Posts Tagged ‘H. L. Mencken’

Well, exactly…

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

Will Durst, the political humorist, really got it right today with his “Poking the cobra” post:

[President Obama] is taking it straight to his perceived enemy, calling both Fox News and Rush Limbaugh radical and out of the mainstream, making the two crazier than a preacher at a whorehouse with a parishioner working the door. Because that is exactly what they say about him. [Emphasis mine.]  Methinks there may be a bad case of “can dish it out but not take it” going around.

Conservative commentators are retaliating by lobbing charges of extreme partisanship at the President. Claiming he totally ignored his campaign promise to be “a uniter, not a divider.” Oh wait, that wasn’t him. That was the other guy. Sorry. You remember the last guy. Now there was someone who reeked of non- partisanship. At least I think that’s what it was.

Look, let me me make something clear: this isn’t a case of worshipping Obama.  I don’t worship him, much less any mortal on this lugubrious ball.  I’m just applauding Durst’s, and yes, Obama’s too, common-sense.  The Bush administration and its apologists were opposed to the point of lunacy against any and all criticism.  Now Republicans are upset when a president speaks back to the press?  Would it kill them them to simply say, “Of course he says we’re wretched!  No surprise there.  We say the same thing about him.  That’s just good business.”  The haters of Obama are so full of loathing for the man I wonder if they’d say it was a Communist/Socialist/Islamofascist/feminist/gay liberation plot if he found a cure for AIDS.

This is why I find the U.S. news commentary for the most part so dull.   It takes predictability and stodginess to almost Soviet levels.  The right condemns the left.  The left condemns the right.  For the love of God, can’t you once, just once say something surprising?  Do you have to follow the party line like a rabbi adheres to kosher dietary laws?  Is it possible that an approach or initiative not within your ideological scope might have some validity?  Even if you don’t agree with it, can you perceive at least some charm?  And why does everything have to be “right/wrong,” “good/bad”?  Could it be that they are instances were neither side has an answer?  Where the situation is hopeless?

None of today’s pundits are fit to wear H. L. Mencken’s mantle.  They’re not intellectuals; they’re yelping, whining sports fans, fanatically devoted to their teams at the cost of all reason and critical thinking.

Stephen King, Max Allan Collins, and Me

Friday, July 10th, 2009

Last week I also read Stephen King’s The Colorado Kid and Max Allan Collins’ Deadly Beloved, both published by Hard Case Crime.  Honestly, neither really blew me away, and perhaps that’s not the point.  Hard Case books provide quick, diverting reads: they’re first and foremost entertainment.  That’s fine, and I’ll be quick to say both had me compulsively turning their pages.  They’re competently written and executed.  But they’re both one-dimensional.  I wasn’t surprised that Deadly Beloved was originally a comic strip—it had that simplistic quality of comics that never translates well into books or film (and that’s coming from someone who loves the offerings of Marvel and DC, not to mention Hergé).


I want more from my noir.  I like crime literature that reveals and ponders on the sordid details of life, particularly life beyond the respectable and the law.  That’s why I like Jim Thompson’s books.  Frankly, the plots themselves don’t knock me out.  (I haven’t yet read The Killer Inside Me yet; I understand that’s great on all counts, including story.)  But I’m drawn in by Thompson’s descriptions of people, places, and mood; his artistry of language and imagery; and the subtle yet deliberate way he conveys his worldview.  I didn’t get that from either Deadly Beloved or The Colorado Kid. Contrary to what you might think, I have found it Mickey Spillane’s words.  And not to constantly blow Dissident Books’ horn (that sounds obscene), but Don’t Call Me a Crook! delivers it too.


But all that said, there are two things I appreciated about The Colorado Kid.  It commits the delicious sin of breaking that most holy of compacts with the reader: it leaves the mystery unresolved.  I like that.  I like that a lot.  As the two crusty newspaper editors in Kid intimate, that’s life—an unresolved mystery. 


Stephen King also writes something outstanding in his afterword:


I ask you to consider the fact that we live in web of mystery, and have simply gotten so used to the fact that we have crossed out the word and replaced it with one we like better, that one being reality.  Where do we come from?  Where were we before we were here?  Don’t know.  Where are we going?  Don’t know.  A lot of churches have what they assure us are the answers, but most of us have a sneaking suspicion all that might be a con-job laid down to fill the collection plates.  In the meantime, we’re in a kind of compulsory dodgeball game as we free-fall from Wherever to Ain’t Got A Clue.  Sometimes bombs go off and sometimes the planes land okay and sometimes the blood tests come back clean and sometimes the biopsies come back positive.  Most times the bad telephone call doesn’t come in the middle of the night but sometimes it does, and either way we know we’re going to drive pedal-to-the-metal into the mystery eventually.


I would add to King’s rhetorical questions “What’s it all for?”  And again, the answer is “Don’t know.”  It brings to mind a wonderful passage from Mencken’s Chrestomathy:


Yet we cling to [life] in a muddled physiological sort of way—or, perhaps more accurately, in a pathological way—and even try to fill it with a gaudy, hocus-pocus . . . .   Why?  If I knew, I’d certainly not be writing books in this infernal American climate; I’d be sitting in state in a hall of crystal and gold, and people would be paying $10 a head to gape at me through peep-holes . . . .

 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 escape the tragic-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.

 Perhaps my talk of agonies and tragi-comedies may be a bit misleading.  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 objection to it is not that is predominantly painful, but that it is lacking sense.  What is ahead for the race?  Even theologians can see nothing but a gray emptiness, with a burst of irrational fireworks at the end.  But there is such a thing as human progress.  True.  It is the progress that a felon makes from the watch-house to the jail, and from the jail to the death-house.  Every generation faces the same intolerable boredom.


Final thought:  It was Mencken together with George Jean Nathan who started The Black Mask, the famed detective magazine.  True, Mencken and Nathan began it as a means to subsidize The Smart Set, their prestigious literary magazine, and sold it after eight issues.  And yes, it was the subsequent editor, Joseph Shaw, who recruited great hardboiled writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Erle Stanley Gardner.  And Mencken even wrote in his preface to his collection that those who criticized his use of Chrestomathy were “ignoramuses” who “recreate themselves with whodunits.”  But I like to think (keywords “like to think”: not “know” or “certain” or even “have reason to believe”) that Mencken had a soft spot for noir.  Consider his repeated use of criminal and prison imagery, as in the passage above.  I bet noir’s lack of sentiment and harsh view of life on “this lugubrious ball” spoke to the Sage of Baltimore.

California Dreamin’ turns to Nightmares! Myth, Sex, and Violence in Bakersfield

Thursday, July 9th, 2009
I recently finished Lords: Part One by Nick Belardes.  Although a novel, it chronicles an actual cabal of the elite of Bakersfield, a Southern Californian city not far from Los Angeles, that preyed on local boys beginning in the 1970s.  For “the Lords” sex wasn’t a diversion; it was an essential part of their black magic. 
Lords: Part One chronicles the entry of Minstrel, a barely teenage male-prostitute, journey into the Lords’ world.   Although picked up in Hollywood by one of the cabal, Minstrel is a Bakersfield native.  He’s the side of city that the citizenry and its leaders—the Lords—would rather you ignored: he’s desperate, hungry, and motherless.  Bakersfield, as Belardes paints it, is a conservative, all-American, and a superficially Christian town.  The Lords, through the press, the police, and the church, delivers to it what it wants: a wholesome identity, a sense of existing as a tranquil island surrounded a sea of ruin and doom.  But reality is something very different…
Lordsis clearly an occult book.  It’s imbued with local Native mythology, Biblical dust-storms, pouring rain, rituals, and initiations.  Toward the book’s end, a character walks the local collage holding an incriminating videotape.  This is an example of the “Revelation of the Method” practiced by cryptocracies.  (For more about this, read the works of James Shelby Downard and Michael A. Hoffman II.)

That’s not only allusion to cryptocracy.  Another Lord, the cabal’s chief, tells his fellow mind-manipulators:

The media controls behavior.  Do you know what that means?  We control how people act.  If we want the masses excited about something, all we have to do is tell stories.  These stories feed into popular beliefs.  You know, if people believe the end of the world is near, then we can help them to continue to believe that, for years to come.  If we want to preserve our way of life, it is simple.  We must retain control.  Symbolically, we test our control methods now and then in sacred acts.  And through such acts, we remind those around us that to be sacred is to be secret.  Let this tape be a symbol of our power, that we are truly to be feared, and that we are truly untouched, and that the minds of this city are easily and forever broken.

Elsewhere, the same Lord says:

The people always have great fear!  We just remind them of it.  We must always find ways to keep the Southern Valley simpletons on the edge of hysteria, Stevens.  And always, we must mythologize and demonize.

I’m reminded of this passage from Mencken’s Notes on Democracy: “Public Opinion, in its raw state, gushes out in the immemorial form of the mob’s fears.  It is piped to central factories, and there it is flavoured and coloured, and put into cans.”

There’s something interesting about Lords’ locale.  When it’s not subjected to torrential rain, Bakersfield is a dusty, dry place.  Civilization began in a desert, or more accurately, near one.  It might be a stretch to say that it was there the divisions of lord/slave, powerful/weak, leader/follower began, but they must’ve deepen there, became more rigid, more insurmountable.  And while myths and demons weren’t born in Mesopotamia and subsequent desert settlements, it’s there they were recorded and canonized, and where their fascination and fear drove the construction of temples and the rise of priest classes.

And the Lords’ predilection for boys and sadistic sex is no less primeval.  I read somewhere that the act of circumcision was an ancient reminder to young males of who the boss is.  What more effective and intimate channel to intimidate and co-opt potential rivals than sex?  Sex plays can play another role in powerful cults.  It binds the members together.  The bonds can be intimate, and also darker: photographs of debauchery can yield material for keeping the brethren in line and unified.  Consider Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.

I’m looking forward to reading Lords: Part Two and learning more about the Lords of Bakersfield from Nick Belardes.




What I Found at BEA! Part III

Friday, June 12th, 2009

Libertarian Nation: The Call for a New Agenda by James Walsh, Silver Lake Publishing, $19.95

I’m really looking forward to reading this.  I like this extract from the book featured on the front flap:

The current political debate that you see on TV and online is not a real exchange of ideas. [Emphasis mine]  It’s bread and circuses.  They say that generals are always fighting the last war…   well, the same is true for TV producers and newspapers editors.  This nation has spent and borrowed its way to a crisis point.  We’re losing our position as a world leader.  And we need to get back to the philosophical roots on which the nation was founded.  This won’t be good news for the smirking neo-cons… or self-righteous liberals.  They’re both yesterday’s partisans.”

Six years ago I organized a talk co-sponsored by the New York alumni clubs of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.  It was entitled “Monotone Media and Voices on the Margins,” and it examined the lack of true diversity and vigorous political discourse in the mass news media.  Rather than bringing the usual talking heads, I invited journalists from “fringe” backgrounds: a neo-pagan, a conspiracy researcher, and a Marxist.  There was also a business reporter and an analyst from the media watch group FAIR.  I wish I knew Jim back then so he could’ve sat on the panel. 

It’s interesting that Jim mentions “bread and circuses”:  Mencken repeatedly uses that phrase throughout Notes on Democracy.  According to HLM, the masses don’t want real freedom: they want a safe, secure prison, with regular servings of Wonder Bread and “Gilligan’s Island.”  Or Sour Dough and “Lost,” if you prefer.  Jim also talks about the “philosophical roots” upon which America was founded.  I don’t know his position, but Mencken argues that the founders were not at all in favor of universal suffrage, and had a real fear of the mob.  I’ll be curious to know what Libertarian Nation says on this. 

One last thing…  Why should it be surprising that the people Jim condemns as “yesterday’s partisans” be TV producers and newspaper editors?  They’re men and women knee-deep in technology and modes of communication from the last century, indeed, in the case of newspapers, the 19th century.  If the media is the message, then what else could their message be except for yesterday’s news? 


Mencken: a Medieval, Pessimistic Dissident?

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

I had a nice conversation with a lady that I earlier gave copies of Dissident Books’ two offerings, Notes on Democracy: A New Edition and Don’t Call Me a Crook!  She said she was enjoying both.  However, she was curious about my company’s name and how it fit in with its two titles.  She could see how it applied with Bob Moore, the author of Don’t Call Me a Crook!, a rouge and scoundrel, yet questioned its suitability for Mencken.

According to Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, “dissident” means “disagreeing with an opinion or group: disaffected.”  The definition of “disaffected” is “discontent and resentful esp. against authority; rebellious.”  Mencken considered himself part of a permanent opposition, always skeptical of whatever agenda the governing class and its lackeys sought to push through. 

Yes, though he was a libertarian, he was no one’s freedom fighter.  As Marion Elizabeth Rodgers cites in her introduction to Notes, Mencken wrote that

If I have accomplished anything in this world it is this: that I have made life measurably more bearable for the civilized minority in America.  The individuals of this minority are often surrounded by dark, dense seas of morons and so they tend to become hopeless.  I have reason to believe that my books and other writings have given a little comfort to many such persons and even inspired some of them to revolt.  I am glad of the comfort but the revolt doesn’t interest me.

Yes, revolt didn’t interest him, but he spoke out against censorship, what he perceived as injustice, cant, and hypocrisy.  As I said to the reader, unlike most pundits today, he wasn’t a mouthpiece for a political party or social class.  He had a stake in the battles of his time only insofar as he felt one side was right, or at least more tolerable than the other.  He certainly wasn’t an uplifter.  “I am against slavery simply because I dislike slaves,” he quipped.

Mencken didn’t follow anyone’s talking-points memo.  He was an outsider, in the best sense of the word.  And in that regard, he was a dissident.

Most of us think of a dissident as someone fighting for a philanthropic cause.  That’s not necessarily so.  To me at least, a dissident is someone who stands apart from the crowd, and his/her views aren’t don’t have to be along the lines of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.”  In the introduction to his 1920 translation of Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ, Mencken wrote:

But this combat between proletariat and plutocracy is, after all, a civil war itself.  Two inferiorities struggle for the privilege of polluting the world.  What actual difference does it make to a civilized man, when there is a steel strike, whether the workmen win or the mill-owners win?  The conflict can interest him only as spectacle. . . .  The victory, whichever way it goes, will simply bring chaos nearer, and so set the stage for a genuine revolution later on, with (let us hope) a new feudalism or something better coming out of it, a new Thirteenth Century at dawn.

(For the record, call me a sentimentalist, but I for one will always, always root for the steelworkers, be they of the Eternal Mob or not.)

A “new Thirteenth Century at dawn.”  Not very American, is it?  Like I said, Mencken stood apart, especially from his countrymen.  As Morgan Meis writes in his wonderful review of Notes for the online Smart Set,

Mencken’s Nietzschean metaphysics runs against the American grain. He simply does not think that there are any answers. He refuses to romp into the glorious future. Looking backward, he notes with satisfaction that whatever the ills of medieval society, at least they recognized that “the evils of the world were incurable.” Musing for a moment on the final Day of Judgment that he never actually believed in, Mencken thinks that “the last joke upon man may be that he never learned how to govern himself in a rational and competent manner. ”

Thus, the final secret of Notes on Democracy. It is not actually an attack against democracy as such, but against an Americanism that constantly pats itself on the back and manically proclaims its own unique virtue. Mencken was not excited by the “shining city on the hill” metaphor most recently associated with Ronald Reagan and now repeated ad nauseam from every compass point on the political dial. . . .

His pessimism about the human capacity for self-improvement was an extended slap in the face to the inherently aspirational nature of American thinking. He wanted to inject a fatalism into the American mind and he was willing to inject with force. The saving grace of that fatalism is that, in an explicitly Nietzschean vein, it is a fatalism that says “Yes.” It is a fatalism that wants to participate in the ongoing follies.

For those doubting Meis’ characterization of Mencken as a pessimist in the midst of Yankee positive-thinking, I cite his praise of Joseph Conrad.  The “enigmatical Pole” offers readers illuminating sunshine on the world’s nature, although not the rays of light of “the imbecile, barnyard joy of the human kohlrabi–the official optimism of a steadily delighted and increasingly insane Republic.”

At the risk of splitting hairs and straying from my point, it’s interesting to wonder how far back Mencken yearningly looked back.  As cited above, Mencken speaks of “a new Thirteenth Century.”  A few sentences earlier he writes that “[w]e are in the midst of one of the perennial risings of the lower orders.  It got under way long before any of the current Bolshevist demons was born; it was given its long, secure start by the intolerable tyranny of the of plutocracy–the end product of the Eighteenth Century revolt against the old aristocracy.”  Curiously, 11 years later he wrote that the Eighteenth Century was

the days when human existence, according to my notion, was pleasanter and more spacious than ever before or since.  The Eighteenth Century, of course, had its defects, but they were vastly overshadowed by its merits.  It got rid of religion.  It lifted music to first place among the arts.  It introduced urbanity into manners, and made even war relatively gracious and decent. . . .

The Eighteenth Century dwelling-house has countless rivals today, but it is as far superior to any as the music of Mozart is superior to Broadway jazz.

“[A]s the music of Mozart is superior to Broadway jazz.”  Again, not very American, is it?  I wonder if there’s a connection between the beginning of old aristocracy’s fall and what Mencken sees as the graciousness of the time.  I believe Nietzsche wrote that late-stage societies, as they become more civilized and decadent, have a kind of luxurious, hedonistic quality to them.  In any case, Mencken looked backward, while his country’s eyes were glued to the future.  That heterodox spirit is a sign of a true dissident.