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!