I know, I know: I was supposed to be writing today about good novelists and poets who write sucky novels and poems. That's going to have to wait another day or so, I fear.
Last night I finished reading Mark Twain's little 1906 book What Is Man?, a book he was so worried about (remember Michael Cassio in Othello? "Reputation, reputation, reputation! Oh, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial" [2.3]) that he published it anonymously in a small press with a very small run--only 250 copies. He knew that the views it contained would alienate many in his vast readership, folks who expected Twain to make them laugh--or to create scenes of playful, idyllic childhood--or both. (For the same reason--worry about reputation--Twain refused to allow his memoirs to be published until 100 years after his death--thus, vol. 1 appeared, on schedule, in 2010 and became a surprise bestseller.)
What Is Man?--only 140 pages long--is a sort of Socratic dialogue between characters identified only as Old Man and Young Man, and in some ways, I'm sure, they are aspects of Twain's own character--his younger, more naive and hopeful self vs. his older, more sardonic and skeptical self. The Old Man leads the young one around with a string of words and arguments that the young man is incapable of countering.
The Old Man argues that Man is a machine--that all influences, thoughts, ideas come from outside himself. (Only his temperament is his own.) "Shakespeare created nothing," he says. "He correctly observed, and he marvelously painted" (11).
Throughout, the Old Man alarms the younger one by arguing that Man is no better than a rat, an ant, a flea; in fact, in fundamental ways, we are inferior to these other creatures. He praises the architecture and government of an ant colony. He says, "Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can" (106).
The Old Man also evinces a deep cynicism about wealth and privilege. He notes that "a baby born with a billion dollars--where is the personal merit in that? A baby born with nothing--where is the personal demerit in that?" (13). Hmmmm, sounds a bit like the 2012 campaign?!
And he repeats the old argument heard in college (and prep school?) dorms since the Middle Ages, I'm sure: All Man's acts, even acts we view as charitable, heroic, self-sacrificing, etc., are actually selfish--done to satisfy himself, to make himself feel good. Man's only impulse, says the Old Man, "is "to content his own spirit" (16--italics in original). (You know the old, specious argument: Mother Teresa was selfish because she wouldn't have performed all those humanitarian acts if they had not made her feel good.)
But--the Old Man offers what he views as the best plan we can follow: "Diligently train your ideas upward," he tells the Young Man, "and still upward toward a summit where you will find your chiefest pleasure in conduct which, while contenting you, will be sure to confer benefits upon your neighbor and the community" (71).
He veers more toward the Dark Side when he talks about human morality. "The fact that man knows right from wrong proves his intellectual superiority to the other creatures," he says, "but the fact that he can do wrong proves his moral inferiority to any creature that cannot" (115).
The Old Man (and Twain?) concludes with a blistering statement about cultural relativity, about our insistence that our views, our government, our religions are, well, Number One. Right. Blessed. Others are, well, wrong. And probably evil. Here's the passage in its entirety:
Nations do not think, they only feel. They get their feelings at second hand through their temperaments, not their brains. A nation can be brought—by force of circumstances, not argument—to reconcile itself to any kind of government or religion that can be devised; in time it will fit itself to the required conditions; later, it will prefer them and will fiercely fight for them. As instances, you have all history: the Greeks, the Romans, the Persians, the Egyptians, the Russians, the Germans, the French, the English, the Spaniards, the Americans, the South Americans, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Hindus, the Turks—a thousand wild and tame religions, every kind of government that can be thought of, from tiger to house-cat, each nation knowing it has the only true religion and the only sane system of government, each despising all the others, each an ass and not suspecting it, each proud of its fancied supremacy, each perfectly sure it is the pet of God, each with undoubting confidence summoning Him to take command in time of war, each surprised when He goes over to the enemy, but by habit able to excuse it and resume compliments—in a word, the whole human race content, always content, persistently content, indestructibly content, happy, thankful, proud, no matter what its religion is, nor whether its master be tiger or house-cat. Am I stating facts? You know I am (140).
Oh, Mark Twain. The man who made the whole world laugh ... (I stole that sarcastic crack from Prof. Abe C. Ravitz, Hiram College, circa 1966).