Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Mark Twain

Lying is universal—we all do it. Therefore, the wise thing is for us diligently to train ourselves to lie thoughtfully, judiciously; to lie with a good object, and not an evil one; to lie for others' advantage, and not our own; to lie healingly, charitably, humanely, not cruelly, hurtfully, maliciously; to lie gracefully and graciously, not awkwardly and clumsily; to lie firmly, frankly, squarely, with head erect, not haltingly, tortuously, with pusillanimous mien, as being ashamed of our high calling. Then shall we be rid of the rank and pestilent truth that is rotting the land; then shall we be great and good and beautiful, and worthy dwellers in a world where even benign Nature habitually lies, except when she promises execrable weather.
—Mark Twain, On the Decay of the Art of Lying

On a recent trip to Connecticut, I visited the Mark Twain Library, in Redding. Twain moved to Redding in 1908, where he spent the last few years of his life. He established the local public library by donating 3000 books to its collection, and by founding the Mark Twain Library Association shortly after moving to town. Redding is a town in Connecticut that I have a family connection to, since my aunt and uncle moved there circa 40 years ago. I've visited Redding several times, and have always liked that region of Connecticut, for its sheer physical beauty as much as for its cultural history.

Born on November 30, 1835, Samuel Langhorn Clemens was a prolific author of both serious and humorous literature, a famed public speaker and lecturer, and a man interested in the future of technology. He was involved with the early years of the typewriter. He was friends with Nikola Tesla, the electrical inventor and visionary. One of my favorite photos of Twain is this one, taken at Tesla's New York City lab: Twain is holding lightning in his hands, with Tesla in the photo's background.

The image of Twain holding the fires of creativity in his hands, symbolized by lightning, seems very apt for a writer and thinker who ranged across many literary fields with equal skill.

One of Twain's greatest writings, in my opinion, was one never published in his lifetime; he wrote it circa 1904, but his family thought it would be viewed as sacrilegious, and he did not feel he could publish it without being seen as a crank. This short prose-poem was The War Prayer, which I believe shows Twain's remarkable prescience about human affairs. I'll reprint it here, as a memorial for a century of continuous war, which seems to have no end, even now.

It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and spluttering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spread of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory which stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts, and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country, and invoked the God of Battles beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpourings of fervid eloquence which moved every listener. It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety's sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

Sunday morning came—next day the battalions would leave for the front; the church was filled; the volunteers were there, their young faces alight with martial dreams—visions of the stern advance, the gathering momentum, the rushing charge, the flashing sabers, the flight of the foe, the tumult, the enveloping smoke, the fierce pursuit, the surrender! Then home from the war, bronzed heroes, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory! With the volunteers sat their dear ones, proud, happy, and envied by the neighbors and friends who had no sons and brothers to send forth to the field of honor, there to win for the flag, or, failing, die the noblest of noble deaths. The service proceeded; a war chapter from the Old Testament was read; the first prayer was said; it was followed by an organ burst that shook the building, and with one impulse the house rose, with glowing eyes and beating hearts, and poured out that tremendous invocation

    God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest!
    Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!

Then came the "long" prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its supplication was, that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in the day of battle and the hour of peril, bear them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory—

An aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister, his long body clothed in a robe that reached to his feet, his head bare, his white hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders, his seamy face unnaturally pale, pale even to ghastliness. With all eyes following him and wondering, he made his silent way; without pausing, he ascended to the preacher's side and stood there waiting. With shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence, continued with his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered in fervent appeal, "Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!"

The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside—which the startled minister did—and took his place. During some moments he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes, in which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said:

"I come from the Throne—bearing a message from Almighty God!" The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. "He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import—that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of—except he pause and think.

"God's servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two—one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him Who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this—keep it in mind. If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor's crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

"You have heard your servant's prayer—the uttered part of it. I am commissioned of God to put into words the other part of it—that part which the pastor—and also you in your hearts—fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: 'Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!' That is sufficient. the whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory—must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

"O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle—be Thou near them! With them—in spirit—we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it—for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

(After a pause.) "Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits!"

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

—Mark Twain, The War Prayer

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Blogger John Ettorre said...

I've said it before, and I'll say it again now: Twain, Lincoln and Einstein are the gifts that keep giving. They said so much and so well that it seems almost as if they've remained alive, and continuing to pump out trenchant insights. Of course, you could also add a few others to this list, including at least three Transcendental poets whose names you can probably guess--Emerson, Whitman and Thoreau.

3:00 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Agreed, on pretty much all fronts. I think people still don't realize how diverse Twain was as a writer. I also don't think people realize how great a writer Lincoln was, although that perception is starting to change. Einstein's many speeches and letters and comments are full of wisdom. I have the expanded edition of "The Quotable Einstein" and it's a treasure.

Whitman goes without saying, etc.

Recently I've been reading through a republished edition of F.O. Matthissen's tome American Renaissance: Art and expression in the age of Emerson and Whitman, and it's been a revelation to put all those writers in context. Matthiessen shows all the inter-relationships and influences very well, I think. In addition to Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman, the book also covers Hawthorne and Melville, who were also part of that whole tapestry. An excellent book, if you've never run across it, and now fortunately it's back in print.

5:04 PM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I enjoyed the piece on lying. I was brought up to believe that the truth was something I would recognise when I saw it and it would set me free. I never did see it. I saw things that purported to be truth but they always disappointed me. We live in a grey world: truths are rarely 100% true and the best lies are leavened with truths. Everything made sense to me when I discovered fuzzy logic. I simply don't accept that language is capable of conveying the truth; there is always some degradation; something is always lost in translation. So I take an 'it'll do' approach to communication which is why these days sweating over which is the perfect adjective to use although I really should give 'interesting' and 'nice' a break.

7:49 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Jim, I thought you might enjoy that essay. (Here is an online version of the entire text.)

I'm with you about fuzzy logic. One reason I like fractal artwork is that it shows that the boundary or edge between states is infinitely complex, and although you think you know where it is, the more closely you look at it, the more rough it seems. Fuzzy set theory is similar in that it tells us that we can work with the contents of a set without knowing all of what those contents are.

I feel more and more that, as you say, language is incapable of conveying the truth, that a close approximation is the best that language can do.

So, like with a fuzzy fractal boundary, I say "good enough" a lot of the time, with language. An essay is often "good enough," a poem is almost always closer to the truth than an essay, for me, but it is usually "slightly better than good enough" rather than "perfect." Sometimes those are "the best I can do at this moment." (Another reason why I often make new attempts at getting a poem to say the truth, rather than spending a lot of energy trying to revise a poem that didn't succeed before.)

Basically, I'm just rephrasing here in my own idiosyncratic words what you have already said, which is my way of saying here and now that I completely agree with you.

11:48 AM  
Blogger John Ettorre said...

Interesting that you should mention Lincoln as a writer. I happened to recently feed my Lincoln obsession by reading a fascinating book entitled Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, by Fred Kaplan. He expertly traces the many influences that went into this mostly self-educated man, who got an awfully good education simply by years of patient and attentive reading. It's a masterpiece of a book, and nicely brings together in one place so many strands of a story that until now were spread in dribs and drabs all over the place. It made me want to read a book by Gary Wills that traces the Gettysburg Address, which Lincoln famously scratched out himself on the train going to the event.

9:33 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

The Kaplan book sounds well worth reading. I'd heard about it, and now I have a good reason to go seek it out. Thanks for recommending it.

Lincoln is one example of the autodidact. Not every autodidact is a Lincoln, or a Ben Franklin, or an Eric Hoffer. Most are not. But it's always a good reminder to us all that one can go ahead and provide oneself with an excellent education by reading and absorbing many books. I think we've become a little too used to the idea that you must have some sort of academic degree to be taken seriously; then again, the poets have become firmly entrenched in the academic world, to the point where "independent" poets are often looked down upon.

Still, there's a great deal one CAN do to educate oneself about all manner of things, following Lincoln's example of teaching himself via his deep and eclectic reading.

My usual advice to young poets is to tell them to go read lots and lots of poetry, write a little, read a lot more, get a little life-experience under their belts, read some more—and then they might be ready to write one true poem. All too often these days think that getting an MFA at some university is sufficient; which is perhaps why so much contemporary poetry is so disembodied.

9:42 PM  
Blogger John Ettorre said...

Life experience is crucial, of course. Glad you made that explicit. Without that blended in, all the reading in the world won't get you too far.

12:20 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I agree. It's become more and more clear to me that one of the problems with a lot of writers is that they don't get out of their workspaces enough. As if the life of the mind were the only real life. I'm not anti-intellectual, as you know, and I think there's a balance and wisdom that only life experiences can bring to a person. To be well-rounded, any writer needs to get out more.

1:50 PM  
Blogger John Ettorre said...

Last year I posted a riff by David Mamet about this very subject:


5:39 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I often think of Eric Hoffer in this context, too. He said some similar things, and in similar ways.

Twain certainly went out there and lived, and gathered experiences to convey in his writings.

10:13 AM  

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