If There Is a God, He Is a Malign Thug

Mark Twain? Clara Clemens? Justin Kaplan? Harlan Ellison? Darrell Schweitzer? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Famous author Mark Twain was grief-stricken when his daughter Susy died at age 24. The following expression of bitter despair has been ascribed to him:

If there is a God, he is a malign thug.

Oddly, no one has presented a good citation, and I have become skeptical of this attribution. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: QI has been unable to find this precise statement in the writings, dictations, or speeches of Mark Twain. It does not appear on the Twain Quotes website edited by Barbara Schmidt, 1 nor does it appear in the large compilation “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips” edited by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger. 2 Further, it does not appear in the specialized volume “The Bible According to Mark Twain: Writings on Heaven, Eden, and the Flood” edited by Howard G. Baetzhold and Joseph B. McCullough. 3

QI conjectures that this statement was incorrectly derived from the 1966 book “Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain: A Biography” by Justin Kaplan. The distinctive phrase “malign thug” occurred when Kaplan was attempting to depict the thoughts of Mark Twain. Kaplan was not directly quoting Twain. Details are given further below.

Twain’s thoughts about religion were complex, contradictory, and heterodox. He did not want some of his controversial opinions to be published until many years after his death which occurred in 1910. Yet, the 1912 book “Mark Twain: A Biography: The Personal and Literary Life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens” by Albert Bigelow Paine did contain some previously unpublished theological material written by Twain. Paine estimated that the following text was written in the early 1880s: 4

I do not believe in special providences. I believe that the universe is governed by strict and immutable laws. If one man’s family is swept away by a pestilence and another man’s spared it is only the law working: God is not interfering in that small matter, either against the one man or in favor of the other.

This conception of an aloof God-like being does not really fit the notion of a “malign thug”. Yet, Twain did use the adjectives “malign” and “malignant” when describing the Biblical deity during dictations recorded later in his life in 1906. See the passages from “The Bible According to Mark Twain” presented further below.

Below are additional selected citations.

Continue reading If There Is a God, He Is a Malign Thug

Notes:

  1. Website: TwainQuotes.com, Editor: Barbara Schmidt, Description: Mark Twain quotations, articles, and related resources. (Searched February 19, 2019) link
  2. 1948, Mark Twain at Your Fingertips by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Cloud, Inc., Beechhurst Press, Inc., New York. (Verified with search)
  3. 1995, The Bible According to Mark Twain: Writings on Heaven, Eden, and the Flood, Edited by Howard G. Baetzhold and Joseph B. McCullough, (Quotation is absent), University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1912, Mark Twain: A Biography: The Personal and Literary Life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens by Albert Bigelow Paine, Volume 4, Chapter 295: Mark Twain’s Religion, Quote Page 1583, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with scans)

I Had a Writing Block Once. It Was the Worst 20 Minutes of My Life

Isaac Asimov? Robert Silverberg? Andrew J. Offutt? Harlan Ellison? David Gerrold? David Langford? Frederik Pohl? Anonymous Fan?

Dear Quote Investigator: The popular science fiction authors Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg were both famously prolific. Apparently, one of them delivered the following quip:

I had a writing block once. It was the worst 20 minutes of my life.

Alternatively, the remark may have been crafted by a fan in this form:

He had writer’s block once. It was the worst ten minutes of his life.
She had writer’s block once. It was the worst ten minutes of her life.

Would you please explore the provenance of this joke?

Quote Investigator: The earliest published evidence of this humorous schema known to QI appeared in the influential 1972 collection of short stories titled “Again, Dangerous Visions” compiled and edited by Harlan Ellison. The author Andrew J. Offutt in the introduction to his tale stated that he had suffered a period during which his writing abilities had faltered. In the following excerpt Offutt employed his distinctive style using a lowercase “i”. Emphasis added by QI: 1

“Last summer, June 1970, i experienced my first Block, that ancient writer’s devil i’d heard about. Stupid; it was MY fault.

After an elaborate multi-paragraph description of his difficulties Offutt finally presented the punch line. The term “liefer” is in the original text:

“i fought, i kept sitting down and trying to type, i snarled, cursed, cussed, obscenitized. Kept on fingering keys, (i use three fingers, one of which is on my left hand. It gets sorest.) i kept on. Come on, damn you!

“i PREVAILED! It had been awful. It had lasted 45 minutes, and now i know what a block is. i’d liefer forget, and i will never ever stop at a stopping point again!

“i can’t see that a block ever need be longer, assuming one has any control over himself at all.

Harlan Ellison’s response to Offutt asserted that prominent science fiction authors such as Theodore Sturgeon and Robert Sheckley had endured blocks that had lasted for years. Ellison also wrote that the witticism about an evanescent impediment was already being told within SF fandom: 2

There are fans who jest about me and Silverberg “blocking”—for half an hour. But one day will come, smartass; one frightening, mouth-drying day when nothing comes. And then you’ll know what it is to suffer the torments of a hell you can’t even name.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading I Had a Writing Block Once. It Was the Worst 20 Minutes of My Life

Notes:

  1. 1972, Again, Dangerous Visions: 46 Original Stories, Edited and introduced by Harlan Ellison, Section: Introduction to story “For Value Received” by Andrew J. Offutt, Start Page 119, Quote Page 124, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1972, Again, Dangerous Visions: 46 Original Stories, Edited and introduced by Harlan Ellison, Section: Introduction to story “For Value Received” by Andrew J. Offutt, Start Page 119, Quote Page 124 and 125, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)

The Two Most Common Elements in the Universe Are Hydrogen and Stupidity

Harlan Ellison? Frank Zappa? Anonymous?

zappa02Dear Quote Investigator: There is a popular quotation that expresses the following idea:

Hydrogen and stupidity are the two most abundant materials in the universe

This notion can be expressed in many different ways. One version has been credited to the SF writer Harlan Ellison, and another version has been ascribed to the musician Frank Zappa. Would you please examine the provenance of this statement?

Quote Investigator: This saying is highly mutable and difficult to trace. The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in the 1985 volume “An Edge in My Voice” by Harlan Ellison which primarily consisted of a set of columns written between 1980 and 1984. Ellison also updated the content by adding introductory remarks for each column under the section title “Interim Memo”. The following passage was from one of these supplementary introductions. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

At a lecture I gave in Grand Forks, North Dakota in March of this year, someone asked me how do we finally knock the fools and obscurantists and believers in craziness out of the box once and for all. I told the woman that we can’t. Apart from hydrogen, the most common thing in the universe is stupidity.

In July 1986 a syndicated puzzle feature called “Celebrity Cipher” was printed in multiple newspapers. The solution to the cipher was a statement labeled “Zappa’s Canon”, i.e., it was a saying credited to Frank Zappa: 2 3

PREVIOUS SOLUTION: “There are two things on earth that are universal: hydrogen and stupidity.” — Zappa’s Canon.

In February 1987 a column about books in “Omni” magazine printed a quotation credited to Ellison: 4

Harlan Ellison: These would-be censors are monsters. And they will always be with us because the two most common things in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Two Most Common Elements in the Universe Are Hydrogen and Stupidity

Notes:

  1. 1985, An Edge in My Voice by Harlan Ellison, (Collection of columns that originally appeared in Future Life, the L.A. Weekly and The Comics Journal), Installment 8: Interim Memo, (Introduction written for the book to a column that appeared in April 1981), Published by The Donning Company, Norfolk, Virginia. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1986 July 15, Cumberland Evening Times, Celebrity Cipher by Connie Wiener, Quote Page 19, Column 2, Cumberland, Maryland. (NewspaperArchive)
  3. 1986 July 15, The Journal-Register, Celebrity Cipher by Connie Wiener, Quote Page 8, Column 1, Medina, New York. (Old Fulton)
  4. 1987 February, Omni magazine, Books: The Real Fahrenheit 451 by Marion Long, Quote Page 22, Omni Publications International, New York. (Verified with scans)