Mark Twain on Symbols
with Professor Nori Muster
Mark Twain was the first great American story teller and travel writer. He explored California during the Gold Rush and later in life traveled to all corners of the world by steamship. He wrote on practically every subject in the media, and most people reading books in his era were familiar with his writings.
Following is a passage where Twain explores the idea of symbols and why certain ideas are associated with different animals.
The Autobiography of Mark Twain
Based on Twain's observations, may we conclude that when we dream, we are calling upon this universal symbolism.
Excerpts from chapter 63, pp. 306-309, 1959 ed.
It is my conviction that a person's temperament is a law, an iron law, and has to be obeyed, no matter who disapproves . . . We do not blame the ox, the blue jay, and the many other creatures that live by theft; we concede that they are obeying the law of God promulgated by the temperament with which He provided for them. We do not say to the ram and the goat, "Thou shalt not commit adultery," for we know that ineradicably embedded in their temperament—that is to say in their born nature—god has said to them, "Thou SHALT commit it."
If we should go on until we had singled out and mentioned the separate and distinct temperaments which have been distributed among the myriads of the animal world, we should find that the reputation of each species is determined by one special and prominent trait; and then we should find that all of these traits, and all the shadings of these many traits, have also been distributed among mankind; that in every man a dozen or more of these traits exist, and that in many men traces and shadings of the whole of them exist. In what we call the lower animals, temperaments are often built out of merely one or two or three of these traits; but man is a complex animal and it takes all of the traits to fit him out.
In the rabbit we always find meekness and timidity, and in him we never find courage, insolence, aggressiveness; and so when the rabbit is mentioned we always remember that he is meek and timid; if he has any other traits or distinctions—except, perhaps, an extravagant and inordinate fecundity—they never occur to us. When we consider the house fly and the flea, we remember that in splendid courage the belted knight and the tiger cannot approach them and that in impudence and insolence they lead the whole animal world, including even man; if those creatures have other traits they are so overshadowed by those which I have mentioned that we never think of them at all. When the peacock is mentioned, vanity occurs to us and no other trait; when we think of the goat, unchastity occurs to us and no other trait; when certain kinds of dogs are mentioned, loyalty occurs to us and no other trait; when the cat is mentioned, her independence—a trait which she alone of all created creatures, including man, possesses—occurs to us and no other trait; except we be of the stupid and the ignorant—then we think of treachery, a trait which is common to many breeds of dogs but is not common to the cat. We can find one or two conspicuous traits in each family of what we impudently call the lower animals; in each case these one us traits distinguish that family of animals from the other families; also in each case those one or two traits are found in every one of the members of each family and are so prominent as to eternally and unchangeably establish the character of that branch of the animal world. In all these cases we concede that the several temperaments constitute a law of God, a command of God, and that whatsoever is done in obedience to that law is blameless.
Man was descended from those animals; from them he inherited every trait that is in him; from them he inherited the whole of their numerous traits in a body, and with each trait its share of the law of God. He widely differs from them in this: that he possesses not a single trait that is similarly and equally prominent in each and every member of his race. You can say the house fly is limitlessly brave, and in saying it you describe the whole house fly tribe; you can say the rabbit is limitlessly timid, and by that phrase you describe the whole rabbit tribe; you can say the spider is limitlessly murderous, and by that phrase you describe the whole spider tribe; you can say the lamb is limitlessly innocent and sweet and gentle, and by that phrase you describe all the lambs; you can say the goat is limitlessly unchaste and by that phrase you describe the whole tribe of goats. There is hardly a creature which you cannot definitely and satisfactorily describe by one single trait—but you cannot describe man by one single trait. Men are not all cowards, like the rabbit; nor all brave, like the house fly; nor all sweet and innocent and gentle, like the lamb; nor all murderous, like the spider and the wasp; nor all thieves, like the fox and the blue jay; nor all vain, like the peacock; nor all beautiful, like the angelfish, nor all frisky, like the monkey; nor all unchaste, like the goat.
The human family cannot be described by any one phrase; each individual has to be described by himself. One is brave, another is a coward; one is gentle and kindly, another is ferocious; one is proud and vain, another is modest and humble. The multifarious traits that are scattered, one or two at a time, throughout the great animal world, are all concentrated, in varying and nicely shaded degrees of force and feebleness, in the form of instincts in each and every member of the human family. In some men the vicious traits are so slight as to be imperceptible, while the nobler traits stand out conspicuously.
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