Sunday, February 16, 2014

Letters From Earth: Mark Twain's Most Controversial Tale

I saw a scene on FaceBook, of a bench on a cliff overlooking surf and beach below.  The caption read, "If you could spend an hour in conversation with anyone living or dead, who would it be?"

It is a fascinating question.  I would undoubtedly opt for conversing with someone who is now dead, some personality from history.  They might include Thomas Edison, Robert E. Lee, General George Patton, John Lennon, Jesus Christ, Vince Guaraldi, Jefferson Davis, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin...the list goes on and on.

Mark Twain
However, one of my top choices would be Mark Twain, the great American writer of the 19th Century.  I find him to be a fascinating personality; I love his wit and wisdom.  Twain, born Samuel Langhorne Clemmons, was born in 1835 and died in 1910.  He is most famous for his novels, like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, as well as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and The Prince and the Pauper.  He also wrote some great short stories, like "The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyville."  All of these works have strong moral messages, and focus on the hypocrisies and idiosyncrasies of the human race.

Two of his novels, Connecticut Yankee and Prince and the Pauper, make the reader see through the other guy's eyes, and take a walk in the other guy's shoes.  If you are not the pariah in a society, reviled and spat upon, you should consider how it would feel.  Some believe these two novels were a disguised appeal for better treatment of blacks in America, at a time when a more obvious appeal would have been met with derision and rejection.

Mark Twain had an amazingly open mind for his time.  I especially enjoyed one of his most controversial short stories, "Letters From Earth."  In this story, Satan is one of Heaven's Archangels but gets on the wrong side of God, and is banished from Heaven for a time.  Having nothing to do, Satan visits earth and finds human concepts of God and Heaven to be highly errant and humorous.  He writes to the other Archangels still in Heaven about his observations.  It is a thought-provoking read, and quite funny -- at least, in the first half of the story.  The second half isn't funny at all, but quite alarming.

Satan finds the tale of Adam and Eve strange and contradictory.  He writes:
Naturally you will think the threat to punish Adam and Eve for disobeying was of course not carried out, since they did not create themselves, nor their natures nor their impulses nor their weaknesses, and hence were not properly subject to anyone's commands, and not responsible to anybody for their acts. It will surprise you to know that the threat was carried out. Adam and Eve were punished, and that crime finds apologists unto this day. The sentence of death was executed.
Satan continues:
Very well, God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden, and eventually assassinated them. All for disobeying a command which he had no right to utter. But he did not stop there, as you will see. He has one code of morals for himself, and quite another for his children. He requires his children to deal justly -- and gently -- with offenders, and forgive them seventy-and-seven times; whereas he deals neither justly nor gently with anyone, and he did not forgive the ignorant and thoughtless first pair of juveniles even their first small offense and say, "You may go free this time, and I will give you another chance." On the contrary! He elected to punish their children, all through the ages to the end of time, for a trifling offense committed by others before they were born. He is punishing them yet. In mild ways? No, in atrocious ones.
And this:
You would not suppose that this kind of Being gets many compliments. Undeceive yourself: the world calls him the All-Just, the All-Righteous, the All-Good, the All-Merciful, the All-Forgiving, the All-Truthful, the All-Loving, the Source of All Morality. These sarcasms are uttered daily, all over the world. But not as conscious sarcasms. No, they are meant seriously: they are uttered without a smile.
It is obvious that Mark Twain did not have a high opinion of many Judeo-Christian beliefs.  Through the years I have come to agree with "Letters From Earth," or much of it anyway, and have rejected many of these doctrines.  A just God would not torture souls in Hell for all eternity for being just what He made them to be.  Nor would he order the slaughter of innocents, as He allegedly did to the Midianites.

I will say that being a Christian has the effect of making people more loving and forgiving of each other, and kind to strangers, and predisposed to do good towards their fellow passengers to the grave.  Christianity does much good for the world, and for the human soul.  However, its bad points are that it saddles its adherents with feelings of guilt and fear, for merely being human; and this deters Christians from fully enjoying their lives on earth.

I like Mark Twain very much.  Like him, I refuse to live a life of guilt and fear.

Postscript:  "Letters From Earth" becomes a bitter rant against the God of the Bible in the second half of the tale, describing the mass murder of the Midianites, saving only the virgin women (to be later raped or sold into slavery) and some of the little children.  Indeed, the Midianite episode describes a cruel God similar to Allah, and is comparable to Mohammed's slaughter of the Quraysh, a Jewish tribe, in 622 AD.  When I first read these Biblical passages, many years ago, I was disgusted and immediately concluded that no just God would order such an atrocity.  However, man is quite capable of such slaughter while using God as his excuse and justification.


Always On Watch said...

Mark Twain was an interesting man -- and, in many ways, a conundrum. For as bright as he was, he had no clue as to managing his personal finances.

What would he say about the Internet. His words about the telephone provide a clue: It is my ... hope and aspiration that all of us ... may eventually be gathered together in a heaven of everlasting rest and peace and bliss -- except the inventor of the telephone..

Also see A Telephonic Conversation, one of his short stories.

Stogie Chomper said...

Twain also said he'd rather go to dog heaven since dogs were so much nicer than human beings. I'll look for "A Telephonic Conversation." I am currently reading "Innocents Abroad."