The Agonies of Mark Twain

Like George Carlin, Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910) was less concerned with political or cultural correctness than the truth; driven, whether he realized it or not, by compassion for his fellow human beings. Like Carlin, he was relatively unconcerned with being polite. Beginning at the bedrock of the truth he was seeking, which he pursued like the “Hound of Heaven,” we see it expressed (as he did) in the behavior of his fellow Americans. We are talking about the security energy center of the false-self survival strategy, the elaboration of the pursuit of food, clothing and shelter; we are talking about the collective American unconscious; we are talking about some very complex and ugly behaviors; we are talking about the source of Samuel Clemens’ agony.

Sam Clemens was nevertheless able to look at these essentially self-destructive reactions without flinching or repressing his own personal insights as most of us do, even though his courageous descriptions as a speaker and writer put him at odds with his critics and most of his countrymen at times. Unfortunately, he did not have the comfort that the profound realizations in the context of Simple Reality would have given him.

Most of our suffering is caused by resisting our experience. Samuel Clemens (known by his pen name Mark Twain) found it hard to accept the behavior of his fellow human beings which can often lead (usually unconsciously) to self-loathing; he suffered grievously because of his inability to let go of his identification with his fellow false selves. This observation goes a long way in explaining the Mark Twain described in the following paragraph.

“The difference in Mark Twain’s work as he aged was less a change than a ripening: his anger at the ways of the world merely grew fiercer as he grew older. Nevertheless, the work of his last years has been called his ‘pessimism,’ and millions of words have been written to explain how, apparently, a flippant young wisecracker became a prophet of doom.”[i]

Simple Reality can explain the evolution of the world’s “smart alecks” in somewhat less than a million words. Nevertheless, we can all be grateful to Twain who had the courage to face the dragon of his false self without fleeing the field of life. His commitment to the truth was lifelong and he was both hilarious and eloquent in wielding his sword. Few of us will give the Dragon of Lies so many wounds and engage it in such a furious struggle until the very end when both dragon and antagonist vanish in the mist of illusion.

We will now contrast True-self behavior with false-self behavior at the time when Clemens was outraged at America’s imperialistic and inhumane behavior in the war in the Philippines (1899-1901). He had every reason to be pessimistic about the behaviors of his fellow humans whom he called the “Damned Human Race.”[1]

Americans didn’t want to hear about U.S. imperialism and the injustice that their false self was capable of. Clemens had to be patient in his attack on the gap between the professed American commitment to democracy and its treatment of people beyond its borders. He wrote a piece describing the jingoism behind an imperialistic foreign policy and how a people can be led to accept and support war.

His “The War Prayer” was written in 1905 but not published until 1916 because it was felt by his publishers that it would be too painful and shocking for the world of his day.

It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and spluttering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spread of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed meetings listened, panting to patriot oratory which stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts, and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country, and invoked the God of Battles, beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpouring of fervid eloquence which moved every listener. It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety’s sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.[ii]

The last thing the false self wants to hear is the voice of the True-self seeking the truth even if that truth is cloaked in satire.

Clemens further wanted to reveal the hypocrisy and unconsciousness manifesting in Christian churches across the land.  He shocked his readers into thinking about what their prayers really meant. He described an aged, robed and ghastly figure ascending to the pulpit as the closed-eyed preacher, unaware of his presence, finished his sermon.

Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag![iii]

The stranger gently gestured for the preacher to step aside as he began his paraphrase of the true meaning of the prayers they mindlessly uttered upon many a Sunday.

O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle—be Thou near them! With them—in spirit—we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer, and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it—for our sakes who adore Thee Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him who is the Source of Love, and who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts.  Amen.”[iv]

Few of his fellow Americans had the courage that Clemens had in opposing the war but Massachusetts Senator George Hoar was one. Referring to the war in the Philippines, Hoar upbraided his fellow senators. “You have wasted six hundred million of treasure. You have sacrificed nearly ten thousand American lives, the flower of our youth. You have devastated provinces. You have slain uncounted thousands of the people you desire to benefit.”[v]

Senator Albert Beveridge, lacking the compassion of his colleague and representing the vast majority who had come to believe in the Manifest Destiny of America, spoke on behalf of the Old Testament God who “has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world. This is the divine mission of America. The Philippines are ours forever. We will not repudiate our duty in the archipelago. We will not abandon our opportunity in the Orient. We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee, under God, of the civilization of the world.”[vi]  And so it goes a century later but with no Sam Clemens with the courage to speak the truth to power.


[1]  The American army used waterboarding in the Philippines long before it was used in Iraq. Refer to “America: A Trilogy for the Theatre” in this blog and the printed book Art and Simple Reality, Vol II, by Roy Charles Henry, Chapter 15—Theatre.

The Agonies of Mark Twain

[i]     Smith, Janet [ed.]. Mark Twain and the Damned Human Race. New York: Hill and Wang. 1962, page 69.

[ii]     Ibid., page 63.

[iii]    Ibid., page 66.

[iv]    Ibid.

[v]     Ibid., page 82.

[vi]    Ibid., page 83.


Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.

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