One of the readers of A Pilgrim in Narnia tipped me off to a lost-but-found work by Mark Twain. Letters from Earth was written in 1909 but not published until long after his death in 1962. This little book, incomplete I think, contains a series of notes from Satan to his best friends Michael and Gabriel back in heaven. Satan has taken a kind of backpacker’s tour of Earth’s history, curious about this beast called human who has been granted—really, cursed with—the faculty of moral judgment and relational responsibility.
When I heard about this book I hunted for it immediately. If anyone could write an atheist Screwtape or become a new Voltaire for a generation trying to seek liberty from religion, Mark Twain would be the man. His incisive intelligence and wit are just the tools needed to frame up a demonic view that could cut to the heart of the skeptical critique of faith in an entertaining way.
We see moments of this well-applied wit at play. Here is part of the set up to the letters, a discussion between Gabriel, Michael, and Satan after a heavenly committee meeting:
“Yes,” said Michael, “and He said He would establish Natural Law — the Law of God — throughout His dominions, and its authority should be supreme and inviolable.”
“Also,” said Gabriel, “He said He would by and by create animals, and place them, likewise, under the authority of that Law.”
“Yes,” said Satan, “I heard Him, but did not understand. What is animals, Gabriel?”
“Ah, how should I know? How should any of us know? It is a new word.”
[Interval of three centuries, celestial time — the equivalent of a hundred million years, earthly time. Enter a Messenger-Angel.]
Using the pretext of animals as a created in order to teach a moral lesson, Twain establishes a “nature” to each species, so the tiger is morally blameless for ferociousness, and the rabbit blameless for lacking courage. Then Twain cuts to the heart of the problem of a created universe that develops by evolution, that of pain and suffering:
Satan said, “The spider kills the fly, and eats it; the bird kills the spider and eats it; the wildcat kills the goose; the — well, they all kill each other. It is murder all along the line. Here are countless multitudes of creatures, and they all kill, kill, kill, they are all murderers….”
It is this experiment and the crowning achievement of “Man” that piques Satan’s curiosity. He asks what this earth is that will be the home for animals and humans. The moment is a nice bit of poetics:
“A small globe I made, a time, two times and a half ago. You saw it, but did not notice it in the explosion of worlds and suns that sprayed from my hand….”
When Satan gets banished for a celestial day for his loose tongue (about 350,000 earth years, maybe), he decides to go to earth and look around. He is astonished by what he finds, writing back to Gabriel and Michael about the peculiar race called Man, and especially of their religion. What begins as curiosity—“For there is nothing about man that is not strange to an immortal”—soon turns into a bitter judgment of the Creator’s experiment. This turn produces some of the more incisive moments in the piece. You may have heard this quoted before:
[The Bible] is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies.
Satan goes on to write a critique of the Bible:
This Bible is built mainly out of the fragments of older Bibles that had their day and crumbled to ruin. So it noticeably lacks in originality, necessarily. Its three or four most imposing and impressive events all happened in earlier Bibles; all its best precepts and rules of conduct came also from those Bibles; there are only two new things in it: hell, for one, and that singular heaven I have told you about.
Some of this is funny: “You have never seen a person with clothes on. Oh, well, you haven’t lost anything.” But, honestly, I was quite disappointed in the book. I found it a drudgery to read after the first 10 pages or so, and only finished out of a sense of responsibility. The speculative foundation of the work shifts. Satan never accounts for his own characterization by humanity—he does play a wee role at the beginning, doesn’t he?—and we are left unsure whether Satan’s critique is that humans have made religion up, or that the Creator in whose court he sits really is a cosmic asshole.
Part of the problem is no doubt the unfinished nature of the work. Mark Twain is the Editor, and adds a handful of footnotes, mostly scientific or historical, and all weird. But we are lacking the structure of why Twain is the editor, and how these letters fell into his hands. These letters are written quickly or sporadically and have an uneven tone. The reader has no sense of where they are going, simply because Twain didn’t either.
My biggest problem is the preaching. There are places here and there where he presses the moment home. After describing a God who makes a creation based on suffering, banishes and assassinates its king and queen because they desire knowledge, and killed the vast majority of humanity but kept deadly germ cultures alive to plaque humans for centuries to come, Satan writes:
You would not suppose that this kind of Being gets many compliments. Undeceive yourself: the world calls him the All-Just, the All-Righteous, the All-Good, the All-Merciful, the All-Forgiving, the All-Truthful, the All-Loving, the Source of All Morality. These sarcasms are uttered daily, all over the world. But not as conscious sarcasms. No, they are meant seriously: they are uttered without a smile.
But the long passages about the lower intestine, Noah’s ark, and a peculiar conversation about sex—including something about male impotence I didn’t understand, and the story of a princess who has 36 “splendidly built young native men” in her harem and at her beck and call—I just found the preaching too much. The best part about this book was that it never got finished. This work probably has potential, but as it stands it reduces one of America’s greatest literary minds to the guy at the bar who leans in with that sickly sweet rum breath, certain that this thing he is talking about links to all the other things, and we really need to hear it.
From an atheistic standpoint, it is a missed opportunity. There is a space for someone to do what Twain did, particularly in pointing out the problems of suffering, the absurdity of Christian hypocrisy, and problematic passages like Deuteronomy 20 (which he quotes at length, making it almost 2% of the book). There are now plenty of excellent atheistic philosophers, and the credibility structures of culture has shifted so that committed belief is as peculiar today as passionate disbelief was a century ago. But I don’t know that we’ve had a Voltaire in modern times. Christopher Hitchens may have been close.
Perhaps that’s part of what I’m missing: the shock of these letters in their post-Victorian, pre-WWI setting. Had they been edited and completed, they would have been a scandal. Maybe they were hot even when they emerged in the 60s. But as a reader in 2016, I’ve heard all the arguments before.
I think it is interesting, though, that both Mark Twain and C.S. Lewis tried to work along the same lines from opposite sides independently of each other. Perhaps Mark Twain was more successful with Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven (1907-8)—he published it, after all—but Lewis’ own visit to heaven in The Great Divorce (1944-45) doesn’t seem to have any connection to it.
As readers can probably tell, I’m disappointed with the book. I do look forward, though, to your own reading of Letters from Earth. You can find it free here, and it won’t take you long to read.
This picture captures a review I found, which has a slightly different opinion of the piece: