Re-reading Mark Twain's Letters from Earth (1909) provides a bracing reminder of why they turned me into an atheist all those many years ago. The Letters are from Satan to his fellow angels, and they document humanity's idiotic attempt to understand the God who created them, i.e. The Bible. Reading it now, two things immediately strike me:
- The Letters presuppose the existence of God and His Heavenly Host, they simply insist that humans have got the story all wrong.
- Satan may not be the most reliable of narrators.
These facts overlap invidiously in terms of audience: people who would consider Satan a reliable narrator are not people who presuppose the existence of God. Short of members of the Church of Satan—not founded until sixty years after the Letters were written—it's not entirely clear who Twain imagines his audience to be within the fiction's framework. Beyond it, his intent is obvious: he employs Satan as a narrator because it galls those he mocks and delights sympathetic atheists.
But obvious as it is, the text contravenes it at all turns. For you to buy the legitimacy of Satan's critique, you have to accept that there's an actual Heaven to which the absurd creation of humanity compares. Quick example:
I recall to your attention the extraordinary fact with which I began. To wit, that 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.
They prize it thus highly; yet, like all their so-called "boons," it is a poor thing. At its very best and longest the act is brief beyond imagination—the imagination of an immortal, I mean. In the matter of repetition the man is limited—oh, quite beyond immortal conception. We who continue the act and its supremest ecstasies unbroken and without withdrawal for centuries, will never be able to understand or adequately pity the awful poverty of these people in that rich gift which, possessed as we possess it, makes all other possessions trivial and not worth the trouble of invoicing.
Satan knows from profound coitus, so silly humanity err twice-over: once, for the paltry quality of mundane intercourse; then again, for even leaving its meager attendant joys out of its conception of heaven. The whole work is thus structured around Satan's knowledge of the True Heaven from which he's been temporarily expelled.
But his knowledge of God's mind isn't even what he implicitly claims it to be. Consider this bit from the opening narration:
"Yes," said Michael, "and He said He would establish Natural Law—the Law of God—throughout His dominions, and its authority should be supreme and inviolable."
"Also," said Gabriel, "He said He would by and by create animals, and place them, likewise, under the authority of that Law."
"Yes," said Satan, "I heard Him, but did not understand. What is animals, Gabriel?"
I open my chapter with this quotation, and I'm damn close to titling the beast "What is Animals?" What better title and introductory bit for a chapter which by-and-large addresses Connecticut Yankee and What is Man? But I digress. The force of Satan's complaints seem logical in nature; but given Satan's imperfect knowledge, it's difficult to credit the premises from which he draws his sniggering conclusions. How did Twain try to blindside his readers into assent?
By writing some of the most forceful prose of his career. He's undone by his own talent here. To wit:
On the third day, about noon, it was found that a fly and been left behind. The return voyage turned out to be long and difficult, on account of the lack of chart and compass, and because of the changed aspects of all coasts, the steadily rising water having submerged some of the lower landmarks and given to higher ones an unfamiliar look; but after sixteen days of earnest and faithful seeking, the fly was found at last, and received on board with hymns of praise and gratitude, the Family standing meanwhile uncovered, our of reverence for its divine origin. It was weary and worn, and had suffered somewhat from the weather, but was otherwise in good estate. Men and their families had died of hunger on barren mountain tops, but it had not lacked for food, the multitudinous corpses furnishing it in rank and rotten richness. Thus was the sacred bird providentially preserved.
Providentially. That is the word. For the fly had not been left behind by accident. No, the hand of Providence was in it. There are no accidents. All things that happen, happen for a purpose. They are foreseen from the beginning of time, they are ordained from the beginning of time. From the dawn of Creation the Lord had foreseen that Noah, being alarmed and confused by the invasion of the prodigious brevet fossils, would prematurely fly to sea unprovided with a certain invaluable disease. He would have all the other diseases, and could distribute them among the new races of men as they appeared in the world, but he would lack one of the very best—typhoid fever; a malady which, when the circumstances are especially favorable, is able to utterly wreck a patient without killing him; for it can restore him to his feet with a long life in him, and yet deaf, dumb, blind, crippled, and idiotic. The housefly is its main disseminator, and is more competent and more calamitously effective than all the other distributors of the dreaded scourge put together. And so, by foreordination from the beginning of time, this fly was left behind to seek out a typhoid corpse and feed upon its corruptions and gaum its legs with germs and transmit them to the re-peopled world for permanent business. From that one housefly, in the ages that have since elapsed, billions of sickbeds have been stocked, billions of wrecked bodies sent tottering about the earth, and billions of cemeteries recruited with the dead.
Many a passage in Letters from Earth stokes the fire of overblown pathos. I don't dare list them all. So let me leave you with a little more typical Twain:
A eunuch is a person whose candle has been put out. By art.
The accompanying footnote is particularly withering.