H. L. Mencken, “Prejudices: Second Series” (1920): Part 2

The second half of H. L. Mencken’s Prejudices: Second Series carries on topically exploring issues as diverse as the application of the work ethic to artists to Prohibition. The articles continue Mencken’s assault on American conformity and democracy, but they are so wide-ranging that it starts to really seem that he is onto something. He even manages what can be seen as a critique of capitalism. However, he is not really opposed to it as exploitation of working people. The problem with capitalism and capitalists is that they are driven to banality by the pursuit of wealth (something Mencken does not really respect, although he understands it). That it also seems to drive workers toward the fad of socialism does not help matters. His criticism of capitalism (or at times state power) is derived from what he sees as the same ill of democracy. It forces most of us to lazy thoughts and conformity. The two most important essays in this volume after “The National Letters” are his explorations of Prohibition and marriage.

But let us start with “The Divine Afflatus,” which is mostly a criticism of the application of the work ethic to art. He questions the work of a journalist named Chesterton, for his argument that creative inspiration does not exist and that creativity is largely a function of how hard an artist works. Mencken relies that inspiration is variable and contextual and simply cannot be confined to a simple formula such as “write one thousand words a day.” At the end, he states his fear that the artist will become a manufacturer. As he probably well knew, many writers were already essentially manufacturers churning out stories for pulp magazines at dizzying rates.

“Scientific Examination of a Popular Virtue” is a brief questioning of the value of altruism. It is not some proto-Ayn Rand. Just an investigation about why people are so willing to do favors for others that seem to provide no pleasure to the favor giver and are based on lies. (Think of the professor trying to write nice things about an atrocious student essay.)
“The Allied Arts” is about music, painting, and stage. If you read Mencken you know he often has music in his mind. He cannot help himself but bring Beethoven or Wagner into the discussion. In fact, these seem to be his model of the great artists. His general thesis in “The Allied Arts” is that the vast majority of human beings simply cannot appreciate music and should not try. He is glad that rich people fund music but doubt that they understand it at all. He questions the gaudiness of the visual components of opera. As with literature, “the allied arts” are challenged by the same tendency toward mediocrity, stage is perhaps the most susceptible.

“The Cult of Hope” and “The Dry Millennium” are about reform, in particular Prohibition. The first essay is a warning against allowing criticism to be taken in by reform efforts. We have seen this before when Mencken expressed discomfort at criticism or literature becoming essentially an adjunct to political efforts. He praises Havelock Ellis for having the honesty to point out that no prostitute was more dangerous to a community than a vice squad. This is something contemporary Americans know well as they are finally approaching sanity on the “war on drugs.”

“The Dry Millennium” is a brilliant and funny assault on Prohibition, which was just being enacted. He rightly argued that it would be futile to abolish the consumption and production of alcohol, but more troubling was Mencken’s conviction that the masses would more or less embrace Prohibition. None of the general strikes by working people emerged in response to Prohibition. While the masses will eat up the reform fad, any “civilized” people will stay in Europe. Women will embrace it because it means their husbands will stay at home, even if it means the lubricating effect of alcohol on relationships will be muted for a while. For Mencken, the problem with Prohibition is that it will simply exacerbate the worst characteristics of Americans.

“Appendix on a Tender Theme,” the final essay in Prejudices: Second Series, is about marriage and love. It starts with an anatomy of a relationship from romance, to the breaking of the spell, to habit. Yet, there is something promising in relationships and in love, something that promises to liberate people. Love and sex and relationships are dangerous and not at all boring or banal, despite the constant efforts of the social hygiene folks to reduce marriage to a science. The problem comes with the later phase of the relationship, when it descents into repetition and habit. There is no room for creativity and art in this relationship. He mentions the struggles Wagner had with creativity while married to Minna Planer. Thus there is something antithetical to the artist and marriage. Mencken speaks in gendered terms here (the artist is always a man; the mental block always a marriage to a woman), but we can universalize the concept, given any pairing of a creative person with a person who thinks marriage is best built with bricks and bars.

The day is saved, as every one knows, by the powerful effects of habit. The acquisition of habit is the process whereby disgust is overcome in daily life—the process whereby one may cease to be disgusted by a persistent noise or odor. One suffers horribly at first, but after a bit one suffers less, and in the course of time one scarcely suffers at all. Thus a man, when his marriage enters upon the stage of regularity and safety, gets use to his wife as he might get used to a tannery next door, and vice versa. I think that woman, in this direction, have the harder row to hoe, for they are more observant than men, and vastly more sensitive in small ways. But even women succumb to habit with humane rapidity, else every marriage would end in divorce. (290)

We have to (as usual) try to get beyond the sexist language to see the heart of the matter. Marriage endures because we are slavish and cowardly and easily seduced by routine. Our art sucks for the same reason.

Mark Twain, “A Tramp Abroad” (1880): Part One, Germany

Mark Twain wrote many travel narratives throughout his career. There were five, if we include the somewhat more autobiographical Roughing It and Life on the Mississippi. Three are committed to documenting his travels abroad. The Innocents Abroad looked at the experiences of a more casual tourist. Following the Equator is more of a tour of empire, something I will say more about when I get there.  A Tramp Abroad is the second of these are about the year and a half he spent in Europe in 1878 and 1879. It shows Twain making a more serious attempt to get to know a place well, by living there with his family for a prolonged period. Notably, he is no longer “innocent.”

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The sections of the book devoted to his experiences in Germany and Italy are broken up with bits of real American literature, short stories constructed by Twain, set in America. These provide nice juxtaposition between American life and Europeans and their attitude toward folklore and tradition. Some are Twain’s attempt at writing original German folklore. I suspect they are attempts to be failures.

I was very much attracted to how much effort Twain put into understanding the world he was put into it. Unlike the “innocent,” he did not just look at Europe through the lens of being an American. He spends little time seeing the sights (the formal, must-see tourist locations). This gives him time to smell the roses, so to speak. He gets to understand the culture of German students, the tradition of dueling and student clubs, he sees a Wagner opera, visits out of the way castles, and makes friends in the places he lives. He even tries learning German (the subject of his famous essay on the German language).

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Although it is less acute than in The Innocents Abroad we are expected to take Twain’s observations with skepticism. A veil stands in the way of Twain’s understanding despite months of residence in Germany. While we see more of everyday life than in his earlier works, it is no less plagued with misunderstanding. (Partly blamed on language.)

From his famous description of student dueling

From his famous description of student dueling

As an opera fan, I will simply use his experiences watching Lohengrin as an example of this, in part because he uses it to strike home what appears to be his main point. The operas of Richard Wagner, and by extension all German opera we suppose, are horrible to Twain’s ears. “A German lady in Munch told me that a person could not like Wagner’s music at first, but must go through the deliberative process of learning to like it,—then he would have his sure reward. Is this the same as for visiting and encountering other cultures? Once you endure all the painful aspects of a foreign culture, all the annoyances, bizarre ways of looking at the world, then—and only then—could it be appreciated.

If we read the text, it does seem that Twain is making an effort at understanding things, although he never gets very far beyond the surface unfortunately. Whether it is on the attitude of shopkeeper and their distinctive ways of swindling people, the German attitude toward Sundays, or the student’s tendency to form organizations, Twain hovers just on one side of understanding. As a good foreigner he learns just enough to get by, never allowing the experience to change his fundamental assumptions about life. He (at least the persona in the book) will never allow himself to learn enough to be assimilated or even to have a proper understanding of the phenomenon he observers.

I do not suppose this teaches us much, but it does perhaps lead us to a certain attitude that someone in a foreign land should have. Perhaps we could call this a humble objectivity. We can trust our eyes, but with an acceptance of their limitation. But like Twain we should not that censor our comments and observations, for these is much joy to be had in looking at the world through some tinted glasses. Sure, there are real problems with looking at the world from an American frame of reference, but as Twain shows us, this may not always be imperial or full of prejudice. Sometimes, it is just a matter of allowing the tinted gaze to create new perspectives and experiences, as in Twain’s attempts to write new German legends. There is space for creative freedom here that we cannot get by looking at other cultures with absolute fidelity.

Higher education in Germany

Higher education in Germany