Perfect for you if:
- You’ve yet to read something by Mark Twain.
- Your glass is half-empty and you’re seeking company.
- You’re feeling on top of the world and need some perspective.
I’ve come across so many good Mark Twain quotes in great books that I wanted to crunch something by him. I decided on “The Mysterious Stranger” over something like “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer / Huckleberry Fin” because, based on quick research, it promised (and turned out) to be dark and philosophical.
“The Mysterious Stranger” is an unfinished novella that explores themes of morality, mortality and religion. Twain worked on many versions of the story during a “dark period” of grief, financial difficulty and depression towards the end of his life.
In 1916, after Twain’s death, Albert Paine – an author and biographer who kept sole, private control of Twain’s papers – published this version after what was later discovered to be extensive editing. Nevertheless, it’s a quick and excellent read. I’ll definitely be coming back for more Twain, including hunting down some of the other variations of this story.
This version is set in a quiet village in 16th century Austria at the height of a wave of early modern witch hunts. The plot revolves around a discussion between a young boy and an angel, Satan – the sinless nephew of his more well-known uncle – as events in the village unfold into nightmarish chaos.
Twain uses the story’s characters and the contrasting innocence of the boy and angel to make some blunt observations about humanity.
It’s hard to wrap up philosophy in bullet points but for me it went something like:
- We can distinguish good from evil,
- And yet, despite claiming many good qualities for ourselves,
- We “nine times out of ten” choose evil:
- Because we are cowards;
- Because we are selfish; and
- Because we are shortsighted.
- Both wilfully and ignorantly.
- Across time and space†.
- To our benefit and to the cost of others.
- Our entire life is just a subjective illusion.
- And we have no real control over our fate anyway.
Oh, and by the way:
- Religion is a lie,
- There is no afterlife, and
- Our existence is fleeting, inconsequential and purposeless.
As I mentioned, a “dark period”. And yet the story’s unfolding chaos is as inescapably compelling as an accident at the side of the road or a public celebrity meltdown.
It’s hard not to read Twain’s struggle with conflicting duality without confronting your own. “Not me”, you can’t help but think, “I wouldn’t act like that”. And yet you can’t deny seeing your own failings in some of Twain’s characters without feeling guilty of the hypocrisy of others.
All in all, “The Mysterious Stranger” is a book that surfaces more uncomfortable questions than it answers. You can feel Twain’s struggle to make sense of it all. To make one truth from many. To deal with the frustrating reality of multiple conflicting truths††.
It’s a book that I’ll need to come back to more than once to fully un-puzzle.
In the meantime, have a read and let me know what you think!
† For more on shortsightedness when it comes to consequences here’s a wonderful Chinese parable:
sàiwēng-shīmǎ, yān zhī fēi fú
When the old man from the frontier lost his horse, how could one have known that it would not be fortuitous?
It can be difficult to foresee the twists and turns which compel misfortune to beget fortune, and vice versa. There once was a (father), skilled in divination, who lived close to the frontier (with his son). One of his horses accidentally strayed into the lands of the Xiongnu, so everyone consoled him. (But) the father said, “Why should I hastily (conclude) that this is not fortunate?” After several months, the horse came back from the land of the Xiongnu, accompanied by another stallion, so everyone congratulated him. (But) the father said, “Why should I hastily (conclude) that this can not be unfortunate?” His family had a wealth of fine horses, and his son loved riding them. One day (the son) fell off a horse, and broke his leg, so everyone consoled (the father). (But) the father said, “Why should I hastily (conclude) that this is not fortunate?” One year later, the Xiongnu invaded the frontier, and all able-bodied men took up arms and went to war. Of the men from the frontier (who volunteered), nine out of ten men perished (from the fighting). It was only because of (the son’s) broken leg, that the father and son were spared (this tragedy). Therefore misfortune begets fortune, and fortune begets misfortune. This goes on without end, and its depths can not be measured. (Wiktionary translation)
†† For more on conflicting truths here’s a superb poetic version of an old Indian parable:
Based on the Indian parable:
It was six men of Indostan,
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -“Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear,
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”
The Third approach’d the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” -quoth he- “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”
The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee:
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” -quoth he,-
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said- “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” -quoth he,- “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean;
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
TANQ entries for “The Mysterious Stranger”
TANQ is WhyWhatHow’s growing central library of thoughts, anecdotes, notes, and quotes.
“A child’s first act knocks over the initial brick, and the rest will follow inexorably.”
“For a million years [mankind] has gone on monotonously propagating itself and monotonously re-performing this dull nonsense-to what end? No wisdom can guess!”
“Of all the things to bear, to be cut by your neighbours and left in contemptuous solitude is maybe the hardest.”
“Every man is a suffering-machine and a happiness machine combined.”
“[Mankind] is made up of sheep. It is governed by minorities, seldom or never by majorities. It suppresses its feelings and its beliefs and follows the handful that makes the most noise… The vast majority … are secretly kind-hearted and shrink from inflicting pain, but in the presence of the aggressive and pitiless minority they don’t dare to assert themselves.”
“We do not know good fortune from bad, and are always mistaking the one for the other.”
“Of the score of fine qualities which [mankind] imagined it had and was vain of, it really possessed hardly one.”
“Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution – these can lift at a colossal humbug – push it a little – weaken it a little, century by century, but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast.”
“Knowledge was not good for the common people, and could make them discontented with the lot which God had appointed for them, and He would not endure discontentment with His plans.”
“There is a sort of pathos about it when one remembers how few are your days, how childish you pomps, and what shadows you are!”
“In five or six thousand years, five or six high civilisations have risen, flourished, commanded the wonder of the world, then faded and disappeared.”
“In any community, big or little, there is always a fair proportion of people who are not malicious or unkind by nature, and who never do unkind things except when they are overmastered by fear, or when their self-interest is greatly in danger, or some such matter as that.”
“Change of scenes shifts the mind’s burden to the other shoulder and banishes the old, shop-worn weariness from mind and body both.”