Posted by: sulya | 10 December 2009

“Love Is The Answer”: Mark Twain or John Lennon? You Decide

Since I wrote this post what feels like a lifetime ago, I have been dogged by that man we call Twain. Every time I walk into a store there is a display of his books. Every time I open a new issue of Harper’s – there he is.  Some previously unpublished story.  Some previously unpublished letter. Picked up a quote book one day, asked it a question, opened it randomly to get my answer and it was Mark Twain saying:

“Oh no, not that question again.”

Today, though, I feel like I won an argument.  I feel like Mark Twain won me an argument. And if not necessarily “won” – as I’m not that into winning really – then certainly expressed things in such a way as to make me feel justified in taking the position I take; not so foolish for feeling the way I feel.

And, if I think about it clearly, it’s more like what Twain offered this time was a response to an amalgamation of a great many conversations with a great many people rather than any sort of formidable thesis in one specific discussion. Many of the conversations I have had were not “fluffy,” though I suppose one could argue that there could have been pulling on goatees while peering haughtily through our monocles for what could be perceived as the pretension of it all…

Let me assure you, though, that I readily enjoyed and/or see real value in every second of each and every one of these conversations. One, often reoccurring, topic is love and whether or not it is a real feeling or a lie we tell ourselves, a trick of chemistry, to see that we perpetuate the species and don’t kill ourselves (more than we already do) while doing it.  Another is about the fundamental nature of humanity; its failures, its nearly instinctual egocentric misanthropy and xenophobia.

And Mark Twain, in one previously unpublished letter, managed to unite the two topics in one.

Essentially, he wrote that though he definitely thinks the world is a cess pool of cowardice, stupidity and failure – his own included – he also staved off the feeling, held it at bay and kept himself from becoming “comprehensively and uncompromisingly odious,” out of love and respect for his wife.

“You have read me between the lines. What I have tried to do, and what I still try to do, is to allow only a little to leak out between the lines.  This has been a strain upon me for thirty years.  I have put this restraint upon myself and kept it there all these years to keep from breaking my wife’s heart, whose contentment I value above the salvation of the human race.  This is a confession that in building a wall across my Nile and damming my feelings and opinions behind it, and trying to caulk the leaks, I am not actuated by principle, but by something much stronger – sentiment.”

He goes so far as to express a belief that the most comprehensive failures of humanity are, in fact, a failure of “heart.”

“…then perhaps you will believe with me that civilizations are not realities, but only dreams; dreams of the mind, not of the heart, and therefore fictitious, and perishable; that they have never affected the heart and therefore have made no valuable progress…”

Quotations taken from November 26, 1902 letter by Mark Tain to Carl Thalbitzer, a Danish writer.  Quoted from Harper’s Magazine, December Issue 2009

I would never go so far as to say that after reading the entirety of the letter that I believe Mr. Twain thought we were capable of changing our “hearts” and therefore making the dream a reality. I just value that he seemed to think, despite the rampant cynicism one finds in discussion with so many smart and passionate people, that the saving force is – in fact – love.

I also find that even though he was arguably of the opinion that humanity would never pull itself out of its own mess, he didn’t live that way. He held himself out of it for as long and with as much distance and strength as possible because he respected and loved a woman. And, I’m sure there are people who will grumble about how he shut himself up and repressed himself for his wife, how that sort of repression isn’t healthy or good for “art” but it was his conscious choice.  The letter makes it clear that his wife knew his feelings.  He’d expressed them to her.  He relied on her feelings and his feelings for her – essentially – so as as not to sink into despair.

That is not a bad thing. Isn’t it, in fact, the very kind of strength, purpose and support we look for in love? All kinds of love? “Love is the answer,” John Lennon says in his song Mind Games, “You know that for sure.” And I agree.  And I feel a little less silly for believing it right now because Mark Twain, in his way, believed it too.

By jove but I have a whack of reasons not to believe in love. Old reasons, recent reasons. But I have a lot of reasons in the “pro” column too. Every good thing that has ever happened in my life, every time I’ve pulled myself out of the hole or been helped out of the hole or  helped someone else out of the hole… It was love that did it.

It was love.  From a small gesture that manages to touch and change many,  to the enormous gesture only meant to warm and bolster one person, it is no trick of the mind, no biochemical compulsion.

Love is definitely its own force in the universe and it may be the only one that actually matters. It is that powerful and I will believe in that power with all that I am even if, in the end of it all, love does nothing more than keep me from becoming more “comprehensively and uncompromisingly odious” than I already am.



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