Friday, April 04, 2008

Why Mark Twain is still the greatest smartass ever

I must admit, I never knew Mark Twain wrote something like this, until a library patron came up and asked for a copy: an essay titled On the Decay of the Art of Lying. I found this via the Project Gutenberg website.

This was something he wrote for a meeting of the Historical and Antiquarian Club of Hartford back in... hm gotta find the year. Anyway, his opening paragraph alone should put the Ann Coulters and J-Pods of the world to shame:

Observe, I do not mean to suggest that the custom of lying has suffered any decay or interruption,--no, for the Lie, as a Virtue, a Principle, is eternal; the Lie, as a recreation, a solace, a refuge in time of need, the fourth Grace, the tenth Muse, man's best and surest friend, is immortal, and cannot perish from the earth while this Club remains. My complaint simply concerns the decay of the art of lying. No high-minded man, no man of right feeling, can contemplate the lumbering and slovenly lying of the present day without grieving to see a noble art so prostituted. In this veteran presence I naturally enter upon this theme with diffidence; it is like an old maid trying to teach nursery matters to the mothers in Israel. It would not become me to criticize you, gentlemen, who are nearly all my elders--and my superiors, in this thing--and so, if I should here and there seem to do it, I trust it will in most cases be more in a spirit of admiration than of fault-finding; indeed if this finest of the fine arts had everywhere received the attention, encouragement, and conscientious practice and development which this Club has devoted to it, I should not need to utter this lament, or shed a single tear. I do not say this to flatter: I say it in a spirit of just and appreciative recognition. [It had been my intention, at this point, to mention names and give illustrative specimens, but indications observable about me admonished me to beware of particulars and confine myself to generalities.]

A bit wordy, true, but I found it so hard to find a spot to paraphrase or edit down, as each word literally drips with sarcasm, truth (ironic uses of truth will abound regarding this), and best of all wit.

Above all, the value of Twain's essay was how Twain 'praises' the art of lying, all to highlight in Truth the sad little horror that everyone lies. The question then becomes ending the 'lazy' and 'faulty' practices of lying, those lies that do harm (the injurious lie, which to Twain was as harmful as the brutal truth), and in Twain's words that

...the wise thing is for us diligently to train ourselves to lie thoughtfully, judiciously; to lie with a good object, and not an evil one; to lie for others' advantage, and not our own; to lie healingly, charitably, humanely, not cruelly, hurtfully, maliciously; to lie gracefully and graciously, not awkwardly and clumsily; to lie firmly, frankly, squarely, with head erect, not haltingly, tortuously, with pusillanimous mien, as being ashamed of our high calling. Then shall we be rid of the rank and pestilent truth that is rotting the land; then shall we be great and good and beautiful, and worthy dwellers in a world where even benign Nature habitually lies, except when she promises execrable weather. Then--But am I but a new and feeble student in this gracious art; I cannot instruct this club.

I personally, stated elsewhere, prefer that we not live in a world built on lies, that I would like to see punishments inflicted on those in office who would lie. I am, however, not a fool. I know the underlying fact that people lie, that everyone does. I do too. My great objection to lying is the thing I agree with most in Twain's essay: that there are lies and then there are injurious lies, lies that do harm, and it is those lies I would like ended. Twain, of course, was not a hypocrite (well, actually he was, but he was honest about it) and so could not argue against lying at all. The brilliance of his work here is that he highlights the aspects of lying, the causes and its usefulness, and makes the proper distinctions between the 'soft' or positive lie and the 'harsh' injurious lie. The kind of injurious lies, in fact, we keep getting from the Bush administration (about 9/11, about Iraq, about torture, about wiretapping, about cronyism and incompetence and... and about nearly every thing they do).

As someone who yearns to achieve the status of Recognized Smartass, I bow to the infinite jest and wisdom of the true Master, Mark Twain, who emphasized the Smart as well as the Ass. Huzzah, sir, huzzah.

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