Mark Twain: Letters from the Earth
Letter II: Satan to Michael and Gabriel
“I have told you nothing about man that is not true.” You must pardon me if I repeat that remark now and then in these letters; I want you to take seriously the things I am telling you, and I feel that if I were in your place and you in mine, I should need that reminder from time to time, to keep my credulity from flagging.
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 has 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!
His heaven is like himself: strange, interesting, astonishing, grotesque. I give you my word, it has not a single feature in it that he actually values. It consists – utterly and entirely – of diversions which he cares next to nothing about, here in the earth, yet is quite sure he will like them in heaven. Isn't it curious? Isn't it interesting? You must not think I am exaggerating, for it is not so. I will give you details. […]
1. First of all, I recall to your attention the extraordinary fact with which I began. To wit, that the human being, like the immortals, naturally places sexual intercourse far and away above all other joys – yet he has left it out of his heaven! The very thought of it excites him; opportunity sets him wild; in this state he will risk life, reputation, everything |– even his queer heaven itself |– to make good that opportunity and ride it to the overwhelming climax. From youth to middle age all men and all women prize copulation above all other pleasures combined, yet it is actually as I have said: it is not in their heaven; prayer takes its place. […]
2. In man's heaven everybody sings! The man who did not sing on earth sings there; the man who could not sing on earth is able to do it there. This universal singing is not casual, not occasional, not relieved by intervals of quiet; it goes on, all day long, and every day, during a stretch of twelve hours. And everybody stays; whereas in the earth the place would be empty in two hours. The singing is of hymns alone. Nay, it is of one hymn alone. The words are always the same, in number they are only about a dozen, there is no rhyme, there is no poetry: “Hosannah, hosannah, hosannah, Lord God of Sabaoth, 'rah! 'rah! 'rah! siss! – boom! … a-a-ah!"
3. Meantime, every person is playing on a harp – those millions and millions! – whereas not more than twenty in the thousand of them could play an instrument in the earth, or ever wanted to.
Consider the deafening hurricane of sound – millions and millions of voices screaming at once and millions and millions of harps gritting their teeth at the same time! I ask you: is it hideous, is it odious, is it horrible?
Consider further: it is a praise service; a service of compliment, of flattery, of adulation! Do you ask who it is that is willing to endure this strange compliment, this insane compliment; and who not only endures it, but likes it, enjoys it, requires it, commands it? Hold your breath!
It is God! This race's god, I mean. He sits on his throne, attended by his four and twenty elders and some other dignitaries pertaining to his court, and looks out over his miles and miles of tempestuous worshipers, and smiles, and purrs, and nods his satisfaction northward, eastward, southward; as quaint and naïve a spectacle as has yet been imagined in this universe, I take it.
It is easy to see that the inventor of the heavens did not originate the idea, but copied it from the show-ceremonies of some sorry little sovereign State up in the back settlements of the Orient somewhere.
All sane white people hate noise; yet they have tranquilly accepted this kind of heaven – without thinking, without reflection, without examination – and they actually want to go to it! Profoundly devout old gray-headed men put in a large part of their time dreaming of the happy day when they will lay down the cares of this life and enter into the joys of that place. Yet you can see how unreal it is to them, and how little it takes a grip upon them as being fact, for they make no practical preparation for the great change: you never see one of them with a harp, you never hear one of them sing.
As you have seen, that singular show is a service of praise: praise by hymn, praise by prostration. It takes the place of “church.” Now then, in the earth these people cannot stand much church – an hour and a quarter is the limit, and they draw the line at once a week. That is to say, Sunday. One day in seven; and even then they do not look forward to it with longing. And so – consider what their heaven provides for them: “church” that lasts forever, and a Sabbath that has no end! They quickly weary of this brief hebdomadal Sabbath here, yet they long for that eternal one; they dream of it, they talk about it, they think they think they are going to enjoy it – with all their simple hearts they think they think they are going to be happy in it!
It is because they do not think at all; they only think they think. Whereas they can't think; not two human beings in ten thousand have anything to think with. And as to imagination – oh, well, look at their heaven! They accept it, they approve it, they admire it. That gives you their intellectual measure. […]
By this time you will have noticed that the human being's heaven has been thought out and constructed upon an absolute definite plan; and that this plan is, that it shall contain, in labored detail, each and every imaginable thing that is repulsive to a man, and not a single thing he likes! …
- Mark Twain never intended Letters from the Earth to be published during his lifetime. After his death, his daughter delayed publication because she felt that the Letters presented a “distorted” view of her father. The book was published only after her death. What is controversial about the excerpts you have read? Were you shocked by anything?
- What, according to Satan, is the most mind-boggling aspect about the heaven that man has imagined for himself? What has replaced man’s greatest pleasure in heaven?
- Is there any music in heaven? What type of music is this? How does Twain poke fun at our stereotypes of heavenly music?
- In speaking about “this race’s god”, Satan writes, “He sits on his throne, attended by his four and twenty elders and some other dignitaries pertaining to his court, and looks out over his miles and miles of tempestuous worshipers, and smiles, and purrs, and nods his satisfaction northward, eastward, southward;” Is Twain mocking religion, in your opinion, or mankind’s representation of religion and God?
- Did you find the excerpts humorous? Why or why not? Give examples from the text to support your opinions.
See page 249 to learn about American author Mark Twain.
In 1962, a previously unpublished volume of sketches by Mark Twain was published posthumously. In Letters from the Earth, the archangel Satan, who has been exiled to earth, writes letters to his fellow archangels, Michael and Gabriel, who are in heaven. In these letters, Satan expresses his astonishment at the absurdity of man’s beliefs and behavior.