Clippings: Twain’s dilemma and untold stories
Few have the conceit to seriously ponder how to gauge the measure of one’s life, and you can count me among them. But no doubt it is a topic near and dear to those in the twilight of life.
We know, after years of excess and excessive wealth, that the measure of life does not lie in great riches. Among the modest, we know that noble acts of greatness or kindness too often go unsung. The fallen have the chance of redemption, the elite face the challenge of staying on top; the reckless, along with the feckless, bare the burden of not reaching life’s potential. And all too many saunter along in relative obscurity.
What we hear and see — at weddings, funerals, award ceremonies and other events — is how one person or another has affected a community, family and friends, nation or world. We hear how a person has brought laughter and love to all those around him or her. How their music lit up a room or their laughter was forever the life of the party. How daring feats of skill or endurance encouraged others to strive for greater things within themselves. How one individual’s efforts or brilliance helped change the course of events.
Others inspire us with their service and courage. Many of us know of doctors who have traveled to Haiti or the Congo and served for three weeks or more in a war zone of calamity, stitching up those they could, and helping the others as best as time allowed. We see the hardship they endure and the good they contribute and wish we had the courage and the know-how to do something as worthy. We see athletes, like Kelly Brush, who have been injured in their sport and yet rise to new heights — elevating the meaning of sport and endearing themselves in the hearts of tens of thousands they have inspired.
We see small acts of good deeds every day among our neighbors and friends, and remind ourselves of the good we too could achieve.
But set aside those noble aspirations for a moment and read what my 86-year-old dad (Emerson Lynn Jr.) wrote in a recent column in the Iola (Ks) Daily Registerafter reflecting on the first of three volumes of Mark Twain’s autobiography:
“Twain convinced himself that he could not write a conventional biography that began with this birth and ended at the sunset of his life. He thought that would be a literary exercise and basically dishonest, because he could never bring himself to put down on paper what the events of his life really meant. It would do violence to his own reputation, he was certain, and be grossly unfair to all of the people who were important to him to have his thoughts about them put down on paper…
“Despite his misgivings, he wrote of his memories at great length (and awesome wit)… with the strict instruction that his stories of himself and his reflections on others not be published for 100 years after his death, which occurred in 1910.
“Volume One, therefore, is a jumble; slow going, but infinitely fascinating. Here are a couple of paragraphs that give a reader an understanding of Twain’s dilemma:
“‘What a wee little part of a person’s life are his acts and his words! His real life is led in his head and is known to none but himself. All day long, and every day, the mill of his brain is grinding, and his thoughts(which are but the mute articulation of his feelings,) not those other things, are his history.
‘His actsand his wordsare merely the visible thin crust of his world, with its scattered snow summits and its vacant wastes of water — and they are so trifling a part of his bulk, a mere skin enveloping it. The mass of him is hidden — it and its volcanic fires that toss and boil, and never rest, day nor night. These are his life, and they are not written and cannot be written. Every day would be a whole book of eighty thousand words — three hundred and sixty-five books a year. Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man — the biography of the man himself cannot be written.’”
“We must take him (Twain) at his word,” Dad observes. “The mill of Twain’s mind most certainly did incessantly grind. The fires that burned away the dross and left his thoughts so brilliant bright were volcanic in their intensity.
“The tossing, boiling mind of Samuel Clemens doubtless would have produced a novel a day if there had been a way to move it from his head to paper… That such a transfer is beyond our science is a great blessing, when the rest of mankind is contemplated. Yes, minds other than Twain’s toss and boil all day long. But as any student of stream-of-consciousness writings and utterances can attest, most of what streams out is repetitious to the point of exasperation, much of it is nonsense, and flashes of brilliance rare, indeed.”
The irony, of course, is that Twain’s words arethe measure he left behind, even as he posits that an individual’s actions and words are but the skin of the larger story that lies within. That’s a humbling thought in the case of Samuel Clemons, but so too for the vast majority of those whose stories remain unknown.