Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Letters from the Earth

(Actually not a reference to climate change, however much I may have been beating that horse of late.)

Mark Twain's Letters from the Earth is the title story in a collection of writings published posthumously. The letters are the Archangel Satan's side of a correspondence with his brethren, Gabriel and Michael.

As Twain's version of the story goes, Satan routinely gets on God's last nerve. And, with apparent regularity, Satan gets suspended, i.e., banished from heaven for varying lengths of time. One of Satan's banishments follows on the heels (in celestial time) of one of God's most baffling experiments, the creation of animals, in general, and humans, in particular. The fact that they are all found on Earth and no place else is part of the experiment. After all, God doesn't know what the outcome of the experiment will be, so why risk contaminating the universe? (This, of course, raises another question, how to measure the extent of contamination, if any.)

Anyway, Gabriel and Michael and Satan can't puzzle out quite why God has done such a ridiculous thing and, ordinarily, would confine themselves to heavenly inquiry, navel-gazing and the like. But Satan figures that since he has to wander through space, cold and dark as it is, until his current suspension ends, he may as well visit Earth and see how the experiment is coming along. Letters from the Earth lays out his observations about humans.

"This is a strange place, an extraordinary place, and interesting. There is nothing resembling it at home. The people are all insane, the animals are all insane, the earth is insane, Nature itself is insane," Satan writes in the first letter.

"Man is a marvelous curiosity. When he is at his very very best he is a sort of low-grade nickel-plated angel; at his worst he is unspeakable, unimaginable; and first and last and at all time he is a sarcasm. Yet he blandly and in all sincerity calls himself the 'noblest work of God'," continues Satan. "This is the truth I am telling you."

And, indeed, Satan's story does seem fact-based. There is more, lots more, but you'll have to find the Letters someplace and read them. In general, Twain always had an easier time spotting the pretensions and pontifications of faith. He was also inclined to minimize the apparent benefits, but not the power of religion, organized or otherwise. That is why Letters from the Earth wasn't published during Twain's lifetime. The book probably would have been banned, and Twain almost certainly wounded financially.

And speaking of banned, if you followed (or follow) the link to the Wikipedia entry for the book, you might encounter a link there to Dan Savage, who actually wrote a stage adaptation of Letters. When Marrianne and I were co-publishers of The Dayton Voice, we carried Savage's wickedly funny and very gay friendly advice column, "Savage Love." Occasional columns and other bits by Savage have almost certainly gotten the publications they were in banned from time to time, but that would also be a measure of their real value.

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