Saturday, March 7, 2009

Mark Twain on Death

Years ago, an author I respect, Joe Straczynski, in one of his postings on the Internet, stated his opinion that Mark Twain's autobiography was the greatest work in the English language. With a recommendation like that, I promptly bought and read the book. I'm not a writer, have never been an English major, and there are still quite a few books in English that I haven't read, so I cannot say whether or not I agree with Joe. I can say that I found it an excellent book.

Mark Twain was no stranger to the death of loved ones, and he did us the courtesy of writing eloquently about his experiences. His recountings give the inexperienced some understanding of what is to come, and provide the experienced with some company in their pain. And with his credentials in such matters established, he saw fit to share, from the safety of his own grave (for he had insisted that certain portions of his autobiography not be published until he was dead, or dead for some particular number of years) his own view of death. Though it flies painfully in the face of many established beliefs (a pain Twain regrets), it has stuck with me, and I pass it along for the benefit of any kindred souls.

From chapter 49 of The Autobiography of Mark Twain, as edited by Charles Neider, pages 326 to 327:

[...] I have long ago lost my belief in immortality—also my interest in it. I can say now what I could not say while alive—things which it would shock people to hear; things which I could not say when alive because I should be aware of that shock and would certainly spare myself the personal pain of inflicting it. When we believe in immortality we have a reason for it. Not a reason founded upon information, or even plausibilities, for we haven't any. Our reason for choosing to believe in this dream is that we desire immortality, for some reason or other, I don't know what. But I have no such desire. I have sampled life and it is sufficient. Another one would be another experiment. It would proceed from the same source as this one. I should have no large expectations concerning it, and if I may be excused from assisting in the experiment I shall properly be grateful. Annihilation has no terrors for me, because I have already tried it before I was born—a hundred million years—and I have suffered more in an hour, in this life, than I remember to have suffered in the whole hundred million years put together. There was a peace, a serenity, an absence of all sense of responsibility, an absence of worry, an absence of care, grief, perplexity; and the presence of a deep content and unbroken satisfaction in that hundred million years of holiday which I look back upon with a tender longing and with a grateful desire to resume, when the opportunity comes.

[Update of March 9, 2009] I agree with Alison in Austria's critique of the quote above. Nothing can be experienced of nothingness, so it is a blatant failure of logic when, at the end, Twain claims experiences of the nothingness prior to his birth – the same nothingness that he asserts will follow his death.

Personally, when I read that quote, I assume that the failure wasn't lost on Twain; that in his mind he did equate death with annihilation, and the result of annihilation with nothingness, but that he decided that it was simpler, and/or more effective from a literary standpoint, to express his perspective by ignoring the logical failure of attributing qualities to nothingness. I further assume that he trusted the readers who accepted the death-is-annihilation view to see through his sophistry, while trusting everyone else to be sufficiently offended to move on to the next paragraph without further ado.

Of course, that's a lot of assuming, and I could be wrong. I'll just add that I don't associate Twain with clumsy thinking, while I am aware (because he tells us so in his autobiography) that he was not above toying with the facts in his stories when he thought the stories would benefit. In this case, he may have been toying with the logic of the piece in order to make it easier for his readers to wrap their minds around a concept (absolute nonexistence) that might be unfamiliar to them, and/or antithetical to their beliefs. If so, it was a dubious tactic, because it conflated incompatible concepts (nonexistence and existence), and that leaves us to guess about what he really thought.

Granting all of those problems, I must admit that I still enjoy that passage every time I think of it.


  1. Alison in Austria12:34 AM CST

    Mark Twain contradicts himself. He explains (non)immortality in the very terms used to make the afterlife palatable to the fearful.
    Peace, security, satisfaction... But to experience that, to be able to report on it, it is necessary to be sentinent, not annihilated. His concept seems to be more along Buddhist/Hindu lines - Nirvana, but without reincarnation.

  2. Anonymous4:40 PM CDT

    Quite frankly, Twain sounds like a coward to me. He wants to spare himself the pain of inflicting shock on others, so he waits until after his death to do so. He doesn't seem to care about the people on whom he is inflicting this shock, only about how it will affect him. If you're going to have controversial opinions, then at least have the courage to voice them while you're still alive.


  3. Don, it's not at all uncommon for people to be more frank about their views in documents they know will only be seen after their deaths (think wills, for a start). Also, Twain is completely up-front about his reason for not having voiced those ideas during life ("would certainly spare myself the personal pain"). Personally, "coward" doesn't sound to me like the correct description for anyone being so straightforward.

    Also, from the offending people standpoint, what better place to discuss one's controversial views than in one's autobiography - only people interested in his views will be reading it. If they are shocked, they've gotten their money's worth; they've learned something about him that they could not have learned elsewhere.

    If, instead, he'd just slipped this controversial paragraph into one of his speeches, that might have represented an indifference to shocking an unsuspecting audience. (Although, given his reputation, could Twain really have found an unsuspecting audience? Certainly his audiences expected him to say things that others were not.)

  4. Not necessarily for posting. . .

    I wanted to express my condolences to you. I never met Margaret, but I knew of her through your blog (which I found by way of the owls). Some time ago you posted a series of photos you had taken at the Bamberger Ranch. I can't remember what specifically lead me to click on the link, but I imagine you must have written about Margaret or the ranch in a way that made me want to know more about this amazing woman and her magical world.

    I was saddened to read her obituary this weekend. I wanted to thank you for "introducing" her to me--if only in words and photos, and express my condolences. I know you lost a special friend.

    Robyn Czarnecki