Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCLXXXIII

Astronomy and Dreams

August 5, 1909. This morning I noticed on a chair a copy of Flaubert’s Salammbo which I recently lent him. I asked if he liked it.

“No,” he said, “I didn’t like any of it.”

“But you read it?”

“Yes, I read every line of it.”

“You admitted its literary art?”

“Well, it’s like this: If I should go to the Chicago stockyards and they should kill a beef and cut it up and the blood should splash all over everything, and then they should take me to another pen and kill another beef and the blood should splash over everything again, and so on to pen after pen, I should care for it about as much as I do for that book.”

“But those were bloody days, and you care very much for that period in history.”

“Yes, that is so. But when I read Tacitus and know that I am reading history I can accept it as such and supply the imaginary details and enjoy it, but this thing is such a continuous procession of blood and slaughter and stench it worries me. It has great art — I can see that. That scene of the crucified lions and the death canon and the tent scene are marvelous, but I wouldn’t read that book again without a salary.”

August 16. He is reading Suetonius, which he already knows by heart — so full of the cruelties and licentiousness of imperial Rome.

This afternoon he began talking about Claudius.

“They called Claudius a lunatic,” he said, “but just see what nice fancies he had. He would go to the arena between times and have captives and wild beasts brought out and turned in together for his special enjoyment. Sometimes when there were no captives on hand he would say, ‘Well, never mind; bring out a carpenter.’ Carpentering around the arena wasn’t a popular job in those days. He went visiting once to a province and thought it would be pleasant to see how they disposed of criminals and captives in their crude, old-fashioned way, but there was no executioner on hand. No matter; the Emperor of Rome was in no hurry — he would wait. So he sat down and stayed there until an executioner came.”

I said, “How do you account for the changed attitude toward these things? We are filled with pity to-day at the thought of torture and suffering.”

“Ah! but that is because we have drifted that way and exercised the quality of compassion. Relax a muscle and it soon loses its vigor; relax that quality and in two generations — in one generation — we should be gloating over the spectacle of blood and torture just the same. Why, I read somewhere a letter written just before the Lisbon catastrophe in 1755 about a scene on the public square of Lisbon: A lot of stakes with the fagots piled for burning and heretics chained for burning. The square was crowded with men and women and children, and when those fires were lighted, and the heretics began to shriek and writhe, those men and women and children laughed so they were fairly beside themselves with the enjoyment of the scene. The Greeks don’t seem to have done these things. I suppose that indicates earlier advancement in compassion.”

Colonel Harvey and Mr. Duneka came up to spend the night. Mr. Clemens had one of his seizures during the evening. They come oftener and last longer. One last night continued for an hour and a half. I slept there.

September 7. To-day news of the North Pole discovered by Peary. Five days ago the same discovery was reported by Cook. Clemens’s comment: “It’s the greatest joke of the ages.” But a moment later he referred to the stupendous fact of Arcturus being fifty thousand times as big as the sun.

September 21. This morning he told me, with great glee, the dream he had had just before wakening. He said:

“I was in an automobile going slowly, with ‘a little girl beside me, and some uniformed person walking along by us. I said, ‘I’ll get out and walk, too’; but the officer replied, ‘This is only one of the smallest of our fleet.’

“Then I noticed that the automobile had no front, and there were two cannons mounted where the front should be. I noticed, too, that we were traveling very low, almost down on the ground. Presently we got to the bottom of a hill and started up another, and I found myself walking ahead of the ‘mobile. I turned around to look for the little girl, and instead of her I found a kitten capering beside me, and when we reached the top of the hill we were looking out over a most barren and desolate waste of sand-heaps without a speck of vegetation anywhere, and the kitten said, ‘This view beggars all admiration.’ Then all at once we were in a great group of people and I undertook to repeat to them the kitten’s remark, but when I tried to do it the words were so touching that I broke down and cried, and all the group cried, too, over the kitten’s moving remark.”

The joy with which he told this absurd sleep fancy made it supremely ridiculous and we laughed until tears really came.

One morning he said: “I was awake a good deal in the night, and I tried to think of interesting things. I got to working out geological periods, trying to think of some way to comprehend them, and then astronomical periods. Of course it’s impossible, but I thought of a plan that seemed to mean something to me. I remembered that Neptune is two billion eight hundred million miles away. That, of course, is incomprehensible, but then there is the nearest fixed star with its twenty-five trillion miles — twenty-five trillion — or nearly a thousand times as far, and then I took this book and counted the lines on a page and I found that there was an average of thirty-two lines to the page and two hundred and forty pages, and I figured out that, counting the distance to Neptune as one line, there were still not enough lines in the book by nearly two thousand to reach the nearest fixed star, and somehow that gave me a sort of dim idea of the vastness of the distance and kind of a journey into space.”

Later I figured out another method of comprehending a little of that great distance by estimating the existence of the human race at thirty thousand years (Lord Kelvin’s figures) and the average generation to have been thirty-three years with a world population of 1,500,000,000 souls. I assumed the nearest fixed star to be the first station in Paradise and the first soul to have started thirty thousand years ago. Traveling at the rate of about thirty miles a second, it would just now be arriving in Alpha Centauri with all the rest of that buried multitude stringing out behind at an average distance of twenty miles apart.

Few things gave him more pleasure than the contemplation of such figures as these. We made occasional business trips to New York, and during one of them visited the Museum of Natural History to look at the brontosaur and the meteorites and the astronomical model in the entrance hall. To him these were the most fascinating things in the world. He contemplated the meteorites and the brontosaur, and lost himself in strange and marvelous imaginings concerning the far reaches of time and space whence they had come down to us.

Mark Twain lived curiously apart from the actualities of life. Dwelling mainly among his philosophies and speculations, he observed vaguely, or minutely, what went on about him; but in either case the fact took a place, not in the actual world, but in a world within his consciousness, or subconsciousness, a place where facts were likely to assume new and altogether different relations from those they had borne in the physical occurrence. It not infrequently happened, therefore, when he recounted some incident, even the most recent, that history took on fresh and startling forms. More than once I have known him to relate an occurrence of the day before with a reality of circumstance that carried absolute conviction, when the details themselves were precisely reversed. If his attention were called to the discrepancy, his face would take on a blank look, as of one suddenly aroused from dreamland, to be followed by an almost childish interest in your revelation and ready acknowledgment of his mistake. I do not think such mistakes humiliated him; but they often surprised and, I think, amused him.

Insubstantial and deceptive as was this inner world of his, to him it must have been much more real than the world of flitting physical. shapes about him. He would fix you keenly with his attention, but you realized, at last, that he was placing you and seeing you not as a part of the material landscape, but as an item of his own inner world — a world in which philosophies and morals stood upright — a very good world indeed, but certainly a topsy-turvy world when viewed with the eye of mere literal scrutiny. And this was, mainly, of course, because the routine of life did not appeal to him. Even members of his household did not always stir his consciousness.

He knew they were there; he could call them by name; he relied upon them; but his knowledge of them always suggested the knowledge that Mount Everest might have of the forests and caves and boulders upon its slopes, useful, perhaps, but hardly necessary to the giant’s existence, and in no important matter a part of its greater life.

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