This year's winter fiction edition of the New Yorker contains an unpublished article by Mark Twain written in 1905, called "The Privilege of the Grave." In it, Twain claims that "free speech is the privilege of the dead...they can speak their honest minds without offending."
The problem, he argues, is that all of us keep to ourselves "certain views not suspected," and that "whole nations...are not what they seem to be--and never can be." He suggets keeping journals to record these interior thoughts, so that when we shuffle off this mortal coil, our friends can finally catch a glimpse of our true selves, can finally know our "real" opinions.
Of course, Twain never envisioned a world where people could post their journals electronically, for all the world to see. But even so, even in a world overpopulated, even stranglified, with our thoughts, our feelings, our opinions, there is still a great deal that remains unsaid.
Every day, in a million different ways, all of us suppress and censor our thoughts, for fear of offending. This happens no matter how open we claim to be. Sometimes it's truly because those thoughts are truly disturbing, but more often than not, it's for far more petty reasons--because those thoughts do not comport with a certain image we are desperate to maintain, for example. Or, because we are afraid of hurting the feelings of someone we love. Or perhaps it's because we decide that the thought isn't worthy of being expressed in public...all of us have variations on ABBA's "King Kong Song" going on inside us, each and every day.
I know I'm guilty of it. I used to be much more adventurous in my blog, when I first started. There are entries I've posted that since have been modified or made private, for a variety of reasons, none of which are really that harmful. Some of my early entries were just plain dumb, like the time I thought it would be funny to pretend I had been turned into a butterfly. Truly dreadful prose, that was. Some were a bit too raw to stay in the light of day for too long, whether it's because I was writing about my break-up with Josie, or revealed things that were perhaps a bit too personal. A variation, I think, on what Twain meant...things you wouldn't mind sharing...but only after your dead, when you're suddenly held blameless, because it's unkind to speak ill of the dead.
When I was younger, I used to be too honest. I would always wear my heart on my sleeve, I was always told. Time has worn that away, I think, like a stone in a cascading stream. Or is it more appropriate to make the comparison that I've found a few more pieces of armor to put on and wear?
In any event, that part of me's still around, and I think that it is good, to try to stay as close to "real" as you can. That interior part of a person is the most interesting, I think, and one that you hardly ever see.
Maybe we need more of that, although we'll truly never get anything even close to that level of honesty. Imagine how people would react! Biker guys professing their love of Barbie dolls, Democrats admitting secret Republican thoughts, evangelical preachers admitting that maybe gay marriage isn't that bad, after all.
It might even make this world a better place. Sometimes, I think, it's good to make like Twain's most beloved characters, Tom and Huck, and throw off all your clothes and just jump in that creek. That sort of attitude takes an awful lot of courage, but I'm certain it feels awfully freeing.
Until you begin to dry off, that is. And that's why we all keep that armor firmly in place.