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  • George Gissing, G. E. Moore, and the “Good in Itself”

    Posted on October 15th, 2016 Helian 1 comment

    A limited number of common themes are always recognizable in human moral behavior.  However, just as a limited number of atoms can combine to form a vast number of different molecules, so those themes can combine to form a vast variety of different moral systems.  Those systems vary not only from place to place, but in the same place over time.  A striking example of the latter may be found in the novels of George Gissing, most of which were published in the last quarter of the 19th century.  Gissing was a deep-dyed Victorian conservative of a type that would be virtually unrecognizable to the conservatives of today.  George Orwell admired him, and wrote a brief but brilliant essay about him that appears in In Front of Your Nose, the fourth volume of his collected essays, journalism and letters.  Orwell described him as one of the greatest British novelists because of the accuracy with which he portrayed the poverty, sordid social conditions, and sharp caste distinctions in late Victorian England.  Orwell was generous.  Gissing condemned socialism, particularly in his novel Demos, whereas Orwell was a lifelong socialist.

    According to the subtitle of the novel, it is “A story of English socialism.”  Socialism was becoming increasingly fashionable in those days, but Gissing wasn’t a sympathizer.  He wanted to preserve everything just as it had been at some halcyon time in the past.  Hubert Eldon, the “hero” of the novel, wouldn’t pass for one in our time.  Today he would probably be seen as a rent-seeking parasite. He was apparently unsuited for any kind of useful work, and spent most of his time gazing at pretty pictures in European art galleries when he wasn’t in England.  When he was home his favorite pastime was to admire the country scenery near the village of Wanley, where he lived with his mother.

    Eldon was expecting to inherit a vast sum of money from his brother’s father-in-law, a self-made industrialist named Richard Mutimer.  He could then marry the pristine Victorian heroine, Adela Waltham, who also lived in the village.  However, to everyone’s dismay, the old man dies intestate, and the lion’s share of the money goes to a distant relative, also named Richard Mutimer, who happens to be a socialist workingman.  The younger Mutimer uses the money to begin tearing the lovely valley apart in order to build mines and steel mills for a model socialist community.  Adela’s mother, a firm believer in the ennobling influence of money, insists that she marry Mutimer.  Dutiful daughter that she is, she obeys, even though she loves Eldon.  In the end, Mutimer is conveniently killed off.  The old man’s will is miraculously found and it turns out Eldon inherits the money after all.  This “hero” doesn’t shrink from dismantling the socialist community that had been started by his rival, even though he knew it would throw the breadwinners of many families out of work. He thought it was too ugly, and wanted to return the landscape to its original beauty.  Obviously, the author thought he was being perfectly reasonable even though, as he mentioned in passing, former workers in a socialist community would likely be blacklisted and unable to find work elsewhere.  It goes without saying that the “hero” gets the girl in the end.

    One of the reasons Orwell liked Gissing so much was the skill with which he documented the vast improvement in the material welfare of the average citizen that had taken place in England over the comparatively horrific conditions that prevailed in the author’s time. Unfortunately, that improvement could never have taken place without the sacrifice of many pleasant country villages like Wanley. Gissing was nothing if not misanthropic, and probably would have rejected such progress even if he could have imagined it. In fact old Mutimer was the first one to think of mining the valley, and the author speaks of the idea as follows:

    It was of course a deplorable error to think of mining in the beautiful valley which had once been the Eldon’s estate. Richard Mutimer could not perceive that. He was a very old man, and possibly the instincts of his youth revived as his mind grew feebler; he imagined it the greatest kindness to Mrs. Eldon and her son to increase as much as possible the value of the property he would leave at his death. They, of course, could not even hint to him the pain with which they viewed so barbarous a scheme; he did not as much as suspect a possible objection.

    Gissing not only accepted the rigid class distinctions of his day, but positively embraced them.  In describing the elder Mutimer he writes,

    Remaining the sturdiest of Conservatives, he bowed in sincere humility to those very claims which the Radical most angrily disallows: birth, hereditary station, recognised gentility – these things made the strongest demand upon his reverence. Such an attitude was a testimony to his own capacity for culture, since he knew not the meaning of vulgar adulation, and did in truth perceive the beauty of those qualities to which the uneducated Iconoclast is wholly blind.

    The author leaves no doubt about his rejection of “progress” and his dim view of the coming 20th century in the following exchange between Eldon and his mother about the socialist Mutimer:

    “Shall I tell you how I felt in talking with him?  I seemed to be holding a dialogue with the 20th century, and you may think what that means.”

    “Ah, it’s a long way off, Hubert.”

    “I wish it were farther.  The man was openly exultant; He stood for Demos grasping the scepter.  I am glad, mother, that you leave Wanley before the air is poisoned.”

    “Mr. Mutimer does not see that side of the question?”

    “Not he!  Do you imagine the twentieth century will leave one green spot on the earth’s surface?”

    “My dear, it will always be necessary to grow grass and corn.”

    “By no means; depend upon it.  Such things will be cultivated by chemical processes.  There will not be one inch left to nature; the very oceans will somehow be tamed, the snow mountains will be leveled.  And with nature will perish art.  What has a hungry Demos to do with the beautiful?”

    Mrs. Eldon sighed gently.

    “I shall not see it.”

    Well, the twentieth century did turn out pretty badly, especially for socialism, but not quite that badly.  Of course, one can detect some of the same themes in this exchange that one finds in the ideology of 21st century “Greens.”  However, I think the most interesting affinity is between the sentiments in Gissing’s novels and the moral philosophy of G. E. Moore.  I touched on the subject in an earlier post .  Moore was the inventor of the “naturalistic fallacy,” according to which all moral philosophers preceding him were wrong, because they insisted on defining “the Good” with reference to some natural object.  Unfortunately, Moore’s own version of “the Good” turned out to be every bit as slippery as any “sophisticated Christian’s” version of God.  It was neither fish nor fowl, mineral nor vegetable.

    When Moore finally got around to giving us at least some hint of exactly what he was talking about in his Principia Ethica, we discovered to our surprise that “the Good” had nothing to do with the heroism of the Light Brigade, or Horatius at the Bridge.  It had nothing to do with loyalty or honor.  It had nothing to do with social justice or the brotherhood of man.  Nor did it have anything to do with honesty, justice, or equality.  In fact, Moore’s version of “the Good” turned out to be a real thigh slapper.  It consisted of the “nice things” that appealed to English country gentlemen at more or less the same time that Gissing was writing his novels. It included such things as soothing country scenery, enchanting music, amusing conversations with other “good” people, and perhaps a nice cup of tea on the side.  As Moore put it,

    We can imagine the case of a single person, enjoying throughout eternity the contemplation of scenery as beautiful, and intercourse with persons as admirable, as can be imagined.

    and,

    By far the most valuable things which we know or can imagine, are certain states of consciousness, which may be roughly described as the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects.  No one, probably, who has asked himself the question, has ever doubted that personal affection and the appreciation of what is beautiful in Art or Nature, are good in themselves.

    Well, actually, that’s not quite true. I’ve doubted it. Not only have I doubted it, but I consider the claim absurd.  Those words were written in 1903.  By that time a great many people were already aware of the connection between morality and evolution by natural selection.  That connection was certainly familiar to Darwin himself, and a man named Edvard Westermarck spelled out the seemingly obvious implications of that connection in his The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas a few years later, in 1906.  Among those implications was the fact that the “good in itself” is pure fantasy.  “Good” and “evil” are subjective artifacts that are the result of the behavioral predispositions we associate with morality filtered through the minds of creatures with large brains.  Nature played the rather ill-natured trick of portraying them to us as real things because that’s the form in which they happened to maximize the odds that the genes responsible for them would survive and reproduce. (That, by the way, is why it is highly unlikely that “moral relativity” will ever be a problem for our species.)  The fact that Moore was capable of writing such nonsense more than 40 years after Darwin appeared on the scene suggests that he must have lived a rather sheltered life.

    In retrospect, it didn’t matter.  Today Moore is revered as a great moral philosopher, and Westermarck is nearly forgotten.  It turns out that the truth about morality was very inconvenient for the “experts on ethics.”  It exposed them as charlatans who had devoted their careers to splitting hairs over the fine points of things that didn’t actually exist.  It popped all their pretentions to superior wisdom and virtue like so many soap bubbles.  The result was predictable.  They embraced Moore and ignored Westermarck.  In the process they didn’t neglect to spawn legions of brand new “experts on ethics” to take their places when they were gone.  Thanks to their foresight we find the emperor’s new clothes are gaudier than ever in our own time.

    The work of George Gissing is an amusing footnote to the story.  We no longer have to scratch our heads wondering where on earth Moore came up with his singular notions about the “Good in itself.”  It turns out the same ideas may be found fossilized in the works of a Victorian novelist.  The “experts on ethics” have been grasping at a very flimsy straw indeed!

    George Gissing

    George Gissing

  • Notes on “A Clergyman’s Daughter” – George Orwell’s Search for the Meaning of Life

    Posted on September 2nd, 2015 Helian No comments

    A synopsis of George Orwell’s A Clergyman’s Daughter may be found in the Wiki entry on the same.  In short, it relates the experiences of Dorothy Hare, only daughter of the Reverend Charles Hare, a “gentleman” clergyman with a chronic habit of living beyond his means.  Dorothy’s life is consumed by a frantic struggle to maintain respectability in spite of a mountain of debt owed to the local tradesmen, a dwindling congregation, and a church gradually decaying to ruin for lack of maintenance.  There’s also a problem so repressed in Dorothy’s mind that she’s hardly conscious of it; she is losing her Christian faith.

    Eventually the pressure becomes unbearable.  At the end of Chapter 1 we leave Dorothy exhausted, working herself beyond endurance late at night to prepare costumes for a children’s play.  At the start of Chapter 2 we find her teleported to the Old Kent Road, south of London, where she wakes up with a bad case of amnesia and only half a crown in her pocket.  A good German might describe this rather remarkable turn of events as an den Haaren herbeigezogen (dragged in by the hair.)  In other words, it’s far fetched, but we can forgive it because Orwell refrains from boring us with explanatory psychobabble, it’s in one of his earliest books, and he needs some such device in order to dish up a fictional version of the autobiographical events described in his Down and Out in Paris and London, published a couple of years earlier.

    Eventually Dorothy is rescued from starvation and squalor by a much older cousin, who sets her up as a school teacher at Ringwood House, which Orwell describes as a fourth rate private school with only 21 female inmates.  At this point the astute reader will discover something that might come as a revelation to those who are only familiar with Animal Farm and 1984.  Orwell was a convinced socialist when he wrote the book, and remained one until the end of his life.  Mrs. Creevy, the woman who runs the school, is a grasping capitalist, interested only in squeezing as much profit out of the enterprise as possible.  The girls “education” consists mainly of a mind-numbing routine of rote memorization and handwriting drills.  Dorothy’s attempts at education reform are nipped in the bud, and she is eventually sacked.  In Mrs. Creevy’s words,

    It’s the fees I’m after, not developing the children’s minds.  It’s not to be supposed as anyone’s to go to all the trouble of keeping a school and having the house turned upside down by a pack of brats, if it wasn’t that there’s a bit of money to be made out of it.  The fee comes first, and everything else comes afterwards.

    Orwell later elaborates,

    There are, by the way, vast numbers of private schools in England.  Second-rate, third-rate, and fourth-rate (Ringwood House was a specimen of the fourth-rate school), they exist by the dozen and the score in every London suburb and every provincial town.  At any given moment there are somewhere in the neighborhood of ten thousand of them, of which less than a thousand are subject to Government inspection.  And though some of them are better than others, and a certain number, probably, are better than the council schools with which they compete, there is the same fundamental evil in all of them; that is , that they have ultimately no purpose except to make money.

    So long as schools are run primarily for money, things like this will happen.  The expensive private schools to which the rich send their children are not, on the surface, so bad as the others, because they can afford a proper staff, and the Public School examination system keeps them up to the mark; but they have the same essential taint.

    Recall that the book was published in 1935.  The Spanish Civil War, in which Orwell fought with a socialist unit not affiliated with the Communists, began in 1936.  In that conflict he had his nose rubbed in the reality of totalitarianism, socialism that had dropped the democratic mask.  The experience is described in his Homage to Catalonia, which is essential reading for anyone interested in learning what inspired his later work.  There he tells how the Communist legions attacked and destroyed his own division, regardless of the fact that it was fighting on the same side.  Totalitarianism has never recognized more than two sides; the side that it controls, and the side that it doesn’t.  He saw that its real reason for existence was nothing like a worker’s paradise, or any other version of “human flourishing,” but absolute, unconditional power.  The nature of the system and the power it aimed at was what he described in 1984.  When A Clergyman’s Daughter was published, that revelation still lay in the future.  It may be that in 1935 Orwell still thought of the socialists as one big, happy, if occasionally quarrelsome, family.

    Be that as it may, the real interest of the book, at least as far as I’m concerned, lies at the end.  There, more explicitly than in any other of his novels or essays, Orwell takes up the question of the Meaning of Life.  While down and out, Dorothy had lost her faith once and for all.  In spite of that, after Mrs. Creevy sacks her, she finds her way back to the family parsonage, and takes up again where she left off.  She suffers from no illusions.  As Orwell puts it,

    It was not that she was in any doubt about the external facts of her future.  She could see it all quite clearly before her… Whatever happened, at the very best, she had got to face the destiny that is common to all lonely and penniless women.  “The Old Maids of Old England,” as somebody called them.  She was twenty-eight – just old enough to enter their ranks.

    She was not the same women as before.  She had lost her faith, and yet, she meditated,

    Faith vanishes, but the need for faith remains the same as before.  And given only faith, how can anything else matter?  How can anything dismay you if only there is some purpose in the world which you can serve, and which, while serving it, you can understand?  Your whole life is illumined by that sense of purpose.

    Life, if the grave really ends it, is monstrous and dreadful.  No use trying to argue it away.  Think of life as it really is, think of the details of life; and then think that there is no meaning in it, no purpose, no goal except the grave.  Surely only fools or self-deceivers, or those whose lives are exceptionally fortunate, can face that thought without flinching?

    Her mind struggled with the problem, while perceiving that there was no solution.  There was, she saw clearly, no possible substitute for faith; no pagan acceptance of life as sufficient unto itself, no pantheistic cheer-up stuff, no pseudo-religion of “progress” with visions of glittering Utopias and ant-heaps of steel and concrete.  It is all or nothing.  Either life on earth is a preparation for something greater and more lasting, or it is meaningless, dark and dreadful.

    Here we see that, even in 1935, Orwell wasn’t quite convinced that the Soviet version of a Brave New World really represented “progress.”  And while democratic socialism may have later given him something of a sense of purpose, it wasn’t yet filling the void.  Dorothy considers,

    Where had she got to?  She had been saying that if death ends all, then there is no hope and no meaning in anything.  Well, what then?

    At this point, the true believers chime in.  They know the answer.  Bring back faith, and, voila, the void is filled!  So many of them honestly seem to believe that, because they feel a need, the thing needed will automatically pop into existence.  They need absolute moral standards.  Therefore their faith must be true.  They need a purpose in life.  Therefore their faith must be true.  They need human existence to have meaning.  Therefore their faith must be true.  They must have unquestionable rights.  Therefore their faith must be true.  And so on, and so on.  Orwell is having none of it.  Dorothy muses on,

    And how cowardly, after all, to regret a superstition that you had got rid of – to want to believe something that you knew in your bones to be untrue.

    Orwell provides us with no magic solution to this thorny problem.  Indeed, in the end his answer is singularly unsatisfying.  He suggests that we just get on with it and leave it at that.  As Dorothy glues together strips of paper, forming the boots, armor, and other accoutrements required for the next church play, she has stumbled into the solution without realizing it:

    The smell of glue was the answer to her prayer.  She did not know this.  She did not reflect, consciously, that the solution to her difficulty lay in accepting the fact that there was no solution; that if one gets on with the job that lies to hand, the ultimate purpose of the job fades into insignificance; that faith and no faith are very much the same provided that one is doing what is customary, useful and acceptable.  She could not formulate these thoughts as yet, she could only live them.  Much later, perhaps, she would formulate them and draw comfort from them.

    and, finally,

    Dorothy sliced two more sheets of brown paper into strips, and took up the breastplate to give it its final coating.  The problem of faith and no faith had vanished utterly from her mind.  It was beginning to get dark, but, too busy to stop and light the lamp, she worked on, pasting strip after strip of paper into place, with absorbed, with pious concentration, in the penetrating smell of the gluepot.

    Orwell didn’t want A Clergyman’s Daughter to be republished, unless, perhaps, in a cheap version to scare up a few pounds for his heirs.  No doubt he considered it too immature.  We can be grateful that his literary executors thought otherwise, else we might never have known of his struggles with the Meaning of Life problem so early in his career.  He didn’t spill much ink over the problem later on, but we must assume that he had found some more inspiring purpose to strive for than just “getting on with it.”  Weak and in pain, he fought to complete 1984 on his death bed with incredible tenacity and dedication.  It was a gift to all of us that didn’t follow him to the grave, but lived long after he was gone as the single most effective literary weapon against a threat that had materialized as Communism in his own day, but will likely always lurk among us in one form or another.

    And what of the Meaning of Life?  That’s a question we must all provide an answer for on our own.  None of the imaginary super-beings we have dreamed up over the years is likely to materialize to trivialize the search.  And just as Orwell wrote, whether we care to deal with the problem or not, there is no objective solution.  It must be subjective and individual.  It need not be any less compelling for all that.

     

     

  • Mencken Trilogy Republished: Some New Words of Wisdom from the Sage of Baltimore

    Posted on September 27th, 2014 Helian No comments

    Readers who loath the modern joyless version of Puritanism, shorn of its religious impedimenta, that has become the dominant dogma of our time, and would like to escape for a while to a happier time in which ostentatious public piety was not yet de rigueur are in luck.  An expanded version of H. L. Mencken’s “Days” trilogy has just been published, edited by Marion Elizabeth Rogers.  It includes Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days, and certainly ranks as one of the most entertaining autobiographies ever written.  The latest version actually contains a bonus for Mencken fans.  As noted in the book’s Amazon blurb,

    …unknown to the legions of Days books’ admirers, Mencken continued to add to them after publication, annotating and expanding each volume in typescripts sealed to the public for twenty-five years after his death. Until now, most of this material—often more frank and unvarnished than the original Days books—has never been published.  (This latest version contains) nearly 200 pages of previously unseen writing, and is illustrated with photographs from Mencken’s archives, many taken by Mencken himself.

    Infidel that he was, the Sage of Baltimore would have smiled to see the hardcover version.  It comes equipped with not one, but two of those little string bookmarks normally found in family Bibles.  I’ve read an earlier version of the trilogy, but that was many years ago.  I recalled many of Mencken’s anecdotes as I encountered them again, and perhaps with a bit more insight.  I know a great deal more about the author than I did the first time through, not to mention the times in which he lived.   There’ve been some changes made since then, to say the least.  For example, Mencken recalls that maids were paid $10 a month plus room and board in the 1880’s, but no less than $12 a month from about 1890 on.  Draught beer was a nickel, and a first class businessman’s lunch at a downtown hotel with soup, a meat dish, two side dishes, pie and coffee, was a quarter.  A room on the “American plan,” complete with three full meals a day, was $2.50.

    Mencken was already beginning to notice the transition to today’s “kinder, gentler” mode of raising children in his later days, but experienced few such ameliorations in his own childhood.  Children weren’t “spared the rod,” either by their parents or their teachers.  Mencken recalls that the headmaster of his first school, one Prof. Friedrich Knapp, had a separate ritual for administering corporal punishment to boys and girls, and wore out a good number of rattan switches in the process.  Even the policemen had strips of leather dangling from their clubs, with which they chastised juveniles who ran afoul of the law.  Parents took all this as a matter of course, and the sage never knew any of his acquaintance to complain.  When school started, the children were given one dry run on the local horse car accompanied by their parents, and were sent out on their own thereafter.  Of course, Mencken and his sister got lost on their first try, but were set on the right track by a policeman and some Baltimore stevedores.  No one thought of such a thing as supervising children at play. One encounters many similar changes in the social scene as one progresses through the trilogy, but the nature of the human beast hasn’t changed much.  All the foibles and weaknesses Mencken describes are still with us today.  He was, of course, one of the most prominent atheists in American history, and often singled out the more gaudy specimens of the faithful for special attention.  His description of the Scopes monkey trial in Heathen Days is a classic example.  I suspect he would have taken a dim view of the New Atheists.  In his words,

    No male of the Mencken family, within the period that my memory covers, ever took religion seriously enough to be indignant about it.  There were no converts from the faith among us, and hence no bigots or fanatics.  To this day I have a distrust of such fallen-aways, and when one of them writes in to say that some monograph of mine has aided him in throwing off the pox of Genesis my rejoicing over the news is very mild indeed.

    Of course, if one possesses the wit of a Mencken or a Voltaire, one has the luxury of fighting the bigotry and fanaticism coming from the other side very effectively without using the same weapons.

    I certainly encourage those who haven’t read Mencken to pick up a copy of this latest release of his work.  Those interested in more detail about the content may consult the work of professional reviewers that I’m sure will soon appear.  I will limit myself to one more observation.  It never fails that when some new bit of Menckeniana appears, the self-appointed guardians of the public virtue climb up on their soapboxes and condemn him as a racist.  Anyone who reads the Days will immediately see where this charge comes from.  Mencken makes free use of the N word and several other terms for African-Americans that have been banned from the lexicon over the ensuing years.  No matter that he didn’t use more flattering terms to describe other subgroups of the population, and certainly not of the white “boobeoisie,” of the cities, or the “hinds,” and “yokels” of the country.

    Nothing could be more untrue or unfair than this charge of “racism,” but, alas, to give the lie to it one must actually read Mencken’s work, and few of the preening moralists of our own day are willing to go to the trouble.  That’s sad, because none of them have contributed anywhere near as much as Mencken to the cause of racial equality.  He did that by ignoring the racist conventions of his own day and cultivating respect for black thinkers and intellectuals by actively seeking them out and publishing their work, most notably in the American Mercury, which he edited from its inception in 1924 until he turned over the reigns to Charles Angoff in 1933.  He didn’t publish them out of condescension or pity, or as their self-appointed savior, or out of an inordinate love of moralistic grandstanding of the sort that has become so familiar in our own day.  He paid them a much higher favor.  He published them because, unlike so many others in his own time, he was not blind to their intellectual gifts, and rightly concluded that their work was not only worthy of, but would enhance the value of the Mercury, one of the premier intellectual, political and literary journals of the time.  As a result, the work of a host of African-American intellectuals, professionals, and poets appeared in Mencken’s magazine, eclipsing the Nation, The New Republic, The Century, or any other comparable journal of the day in that regard.  All this can be easily fact-checked, because every issue of the Mercury published during Mencken’s tenure as editor can now be read online. For example, there are contributions by W. E. B. Dubois in the issue of October 1924, a young poet named Countee P. Cullen in November 1924, newspaper reporter and editor Eugene Gordon in June 1926, James Weldon Johnson, diplomat, author, lawyer, and former leader of the NAACP in April 1927, George Schuyler, author and social commentator in December 1927,  Langston Hughes, poet, author, and activist in November 1933, and many others.

    Most issues of the Mercury included an Americana section devoted to ridiculing absurdities discovered in various newspapers and other publications listed by state.  Mencken used it regularly to heap scorn on genuine racists.  For example, from the March 1925 issue:

    North Carolina

    Effects of the war for democracy among the Tar Heels, as reported in a dispatch from Goldsboro:

    Allen Moses and his wife, wealthy Negroes, left here in Pullman births tonight for Washington and New York.  This is the first time in the history of this city that Negroes have “had the nerve,” as one citizen expressed it, to buy sleeper tickets here.  White citizens are aroused, and it is said the Ku Klux Klan will be asked to give Moses a warm reception on his return.

    From the May 1926 issue:

    North Carolina

    The rise of an aristocracy among the defenders of 100% Americanism, as revealed by a dispatch from Durham:

    “According to reports being circulated here the Ku Klux Klan has added a new wrinkle to its activities and are now giving distinguished service crosses to member of the hooded order of the reconstruction days.  In keeping with this new custom, it is reported that two Durham citizens were recipients of this honor recently.  The medal, as explained by the honorable klansman making the award, is of no intrinsic value, ‘but the sentiment attached to it and the heart throbs that go with it are as measureless as the sands of the sea.'”

    From the August 1928 issue:

    District of Columbia

    The Hon. Cole L. Blease, of South Carolina, favors his colleagues in the Senate with a treatise on southern ethics:

    “There are not enough marines in or outside of the United States Army or Navy, in Nicaragua, and all combined, to make us associate with niggers.  We never expect to.  We never have; but we treat them fairly.  If you promise one of the $5 for a days work, if he does the days work, I believe you should pay him.”

    So much for the alleged “racism” of H. L. Mencken.  It reminds me of a poster that was prominently displayed in an office I once worked in.  It bore the motto, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

     

  • Contra Stendhal and Other Whimsies of Massimo d’Azeglio

    Posted on March 23rd, 2014 Helian No comments

    Massimo d’Azeglio was a 19th century Italian patriot.  He occasionally turns up on the Internet as “Massimo Taparelli” as well.  I happened to run across his memoirs in the random walk that accounts for most of what I read.  Sometimes you get lucky.  So it was with d’Azeglio, who turned out to be a highly original thinker, and whose Recollections are full of all kinds of whimsical bon mots.

    It turns out that there’s a lot about d’Azeglio that reminds me of my favorite novelist, Stendhal.  He had a highly developed sense of personal honor and dignity.  He admired the fine arts, and dabbled in painting himself as a young man, as did Stendhal in acting.  Both were profoundly influenced by their experiences in Milan, and Stendhal, who experienced a love affair there that turned out tragically, at least for a Frenchman, because the lady refused to give in, went so far as to call himself “Milanese” on his gravestone.  Both were dismayed by foreign domination of their native lands.  And finally, both were filled with hope, fear, and anxiety about whether the readers of the future, the people Stendhal dreamed of as “The Happy Few,” would notice them.  All of which makes it all the more interesting that d’Azeglio’s take on Napoleon’s occupation of Italy was exactly the opposite of Stendhal’s.

    Stendhal, of course, worshipped the great man, as anyone who has read The Red and the Black is well aware.  To hear him tell it, the only ones in Italy who opposed the French occupation were a few ultramontane priests and reactionary aristocrats.  For example, from The Charterhouse of Parma,

     On the 15th of May, 1796, General Bonaparte made his entry into Milan… A whole people discovered that everything that until then it had respected was supremely ridiculous, if not actually hateful.  People saw that in order to be really happy after centuries of cloying sensations, it was necessary to love one’s country with a real love and to seek out heroic actions… These French soldiers laughed and sang all day long; they were all under 25 years of age, and their Commander in Chief, who had reached twenty-seven, was reckoned the oldest man in his army.  The gaiety, this youthfulness, this irresponsibility, furnished a jocular reply to the furious preachings of the monks, who, for six months, had been announcing from the pulpit that the French were monsters, obliged, upon pain of death, to burn down everything and to cut off everyone’s head… At the most it would have been possible to point to a few families belonging to the higher ranks of the nobility, who had retired to their palaces in the country, as though in a sullen revolt against the prevailing high spirits and the expansion of every heart.

    After the French were temporarily driven out in Napoleon’s absence,

    These gentlemen, quite worthy people when they were not in a state of panic, but who were always trembling, succeeded in getting round the Austrian General:  a good enough man at heart, he let himself be persuaded that severity was the best policy, and ordered the arrest of one hundred and fifty patriots:  quite the best men to be found in Italy at the time.

    Which brings us to some essential differences between the two men.  Whereas d’Azeglio adored his father, Stendhal loathed his, and always blamed him for the loss of his mother, whom he madly adored, at the age of four.  And whereas Stendhal always envied the aristocracy he portrayed with such spite, d’Azeglio actually belonged to it.  His father might easily have passed for one of “these gentlemen,” although by his son’s account he was a brave soldier who wasn’t given to trembling, and was neither harsh nor greedy.  So it was that, though both men were romantic patriots, and both were in some sense products of and profoundly influenced by the ideals of the French Revolution, d’Azeglio’s recollection of the occupation was not so rosy.  In his words,

     I have already said that to the minds of his contemporaries Napoleon appeared as an irresistible Fate; and this is true.  Imagine, then, the bewilderment of all those who, though crushed under that enormous weight, and without hope of rescue, continued to chafe under injustice and disgrace, when the first ray of a possible redemption gleamed forth, – when came the earliest tidings of the report, borne almost on the wind, Napoleon is vanquished!  Napoleon is retreating!

    At last, one blessed day, came the glad tidings that Napoleon was no longer our master, and that we were, or were about to become, free and independent once more.  He who was not at Turin on that day can form no idea of the delirious joy of a whole population at its utmost height.

    Quite a difference for two men who were fundamentally quite alike.  No doubt a good Marxist would just apply his cookie cutter and come up with a smug class interpretation.  I doubt it’s quite that simple.  Family loyalties and clashing national patriotisms undoubtedly played a role as well.  In any case, d’Azeglio had no illusions about the kind of men who came back to take Napoleon’s place.  He was in full agreement with Stendhal on that score:

    I felt the reaction – I know its effects; and although even it has not made me regret Napoleon and French dominion in Italy, it is none the less true that we lost a government which, sooner or later, would have secured the triumph of those principles which are the life of human society, to revert to a government of ignorant and imbecile men, full of vanity and prejudice.

    Neither the Romans nor Europe could then foresee that the sovereigns, and the ministers representing the re-constituted governments, would be so blind as not to perceive how different were the men of 1814 from those of 1789, and not to know that they would certainly be most unwilling to give up that portion of good to which the great genius of Napoleon and the changes wrought by time had accustomed them.  The princes and their ministers who returned from exile found it convenient to accept the heritage of Napoleon sub conditione; they retained the police and the bureaucracy, the taxes, enormous standing armies, and so forth; but the good system of judicial and civil administration, the impulse given to science and personal merit, equalization of classes, improvement and increase of communication, liberty of conscience, and many other excellent features in the government of the great conqueror, were all ruthlessly flung aside.

    In a word, in spite of his reflexive loathing for Napoleon, not to mention his aristocratic father and a beloved brother who became a fanatical Jesuit cleric, d’Azeglio was much too intelligent to blind himself to the great man’s virtues.  Stendhal would have smiled.

    Here are a few more d’Azeglio-isms for the delectation of my readers:

    War exercises over nations a more salutary influence than a long peace.  Fidelity to a difficult and perilous duty educates men, and makes them fit to perform more peaceful tasks well and worthily… A singular conclusion might be drawn from all this, – viz. that a nation, in order to preserve those virtues which save it from decay, is necessarily obliged to kill a certain number of its neighbors every now and then.  I leave the reader to meditate on this question, and intend to study it myself one day.  Meanwhile, let us proceed.

    It is not in our natures to believe more than the priests themselves; and facts have always shown that the priests of Rome believe very little.  The Italians, therefore, have never considered dogmatic questions very seriously.

    Both parents had too much good sense to fall into the error so common in those parents who undertake the education of their children, viz. that of studying their own vanity or convenience instead of the good of their pupils.  I was never subjected to any of those domestic tortures to which, through maternal vanity, those unhappy children intended to act the laborious part of enfants prodiges are so often condemned… Adulation and incitement to pride and vanity, though they may be a mistaken form of parental affection, are in fact the worst of lessons for the child, and the most baneful in their results.

    But my education was governed by the Jesuit system, and the problem it has always so admirably solved is this – to keep a young man till he is twenty constantly employed in studies which are of little or no value in forming his character, his intelligence, and his judgment.

    In factious times, past and present, we fall into the habit of calling the men of our own party good, and our adversaries bad; as if it were possible that a country should be divided into two distinct bodies; five millions of honest men, for instance, on one side, and five millions of rascals on the other.  Men who profess these ideas are, as is natural, often bamboozled, or worse, by a scoundrel, whom they believe honest for no other reason than that he belongs to their own party.  To avoid this, let us forbear from selecting friends and confidants only on account of their political opinions; and let us remember that, if two different opinion professed by two opposite parties cannot be equally true, logical, and good, two men belonging to the said opposite parties are just as likely to be two arrant knaves as two honest men.

    It would seem the evolutionary psychologists weren’t the first ones to notice the existence of ingroups and outgroups.  The Recollections contain many other interesting and amusing sentiments that you’re not likely to run across on Foxnews or CNN.  As they say, read the whole thing.  D’Azeglio would have been pleased.

     

    Massimo d'Azeglio

    Massimo d’Azeglio

  • Of Kafka, “Metamorphosis,” and “Giant Insects”

    Posted on March 5th, 2014 Helian No comments

    If there’s anything objectively immoral in this world, it’s translating Kafka’s “ungeheures Ungeziefer” in his Die Verwandlung as “giant insect.”  The first time I picked up the English version and found that abomination, I grieved at the weakness of my native tongue.  Now, at long last, I discover that I haven’t been alone.  Others have noticed.  Writing in the New Yorker, translator Susan Bernofsky discusses the problem:

    The epithet ungeheueres Ungeziefer in the opening sentence poses one of the greatest challenges to the translator. Both the adjective ungeheuer (meaning “monstrous” or “huge”) and the noun Ungeziefer are negations— virtual nonentities—prefixed by un. Ungeziefer comes from the Middle High German ungezibere, a negation of the Old High German zebar (related to the Old English ti’ber), meaning “sacrifice” or “sacrificial animal.” An ungezibere, then, is an unclean animal unfit for sacrifice, and Ungeziefer describes the class of nasty creepy-crawly things. The word in German suggests primarily six-legged critters, though it otherwise resembles the English word “vermin” (which refers primarily to rodents). Ungeziefer is also used informally as the equivalent of “bug,” though the connotation is “dirty, nasty bug”—you wouldn’t apply the word to cute, helpful creatures like ladybugs. In my translation, Gregor is transformed into “some sort of monstrous insect” with “some sort of” added to blur the borders of the somewhat too specific “insect”; I think Kafka wanted us to see Gregor’s new body and condition with the same hazy focus with which Gregor himself discovers them.

    Alas, “monstrous insect” is only marginally better than the “giant insect” that I saw in my first English version, but not much, and “some sort of” really doesn’t help.  In the first place, Ungeziefer probably isn’t the biggest problem here.  Ungeheuer is at least as poorly translated as “monstrous” or “huge”.  The noun Ungeheuer means a monster, but the adjective ungeheur does not mean monstrous.  Its root, geheur, is associated with “home,” and has connotations of “familiar,” or “comfortable.”  Thus, ungeheur does not necessarily mean “monstrous” in the sense of “big,”  but something both terrible and outside the normal range of experience.

    As Bernofsky says, Ungeziefer are usually insects or “bugs,” but they are also disgusting and usually parasitic.  “Insect” just doesn’t get it.  I think “vermin” would actually be better, but is also anything but a perfect solution, as Bernofsky points out.  I find all this kind of scary, because my favorite author is Stendhal, and I don’t speak French.  I know I must be missing something.  Probably not as much as readers of Kafka who don’t speak German, though.  He writes in a sort of “chancellery German” that seems to make the world that much more indifferent to the amplified nightmares his heroes live in, and the nightmares that much more terrifying as a result.  As Reiner Stach wrote in a piece on Kafka that turned up in The New Statesman,

    In The Trial, we are drawn so compellingly into a story of pursuit and fear that it seems like a nightmare we all share, even though most people in the postwar west have not been subjected to anything nearly as extreme.

    I recognize the nightmares in all of Kafkas novels.  That’s what makes them so compelling.  I think most people have lived through more or less watered down versions.  Kafka just amplifies them, creating worlds of complete hopelessness and despair.  I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it, though.

    Kafka

  • Ian McEwan’s “Enduring Love”: Literature Making a Comeback?

    Posted on March 4th, 2014 Helian No comments

    The great French (or Italian, if you believe his gravestone.  To make a long story short, he fell madly in love with a Milanese woman, who never said “yes”) novelist, Stendhal, had his own definitions of romanticism and classicism.  As he wrote in his Racine and Shakespeare,

    Romanticism is the art of presenting to different peoples those literary works which, in the existing state of their habits and beliefs, are capable of giving them the greatest possible pleasure.

    Classicism, on the contrary, presents to them that literature which gave the greatest pleasure to their great-grandfathers.

    His definition of culture was equally idiosyncratic.  For him, genuine culture, whether music, art, poetry or prose, was a reflection of some aspect of the here and now.  It was a reflection of the artist’s observation and experience of his own world.  Classicists might entertain by resurrecting the cultural artifacts of bygone times, but, at least according to Stendhal, they were not creating culture in the process.  Neither were artists like Sir Walter Scott, whose work represented for Stendhal a daydream about the past rather than a reflection of the present.  In The Charterhouse of Parma, for example, the stifling reactionaries in post-Napoleonic Italy who were responsible for educating his hero, Fabrice, would allow him to read only the Bible, one or two official newspapers, and the works of Sir Walter Scott.

    While I am not particularly enamored about the idea of attempting to return to bygone times, I am not particularly happy with the present, either.  As a result, I have found little in what Stendhal would have considered the genuine culture of our time that I enjoy or appreciate.  In general, some random poem from a dog-eared magazine of the 20’s or 30’s is more likely to bring a smile to my face than any of the contemporary stuff I’ve read for the last year or two.  The same goes for serious fiction.

    However, I keep searching.  In fact, I just finished a book by a contemporary novelist that I actually liked.  It’s Enduring Love, by Ian McEwan.  I’ll even go so far as to say that I agree with some of the reviewer’s comments on the cover.  For example, from The New York Review of Books, “[McEwan] is the quietest and most lucid of stylists, with never a word wasted or fumbled.”  That’s no exaggeration.  I found myself constantly smiling (and feeling envious) over McEwan’s skill in the use of words.  However, I didn’t really connect with the characters or plot.  McEwan is a screenwriter as well as a novelist, and I probably would have liked the story better in a movie rather than a serious novel.  The “enduring love” referred to is actually a rare, psychotic malady know as de Clerambault’s Syndrome, and things happen that are possible, but are nothing that an average human is likely to experience in the course of a lifetime.  I don’t doubt that the characters are accurate representations of people McEwan has run across, but they are alien to me.  I prefer characters in my novels that I can recognize immediately.  Stendhal may have written a long time ago, but I stumble across many of them in his work, and I actually turn up myself occasionally.  No doubt that’s why Nietzsche spoke of him as “the last great psychologist.”

    However, there are some brilliant insights and uncanny reflections of the present in Enduring Love. For example, my jaw dropped when I read things like,

     And what, in fact, were the typical products of the twentieth-century scientific or pseudo-scientific mind?  Anthropology, psychoanalysis-fabulation run riot.  Using the highesst methods of storytelling and all the arts of priesthood, Freud had staked his claim on the veracity, though not the falsifiability of science.  And what of those behaviorists and sociologist of the 1920’s?  It was as though an army of white-coated Balzacs had stormed the university departments and labs. (Italics mine)

    and,

     I had set aside this day to start on a long piece about the smile.  A whole issue of an American science magazine was to be dedicated to what the editor was calling an intellectual revolution.  Biologists and evolutionary psychologists were reshaping the social sciences.  The postwar consensus, the standard social-science model, was falling apart, and human nature was up for reexamination.

    Hows that for an example of Stendhal’s genuine culture as a reflection of contemporary reality?  Great shades of Arrowsmith!  I found myself scratching my head and wondering how many readers of a novel with a title like Enduring Love would have so much as an inkling of what the writer was talking about.  You really have to have some serious insight into what’s been going on in the behavioral sciences to write things like that.

    How about this one:

     We (the two main characters) were having one of our late-night kitchen table sessions.  I told her I thought she had spent too much time lately in the company of John Keats.  A genius, no doubt, but an obscurantist, too, who had thought science was robbing the world of wonder when the opposite was the case.

    I couldn’t agree more.  And last but not least, there’s this, about the metamorphosis of literature from the 19th to now:

    Most educated people read contemporary novels.  Storytelling was deep in the 19th century soul. Then two things happened.  Science became more difficult, and it became professionalized.  It moved into the universities; parsonical narratives gave way to hard-edged theories that could survive intact without experimental support and that had their own formal aesthetic. At the same time, in literature and in other arts, a newfangled modernism celebrated formal, structural qualities, inner coherence, and self-reference.  A priesthood guarded the temples of this difficult art against the trespasses of the common man.

    Sounds plausible to me.  Maybe that’s why contemporary literature and poetry seem so foreign to me.  We could use another guy who has the nerve to pull down the temples.  Meanwhile, it appears the book has been made into a film.  I’ll have to check it out.

    Stendhal Gravestone

  • The American Mercury is Online!

    Posted on January 16th, 2013 Helian 3 comments

    As I was going to and fro on the Internet, and walking back and forth on it, I stumbled across a site that has made the content of every issue of H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury available online.  It’s a wonderful resource if you’re interested in the politics, history, literature, etc., of the 20’s and 30’s, or just want to read something entertaining.  The Sage of Baltimore was a great editor, and he won’t disappoint.  He was at the helm of the magazine from the first issue in January 1924 until December 1933.  The site actually includes issues up to 1960, but the content went downhill after Mencken left, and the Mercury eventually became something entirely different from what he had intended.  Many other interesting periodicals are available at the site, as well as books and videos.  You can visit by clicking on the hyperlinks above or point your browser to:

    http://www.unz.org/Pub/AmMercury

    and

    http://www.unz.org/Home/Introduction

    H. L. Mencken

    H. L. Mencken

  • Herman Melville as an Anthropologist

    Posted on December 1st, 2012 Helian No comments

    In his The Origin of War, Dutch behavioral scientist Johan van der Dennen describes how his “perspective changed dramatically” as a result of Jane Goodall’s revelations about the aggressive behavior of chimpanzees and his own study of the history of human warfare.  In his words,

    What gradually emerged was the constancy beneath the superficial differences, the communality beneath the variations; it dawned upon me that all these variations were indeed variations on a common theme, and that this common theme must be something like a universal psychology. There was only one theory which could accommodate this new insight: evolutionary theory.

    In other words, he concluded that this “common theme” could only be explained by some innate behavioral trait or traits, e.g., human nature.  He settled on the catch-all term “sociobiology” for this approach, noting that the term in the lay vernacular has undergone relatively rapid and sometimes confusing change over the years, from ethology in the 60’s and 70’s to sociobiology after E. O. Wilson published his eponymous book in 1975 to evolutionary psychology today.  In a footnote that appeared in the first chapter of his book, van der Dennen notes that his study of the history of warfare had not been “hampered by any methodological constraints”:

    It was also growing dissatisfaction with the rather static character of the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) and its virtual monopoly position as a universal data base (though it is incomplete and unreliable: cf. Fedigan, 1986; Knauft, 1991), and the increasing number of discrepancies I seemed to discover between several other inventories and the sources I had uncovered, which prompted the Ethnological Inventory Project. Not hampered by any methodological constraints, I could freely indulge in the fascinating accounts of ‘savages’ reported by missionaries, travelers and adventurers from about the 16th century onward.

    One can only hope that the “methodological constraints” he refers to don’t have the effect of tainting any source material used by anthropologists that wasn’t developed in “studies” done by other anthropologists.  That’s a scary thought!  The integrity of the “Men of Science” in the behavioral sciences has not been irreproachable.  They did, after all, collectively subscribe to the “Blank Slate” imbecility for several decades, stoutly insisting that the effect of human nature on human behavior was either insignificant or nonexistent.  They punctuated this insistence on “scientific facts” that any reasonably intelligent ten year old might have informed them were palpable nonsense by vilifying anyone who disagreed as fascist or otherwise politically suspect.  Anyone doubting the fact need only consult that invaluable little piece of historical source material, Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu.  The “fascinating accounts of ‘savages’ reported by missionaries, travelers and adventurers” were often done by people who were not only well-informed about similar work, but took a highly professional approach to their own reporting.  If their objectivity was also impaired by faith in ideological dogmas, at least they were not the same ideological dogmas that prevailed during much of the 20th century.

    In addition to the “missionaries, travelers, and adventurers” cited by Professor van der Dennen, I would add another category; novelists.  Take for example, Herman Melville.  Much of his work is so saturated with accounts of the exotic people and places he visited that some literary critics dismissed him as “a mere traveler.”  His publisher insisted that his first books, Typee and Omoo, be published as novels because he thought no one would believe them as non-fiction.  In fact, they contain a wealth of material of anthropological interest.

    Take his first novel, Typee, for instance.  Some of the incidents Melville recorded are certainly fictionalized, but he actually did live among a tribe of that name in the South Pacific.  I doubt that he had any reason to fabricate his account of them, or at least none more weighty than the ideological constraints on modern anthropologists.

    As has been the case with most authors since the dawn of recorded history who have had occasion to comment on the subject, and who possess an ounce of common sense, Melville recognized the existence of “inherent” human traits.  In Chapter 27, for example, he describes the “altruism” that has been such a hot topic in academic journals lately, as it existed within the Typee ingroup.

    It may reasonably be inquired, how were these people governed?  How were their passions controlled in their everyday transactions?  It must have been by an inherent principle of honesty and charity towards each other.  They seemed to be governed by that sort of tacit common-sense law which, say what they will of the inborn lawlessness of the human race, has its precepts graven on every breast.  The grand principles of virtue and honor, however they may be distorted by arbitrary codes, are the same all the world over:  and where these principles are concerned, the right and wrong of any action appears the same to the uncultivated as to the enlightened mind.  It is to this indwelling, this universally diffused perception of what is just and noble, that the integrity of the Marquesans in their intercourse with each other is to be attributed.

    and,

    They deal more kindly with each other, and are more humane, than many who study essays on virtue and benevolence… I will frankly declare, that after passing a few weeks in this valley of the Marqauesas, I formed a higher estimate of human nature than I had every before entertained.

    Of course, these innate foundations of human morality are dual in nature.  As Sir Arthur Keith pointed out long ago, and Robert Ardrey reiterated in a chapter of his African Genesis, it is our nature to apply very different standards of morality depending on whether we are dealing with ingroups or outgroups.  This rather important fact isn’t discussed nearly as often as altruism in the academic journals.  It is generally passed over in silence, because it is not in accord with generally approved standards of human “niceness.”  Melville, however, not being a “Man of Science,” was ignorant of such fine distinctions.  Immediately following the above, he added,

    The strict honesty which the inhabitants of nearly all the Polynesian Islands manifest towards each other, is in striking contrast with the thieving propensities some of them evince in their intercourse with foreigners.  It would almost seem that, according to their peculiar code of morals, the pilfering of a hatchet or a wrought nail from a European is looked upon as a praiseworthy action.

    Those familiar with the Margaret Mead/Derek Freeman kerfluffle may be interested in Melville’s comments on conjugal arrangements among the Typee:

    The males considerably outnumber the females.  This hold true of many of the islands of Polynesia, although the reverse of what is the case in most civilized countries.  The girls are first wooed and won, at a very tender age, by some stripling in the household in which they reside.  This, however, is a mere frolic of the affections, and no formal engagement is contracted.  By the time this first love has a little subsided, a second suitor presents himself, of graver years, and carries both boy and girl away to his own habitation.  This disinterested and generous-hearted fellow now weds the young couple – marrying damsel and lover at the same time – and all three thenceforth live together as harmoniously as so many turtles… Infidelity on either side is very rare.  No man has more than one wife, and no wife of mature years has less than two husbands, – sometimes she has three, but such instances are not frequent.

    Melville witnessed few arguments, and the degree of unanimity among the Typee on most topics would be familiar to anyone who has noticed the “carbon copy” nature of opinions on political matters among the modern denizens of the ideological ingroups of the left and right.

    There was one admirable trait in the general character of the Typees which, more than anything else, secured my admiration:  it was the unanimity of feeling they displayed on every occasion.  With them there hardly appeared to be any difference of opinion upon any subject whatever.  They all thought and acted alike.  I do not conceive that they could support a debating society for a single night:  there would be nothing to dispute about.

    As for that ubiquitous feature of human existence, warfare, Professor van der Dennen would not have been surprised by Melville’s observations.  Another tribe, the Happar, also occupied the island home of the Typee, who attributed to them all the usual hateful qualities commonly associated with the outgroup.  For some time after his arrival, Melville had witnessed nothing of the “clamors of war,” and was beginning to think the fierce reputation of the Typee among the neighboring tribes was a myth.  However,

    …subsequent events proved that I had been a little too premature in coming to this conclusion.  One day about noon, I had lain down on the mats with several of the chiefs, and had gradually sunk into a most luxurious siesta, when I was awakened by a tremendous outcry, and starting up beheld the natives seizing their spears and hurrying out, while the most puissant of the chiefs, grasping the six muskets which were ranged against the bamboos, followed after, and soon disappeared in the groves.  These movements were accompanied by wild shouts, in which “Happar, Happar,” greatly predominated.

    The mayhem done in this particular campaign was not great:

    The total loss of the victors on this obstinately contested affair was, in killed wounded and missing – one forefinger and part of a thumbnail (which the late proprietor brought along with him in his hand), a severely contused arm, and a considerable effusion of blood flowing from the thigh of a chief, who had received an ugly thrust from a Happar spear.

    In a later battle, the Typee brought back several Happar killed.

    There are many other worthy contributions to the anthropological literature among the writings of “missionaries, travelers and adventurers,” not to mention novelists like Melville.  Some of the best can be found in the two great British quarterlies of the first half of the 19th century, the Whig Edinburgh Review and the Tory Quarterly Review.  The editors held their authors to very high standards of accuracy and detail.  Occasionally one finds interesting differences between these accounts and the later descriptions of the “Men of Science.”  In view of affairs such as the collusion of the American Anthropological Association in the smear and slandering of anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon and geneticist James Neel, whose findings in their study of the South American Yanomamö people were apparently deemed politically unsuitable in some quarters, not to mention the debacle of the Blank Slate, I would be disinclined to automatically favor the latter.

    Herman Melville

  • H. L. Mencken’s Last Post

    Posted on September 4th, 2012 Helian No comments

    H. L. Mencken, the great Sage of Baltimore, edited the American Mercury from its inception in January 1924 through the issue of December 1933.  It was always a worthwhile read while he was at the helm, published without pictures except for the advertisements, two columns to a page.  There were articles about politics, science, religion, the arts, and whatever happened to strike Mencken’s fancy, along with occasional poems and short stories.  Mencken continued the fascinating monthly review of newly released books that he had begun in The Smart Set, which he had edited during its heyday with George Jean Nathan.  Every issue of the Mercury included an “Americana” section, made up of unwittingly comical extracts from newspapers and magazines across the country, and usually including a slap or two at the Ku Klux Klan, at least until that organization’s power and influence began to wane.  Indeed, while he never patronized them, few if any individuals did more to promote respect for African Americans than Mencken.  He frequently published the work of W. E. B. Dubois, Langston Hughes, Carl van Vechten, and many other black intellectuals.  However, he did not alter the typically snide and sarcastic attitude he reserved for everyone else when speaking of them, and so was later condemned for “racism.”  No good deed goes unpunished.

    The final issue of the Mercury with Mencken as editor was as irreverent as the rest.  There was an article entitled “Musical Slaughter House,” by one Edward Robinson, identified as “a piano teacher from New York, who condemned attempts to nurse The Metropolitan Opera through the Great Depression by appeals for charitable donations, noting, for example, that,

    The list of the company’s productions would alone earn complete damnation in the eyes of even moderately civilized music-lovers, for the essential artistic contribution of the Metropolitan has been to preserve operas like “Aida” and “Pagliacci” from an oblivion that should have been theirs on the night they first appeared.

    There was a piece on the radical socialist paper, The Masses, by journalist Bob Brown, with the less than complimentary take-off on its name, “Them Asses.”  Brown occasionally wrote for The Masses, and his article is actually quite complimentary, at least by the standards of the Mercury.  There were some fascinating vignettes on the workings of a radical sheet during the heyday of socialism, and biographical sketches of editor Max Eastman, a confidante of Trotsky, and other contributors.

    Mencken was one of the foremost unbelievers of his day, so it was only fitting that his final edition of the Mercury should include an article about atheism.  Entitled “Atheism Succumbs to Doubt,” its theme was that atheist activism was on the decline for lack of opposition.  Noting that,

    Not one believer in a thousand appears to know the difference between the Nicene and the Athanasian creeds.  To the overwhelming majority Christianity is simply a ritual associated with sacred concerts on Sunday and chicken dinners at irregular intervals, the whole sustaining a variety of more or less useful funds and institutions.

    The author concludes,

    The faithful of romantic inclination dabble in theosophy or Bahaism.  Are they excommunicated?  Nay, even the village atheist would be welcomed into the fold if he’d be willing to subscribe to the Y.M.C.A. and hold his tongue.  So the God-Killers marching forth to battle nowadays find the enemy’s camp deserted, Daniel’s lions dead of old age, and the Shekinah departed unto the Ozarks.

    He makes the intriguing claim that American infidels had been vastly more robust and influential 50 years before, in the heyday of the great atheist speaker and writer, Robert G. Ingersoll.

    It was not always thus.  The God-Killers of half a century ago were taken seriously and took themselves seriously… In those days hundreds of atheistic pamphlets were published and sold in the United States.  They bore such titles as “Why Don’t God Kill the Devil?” “The Myth of the Great Deluge,” “Where Is Hell?” “Death-Beds of Infidels,” “Faith or Fact,” “The Devil’s Catechism,” and “When Did Jehoshaphat Die?”  John E. Remsburg, author of the last-named, proved by the Bible and arithmetic that this King of Israel died on sixteen different dates.  Today nobody knows or cares that Jehoshaphat ever lived.

    Fast forward another 75 years, and another crop of “God-Killers” has appeared on the scene, commonly referred to as the New Atheists.  As readers of The God Delusion, penned by Richard Dawkins, one of the most famous of the lot, will have noted, he cannot turn his gaze our way without imagining an “American Taliban” behind every bush, and is as innocent of any knowledge of this flowering of American atheism as a child.  Perhaps some nascent Ph.D. in history should take the matter in hand and document the doings of the “God-Killers” of the 1880’s, not to mention their rise and fall and rise again since the days of such famous infidels as Ethan Allen, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson.

    Adolf Hitler had come to power in Germany at the end of January, 1933, and Mencken, who was known as a Germanophile, took up the phenomenon of Nazism in the “Library” section of his last issue.  Noting five titles on the subject as “a few of the first comers among what promises to be a long procession of Hitler books,” he proceeded to outline the implications of the rise of Hitler a great deal more soberly and presciently that most of the journals of the day.  Typical of the stuff appearing at the time was a piece that appeared in the Century some months earlier whose author, rich in the wisdom of journalists, assured his readers that there was not the slightest reason to be concerned about Hitler or the hijinks of his followers.  Mencken was not so sanguine.  Echoing what John Maynard Keynes and many others had foreseen immediately in 1919, he wrote,

    The most surprising thing about him (Hitler) it seems to me, is that his emergence should have been surprising.  He was, in fact, implicit in the Treaty of Versailles.

    He goes on to note some inconvenient truths about Hitler’s anti-Semitism that are as true now as they were then:

    His anti-Semitism, which has shocked so many Americans, is certainly nothing to marvel over.  Anti-Semitism is latent all over Western Europe, as it is in the United States… (The Jew) is an easy mark for demagogues when the common people are uneasy, and it is useful to find a goat.  He has served as such a goat a hundred times in the past, and he will probably continue in the role, off and on, until his racial differentiation disappears or he actually goes back to his fatherland.  In Germany, as in Poland, Austria and France, he has been made use of by demagogues for many years, precisely as the colored brother has been made use of in our own South.

    Germanophile or no, Mencken has no illusions about what the rise of Hitler may portend, and doesn’t mince words in explaining it to his readers:

    In such matters what is done cannot be undone; the main question, as I write, is how long the orgy will last, and whether it will wear itself out or have to be put down by external force.  If the latter is resorted to, and it takes the form of military pressure, we are probably in for another World War.

    During the entire decade he was editor, the Mercury reflected Mencken’s own cynical attitude, sometimes insightful and sometimes shallow as it was.  Then, as now, authors craved seeing their work in print, and adjusted the style of the stuff they submitted to suite his taste accordingly.  As a result, the paper always had a distinctly Menckenian flavor during his reign.  In his final editorial, we find Mencken at his most optimistic, assuring his readers that nothing would change:

    In case there be any among those readers who fear that the change of editorial administration will convert the magazine into something that it is not they may put their minds at ease.  In its basic aims and principles there will be little change.  Hereafter, as in the past, it will try to play a bright light over the national scene, revealing whatever is amusing and instructive, but avoiding mere moral indignation as much as possible.

    The Mercury was to be taken over by Henry Hazlitt, who “was my first and only choice for the post he takes, and I am completely convinced that he will make a first-rate magazine.”  Alas, it was not to be.  Hazlitt didn’t see eye to eye with the publisher, and resigned within four months.  The Mercury was taken over by Mencken’s former assistant, Charles Angoff, and took a sharp turn to the left.  After the fashion of the political and intellectual journals of the time, it became a forum for authors who were cocksure that the demise of capitalism was just around the corner, and differed mainly in the degree of mayhem they deemed necessary for the inevitable transition to socialism.  There were several similar jarring changes before the final demise of the paper in 1980.

    No matter, the Mercury of Mencken’s day is as fascinating as ever for those seeking relief from the unrelenting political correctness and overbearing piety one often finds in its modern equivalents.  There are usually a few copies available on eBay for interested readers at any given time, although prices have been trending upwards lately.

    H. L. Mencken

  • Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Premonitions of Darwin

    Posted on June 25th, 2012 Helian No comments

    TM Lutas at Chicago Boyz says that one of Shakespeare’s sonnets “touched his heart“:

    When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
    And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
    Thy youth’s proud livery so gazed on now,
    Will be a totter’d weed of small worth held:
    Then being asked, where all thy beauty lies,
    Where all the treasure of thy lusty days;
    To say, within thine own deep sunken eyes,
    Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
    How much more praise deserv’d thy beauty’s use,
    If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
    Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,’
    Proving his beauty by succession thine!
    This were to be new made when thou art old,
    And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

    Shakespeare was incredible.  Somehow, almost 300 years before Darwin, he grasped that there was something ageless and potentially immortal in human beings, and that it, and not our conscious, mortal selves is what is essential about us.  My favorite sonnet is #13:

    O! that you were your self; but, love, you are
    No longer yours, than you your self here live:
    Against this coming end you should prepare,
    And your sweet semblance to some other give:
    So should that beauty which you hold in lease
    Find no determination; then you were
    Yourself again, after yourself’s decease,
    When your sweet issue your sweet form should bear.
    Who lets so fair a house fall to decay,
    Which husbandry in honour might uphold,
    Against the stormy gusts of winter’s day
    And barren rage of death’s eternal cold?
    O! none but unthrifts. Dear my love, you know,
    You had a father: let your son say so.

    “Love, you are no longer yours, than you your self here live?”  “Then you were yourself again, after yourself’s decease?”  Incredible!!  The man was pure magic.

    It’s interesting that Tolstoy had a terrible aversion to Shakespeare.  Orwell refuted him in an essay that you can find in the fourth volume of his published collected works, “In Front of Your Nose,” which I highly recommend, as well as the other three volumes.  You can probably pick it up at Amazon or on eBay. I think Tolstoy’s visceral hatred of Shakespeare resulted from the fact that he was a pathologically pious Puritan, and he recognized in Shakespeare his polar opposite.  As Shakespeare put it in Midsummer Night’s Dream, he would prefer any species of human being to “a devil of a Puritan!”