Such obscenities as the forthcoming trial of the Tennessee evolutionist, if they serve no other purpose, at least call attention dramatically to the fact that enlightenment, among mankind, is very narrowly dispersed. It is common to assume that human progress affects everyone—that even the dullest man, in these bright days, knows more than any man of, say, the Eighteenth Century, and is far more civilized. This assumption is quite erroneous. The men of the educated minority, no doubt, know more than their predecessors, and of some of them, perhaps, it may be said that they are more civilized—though I should not like to be put to giving names—but the great masses of men, even in this inspired republic, are precisely where the mob was at the dawn of history. They are ignorant, they are dishonest, they are cowardly, they are ignoble. They know little if anything that is worth knowing, and there is not the slightest sign of a natural desire among them to increase their knowledge.
Such immortal vermin, true enough, get their share of fruits of human progress, and so they may be said, in a way, to have their part in it. The most ignorant man, when he is ill, may enjoy whatever boons and ususfructs modern medicine may offer—that is, provided he is too poor to choose his own doctor. He is free, if he wants to, to take a bath. The literature of the world is at his disposal in public libraries. He may look at works of art. He may hear good music. He has at hand a thousand devices for making life less wearisome and more tolerable: the telephone, railroads, bichloride tablets, newspapers, sewers, correspondence schools, delicatesen. But he had no more to do with bringing these things into the world than the horned cattle in the fields, and he does no more to increase them today then the birds of the air.
On the contrary, he is generally against them, and sometimes with immense violence. Every step in human progress, from the first feeble stirrings in the abyss of time, has been opposed by the great majority of men. Every valuable thing that has been added to the store of man’s possessions has been derided by them when it was new, and destroyed by them when they had the power. They have fought every new truth ever heard of, and they have killed every truth-seeker who got into their hands.
The so called religious organizations which now lead the war against teaching of evolution are nothing more, at bottom, than conspiracies of the inferior man against his betters. They mirror very accurately his congenital hatred of knowledge, his bitter enmity to the man who knows more than he does, and so gets more out of life. Certainly it cannot have gone unnoticed that their membership is recruited, in the overwhelming main, from the lower orders—that no man of any education or other human dignity belongs to them. What they propose to do, at bottom and in brief, is to make the superior man infamous—by mere abuse if it is sufficient, and if it is not, then by law.
Such organizations, of course, must have leaders; there must be men in them whose ignorance and imbecility are measurably less abject than the ignorance and imbecility of the average. These super-Chandala often attain to a considerable power, especially in democratic states. Their followers trust them and look up to them; sometimes, when the pack is on the loose, it is necessary to conciliate them. But their puissance cannot conceal their incurable inferiority. They belong to the mob as surely as their dupes, and the thing that animates them is precisely the mob’s hatred of superiority. Whatever lies above the level of their comprehension is of the devil. A glass of wine delights civilized men; they themselves, drinking it, would get drunk. Ergo, wine must be prohibited. The hypothesis of evolution is credited by all men of education; they themselves can’t understand it. Ergo, its teaching must be put down.
This simple fact explains such phenomena as the Tennessee buffoonery. Nothing else can. We must think of human progress, not as of something going on in the race in general, but as something going on in a small minority, perpetually beleaguered in a few walled towns. Now and then the horde of barbarians outside breaks through, and we have an armed effort to halt the process. That is we have a Reformation, a French Revolution, a war for democracy, a Great Awakening. The minority is decimated and driven to cover. But a few survive—and a few are enough to carry on.
The inferior man’s reasons for hating knowledge are not hard to discern. He hates it because it is complex—because it puts an unbearable burden upon his meager capacity for taking in ideas. Thus his search is always for short cuts. All superstitions are such short cuts. Their aim is to make the unintelligible simple, and even obvious. So on what seem to be higher levels. No man who has not had a long arduous education can understand even the most elementary concepts of modern pathology. But even a hind at the plow can grasp the theory of chiropractic in two lessons. Hence the vast popularity of chiropractic among the submerged—and of osteopathy, Christian Science and other such quackeries with it. They are idiotic, but they are simple—and every man prefers what he can understand to what puzzles and dismays him.
The popularity of Fundamentalism among the inferior orders of men is explainable in exactly the same way. The cosmogonies that educated men toy with are all inordinately complex. To comprehend their veriest outlines requires an immense stock of knowledge, and a habit of thought. It would be as vain to try to teach to peasants or to the city proletariat as it would be to try to teach them to steptococci. But the cosmogony of Genesis is so simple that even a yokel can grasp it. It is set fourth in a few phrases. It offers, to an ignorant man, the irresistible reasonableness of the nonsensical. So he accepts it with loud hosannas, and has one more excuse for hating his betters.
Politics and the fine arts repeat the story. The issues that the former throw up are often so complex that, in the present state of human knowledge, they must remain impenetrable, even to the most enlightened men. How much easier to follow with a shibboleth—a Coolidge, a Wilson or a Roosevelt! The arts, like the sciences, demand special training, often very difficult. But in jazz there are simple rhythms, comprehensible even to savages.
What all this amounts to is that the human race is divided into two sharply differentiated and mutually antagonistic classes, almost two genera—a small minority that plays with ideas and is capable of taking them in, and a vast majority that finds them painful, and is thus arrayed against them, and against all who have traffic with them. The intellectual heritage of the race belongs to the minority, and to the minority only. The majority has no more to do with it than it has to do with ecclesiastic politics on Mars. In so far as that heritage is apprehended, it is viewed with enmity. But in the main it is not apprehended at all.
That is why Beethoven survives. Of the 110,000,000 so-called human beings who now live in the United States, flogged and crazed by Coolidge, Rotary, the Ku Klux and the newspapers, it is probable that at least 108,000,000 have never heard of him at all. To these immortals, made in God’s image, one of the greatest artists the human race has ever produced is not even a name. So far as they are concerned he might as well have died at birth. The gorgeous and incomparable beauties that he created are nothing to them. They get no value out of the fact that he existed. They are completely unaware of what he did in the world, and would not be interested if they were told.
The fact saves good Ludwig’s bacon. His music survives because it lies outside the plane of popular apprehension, like the colors beyond violet or the concept of honor. If it could be brought within range it would at once arouse hostility. Its complexity would challenge; its lace of moral purpose would afright. Soon there would be a movement to put it down, and Baptist clergymen would range the land denouncing it, and in the end some poor musician, taken in the un-American act of playing it, would be put on trial before a jury of Ku Kluxers, and railroaded to the calaboose.
(The Baltimore Evening Sun, June 29, 1925)
From the Note-Book of an American
Off the Grand Banks
… If I had it in my power to put down Prohibition overnight, or to scotch the Fundamentalists, or to hang all Men of Vision, I’d not have to flee from the temptation, for there would be no temptation. The lust to improve the world is simply not in me.
Quod est veritas? I know the answer no more than Pilate did. But this, at least, I have observed in forty-five years: that there are men who search for it, whatever it is, wherever it may lie, patiently, honestly, with due humility, and that there are other men who battle endlessly to put it down, even though they don’t know what it is. To the first class belong the scientists, the experimenters, the men of curiosity. To the second belong politicians, bishops, professors, mullahs, tin-pot messiahs, frauds and exploiters of all sorts—in brief, the men of authority.
My inclination, I suspect, makes me lean heavily in favor of the former. I am, as the phrase is, prejudiced in their favor. They fall, now and then, into grievous errors, but in their fall there is still something creditable, something that takes away all shame. What fetches them is the common weakness of humanity, imperfectly made by a God whose humor has been greatly underestimated. They have, at least, the virtue of fairness. And that of courage. Unhorsed, they pick themselves up and try again. They do not call for the police.
In the other camp I find no such virtues. All I find is a vast enmity to the free functioning of the spirit of man. There may be, for all I know, some truth there, but it is truth made into whips, rolled into bitter pills. It is truth that has somehow lost all dignity, all beauty, all eloquence and charm. More often, it is not truth at all, but simply folly horribly bedizened. Whatever it is, it is guarded by the common enemies of mankind: theologians, lawyers, policemen, men armed with books, guns, clubs, goads, ropes.
I find myself out of sympathy with such men. I shall keep on challenging them until the last galoot’s ashore.
(The Baltimore Evening Sun, September 7, 1925)
On William Jennings Bryan: He liked people who sweated freely, and were not debauched by the refinements of the toilet… The simian gabble of the cross-roads was not gabble to him, but wisdom of an occult and superior sort… If the village barber saved any of his hair, then it is curing gall-stones down there today.
This talk of sincerity, I confess, fatigues me. If the fellow was sincere, then so was P.T. Barnum. The word is disgraced and degraded by such uses. He was, in fact, a charlatan, a mountebank, a zany without sense of dignity. His career brought him into contact with the first men of his time; he preferred the company of rustic ignoramuses. It was hard to believe, watching him at Dayton, that he had traveled, that he had been received in civilized societies, that he had been a high officer of state. He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He was a peasant come home to the barnyard. Imagine a gentleman, and you have imagined everything that he was not. What animated him from end to end of his grotesque career was simply ambition—the ambition of a common man to get his hand upon the collar of his superiors, or, failing that, to get his thumb into their eyes. He was born with a roaring voice, and it had the trick of inflaming half-wits. His whole career was devoted to raising those half-wits against their betters, that he himself might shine.
The New Deal: Go back to the two clippings and read them again. Consider well what they say. Four preposterous nonentities, all of them professional uplifters, returning from a junket at the taxpayer’s expense, sit in a smoking car munching peanuts and talking shop. Their sole business in life is spending other people’s money. In the past they have always had to put in four-fifths of their time cadging it, but now the New Deal has admitted them to the vast vaults of the public treasury, and just beyond the public treasury, shackled in a gigantic lemon-squeezer worked by steam, groans the taxpayer. They feel their oats, and are busting with ideas. For them, at least, the More Abundant Life has surely come in…
Of such sort are the young wizards who now sweat to save the plain people from the degradations of capitalism, which is to say, from the degradations of working hard, saving their money, and paying their way… This is the Führer’s inspired substitute for constitutional government and common sense.
-Mencken remarked that if he had been mistaken about the likelihood of an afterlife, he would make the only amend possible within his power. He would advance toward the Throne and say: "Gentlemen, I was wrong."
-Mencken would take Guidion Bibles from hotel rooms and present them to friends with the inscription, "From the author."
*Man, at his best, remains a sort of one-lunged animal, never completely rounded and perfect, as a cockroach, say, is perfect.
*The urge to save humanity is almost always a false-face for the urge to rule it.
-The chief value of money lies in the fact that one lives in a world in which it is overestimated.
-Doing good is in bad taste.
-The capacity of human beings to bore one another seems to be vastly greater than that of any other animals. Some of their most esteemed inventions have no other apparent purpose, for example, the dinner party of more than two, the epic poem, and the science of metaphysics.
-One of the merits of democracy is quite obvious: it is perhaps the most charming form of government ever devised by man. The reason is not far to seek. It is based upon propositions that are palpably not true–and what is not true, as everyone knows, is always immensely more fascinating and satisfying to the vast majority of men than what is true. Truth has a harshness that alarms them, and an air of finality that collides with their incurable romanticism. They turn, in all the great emergencies of life, to the ancient promises, transparently false but immensely comforting, and of all those ancient promises there is none more comforting than the one to the effect that the lowly shall inherit the earth.
-Out of the desert of American fictioneering, so populous and yet so dreary… The normal American novel, even in its most serious forms, takes color from the national cocksureness and superficiality. It runs monotonously to ready explanations, a somewhat infantile smugness and hopefulness, a habit of reducing the unknowable to the terms of the not worth knowing.
-… sharp wits can lurk in unpolished skulls.
*So few men are really worth knowing, that it seems a shameful waste to let an anthropoid prejudice stand in the way of free association with one who is.
-The multiplication of such taboos is obviously not the characteristic of a culture that is moving from a lower plain to a higher.
-Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.
-Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.
-If I knew what was true, I'd be willing to die for it to the tune of bugle blasts. But so far, I have not found it.
-… a culture that, like the national literature, is in three layers—the plutocracy on top, a vast mass of undifferentiated human blanks bossed by demagogues at the bottom, and a forlorn intelligentsia gasping at a precarious life in between.
-What ails the beautiful letters of the Republic, I repeat, is what ails the general culture of the Republic—the lack of a body of sophisticated and civilized public opinion, independent of plutocratic control and superior to the infantile philosophies of the mob—a body of opinion showing the eager curiosity, the educated skepticism and hospitality to ideas of a true aristocracy. This lack is felt by the American author, imagining him to have anything new to say, every day of his life. He can hope for no support, in ordinary cases, from the mob: it is too suspicious of all ideas. He can hope for no support from the spokesman of the plutocracy: they are too diligently devoted to maintaining the intellectual status quo. He turns, then, to the intelligentsia—and what he finds is correctness. In his two prime functions, to represent the life about him accurately and to criticize it honestly, he sees that correctness arrayed against him. His representation is indecorous, unlovely, too harsh to be borne. His criticism is contumacy to the ideals upon which the whole structure rests. So he is either attacked vigorously as an anti-patriot whose babblings ought to be put down by law, or enshrouded in a silence which commonly disposes of him even more effectively.
-The news that the American Mercury is "lacking in constructive points of view" is not news to me. If any such points of view ever get into it, it will only be over my mutilated and pathetic corpse. The uplift has damn nigh ruined the country. What we need is more sin.
-Sara is moving the piano tomorrow–a heavy job for a frail girl in such weather.
-On one side loomed a Christian Science temple; on the other, the Knights of Columbus alcazar. "I live in a neighborhood so holy, I can look out my back window any night and see the Holy Ghost skipping across the chimney pots."
-His capacity for being uninteresting amounts to genius.
-I’m against slavery simply because I dislike slaves.
*Men become civilized, not in proportion to their willingness to believe, but in proportion to their readiness to doubt.
-During a strike at the American Mercury HLM passed through the picket line and was accosted by a former secretary whom he fired for "inefficiency." She asked Mencken if he ever found her to be inefficient.
"Did I ever fire you?"
-"Whereupon the Committee on Publications, in stovepipe hats and frock coats, marched into his office and primly announced that all they asked from "The Free Lance" was fairness. "Just a minute," interrupted Mencken, throwing up a chunky hand, "The last thing you’ll get from me is fairness!"" Manchester, Disturber of The Peace p. 62
-Socialism: nothing more than the theory that the slave is always more virtuous than his master.
-The left-wing movement… has pretty well killed intelligent criticism in this country. Books are judged not by their worth as works of art, but by their political content. Hobson
*The instant I reach Heaven, I'm going to speak to God very sharply.
-Let the Goyim celebrate their damned Christmas. It costs me $9 or $10 every year for the presents to stenographers, salesladies, chambermaids, manicures, fancy women, etc. etc. I almost wish the Yiddish had let the late redeemer go.
-God is the immemorial refuge of the incompetent, the helpless, the miserable. They find not only sanctuary in His arms, but also a kind of superiority, soothing to their macerated egos; He will set them above their betters.
-To die for an idea: it is unquestionably noble. But how much nobler would it be if men died for ideas that were true.
-The life of man in this world is like the life of a fly in a room filled with 100 boys, each armed with a fly-swatter.
-Whenever A annoys or injures B on the pretense of saving or improving X, A is a scoundrel.
A great deal of ink is wasted in trying to discover and denounce my motive in being a critic at all. I am, by one theory, a German spy told off to flay, terrorize and stampede the Anglo-Saxon. By another I am a secret radical, while professing to admire Coolidge and Genghis Khan. By a third, I am a fanatical American chauvinist, bent upon defaming and ruining the motherland. All these notions are nonsense; only the first has even the slightest plausibility. The plain truth is–and how could it be plainer?–that I practice criticism for precisely the same reason that every other critic practices it: because I am a vain fellow, and have a great many ideas on all sorts of subjects, and like to put them into words and harass the human race with them. If I could confine this flow of ideas to one subject I’d be a professor and get some respect. If I could reduce it, say, to one idea a year, I’d be a novelist, a dramatist, or a newspaper editorial writer. But being unable to stanch the flux, and having, as I say, a vast and exigent vanity, I am a critic of books, and through books of Homo sapiens, and through Homo sapiens of God.
So much for the motive. What now for the substance? What is the fundamental faith beneath all the spurting and coruscating the ideas I have just mentioned? What do I primarily and immovably believe in, as a Puritan believes in Hell? I believe in liberty. And when I say liberty I mean the thing in its widest imaginable sense—liberty up to the extreme limits of the feasible and tolerable. I am against forbidding anybody to do anything, or say anything, or think anything, so long as it is possible to imagine a habitable world in which he would be free to do, say and think it. The burden of proof, as I see it, is always upon the policeman, which is to say upon the lawmaker, the theologian, the right-thinker. He must prove his case doubly, triply, quadruply, and then he must start all over and prove it again. The eye through which I view him is watery and jaundiced. I do not pretend to be "just" to him—any more than a Christian pretends to be just to the Devil. He is the enemy of everything I admire and respect in this world—of everything that makes it various and amusing and charming. He impedes every honest search for the truth. He stands against every sort of good will and common decency. His ideal is that of an animal trainer, an archbishop, a major-general in the Army. I am against him until the last galoot’s ashore.
The simple and childlike faith in the freedom and dignity of man–here, perhaps, stated with undue rhetoric–should be obvious, I should think, to every critic above the mental backwardness of a Federal judge… I know of no civilized country, indeed, in which liberty is less esteemed than it is in the United States today; certainly there is none in which more persistent efforts are made to limit it and put it down. I am thus, to Americans, a bad American, but to Europeans, still unaware of the practical effects of Wilson and the saloon-bouncer ethic of Roosevelt I, I seem to be an eloquent spokesman of the true American tradition. It is a joke, but the joke is not on me…
Liberty is not for slaves; I do not advocate inflicting it on men against their conscience. On the contrary, I am strongly in favor of letting them crawl and grovel all they please…
For liberty, when one ascends to the levels where ideas swish by and men pursue Truth to grab her by the tail, is the first thing and the last thing. So long as it prevails the show is thrilling and stupendous; the moment it fails the show is a dull and dirty farce.
The Editors propose, before jurisprudence develops to the point of prohibiting skepticism altogether… If they are convinced of anything beyond peradventure, it is, indeed, that many of the great problems of man, and particularly man as a member of society–are intrinsically insoluble–that insolubility is as much a part of their essence as it is of the essence of squaring the circle. But demonstrating this insolubility thus takes on something of the quality of establishing a truth, and even merely arguing it gathers a sort of austere virtue. For human progress is achieved, it must be manifest, not by wasting effort upon hopeless and exhausting enigmas, but by concentrating effort upon inquiries that are within the poor talents of man. In the field of politics, for example, utopianism is not only useless; it is dangerous, for it centers attention upon what ought too be at the expense of what might be. The American Mercury will devote itself pleasantly to exposing the nonsensicality of all such hallucinations, particularly when they show a certain apparent plausibility. Its own pet hallucination will take the form of an hypothesis that the progress of knowledge is less a matter of accumulating facts than a matter of destroying "facts." It will assume constantly that the more ignorant a man is the more he knows, positively and indignantly. Among the great leeches and barber-surgeons who profess to medicate the body politic, it will give suffrage to those who admit frankly that all basic diseases are beyond cure, and who consecrate themselves to making the patient as comfortable as possible.
-In the United States there is a right way to think and a wrong way to think in everything–not only in theology, or politics, or economics, but in the most trivial matters of everyday life. Thus, in the average American city the citizen who, in the face of organized public clamor (usually fomented by parties with something to sell) for the erection of an equestrian statue to Susan B. Anthony in front of the chief railway station, or the purchase of a dozen leopards for the municipal zoo, or the dispatch of an invitation to the Structural Iron Worker’s Union to hold its next convention in the town Symphony Hall–the citizen who, for any logical reason, opposes such a proposal–on the ground, say, that Miss Anthony never rode a horse in her life, or that a dozen leopards would be less useful than a gallows to hang the City Council, or that the Structural Iron Workers would spit all over the floor of the Symphony Hall and knock down the busts of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms–this citizen is commonly denounced as an anarchist and a public enemy. It is not only erroneous to think thus; it has come to be immoral.
-We live in a land of abounding quackeries, and if we do not learn how to laugh we succumb to the melancholy disease which afflicts the race of viewers-with-alarm.
The Cult of Hope: Of all the sentimental errors that reign and rage in this incomparable Republic, the worst is that which confuses the function of the critic, whether aesthetic, political or social, with the function of reform. Almost invariably it takes the form of a protest: "The fellow condemns without offering anything better. Why tear down without building up?" So snivel the sweet ones: so wags the national tongue. The messianic delusion becomes a sort of universal murrain. It is impossible to get an audience for an idea that is not "constructive"—i.e., that is not glib, and uplifting, and full of hope, and hence capable of tickling the emotions by leaping the intermediate barrier of intelligence… Unluckily, it is difficult for the American mind to grasp the concept of insolubility… Man is inherently vile—but he is never so vile as when he is trying to disguise and deny his vileness.
*It is a peculiarity of the American mind that it regards any excursion into the truth as an adventure into cynicism.
-A mongrel and inferior people, incapable of any spiritual aspiration above that of second-rate English colonials, we seek refuge inevitably in the one sort of superiority that the lower castes of men can authentically boast, to wit, superiority in docility, in credulity, in resignation, in morals. We are the most moral race in the world; there is not another that we do not look down upon in that department; our confessed aim and destiny as a nation is to inoculate them all with our incomparable rectitude. In the last analysis, all ideas are judged among us by moral standards; moral values are our only permanent tests of worth, whether in the arts, in politics, in philosophy or in life itself. Even the instincts of man, so intrinsically immoral, so innocent, are fitted with moral false-faces. That bedevilment by sex ideas which punishes continence, so abhorrent to nature, is converted into a moral frenzy, pathological in the end. The impulse to cavort and kick up one’s legs, so healthy, so universal, is hedged in by incomprehensible taboos; it becomes stealthy, dirty, degrading. The desire to create and linger over beauty, the sign and touchstone of man’s rise above the brute, is held down by doubts and hesitations; when it breaks through it must do so by orgy and explosion, half ludicrous and half pathetic. Our function, we choose to believe, is to teach and inspire the world. We are wrong. Our function is to amuse the world. We are the Bryan, the Henry Ford, the Billy Sunday among the nations...
-The intelligent man, when he pays taxes, certainly does not believe he is making a prudent and productive investment of his money; on the contrary, he feels that he is being mulcted in an excessive amount for his services that, in the main, are useless to him, and that, in substantial part, are downright inimical to him. He may be convinced that a police force, say, is necessary for the protection of his life and property, and that an army and navy safeguard him from being reduced to slavery by some vague foreign kaiser, but even so he views these things as extravagantly expensive–he sees in even the most essential of them an agency for making it easier for the exploiters constituting the government to rob him.
*A Liberal is committed to sure cures that always turn out to be swindles; the Libertarian throws the bottles out of the window, and asks only that the patient be let alone.
-Despite the common delusion to the contrary the philosophy of doubt is far more comforting than that of hope. The doubter escapes the worst penalty of the man of faith and hope; he is never disappointed, and hence never indignant. The inexplicable and irremediable may interest him, but they do not enrage him, or, I may add, fool him. This immunity is worth all the dubious assurances ever foisted upon man. It is pragmatically impregnable. Moreover, it makes for tolerance and sympathy. The doubter does not hate his opponents; he sympathizes with them. In the end he may even come to sympathize with god. The old idea of fatherhood here submerges in a new idea of brotherhood. God, too, is beset by limitations, difficulties, broken hopes. Is it disconcerting to think of Him thus? Well, is it any the less disconcerting to think of Him as able to ease and answer, and yet failing?
-A good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar.
-We live in such a time as never was before on land or sea. All the old restraints upon the swinishness of men in the mass are falling away, and the world is gradually coming to be run on the principles borrowed from the communal ethics and politics of wolves and hyennas–nay, of rabbits and polecats.
That the life of man is a struggle and an agony was remarked by the sages of the remotest antiquity. The idea runs like Leitmotiv through the literature of the Greeks and the Jews alike. "Vanity of vanities," saith the Preacher, "vanity of vanities; all is vanity!" "O ye deathward-going tribes of men," chants Sophocles, "what do your live meanexcept that they go to nothingness?" But not placidly, not unresistingly, not without horrible groans and gurgles. Man is never honestly the fatalist, nor even the stoic. He fights his fate, often desperately. He is forever entering bold exceptions to the rulings of the bench of gods. This fighting, no doubt, makes for human progress, for it favors the strong and the brave. It also makes for beauty, for lesser men try to escape from a hopeless and intolerable world by creating a more lovely one of their own. Poetry, as everyone knows, is a means to that end–facile, and hence popular. The aim of poetry is to give a high and voluptuous plausibility to what is palpably not true. I offer the Twenty-third Psalm as an example: "The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want." It is immensely esteemed by the inmates of almshouses, and by gentlemen waiting to be hanged. I have to limit my own reading of it, avoiding soft and yielding moods, for I too, in my way, am a gentleman waiting to be hanged, as you are.
The struggle is always the same, but in its details it differs in different ages. There was a time when it was mainly a combat between the natural instincts of the individual and his yearning to get into Heaven. That was an unhealthy time, for throttling the instincts is almost as deleterious as breathing bad air: it makes for an unpleasant clamminess. The Age of Faith, seen in retrospect, looks somehow pale and puffy: one admires its saints and anchorites without being conscious of any very active desire to shake hands with them and smell them. Today the yearning to get into Heaven is in abeyance, at least among the vast majority of humankind, and so the ancient struggle takes a new form. In the main, it is a struggle of man with society–a conflict between the desire to be respected and his impulse to follow his won bent. Society usually winds. There are, to be sure, free spirits in the world, but their freedom, in the last analysis, is not much greater than that of a canary in a cage. They may leap from perch to perch; they may bathe and guzzle at their will; they may flap their wings and sing. But they are still in a cage, and soon or late it conquers them. What was once a great itch for long flights and the open spaces is gradually converted into a fading memory and nostalgia, sometimes stimulating but more often merely blushful. The free man, made in God’s image, is converted into a Freudian case.
Democracy produces swarms of such men, and their secret shames and sorrows, I believe, are largely for the generally depressing tone of democratic society. Old Freud, living in a more urbane and civilized world, paid too little heed to that sort of repression. He assumed fatuously that what was repressed was always, or nearly always, something intrinsically wicked, or, at all events, anti-social–for example, the natural impulse to drag a pretty woman behind the barn, regardless of her husband’s protests. But under democracy that is only half the story. The democrat with a yearning to shine before his fellows must not only repress all the common varieties of natural sin; he must also repress all the common varieties of natural sin; he must also repress many of the varieties of natural decency. His impulse to tell the truth as he sees it, to speak his mind freely, to be his own man, comes into early and painful collision with the democratic dogma that such things are not nice–that the most worthy and laudable citizen is that one who is most like all the rest. In youth, as every one knows, this dogma is frequently challenged, and sometimes with great asperity, but the rebellion, taking one case with another, is not of long duration. The campus Nietzsche, at thirty, begins to feel the suction of Rotary.
But his early yearnings for freedom and its natural concomitants is not dead; it is merely imprisoned, to adopt the Freudian jargon, in the depths of his subconscious. Down there it drags out its weary and intolerable years, protesting silently but relentlessly against its durance. We know, by Freud’s evidence, what the suppression of concupiscence can do to the individual–how it can shake his reason on its throne, and even give him such things as gastritis, migraine, and angina pectoris. Every Sunday-school in the land is full of such wrecks; simply an unfortunate who goes about with a brothel in his won cellar; a teetotaler is one who has buried the rum, bout would have been safer drinking it. All this is now a commonplace of knowledge to every American school-girl. But so far no psychoanalyst has done a tome on the complexes that issue out the moral struggles against common decency, though they are commoner under democracy than the other kind, and infinitely more ferocious. A man who has throttled a bad impulse has at least some consolation in his agonies, but a man who has throttled a good one is in a bad way indeed. Yet this great Republic swarms with such men, and their sufferings are under every eye. We have more of them, perhaps, than all the rest of Christendom, with heathendom thrown in to make it unanimous. 1927
-Human progress is furthered, not by conformity, but by aberration. The very concept of duty is thus a function of inferiority; it belongs naturally only to timorous and incompetent men. Even on such levels it remains largely a self-delusion, a soothing apparition, a euphemism for necessity. When a man succumbs to duty he merely succumbs to the habit and inclination of other men.
-[Women] are, I believe, generally happier than men, if only because the demands they make of life are more moderate and less romantic. The chief pain that a man normally suffers in his progress through this vale is that of disillusionment; the chief pain that a woman suffers is that of parturition. There is enormous significance in the difference. The first is artificial and self-inflicted; the second is natural and unescapable.
On Being an American
Apparently there are those who begin to find it disagreeable—nay, impossible. Their anguish fills the Liberal weeklies and every ship that puts out from New York carries a groaning cargo of them, bound for Paris, London, Munich, Rome and way points—anywhere to escape the great curses and atrocities that make life intolerable for them at home. Let me say at once that I find little to cavil at in their basic complaints. In more than one direction, indeed, I probably go a great deal further than even the Young Intellectuals. It is, for example, one of my firmest and most sacred beliefs, reached after an inquiry extending over a score of years and supported by incessant prayer and meditation, that the government of the United States, in both its legislative arm and its executive arm, is ignorant, incompetent, corrupt, and disgusting—and from this judgement I except no more than twenty living lawmakers and no more than twenty executioners of their laws. It is a belief no less piously cherished that the administration of justice in the Republic is stupid, dishonest, and against all reason and equity—and from this judgement I except no more than thirty judges, including two upon the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States. It is another that the foreign policy of the United States—its habitual manner of dealing with other nations, whether friend or foe—is hypocritical, disingenuous, knavish, and dishonorable—and from this judgment I consent to no exceptions whatever, either recent or long past. And it is my fourth (and, to avoid too depressing a bill, final) conviction that the American people, taking one with another, constitute the most timorous, sniveling, poltroonish, ignominious mob of serfs and goose-steppers ever gathered under one flag in Christendom since the end of the Middle Ages, and that they grow more timorous, more sniveling, more poltroonish, more ignominious every day.
So far I go with the fugitive Young Intellectuals—and into the Bad Lands beyond. Such, in brief, are the cardinal articles of my political faith, held passionately since my admission to citizenship and now growing stronger and stronger as I gradually disintegrate into mycomponent carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, phosphorus, calcium, sodium, nitrogen and iron. This is what I believe and preach, in nomine Domini, Amen. Yet here I remain on the dock, wrapped in the flag, when the Young Intellectuals set sail. Yet here I stand, unshaken and undespairing, a loyal and devoted Americano, even a chauvinist, paying taxes without complaint, obeying all laws that are physiologically obeyable, accepting all the searching duties and responsibilities of citizenship unprotestingly, investing the sparse usufructs of my miserable toil in the obligations of the nation, avoiding all commerce with men sworn to overthrow the government, contributing my mite toward the glory of the national arts and sciences, enriching and embellishing the native language, spurning all lures (and even all invitations) to get out and stay out—here am I, a bachelor of easy means, forty-two years old, unhampered by debts or issue, able to go wherever I please and to stay as long as I please—here am I, contentedly and even smugly basking beneath the Stars and Stripes, a better citizen, I daresay, and certainly a less murmurous and exigent one, than thousands who put the Hon. Warren Gamaliel Harding beside Friedrich Barbarossa and Charlemagne, and hold the Supreme Court to be directly inspired by the Holy Spirit, and belong ardently to every Rotary Club, Ku Klux Klan, and Anti-Saloon League, and choke with emotion when the band plays "The Stars Spangled Banner," and believe with the faith of little children that one of Our Boys, taken at random, could dispose in a fair fight of ten Englishmen, twenty Germans, thirty Frogs, forty Wops, fifty Japs, or a hundred Bolsheviki.
Well, then, why am I still here? Why am I so complacent (perhaps even to the point of offensiveness), so free from bile, so little fretting and indignant, so curiously happy? Why did I answer only with a few academic "Hear, Hears" when Henry James, Ezra Pound, Harold Stearns and the émigrés of Greenwich Village issued their successive calls to the corn-fed intelligentsia to flee the shambles, escape to fairer lands, throw off the curse forever? The answer, of course, is to be sought in the nature of happiness, which, tempts to metaphysics. But let me keep upon the ground. To me, at least (and I can only follow my own nose), happiness presents itself in an aspect that is tripartite. To be happy (reducing the thing to its elements) I must be:
a. Well-fed, unhounded by sordid cares, at ease in Zion.
b. Full of a comfortable feeling of superiority to the masses of my fellow-men.
c. Delicately and unceasingly amused according to my taste.
It is my contention that, if this definition be accepted, there is no country on the face of the earth wherein a man roughly constituted as I am—a man of my general weaknesses, vanities, appetites, prejudices, and aversions—can be so happy, or even one-half so happy, as he can be in these free and independent states. Going further, I lay down the proposition that it is a sheer physical impossibility for such a man to live in These States and not be happy—that it is as impossible to him as it would be to a schoolboy to weep over the burning down of his schoolhouse. If he says that he isn’t happy here, then he either lies or is insane. Here the business of getting a living, particularly since the war brought the loot of all Europe to the national strong-box, is enormously easier than it is in any other Christian land—so easy, in fact, that an educated and forehanded man who fails at it must actually make deliberate efforts to that end. Here the general average of intelligence, of knowledge, of competence, of integrity, of self-respect, of honor is so low that any man who knows his trade, does not fear ghosts, has read fifty good books, and practices the common decencies stands out as brilliantly as a wart on a bald head, ann is thrown willy-nilly into meager and exclusive aristocracy. And here, more than anywhere else that I know of or have heard of, the daily panorama of human existence, of private and communal folly—the unending procession of governmental extortions and chicaneries, of commercial brigandages, and throat-slittings, of theological buffooneries, of aesthetic ribaldries, of legal swindles and harlotries, of miscellaneous rogueries, villainies, imbecilities, grotesqueries, and extavagences—is so inordinately gross and preposterous, so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality, that only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night, and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school superintendent touring the Paris peep-shows.
A certain sough of rhetoric may be here. Perhaps I yield to words as a chautauqua lecturer yields to them, belaboring and fermenting the hinds with his Message from the New Jerusalem. But fundamentally I am quite as sincere as he is. For example, in the matter of attaining to ease in Zion, of getting a fair share of the national swag, now piled so mountainously high. It seems to me, sunk in my Egyptian night, that the man who fails to do this in the United States today is a man who is somehow stupid—maybe not on the surface, but certainly deep down. Either he is one who cripples himself unduly, say by setting up a family before he can care for it, or by concerning himself too much about the affairs of other men; or he is one who endeavors fatuously to sell something that no normal American wants. Whenever I hear a professor of philosophy complain that his wife has eloped with some moving-picture actor or bootlegger who can at least feed and clothe her, my natural sympathy for the man is greatly corrupted by contempt for his lack of sense. Would it be regarded as sane and laudable for a man to travel the Soudan trying to sell fountain pens, or Greenland offering to teach double-entry bookkeeping or counter-point? Coming close, would the judicious pity or laugh at a man who opened a shop for the sale of incunabula in Little Rock, Ark., or who demanded a living in McKeesport, Pa., on the ground that he could read Sumerian? In precisely the same way it seems to me to be nonsensical for a man to offer generally some commodity that only a few rare and dubious Americans want, and then weep and beat breasts because he is not patronized. One seeking to make a living in a country must pay due regard to the needs and tastes of that country. Here in the United States we have no jobs for grand dukes, and none for Wirkliche Geheimräte, and none for the palace eunuchs, and none for the masters of the buck-hounds, and none (any more) for brewery Todsäufer—very few for oboe-players, metaphysicians, astrophysicists, assyriologists, watercolorists, stylites and epic poets. There was a time when the Todsäufer served a public need and got an adequate reward, but it is no more. There may come a time when the composer of string quartettes is paid as much as a railway conductor, but it is nor yet. Then why practice such trades–that is as trades? The man of independent means may venture into them prudently; when he does so, he is seldom molested; it may even be argued that he performs a public service by adopting them. But the man who has a living to make is simply silly if he goes into them; he is like a soldier going over the top with a coffin strapped to his back. Let him abandon such puerile vanities, and take to the uplift instead, as, indeed, thousands of other victims of the industrial system have already done. Let him bear in mind that, whatever its neglect of the humanities and their monks, the Republic has never got half enough bond salesmen, quack doctors, ward leaders, phrenologists, Methodist evangelists, circus clowns, magicians, soldiers, farmers, popular song writers, moonshine distillers, forgers of gin labels, mine guards, detectives, spies, snoopers, and agents provacateurs. The rules are set by Omnipotence; the discreet man observes them. Observing them, he is safe beneath the starry bed-tick, in fair weather or foul. The boobus Americanus is a bird that knows no closed season–and if he won’t come down to Texas oil stock, or one-night cancer cures, or building lots in Swampshurst, he will always come down to Inspiration and Optimism, whether political, theological, pedagogical, literary or economic.
The doctrine that it is infra digitatem for an educated man to take a hand in the snaring of this goose is one in which I see nothing convincing. It is a doctrine chiefly voiced, I believe, by those who have tried the business and failed. They take refuge behind the childish notion that there is something honorable about poverty per se–the Greenwich Village complex. this is nonsense. Poverty may be an unescapable misfortune, but that no more makes it honorable than a cocked eye is made honorable by the same cause. Do I advocate, then, the ceaseless, senseless hogging of money? I do not. All I advocate–and praise as virtuous–is the hogging of enough to provide security and ease. Despite all the romantic superstitions to the contrary, the artist cannot do his best work when he is oppressed by unsatisfied wants. Nor can the philosopher. Nor can the man of science. The best and clearest thinking of the world is done and the finest art is produced, not by men who are hungry, ragged and harassed, but by men who are well-fed, warm and easy in mind. It is the artist’s first duty to his art to achieve that tranquility for himself. Shakespeare tried to achieve it; so did Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms, Ibsen and Balzac. Goethe, Schopenhauer, Schumann, and Mendelssohn were born to it. Joseph Conrad, Richard Strauss and Anatole France have got it for themselves in our day. In the older countries, where competence is far more general and competition is thus more sharp, the thing is often cruelly difficult, and sometimes almost impossible. But in the United States it is absurdly easy, given ordinary luck. Any man with a superior air, the intelligence of a stockbroker, and the resolution of a hat-check girl–in brief, any man who believes in himself enough, and with sufficient cause, to be called a journeyman–can cadge enough money, in this glorious commonwealth of morons, to make life soft for him.
And if a lining for the purse is thus facilely obtainable, given a reasonable prudence and resourcefulness, then balm for the ego is just as unlaboriously given ordinary dignity and decency. Simply to exist, indeed, on the plane of a civilized man is to attain, in the Republic, to a distinction that should be enough for all save the most vain; it is even likely to be too much, as the frequent challenges of the Ku Klux Klan, the American Legion, the Anti Saloon League, and other such vigilance committees of the majority testify. Here is a country in which all political thought and activity are concentrated upon the scramble for jobs—in which the normal politician, whether he be a President or a village road supervisor, is willing to renounce any principal, however precious to him, and to adopt any lunacy, however offensive to him, in order to keep his place at the trough. Go into politics, then, without seeking or wanting office, and at once you are as conspicuous as a red-haired blackamoor—in fact, a great deal more conspicuous, for red-haired blackamoors have been seen, but who has ever seen or heard of an American politician, Democrat or Republican, Socialist or Liberal, Whig or Tory, who did not itch for a job? Again, here is a country in which it is an axiom that a business man shall be a member of a Chamber of Commerce, an admirer of Charles M. Schwab, a reader of the Saturday Evening Post, a golfer—in brief, a vegetable. Spend your hours of escape from Geschäft reading Remy de Gourmont or practicing the violoncello, and the local Sunday newspapers will infallibly find you out and hymn the marvel—nay, your banker will summon you to discuss your notes, and your rivals will spread the report (probably truthful) that you were pro-German during the war. Yet again, here is a land in which women rule and men are slaves. Train your women to get your slippers for you, and your ill fame will match Galileo’s or Darwin’s. Once more, here is the Paradise of back-slappers, of democrats, of mixers, of go-getters. Maintain ordinary reserve, and you will arrest instant attention—and have your hand kissed by multitudes who, despite democracy, have all the inferior man’s unquenchable desire to grovel and admire.
Nowhere else is the world is superiority more easily attained or more eagerly admitted. The chief business of the nation, as a nation, is the setting up of heroes, mainly bogus. It admired the literary style of the late Woodrow; it respects the theological passion of Bryan; it venerates J. Pierpont Morgan; it takes Congress seriously; it would be unutterably shocked by the proposition (with proof) that a majority of its judges are ignoramuses, and that a respectable minority of them are scoundrels. The manufacture of artificial Durchlauchten, k.k. Hoheiten and even gods goes on feverishly and incessantly; the will to worship never flags. Ten iron-molders meet in a back-room of a near-beer saloon, organize a lodge of the Noble Mystic Order of American Rosicrucians, and elect a wheelwright Supreme Worthy Whimwham; a month later they send a notice to the local newspapers that they have been greatly honored by an official visit from that Whimwham, and that they plan to give him a jeweled fob for his watch-chain. The chief national heroes—Lincoln, Lee, and so on cannot remain mere men. The mysticism of the medieval peasantry gets into the communal view of them, and they begin to sprout haloes and wings. As I say, no intrinsic merit—at least, none commensurate with the mob estimate—is needed to come to such august dignities. Everything American is a bit amateurish and childish, even the national gods. The most conspicuous and respected American in nearly every field of endeavor, saving only the purely commercial (I exclude even the financial) is a man who would attract little attention in any other country. The leading American critic of literature, after twenty years of diligent exposition of his ideas, has yet to make it clear what he is in favor of, and why. The queen of the haut monde, in almost every American city, is a woman who regards Lord Reading as an aristocrat and her superior, and whose grandfather slept in his underclothes. The leading American musical director, if he went to Leipzig, would be put to polishing trombones and copying drum parts. The chief living American military man—the national heir to Frederick, Marlborough, Wellington, Washington and Prince Eugene—is a member of the Elks, and proud of it. The leading American philosopher (now dead, with no successor known to the average pedagogue) spent a lifetime erecting an epistemological defense for the national aesthetic maxim: "I don’t know nothing about music, but I know what I like." The most eminent statesman the United States has produced since Lincoln was fooled by Arthur James Balfour, and miscalculated his public support by more than 5,000,000 votes. And the current Chief Magistrate of the nation—its defiant substitute for czar and kaiser—is a small-town printer who, when wishes to enjoy himself in the Executive Mansion, invites in a homeopathic doctor, a Seventh-Day Adventist evangelist, and a couple of moving-picture actresses.
Love: the delusion that one woman differs from another.
*Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence.
-It is my conviction that no normal man ever fell in love, within the ordinary meaning of the word, after the age of thirty. He may, at forty, pursue the female of his species with great assiduity, and he may, at fifty, sixty or even seventy, "woo" and marry a more or less fair one in due form of law, but the impulse that moves him in these follies at such ages is never the complex of outlandish illusions and hallucinations that poets describe as love. This complex is quite natural to all males between adolescence and the age of, say, twenty-five, when the kidneys begin to disintegrate. For a youth to reach twenty-one without having fallen in love in an abject and preposterous manner would be for doubts to be raised as to his normalcy. But if he does it after his wisdom teeth are cut, it is no more than a sign that they have been cut in vain—that he is still in his teens, whatever his biological and legal age. Love, so-called, is based upon a view of women that is impossible to any man who has any experience of them. Such a man may, to the end of his life, enjoy the charm of their society, and even respect them and admire them, but, however much he respects and admires them, he nevertheless sees them more or less clearly, and seeing them clearly is fatal to true romance. Find a man of forty-five who heaves and moans over a woman, however amiable and lovely, in the manner of a poet and you will behold either a man who ceased to develop intellectually at twenty-four or thereabout, or a fraud who has his eye on the lands, tenements and hereditaments of the lady’s deceased first husband. Or upon her talents as nurse, or cook, amanuesis and audience. This, no doubt, is what George Bernard Shaw meant when he said that every man over forty is a scoundrel.
-The truth is that, no matter how great the domestic concord and how lavish the sacrifices a man makes for his women-folk, they almost always regard him secretly as a silly and selfish fellow, and cherish the theory that it would be easily possible to improve him. This is because the essential interests of men and women are eternally antithetical. A man may yield over and over again, but in the long run he must occasionally look out for himself—and it is these occasions that his women-folk remember. The typical domestic situation shows a woman trying to induce a man to do something he doesn’t want to do, or to refrain from something that he does want to do. This is true in his bachelor days, when his mother or his sister is his antagonist. It is preëminently true just before his marriage, when the girl who has marked him down is hard at the colossal job of overcoming his reluctance. And after marriage it is so true that there is hardly need to state it. One of the things every man discovers to his disquiet is that his wife, after the first play-acting is over, regards him essentially as his mother used to regard him—that is, as a self-worshiper who needs to be policed and an idiot who needs to be protected. The notion that women admire their men-folks is pure moonshine. The most they ever achieve in that direction is to pity them.
The civilized woman is born half convinced that she is really as weak and heavily put upon as she later pretends to be, and the prevailing folklore offers her endless corroboration. One of the resultant phenomena is the delight in martyrdom that one so often finds in women, and particularly in the least alert and introspective of them. They take a heavy, unhealthy pleasure in suffering; they like to picture themselves as slaughtered saints. Thus they always find something to complain of, and the very conditions of domestic life give them a superabundance of clinical material. If, by any chance, such material shows a falling off, they are uneasy and unhappy. Let a woman have a husband whose conduct is not reasonably open to question, and she will invent mythical offences to make him bearable. And if her invention fails she will be plunged into utmost misery and humiliation. This fact probably explains many mysterious divorces: the husband was not too bad, but too good. For public opinion among women, remember, does not favor the woman who is full of placid contentment and has no masculine torts to report; if she says that her husband is wholly satisfactory she is looked upon as a numskull even more dense than he is himself. A man, speaking of his wife to other men, always praises her extravagantly. Boasting about her soothes his vanity; he likes to stir up the envy of his fellows. But when two women talk of their husbands it is mainly atrocities that they describe. The most esteemed woman gossip is the one with the longest and most various repertoire of complaints.
-Once the threshold is crossed emotion comes to the aid of perception. That is to say , the blind, almost irresistible mating impulse, now relieved from the contrary pressure of active disgusts, fortifies itself by manufacturing illusions. The lover sees with an eye that is both opaque and out of focus, and begins the familiar process of editing and improving his girl.
-[Sentimentality] makes [man], above all else, see a glamour of romance in a transaction which, even at its best, contains almost as much gross trafficking, at bottom, as the sale of a mule.
-…a hundred men marry "beneath" them to every woman who perpetrates the same folly.
-Women's dislike of men, like the dislike of Englishmen for Americans, is sharpened by a mingling of envy and contempt. Men's dislike of women, like the dislike of Americans for Englishmen, is diluted by a sneaking suspicion that they are actually superior.
-The really astounding thing about marriage is not that it so often goes smash, but that it so often endures. All the chances run against it, and yet people manage to survive it, and even to like it. The capacity of the human mind for illusion is one of the causes here. Under duress it can very easily convert black into white. It can even convert children into blessings.
-Honour is a concept too tangled to be analyzed here, but it may be sufficient to point out that it is predicated upon a feeling of absolute security, and that, in that capital conflict between man and woman out of which rises most of man’s complaint of its absence—to wit, the conflict culminating in marriage, already described—the security of the woman is not something that is in actual being, but something that she is striving with all arms to attain. In such a conflict it must be manifest that honour can have no place. An animal fighting for its very existence uses all possible means of offence and defence, however foul. Even man, for all his boasting about honour, seldom displays it when he has anything of the first value at hazard. He is honourable, perhaps, in gambling, for gambling is a mere vice, but it is quite unusual for him to be honourable in business, for business is bread and butter.
-The other day, having my shoes shined, I was forced to listen to the old song, "Love Me, and the World is Mine!" on the professor's radio. Some day I should like to hear from a man who, having been loved in 1905 or thereabout, is still full of confidence that the world is his.
-Second mariage: the triumph of hope over experience.
*Man's happiness is "I will." Woman's happiness is "He will."
-A gentleman is one who never strikes a woman without provocation.
-No one could deny, I was willing to grant, that in a clearly limited sense, women occupied a place in the world—or, more accurately, aspired to a place in the world—that had some resemblance to that of chattel.
*A woman who is amiable has a more potent weapon in the duel of sex than either beauty or brains.
It is the close of a busy and vexatious day–say half past five or six o’clock of a Winter afternoon. I have had a cocktail or two, and am stretched out on a divan in front of a fire, smoking. At the edge of the divan, close enough for me to reach her with my hands, sits a woman not too young, but still good-looking and well-dressed–above all, a woman with a soft, low-pitched, agreeable voice. As I snooze she talks–of anything, everything , all the things that women talk of: books, music, dress, men, other women. No politics. No business. No theology. No metaphysics. Nothing challenging and vexatious–but remember, she is intelligent; what she says is clearly expressed, and often picturesquely. I observe the fine sheen of her hair, the pretty cut of her frock, the glint of her white teeth, the arch of her eyebrow, the graceful curve of her arm. I listen to the exquisite murmur of her voice. Gradually I fall asleep–but only for an instant. At once, observing it, she raises her voice ever so little, and I am awake. Then to sleep again–slowly and charmingly down that slippery hill of dreams. And then awake again, and then asleep again, and so on.
I ask you seriously: could anything be more unutterably beautiful? The sensation of falling asleep is to me the most delightful in the world. I relish it so much that I even look forward to death itself with a sneaking wonder and desire. Well, here is sleep poetized and made doubly sweet. Here is sleep set to the finest music in the world. I match this situation against any that you can think of. It is not only enchanting; it is also, in a very true sense, ennobling. In the end, when the lady grows prettily miffed and throws me out, I return to my sorrows somehow purged and glorified. I am a better man in my own sight. I have grazed upon the fields of asphodel. I have been genuinely, completely and unregrettably happy.
Q. If you find so much that is unworthy of reverence in the United States, then why do you live here?
A. Why do men go to zoos?
*There is only one justification for having sinned, and that is to be glad of it.
*Life, stripped of its illusions, instantly becomes unbearable. Man cannot sit still, contemplating his destiny in this world, without going frantic. So he invents ways to take his mind off the horror. He works. He plays. He accumulates the preposterous nothing called property. He strives for the coy eyewink called fame. He founds a family, and spreads his curse over others. All the while the thing that moves him is simply the yearning to lose himself, to forget himself, to escape the tragi-comedy that is himself. Life, fundamentally, is not worth living. So he confects artificialities to make it so. So he erects a gaudy structure to conceal the fact that it is not so.
*Hanging one scoundrel, it appears, does not deter the next. Well, what of it? The first one is at least disposed of.
*Capitalism undoubtedly has certain boils and blotches upon it, but has it as many as government? Has it as many as marriage? Has it as many as religion? I doubt it. It is the only basic institution of modern man that shows any genuine health and vigor.
*It is hard to believe that a man is telling the truth when you know that you would lie if you were in his place.
*I believe that it is better to tell the truth than a lie. I believe it is beter to be free than to be a slave. And I believe it is better to know than to be ignorant.
*The natural tendency of every government is to grow steadily worse–that is, to grow more satisfactory to those who constitute it and less satisfactory to those who support it.
*The iconoclast proves enough when he proves by his blasphemy that this or that idol is defectively convincing–that at least one visitor to the shrine is left full of doubts. The liberation of the human mind has never been furthered by… dunderheads; it has been furthered by gay fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world, proving to all men that doubt, after all, was safe–that the god in the sanctuary was a fraud. One horse-laugh is worth ten-thousand syllogisms.
*A newspaper is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier.
*A man always blames the woman who fools him. In the same way he blames the door he walks into in the dark.
*Courtroom – A place where Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot would be equals, with the betting odds favoring Judas.
*Generalizations, indeed, all have their limits–even this one. Apply them often enough, and you will come inevitably upon some disconcerting exception.... But because philosophy is long and life is short we must assume, even when we can't entirely believe, that [things] fall into groups and classes, else we could never hope to study them at all.
*Truth would quickly cease to become stranger than fiction, once we got as used to it.
*Giving every man a vote has no more made men wise and free than Christianity has made them good.
*On one issue at least, men and women agree; they both distrust women.
*It is inaccurate to say that I hate everything. I am strongly in favor of common sense, common honesty, and common decency. This makes me forever ineligible for public office.
*Even the most clear-headed man can think clearly only for brief stretches. If he does it for half an hour of consecutive time he beats Aristotle. The average citizen of a free democracy does it no more than ten minutes altogether in a lifetime. In brief, we have lost the sureness of instinct of the baboon and not yet perfected sureness of reasoning. It will take a long time to do so–perhaps 100,000 more years.
*Do not overestimate the decency of the human race.
*The physical act of reading a book obviously shortens life, for it not only strains the eyes but also tends to compress the lungs and other viscera and to atrophy the disused muscles of leg and arm; but the man of thirty who has read many books is more creditable to his race, all other things being equal, than the man of ninety who has merely lived ninety years.
-For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.
-Unquestionably, there is progress. The average American now pays out twice as much in taxes as he formerly got in wages.
*The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed–and hence clamorous to be led to safety–by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
-The most dangerous man, to any government, is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost invariably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable, and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it. And if he is not romantic personally, he is apt to spread discontent among those who are.
-The existence of most human beings is of absolutely no significance to history or to human progress. They live and die as anonymously and as nearly uselessly as so many bullfrogs or houseflies. They are, at best, undifferentiated slaves upon an endless assembly line, and at worse they are robots who leave their mark upon time only by occasionally falling into the machinery, and so incommodint their betters.
-Suppose two-thirds of the members of the national House of Representatives were dumped into the Washington garbage incinerator tomorrow, what would we lose to offset our gain of their salaries and the salaries of their parasites?
-The satisfaction that a man gets out of conquering–which is to say, succumbing to–a woman of noticeable pulchritude is chiefly the rather banal one of parading her before other men. He likes to show her off as he likes to show his expensive automobile or his big door-knob factory.
-...when I get propaganda [in the mail], and with it there is one of those reply-paid postal cards or envelopes, I always send it back empty... They have to pay three–four cents to get it back, and it's my polite way of saying, "That for you."
-It is the fundamental theory of all the more recent American law... that the average citizen is half-witted, and hence not to be trusted to either his own devices or his own thoughts.
-...the great artists of the world are never Puritans, and seldom respectable. No virtuous man–that is, virtuous in the Y.M.C.A. sense–has ever painted a picture worth looking at, or written a symphony worth hearing, or a book worth reading...
...school teachers, taking them by and large, are probably the most ignorant and stupid class of men in the whole group of mental workers.
[Censors] are all dirty fellows, and in many of them the sexual obsession is so manifest that it becomes revolting. Old Comstock himself, as everyone knows, kept a collection of filthy pictures in his desk, and vastly enjoyed exhibiting it to like-minded visitors.
-The American, in other words, thinks that the sinner has no rights that any one is bound to respect, and he is prone to mistake an unsupported charge of sinning, provided it be made violently enough, for actual proof and confession.
-Every third American devotes himself to improving and uplifting his fellow citizens, usually by force.
Government under democracy is thus government by orgy, almost by orgasm.
*Love, to the inferior man, remains almost wholly a physical matter. The heroine he most admires is the one who offers the grossest sexual provocation; the hero who makes his wife roll her eyes is a perambulating phallus.
I don't think the boy of lively mind is hurt much by going to college. If he encounters mainly jackasses, then he learns the useful lesson that this is a jackass world.
It is the invariable habit of bureaucracies, at all times and everywhere, to assume...that every citizen is a criminal. Their one apparent purpose, pursued with a relentless and furious diligence, is to convert the assumption into a fact. They hunt endlessly for proofs, and, when proofs are lacking, for mere suspicions. The moment they become aware of a definite citizen, John Doe, seeking what is his right under the law, they begin searching feverishly for an excuse for withholding it from him.
-Life may not be exactly pleasant, but it is at least not dull. Heave yourself into Hell today, and you may miss, tomorrow or next day, another Scopes trial, or another War to End War, or perchance a rich and buxom widow with all her first husband's clothes. There are always more Hardings hatching. I advocate hanging on as long as possible.
Slaves are probably quite as necessary to civilization as men of genius. The human race seems incapable of becoming civilized . Some one must milk the cows–and milking cows and being civilized appear to be as incompatable as drinking highballs and standing on one's head.
...people will believe what they want to believe.
CHURCH. A place in which gentlemen who have never been to Heaven brag about it to people who will never get there.
CLERGYMAN. A ticket speculator outside the gates of Heaven.
CONFIDENCE. The feeling that makes one believe a man, even when one knows that one would lie in his place.
IDEALIST. One who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup.
...that weighing and choosing faculty which seems to give a man at once his sense of mastery and his feeling of helplessness.
Strike an average between what a woman thinks of her husband a month before she marries him and what she thinks of him a year afterward, and you will have the truth about him...
A man's women folk, whatever their outward show of respect for his merit and authority, always regard him secretly as an ass, and with something akin to pity. His most gaudy sayings and doings seldom deceive them; they see the actual man within, and know him for a shallow and pathetic fellow. In this fact, perhaps, lies one of the best proofs of feminine intelligence, or, as the common phrase makes it, feminine intuition Here, precisely, is what is the matter with most of the notions that go floating about the country, particularly in the field of reform. The trouble with them is not only that they won't and don't work; the trouble with them, more importantly, is that the thing they propose to accomplish is intrinsically, or at all events most probably, beyond accomplishment. That is to say, the problem they are ostensibly designed to solve is a problem that is insoluble.
...the basic delusion that men may be governed and yet be free.
-After all, the world is not our handiwork, and we are not responsible for what goes on in it, save within very narrow limits. In no other country known to me is life as safe and agreeable, taking one day with another, as it is in These States. Even in a great Depression few if any starve, and even in a great war the number who suffer by it is vastly surpassed by the number who fatten on it and enjoy it. Thus my view of my country is predominantly tolerant and amiable. I do not believe in democracy, but I am perfectly willing to admit that it provides the only really amusing form of government ever endured by mankind.
Nature abhors a moron.
Lawyer - One who protects us from robbers by taking away the temptation.
Jury - A group of 12 people, who, having lied to the judge about their health, hearing, and business engagements, have failed to fool him.
It is the fundamental theory of all the more recent American law...that the average citizen is half-witted, and hence not to be trusted to either his own devices or his own thoughts.
Dachshund - A half-a-dog high and a dog-and-a-half long.
He marries best who puts it off until it is too late.
A celebrity is one who is known by many people he is glad he doesn't know.
Suicide is a belated acquiescence in the opinion of one's wife's relatives.
Truth - Something somehow discreditable to someone.
Misogynist - A man who hates women as much as women hate one another. The New Deal began, like the Salvation Army, by promising to save humanity. It ended, again like the Salvation Army, by running flop-houses and disturbing the peace.
Creator - A comedian whose audience is afraid to laugh.
Conscience is the inner voice that warns us that someone may be looking.
Puritanism - The haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy. Injustice is relatively easy to bear; what stings is justice.
Progress, then, as I see it, is to be measured by the accuracy of man's knowledge of nature's forces. If you examine this sentence carefully you will observe that I conceive progress as a sort of process of disillusion. Man gets ahead, in other words, by discarding the theory of to-day for the fact of to-morrow. Moses believed that the earth was flat, Caesar believed that his family doctor could cure pneumonia, and Columbus believed that devils entered into harmless old women and turned them into witches... You and I, knowing that all three of these distinguished men were wrong in their beliefs, are their superiors to that extent. Men versus the Man: A Correspondence between Robert Rives La Monte, Socialist, and H.L. Mencken, Individualist , p.29-30
If you point out that human progress, as I have defined it, involves the practical enslavement of two-thirds of the human race, my answer is that I can't help it. If you point out that a slave always runs the risk of being oppressed by a particularly cruel master, I answer that a master always runs the risk of having his brains knocked out by a particularly enterprising slave. Ibid., p.32
...an aristocracy must constantly justify its existence. In other words, there must be no artificial conversion of its present strength into perpetual rights. The way must be always open for the admission of strong men from the lower orders, and the way must be always open, too, for the expulsion of men whose strength fails. Ibid., p.73
Well, then, what virtues do I demand in the man who claims enrollment in the highest cast? .... the chief of these qualities is a sort of restless impatience with things as they are - a sort of insatiable desire to help along the evolutionary process.
.... By his life and labors, the human race, or some part of it, makes some measurable progress, however small, upward from the ape. Ibid., pp.113-4
I admit freely enough that, by careful breeding, supervision of environment and education, extending over many generations, it might be possible to make an appreciable improvement in the stock of the American negro, for example, but I must maintain that this enterprise would be a ridiculous waste of energy, for there is a high-caste white stock ready at hand, and it is inconceivable that the negro stock, however carefully it might be nurtured, could ever even remotely approach it. The educated negro of today is a failure, not because he meets insuperable difficulties in life, but because he is a negro. He is, in brief, a low-caste man, to the manner born, and he will remain inert and inefficient until fifty generations of him have lived in civilization. And even then, the superior white race will be fifty generations ahead of him. Ibid., p.116
-Here, then, I arrive at that doctrine of human rights which seems to me to be most in accord with the inflexible and beneficient laws of nature... Of these rights there are two classes - first, those which a man (or a class of men) wrests from his environment by force; and secondly, those which he obtains by an exchange of values. ...he is exercising a right of the second class when he takes his skill and industry into the open market and sells them for whatever they will bring. .... There is, in a word, no irreducible minimum of compensation, due to every man by virtue of his mere existence as a human being. No man has any right to life, save that which he proves by mastering his environment. Ibid., pp.235-6 [III:22]
 A man is called a good fellow for doing things which, if done by a woman, would land her in a lunatic asylum. [V:2]
A great nation is any mob of people which produces at least one honest man a century.
 Firmness in decision is often merely a form of stupidity. It indicates an inability to think the same thing out twice. Selected from A Little Book in C Major 
Archbishop A Christian ecclesiastic of a rank superior to that attained by Christ.
Church A place in which gentlemen who have never been to Heaven brag about it to people who will never get there.
Clergyman A ticket speculator outside the gates of Heaven.
Conscience The inner voice which warns us that someone is looking.
Confidence The feeling that makes one believe a man, even when one knows that one would lie in his place.
Creator A comedian whose audience is afraid to laugh.
Evil That which one believes of others. It is a sin to believe evil of others, but it is seldom a mistake.
Experience A series of failures. Every failure teaches a man something, to wit, that he will probably fail again.
Fine A bribe paid by a rich man to escape the lawful penalty of his crime.
Husband A No. 16 neck in a No. 15 1/2 collar.
Idealist One who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup.
Immorality The morality of those who are having a better time.
Jealousy The theory that some other fellow has just as little taste.
Morality The theory that every human act must either be right or wrong, and that 99% of them are wrong.
Pastor One employed by the wicked to prove to them by his example that virtue doesn't pay.
Platitude An idea (a) that is admitted to be true by everyone,and (b) that is not true. Psychology The theory that the patient will probably get well anyhow, and is certainly a damned fool.
Sunday A day given over by Americans to wishing that they themselves were dead and in Heaven, and that their neighbors were dead and in Hell.
Sunday School A prison in which children do penance for the evil conscience of their parents. A Book of Burlesques [1916, 1924], 2nd ed., selected from "The Jazz Webster", pp.201-210
 Whenever a husband and wife begin to discuss their marriage they are giving evidence at a coroner's inquest.
* The great secret of happiness in love is to be glad that the other fellow married her.
 A man may be a fool and not know it - but not if he is married. Ibid., selected from "The Old Subject", pp.213-9.
The American, in other words, thinks that the sinner has no rights that any one is bound to respect, and he is prone to mistake an unsupported charge of sinning, provided it be made violently enough, for actual proof and confession. A Book of Prefaces : "Puritanism As a Literary Force", p.248
What, ladies and gentlemen, in hell or out of it, are we to do with the Ethiop? Who shall answer the thunderous demands of the emerging coon? For emerging he is, both quantitatively and qualitatively, and there will come a morn, believe me or not, when those with ears to hear and hides to feel will discover that he is to be boohed and put off no longer - that he has at last got the power to exact a square answer, and that the days of his docile service as minstrel, torch and goat are done. When that morn dawns, I pray upon both knees, I shall be safe in the Alps, and not below the Potomac River, hurriedly disguised with burnt cork and trying to get out on the high gear. "Si Mutare Potest Aethiops Pellum Suam" in the Smart Set, Sep 17, quoted in Carl R. Dolmetsch's The Smart Set Anthology , p.243
*The black has learned the capital lesson that property is necessary to self-respect, that he will never get anywhere so long as he is poor. Once he is secure in that department he will take up the business of getting back his plain constitutional rights. Ibid., p.246
It is only the savage, whether of the African bush or of the American gospel tent, who pretends to know the will and intent of God exactly and completely. Damn! A Book of Calumny , quoted in The Great Thoughts
At the moment of the contemporary metaphysician's loftiest flight, when he is most gratefully warmed by the feeling that he is far above all the ordinary airlanes and has an absolutely novel concept by the tail, he is suddenly pulled up by the discovery that what is entertaining him is simply the ghost of some ancient idea that his school-master forced into him in 1887... In Defense of Women [1918, rev. 1922], pp.viii-ix
...democracy is based upon so childish a complex of fallacies that they must be protected by a rigid system of taboos, else even half-wits would argue it to pieces. Ibid., p.xi "Human creatures," says ["the Franco-Englishman, W.L."]
-George, borrowing from Weininger, "are never entirely male or entirely female; there are no men, there are no women, but only sexual majorities." Find me an obviously intelligent man, a man free from sentimentality and illusion, a man hard to deceive, a man of the first class, and I'll show you a man with a wide streak of woman in him. Ibid., p.7
-The truth is that neither sex, without some fertilization by the complementary characters of the other, is capable of the highest reaches of human endeavor. Man, without a saving touch of woman in him, is too doltish, too naive and romantic, too easily deluded and lulled to sleep by his imagination to be anything above a cavalryman, a theologian or a stock-broker. And woman, without some trace of that divine innocence which is masculine, is too harshly the realist for those vast projections of the fancy which lie at the heart of what we call genius. Here, as elsewhere in the universe, the best effects are obtained by a mingling of elements. Ibid., pp.8-9
-What men, in their egoism, constantly mistake for a deficiency of intelligence in woman is merely an incapacity for mastering that mass of small intellectual tricks...which constitutes the chief mental equipment of the average male. A man thinks that he is more intelligent than his wife because he can add up a column of figures more accurately, and because he understands the imbecile jargon of the stock market, and because he is able to distinguish between the ideas of rival politicians, and because he is privy to the minutiae of some sordid and degrading business or profession, say soap-selling or the law. Ibid., pp.9-10
-Women decide the larger questions of life correctly and quickly, not because they are lucky guessers, not because they practise a magic inherited from savagery, but simply and solely because they have sense. They see at a glance what most men could not see with searchlights and telescopes... They are the supreme realists of the race. Ibid., p.21
-School days are the unhappiest in the whole span of human existence. They are full of dull, unintelligible tasks, new and unpleasant ordinances, with brutal violations of common sense and common decency.
-In the United States...politics is purged of all menace, all sinister quality, all genuine significance, and stuffed with such gorgeous humors, such inordinate farce that one comes to the end of a campaign with one's ribs loose, and ready for ``King Lear,'' or a hanging, or a course of medical journals.
-After all, all he did was string together a lot of old, well-known quotations. -- H. L. Mencken, on Shakespeare
-The basic fact about human existence is not that it is a tragedy, but that it is a bore. It is not so much a war as an endless standing in line.
-The happiest man was the one who came nearest to killing the obvious human desires, hopes and aspirations; the soaring, starving poet.
-A judge is a law student who marks his own examination papers.
-An idealist is one who, on noticing that roses smell better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup.
-No-one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American people.
-Any man who inflicts the human race with ideas must be prepared to see them misunderstood.
-The only good bureaucrat is one with a pistol at his head. Put it in his hand and it's good-by to the Bill of Rights.
The world always makes the assumption that the exposure of an error is identical with the discovery of truth--that the error and truth are simply opposite. They are nothing of the sort. What the world turns to, when it is cured on one error, is usually simply another error, and maybe one worse than the first one.
-No one ever heard of the truth being enforced by law. Whenever the secular arm is called in to sustain an idea, whether new or old, it is always a bad idea, and not infrequently it is downright idiotic.
-I believe there is a limit beyond which free speech cannot go, but it's a limit that's very seldom mentioned. It's the point where free speech begins to collide with the right to privacy. I don't think there are any other conditions to free speech. I've got a right to say and believe anything I please, but I haven't got a right to press it on anybody else. .... Nobody's got a right to be a nuisance to his neighbors.
-Progress, then, as I see it, is to be measured by the accuracy of man's knowledge of nature's forces. If you examine this sentence carefully you will observe that I conceive progress as a sort of process of disillusion. Man gets ahead, in other words, by discarding the theory of to-day for the fact of to-morrow. Moses believed that the earth was flat, Caesar believed that his family doctor could cure pneumonia, and Columbus believed that devils entered into harmless old women and turned them into witches... You and I, knowing that all three of these distinguished men were wrong in their beliefs, are their superiors to that extent.
-One may no more live in the world without picking up the moral prejudices of the world than one will be able to go to hell without perspiring.
-I think the Negro people should feel secure enough by now to face a reasonable ridicule without terror. I am unalterably opposed to all efforts to put down free speech, whatever the excuse.
-I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind - that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking.
I believe that no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood, however virtuous in intent, can be anything but vicious.
I believe that all government is evil, in that all government must necessarily make war upon liberty...
I believe that the evidence for immortality is no better than the evidence of witches, and deserves no more respect.
I believe in the complete freedom of thought and speech...
I believe in the capacity of man to conquer his world, and to find out what it is made of, and how it is run.
I believe in the reality of progress.
But the whole thing, after all, may be put very simply. I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than be ignorant.
* The acting that one sees upon the stage does not show how human beings comport themselves in crises, but how actors think they ought to. It is thus, like poetry and religion, a device for gladdening the heart with what is palpably not true.
-Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration- courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and above all, love of the truth.
-Any man who afflicts the human race with ideas must be prepared to see them misunderstood.
-Bachelors know more about women than married men do. If they didn't, they'd be married too.
-"He [Huey Pierce Long] was, H.L. Mencken once venemously charged (in a description that echoed the views of many), "simply a backwoods demagogue of the oldest and most familiar model--impudent, blackguardly, and infinitely prehensile.""
*The basic fact about human existence is not that it is a tragedy, but that it is a bore.
-To wage a war for a purely moral reason is as absurd as to ravish a woman for a purely moral reason.
*Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who would want to live in an institution.
-"All the extravagance and incompetence of our present Government is due, in the main, to lawyers, and, in part at least, to good ones. They are responsible for nine-tenths of the useless and vicious laws that now clutter the statute-books, and for all the evils that go with the vain attempt to enforce them. Every Federal judge is a lawyer. So are most Congressmen. Every invasion of the plain rights of the citizens has a lawyer behind it. If all lawyers were hanged tomorrow, and their bones sold to a mah jong factory, we'd be freer and safer, and our taxes would be reduced by almost a half."
–H.L. Mencken (1880-1956), "Breathing Space", The Baltimore Evening Sun, 1924 Aug 4. Reprinted in A Carnival of Buncombe.