Back in my university days, during the bleak years of the late 1960‘s when my eyes were opened to the reality of human race with its wars, racial and sexual discrimination, and destruction, I discovered that Mark Twain, in the latter part of his life wrote about some of those same things. Intrigued, I sought out Twain’s writing and began to read him. Among his works of this period was Twain’s story, "The Mysterious Stranger".
The plot concerns three boys living in an Austrian village in the 1500's. They meet a well dressed, beautiful, and charming man who turns out to be an angel. His name is Satan (being a descendant of the original Satan). As an angel, he is thousands of years old and has unlimited abilities. Because he is so vastly superior to humans, he has an indifferent attitude toward them, (sort of like how an elephant might feel toward a tiny spider), although he befriends the boys.
Through this stranger's powers and the human’s reaction, Twain gives the reader an unbiased view of humankind. While humans use words like "humanitarian" and "moral sense" to give a positive spin to themselves and to infer superiority and separation from other animals, Satan shows that the opposite is really true. Unlike other animals, humans go out of their way to torture or kill others of their species.
The boys persuade the stranger to use his power to do what they think is "good", but when he does, those changes always do the opposite because of mankind's true nature. They ask him to create money for an impoverished and starving priest and he does, but then local power brokers and jealous villagers accuse the priest of witchcraft and he faces burning at the stake.
Satan explains that a human life is a chain of experiences, each link, building upon the links that proceed it. If one link is changed then life takes a totally different course. When again asked by one of the boys to use his powers for good, Satan alters the life of a boy by three minutes, making him arrive at a river later than what was predetermined, as a result a young girl, who he was previously destined to save, is now in deeper water and drowns, as does the boy who tries to rescue her.
When the boys complain that that is not doing good, Satan explains that had the alternation of time not taken place, the girl was predestined to have died a desolate prostitute at the age of 38 and a heart break to her parents, while the boy who tried to save her, would have contacted scarlet fever from being in the river and although he would have lived to age of 62, he would have spend his life "as a paralytic log, deaf, dumb, blind, and praying night and day for the blessed relief of death". Wasn’t what I did good, Satan asks.
Satan takes the boys on a whirlwind trip through the bloodbath that is human history and shows them the future:
"Before our eyes nation after nation drifted by, during two or three centuries, a mighty procession, an endless procession, raging, struggling, wallowing through seas of blood, smothering in battle smoke through which the flags glinted and the red jets from cannons darted, always we heard the thunder of the guns and the cries of the dying.
'And what does it amount to?' said Satan with his evil chuckle, 'Nothing at all, you gain nothing; you always come out where you went in'"
Twain wrote those words exactly 100 years ago, before WWII and all the millions of victims of the other wars since. I think he pegged humankind fairly accurately although he failed to foresee the immense advancements in human killing machines.
The Mysterious Stranger certainly gives the reader a lot to ponder.
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