Sunday, June 20, 2010

Mencken on the meaning of life

H.L. Mencken is one of our heroes.

And yes, absurdists can have heroes, if only for inspiration, if only – as the great Hunter Thompson put it – to show that the “tyranny of the rat race is not yet final.” That there are those who have broken through the conforming mold of society, and all its self-importance and made up meanings, to carve out their own large life, well lived, fully aware of the absurdity of that life.

In the course of writing this blog, we’ve assembled our own wall of the absurd, filled with characters absurd or semi-absurd – Henry Miller, Ludwig Bemelmans, Jim Harrison – among others.

H.L. Mencken is one of those. Whether he’s cutting through the inanity of religion or skewering myths about politics, Mencken’s pieces are full of sharp little edges that horrify those who take themselves seriously.

We’ve been reading Mencken on Mencken, a new collection of previously uncollected autobiographical pieces written by the Sage of Baltimore. What inspires us to write today is a piece titled “The Meaning of Life,” in which he gives absurdity some play.

Reading H.L. Mencken today, one is hard-pressed not to think about how public discourse has changed over the years. Mencken’s writings in the first half of the 20th century would not find a publisher in today’s warmed-over mainstream media. Yet in his day, he was a titan, holding down a spot at the Baltimore Sun, editing mainstream magazines and writing books, most of which sold well.

Take his view on religion:

“The act of worship, as practiced by the Christians, seems to me to be debasing rather than ennobling. It involves groveling before a being, who if he really existed, deserves to be denounced rather than respected. I see little evidence in this world of the so-called goodness of God. On the contrary, it seems to me that, on the strength of his daily acts, he must be set down a most stupid, cruel and villainous fellow.”

Imagine seeing that in today’s Washington Post or New York Times!

On why Mencken does what he does – which is mostly write – he says, “I go on working for the same reason that a hen goes on laying eggs… Life demands to be lived.” A simple absurd view unspoiled by a belief that the work is important or meaningful, which is how a writer today likely answers that question. There must be a moral cause, an urge to make the world a better place.

Mencken would have none of that. In reading about his views on life, you’ll find no sentimentality or wishfulness about wanting or having an eternal soul, nor will you find a craving for meaning of any kind.

“I do not believe in immortality,” he writes, “and have no desire for it. The belief in it issues from the puerile egos of inferior men. In its Christian form, it is little more than a device for getting revenge upon those who are having a better time on this earth.”

And then he concludes his rumination on the meaning of life with a perfect absurd statement, truly wise in many respects.

“What the meaning of life may be, I don’t know: I incline to suspect that it has none. All I know about it is that, to me at least, it is very amusing while it lasts. Even its troubles, indeed, can be amusing… When I die I shall be content to vanish into nothingness. No show, however good, could conceivably be good forever.”

Good old Mencken, absurd man!


  1. Even though I'm an atheist, I don't think that prayer is bad, or even useless.

    A human being is so immensely complicated that what I really am goes beyond any notion I have of my identity or the box I put myself in. We go so far beyond our conscious thinking mind. Humility is better than pride. Wonder and awe at this life is better than arrogance and certainty.

    We can kneel to the great mystery of what it is to have subjective experience as a human; we can kneel to the foundation of our being; we can kneel to our freest selves; we can kneel to life itself, in all its awesome or heartbreaking reality. In doing so, we give up just a little of our silly little notion of self that thinks its in control of everything and independent of the world of which it is made.

    In short, in kneeling to life itself, or to the profundity of our full being, an atheist is saying, "I too, am not God. I don't run the show. I am just part of the whole amazing thing."


  2. Any more, I'm beginning to understand how the absurd perspective is especially useful in a society in which the "golden ring"--to be awake and free--essentially seems more elusive than ever.

    By always recognizing that we are merely "playing roles," this perspective allows us to remain "in the world" (unlike many individuals or groups--be it hermits or Amish) but still perpetually roll our eyes within our souls at all the ridiculous behavior around us. In other words, we can never truly be free of others in work situations--we're always beholden to someone within the hierarchy or, if self-employed, forced to always accommodate customers--so the absurdist perspective allows us in a covert, devious way to deal with the Frustration we encounter, Knowing that we are always under someone's control and can never truly be free.

    After all, especially if we want to provide for our kids, then we could never truly say "to hell" with everyone. Hence, the absurdist perspective seems to have an underbelly of seething rage and passive aggressiveness . . .

  3. This topic subject produced a Baader-Mienhof or Plate O’ Shrimp phenomenon event for me. The phenomenon I am talking about is when you learn a new word or little known piece of information and then you see it again in a short span. I just recently learned of HL Mencken about two months ago, I found him interesting, so I read an extensive collection of his quotes, then about a month later had a perfect opportunity to use one of his quotes in an online discussion, a week later I told friends about the quote when a closely related topic came up at dinner, and now you post about Menken on one of my favorite blogs, which makes it an interesting string of coincidences.

    My favorite Mencken quote about religion is;

    "We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart."

    He certainly does epitomize the absurd perspective!


  4. RH, yes that's a classic Mencken line and a goodie.

    Anonymous makes an interesting observation, when he writes: "the absurdist perspective seems to have an underbelly of seething rage and passive aggressiveness."

    Mencken is a good example of that. Our feeling is, even as fans, that one can only read so much Mencken in one sitting, or it will leave you a raging misanthrope railing against all mankind's stupidities.

    But not all strains of the absurd are that way. There are those who wear their absurdist perspective lightly.


  5. Without his raging misanthropy Mencken wouldn't have been half as funny.