Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Mencken meets Manics: "A farrago of nonsense" ... because "the penalty of intelligence is (everlasting) oblivion."

I awoke to the word "farrago" as it fought for release from my tortured conscience, no doubt an inevitable side effect of watching Bill Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday evening.

Another hour of my life, wasted without strong drink.

Flashing like motel neon just adjacent to "farrago" was the name "Mencken." It's tempting to take the easy way out and extract all of Shane's excellent future words from Mencken's writings. Typically I must consult the dictionary several times per Mencken essay, as with "sempiternal" (eternal and unchanging; everlasting).

Of course, the word "everlasting" takes me directly to the Manic Street Preachers.

But I digress.

Mencken's famous observation that the Book of Genesis is a "farrago of nonsense" is included herein, in an essay embracing a general theme that will be painfully familiar to New Albanians who've watched the unfolding Chronicles of New Gahania.

"The human race seems doomed to run, intellectually, on its lowest gear."


Forgotten Men, by H. L. Mencken (American Mercury, March, 1928, pp. 280-282)

Happy nations, said Cesare Bonesano Beccaria, have no history. Nor, it appears, have intelligent men; at all events, they are seldom remembered generally, and almost never with respect. All the great heroes of the human race have preached things palpably not true, and practised things palpably full of folly. Their imbecilities, surviving, constitute the massed wisdom of Homo sapiens, lord of the lion and the whale, the elephant and the wolf, though not, as yet, of the gnat and the fly, the cockroach and the rat. So surviving, these august imbecilities conceal the high probability that, when they were new, they must have been challenged sharply by doubting and dare-devil men—that sober reason must have revolted against them contemporaneously, as it does today. But of that revolt, in most cases, nothing is known. The penalty of intelligence is oblivion.

Consider, for example, the case of those ancient Jews whose banal speculations about the origin of things still afflict the whole of Christendom, to say nothing of Islam. Is it possible to believe that, in the glorious Eighth and Ninth Centuries B.C., all Jews swallowed that preposterous rubbish — that the race was completely devoid of intelligent men, and new nothing of an enlightened public opinion? I find it hard to go so far. The Jews, at that time, had already proved that they were the best of the desert tribes, and by long odds, and they were fast moving to the front as city folks, i.e., as civilized men. Yet the only Jewish document that comes down to us from that great day is part of the Book of Genesis, a farrago of nonsense so wholly absurd that even Sunday-school scholars have to be threatened with Hell to make them accept it. The kind of mind it reveals is the kind one encounters today among New York wash-room attendants, Mississippi newspaper editors, and Tennessee judges. It is barely above the level of observation and ratiocination of a bright young jackass.

Are we to assume that this appalling mind was the best Jewish mind of the time—that Genesis represents the finest flowering of the Jewish national genius? To ask the question is to answer it. The Jews, you may rest assured, were not unanimously of such low mental visibility. There were enlightened men among them as well as sorcerers and theologians. They had shrewd and sophisticated fellows who were to Moses and the other patriarchs as Thomas Henry Huxley was to Gladstone. They had lost and happy souls who laughed at Genesis quite as loudly the day it was released as it is laughed at today by the current damned. But of these illuminati not a word survives in the records of the Jews. Of their animadversions upon Moses’s highfalutin tosh—and no doubt those animadversions were searching and devastating—we lack even so much as the report of a report. Thus all we know today of the probably brilliant and enterprising intellectual life of the ante-Exile Jews is contained in a compilation of balderdash by certain of their politicians and ecclesiastics. It is as if their descendants of our own time were to be measured by the sonorous rumble-bumble of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and Otto H. Kahn. It is as if the American civilization we sweat and prosper under were to go down into history in terms of Calvin Coolidge, Henry Ford and Arthur Brisbane.

Well, why not? Those, perhaps, are the precise terms in which it is to go down. On second thought, I change perhaps into no doubt. What has happened invariably in the past will keep on happening to the end of the chapter. Certainly we can’t expect to escape the fate of Greece and Rome—and both Greece and Rome are chiefly remembered today (and venerated by the learned and unintelligent) by the records of their second- and third-rate men. Is it seriously argued that Plato was the most enlightened Greek of his age? Then it may be argued with equal plausibility that Upton Sinclair has been the most enlightened American of this one. Item by item the two match: as political scientists, as professors of esthetics, as experts on the natural processes. In some ways, true enough, Plato was clearly superior to Sinclair: for one thing, he was better versed in the jargon of metaphysics, heavenly maid—which is to say, in the jargon of organized nonsense. But I think that no one will undertake to deny that Sinclair beats him on the pharmacology of alcohol, on the evils of voluptuousness, and on the electronic vibrations of the late Dr. Albert Abrams.

Plato survives today as one of the major glories of Greece. Put upon oath in a court of law, more specialists in dead ideas would probably rate him as the greatest Greek of them all. But you may be sure that there were Athenians in his own day who, dropping in to hear his Message, carried away a different notion. Some of them were very bright fellows, and privy to the philosophical arcana. They had heard all the champions, and had their private views. I suggest somewhat diffidently that there were ideas in the Republic and the Laws that made them retire to the nearby wine-shops to snigger. But no one remembers those immune Athenians today, nor the hard-boiled fellows who guffawed at the court of Philip of Macedon. The world recalls only Plato.

Here, I sincerely hope, I shall not be mistaken for one who seeks to cry that great man down. On the contrary, I venerate him. There is implicit in his writings, though not often explicit, the operation of an intellect of a superior order. Whatever may be said against him, he at least refrained from ratifying the political, theological and epistemelogical notions that were current in his time. He was no Athenian Rotarian, but his very intelligence made him remember, when he got up before his customers, that it was necessary to adapt his speculations to their capacities and prejudices. Like Woodrow Wilson in a later age, he had a weakness for oratory, and got himself enmeshed in its snares. Some of his principal works are no more than reports of his harangues, and the heat in them singes the sense. He suffered, as all reflective men must suffer, from the fact that what is put into words for the general ear can never come within even the remotest reach of what is pondered in the privacy of the study or praying-room.

The case of Abraham Lincoln immediately recalls itself. He was, I believe, one of the most intelligent men ever heard of in his realm—but he was also a politican, and, in his last years, President of the Federal Union. The fact worked an immemorial cruelty upon him when he visited the battlefield of Gettysburg, on November 19, 1863. One may easily imagine the reflections that the scene and the occasion must have inspired in so sagacious and unconventional a man—at all events, one may imagine the more obvious of them. They were, it is highly probable, of an extremely acrid and unpleasant nature. Before him stretched row upon row of new-made graves; around him ranged the gaunt cinders of a witless and abominable war. The thought must have occurred to him at once that --

But before him there also stretched an acre or two of faces—the faces of dull Pennsylvania peasants from the adjacent farms, with here and there the jowls of a Philadelphia politician gleaming in the pale Winter sunlight. It was too cold that day to his badly-cushioned bones for a long speech, and the audience would have been mortally offended by a good one. So old Abe put away his reflections, and launched into the tried and sure-fire stuff. Once started, the furor loquendi dragged him on. Abandoning the simple and crystal-clear English of his considered utterance, he stood a sentence on its head, and made a pretty parlor ornament of it. Proceeding, he described the causes and nature of war in terms of the current army press bureau. Finally, he launched a sonorous, meaningless epigram, and sat down. There was immense applause. The Pennsylvania oafs were delighted. And the speech remains in all the shool-books to this day.

Lincoln had too much humor in him to leave a diary, and so we do not know what he thought of it the day following, or a month later, or a year. But it is safe to assume, I believe, that he vacillated often between laughing at it sourly and hanging himself. For he was far too intelligent to believe in any such Kiwanian bombast. He could no more have taken it seriously than he took the strutting of Mr. Secretary Seward seriously, or the cerebral steam-pressure of General Grant. He knew it, you may be sure, for what it was. He was simply doomed, like many another good man before and after him, to keep his soundest and loftiest thoughts to himself. Just as Plato had to adapt his most penetrating and revolutionary thoughts to the tastes and comprehension of the sophomores assembled to hear him, so Lincoln had to content himself, on a great occasion, with ideas comprehensible to Pennsylvania Dunkards, which is to say, to persons to whom genuine ideas were not comprehensible at all. Knowing their theological principles, he knew that, in the political field, they grazed only on pansies.

Nor is this all. The highest flights of human intellect are not only inordinately offensive to the overwhelming majority of men; they are also, at least in large part, incapable of reduction to words. Thus the best thought of the human race does not appear in its written records. What is set down in orderly and seemly sentences, even today, always has some flavor in it of the stilted rubbish that the Sumerian kings used to engrave upon their tombs. The current cliches get into it inevitably; it is never quite honest. Complete honesty, intellectually, seldom expresses itself in formal words: its agents of notification are rather winks and sniggers, hip flasks and dead cats. The language was not made for it. Reading Shakespeare, a man of penetrating intelligence, one frequently observes him trying to put a really novel and apposite thought into words—and falling helplessly into mere sound and fury, signifying nothing. The groundlings pulled him and the deficiencies of human speech pushed him. The result is many a magnificent salvo of nonsense, vastly esteemed by the persons who esteem that sort of thing.

I propose no remedy. In fact, I am convinced that no remedy is possible, or even imaginable. The human race seems doomed to run, intellectually, on its lowest gear. Sound ideas, when by chance they become articulate, annoy it and terrify it; it prefers the sempiternal slobber.

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