Tag Archives: H.L. Mencken

Political Melancholy

The Fall 2012 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly has arrived in the mail, it’s theme: Politics. I consider LQ a guilty pleasure. Guilty because Lewis Lapham is a bit much sometimes, and because it’s expensive and takes up space we can hardly spare; but pleasure because it has such a nice smell, such a soft cover, and is so indulgently, gorgeously illustrated. Holding it, flipping through the pages, reminds you what a beautiful object a print periodical can be.

If you’re not familiar with LQ, it’s a magazine produced on the cheap, at least when it comes to paying its contributors, since most of them are dead. The bulk of each issue’s 200 or so pages are filled with well-chosen passages from authors of times past. “Contributors” to the current number – who run the gamut in brow elevation – include Solon, Emma Goldman, Gil Scott-Heron, Mark Twain, Montesquieu, Edmund Burke, Thomas Jefferson, Malcolm X, Monty Python, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, H.L. Mencken, and (everyone’s fave) Notker the Stammerer, who flourished in the ninth century. This is like calling Montaigne and P.G. Wodehouse “contributors” to this blog because I quote them so often.

Politics, I said, was the theme, and of course it’s just what we need more of right now. Please, yes, more politics. Having suffered through a year plus of presidential electioneering and three very special televised debates, politics is the one thing none of us can get enough of. So, thank you, Mr Lapham. Really, it’s like treating a cold with a juicy cough in the face.

And yet, and yet… I open the pages and admit there is a same-as-it-ever-was kind of comfort in the words of founding mother Abigail Adams, wife to our second and mother to our sixth president. This from a 1775 letter:

I am more and more convinced that man is a dangerous creature, and that power, whether vested in many or few, is ever grasping, and like the grave cries ‘Give, give!’ The great fish swallow up the small, and he who is most strenuous for the rights of the people, when vested with power, is eager after the prerogatives of government. You tell me of degrees of perfection to which human nature is capable of arriving, and I believe it, but at the same time lament that our admiration should arise from the scarcity of the instances.

Dear Mrs Adams! Such a graceful ager! I thought so ever since you were played by Laura Linney (opposite the immortal Paul Giamatti) in the 2008 John Adams miniseries. But who’s this now, Abby? Step aside and let’s make space for Mr Mencken, late of Baltimore, who comes in the person of Democritus Americanus to guffaw at the tragicomical farce of our benighted polity. God bless, he intones, our sacred candidates on the stump:

They will all promise every man, woman, and child in the country whatever he, she, or it wants. They’ll all be roving the land looking for chances to make the rich poor, to remedy the irremediable, to succor the unsuccorable, to unscramble the unscrambleable, to dephlogisticate the undephlogisticable. They will all be curing warts by saying words over them and paying off the national debt with money that no one will have to earn. They will all know by then, even supposing that some of them don’t know it now, that votes are collared under democracy not by talking sense but by talking nonsense, and they will apply themselves to the job with a hearty yo-heave-ho.

It’s said we get the leaders we deserve. Mencken might agree, despite not coining the phrase himself. Personally, I guess we’ve been luckier than that on balance. But to think poorly of our elected representatives, and express ourselves in that direction, is a time-honored American tradition. Likewise, lamenting the decay of the present era relative to days of yore is a pastime of Homeric antiquity. Mostly, in our own case, it’s bunk. If we can survive the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the 1970s, I think we’ll survive the next few years, whether the election-day map is red or blue.

Every generation, however, has its special pathology, its popular malaise. Yesterday aboard my commuter train, while reading Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Renaissance Essays, I think I may have hit on our own diagnosis. In his piece on Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Trevor-Roper notes Burton’s admiration, from a bookish distance, for the Dutch and Swiss society of his day:

Those admired societies, in so far as they were active and industrious, animated by a desire for improvement, were, he believed, ‘free from melancholy’. From which it appears that ‘melancholy’ is not merely a temporary depression of spirits but a kind of pervasive social inertia, an incapacity for deliberate self-improvement and rational activity.

“An incapacity for deliberate self-improvement and rational activity.” Yes, this sounds about right: melancholy not as a merely personal burden but as a social malady, the reigning humor of a nation.

Burton has his special chapters on love melancholy and religious melancholy. If he were American and writing today, perhaps he would give us a chapter on the subject of political melancholy. The disease, I suspect, is untreatable at the state or federal levels. Though collectively expressed, it is rooted in individual cases. Personal treatment is necessary by personalized means. We can only wonder what a national cure might look like.


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Three Paragraphs of Black Friday

Consumer aggression is an American tradition. The ghost of H.L. Mencken was in sardonic ecstasies this past weekend over video clips of Black Friday berserkers punching, pepper-spraying and shooting their way through crowds of competing shoppers to win deep discounts on unnecessary purchases. Everyone loves a good slugfest.

Watching it all from my father’s recliner, I recalled that Homeric scene in Tom Jones when Molly Seagrim, taunted by the crowd in the churchyard, took up a thigh bone from an open grave, “fell in among the flying ranks, and dealing her blows with great liberality on either side, overthrew the carcasse of many a mighty heroe and heroine.” Rather than a thigh bone, today’s Molly Seagrim swings an iPhone or a Blue Ray player.

Of course, it’s equally traditional to be shocked – simply shocked – by such behavior. Like court-appointed advocates for the defense, journalists and economists speculated in the aftermath that The American Consumer had been suffering from “austerity fatigue” and was possessed by the demon of “pent up demand.” This kind of insanity, they mean to say, is just what we need.

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Birds and Boulders

Sick of the city, you wake the family early and hit the road. The countryside in San Benito County is green and empty. The land opens out below Gilroy and the asphalt is submerged in a lake of grass that fills the bowl between the eastern and western hills. Highway 25 skirts the miserable strip malls and tract-housing of Hollister, then slips into the long chiseled groove that marks the San Andreas Rift Zone between the Diablo and Gabilan ranges. South of Paicines oaks press the verge of the road and you pass through territory held by a colony of Yellow-billed Magpies (Pica nutalli). Crow-like with patches of white, their primaries and tertials flash an iridescent seaweed blue. The yellow muzzle is unmistakable.

Pinnacles National Monument is best avoided in summer. The isolated inland hills flare up infernally, even when not actually burning, and afternoons above 110 degrees are common. All the creeks run dry. In spring, however, the brook at Bear Gulch tinkles below a stone and timber ranger station built in the 1930s by Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration. You follow a hiking trail up the canyon through oak groves and weird vaults of rock. There’s a low buzzing of bees or wasps, but you can’t find their nest. A Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) in his black Robin Hood cap follows through the undergrowth. The trail leads into a cave where a flashlight shows little waterfalls purling through gaps in the rocks. Looking down into the dark your daughter spots (she says) some dinosaur bones. The far end of the cave is closed so that no one will disturb the weeks-long drowsy intercourse of bats.

The ‘pinnacles’ themselves are the fossil bones of a primeval volcano whose flesh has long ago rotted away. From an igneous shelf above the reservoir, where you eat a picnic lunch, there’s a nice vista of the high peaks: boulders and broken ribs of rusted stone that rear up from amid the chaparral and the few scattered pines. It’s about here that your son misplaces his one perfect walking stick in the world and insists on retracing his steps. Your daughter runs the other way to chase an Orangetip butterfly through blood-barked manzanitas. Overhead, lucky you, a massive California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) slides past, soundless and assured, its finger feathers splayed and ten-foot arms stretched wide, a shipless rudder in the sky. Hold your breath. You have just seen one of Earth’s rarest birds.

Driving north on Highway 25 the weather shifts and clouds run in from the Pacific. You begin to dread that portion of the road ahead where the horrid strip malls start again, and the ugly houses, and the acres of concrete. You hope, in a way, that Mencken was right when he called mankind nothing more consequential than “a local disease of the cosmos.” Here is Paicines again, and now the little hamlet of Tres Pinos. Outside a sheet-metal warehouse some meat-headed kid is marching weighted barbells down the street, while a friend shouts encouragement. Thank God for birds and boulders, you think. It may be that we are nothing better than a rash on the leg of dame Nature, but what a gam!


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Hic Bibitur

This past weekend in Petaluma, north of San Francisco, the wife and kids and I encountered the monument above, erected by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, as it says, in 1891.  Sprouting from the top of the granite block (not easily seen here) is a water fountain.  Drink if thirsty, the grim message goes, but only water – forever.

That was a hell narrowly avoided, wasn’t it?  Personally, I find that such relics of militant sobriety inspire me with a boundless gratitude and admiration for our irreformable human nature.  And a sick, sick craving for a gin and tonic.

H.L. Mencken, in the fourth series of his Prejudices (1924), reminds us that “all the great villainies of history have been perpetrated by sober men, and chiefly by teetotalers.”  Conversely, he says, all pleasant and ennobling products of human culture have their origin in booze.  What we need in order to be better persons, generally, is more alcohol rather than less.  If we want to love our neighbor, lead happy lives, and be peaceful and decent citizens, then we ought to live (he says) in a middling state of perpetual tipsiness:

I am well aware that getting the whole human race stewed and keeping it stewed, year in and year out, would present formidable technical difficulties… On the one hand there would be the constant danger that large minorities might occasionally become cold sober, and so start wars, theological disputes, moral reforms, and other such unpleasantnesses.  On the other hand, there would be danger that other minorities might proceed to actual intoxication, and so annoy us all with their fatuous bawling or maudlin tears.  But such technical obstacles, of course, are by no means insurmountable.  Perhaps they might be got around by abandoning the administration of alcohol per ora and distributing it instead by impregnating the air with it.  I throw out the suggestion and pass on.

Reading this again last night a cartoon light bulb flashed in my head and I thought of a passage marked in my copy of Flann O’Brien’s The Best of Myles.  I don’t know if it’s a case of great minds thinking alike or if O’Brien (writing somewhat later) took inspiration from Mencken.  In any case, O’Brien’s ‘Myles na gCopaleen Research Bureau’ turns out a truly novel method of imbibing:

It is provisionally called ‘Trink’ and looks for all the world like the ordinary black ink you can buy for twopence.  ‘Trink’, however, is a very special job.  When put on paper and dried it emits a subtle alcoholic vapour which will hang over the document in an invisible odorless cloud for several days.  A person perusing such a document is surrounded by this cloud.  The vapour is drawn in with the breath, condenses in the mucous tract, gradually finds its way to the stomach and is absorbed in the blood.  Intoxication ensues, mild or acute, according to how much reading is done…

We are not yet at the stage when we can risk printing the Irish Times with it, but the other day we decided to use it for one or two posters intended for the country.  The results, noted by our own plain-clothes narks who were on the spot, were quite satisfactory.  A few people on their way to work in a certain town paused for a moment to spell out the placard (our educational system is weak remember) and to reflect for a moment on the news.  The news was bad, as usual, but the parties taking it in experienced a strange feeling of elation and well-being.  They went on their way rejoicing and one of them, a staid school master, went into his class and straightway led them in a raucous rendering of ‘Alexander’s Rag-time Band’, bashing out the time on his desk with a pointer.

That’s a long quote, I know, but really I couldn’t help it.  Intoxication, “mild or acute, according to how much reading is done” pretty well sums up my own response to O’Brien, and Mencken too.  No doubt my copies were printed in Trink.

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Three Paragraphs of Holiday Weekend

My wife’s cousin has a big house at the lake, a glass eye, a Great Dane, a tortoise, a pig, two hens, and a fainting goat tied to a post in the yard, the last miraculously spared (so far) by the mountain lions that come down from the hills. All patriotic food groups were duly represented: roast turkey, stuffing, potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie – and we did our duty. Home again, we tucked in the children and put up our heels before the simulated fireplace looping on the television screen, brooding over mugs of smoky Russian tea.

The boy announced tonight that he was afraid of the Snark. Don’t be in such a hurry to grow up, I told him.  But then, on reflection, I’m not sure that people are really any more afraid of terrorists (or snarks) than they used to be; or of radiation, or being groped by strangers. If fear is gaining these days it’s primarily in two varieties: 1) the fear of litigation, and 2) the mongered sort of fear, traded like sturgeon or Persian rugs for cash or ‘political capital.’ It’s always an ‘adroit demonology’ (in Mencken’s phrase) that wins customers and votes.

With a surfeit of free time due to the holiday, I’m mastering ‘Yankee Doodle’ on the ukelele, not trimming my beard, and reading J.G. Farrell’s Troubles. Before bed I set the Farrell aside to read snippets of Vico instead, which is just dry and disorienting enough (‘…the Assyrian kingdom was born overnight, like frogs after a summer storm…’) to transport me direct to Surrealist dreamland. My wife, meanwhile, is in love with Flaubert and halfway through Bouvard and Pecuchet, which I’d been saving for a special occasion. She’s ruining it for me by reading so much of it aloud. You and your ‘Flobby,’ I say. I’m not sure which of you to be jealous of.

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Marginalia, no.27

Man’s natural instinct, in fact, is never toward what is sound and true; it is toward what is specious and false…  It is so in politics, which consists wholly of a succession of unintelligent crazes, many of them so idiotic that they exist only as battlecries and shibboleths and are not reducible to logical statement at all… The ideas that conquer the race most rapidly and arouse the wildest enthusiasm and are held most tenaciously are precisely the ideas that are most insane.

~ H.L. Mencken

American democracy, says Mencken, comes to little more than “the worship of Jackals by Jackasses.”  Which hurts a little.  And yet it’s precisely now, during the braying raptures of the campaign season’s endgame, when a friendly face-slap is best taken.  For all his critiques of American society and religion, Mencken displays a pessimism with regard to human reason and the capacity for progress which can only be described as Calvinistic – and so in the end proves himself a true enough American, and a bit of a puritan to boot.

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