The Timeless Sarcasm of Mark Twain

“Thou shalt not kill.” That’s one of the most highly touted (and universal) of the Ten Commandments.

But Mark Twain points out a major problem with this, on of God’s most basic commandments: “It is plain He cannot keep His own commandments.”

Twain, who at one time in his life planned to be a Presbyterian preacher, cites the following example from the Word of God (Numbers, Chapter 31):

“And they warred against the Midianites, as the Lord commanded Moses; and they slew all the males. And they slew the kings of Midian … Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him… And when the Lord thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword. … But of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth.”

Yikes! Lots of slewing and smiting. Thank God we don’t have to take the Word of God literally — unless you’re a Bible thumper. But then you have to deal with God violating His own commandments.

In the long-suppressed Letters From The Earth Twain collects example after example from The Word of God and finds it curious that God regularly kills those who disobey Him. “The Bible and man’s statutes forbid murder, adultery, fornication, lying, treachery, robbery, oppression and other crimes,” says Twain, “but contend that God is free of these laws and has a right to break them when He will.”

Which sets a bad example.

Take “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” That’s kind of like saying, “Thou shalt not use drugs” nowadays. Something tells us that this commandment is not likely to be observed by those who are inclined to disobey it.

Twain says that prohibiting adultery is like telling a goat not to be rowdy.

“By temperament, which is the real law of God, men are goats and can’t help committing adultery when they get a chance; whereas there are numbers of men who by temperament can keep their purity and let an opportunity go by if the woman lacks in attractiveness. But the Bible doesn’t allow adultery at all, whether a person can help it or not. It allows no distinction between goats and tortoises — the excitable goat, the emotional goat, that has to have some adultery every day or fade and die; and the tortoise, that cold calm puritan that takes a treat only once in two years and then goes to sleep in the midst of it and doesn’t wake up for 60 days. No lady goat is safe from criminal assault, even on the Sabbath Day, when there is a gentleman goat within three miles to leeward of her and nothing in the way but a fence 14 feet high.”

The “no adultery” commandment, Twain adds, is also indiscriminate.

“Poor old wrecks, they couldn’t disobey the commandment prohibiting adultery if they tried. And think — because they holily refrain from adulterating each other, they get praise for it! Which is nonsense, for even the Bible knows enough to know that if the oldest veteran there was could get his lost heyday back again for an hour he would cast that commandment to the winds and ruin the first woman he came across, even though she were an entire stranger.”

In 1 Kings 14:10, “him that pisseth against the wall shall be cut off from Jeroboam.” This strange Biblical admonition leads Twain off into another round of high sarcasm.

Remember Onan? Certain frowned-upon (but common) private acts were once named after him. Onan, you may recall, was killed by God for “spilling his seed upon the ground.” Twain, who considered himself somewhat of an expert on the subject, points out that Onan, however, was commanded by the Lord to “go in unto his brother’s wife” in the first place, whereupon Onan duly committed the sin and was immediately slain by the Lord. Nowadays Onan might have at least been permitted to offer mitigating evidence before being summarily executed.

Twain then refers back to the Lord’s massacre of the Midianites: “Some Midianite must have repeated Onan’s act, and brought that dire disaster upon his nation. If that was not the indelicacy that outraged the feelings of the Deity, then I know what it was: some Midianite had been pissing against the wall. I am sure of it, for that was an impropriety which the Source of all Etiquette never could stand. A person could piss against a tree, he could piss on his mother, he could piss his own breeches, and get off, but he must not piss against the wall — that would be quite too far. The origin of the Divine prejudice against this humble crime is not stated, but we know thatthe prejudice was very strong — so strong that nothing but a wholesale massacre of the people inhabiting the region where the wall was defiled could satisfy the Deity.”

Twain was a master at elevating his criticism to highly literate sarcasm. Late in life (the early 1900s) he blended his skepticism of the Bible with keen anti-imperialist sarcasm which rings too true today.

“There have been lies, yes. But they were told in a good cause. We have been treacherous, but that was only in order that real good might come out of apparent evil. True, we have crushed a deceived and confiding people, we have turned against the weak and the friendless who trusted us. We have debauched America’s honor, and blackened her face before the world. But each detail was for the best. We know this. The head of every state and sovereignty in Christendom, including our Congress, and our fifty state legislatures are members not only of the church, but also of the blessings of civilization’s trust. This world-girdling accumulation of trained morals, high principles, and justice cannot do an unright thing, an unfair thing, an ungenerous thing, an unclean thing. It knows what it is about. Give yourself no uneasiness. It is all right.”

MARK SCARAMELLA is the managing editor of the Anderson Valley Advertiser and a frequent contributor to CounterPunch. He can be reached at: themaj@pacific.net




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MARK SCARAMELLA is the Managing Editor of the Anderson Valley Advertiser in Mendocino County, California. (www.theava.com). He can be reached at themaj@pacific.net.

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