Mark Twain on honest writing … from the grave

Honest soon, as you can see

Honest soon, as you can see

Adrian Monck resurrects, as it were, some wisdom by Mark Twain about writing: The best is done by dead people.

Meaning: While they are alive, even the best writers (such as Mark Twain) are afraid to say what they really think. There is a cost for total honesty, counted in the currency of real-world consequences–offending people, upsetting them, causing outrage etc. (This dovetails with my earlier post on Einstein, who succeeded because he cared so much less than others about incurring this particular cost.)

Posthumous publication, by contrast, avoids this to some extent. So, says Twain, only the dead writer can be said to have free speech:

The living man is not really without this privilege-strictly speaking-but as he possesses it merely as an empty formality, and knows better than to make use of it, it cannot be seriously regarded as an actual possession. As an active privilege, it ranks with the privilege of committing murder: we may exercise it if we are willing to take the consequences.

And what is lost?

There is not one individual who is not the possessor of dear and cherished unpopular convictions which common wisdom forbids him to utter. When an entirely new and untried political project is sprung upon the people, they are startled, anxious, timid, and for a time they are mute, reserved, noncommittal.

And thus, power to the dead:

Free speech is the privilege of the dead, the monopoly of the dead. They can speak their honest minds without offending. We may disapprove of what they say, but we do not insult them, we do not revile them, as knowing they cannot now defend themselves.

And then we discover:

If they should speak, it would be found that in matters of opinion no departed person was exactly what he had passed for in life. They would realize, deep down, that they, and whole nations along with them, are not really what they seem to be-and never can be.

To which Adrian, a cutting-edge blogger, adds:

Certainly, for all the words about transparency in blogging I forever think of the stuff I don’t write about, whether through wordly wisdom or moral cowardice. Probably you do too.

Well, in fact, yes. I do too.

Peaking early or climbing slowly

Back to the bibliography for my book. Today: David Galenson, “Old Masters and Young Geniuses.”

Folks, this is an important book. Notice I did not say “riveting” or “thrilling” or “entertaining”. It’s short and academic, not for the beach. But let me say it again: It’s important.

Galenson has looked into the life cycles of creative types. And he has found something. Gaze at this table for a while and try to figure out why these artists are split into two columns:

Picasso Cézanne
Munch Pissaro
Braque Degas
Derain Kandinsky
Lichtenstein Pollock
Rauschenberg de Kooning
Warhol Rothko
Eliot Frost
Pound Lowell
Cummings Stevens
Fitzgerald Dickens
Hemingway Twain
Joyce Woolf
Melville James

On the left are what Galenson calls “conceptual” types. They are the “young geniuses”.

  • They tend to succeed early in life, in their twenties or thirties, with huge breakthroughs of the imagination.
  • They have a big idea, then execute it boldly.
  • Their youth and inexperience, rather than hurting them, helps them because they don’t let the complexity of life experience confuse them.
  • They often cannot follow up later in life with more success.

On the right are “experimental” types, the “old masters”.

  • They tend to succeed late in life and gradually build toward a legacy.
  • They don’t have one big idea, but try things out, refine their craft, work hard, learn and discover.
  • They get better with age and experience, because they incorporate the complexity of life into their art.
  • They often succeed right up to the end.

By now, you will have figured out how this plays into my book. For some of the young geniuses, early success is an impostor, as Kipling would say, while for some of the old masters, early failure is an impostor.

Which type are you?
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Hannibal in Colombia, Catalonia, Missouri

Alright, Hannibal did not actually go to South America and Missouri, in large part because he didn’t know that they existed. 😉

But have you ever wondered why more than a million Colombians on the steamy Caribbean coast live in a city called Cartagena? Because Colombia was Spanish, of course, and there is a city in Spain (Murcia) that is called Cartagena. But why is that city called Cartagena? Because it was founded by Hannibal’s brother-in-law, Hasdrubal (not to be confused with his biological brother, also named Hasdrubal), who made it Carthage’s regional capital. He called it Little Carthage, or Little New City, since Carthage is Punic for New City, as mentioned already.

When the great Scipio, another of my heroes and Hannibal’s eventual nemesis, conquered Spain, he renamed it New Carthage (Carthago Nova), thus inadvertently calling it New New City. Oh well, nobody’s perfect.

Now, how about that fantastic party town with all that great Gaudi architecture, Barcelona? Hannibal’s clan or family name, you recall, was Barca. Sounds suspiciously similar, doesn’t it? Barcelona probably started as the “camp of the Barcas”, when Hamilcar, with his young son Hannibal in tow, showed up in Spain to conquer it. Hannibal later would have passed nearby on his way to the Alps and Italy.

And what about that town in Missouri on the Mississippi, where Mark Twain grew up and had his Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn get into all sorts of trouble? It’s called Hannibal. I must assume that it’s named after my hero/antihero, but I’ve not actually been able to verify that. If anybody knows, please drop me a line below.

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