Abroad with Mark Twain and Eugene Field/Mark Explains Dean Swift


"I wish somebody would kick me for a damned Treppenwitz," said Mark Twain, gazing into a bookseller's shop window Unter den Linden.

"The Herr Schutzmann (traffic policeman) will oblige; just say—"

Mark glanced at the whiskered giant bestriding his ill-shaped cattle at the intersection of Friedrich Strasse.

"No, thank you, I won't lese majeste on a Friday," replied Mark, "besides, I don't like the cop's boot." (In before-1918 days, you need but say, 'Verdammt Kaiser,' in Berlin, to get knocked down, arrested, and sent up for months and months.)

"What's Treppenwitz?"

"I didn't know myself until Harry Thurston Peck told me. It's the wisdom that comes to you going down the stairs, or the elevator, after making a fool of yourself higher up—an afterthought, as it were."

"And what's the afterthought now?"

"See that book?" (pointing), "no, not that, the yellowback, by Prof. Borkowsky—one more guy trying to explain Jonathan Swift. I forgot when his Deanship lived and died, but they must have been at it for centuries. And without examining the new volume, I bet I can tell its contents: more highfalutin' tommyrot about the Dean's vagaries in erotics and small beer politics. There must be a considerable library on the subject, every new author threshing the old straw a tenth time, and adding mystery trimmings of his own. I always promised myself to submit my theories on Swift and his harem at a first-class insanity shop, but I forgot to ask Krafft-Ebing in Vienna, and now I let Virchow pass."

I was going to say something obvious, but Mark stopped me. "I know Virchow's special line, but that man is wise on every conceivable subject, and I am quite sure he would have borne me out, namely, that Swift's character can be explained on the theory that he was a Sadist and a Masochist in one. If Swift, as he wrote to an acquaintance, 'died of rage like a poisoned rat in a hole,' I am sure he enjoyed it. God knows that man gave more pain to his lady loves, Stella, Vanessa and the rest, than all the Romeos in Shakespeare. They say that he killed Vanessa by frightening her to death; he certainly murdered Stella morally by letting her pass for his mistress. Still these two women and others, whose names I forget, were proud of the torments inflicted upon them. I wish I had asked Virchow, when he invited the audience to put questions to him at the end of the lecture."