Mencken vs. the Mountebanks
by Stephen Cox | Posted February 22, 2013
“Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of a style.” — Jonathan Swift
Last October, a man named Wlodzimierz Umaniec (also known as Vladimir Umaniec, which is only a bit more helpful) went to the Tate Gallery in London and wrote “Vladimir Umanets’ [sic] 12 A potential piece of yellowism" on a painting by Mark Rothko called “Black on Maroon.” “Yellowism,” an artistic movement of which Umaniec is an advocate or perhaps the founder, was summarized by another advocate in this way: “Everything is equal. Everything is art. Everything is a potential piece of yellowism.” Umaniec is now in jail.
The defaced painting is fairly typical of Rothko’s work — a set of rectangles painted in various murky colors. Its restoration is expected to cost $300,000, cheap at the price, considering the fact that last May another Rothko painting, “Orange, Red, Yellow,” sold for $87 million. As for the aesthetic value of “Black on Maroon” . . . what can I say? I am not a Philistine. Whistler’s engravings make my heart leap up. I am excited by the iconographic problems of the Portland Vase. The late works of George Inness are among my favorite things, and it doesn’t matter that other people call them weirdly abstract and incomprehensible. But yeah — to me, Rothko is nothing but a man who obsessively painted dull versions of dull geometrical forms. I can scrape up a little interest in his technique. I think I am qualified to say that he has the best technique of anyone who ever set out to paint rectangles on canvas. But that is all. I suspect that when the New York Times called “Orange, Red, Yellow” “the most powerful of all his pictures,” it was taking its adjective from the wrong world of discourse. It might just as accurately call the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel the most decorative of all Michelangelo’s paintings.
In this case, Yahoo! News (of all horrible things) was more literate than the New York Times. You may think, “That’s not saying much,” but here Yahoo! wins by a mile. Its headline about the Umaniec affair was “Man Jailed for Defacing Pricey Painting.” Pricey: that’s exactly right. Not powerful, not renowned, not legendary, but pricey. Pricey says the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Something similar happened in an article by Michael Tarm and Pete Yost, published in the Huffington Post on February 16. The subject was Jesse Jackson, Jr.’s confession that he had exploited his public office (18 years in Congress!) for personal aggrandizement. There was a paragraph about Jackson’s father:
Several messages left with Jackson's father, the voluble civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, were not returned Friday. The elder Jackson has often declined to comment about his son's health and legal woes over the past several months.
Voluble says it all.
And isn’t that the goal of all good writing? I mean, a good writer doesn’t ruminate, “I’m going to state an exaggeration or approximation or vague representation of the truth as I see it, and you can sort of try to figure out what I mean.” He or she says, “I’m going to come as close as I can to hitting the target, and you can watch what I do and enjoy the sight.” When somebody hits the bullseye, people stand up and cheer — at least people who are smart enough to be interested in the game. But it’s more than a game, when truth is the target.
Lamentably, many libertarians appear to believe that to hit the target, you have to aim at the moon, or at least bay at it.
Of course, there are hundreds of ways of missing the target completely. You can undershoot; you can also overshoot. To Colin Powell, a man without a sense of proportion or a sense of humor, someone’s reference to President Obama’s evasions of truth as “shucking and jiving” is self-evidently racist, and sufficient evidence of a dark vein of intolerance in the Republican Party (to which institution, by the way, he owes every bit of his national prominence). And Powell is far from the worst archer on the range. To ordinary conservative spokesmen, everything that this administration does is the greatest invasion of American liberty since . . . since when? Since the last time the Republicans voted to jail people for smoking weed? I’m reminded of the late Sen. Sam Ervin, the genial blowhard who ran the Senate investigation of Watergate. Ervin referred to the crisis that he (with the able assistance of President Nixon) was engineering as the greatest since the Civil War. Say that while standing in a cemetery created for the military dead of the 20th century.
I.F. Stone, another darling of the Beltway, went Ervin one farther. He is said to have been queried about what should be inscribed on a plaque that astronauts could affix to the moon. He suggested that mankind be memorialized in this way: “Their Destructive Ingenuity Knows No Limits and Their Wanton Pollution No Restraint. Let the Rest of the Universe Beware.” Some people never seem to count themselves as members of Humanity. Well, draw your own conclusions.
Lamentably, many libertarians also appear to believe that to hit the target, you have to aim at the moon, or at least bay at it. They feel that any adjective that’s applicable to Hitler should also be applied to the local zoning board. It’s true, and it’s of great interest to political theory, that many officials and disciples of our mild and beneficent government (note to Colin Powell: I’m being sarcastic) would act like Hitler, Stalin, or Mao Tse-Tung if they were given a decent chance. It’s also true that many of them act like that anyway, within the sphere currently allotted them. Every judge who sends kids to jail for doing drugs, every regulator who talks about “crucifying” business people who don’t get with the program, every mad mother determined to rid our veins of demon rum is a tyrant and should be called a tyrant. But a constant barrage of abusive terms does not communicate the truth, much less calibrate it. I’ll put this simply: if you do nothing but shriek in people’s ears, they may eventually get tired of you.
Isabel Paterson, who spared none of her vast vocabulary on the sins of conservatives, modern liberals, and the occasional libertarian, identified a chronic problem in the language of cultural rebellion: people kept trying to write like H.L. Mencken, but they couldn’t do it. Mencken was a genius, but they weren’t, and the result, in their own writing, was sheer and mere abuse. If you can say anything as clever as “It is the dull man who is always sure, and the sure man who is always dull,” or “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard,” then you are entitled to rank yourself as a follower of Mencken, without fearing that his specter will appear in your room one night, cigar in hand, and cheerfully call you a mountebank. But if you can’t be that clever, you shouldn’t try.
The side of Mencken that people don’t notice is understatement, or just plain statement. Consider his review of An American Tragedy, a novel by his friend Theodore Dreiser. Mencken spends a few hundred words summarizing the plot of this long, long novel, which is about a man of no particular interest who kills a woman of no particular interest, gets caught, and gets executed. He observes Dreiser’s “spacious manner” in the “431 pages of small type” devoted to the man’s parentage, his early career, and the “disagreeable ebb” of his affair with the woman. Then he says:
So much for Volume I: 200,000 words. In Volume II we have the murder, the arrest, the trial and the execution: 185,000 more.
Obviously, there is something wrong here.
I can think of no more devastating understatement in the history of American literature.
Only after some special examples of Dreiser’s adventures in overstatement —
The “death house” in this particular prison was one of those crass erections and maintenances of human insensibility and stupidity principally for which no one primarily was really responsible.
Quite everything of all this was being published in the papers each day.
— does Mencken start piling on, but even then most of his attack consists of incremental understatement:
What is one to say of such dreadful bilge? What is one to say of a novelist who, after a quarter of a century at his trade, still writes it? What one is to say, I feel and fear, had better be engraved on the head of a pin and thrown into the ocean: there is such a thing as critical politesse. Here I can only remark that sentences of the kind I have quoted please me very little.
Now, while we are considering how to abuse without being abusive — in other words, how to have your say without boring everyone to tears — I should mention the existence of whimsy. You don’t have to denounce people all the time; you can also play with them. Gertrude Stein is, in her imaginative productions, someone who pleases me very little, but I love her for calling Ezra Pound “a village explainer — excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not.” This is a million times better than her crude lack of whimsy in saying to her publisher, Bennett Cerf (who was a pretty good guy, and put up with a lot), “You’re a very nice boy but you’re rather stupid.” (He was “stupid,” you understand, because he failed to comprehend her incomprehensible creative works.) Anyone can say that kind of thing about anyone she wants to criticize; it ain’t worth nothin’.
Isabel Paterson identified a chronic problem in the language of cultural rebellion: people kept trying to write like H.L. Mencken, but they couldn’t do it.
Whimsy’s next-door neighbor is self-deprecation, which can do a lot more for your street cred than belaboring your enemies could ever do. Let’s face it, most of your enemies have never heard of you. People who heave brickbats at Obama (yes, I do too) often picture him as staggering, stunned and wounded by their trenchant, caustic words; they glory in the picture. But he doesn’t care — which is fine, because you don’t need him to care. The people you need are your readers. And if they’re going to care about what you say, you may need them to care about you. To like you. To trust you. To trust your judgment about the topics you discuss. And believe it or not, readers are more likely to trust an author who recognizes, or seems to recognize, his own limitations than an author who thinks only about those of other people. That is why President Obama’s true believers have been reduced to folks who don’t even try to follow his speeches — utterances so full of credit to himself, so intent on discrediting others. Better to say with old Walt Whitman (a cunning writer, if ever there was one, and never more cunning than he was when grounding his radical perspective in a trustworthy authorial ethos), “I am as bad as the worst, but thank God I am as good as the best.” Or to say with Mencken, “The older I grow the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom.”
How do you get to be “as good as the best”? One way is just by showing that you’re having fun, as much fun as Whitman must have had when he made that statement. Very few people care whether An American Tragedy is good or bad; but in reviewing it, Mencken communicated to his audience the wonderful fun of making up your own mind on literary matters. I’d use the same adjective for the fun of being told, easily but persuasively, that you can make up your own mind about whether famous paintings are great, or merely pricey. The fun is suggested by the word itself, that one word: pricey. And there’s fun in everything, if you have the right word for it.
Mencken, an atheist or agnostic, loved traditional Christian hymns. So do I, so long as their words project the fun of choosing that one right word. An example: Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady’s (very loose) paraphrase of Psalm 130, “My soul with patience waits.” (Tate and Brady’s hymns were commonly sung in churches, c. 1700; this one is best with the tune “Franconia,” with which it is usually paired.) One of the stanzas goes like this:
My longing eyes look out
For thy enlivening ray,
More duly than the morning watch
To spy the dawning day.
Not a bad image: waiting for God’s guidance is like being a watchman, awaiting the dawn that will “enliven” everything. Watching, being a watchman, would be a dull enterprise, and it would make a dull image, were not “enlivening” provided to, well, enliven it. But look at “duly.” It’s not the first, or the thirtieth, adverb one would think of. Convenient substitutes are readily available: "As faithful as the morning watch," "More eager than the morning watch," "As hopeful as the morning watch." But “duly,” which would never occur to you if you were happy enough with ready and convenient terms, is the right, though unlikely, word. It brushes aside the emotional boilerplate and gets right to the fact: the watch is taken "duly" — daily, punctually, at the right and appointed time. Whatever you feel about waiting for the Lord, you keep on doing it, just as the shivering watchman does, every morning. That is how one becomes, eventually, enlivened. It’s all a matter of one or two words, but look at how interesting they make this song. And remember that it started with “patience.” Go write a poem about patience. See how far you get.
That little stanza shows a lot about writing, and reading too. Good writing doesn’t merely tell you something, or show you something, either; it interests you in figuring out how it told you and showed you so much.
Readers are more likely to trust an author who recognizes his own limitations. That is why President Obama’s true believers have been reduced to folks who don’t even try to follow his speeches.
Of course, I don’t mean “figuring out what the hell the author meant.” The need to do that is hardly an invitation to appreciate anyone’s literary skill, especially if you can’t tell whether the meaning you find is the right one or not. When politicians demand a “comprehensive solution to the immigration problem,” when unions demand “a living wage,” when parents confess that their kids “have issues,” when a criminal admits that he “may have made some wrong choices,” when “activists” chant (as they did in Washington the other day), “Forward on climate change!”, what is one to do? Subject their remarks to intensive literary investigation? As soon as you think you’ve found the secret significance of the words, the speakers interrupt your deliberations, asserting that you’ve “misinterpreted” them and should have put their words “in the proper context,” whatever that may be.
Garson Kanin, that prince of Hollywood wits, provided an easy exit from such difficulties. “When your work speaks for itself,” he said, “don't interrupt." A corollary is, “If you need to interrupt, then your work isn’t speaking very well for itself.” If your words need to be poked, probed, kicked, and threatened with fates worse than death before they wake up, shake their angry manes, and emit snarls of protest, then they aren’t proper words in proper places, and you have no style to bother with. So go away. We’ll have fun with someone else’s words. We’ll have fun writing our own.
Stephen Cox is editor of Liberty, and a professor of literature at the University of California San Diego. His recent books include The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison and American Christianity: The Continuing Revolution.
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