Should I Forgive H.L. Mencken?

When I endeavor to admire men of the past, I often find myself thwarted by limitations in their thinking which are symptomatic more of their age than of their incapability.

There are technologies in thought just as in other areas of human accomplishment, and they are purchased in the same way as revolutions in medicine, communications, or military technologies: by the slow accumulation of discoveries on the part of many individuals, few of whom were working towards the same ends.  There are giants, but they are very rare, and they stand on the shoulders of many smaller men.  Secularism, equal moral standing for other races and religions, democracy, woman’s suffrage: perhaps it is as unreasonable to expect people to have anticipated these revolutions as it would be to have expected them to sit down and build an atom bomb from scratch.

Abraham Lincoln, during the 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, said:

“I will say then that I am not, nor have ever been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people.”

George Orwell, a man whose mind I admire perhaps more than any other, in 1934 wrote (to a woman!), “I had lunch yesterday with Dr. Ede.  He is a bit of a feminist and thinks that if a woman was brought up exactly like a man she would be able to throw a stone, construct a syllogism, keep a secret etc.” (George Orwell: An Age Like This 1920-1940: The Collected Essays, Journalism & Letters, p. 136)

These men were clear, brave, and forward thinkers; it is probably unreasonable to expect them to have been perfect.  But it is always disappointing when men who saw so much fail to see things which seem to obvious, and so important, to us now.

I have always enjoyed H.L. Mencken, and admired him in the same way, but to a lesser degree, that I admire Orwell: as a man who was little susceptible to the pressures of conventional thinking and who told the truth as he saw it, clearly and well.  However, as anyone who has read much of his work knows, he was prone to assertions like this one:

“They [Jews] strike other people as predominantly unpleasant, and everywhere on earth they seem to be disliked.  This dislike, despite their own belief to the contrary, has nothing to do with their religion: it is founded, rather, on their bad manners, their curious lack of tact.” (Treatise on the Gods, p. 286)

I believe that Mencken was smarter than that, and, if he wasn’t, he should have been.  If Mencken had believed, from the faith in which he was raised and which he had never examined, that Jews were going to hell, one might then plead that, though he was wrong, he was a victim of his context.  But he didn’t; he derived his own pseudo-empirical anti-semitism, and I don’t feel that I can see past that.  It doesn’t diminish his writerly skill, but it absolutely mitigates against my admiration for him as a thinker.

I don’t believe that, in this case, saying, “Yeah, well, when he was writing, anti-semitism was prevalent” solves this problem – what I admired about Mencken was his ability to see through the prejudices of lesser minds.  I see this not as a failure of his time, but a failure in his calling.  And I hold it against him.

Image of Mencken taken from Wikipedia.

Hungry Ghosts

There is a Buddhist monastery in Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, north-east of Ulaanbaatar, in Mongolia. The monastery sits on the side of a small mountain, overlooking Turtle Rock, and the climb to it is lined with illustrated sutras posted on sign boards.  There are well over one hundred sutras, and they are in English as well as in Mongolian, and I made myself odious to my travels companions by reading every single one.

One in particular struck me, and I took a picture of it:


“The number of animals is much less than that of hungry ghosts; it is like comparing the number of stars in the nighttime with those that shine during the day.”

At first, I supposed that ‘hungry ghosts’ was a poetical description.  However, the term appeared on a number of the sutra boards, so if it was a poetical description, it was heavily utilized.

I know now that ‘hungry ghost’ is a technical term.  It is a translation of ‘preta’.  Pretas, in the Buddhist tradition of that monastery, were once wicked, corrupted, or greedy men.  When they died, they were reincarnated as pretas, beings afflicted with a terrible and insatiable appetite.  Sometimes, this appetite was simple hunger or thirst; sometimes, it was more elaborate.  The pretas are often depicted, as on the sutra board, as skeletal, with protruding stomachs.  Their appearance frightened off humans who might have otherwise been moved by pity to feed them, and their enormous bellies were impossible to fill.

Sometimes, in their desperation, they were driven to humiliating exigencies, like the consumption of feces.  Sometimes, they ate the flesh of the human dead.  Sometimes, what food they could acquire burst into flames at their touch.  Sometimes, they were afflicted with so great a thirst that their throats dried and closed.

The most wretched pretas I encountered in H.L. Mencken’s ‘Treatise on the Gods’; where he encountered them, I don’t know.  He writes,

“Yet others suffered from such deformities and diseases that they could not eat, even when food was before them.  The teeth of some, for example, turned into needles, and mastication became impossible.”

If the sutra on that mountain is to be believed, these unfortunates are all around us.  They outnumber and walk among us, thin, swollen, needle-toothed, and hungry, in a desolating afterlife.

H.L. Mencken’s Treatise on the Gods.

The Society for the Suppression of Eating

     H.L. Mencken once famously described Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy”.  It would be easy to assume that Mencken, who was often accurate but almost never fair, was exaggerating for humorous effect, but perhaps he had encountered the Society for the Suppression of Eating.

     Most of the evidence on the Society for the Suppression of Eating has, like the society itself, vanished from the face of the earth, but tantalizing clues remain.

     The Society was created in 1832, in Boston, by a man whose name has been lost to posterity, but who has been described as “a gloomy New Englander” and a “misanthrope”.

     Two quotes are ascribed to this elusive Bostonian:  “When I go to a dinner party, I see the incarnate forms of gout, apoplexy and fever coaxing their victims to take one more slice”, and the more succinct and menacing, “Disease lurks behind every sirloin”.

     The Society seems to have been very focused – they had only five articles:

     a) To obtain from the Massachusetts Medical Society a statement of the quantity of food most convenient for a healthy man.

     b) Offer a premium for the best treatise setting forth the pernicious effects of over-eating.

     c) Members shall pledge to go without dinner once a week.

     Which is particularly stringent when considered against:

     d) No member shall eat more than once a day.

     e) No member shall eat after 8 at night.

     The Society for the Suppression of Eating was merely an extreme manifestation of the impulse to temperance that swept America in the mid-19th century and which culminated in the passing of the 18th Amendment in 1920.

     Still, prohibiting the consumption of alcohol is one thing – suppressing eating is another.  The unpopularity of the Society for the Suppression of Eating can probably be adjudged by the near absence of information available on it.  The last mention of the Society appears in the November 5th edition of The Day, from 1937:

     “When last heard from the Society was not flourishing.”

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