Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Minority Report (10). HL Mencken

Minority Report: HL Mencken’s Notebooks (10). New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1956.

Why read it? One of the most celebrated curmudgeons in American history. Mencken writes in half-truths. He’s half wrong, but he is also half right. His style jolts the reader. He will make you think. The topics are random, from a collection of ideas that had gathered dust over the years but which he had never developed into full-blown essays. Reading these quotes again, I am thinking of the irreverence of the television show, All in the Family. Mencken might be a great Archie Bunker, if Archie Bunker could write.

Sample quotes and ideas:

“The most steadily attractive of all human qualities is competence…good at his trade…understands its technique thoroughly…surmounts its difficulties with ease….” p. 224.

“The one thing common to all prophets is their belief in their own infallibility.” p. 226.

“I know a great many more people than most men, and in wider and more diverse circles, yet my life is essentially one of isolation, and so is that of every other man; we not only have to die alone, we also…have to live alone.” p. 228.

“It is difficult to imagine anyone having any real hopes for the human race in the face of the fact that the great majority of men still believe that the universe is run by a gaseous vertebrate of astronomical heft and girth, who is nevertheless interested in the minutest details of the private conduct of even the meanest men.” p. 233.

“The essence of the superior man is that he is free of…envy.” p. 233.

“When I hear a man applauded by the mob I always feel a pang of pity for him; all he has to do to be hissed is to live long enough.” p. 234.

“The good humor of the American Negro is largely founded on cynicism.” p. 234.

“Culture…is…an atmosphere and a heritage—the Renaissance [for example].” p. 239.

“Moderation in all things: not too much life; it often lasts too long.” p. 239.

“The work of the world, in all departments, is chiefly done by bunglers.” p. 240.

“Very few generals are fit to be trusted with the lives of their troops, very few medical men are expert at diagnosis and treatment, and very few pedagogues really know anything about the things they presume to teach.” p. 240.

“The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false face for the urge to rule it.” p. 247.

“Power is what all messiahs really seek: not the chance to serve.” p. 247.

“It is often argued that religion is valuable because it makes men good but even if this were true it would not be a proof that religion is true. Santa Claus makes children good in precisely the same way, and yet no one would argue seriously that that fact proves his existence.” p. 249.

“…religions for which multitudes of honest men have fought and died are false, wicked and against God.” p. 250.

“Perhaps the most revolting character that the United States ever produced was the business man…who fought to the end against any approach to rational and humane dealing with labor.” p. 250.

“…sense of humor, which is to say, a capacity to discover hidden and surprising relations between apparently disparate things, to penetrate to the hollowness of common assumptions, and to invent novel and arresting turns of speech.” p. 264.

“The psychology of the bore deserves a great deal more sober study than it has got.” p. 266.

“A bore is simply a nonentity who resents his humble lot in life and seeks satisfaction for his wounded ego in forcing himself upon his betters.” p. 267.

Comment: So there you have it—Mencken’s half-truths and accusations against life and institutions. I think Mencken says what a lot of us think. But in reading his ideas, we can see that he is only half right. He usually pegs what is wrong pretty well, but offers no solutions except those that are negative. He is entertaining. He is thought-provoking. But he leaves us with a ton of unsolved problems. I once learned in a course in logic to beware of generalizations. Well, Mencken is the King of Generalizations. RayS.

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