IrreverenceMark Twain, "Is Shakespeare Dead?" in What is Man? and Other Essays (Harper: 1917; orig. -1910), pp. 367-70.
One of the most trying defects which I find in these — these — what shall I call them? for I will not apply injurious epithets to them, the way they do to us, such violations of courtesy being repugnant to my nature and my dignity. The farthest I can go in that direction is to call them by names of limited reverence — names merely descriptive, never unkind, never offensive, never tainted by harsh feeling. If they would do like this, they would feel better in their hearts. Very well, then — to proceed. One of the most trying defects which I find in these Stratfordolaters, these Shakesperiods, these thugs, these bangalores, these troglodytes, these herumfrodites, these blatherskites, these buccaneers, these bandoleers, is their spirit of irreverence. It is detectable in every utterance of theirs when they are talking about us. I am thankful that in me there is nothing of that spirit. When a thing is sacred to me it is impossible for me to be irreverent toward it. I cannot call to mind a single instance where I have ever been irreverent, except toward the things which were sacred to other people. Am I in the right? I think so. But I ask no one to take my unsupported word; no, look at the dictionary; let the dictionary decide. Here is the definition:
Irreverence. The quality or condition of irreverence toward God and sacred things.
What does the Hindu say? He says it is correct. He says irreverence is lack of respect for Vishnu, and Brahma, and Chrishna, and his other gods, and for his sacred cattle, and for his temples and the things within them. He indorses the definition, you see; and there are 300,000,000 Hindus or their equivalents back of him.
The dictionary had the acute idea that by using the capital G it could restrict irreverence to lack of reverence for our Deity and our sacred things, but that ingenious and rather sly idea miscarried: for by the simple process of spelling his deities with capitals the Hindu confiscates the definition and restricts it to his own sects, thus making it clearly compulsory upon us to revere his gods and his sacred things, and nobody’s else. We can’t say a word, for he has our own dictionary at his back, and its decision is final.
This law, reduced to its simplest terms, is this: 1. Whatever is sacred to the Christian must be held in reverence by everybody else; 2. whatever is sacred to the Hindu must be held in reverence by everybody else; 3. therefore, by consequence, logically, and indisputably, whatever is sacred to me must be held in reverence by everybody else.
Now then, what aggravates me is that these troglodytes and muscovites and bandoleers and buccaneers are also trying to crowd in and share the benefit of the law, and compel everybody to revere their Shakespeare and hold him sacred. We can’t have that: there’s enough of us already. If you go on widening and spreading and inflating the privilege, it will presently come to be conceded that each man’s sacred things are the only ones, and the rest of the human race will have to be humbly reverent toward them or suffer for it. That can surely happen, and when it happens, the word Irreverence will be regarded as the most meaningless, and foolish, and self-conceited, and insolent, and impudent, and dictatorial word in the language. And people will say, “Whose business is it what gods I worship and what things hold sacred? Who has the right to dictate to my conscience, and where did he get that right?”
We cannot afford to let that calamity come upon us. We must save the word from this destruction. There is but one way to do it, and that is to stop the spread of the privilege and strictly confine it to its present limits—that is, to all the Christian sects, to all the Hindu sects, and me. We do not need any more, the stock is watered enough, just as it is.
It would be better if the privilege were limited to me alone. I think so because I am the only sect that knows how to employ it gently, kindly, charitably, dispassionately. The other sects lack the quality of self-restraint. The Catholic Church says the most irreverent things about matters which are sacred to the Protestants, and the Protestant Church retorts in kind about the confessional and other matters which Catholics hold sacred; then both of these irreverencers turn upon Thomas Paine and charge him with irreverence. This is all unfortunate, because it makes it difficult for students equipped with only a low grade of mentality to find out what Irreverence really is.
It will surely be much better all around if the privilege of regulating the irreverent and keeping them in order shall eventually be withdrawn from all the sects but me. Then there will be no more quarreling, no more bandying of disrespectful epithets, no more heartburnings.
There will then be nothing sacred involved in this Bacon-Shakespeare controversy except what is sacred to me. That will simplify the whole matter, and trouble will cease. There will be irreverence no longer, because I will not allow it. The first time those criminals charge me with irreverence for calling their Stratford myth an Arthur-Orton-Mary-Baker-Thompson-Eddy-Louis-the-Seventeenth-Veiled-Prophet-of-Khorassan will be the last. Taught by the methods found effective in extinguishing earlier offenders by the Inquisition, of holy memory, I shall know how to quiet them.