Brain Pickings

Mark Twain on Slavery, How Religion Is Used to Justify Injustice, and What His Mother Taught Him About Compassion

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“She never used large words, but she had a natural gift for making small ones do effective work.”

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, is celebrated as America’s greatest humorist — from his irreverent advice to little girls to his snarky stance on creativity to his masterwork on masturbation. But underpinning his winsome wit was piercing insight into the human spirit and all its perplexities. From The Autobiography of Mark Twain: Volume 1 (public library) — which also gave us Twain on how morality and intelligence hinder each other — comes a moving anecdote about how his mother taught him the essence of empathy.

Half a century before “African American” came into popular use as a politically dignified term, Twain recounts his childhood friendships with black slaves:

All the negroes were friends of ours, and with those of our own age we were in effect comrades. I say in effect, using the phrase as a modification. We were comrades, and yet not comrades; color and condition interposed a subtle line which both parties were conscious of, and which rendered complete fusion impossible. We had a faithful and affectionate good friend, ally and adviser in ‘Uncle Dan’l,’ a middle-aged slave whose head was the best one in the negro-quarter, whose sympathies were wide and warm, and whose heart was honest and simple and knew no guile. He has served me well, these many, many years. I have not seen him for more than half a century, and yet spiritually I have had his welcome company a good part of that time, and have staged him in books under his own name and as ‘Jim,’ and carted him all around — to Hannibal, down the Mississippi on a raft, and even across the Desert of Sahara in a balloon — and he has endured it all with the patience and friendliness and loyalty which were his birthright. It was on the farm that I got my strong liking for his race and my appreciation of certain of its fine qualities. This feeling and this estimate have stood the test of sixty years and more and have suffered no impairment. The black face is as welcome to me now as it was then.

Twain with his longtime friend John T. Lewis, of whom the author remarked: 'I have not known an honester man nor a more respect-worthy one.' Lewis is said to have inspired the character of Jim in 'Huckleberry Finn.'

Twain’s account of these complex dynamics is both sweet and heartbreaking in bespeaking the innocent, impressionable ways in which children absorb the beliefs and norms of their culture — as well as the manipulation tactics that the dominant institutions of culture employ in instilling and maintaining those beliefs. A lifelong critic of religion’s capacity to corrupt the human spirit, Twain writes:

In my schoolboy days I had no aversion to slavery. I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it. No one arraigned it in my hearing; the local papers said nothing against it; the local pulpit taught us that God approved it, that it was a holy thing, and that the doubter need only look in the Bible if he wished to settle his mind — and then the texts were read aloud to us to make the matter sure; if the slaves themselves had an aversion to slavery they were wise and said nothing.

Portrait of Clemens's mother, Jane Lampton Clemens, by Edwin Brady (Vassar College Library)

Even though Twain recalls seeing no abuse of slaves in his hometown of Hannibal in pro-slavery Missouri, he recounts the story of one particular boy and how a simple, pause-giving remark from Twain’s mother — a testament to how such figures quietly but monumentally shape creative geniuses — suddenly opened his eyes to the culturally condoned atrocity of slavery and taught him a lifelong lesson about compassion:

There was, however, one small incident of my boyhood days which touched this matter, and it must have meant a good deal to me or it would not have stayed in my memory, clear and sharp, vivid and shadowless, all these slow-drifting years. We had a little slave boy whom we had hired from some one, there in Hannibal. He was from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and had been brought away from his family and his friends, half way across the American continent, and sold. He was a cheery spirit, innocent and gentle, and the noisiest creature that ever was, perhaps. All day long he was singing, whistling, yelling, whooping, laughing — it was maddening, devastating, unendurable. At last, one day, I lost all my temper, and went raging to my mother, and said Sandy had been singing for an hour without a single break, and I couldn’t stand it, and wouldn’t she please shut him up. The tears came into her eyes, and her lip trembled, and she said something like this—

“Poor thing, when he sings, it shows that he is not remembering, and that comforts me; but when he is still, I am afraid he is thinking, and I cannot bear it. He will never see his mother again; if he can sing, I must not hinder it, but be thankful for it. If you were older, you would understand me; then that friendless child’s noise would make you glad.”

It was a simple speech, and made up of small words, but it went home, and Sandy’s noise was not a trouble to me any more. She never used large words, but she had a natural gift for making small ones do effective work. She lived to reach the neighborhood of ninety years, and was capable with her tongue to the last — especially when a meanness or an injustice roused her spirit.

Clemens on a river journey of 'wonder and delight' with his mother; illustration from St. Nicholas, 1916, color-tinted by Kent Rasmussen, 2004

Twain’s mother went on to inspire a number of characters in his beloved novels, including Aunt Polly in Tom Sawyer, where Sandy also made a cameo under a different name. Her penchant for small words may have been what prompted Twain to advise in his list of literary offenses: “Use the right word, not its second cousin… Eschew surplusage… Employ a simple and straightforward style.”

If you haven’t yet read The Autobiography of Mark Twain, do yourself a favor — Twain spent several decades writing it, but never finished in his lifetime and forbade his heirs from publishing the manuscript for 100 years after his death. The century-long wait was well worth it.

Also see Brené Brown the difference between empathy and sympathy.

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What Is Philosophy For? A Beautiful Animated Manifesto for Undoing Our Unwisdom, Cultivating Our Character, and Gaining Perspective

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“The points at which our unwisdom bites and messes up our lives are multiple and urgently need attention, right now.”

“Philosophy’s main task is to respond to the soul’s cry,” Sharon Lebell wrote in her classical manual for the art of living. But what types of consolation does philosophy offer the soul, in more practical terms? Like science, it offers an essential tool of critical thinking, or what Carl Sagan memorably termed “baloney detection”; like art, it challenges us to challenge the status quo and it says to us, in the elegant words of Jeanette Winterson, “don’t accept things for their face value; you don’t have to go along with any of this; you can think for yourself.” It gives us a potent antidote to our spectacular shortcomings in predicting and ensuring our own happiness and invites the self-knowledge essential for creativity. Above all, as one of the greatest thinkers who ever lived perceptively put it, philosophy allows us to “ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.”

This, and so much more, is what writer and philosopher Alain de Botton, author of The Consolations of Philosophy (public library), explores in this wonderful animated essay — a beautiful and urgent case for what we lose, as a culture and as individuals, when we banish philosophy to the academy rather than seeing it as a powerful and necessary tool of government, leadership, and personal growth in everyday life:

From a distance, philosophy seems weird, irrelevant, boring — and yet, also, a just a little intriguing. But what are philosophers really for?

The answer is, handily, already contained in the word philosophy itself.

In Ancient Greek, philo means “love” and sophia means “wisdom” — philosophers are people devoted to wisdom. Being wise means attempting to live and die well.

In their pursuit of wisdom, philosophers have developed a very specific skill set — they have, over the centuries, become experts at many of the things that made people not very wise. Five stand out.

  1. WE DON’T ASK BIG QUESTIONS
  2. There are lots of big questions: What’s the meaning of life? What’s a job for? How should society be arranged? Most of us entertain them every now and then, but we despair at trying to answer them. They are the status of almost a joke — we call them “pretentious” — but they matter deeply, because only with sound answers to them can we direct our energies meaningfully.

    They have, over the centuries, asked the very largest. They realize that these questions can always be broken down into more manageable chunks, and that the only really “pretentious” thing is to think one’s above raising naive-sounding inquiries.

  3. WE ARE VULNERABLE TO ERRORS OF COMMON SENSE
  4. Public opinion, or what gets called “common sense,” is sensible and reasonable in countless areas. It’s what you hear about from friends and neighbors — the stuff you take in without even thinking about it. But common sense is often also full of daftness and error. Philosophy gets us to admit all aspects of common sense to reason. It wants us to think for ourselves. Is it really true what people say about love, money, children, travel, work?

    Philosophers are interested in asking whether an idea is logical, rather than assuming it must be right because it’s popular and long established.

  5. WE ARE MENTALLY CONFUSED
  6. We are not very good at knowing what goes on in our own minds. Someone we meet is very annoying but we can’t pin down what the issue is; we lose our temper but we can’t readily tell what we’re so cross about — we lack insights into our own satisfactions and dislikes. That’s why we need to examine our own minds.

    Philosophy is committed to self-knowledge and its central precept, articulated by the earliest, greatest philosopher Socrates, is just two words long: “Know yourself.”

  7. WE HAVE MUDDLED IDEAS ABOUT WHAT MAKES US HAPPY
  8. We’re not very good at making ourselves happy. We overrate the power of some things to improve our lives and underrate others — we make the wrong choices because, guided by advertising and false glamor, we keep on imagining that a particular kind of holiday or car or computer will make a bigger difference than it can. At the same time, we underestimate the contribution of other things, like going for a walk, which may have little prestige but which can contribute deeply to the character of existence.

    Philosophers seek to be wise by getting more precise about the activities and attitudes that really can help our lives to go better.

  9. WE PANIC AND LOSE PERSPECTIVE
  10. Philosophers are good at keeping a sense of what really matters and what doesn’t. On hearing the news that he’d lost all his possessions to a shipwreck, the Stoic philosopher Zeno simple said, “fortune commands me to be a less encumbered philosopher.” It’s responses like these that have made the very term “philosophical” a byword for calm, long-term thinking and strength of mind. In short, for perspective.

The wisdom of philosophy is in modern times mostly delivered in the form of books. But, in the past, philosophers sat in market squares and discussed their ideas with shopkeepers or went into government offices and palaces to give advice. It wasn’t abnormal to have a philosopher on your payroll. Philosophy was thought of as a normal, basic activity, rather than as an esoteric, optional extra. Nowadays, it’s not so much that we overtly deny this thought, but we just don’t have the right institutions set up to promulgate wisdom coherently in the world.

In the future, though, when the value of philosophy is a little clearer, we can expect to meet more philosophers in daily life. They won’t be locked up, living mainly in university departments — because the points at which our unwisdom bites and messes up our lives are multiple and urgently need attention, right now.

This short film comes from The School of Life — makers of intelligent how-to guides to modern living, spanning everything from the art of being alone to the psychology of staying sane to cultivating a healthier relationship with sex to finding fulfilling work — and comes on the heels of another wonderful animated essay about what literature does for the soul.

Also see De Botton on the seven psychological functions of art and what Nietzsche teaches us about the value of suffering.

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Once Upon an Alphabet: Oliver Jeffers’s Imaginative Illustrated Stories for the Letters

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A warm and wonderful celebration of the paradoxes and perplexities that make us human.

In the 1990s, three decades after the debut of his now-iconic grim alphabet book, the great Edward Gorey reimagined the letters in a series of 26-word cryptic stories. Now comes a worthy modern counterpart by one of the most original and imaginative children’s book storytellers and artists of our time: Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters (public library) by Oliver Jeffers — an unusual and utterly wonderful tour of the familiar letters that takes a whimsical detour via quirky, lyrical, delightfully alliterative tales for each, and makes a fine addition to the canon of offbeat alphabet books.

Jeffers’s art is subtle yet immeasurably expressive. His stories brim with the fallible and heartening humanity that makes up our vastly imperfect but mostly noble selves — our paradoxes (A is for “astronaut,” and Edmund the astronaut is afraid of heights), the silly stubbornnesses (B is for “burning a bridge” and we meet neighbors Bernard and Bob, who have spent years “battling each other for reasons neither could remember”), the playful flights of curiosity (E is for “enigma,” like the question of how many elephants can fit inside an envelope), the existential perplexities (in P, a “puzzled parsnip” spirals into anguish over realizing that he is neither a carrot nor a potato), the self-defeating control tactics we employ in attempting to assuage our fear of impermanence (the robots in R are so terrified of rusting that they steal the rainclouds from the sky and lug them around in carts).

There are touches of loveliness and thoughtfulness: The budding scientist (M is for “made of matter”) is a little girl and the manly lumberjack (L) lucubrates by lamplight, reading a copy of Once Upon an Alphabet.

There are also charming winks at continuity: The nun in N flips the enigma from E and posits that “nearly nine thousand” envelopes can fit inside an elephant; the fearless owl and octopus duo in O, who roam the ocean searching for problems to solve, come to the rescue when a regular cucumber plunges into the ocean in S (for “sink or swim”) because he “watched a program about sea cucumbers and thought it might be a better life for him,” only to realize he didn’t know how to swim; when Xavier in X wakes up one morning and is devastated to find out that his prized X-ray spectacles have been stolen, he rings the owl and the octopus for help.

There is, too, a sprinkle of Goreyesque darkness alongside the delight, speaking to Maurice Sendak’s conviction that children shouldn’t be sheltered from the dark: In T, a writer sits in front of his “terrible typewriter,” which has the uncanny ability to make his stories come true, until one day he is eaten by a monster he wrote. (The creature, coincidentally, is reminiscent of Sendak’s Wild Things.) In H, Helen lives in a half house, the other half having been swept into the sea by a hurricane; “being lazy, and not owning a hammer,” she hadn’t quite got around to fixing it yet” — so one day, she rolls out the wrong side of the bed and plummets into the ocean.

Once Upon an Alphabet is immeasurably wonderful in its totality, both sensitive and irreverent, kind and quirky. Complement it with Jeffers’s Stuck, then revisit a few other marvelous alphabet books by Gertrude Stein, Quentin Blake, and Maurice Sendak.

Illustrations courtesy of Oliver Jeffers; photographs my own

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