Comic Relief

When my well runs dry, as it has in the wearying final weeks of 2010, I want nothing more than to withdraw from the world, switch off the computer, cancel the newspaper, siphon off a vial of Caledonia’s tawny restorative, and read old books in silence and solitude. There are a few writers who always hover near the top of the stack; among them are H.L. Mencken, S.J. Perelman, Mark Twain, and Winston Churchill. (For some appreciations of Churchill in these pages, see here and here.)

This week, feeling spent and deep in existential gloom, I decided to cheer myself a bit with a sampling from Mark Twain, America’s greatest humorist. I went to the bookshelf and took down Letters From the Earth, which Twain wrote in 1909, shortly before he died.

Here are some excerpts from Letter VII:

Noah and his family were saved — if that could be called an advantage. I throw in the ‘if’ for the reason that there has never been an intelligent person of the age of sixty who would consent to live his life over again. His or anyone else’s.

The Family were saved, yes, but they were not comfortable, for they were full of microbes. Full to the eyebrows; fat with them, obese with them, distended like balloons. It was a disagreeable condition, but it could not be helped, because enough microbes had to be saved to supply the future races of men with desolating diseases, and there were but eight persons on board to serve as hotels for them. The microbes were by far the most important part of the Ark’s cargo, and the part the Creator was most anxious about and most infatuated with. They had to have good nourishment and pleasant accommodations. There were typhoid germs, and cholera germs, and hydrophobia germs, and lockjaw germs, and consumption germs, and black-plague germs, and some hundreds of other aristocrats, specially precious creations, golden bearers of God’s love to man, blessed gifts of the infatuated Father to his children — all of which had to be sumptuously housed and richly entertained; these were located in the choicest places the interiors of the Family could furnish: in the lungs, in the heart, in the brain, in the kidneys, in the blood, in the guts. In the guts particularly. The great intestine was the favorite resort. There they gathered, by countless billions, and worked, and fed, and squirmed, and sang hymns of praise and thanksgiving; and at night when it was quiet you could hear the soft murmur of it. The large intestine was in effect their heaven. They stuffed it solid; they made it as rigid as a coil of gaspipe. They took pride in this.

… The discomforts furnished by the Ark were many and various. The family had to live right in the presence of the multitudinous animals, and breathe the distressing stench they make and be deafened day and night with the thunder-crash of noise their roarings and screechings produced; and in additions to these intolerable discomforts it was a peculiarly trying place for the ladies, for they could look in no direction without seeing some thousands of the creatures engaged in multiplying and replenishing. And then, there were the flies. They swarmed everywhere, and persecuted the Family all day long. They were the first animals up, in the morning, and the last ones down, at night. But they must not be killed, they must not be injured, they were sacred, their origin was divine, they were the special pets of the Creator, his darlings.

By and by the other creatures would be distributed here and there about the earth — scattered: the tigers to India, the lions and the elephants to the vacant desert and the secret places of the jungle, the birds to the boundless regions of empty space, the insects to one or another climate, according to nature and requirement; but the fly? He is of no nationality; all the climates are his home, all the globe is his province, all creatures that breathe are his prey, and unto them all he is a scourge and a hell.

To man he is a divine ambassador, a minister plenipotentiary, the Creator’s special representative. He infests him in his cradle; clings in bunches to his gummy eyelids; buzzes and bites and harries him, robbing him of his sleep and his weary mother of her strength in those long vigils which she devotes to protecting her child from this pest’s persecutions. The fly harries the sick man in his home, in the hospital, even on his deathbed at his last gasp. Pesters him at his meals; previously hunts up patients suffering from loathsome and deadly diseases; wades in their sores, gaums its legs with a million death-dealing germs; then comes to that healthy man’s table and wipes these things off on the butter and discharges a bowel-load of typhoid germs and excrement on his batter-cakes.

… I will tell you a pleasant tale which has in it a touch of pathos. A man got religion, and asked the priest what he must do to be worthy of his new estate. The priest said, “Imitate our Father in Heaven, learn to be like him.”

The man studied his Bible diligently and thoroughly and understandingly, and then with prayers for heavenly guidance instituted his imitations. He tricked his wife into falling downstairs, and she broke her back and became a paralytic for life; he betrayed his brother into the hands of a sharper, who robbed him of his all and landed him in the almshouse; he inoculated one son with hookworms, another with the sleeping sickness, another with gonorrhea; he furnished one daughter with scarlet fever and ushered her into her teens deaf, dumb, and blind for life; and after helping a rascal seduce the remaining one, he closed his doors against her and she died in a brothel cursing him.

Then he reported to the priest, who said that that was no way to imitate his Father in Heaven. The convert asked wherein he had failed, but the priest changed the subject and inquired what kind of weather he was having, up his way.

There now. Doesn’t that feel better?

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  1. Kevin Kim says

    Gotta love Twain.

    Posted January 3, 2011 at 12:22 am | Permalink
  2. JK says

    From Twain via Jeffery – “A man who carries a cat by the tail can learn something he can learn in no other way.”

    Reads something like HL – No?


    Our Father Who Guidested Me To Last Night’s Heaven,

    Hallowed be Thy Name.

    My rod thanketh thee for having Brother Noah saveth for me the clap.

    He anointest my rod with greenish fluid, much to my annoyance.

    Yea though I pee through the Valley of Death

    My hopest is my urinal doesn’t runneth over,

    And furthermore hopest to Heaven,

    Noah, the firstest Sailor, didn’t forgetteth the penisillin

    And provide for it’s abundance on the Med deck.

    (BlueJacket’s Biblical Concordance 1977.)

    Posted January 3, 2011 at 2:11 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    I suppose an old Navy man can’t help adding some sea-salt.

    What was it Churchill said? “Rum, sodomy, and the lash.”

    Posted January 3, 2011 at 2:27 am | Permalink
  4. JK says

    Mind – I’m simply quoting.

    Posted January 3, 2011 at 6:50 am | Permalink
  5. JK says

    Posted January 4, 2011 at 4:48 pm | Permalink