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The very reason that I speak from the
grave is that I want the satisfaction of
sometimes saying everything that is in me instead
of bottling the pleasantest of it up for home
consumption. I can speak more frankly from the
grave than most historians would be able to do,
for the reason that whereas they would not be
able to feel dead, howsoever hard they might try,
I myself am able to do that. They would be making
believe to be dead. With me, it is not make believe.
They would all the time be feeling, in a
tolerably definite way, that that thing in the
grave which represents them is a conscious entity;
conscious of what it was saying about people; an
entity capable of feeling shame; an entity capable
of shrinking from full and frank expression, for
they believe in immortality. They believe that
death is only a sleep, followed by an immediate
waking, and that their spirits are conscious of
what is going on here below and take a deep and
continuous interest in the joys and sorrows of
the survivors whom they love and don’t.
But I have long ago lost my belief in immortality–
also my interest in it. I can say now
what I could not say while alive–things which
it would shock people to hear; things which I
could not say when alive because I should be
aware of that shock and would certainly spare
myself the personal pain of inflicting it.
When we believe in immortality we have a
reason for it. Not a reason founded upon information,
or even plausibilities, for we haven’t
any. Our reason for choosing to believe in this
dream is that we desire immortality, for some
reason or other, I don’t know what. But I have
no such desire. I have sampled this life and it is
sufficient. Another one would be another experiment. It would proceed from the same source as
this one. I should have no large expectations
concerning it, and if I may be excused from
assisting in the experiment I shall be properly
grateful. Annihilation has no terrors for me, because
I have already tried it before I was born–a
hundred million years–and I have suffered
more in an hour, in this life, than I remember
to have suffered in the whole hundred million
years put together. There was a peace, a serenity,
an absence of all sense of responsibility, an
absence of worry, an absence of care, grief, perplexity;
and the presence of a deep content and
unbroken satisfaction in that hundred million
years of holiday which I look back upon with a
tender longing and with a grateful desire to resume,
when the opportunity comes.
It is understandable that when I speak from
the grave it is not a spirit that is speaking; it
is a nothing; it is an emptiness; it is a vacancy;
it is a something that has neither feeling nor
consciousness. It does not know what it is saying.
It is not aware that it is saying anything at
all, therefore it can speak frankly and freely, since
it cannot know that it is inflicting pain, discomfort,
or offense of any kind.
–Mark Twain, No Terrors for Me first published in: Harper’s Magazine, December 1958.
More from Scott Horton:
Six Questions — October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm
Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”