Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I am willing to believe it. I can believe anything. - Sean Carroll abuses Mark Twain, or vice versa

All right, now I have a real complaint about Remarkable Creatures: its author abuses literature. I didn't actually discover this; mia moglie gets all of the credit.

Here's the epigraph to Remarkable Creatures, or part of it, since it's very long. That's right, this is all about the epigraph:

"What is it that confers the noblest delight? What is that which swells a man's breast with pride above that which any other experience can bring to him? Discovery! To know that you are walking where none others have walked; that you are beholding what human eye has not seen before; that you are breathing a virgin atmosphere. To give birth to an idea--to discover a great thought--an intellectual nugget, right under the dust of a field that many a brain-plow had gone over before... These are the men who have really lived--who have actually comprehended what pleasure is--who have crowded long lifetimes of ecstasy into a single moment."

Plenty more like it in those ellipses. It's the beginning of Chapter 26 of Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain. I ask you, does that sound like Mark Twain? I mean, "many a brain-plow"? Mia moglie looked it over and sagaciously asked what comes after this rather gassy paean to discovery. It's this:

"What is there in Rome for me to see that others have not seen before me? What is there for me to touch that others have not touched? What is there for me to feel, to learn, to hear, to know, that shall thrill me before it pass to others? What can I discover?--Nothing. Nothing whatsoever. One charm of travel dies here."

All right, that sounds like Mark Twain. The high-pitched rhetoric is never more than a setup for the deflation. In this case, at least, Twain doesn't literally contradict the idea of the first passage - he just says that it's unavailable to most people, which may merely contradict a major theme of Carroll's book.

In fairness, two points. First, I actually don't care that Carroll's epigraph crushes the irony of the passage. In fact, I'm positively happy. Epigraphs destroy the old context and create a new one; that's how they work.

Second, who am I to complain, since I once believed that there were locomotives in Arab countries that burned mummies for fuel. In fairness to myself, I read this, stated as fact, in at least two places, although I don't remember where, and neither time did the author tell me that his source was Mark Twain, which might have tipped me off. We're still in Innocents Abroad, chapter 58:

"I shall not speak of the railway, for it is like any other railway--I shall only say that the fuel they use for the locomotive is composed of mummies three thousand years old, purchased by the ton or by the graveyard for that purpose, and that sometimes one hears the profane engineer call out pettishly, 'D--n these plebeians, they don't burn worth a cent--pass out a King;'--[Stated to me for a fact. I only tell it as I got it. I am willing to believe it. I can believe any thing.]"


  1. I imagine you must have been quite young to have believed that mummies fueled the trains. Either that or very gullible ;)

  2. I have witnessed silver-haired academics profess to believe that mummies were burned for fuel. Age and wisdom are no proof against Mark Twain!

  3. Young, not at all; gullible, ahem, well.

    Wait, I found an example of what I was talking about, from The Independent, 1993:

    "In fact, even in the Victorian age, Egyptian mummies were burnt by the thousand as fuel for the early steamships plying between the Middle East and England."

    "In fact"!

  4. I don't know about fuelling trains, but it is certainly true that in the late 19th century vast quantities of mummified remains from ancient Egypt were shipped to Europe for use as fertilizer. The intense reverence that Egyptians felt for various sacred animals is well known - Herodotus tells us that when an Egyptian house caught fire, the occupants' first thought was to save their cats, and also that when a cat died the whole household shaved off their eyebrows as a sign of mourning. When a member of a Roman delegation to Alexandria in about 59 BCE accidentally killed a cat an enraged crowd mobbed the house where he was staying and put him to death. Yet x-rays of mummified cats prove beyond doubt that priests raised cats specifically for sacrifice and mummification, despatching their victims when they were little more than kittens, either by strangulation or by breaking their necks. A single shipment of cat remains to England at the close of the 19th century weighed nineteen tons and is estimated to have contained the mummified remains of some 180,000 cats. At the temple of Thoth at Saqqara an estimated four million sacred ibises were sacrificed and mummified in this way, and stacked in pottery jars. So allowing Twain his usual quota of exaggeration for comic effect, he may not have been completely wrong.

  5. I have been doing some actual research - don't ask me why - into this whole "cat mummies used as fertilizer" business. I'm not done, but I'm highly skeptical.

    You may have inspired the first Wuthering Expectations Special Investigative Report. Any sources much appreciated, Neil. Or, actually, the sources of the sources, that's what I really want.

    Anyone who wants to beat me to the punch should start with the New York Times of March 2, 1890.

    Twain was certainly not completely wrong. He wasn't wrong at all. He was joking, a very different thing.

    By the way, that David Roskies book you recommended was fantastic.

  6. Roskies is brilliant, isn't he.

    Re: the cat mummies as fertilizer. I've dispersed most of my Ancient Egypt library, keeping only the volumes on myth, religion, and literature. So I'll search for sources, but won't promise to come up with them.

    I've a feeling I have read about this from the nineteenth-century agriculture angle, too, and that the word "mummy" was used simply to mean fertilizer. But none of my dictionaries confirm this. So maybe you are right and the whole thing is a hoax.