A Quite Curious and Illuminating
Biography of Mark Twain
April 21, 2016
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.”
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.
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
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
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
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
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
“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!
“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
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.
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.
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
“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.”
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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,
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.”
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.”
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
“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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
not a pleasant condition, but certainty is an absurd one.”
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
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
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
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.
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!
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
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
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. ---
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
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
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
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.
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
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
“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
Now, let’s continue.
On Racism and
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.
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!
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.
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
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”
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
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
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
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
“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
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:
"WILL SHOW NO MERCY! … KITCHENER'S PLAN
“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.
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
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
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.
radical of one century is the conservative of the next. The radical invents the views. When he
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.’
Big Bang of the Mind
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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?!)
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!
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.
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
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.
a world -- Can’t we all just get along?!
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
rose upon a tranquil world, and beamed down upon the peaceful village like a
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
and I Went into a Dream
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.
I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it happened or not.”
Give Us Cause to Laugh,
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
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
And there are hens, professing to have
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:
-- 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
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
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!)
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
The Narrator Within
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"
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
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.
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."
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
"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
"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
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
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.
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,
trod the flowery April blithely for a while,
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
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!
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.
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”.
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
Tiffany Twain’s Baked Corn Pone Polenta
with Shiitake Mushrooms
coarse or medium polenta cornmeal
water, with 1.5 teaspoons salt in it
teaspoon each dried sage, thyme and lemon pepper, plus a good dash of cayenne
1/2 cup olive oil, and 3 Tbls.
shiitake mushrooms, tip of ends chopped off, quartered or sliced in bite-sized
red onion, outer layers discarded, chopped medium fine
leeks, chopped (including white part and a third of the green)
red bell peppers, or 12 tri-color mini-sweet peppers, cut into bite-sized
3 crowns broccoli (3/4
lb.), washed and cut into bite-sized pieces
zucchini, washed and cut into bite-sized pieces (optional)
yellow summer squash or 4 small sunburst yellow squash (optional)
3 Tablespoons sesame
seeds and 2 Tbls. sesame oil
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.
cup pitted Kalamata olives and/or yummy pimiento-stuffed green olives, cut in
Italian Parsley or cilantro, washed, stems removed, and chopped
1/2 lb. fontina cheese, or pepper
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.
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
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
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
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’
“Well all right then, what is
“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
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
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."
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
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
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.
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!