Monday, August 4, 2008

Mark Twain's Fairy Tale


The Five Boons of Life
by Mark Twain

1.

     In the morning of life came the good fairy with her basket, and said:
     "Here are the gifts. Take one, leave the others. And be wary, choose wisely; oh, choose wisely! for only one of them is valuable."
     The gifts were five: Fame, Love, Riches, Pleasure, Death. The youth said, eagerly:
     "There is no need to consider;" and he chose Pleasure.
     He went out into the world and sought out the pleasures that youth delights in. But each in its turn was short-lived and disappointing, vain and empty; and each, departing, mocked him. In the end he said: "These years I have wasted. If I could but choose again, I would choose wisely."

2.

     The fairy appeared, and said:
     "Four of the gifts remain. Choose once more; and oh, remember - time is flying, and only one of them is precious."
     The man considered long, then chose Love; and did not mark the tears that rose in the fairy's eyes.
     After many, many years the man sat by a coffin, in an empty home. And he communed with himself, saying: "One by one they have gone away and left me; and now she lies here, the dearest and the last. Desolation after desolation has swept over me; for each hour of happiness the treacherous trader, Love, has sold me I have paid a thousand hours of grief. Out of my heart of hearts I curse him."

3.

     "Choose again." It was the fairy speaking. "The hears have taught you wisdom - surely it must be so. Three gifts remain. Only one of them has any worth - remember it, and choose warily."
     The man reflected long, then chose Fame; and the fairy, sighing, went her way.
     Years went by and she came again, and stood behind the man where he sat solitary in the fading day, thinking. And she knew his thought:
     "My name filled the world, and its praises were on every tongue, and it seemed well with me for a little while. How little a while it was! Then came envy; then detraction; then calumny; then hate; then persecution. Then derision, which is the beginning of the end. And last of all came pity, which is the funeral of fame. Oh, the bitterness and misery of renown! target fo rmud in its prime, for contempt and compassion in its decay."

4.

     "Choose yet again." It was the fairy's voice. "Two gifts remain. And do not despair. In the beginning there was but one that was precious, and it is still here."
     "Wealth - which is power! How blind I was!" said the man. "Now, at least, life will be worth the living. I will spend, squander, dazzle. These mockers and despisers will crawl in the dirt before me, and I will feed my hungry heart with their envy. I will have all luxuries, all joys, all enchantments of the spirit, all contentments of the body that man holds dear. I will buy, buy, buy! deference, respect, esteem, worship - every pinchbeck grace of life the market of a trivial world can furnish forth. I have lost much time, and chosen badly heretofore, but let that pass: I was ignorant then, and could but take for best what seemed so."
     Three short years went by, and a day came when the man sat shivering in a mean garret; and he was gaunt and wan and hollow-eyed, and clothed in rags; and he was gnawing a dry crust and mumbling:
     "Curse all the world's gifts, for mockeries and gilded lies! And mis-called, every one. They are not gifts, but merely lendings. Pleasure, Love, Fame, Riches: they are but temporary disguises for lasting realities - Pain, Grief, Shame, Poverty. The fairy said true; in all her store there was but one gift which was precious, only one that was not valueless. How poor and cheap and mean I know those others now to be, compared with that inestimable one, that dear and sweet and kindly one, that steeps in dreamless and enduring sleep the pains taht persecute the body, and the shames and griefs that eat the mind and heart. Bring it! I am weary, I would rest."

5.

     The fairy came, bringing again four of the gifts, but Death was wanting. She said:
     "I gave it to a mother's pet, a little child. It was ignorant, but trusted me, asking me to choose for it. You did not ask me to choose."
     "Oh, miserable me! What is there left for me?"
     "What not even you have deserved: the wanton insult of Old Age."

11 comments:

  1. That's a harsh parable. And I find it ultimately unpersuasive. Life can be like that, but it certainly doesn't have to be. Perhaps I'm merely a precautionary antinatalist rather than an outright pessimist.

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  2. And when I say it can be different, I don't mean out of mere luck. Nor am I talking about the promethean contemporary aspiration to, say, do away with old age. Nor do I mean the human capacity for resignation, distraction, or simple incomprehension of life, though in practice all those things do serve to shelter many individuals from elemental suffering. I'm asserting that there is more to life than the pursuit of the four false boons. For example: if the youth had sought Truth from the beginning, everything afterwards might have been different.

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  3. wow. mark twain was a cynical, cynical man. you might also want to read "what is man". but this one really beats them all.

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  4. Certainly, Twain's parable is a nod towards the egregiously negative end of the experiential spectrum; I appreciate that, since it's the part of life that's all too often ignored, or minimized. I think one can be optimistic only in the sense of having hopes and dreams concerning a particular life. But regarding the general state of human existence, pessimism is the only realistic view, IMO. Suffering is much more universal than many would like to admit, including the really horrible sort, and everybody dies. How can anybody be optimistic about that, without a heavy leavening of fantasy?

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  5. Keep in mind that this was written in 1902, at which point two of Mark Twain's four children were dead (one of diptheria, one of meningitis). A third child and his wife would also die within a few years of the writing of this story.

    It seems that representations of life at the turn of the last century are rare. But all reliable sources point to the conclusion that it was a time of misery and horror, and not just because of infectious childhood disease.

    It's almost impossible to exaggerate how much better things are now than they were at the turn of the 20th century. But I think Mark Twain's stark portrait (it's like Ecclesiastes, but without God or fun) retains its force even for the inhabitants of privileged 21st century America.

    I agree with Mitchell that life doesn't have to be like that - many are lucky enough to find satisfaction and subjective meaning in life, and/or to die before they experience the ephemeral nature of life's blessings. But I think suffering and meaninglessness are systematically overlooked - which is why it's so shocking to find a parable like this written by one of the writers in our politically unassailable American canon.

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  6. Regarding Mitchell's second comment - I had the exact same thought (Truth) as I typed the story. I wonder what Mark Twain would have made with that?

    Though I don't think seeking truth (or anything else) is a prescription for having a valuable life. Even committing oneself to alleviating the suffering of others, while laudable, can't make one's own life worthwhile (except in the subjective sense, for some people).

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  7. Of course, it's fairly easy to imagine the one who chooses "Truth," only to be stricken with regret, or interminable Admiral-Kurtz-style horror. Self deception has its reasons.

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  8. Here's a private note Mark Twain wrote about a suicidal moment in his own youth.

    When I first read this fairy tale the ending rang false. How does the fairy have the power to withhold Death? Apparently, unlike his protagonist, Twain himself still had wife and children alive in his old age. It is conceivable that this was the main thing keeping him alive when he wrote this story, and that the fairy's unfriendly attitude at the end is just a way to avoid stating the fact that it was Love which made him endure Old Age, not supernatural whim.

    I am dissatisfied with the manner of my rejection of the story. I still hope to achieve great things in my own life, so I certainly reject the philosophy of despair. But I'm not yet equal to the task of projecting an alternative vision of the totality of things. I often haul out Celia Green in moments like these; e.g. see the last chapter of her best-known book, or her description of the alternative to sanity. I don't quite endorse her analysis of ordinary psychology, in particular, but the possibility of very different attitudes to life is an important one to know about. I consider it an open question as to how widely available such attitudes are; they may be an option only for certain types of people.

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  9. In his process of eliminating the dissatifactory a common characteric of these boons becomes apparent - their dependence. I don't see this recognition in the text, and perhaps that is the man's / Mark Twain's foolishness. If the boons were not dependent on another for their arising they would not suffer cessation and death.

    There is an abiding happiness to be found, a happiness not based on conditions. It cannot depend on other - fairy, friend, or foe.

    His boons sound like the eight worldly dharmas in Buddhism.

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  10. Which every "postive" choice the man makes, the consequences are devistaiting. But i would have to say the manis an impersihable character, because humans always want the best and most postive things in life. But, with every choice you make theres always a consequence.

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  11. Twain proves here that you can't always get the most positive things you want here in life, sometimes you have to let the negative consequence, appearing to be the "truth" flow.

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