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Mark Twain and the Eiffel Tower

In one of his essays Mark Twain compared the complete age of the universe to the height of the Eiffel Tower, and the history of the human race to the thickness of the paint on top of the flagpole on top of the tower. Thinking that we humans are the end point and climax of creation is rather like thinking that the Eiffel Tower exists for the sake of that layer of paint. This analogy was the occasion for some sarcasm about the self-congratulatory self-centeredness of our species.

One can argue that Twain's sarcasm was misplaced, that the tower does indeed exist for that layer of paint. Consider: When one speaks of the Eiffel tower one speaks of that which one can perceive. What we perceive is that which is visible, the outer layer of paint. The layer of paint is the surface of the thing and surfaces are all that we do perceive and all that we can perceive.

Twain's sarcasm relies on a semantic trick, a confusion between the abstract and the particular. If we abstract away from surfaces all of their particulars of shape and texture we are left with vague generalities such as "layer of paint" as though all surfaces were the same and equivalent. This particular layer of paint, the one on the tower, has a shape that rises quite spectacularly in the air. It is the surface that we see; the internals of the tower necessarily exist so that the surface may exist as such.

One might object to this observation that Twain was comparing the height of the tower to the thickness of that final upper layer of paint. In reply the same consideration holds - the tower is necessary in order that upper layer of paint may exist. Notice that Twain's homily also abstracts away the physicality of the Eiffel tower and its paint to the point where both are reduced to a single number measuring the abstraction of verticality. Indeed Twain marginalizes humanity by focussing on that last extreme layer of paint which is the one that is never seen.

In short, Mr. Twain, has reduced humanity to the measurement of the thickness of an unseen layer of paint and then proclaimed the smallness of humanity.


This page was last updated December 6, 2000.

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