to individual outcomes.  As an example of this truism, when a meteor slammed into Earth 65 million years ago, causing the Cretaceous Extinction in which the majority of living organisms on the planet were wiped out, this catastrophe was certainly a severe misfortune for almost every individual and species of life alive at the time.  But the event eventually proved to be propitious for the descendants of the survivors, who were able to exploit the opportunities inherent in the altered conditions and reduced competition, and these plants and animals evolved into millions of new species, including all of our mammalian ancestors.

Today, a new wave of mass extinctions is taking place, and they are being caused by the destruction of habitats, over-harvesting, pollution and climate change. These developments threaten our own collective well-being.  No God will save us from this assault;  no one can save us but ourselves.  We should recognize this, and commit ourselves to taking appropriate steps!  Hear these words.

The writer Nikos Kazantzakis imagined Jesus as a real man giving his first sermon on a hill above a lake in Galilee.  “Forgive me, my brothers, but I shall speak in parables”, he said.  “The sower went out to sow his field, and as he sowed, one seed fell on the road and the birds came and ate it.  Another fell on stones, found no soil in which to be nourished, and withered away.  Another fell on thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it.  Finally, another fell on good soil; it took root, sprouted an ear, brought forth grain and fed mankind.  He among you who has ears to hear, let him hear!”


In case anyone who reads this soliloquy feels they aren’t getting their money’s worth, here is a reward:  yummy cookies and an exceptionally healthy beverage!  Before reading another word, brew some Ginger Infused Health Beverage or make some Mango Banana Lassi, or bake some Dark Chocolate Chip Cookies Made with Almond Meal and Lots of Oats, Walnuts, Pecans, Sunflower Seeds, Sesame Seeds, Chia Seeds and Ayurvedic Health Spices.  The recipes for these drinks and delicious and nutritious cookies can be found in Twelve Delicious Recipes for Good Health and Gourmet Appreciation.

Let Mark Twain entertain us for a moment with this humorous passage from Roughing It, for it can give us enjoyable pause for reflection:

“In Syria, once, at the head-waters of the Jordan, a camel took charge of my overcoat while the tents were being pitched, and examined it with a critical eye, all over, with as much interest as if he had an idea of getting one made like it;  and then, after he was done figuring on it as an article of apparel, he began to contemplate it as an article of diet.  He put his foot on it, and lifted one of the sleeves out with his teeth, and chewed and chewed at it, gradually taking it in, and all the while opening and closing his eyes in a kind of religious ecstasy, as if he had never tasted anything as good as an overcoat before, in his life.  Then he smacked his lips once or twice, and reached after the other sleeve.  Next he tried the velvet collar, and smiled a smile of such contentment that it was plain to see that he regarded that as the daintiest thing about an overcoat.  The tails went next, along with some percussion caps and cough candy, and some fig-paste from Constantinople.  And then my newspaper correspondence dropped out, and he took a chance in that -- manuscript letters written for the home papers.” 

“But he was treading on dangerous ground, now.  He began to come across solid wisdom in those documents that was rather weighty on his stomach;  and occasionally he would take a joke that would shake him up till it loosened his teeth;  it was getting to be perilous times with him, but he held his grip with good courage and hopefully, till at last he began to stumble on statements that not even a camel could swallow with impunity.  He began to gag and gasp, and his eyes to stand out, and his forelegs to spread, and in about a quarter of a minute he fell over as stiff as a carpenter's work-bench, and died a death of indescribable agony.  I went and pulled the manuscript out of his mouth, and found that the sensitive creature had choked to death on one of the mildest and gentlest statements of fact that I ever laid before a trusting public.”

 Now, let’s continue.

On Racism and Folly

Hear me now, as I turn to important perspectives on issues that Mark Twain was too courageous to shy away from.  Sam Clemens’ home state of Missouri had become the twenty-fourth state in the Union in August 1821.  It entered the Union as a “slave state” as part of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which admitted Maine as a “free state” to maintain the political balance between slave and free states in a growing conflict between the North and the South. Sam was accustomed to the seeming normalcy of domestic slavery in his family and in the social culture of his boyhood.  Even though the institution of domestic slavery was more benign than the harsh farm slavery of the Deep South, slaves could still be beaten in Missouri for any reason, and slave owners routinely sold slave families asunder, according to the will, exigencies and prerogatives of those who owned slaves.

The Civil War pitted advocates of abolition of slavery against those who defended the conventional rights of “property owners”.  Many people in Missouri during Clemens’ youth regarded abolitionists as low-down radicals and subversives who threatened the established rights of slave owners. One infamous white abolitionist named John Brown struck fear into the hearts of many people in 1856 by advocating militant actions to abolish slavery in the U.S.  In light of these facts, it took considerable courage of conviction and fair-mindedness for Mark Twain to confront the issue of racism that was implicit in the institution of slavery.  He did this through the character of Huck Finn in his most famous novel in which the young protagonist-narrator Huck and the good-hearted and avuncular runaway slave Jim escape together down the mighty Mississippi River on a raft. 

Mark Twain’s attitude toward slavery, as explored in The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, was compelling.  This tale explores some cutting-edge ideas of the year it was published in 1894.  Set in a fictional Missouri frontier town on the banks of the Mississippi, it tells the story of David Wilson, who had made an unfortunate remark about a howling dog that earned him serious ridicule and the mocking nickname of “Pudd’nhead”.  Wilson was avidly interested in people’s fingerprints, a standard forensic science today, but a sensational and controversial new understanding in those days.  Fingerprint analysis is a discipline that relies on the fact that each person has unique genetic patterns in his or her fingerprints.  Roxy, the female slave in this story, was 1/16 black.  She was responsible for taking care of two children who were born the same day.  One was her own son, and the other was the son of her master.  Roxy realized that her son could be “sold down the river” to the Deep South, being a slave from Missouri, and since such a possibility was widely regarded as equivalent to being condemned to hell, she switched him with the master’s son, and the two boys grew up in their switched roles.

Roxy’s real son grew up as Tom Driscoll, the master’s son.  He eventually got into a terrible bind with gambling, and ended up murdering his uncle.  A jury trial ensued, and Pudd’nhead Wilson, acting as his lawyer, discovered that the fingerprints on the murder weapon were Tom’s.  Further, he discovered that Tom was actually part Negro, thereby revealing the switched identities. Tom was condemned to life in prison for the murder, but Missouri’s Governor sympathized with creditors of the slave-owning uncle’s estate and immediately pardoned him -- so that he could be sold down the river!

One observer noted that this story is a tragedy that reads like an episode of Matlock written by Jonathan Swift, “and in it Mark Twain somehow manages to be heartbreaking, entertaining and viciously funny all at once”.  The story casts light on the racism of the antebellum South, and on the pathetic ways Negro slaves were treated in American society at the time.  This backdrop can be poignantly mined to uncover the lingering legacy of racism in America and particularly in the South today.

As time continues lapsing from the future to the past, new developments take place that have relevance to these ideas.  We live in extraordinarily interesting times, and a big picture perspective makes Mark Twain’s observation quite cogent about history perhaps not repeating itself, but surely rhyming a lot.  In February 2016, as intense competition for the office of the presidency heated up to the boiling point, racist invective was veritably oozing out from under the veneer of civilized behavior, and conservative presidential candidates ridiculed “political correctness” with bombastic fervor, asserting that it is a form of tyrannical suppression of free speech.  They proclaimed absurdly negative characterizations of the actually impressive accomplishments of the first black man to preside over American leadership in the White House, and tried to ignore the role of conservatives in their unprecedented obstruction in the House and Senate of all attempts to improve the economy for the majority.

History will judge Barack Obama’s tenure in a far more positive light, for when he took office a severe financial crisis was unfolding and an economic recession was underway and unemployment and national debt were spiking, and unprecedented bailouts were required to save banks and the auto industry from bankruptcy.  Since then millions of jobs have been created and a significant amount of progress has been made on a wide range of issues during the seven years President Obama has been in office, and all of this is despite a “hard times swindle” and stubborn obstructionism that Republican adversaries have used to try to make him fail.

Many conservatives appear to suffer from a case of what has been called "Obama Derangement Syndrome".  This is due in part to their listening too faithfully to Fox News and right-wing talk radio zealots Michael Savage and Rush Limbaugh.  This contributes to extreme political partisanship that pervades our politics in the USA today.  The degree of this rancorous disagreement erupted into prominent view and stunning perspective in February 2016 when Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died.  The Supreme Court has been deciding many cases in favor of conservative ideological positions by a narrow 5 to 4 vote ever since Sandra Day O'Connor retired and was replaced by Samuel Alito, and Scalia’s death ended the conservative dominance.

As soon as Antonin Scalia died, the Republican echo chamber immediately erupted with disrespectful and unprecedented opposition to having President Obama fulfill his Constitutional duty to appoint a replacement to the Supreme Court.  This vitriolic opposition was led by the obstructionist-in-chief of the “Party of No”, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who immediately declared almost before Scalia's corpse was cold that the Senate would not consider any replacement President Obama nominates.  More on this consequential issue later.

Note that journalists have a serious responsibility of helping hold powerful people and institutions accountable, as Boston Globe journalists did in the case of widespread abuses of children by priests and the cover-ups of this scandal by Catholic Church officials.  This story is told with skill and powerful impact in Spotlight, the film that was recognized for excellence as Best Picture of 2015 during the Academy Awards ceremonies on February 28, 2016.

Reflections on Patriotism

Ethnocentric biases are often expressed through nationalistic fervor and extreme patriotism.  Again Mark Twain was ‘right on’ when he noted:  “My kind of patriotism and loyalty is loyalty to one’s country, and not to one’s institutions or officeholders.” 

In truth, patriotism in America should be an honest commitment to the principles and ideals that this country really represents.  This includes the primary concerns of our Founding Fathers:  fairness, freedom, justice, guaranteed human rights, limited government intrusiveness, and fair representation of the best interests of all the nations’ citizens.  It still irks me that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and the Republican political apparatchik perverted patriotism into a caricature of righteousness in which opposing opinions and dissent were suppressed so as to advance corporatism, inegalitarianism, aggressive militarism, patriarchal dominion, evangelical Christianity, anti-environmentalism, and the uncompromising ascendancy of rich people and right-wing politicians. As Mark Twain observed, an attitude of “My country, right or wrong” is an insult to the nation!

In the biggest picture context, if Mark Twain were alive today, being the Big Thinker that he was, he would be a strong advocate of two important things:  (1) a new brand of foreign policy based on social justice, fairer competition, greater efforts to achieve peaceful coexistence, the freedom of religion for all, concerted efforts to marginalize religious extremism, and a more committed striving to be better neighbors; and, (2) a transformation in our national policies on the domestic front to make them more egalitarian, humanitarian, just, long-term oriented, and ecologically sane. He would probably agree that the best hope of humanity would be to find more effective ways of collaborating together to solve the serious challenges we face.

Joseph Heller provides a relevant point of view in his satirical novel Catch-22

“It was miraculous.  It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice.  Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all.  It merely required no character.”

Observations about Empire and Propriety

Another salient aspect of Mark Twain’s involvement in political affairs was his participation as an outspoken member of the Anti-Imperialist League.  This organization was the first national American peace movement.  Mark Twain was commendable for being outraged at politicians who unethically capitalized on national tragedies to push through unrelated agendas. 

Not long after the battleship USS Maine was hit by mysterious and still unexplained explosions in the harbor of Havana in February 1898, killing 260 people, the U.S. intervened militarily in Cuba and the Philippines.  Quite quickly, a decisive victory was won over the colonial power of Spain.  Mark Twain initially found this triumph to be “glorious”, and asserted that it was the worthiest war ever fought because it was fought for the freedom of other peoples.  Not long thereafter, he was shocked and disillusioned to realize that prime considerations for the war were for the U.S. to strengthen its empire with coaling stations for the navy, seeking new markets for American goods, and establishing new places for missionaries to convert the disrespected “heathen” natives. 

The United States and Spain ended the war with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1898.  In this peace agreement, Spain ceded Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines to the U.S.  When Mark Twain saw that America then occupied the Philippines and subjected its people to “benevolent assimilation”, and that the natives regarded their treatment like a new form of oppression by a different foreign master, Mark Twain went ballistic.  Listen to the words he wrote in the year 1900, because they are significant:

“I left these shores, at Vancouver, a red-hot imperialist.  I wanted the American eagle to go screaming into the Pacific.  It seemed tiresome and tame for it to content itself with the Rockies.  Why not spread its wings over the Philippines, I asked myself?  And I thought it would be a real good thing to do.  I said to myself, here are a people who have suffered for three centuries.  We can make them as free as ourselves, give them a government and country of their own, put a miniature of the American constitution afloat in the Pacific, start a brand new republic to take its place among the free nations of the world.  It seemed to me a great task to which we had addressed ourselves.

But I have thought some more, since then, and I have read carefully the Treaty of Paris, and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines.  We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem.  We have also pledged the power of this country to maintain and protect the abominable system established in the Philippines by the Friars.

It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make these people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way.  And so I am an anti-imperialist.  I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.”

Mark Twain then penned his famous anti-Imperialist article To the Person Sitting in Darkness in February 1901.  He borrowed this ironic phrase from the Gospel According to Matthew.  It was a phrase used by Christian missionaries when referring to the “savage,” “heathen,” and “uncivilized” populations of lands that imperialists were conquering. To the Person Sitting in Darkness begins:

“Extending the Blessings of Civilization to our Brother who Sits in Darkness has been a good trade and has paid well, on the whole;  and there is money in it yet, if carefully worked -- but not enough, in my judgment, to make any considerable risk advisable.”

Mark Twain refers in To the Person Sitting in Darkness to Lord Kitchener, whose British troops in South Africa routinely bayoneted unarmed Boers who were surrendering.  “Kitchener knows how to handle disagreeable people who are fighting for their homes and their liberties,” he satirically stated, and he condemned the similar atrocities committed by American forces against Filipinos.  In bold letters he claimed that America knew how to treat the rebels:


“Kitchener’s Plan” in South Africa included herding tens of thousands of Boer women and children and black Africans into the world’s first “concentration camps”, where many of them died.

Some people accused Mark Twain of not being patriotic when he took this outspoken stance against imperialistic national policies, but there can be real questions about exactly who is patriotic, and who is not.  Mark Twain observed in 1901, during the Philippine-American War in which revolutionaries in the Philippines fought for independence:  “It would be an entirely different question if the country’s life was in danger, its existence at stake, then -- that is one kind of patriotism -- we would all come forward and stand by the flag, and stop thinking about whether the nation was right or wrong;  but when there is no question that the nation is in any way in danger, but only some little war away off, then it may be that on the question of politics the nation is divided, half patriots and half traitors, and no man can tell which from which.”

It is an odd fact that one person’s “freedom fighter” can be regarded by another as a terrorist, or that it can be very difficult to honestly determine who is a patriot and who is a traitor.  Ronald Reagan supported anti-communist groups that he called “freedom fighters” in countries like Nicaragua and Afghanistan and Angola, but members of the groups he supported, like the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, later come to be regarded as dangerous foes or terrorists when their insurrections came to violently oppose American economic goals and military hegemony.

History can provide us with provocative perspectives that often prove to be astonishingly revealing.  Ronald Reagan, for instance, regarded Nelson Mandela as a terrorist who opposed what he regarded as the legitimate white rulers in South Africa during the racist apartheid era.  Reagan even vetoed legislation passed by Congress that would have divested from investments in South Africa until the discriminatory apartheid system was ended.  After President Reagan shamefully vetoed this law, Congress actually overrode his veto for only one of the few times such an override took place during his eight-year reign. 

We can see that the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist insurgent can be an ideological matter that involves deeply biased opinion and a none-too-subtle underlying agenda.  Nelson Mandela had been confined for 27 years in prison for his activist stances against the apartheid segregation of white rule in South Africa.  When he died in December 2013, his accomplishments in helping bend the arc of the moral universe toward equitable justice were highlighted in the news.  Mandela represented a triumph in the struggle for freedom in South Africa, and he had received the Nobel Peace Prize for his honorable statesmanship.  His life was a “long walk to freedom”, and after gaining liberty from his long incarceration, he laudably led his deeply divided country through a remarkably peaceful transition to democratic government.  Bravo for Nelson Mandela!

Mark Twain, with his intellect, philosophic understanding, and skepticism of the motives of politicians, adopted a critical perspective toward U.S. expansionist actions in places like Panama, Puerto Rico, Hawaii and the Dominican Republic, as well as in Cuba and the Philippines.  He would be astonished and outraged at the far-flung extent of our military presence today, and at the more than 175 American interventions in foreign countries in the century from 1900 to 2000, not to mention the rash and harsh occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq since then and the permanent military bases that the U.S. has established in more than 130 nations worldwide.

“The radical of one century is the conservative of the next.  The radical invents the views.  When he

    has worn them out, the conservative adopts them.”

                                                                             --- Mark Twain

A further elaboration of Mark Twain’s ideas is contained in Reflections on War – and Peace, an essay that discusses ‘false flag operations’.  Some people say the explosion aboard the USS Maine in Havana in February 1898 might have been this kind of treacherous operation that is used as a convenient pretext to get a nation involved in war.  Such ruses are a type of perfidious activity that has been repeated periodically throughout world history.  An elaboration is made on other more definitive instances of false-flag operations like when the RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine in 1915, which led to the U.S. getting involved in World War I, and the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident that led to our nation’s involvement in the Vietnam War.  Some people suspect that the 9/11 attacks may also have been some kind of precipitated exploitation of events to get our nation involved in military occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.  No wild conspiracy theories are needed, however, to conclude that this modern military adventurism by the U.S. has proven to be excessively costly.  The fact that it has been hugely profitable for some influential investors, and good for the careers of many people in power, is a harsh indictment of the rash opportunism that contributes to war.

A correspondent named John Nichols notes:

Mark Twain was no fan of war, which he described as ‘a wanton waste of projectiles’, and he nurtured a healthy disdain for anyone who suggested that patriotism was best displayed through enthusiastic support for military adventures abroad.  The phrase ‘our country, right or wrong’ was, he argued, ‘an insult to the nation’.

But Twain’s deepest disgust was reserved for politicians who played on fear and uncertainty to promote the interests of what would come to be known as the military-industrial complex.  Describing how Americans were frequently goaded into war by their leaders, Twain recalled: ‘Statesmen will invent cheap lies, putting blame upon the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of those conscience-soothing falsities, and will diligently study them, and refuse to examine any refutations of them; and thus he will by-and-by convince himself that the war is just, and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process of grotesque self-deception.’

The Big Bang of the Mind

Recalling that Mark Twain was fascinated by accurate understandings, it makes me think of the perspectives of a brilliantly sensible professor who teaches Lifelong Learning courses.  He is a man who finds great merit in philosophic wisdom traditions like Buddhism and Taoism.  He was once asked by a respectful and heart-aware student:  “Do you think we have an immortal soul?”  The teacher did not hesitate.  “I don’t believe so.  There is a soulful aspect of the mind, but death is as likely to be final for us as it is for every other kind of animal on Earth.”

Following this line of inquiry, the student asked, “Then do you believe in reincarnation like they teach in Buddhism?”  The down-to-earth professor replied, “No, I don’t.  The accretions of dogma in every religion appeal to the hopes and fears of their adherents, but I don’t think it likely that an immortal soul came to be for human beings during the processes of biological evolution.”  This same professor first exposed me to the compelling idea of the Big Bang of the Mind.

Most biological experts believe that we Homo sapiens sapiens developed self-conscious awareness and expansive capacities like foresight sometime about 50,000 to 75,000 years ago.  This time was relatively recently, from the point of view that the brains of our ancestors had been in the process of tripling in size in the past 5 million years.  Others of our ancestral relatives like Neanderthals actually had bigger brains than we do, so it was not simply brain size that led to this tremendous developmental leap forward. 

This Big Bang of the Mind allowed us a burst of creative thinking that we moderns associate with higher intelligence.  This development in our awareness was related to the emergence of a suite of higher intellectual functions that facilitated our ability to plan ahead, use chains of logic, imagine outcomes, communicate better, develop syntax in language, create sophisticated art, give structure to music, invent games with arbitrary rules, and to be able to discover hidden patterns and seek coherence in the world.  The archeological record shows that subsequent to this mental advance, people began to create more sophisticated art and music and to invent religions, and to ceremonially and reverently bury their relatives after they died.

It is intriguing to study some of the thousands of different Creation stories that have been created in the human mind over the many millennia of the cultural evolution of our kind since this development of self-awareness.  The realization that we have a mortal nature, that we are aging and will die, and the ideas of love and a soul that outlives us all seem to have been prominent features of this expression of human hopes and fears.  And these aspects of our awareness have surely been all balled up with our spiritual theories of deities even from the earliest days of animism and polytheism, long before monotheistic ideas of one God sprang into being. 

Mark Twain would have chuckled at the age of 50, at the height of his success, at these ideas.  Later in his life, after he had experienced so many hardships and emotionally difficult losses, he would likely have sighed rather ruefully.

A Revealing Sidebar Concerning Revelations on Walks in Nature

Mark Twain was in San Francisco in 1865 when a moderately powerful earthquake struck.  He wrote in Roughing It, “… at that moment a third and still severer shock came, and as I reeled about on the pavement trying to keep my footing, I saw a sight!  The entire front of a tall four-story brick building on Third Street sprung outward like a door and fell sprawling across the street, raising a dust like a great volume of smoke!  Later, he wrote a humorous piece in which he observed:  I will set it down here as a maxim that the operations of the human intellect are much accelerated by an earthquake.” 

Run!  A better understanding of the cause of earthquakes can be gained by taking a walk along the “Earthquake Trail” near the Bear Valley Visitor Center in Point Reyes National Seashore, about an hour’s drive northwest of San Francisco.  The half-mile-long trail follows the famous San Andreas Fault, a ‘transform fault’ that roughly marks the boundary between the Pacific Plate today as it moves north relative to the North American Plate. A rough rupture line is still visible from the 1906 earthquake that partially destroyed San Francisco.  An old fence marches down the hill in Point Reyes and then abruptly continues on a parallel trajectory about 16 feet to the north where it had jumped in a few seconds back in 1906.  An old story alleges that the rupture swallowed a cow in what was then an extensive dairy farming area, but this may be an apocryphal tale like so many that spring up after traumatic events.  Sample rocks have been placed on the east side of the interpretive Earthquake Trail that are characteristic of the mélange that typifies the North American Plate, and distinctly different sample rocks characteristic of the Pacific Plate have been placed on the trail’s west side. 

A few years ago, 25 miles south of the Earthquake Trail, I went on a long hike with a slender, attractive and enthusiastic friend of mine, and it turns out that she had recently begun to follow a path less taken, and it is making a whale of a difference in her life.  We followed a trail up to the “Spiritual Driver’s Seat of the Bay Area” on distinctive Mt. Tamalpais.  This is a natural chair formed in a barren outcropping of blue-green serpentine rock.  The seat has a commanding view of Mount Diablo, the East Bay, Mt. Hamilton, San Francisco and the entire region to the east and south.  A short distance away along the ridge to the west, we stopped at a stone bench that is dedicated to “Dad O’Rourke”.  It has a similar view but also includes the Farallon Islands to the west.  That morning was one of those startlingly clear days when God seems to have moved these fabled islands closer to the coast under cover of the dark of night.  A plaque set on the bench in 1927 records a quote from Dad O’Rourke on the occasion of his birthday;  it reads,  “Give me these hills and the friends I love.  I ask no other heaven.”  I personally regard this as a marvelously holistic sentiment!

As we approached the stone bench commemorating Dad O’Rourke, we saw a rattlesnake with bold markings enjoying the warm late-March sunshine in a crevice in the rocks.  Since these animals are quite territorial, it is likely that the snake spent most of its time there.  My friend told me that she had never actually heard a rattlesnake rattle, which is a sound that inspires fear deep in our limbic brains, so I gently agitated the snake a bit and it slowly stirred awake, coiled, rattled a scary warning, and slithered back into the recesses of the rocks in retreat. 

We continued our hike along the ridge and made our way cross-country down to Cataract Creek, a beautiful chortling mountain stream in March after good winter rains.  We crossed the stream a half mile above the point where the water begins a rapid descent down fabulous cataracts and waterfalls into a lovely succession of pools, and then we ascended through a forest of oak, madrone and fragrant California bay laurel trees past a green meadow and up onto a ridge where endemic Marin Manzanita and Sargent Cypress grow.  Years ago, some hard-working soul had constructed two large stone seats on this ridge, and they are locally known as “The Throne”.  The site has marvelous views toward the Point Reyes peninsula and the line of the San Andreas Fault that can be seen in long and narrow Tomales Bay and distant Bodega Bay. 

After enjoying the view, we hiked over to a place named Barth’s Retreat where we had a tasty picnic in the warming sunshine.  My animated friend talked at length about the significant changes in circumstances that had been taking place in her personal life, and the effects these challenging changes have had on her psyche and relationships, and we enjoyably philosophized at length.  But that’s another story.

Here’s the curious part I’m trying to tell.  A snake must have somehow slithered into my friend’s daypack during our delicious repast, for she reported that, later in the day after taking a refreshing shower at home, she was startled to discover an uncoiled serpent next to her daypack in her living room.  She managed to capture the snake in a box without harming it, and she released it outdoors into a nearby Open Space, making note that the snake had a bright orangish-yellow ring around its neck and a similar coloration along its belly.  That description identifies it as a harmless Ringneck Snake, but in the moment all she could think and exclaim was “Yikes!” and “Holy cow!!”.  One can well imagine!  Was it some sort of a sign?  (And if so, what pray tell did it signify?!)

Some say that “Everything happens for a reason”.  I particularly dislike hearing this maxim right after being smitten by some embarrassing or painful misfortune!  This saying has been extrapolated into an uplifting “Author Unknown” philosophical ditty that enumerates the truly valuable lessons that can be learned from adversities.  This ditty concludes that we should live in the moment and forgive others and love unconditionally.  Hallelujah! 

But let’s examine the meaning of this conventional belief that everything happens for a reason, as the sentiment is often expressed.  All effects naturally have causes.  But such contentions are often followed by some prejudiced rationalizations, like when religious bigots claimed that the reason for the severe damage wreaked on New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina was that Ellen DeGeneres, a New Orleans native, was a lesbian, and God was presumably venting his anger at homosexuals.  Oh, right!

Sentiments like this are an expression of the prudish, biased and patriarchal dominion of our societies by men who strive to deprive women of rights and relegate them to inferior social roles.  Curiously, snakes sometimes symbolized positive feminine attributes in pharaonic Egypt and ancient Greece and Rome, and snakes were respected more than feared.  When the patriarchal religion of the Bible arose, it blamed a serpent and Eve, the first woman, for seeking knowledge, and it made snakes and women scapegoats for the wrath of an angry God at the dawn of Creation.

Lisbon in Portugal was destroyed by an earthquake and subsequent tsunami on November 1, 1755.  Many of the religious leaders at the time attributed the calamity to God’s anger at sinners, and claimed this was ‘His’ punishment.  It is a fact of supreme coincidental irony that this severe earthquake killed tens of thousands of people on the exact date of the Christian holiday, All Saints’ Day, and that large numbers of the faithful died as churches crumbled onto them.  Superstitious types had a field day with this remarkable coincidence, insisting that many Portuguese people had been living lives of sinful indulgence.  Reasons attributed to happenings often reflect projections of the sometimes malicious biases of observers, rather than more probable and sensible explanations.

What a world -- Can’t we all just get along?!

When Nikos Kazantzakis wrote his version of the Odyssey, he rewrote it repeatedly to “broaden its scope, until it came to include all he had ever seen and heard and thought.”  It was not my intention to report exhaustively on barely-related digressive details in this biography, like some blog-obsessed or twitter-enamored reporter, so I’ll return to the ‘red meat’ of this story of Mark Twain’s life.

Observations from the Gilded Age

Okay, okay, I have digressed.  This is a biography of Mark Twain, who was the most successful travel writer of his time.  Travel writing suited him well, according to professor Richard Bridgman, because it freed him “to use his special literary gifts: short bursts of pointed observations, anecdotes, episodes, and tales.  He could examine the diversity of the world without worrying overmuch about such matters as consistency or transitions.”  And thanks to “the sequence of the journey itself,” his narratives have “at least a simulacrum of coherence.” 

Mark Twain's groping thoughts and digressions parallel the way our minds operate, with intricate courses taken by discursive consciousness.  According to Bridgman, the ostensible order of the world “remained tantalizingly elusive for him”.  But today we have the wonderful opportunity to easily gain more accurate understandings of our world.  This is one reason why my own ideas and explorations and observations have been so extensively set forth in the Earth Manifesto. 

People could so easily know more, and our world would be a better place if we did, and it is my goal to share my perspectives in hopes that they will lead to a fairer and saner world.  This is why I regard the transformative ideas contained in Common Sense Revival, and the subset contained in Part Four of this manifesto online, to be so crucial.  Check them out!

Mark Twain had coined the term The Gilded Age in a collaborative novel with essayist Charles Dudley Warner in 1873.  He did so partially out of his deep concern with the politics, economics and political corruption of the era.  During the materialistic times of the Gilded Age, things like large homes with Victorian Gothic Revival architecture were considered to be reflections of intellectual and moral worth.  Wealthy people indulged in highly visible conspicuous consumption during that era, and this indulgence contributed to a recognition of the injustices involved in poorly regulated capitalism, along with the detrimental aspects associated with it, including its abuses, wasteful profligacy, and ruthless exploitation of workers.  These excesses sparked many muckraking exposés and a Progressive Era of reform in the early 20th century.  Important reforms were made to combat unfair monopoly practices, long working hours, child labor abuses, unsafe working conditions, discrimination, corruption, and the oppressive growth of the conglomerate power of corporations.

Disparities of wealth today have grown to be nearly as large as they were during the Gilded Age that Mark Twain wrote about in the late nineteenth century.  At that time, industrialists and financiers and ‘robber barons’ dominated American society and Mark Twain decried what one observer at the time called  “the Great Barbeque" of brazen extremes in economic inequality.

While the policies that led to this lopsided concentration of income and wealth sparked a turbulent reform movement in reaction, it was not until decades later, when the Great Depression made the failings of capitalism even more starkly clear, that economic collapse and massive labor and social unrest forced the country's political elite to take actions to really make society fairer and to accept policies that led to a larger and healthier middle class and a reduction in the concentration of income and wealth between 1940 and 1980.  It’s time for more such actions once again today!

The ethical standards of American businesses have never been notably high.  When referring to the widespread business corruption of his times, Mark Twain stated in 1905:  “We gave the world the spirit of liberty more than one hundred years ago, and now we are giving the world the spirit of graft.”  That’s not a good thing!  (Fast forward 110 years, and Disaster Capitalism is having notably harmful impacts upon millions of people, and our Representatives are too cowardly to deal with it.)

In the past 35 years since Ronald Reagan became President, an expanding inegalitarian trend has once again become dominant.  The main reason for this is that corporations and rich investors have been given greater power and they have been subjected to fewer regulations and lower marginal tax rates.  Simultaneously, organized labor has been crushed as a counterforce that could help balance out corporate power and unbridled greed.  American workers have been deprived of being allowed to share in their productivity gains, and their ‘real wages’ (after inflation is taken into account) have declined for decades.  Workers have also been subjected to less job security, fewer healthcare benefits, and inadequate retirement plans, especially in recent years.  The richest 1% of Americans, meanwhile, has seen their fortunes increase fabulously.

Labor unions, like businesses and governments, have had notorious episodes of corruption and bureaucratic idiocies and market distortions throughout the Industrial Revolution.  But unions in the private sector have been a somewhat effective aspect of a free market economy.  They have helped give workers a fairer shake and contributed substantially to the growth of a stronger middle class in the decades after World War II. 

Labor unions could once again today become one of the most effective forces in stopping systemic labor-law violations and in reining in absurd levels of executive pay.  A stronger labor movement could be one of the best ways to advance a progressive agenda that would be consistent with our founding American principles of liberty, equality, justice and democratic representation.  A proposed Employee Free Choice Act that Congress has failed to pass would likely help rectify the increased worker injustices that have taken place since 1980. 

Globalization and the export of jobs abroad complicate this situation, and stubborn ideological arguments confuse the issues.  The high costs and distortions created by employee unions in the public sector have given unionization a negative connotation in many people’s opinions, sometimes with good reason due to pension-spiking scams and huge unfunded liabilities.  It is time for us to come together to deal sensibly and fairly with all these issues, keeping the interests of the greater good foremost in our national and international priorities.

Samuel Clemens Opinion on Women

 “The sun rose upon a tranquil world, and beamed down upon the peaceful village like a benediction.” 

                                                                                                                --- Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Mark Twain had a paradoxical character, and he lived in curious times.  Victorian sensibilities were rather puritan and conformist, so it is interesting that he was able to rise above the prejudices of his times to eventually oppose slavery, and to regard women with sometimes enlightened perspectives.  His observation in his Notebook in 1895 is especially admirable:

“We easily perceive that the peoples furthest from civilization are the ones where equality between man and woman are furthest apart -- and we consider this one of the signs of savagery.  But we are so stupid that we can’t see that we thus plainly admit that no civilization can be perfect until exact equality between man and woman is included.”

Samuel Clemens had aspired to become a part of the respected Eastern gentility, despite his lower class origins and tawdry Wild West experiences and humorous ridicule of pretentiousness.  He met a slender and attractive girl named Olivia Langdon in December 1867 at a reading of scenes from Charles Dickens’ novel, David Copperfield, and he was immediately smitten with her charms.  Olivia was the sister of Charles Langdon, one of the passengers he had met on his voyage to the Mediterranean aboard the Quaker City.  She was well-educated, sophisticated and genteel, and she came from a wealthy family that lived in Elmira, New York.  She was a fine representative of the Victorian upper class.  The Victorian Age was one in which the favored feminine look and attitude was the demure, the shy and the obedient, and Livy veritably embodied these alluring characteristics.

Sam began to court her, hoping to gain her hand in marriage, but his stature at the time was too coarse and insignificant, and he was considered to be too irreverent at the time they met for the religious sensibilities of her family.  Since Sam came from a poor family, his struggle to make money and gain respectability and fame was a distinct aspect of his endeavors and compulsions.  After his book The Innocents Abroad was published and achieved good success, Olivia agreed that she would marry him, and he remained married to ‘Livy’ for 34 years until she died in 1904.

Though Mark Twain had gained his early renown as a humor writer, this was regarded as a somewhat low and disreputable form of writing.  Once he married Livy, he strived to be more respectable and to write books with more gravitas and literary value.  Livy acted for decades as an editor of the tone and content in his writings.  She proved to be a wise and intelligent woman, and an excellent spouse.

Somebody Spoke and I Went into a Dream

A writer named Fitz Hugh Ludlow had suggested to Mark Twain in 1865 that he focus on humor writing rather than straight news reporting and writing sketches.  So he began “seriously scribbling to excite the laughter of God’s creatures.”  Soon thereafter, Clemens sent a letter to his brother Orion, saying “I have had a call to literature, of a low order -- i.e. humorous.  It is nothing to be proud of, but it is my strongest suit.” Just a few weeks later his humorous short story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County made him nationally known and launched his great literary career.  “He’d hit upon his most marketable talent, with the aid of Ludlow’s advice, and possibly hashish, too,” noted Ellen Komp in a recent article.

Hashish?!  Ellen Kamp was referring to the fact that Mark Twain used hashish when he lived in San Francisco in 1865.  This form of concentrated cannabis was both legal and commonly available in drug stores at the time.  His friend Fitz Hugh Ludlow was well-known as the author of the 1857 book The Hasheesh Eater.  Ludlow had found hashish to be a boon to creativity, and gave high praise to Twain in a newspaper article, observing:  “In funny literature, that Irresistible Washoe Giant, Mark Twain, takes quite a unique position.  He makes me laugh more than any Californian.  He imitates nobody.  He is a school by himself.”

It is noteworthy that a long list of well-known comedians and humorists have used cannabis, including George Carlin, Whoopi Goldberg, Jon Stewart, Rodney Dangerfield, Lily Tomlin, Bill Maher and the late, great Robin Williams.  In this context, consider again Mark Twain’s observation that, “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.”  With so many insightful luminaries having used this mindset-altering herbal inspiration, it is high time that we end the harsh, unjust, counterproductive, divisive, racially discriminatory and extremely costly prohibition against cannabis. 

“When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it happened or not.”

                                                                                                                           --- Mark Twain

Give Us Cause to Laugh, Mark Twain!

Our understandings of issues are often confused by manipulative advertising, deceptive spin and other forms of promotion and propaganda.  As Mark Twain wrote in THE PUDD’NHEAD MAXIMS (in Following the Equator, 1897):  “Noise proves nothing.  Often a hen who has merely laid an egg cackles as if she had laid an asteroid.” 

Speaking of eggs, I find in one of my Germinating files a discussion of the efforts by Senator Ted Cruz to emulate Don Quixote’s quixotic quest in La Mancha by grandstanding before the Senate in a vain and confounding 21-hour filibuster-style protest against the Affordable Care Act in September 2013.  Republicans in Congress have spent an incredible amount of time and effort trying to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, voting on more than 60 occasions to repeal it, and it is confounding to reconcile their extreme antagonism with what Senator Edward Kennedy considered to be the most important cause of his career -- health care reform.  Kennedy, known as “the Lion of the Senate", wrote as he was dying of cancer in 2009:  "What we face is above all a moral issue;  that at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.”

Here is Ambrose Bierce’s definition of vanity in his satirically Devil’s Dictionary:

 VANITY, n.  The tribute of a fool to the worth of the nearest ass.

    They say that hens do cackle loudest when

      There's nothing vital in the eggs they've laid;

        And there are hens, professing to have made

         A study of mankind, who say that men

          Whose business 'tis to drive the tongue or pen

            Make the most clamorous fanfaronade

             O'er their most worthless work; and I'm afraid

                They're not entirely different from the hen.

                                                                                 --- Hannibal Hunsiker, quoted by Ambrose Bierce

A funny passage in Following the Equator refers to the loud level of noise in India, and one of the primary instigators of that racket, the Indian crow.  This passage illustrates the great writer’s wry sense of humor and his easy capacity for exaggeration, which he elevated to a form of art:

“Some natives -- I don't remember how many -- went into my bedroom, now, and put things to rights and arranged the mosquito-bar, and I went to bed to nurse my cough.  It was about nine in the evening.  What a state of things!  For three hours the yelling and shouting of natives in the hall continued, along with the velvety patter of their swift bare feet -- what a racket it was!  They were yelling orders and messages down three flights.  Why, in the matter of noise it amounted to a riot, an insurrection, a revolution.  And then there were other noises mixed up with these and at intervals tremendously accenting them -- roofs falling in, I judged, windows smashing, persons being murdered, crows squawking and deriding and cursing, canaries screeching, monkeys jabbering, macaws blaspheming, and every now and then fiendish bursts of laughter and explosions of dynamite.  By midnight I had suffered all the different kinds of shocks there are, and knew that I could never more be disturbed by them, either isolated or in combination.  Then came peace -- stillness deep and solemn and lasted till five.”

“Then it all broke loose again.  And who re-started it?  The Bird of Birds, the Indian crow.  I came to know him well, by and by, and be infatuated with him.  I suppose he is the hardest lot that wears feathers.  Yes, and the cheerfulest, and the best satisfied with himself.  He never arrived at what he is by any careless process, or any sudden one; he is a work of art, and "art is long"; he is the product of immemorial ages, and of deep calculation; one can't make a bird like that in a day.  He has been reincarnated more times than Shiva; and he has kept a sample of each incarnation, and fused it into his constitution.  In the course of his evolutionary promotions, his sublime march toward ultimate perfection, he has been a gambler, a low comedian, a dissolute priest, a fussy woman, a blackguard, a scoffer, a liar, a thief, a spy, an informer, a trading politician, a swindler, a professional hypocrite, a patriot for cash, a lawyer, a reformer, a lecturer, a conspirator, a rebel, a royalist, a democrat, a meddler, a practicer and propagator of irreverence, an intruder, a busybody, an infidel, and a wallower in sin for the mere love of it.  The strange result, the incredible result, of this patient accumulation of all damnable traits, is that he does not know what care is, he does not know what sorrow is, he does not know what remorse is, his life is one long thundering ecstasy of happiness, and he will go to his death untroubled, knowing that he will soon turn up again as an author or something, and be even more intolerably capable and comfortable than ever he was before.”  Ha!

Personal Reflections

The Big Dipper and the constellation Cassiopeia bear mute but eternally majestic witness to all the events that take place in the northern hemisphere of our home planet.  The stars in these two clearly visible constellations appear to rise and set every night, each opposite the other, and they appear to circumscribe a circle around the North Star.  There is a reason for this, which involves the axis of the earth’s North Pole and the Earth’s daily rotation, but I may be forced to absquatulate and figuratively “light out for the territories” if I keep providing these explanations like a real nowhere gal sitting in a nowhere land making all my nowise explanations for nobody.  Who cares?! 

There is one thing that is certain, however:  it is mighty hard to find frontiers these days to which one can absquatulate.  Besides, whereas the impulse was powerful for Samuel Clemens to achieve praise, recognition and fame, my own preference is to enjoy my good fortune in life and to remain personally anonymous.  I have had remarkable success at this, so far! 

Sam Clemens noted during the time he wrote his first successful book that he had no expectations that many people would actually read The Innocents Abroad, so he felt a considerable “freedom from restraint” in expressing himself.  “The idea that nobody is listening,” he wrote, “is apt to seduce a body into airing his thoughts with a rather juvenile frankness.”  I know the feeling!  (And YAY! for the freedom of expression in our country!)

Mark Twain hobnobbed with colorful characters, rich people and many dignitaries and even European royalty during his lifetime.  I’m sure those interactions had their marvelous merits, advantages and enjoyment.  He gained widespread fame while he was alive and was prominent in American literary circles for more than 40 years, working or socializing with notable writers like Bret Harte, Artemus Ward, William Dean Howells, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Rudyard Kipling, Henry James, Harriet Beecher Stowe and many others.

The Narrator Within

Organization Rules!  Each of us has a narrator in our own head that occasionally recites parts of the story of our lives.  Sometimes our personal narrator speaks softly;  at other times this narrator verbalizes in a booming and omniscient voice.  Sometimes the narrator imagines romance, or wistfully wishes for tender affection, or lusts lasciviously for titillating experiences. At other times, our narrator harshly criticizes everything, or obsesses with anger or guilt.  Sometimes our narrator crumbles in chagrin after we suffer misfortunes or mortifying disappointments, or when we recollect embarrassments, excruciating humiliations or other indignities;  sometimes the narrator within us simply despairs with self-deprecating cynicism.  At other times it is just chock full of swaggering braggadocio and self-congratulations;  I, I, I, I, I;  aye yie yie yie yie!  Un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq, six, sept, huit, neuf, dix, onze, douze … And sometimes the voice within just observes events with seeming detachment, or suddenly falls silent in alert immediacy or chills out in a meditative trance -- or a soporific state -- or exults in the warm bosom of satisfying sunshine.  ‘To sleep, perchance to dream.’

Mark Twain’s Vivacious “Angelfish"

Another of Samuel Clemens’ distinct eccentricities can be found in the little-known fact that he had a grandfatherly obsession in his old age that led him to associate chivalrously, eagerly and perhaps just a bit pathologically with young girls.  He formed an ‘Aquarium Club’ with girls between the ages of 10 and 16, and he called these surrogate granddaughters his “angel-fish”.  He loved their company and was able to live vicariously through their inspiring enthusiasms.  Perhaps they also reminded him of his long-felt infatuation with Laura Wright, whom he had met when he was 22 years old and she was only 14, when they were both en route to New Orleans aboard a steamboat.

Mark Twain liked girls who were pretty, sincere, straightforward, vivacious, enthusiastic, naïve and frank, and he loved innocence, purity and nobility of character.  Sam Clemens was also probably trying to assuage his lonely heart in his later days after his wife Livy and daughter Susy had died.  An interesting online summary of “Mark Twain’s Angel-Fish Roster and other young women of interest” provides old photos and information about these girls and the roles they played in his life.

There seems to be some sort of “gravity of attraction” of older males to younger females in our society, then and now.  Today, this attraction carries significantly less innocence, and this fact makes it important that we support fair-minded principles and public policies that help protect our daughters and young people in general.  (Even from priests!)

Laughter Possessed Me

I actually laughed uncontrollably for a few minutes when I happened to re-read Chapter 12 of the Adventures of Tom Sawyer one day recently.  Something in that passage about Tom moping around “as dismal as a hearse” because Becky Thatcher was absent from school for a while and so wasn’t around for him to show off to, got me reading about Aunt Polly’s peculiar obsession with quack remedies and her experiments on Tom to try to get him out of his dejected doldrums.  It was when I got to the part about Tom’s Aunt Polly having heard of “Pain-killer” for the first time, and ordered up a lot at once, and pinned her faith in it, that my peculiar laughing spell took hold.  Listen in:

She tasted it and was filled with gratitude.  It was simply fire in a liquid form.  She dropped the water treatment and everything else, and pinned her faith to Pain-killer.  She gave Tom a teaspoonful and watched with the deepest anxiety for the result.  Her troubles were instantly at rest, her soul at peace again; for the "indifference" was broken up.  The boy could not have shown a wilder, heartier interest, if she had built a fire under him.

Tom felt that it was time to wake up; this sort of life might be romantic enough, in his blighted condition, but it was getting to have too little sentiment and too much distracting variety about it.  So he thought over various plans for relief, and finally hit upon that of professing to be fond of Pain-killer.  He asked for it so often that he became a nuisance, and his aunt ended by telling him to help himself and quit bothering her.  If it had been Sid, she would have had no misgivings to alloy her delight; but since it was Tom, she watched the bottle clandestinely.  She found that the medicine did really diminish, but it did not occur to her that the boy was mending the health of a crack in the sitting-room floor with it.

One day Tom was in the act of dosing the crack when his aunt's yellow cat came along, purring, eying the teaspoon avariciously, and begging for a taste. Tom said:

"Don't ask for it unless you want it, Peter."

But Peter signified that he did want it.

"You better make sure."

Peter was sure.

"Now you've asked for it, and I'll give it to you, because there ain't anything mean about me; but if you find you don't like it, you mustn't blame anybody but your own self."

Peter was agreeable.  So Tom pried his mouth open and poured down the Pain-killer.  Peter sprang a couple of yards in the air, and then delivered a war-whoop and set off round and round the room, banging against furniture, upsetting flower-pots, and making general havoc.  Next he rose on his hind feet and pranced around, in a frenzy of enjoyment, with his head over his shoulder and his voice proclaiming his unappeasable happiness.  Then he went tearing around the house again spreading chaos and destruction in his path.  Aunt Polly entered in time to see him throw a few double summersets, deliver a final mighty hurrah, and sail through the open window, carrying the rest of the flower-pots with him.  The old lady stood petrified with astonishment, peering over her glasses; Tom lay on the floor expiring with laughter.

"Tom, what on earth ails that cat?"

"I don't know, aunt," gasped the boy.

"Why, I never see anything like it.  What did make him act so?"

"Deed I don't know, Aunt Polly; cats always act so when they're having a good time."

"They do, do they?" There was something in the tone that made Tom apprehensive.

"Yes'm.  That is, I believe they do."

"You do?"


The old lady was bending down, Tom watching, with interest emphasized by anxiety.  Too late he divined her "drift."  The handle of the telltale teaspoon was visible under the bed-valance.  Aunt Polly took it, held it up. Tom winced, and dropped his eyes.  Aunt Polly raised him by the usual handle -- his ear -- and cracked his head soundly with her thimble.

"Now, sir, what did you want to treat that poor dumb beast so, for?"

"I done it out of pity for him -- because he hadn't any aunt."

"Hadn't any aunt! -- you numskull.  What has that got to do with it?"

"Heaps.  Because if he'd had one she'd a burnt him out herself!  She'd a roasted his bowels out of him 'thout any more feeling than if he was a human!"

Aunt Polly felt a sudden pang of remorse.  This was putting the thing in a new light; what was cruelty to a cat might be cruelty to a boy, too.  She began to soften; she felt sorry.  Her eyes watered a little, and she put her hand on Tom's head and said gently:

"I was meaning for the best, Tom.  And, Tom, it did do you good."

Tom looked up in her face with just a perceptible twinkle peeping through his gravity.

"I know you was meaning for the best, aunty, and so was I with Peter.  It done him good, too.  I never see him get around so since --"

"Oh, go 'long with you, Tom, before you aggravate me again.  And you try and see if you can't be a good boy, for once, and you needn't take any more medicine."

Tom reached school ahead of time.  It was noticed that this strange thing had been occurring every day latterly.  And now, as usual of late, he hung about the gate of the schoolyard instead of playing with his comrades.  He was sick, he said, and he looked it.  He tried to seem to be looking everywhere but whither he really was looking -- down the road.  Presently Jeff Thatcher hove in sight, and Tom's face lighted; he gazed a moment, and then turned sorrowfully away.  When Jeff arrived, Tom accosted him; and "led up" warily to opportunities for remark about Becky, but the giddy lad never could see the bait.  Tom watched and watched, hoping whenever a frisking frock came in sight, and hating the owner of it as soon as he saw she was not the right one.  At last frocks ceased to appear, and he dropped hopelessly into the dumps; he entered the empty schoolhouse and sat down to suffer.  Then one more frock passed in at the gate, and Tom's heart gave a great bound.  The next instant he was out, and "going on" like an Indian;  yelling, laughing, chasing boys, jumping over the fence at risk of life and limb, throwing handsprings, standing on his head -- doing all the heroic things he could conceive of, and keeping a furtive eye out, all the while, to see if Becky Thatcher was noticing.  But she seemed to be unconscious of it all; she never looked.  Could it be possible that she was not aware that he was there?  He carried his exploits to her immediate vicinity; came war-whooping around, snatched a boy's cap, hurled it to the roof of the schoolhouse, broke through a group of boys, tumbling them in every direction, and fell sprawling, himself, under Becky's nose, almost upsetting her -- and she turned, with her nose in the air, and he heard her say: "Mfff!  Some people think they're mighty smart -- always showing off!"

Tom's cheeks burned.  He gathered himself up and sneaked off, crushed and crestfallen.

Beautiful, and not only funny, but so humane.

Biography and Autobiography

Mark Twain began extensive dictations of an autobiography in 1906. Everett Emerson, one of his biographers, observed:  “The entire exercise encouraged his egotism and his love of showing off”.  Emerson made this alliterative observation in Mark Twain – A Literary Life.  Audaciously, it soon thereafter came to pass that this famous personality began to wear his signature white suits even in the wintertime.

Oxford University conferred an honorary “Literary Doctor” degree on the great author in 1907 and he made a triumphant trip to London to receive it.  He judged the honor to be the world’s most prestigious intellectual distinction, and was especially proud of it because he had been “a formerly barefoot truant from Hannibal schooldays”, and he had essentially educated himself.  Sam Clemens had left school at the age of 12 after his father died, so he was proud of this distinction, along with having been awarded honorary degrees from Yale University and the University of Missouri.

At times his written expressions were characterized by “half-insane tempests and cyclones of humor.”  His boasting and craving of attention and compliments were sometimes offset by periods of moodiness, lonesomeness and melancholy.  Some of his biographers point out that he became more bitter and pessimistic, deterministic, cynical and a touch misanthropic in his outlook as he advanced into old age, but I like to think that he merely became more passionate in his conviction that the forces of nature are ruthlessly impersonal, and that human follies frequently lead to adverse consequences, and that life will likely smite each and every one of us with seemingly cruel heartlessness before we die, as it did him.  Many are the indignities associated with getting old!  But, oh well, “C’est la vie!”

Mark Twain was said to have been occasionally tortured with self-doubt. After the hysterically funny comedian Robin Williams committed suicide in August 2014, I pondered the profound curiosity of human creative genius and its many disparate expressions and coincident pitfalls.  This line of thinking sent me to my Germinating files to read again about the deep psychological underpinnings of the Impostor Syndrome, which happens to affect females in our post-women’s-liberation American societies much more than males.

This Impostor Syndrome phenomenon describes people who are unable to "internalize their accomplishments.  Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved.”  Notably, impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women, and this may be due to dismissive cultural attitudes toward females in our paternalistic patriarchal societies.  Psychologists and researchers coined the terminology Impostor Syndrome in the 1970s, explaining that many people feel so deeply insecure that they tend to dismiss any proofs of success as luck, timing or a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they actually believe themselves to be.

How can we change this calculus?  Women are needed more than ever in our society, and they should be given greater encouragement, rewards and recognition.  After all, consider a bottom line measure.  Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women on their boards of directors attained significantly higher financial performance, on average, than those with the lowest representation of women in such capacities.  This is according to Catalyst, “the leading nonprofit corporate membership research and advisory organization working globally with businesses and the professions to build inclusive environments and expand opportunities for women and business.” 

There are, of course, many other reasons that females should be accorded more respect in our societies, and Mark Twain would have agreed wholeheartedly with this idea.  After all, remember that he did once write that “no civilization can be perfect until exact equality between man and woman is included.”

Michael Shelden portrays Mark Twain in an interesting light in the later days of his life in his 2010 book Mark Twain: Man in White – The Grand Adventure of His Final Years.  He makes it clear that Mark Twain was very proud of his works, and of his life.  Shelden also tells a curious story about the great author having suffered a debacle of treachery when his trusted assistants Isabel Lyon and Ralph Ashcroft took advantage of his trust to try to secure their own futures at his expense.  This episode makes a compelling tale, and reveals that Mark Twain was a man “who wore his passions on his sleeve, and who cares too much about the truth to let it be obscured by half-truths and lies.”

Mark Twain’s extensive musings on human nature were not unified in any one definitive philosophy.  Fatalistic determinism was distinctly reflected in his stories like "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" and "What Is Man?”.  His sometimes bleak determinism was based on his own "corn pone" analysis and his absorption of the lessons of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer and the scientific revolution of the late nineteenth century.  His darker perspectives were also shaped by personal adversities that he endured, which tended to reinforce his angst and pessimistic perspectives.  These included his financial hardships and the deaths of his younger brother Henry in 1858, his daughter Susy in 1896, his beloved wife Livy in 1904, and his daughter Jean on Christmas Eve in 1909. 

These events were intense tragedies to him, and he naturally wrote with less whimsy, humor or enthusiastic vitality as he got older.  I recently read Tom Quirk’s Mark Twain and Human Nature, published in 2007 by the University of Missouri Press, to gain a broader perspective on Mark Twain’s points of view regarding “the human race”, and this book contains many fascinating understandings.

A quote by Scotsman Robert Louis Stevenson is etched into a polished granite tablet in the shape of an open book on the flanks of Mt. St. Helena, high above California’s Napa Valley, in a spot where Stevenson lived while writing The Silverado Squatters in 1880.  It reads:

    “Doomed to know not Winter, only Spring,

      A being trod the flowery April blithely for a while,

       Took his fill of music, joy of thought and seeing,

         Came and stayed and went, nor ever ceased to smile.” 

“Doom” is, in a sense, the fate of each and every one of us.  Some people have more Aprils to live than others, and some have more to smile about;  and some have more of a disposition to smile.  Yay for being Chipper!  The imagination is stimulated in giving consideration to what brain scientists have found out about how our brains function. Neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine play markedly significant roles in our attitudes, moods and dispositions.  Studies of the structure and functioning of the brain in recent years, and of influences of neurochemicals on our perceptions and moods, reveal that our ways of seeing the world are intricately and profoundly affected by chemical messengers in our brains like oxytocin, dopamine, adrenalin, norepinephrine, and cortisol.  Curious and curiouser! 

Dorothy Parker, aghast at this new dimension in understanding, might query once again, “What fresh hell is this?!”  The extensive indignities inevitably involved with aging are almost always regarded as preferable to the finality of the alternative -- death!  These indignities can ironically be accepted with greater or lesser amounts of dignity, depending upon one’s grace, disposition and philosophy.

Mark Twain fascination with determinism may have been a reflection of more complex springs of action than the ones we usually recognize or acknowledge.  Swiss psychologist Carl Jung once observed, “The more one sees of human fate, and the more one examines its secret springs of action, the more one is impressed by the strength of unconscious motives and by the limitations of free choice.”  That’s provocative food for thought! 

In the Earth Manifesto treatise Comprehensive Global Perspective, valuable perspective on issues of free will and the freedom of choice are contained in Chapter #52 - So Many Choices, and So Hard to Make the Right Ones.  Check it out!

Anyone, incidentally, who thinks that people who are most fortunate in their lives are not distinctly 'lucky’, really hasn’t thought much about the nature of the “cosmic lottery” of birth and inheritance, or of the random happenstances of circumstance, or of the unpredictable aspects and mechanisms of what we call fate.  Our appearance and health are significantly affected by our genetic inheritance.  Poor health or unsightly looks often have a genetic genesis.  The fact that we are born to parents who are wealthy and privileged, or to ones that are poor and underprivileged, is to a large extent a matter of good fortune or bad luck, especially in terms of financial security.

The ideologies of various political parties tend to coalesce around people who champion either the interests and prerogatives of the jealous rich or the contrasting interests of the envious masses.  Conservatives, revealingly, tend to defend a maximum amount of freedom for those who have the most money and privileges to be able to maintain and expand their advantages, while liberals tend to want measures that would ensure greater equality of opportunity, legal justice and social equity for all.  Given the reality of the vagaries and vicissitudes of fortune, it seems to me that the idea that we should structure our societies in fairer ways should appeal to everyone.

Introspection into the Concept of Corn Pone

“You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I'll tell you what his 'pinions is," declares an impudent and satirical young black slave who daily preached sermons to Sam Clemens from the top of his master's woodpile, long before Sam became known as Mark Twain.  The young man “imitated the pulpit style of the several clergymen of the village, and did it well, and with fine passion and energy.”

Corn pone is a cheap form of corn bread made without eggs or milk that poor people created out of necessity.  Just as the corn in their corn-pone was grown in nearby fields, and ground by a miller they knew, and bagged by others in nearby communities, their opinions were acquired second-hand from their families and fellow members of their church, and others in their towns and country.  Seasonings that made individual batches of corn pone distinctive revealed much socioeconomic information, and told a penetrating story about economic constraints that affected the cooks.

Mark Twain extrapolated the proclamations of his black philosopher atop the woodpile in his Missouri boyhood into a scathing set of incisive truths in his thoughtful 1901 essay, Corn Pone Opinions, exploring the pitfalls of unthinking opinions and beliefs.  Using Mark Twain’s analysis, author Greg Beatty wrote an excellent article titled Quarter Pound Opinions in which he pointed out that people tend to accept the opinions of those around them, “especially Americans with their divided allegiances to God, democracy, and the dollar”. 

"Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears.  We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations.  We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought."

                                                                                                                                   --- John F. Kennedy

On the off chance that readers are less than intrigued by this commentary, here is a compensatory reward for you, right here and right now.  Here is a good recipe for my own modern version of Corn Pone Polenta that creates a delicious and healthy meal to be shared with a dozen friends.  I recommend serving it with a Greek Salad that contains tangy French Feta cheese as a first-class first-course accompaniment.

     Tiffany Twain’s Baked Corn Pone Polenta with Shiitake Mushrooms

                                                   (Serves 12)


 3 cups coarse or medium polenta cornmeal

 9 cups water, with 1.5 teaspoons salt in it

 1 teaspoon each dried sage, thyme and lemon pepper, plus a good dash of cayenne

 4 oz. grated Parmesan

 1/2 cup olive oil, and 3 Tbls. butter (optional)

 Vegetable Layer:

 1 pound shiitake mushrooms, tip of ends chopped off, quartered or sliced in bite-sized pieces

 1 red onion, outer layers discarded, chopped medium fine

 2 leeks, chopped (including white part and a third of the green)

 2 red bell peppers, or 12 tri-color mini-sweet peppers, cut into bite-sized pieces

 3 crowns broccoli (3/4 lb.), washed and cut into bite-sized pieces

 2 zucchini, washed and cut into bite-sized pieces (optional)

 2 yellow summer squash or 4 small sunburst yellow squash (optional)

 3 Tablespoons sesame seeds and 2 Tbls. sesame oil

 Spices: 1/2 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper, plus 2 tsp. basil, oregano, cumin seeds,

   turmeric, black pepper, and coriander, plus a few good dashes of cayenne.

 1/2 cup pitted Kalamata olives and/or yummy pimiento-stuffed green olives, cut in thirds

      1 bunch Fresh Italian Parsley or cilantro, washed, stems removed, and chopped

  1/2 lb. fontina cheese, or pepper jack, grated


In a medium saucepan, bring the water to a boil with the salt.  Add half the olive oil (and butter, if you’re using it), and the sage, thyme, lemon pepper and cayenne, and then whisk in the cornmeal.  Reduce the heat to very low and simmer, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon so it doesn’t stick to the bottom, until it is very thick, about 20 minutes.  Remove from heat;  stir in half the grated Parmesan.

Heat the oven to 350° and coat the bottom of a big (10”-by-15”-inch) baking dish with olive oil.

In a large frying pan or pot, heat the remaining olive oil over moderately high heat for a minute.  Add the mushrooms, stirring, and the spices.  Cook, stirring for a few minutes.  Add the red onion, stir together, and then the broccoli, squashes and bell peppers.  Cook, stirring for 4 or 5 more minutes.  Add olives, sesame seeds and sesame oil, and sauté one minute more.  Remove.  (Can be done in two batches if the pan does not accommodate all the ingredients).

Pour the vegetables into the big baking dish and spread into an even layer. Top with the Italian Parsley or cilantro and the rest of the Parmesan and the grated fontina or pepper jack.  Top with the polenta, smoothing it into an even layer.  Sprinkle red paprika on top.  Bake until bubbling, about 25-30 minutes.

Sliding toward a Conclusion

Mark Twain, like his fellow American author Jack London, was among the small number of writers who achieved substantial monetary success while they were alive.  Both of them had observant brains, vivid imaginations, good memories, lucid dreams, an adventurous spirit and a strong need to express their experiences, perceptions and ideas.  Both of them also managed to spend large amounts of money on big expensive houses and to make poor judgments in speculative risks.  At least Mark Twain was able to live in his costly mansion in Hartford, Connecticut for many years; in contrast, Jack London spent a fortune on a 15,000 square-foot stone mansion on his Beauty Ranch above Glen Ellen, just west of Sonoma Valley and north of San Francisco, but he never got to live in it.  Jack had stated:  "My house will be standing, Act of God permitting, for a thousand years." 

Ironically, God apparently had other plans.  Jack and his wife Charmian had spent three years building the so-called Wolf House, but then a fire destroyed it just days before they were to move in.  The cause of the fire was never definitively determined.  The impressive ruins still stand on the hillside estate that is now a beautiful State Historic Park.

Mark Twain invested and lost an equivalent of $4 million in a ‘Paige Typesetting’ machine that was never brought to commercial success.  Despite his substantial earnings, he was beset by financial problems and investments that went awry, and in 1894 his publishing firm was forced to declare bankruptcy.  He and Livy traveled and lived abroad for eight years in the 1890s because it was cheaper back then.  He finally got out of debt by earning money from writing and lecturing during his extensive travels.

Sam Clemens had his idiosyncrasies, sure enough, but then again, so do I have mine, and you, I suspect, have yours!  He once wrote, perhaps somewhat disingenuously, “I don’t care anything about being humorous, or poetical, or eloquent, or anything of that kind -- the end and aim of my ambition is to be authentic.”  Really?!  The conventional and the renegade actually seem to have struggled mightily in Mark Twain, and he toned down his satire against religion and his language in many instances.  His upper-class wife had, after all, acted as his editor in recommending what language and topics to self-censor for respectability, and to ensure popularity. 

Certain aspects of his authenticity do shine through in his writings, like his scathing sardonic humor, his occasional eloquence, and his propensity to exaggerate wildly.  He was driven by the impulse for expression as well as many underlying motivations.  He had an often urgent need to make money to support his family and his extravagant lifestyle and his properties, servants and investments.  On the whole, he is one of the most fascinating characters in American history.  His great literary accomplishments led to him being referred to as “the Lincoln of our literature”, for he, like Abraham Lincoln, made a spectacular rise from humble beginnings to international prominence. 

Mark Twain would have appreciated a word that was invented by a Washington Post reader:  “Sarchasm, n.  The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person that doesn’t get it.”  Haha!  As Henry Miller once wrote, “Profundity and nonsense have certain unsuspected affinities”. 

So That’s All, Folks!

As this point is reached in my discursive narrative, I note that the acclaimed actor Hal Holbrook has done a one-man show giving extraordinarily well-prepared talks onstage as Mark Twain for more than 56 years. He once made the observation that he has a natural affinity for some of Mark Twain’s sentiments, such as his cynical disapproval of racism, injustices, shallow principles and idiocies that are prevalent in our society. I have seen Hal Holbrook perform, and he is very good.  As a substitute, anyone can watch the curious animated clay-model film titled The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.   In this film, James Whitmore gives voice to Mark Twain’s words as he is accompanied on a hot-air balloon voyage by a jumping frog and Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher.  Whitmore gives a good rendition of Mark Twain’s speaking style, and the film contains some of Mark Twain’s most famous quotes.  It starts with the story about Halley’s Comet, so this brings my story full circle.

The 75-year long orbit of Halley’s Comet traces a long elliptical path that takes it far out to a distance more than 30 times the distance of our home planet from the Sun.  Half an orbit later, Halley’s Comet streaks inside our own orbit to approach the Sun at a proximity closer than the planet Venus.  The comet has a small core composed of ice, cosmic dust and gases that is less than ten miles in diameter, but when it gets relatively close to the Sun it warms up, and a nebulous coma, or tail, can be seen extending 60 million miles across the sky.  This makes an impressive display to us Earthlings.  To stretch a point, Mark Twain’s orbit within the circles of literary and popular imagination extends not only far and wide, but vividly onward through history in influence and impact.  Yay for him!


               Dr. Tiffany B. Twain                       

                 April 21, 2016  (Germinating and evolving since 2008.)

Tiffany Twain is throwing down a proverbial gauntlet, and wonders, “What commendable activists will pick it up and run with it?”

“It appears to me, my dear Mr. Copperfield,” said Mrs. Micawber forcibly, “that what Mr. Micawber has to do, is to throw down the gauntlet to society, and say, in effect, ‘Show me who will take that up.  Let the party immediately step forward.’ ”

                                                         --- Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

An Afterward of Observation and Introspection 

Within every adult, the suppressed remnant of a curious, adventurous and enthusiastic child lies hidden deep in our individual psyches and souls.  It is to this child within, in part, that Mark Twain’s novels appeal.  Perhaps everyone secretly regrets they have suppressed the child within, a child that wants to show off and gain glory like the kids in Sunday school in the Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  Maybe everyone envies the smitten smart alecks in that sketch as they skylark through the sermons!

In the first chapter of The Further Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck had whittled a snake from a stick as a totem “like the Injuns do.”  When he showed it to Jim, Huck explained that the Indians carved animals on a totem pole for good luck.  Jim said, “Is dat a fac’?  Den how come dis totem got a snake on it?  A snake ain’t no animal.” 

Huck replies, “What is it then, if it ain’t an animal?” 

Jim:  “Huck, you know more’n anyone ‘bout most ever’thin’, but even a nigger knows better’n to call a snake a animal.  Animals got fur an’ claws an’ such.”

 “Well all right then, what is it?” 

  “Why a insec’, Huck.  Ain’t nothin’ else for it to be, I reckon.”

Ideas, literature and richly descriptive stories are wonderful.  One reason people read Mark Twain’s books is to gain a perspective on his good-natured, humorous, and unpretentious perspective on life.  His way of creatively exploring ideas is valuable, as was the case with his invention of traveling companions he used in his travel writing to express vulgar observations and give byplay with others in his stories.  I have always remembered the character Mr. Ballou in Roughing It, who described the old horses on their journey across the desert as being “bituminous from long deprivation”.  Mr. Ballou complained mildly about the familiarities of their camp dog being allowed in their bed, saying that such a dog as that was not a proper animal to admit to bed with tired men, because he was “so meretricious in his movements and so organic in his emotions.”  Ha!

I salute the sesquipedalian!  Mr. Ballou’s “one striking peculiarity was his Partingtonian fashion of loving and using big words for their own sakes, and independent of any bearing they might have upon the thought he was purposing to convey.  He always let his ponderous syllables fall with an easy unconsciousness that left them wholly without offensiveness.  In truth, his air was so natural and so simple that one was always catching himself accepting his stately sentences as meaning something, when they really meant nothing in the world.  If a word was long and grand and resonant, that was sufficient to win the old man's love, and he would drop that word into the most out-of-the-way place in a sentence or a subject, and be as pleased with it as if it were perfectly luminous with meaning.” 


Some of this “biography” was written near Earth Day 2012, when it seemed apropos to champion ideas that celebrate marvelous aspects of the Earth and the wonderful balance found in healthy ecosystems that support us.  I salute Mark Twain and sincerely hope that the influence of accurate understandings comes to inform our actions and public policies more powerfully in the coming years! 

In Roughing It, Mark Twain tells the funny story of Dick Baker, an earnest gold miner in a place named Dead-Horse Gulch.  Baker had a large grey cat named Tom Quartz.  It was “the remarkablest cat” anyone ever did see.  He had “a power of dignity -- he wouldn’t a let the Gov’ner of Californy be familiar with him.  He never ketched a rat in his life -- ‘peared to be above it.”  Tom Quartz loved to superintend the miners in their placer-mining search for gold, but when miners got into pick’n ‘n’ blast’n shafts along visible veins of quartz, that cat regarded it as the most “cussedest foolishness”.  He developed a powerful prejudice against the activity after having gotten blown up only once, and he became quite sagacious.  It proved to be impossible to cure him of his prejudice:  "Cure him!  No!  When Tom Quartz was sot once, he was always sot -- and you might a blowed him up as much as three million times 'n' you'd never a broken him of his cussed prejudice agin quartz mining."

Hilarious!  Marvelous!  Thank you, Samuel Clemens, for having enriched our world!

One observer said that we should expect wisdom from writers, and that, while art may stop short of Biblical revelation, it ought to tell us more than we already know.  Mark Twain's books do this.  They help clarify the world and make it a more sublime place.  In the film Mark Twain by Ken Burns, Russell Banks calls Mark Twain "a wise guy who was wise."  Amen!


Contrasting Strokes of Insight

Imagine being a member of a book club with some friends who are interested in understanding more about how our brains work AND about issues like the insights achieved by people who have had Near Death Experiences.  Your group decides to read the following two books, one after another, both of them written by neuroscientists:

(1) My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey, by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D.  Ms. Taylor had a massive stroke at age 37 that severely impacted her left-brain analytical capabilities, and she gained some amazingly thought-provoking insights from the experience.

 (2) Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, by Dr. Eben Alexander.  Dr. Alexander had a rare brain infection that suddenly caused him to suffer a full grand mal seizure that sent him into a comatose state for a week.  During his coma, he felt that he experienced definite proof that there is a God and angels and Heaven and an afterlife. 

I’d personally love to hear about the book group discussion that ensues, and what people think and feel about these two descriptions of extraordinary human experiences!

I’ll tip my hand:  I loved the insights that Jill Bolte Taylor gives to readers, and in contrast, when I read Proof of Heaven it made me think of a clever observation about the 17th century French philosopher René Descartes, whose experiences had led him to definitively proclaim, in effect:  “I think, therefore I am. (I think.)”

Jill Bolte Taylor’s full recovery took many years, but she gained profound insights by seeing the effects of her left-brain stroke and vividly remembering them once she recovered and was able to share her insights through the critical lens of her scientific knowledge of brain anatomy and neurology. 

It is ironic that Dr. Taylor related her right brain awareness and experiences through her left-brain abilities after she had recovered.  Most of our observations and judgments are formulated in frameworks of words and language, which is the province of the word-oriented left-brain.  This is largely how our conscious minds interpret the world.  To the left hemisphere of the brain, the perspectives of the image-oriented right brain are substantially a mystery.  But the holistic ways of seeing that are the province of the right hemisphere of the brain are crucially valuable, so we should make more concerted efforts to comprehend them!