Posted by Michael Fong
February 27, 2009
Mark Twain, "Letters from the Earth"
"For there is nothing about man that is not strange to an immortal. He looks at nothing as we look at it, his sense of proportion is quite different from ours, and his sense of values is so widely divergent from ours, that with all our large intellectual powers it is not likely that even the most gifted among us would ever be quite able to understand it. For instance, take this sample: he has imagined a heaven, and haas left entirely out of it the supremest of all his delights, the one ecstasy that stands first and foremost in the heart of every individual of his race-and of ours-sexual intercourse! It is as if a lost and perishing person in a roasting desert should be told by a rescuer he might choose and have all longed-for things but one, and he should elect to leave out water!" (Mark Twain, "Letters from the Earth")
The above quote is taken from Letter II by Satan addressed to both St. Michaels and St. Peters back in heaven. Satan is basically saying that to him man is strange, and that one example of it would be man leaving out sexual intercourse in their imagined version of heaven, which is puzzling to Satan as immortals enjoy it so much that for humans not to exclude it from their imagined heaven is like a man not requesting for water in a perishing desert.
Personally, I think that Twain is in many ways a remarkably successful satirist. In Letters from the Earth, he relates his naked observations of the human instinct and nature through the eyes of Satan, and notes that how man seems to contradict with his own religion with their secret yearnings and desires. Is Twain saying that Christianity here is for hypocrites only, or is there something else to it? My own interpretation of this issue would be that Twain is saying (i) regardless upon the authenticity of Christianity itself, so far those who believe in it is not a representation of the principles and the preachings that are in the Bible and (ii) that even if they are (hypothetically), they would all be going against the "laws of nature" in resisting against their human desires. While the latter point may not be meant in any negative sort of sense, the former one is definitely mockery directed to those who practice religion, or at least seem to practice it, but deep down in their hearts do as their greed and desires tell them to.
How accurate Twain's depiction of religion in the modern society is! More than once in my life I have met upon friends who claim to be Christians but then act in a way which is certainly not the way of the Christian life. I am not in any way criticizing the religion itself, but it's just that what Twain mentioned is very true: that human desires often contradict with principles prescribed by religion. Not only it is limited to Christianity, I find that a similar case also could be made with Catholicism, Buddhism, and basically any sort of religion that could be found around the world. But then again, "to err is human", the man is not perfect. To judge man from the eyes of immortals or gods like Twain did with Letters from the Earth would yield nothing but further disappointment and a great deal of sighs. It's ironic how thin the line sometimes is between a self-proclaimed atheist and a self-proclaimed Christian.