Join 3,518 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


On the contrary, it seems to me that [God], on the strength of His daily acts, He must be set down a most cruel, stupid and villainous fellow.
February 1, 2012 5:42 AM   Subscribe

From lettersofnote.com : In July of 1931, author and philosopher Will Durant wrote to a number of notable figures and asked, essentially, "What is the meaning of life?" His letter concluded: Spare me a moment to tell me what meaning life has for you, what keeps you going, what help—if any—religion gives you, what are the sources of your inspiration and your energy, what is the goal or motive-force of your toil, where you find your consolations and your happiness, where, in the last resort, your treasure lies. Write briefly if you must; write at length and at leisure if you possibly can; for every word from you will be precious to me. Durant received many replies, a selection of which were compiled in the book, "On the Meaning of Life." By far the greatest response, in my opinion, came from the great H. L. Mencken. It can, and should, be read below. (Description above taken straight from the linked post, as it summed it up pretty well)
posted by datter (30 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Agreeable work" + "day to day intercourse with family and friends" = "very amusing".
(And don't forget to kick God's ass.)
posted by pracowity at 5:57 AM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Every new Mefite should have to read this during orientation, as part of the chapter titled "The Majority View on the Blue."
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:39 AM on February 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Any one else feel that Mencken isn't as highly lauded as he should be? Part of it was his medium, I suppose ...newspaper columns are pretty ephemeral, but part of it seems to be that American culture won't firmly include into the canon such an unapologetic atheist.
posted by leotrotsky at 6:47 AM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


He seems to me to be a follower of Epicurus
posted by Renoroc at 6:51 AM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


"What is the meaning of life?"

"To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women."
posted by Fizz at 6:51 AM on February 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


Any one else feel that Mencken isn't as highly lauded as he should be?

Mencken is still highly esteemed by a number of people, particularly journalists and ex-journalists. (David Simon used a Mencken quote as an epigraph for the final episode of The Wire.) The fact that he's not more widely known and lauded might stem from his philo-Germanism during WWI. (Although he later attacked Hitler and assailed FDR for not permitting Jewish refugees into the country in the run-up to WWII).
posted by Rangeboy at 7:05 AM on February 1, 2012


Any one else feel that Mencken isn't as highly lauded as he should be?

Let me introduce you to the wonder that is @hlmenckenbot.
posted by Fizz at 7:07 AM on February 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


I love that he's so firmly in the innatist camp about career choice. It's all about the abilities you're born with: the cow gives milk even if self-interest dictates she give gin. She also gives it for her own satisfaction, not because it helps the dairy man. Excellent.
posted by shivohum at 7:10 AM on February 1, 2012


Mencken's an odd duck to me. I do love olde-tymey wits like Benchley and Perelman, but a walk through the Chrestomathy left me sour on the ol' "Sage of Baltimore." Intellect and wit were there, but also a smug and dismissive disposition that tainted it all. I suppose it's just basic ideological antipathy; we see the world so differently that unless he was writing about something banal -- I recall a piece on coal chutes that was quite charming -- he comes across as a reactionary dickhead who's too busy reveling in his superiority to see what's going on. The blindness weakens the wit, as it depends upon perception to work.

I'm in the distinct minority in my distaste for the man's work, I know.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 7:14 AM on February 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


Life demands to be lived. Inaction, save as a measure of recuperation between bursts of activity, is painful and dangerous to the healthy organism—in fact, it is almost impossible. Only the dying can be really idle.

Oh yeah? Well, as an idle person, let me tell you someth-- zzzzzzzzzzz...
posted by stinkycheese at 7:29 AM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


"What I do was ordained by the inscrutable fates, not chosen by me" is a particularly lovely turn of phrase. The ambivalence that it suggests, stirred in with the curiosity, and the general resignation of atheism suggests, only vaguely, a mild dissatisfaction with his ability to understand why, which is a thing we all grapple with, idolaters, agnostics, theists, and atheists alike.

I haven't read a lot of Mencken, but I appreciate his way with words, a thing which seems sorely lacking in the general world of journalism, today.

Also, Will Durant.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:36 AM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Any one else feel that Mencken isn't as highly lauded as he should be?

At the time, he was comparable to Mark Twain in influence. I think that part of his decline since then is that his work was far more era-specific - a lot of his reviews deal with other writers that (with some exceptions, like Conrad) are no longer part of the literary scene, and he took some positions (such as that during WWI) that seem in retrospect nonsensical. The only thing that I can remember reading of his that seemed not only witty but relevant was his Scopes Trial coverage.

Twain, in addition to being a clever cultural commentator, wrote children's books that have given him a strong following decades after most of his other writing has vanished from the public's awareness - similar to how C.S. Lewis is, for most people, "that Narnia guy" despite his vast non-fiction ouevre. Mencken's religious views probably didn't help, but I think that even had he been a religious man, he would have pretty much vanished from our cultural awareness by now.
posted by AdamCSnider at 7:44 AM on February 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


I agree that Mencken comes across as a bit of a closed-minded crank. He revels in the closed-mindedness ("We have the same general tastes, and see the world much alike") which, to me, is sadly limiting. I think it's some kind of ideal to have a bunch of friends who tell you how great you are, how right you are, and how those Other People are all so wrong, but that lacks empathy and growth that come from a truly uncomfortable situation.

So, Mencken is comfortable and can write good. It's not some wild revelation to read that people like people similar to themselves, but writing in an echo chamber isn't that great either.

Also, Will Durant. Man do I love me some Will Durant.
posted by Turkey Glue at 7:55 AM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, but aren't many people described as "iconoclast" or "dick," depending on the speaker?

Mencken wrote a lot about contemporary issues that have simply fallen out of our awareness. *shrug* It gave him relevance then but has not served him well in the long term. He wrote with a lot of bile (I mean, "passion"), so that many of the events & people he mentions which leave me scratching my head still amek for entertaining reading.

In college I took a class called "Literature of the Twenties" that used Mencken as a foreground to novels like "Babbitt" and "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." That was an awesome class. (The same prof also did the Chaucer class and busted out with spittle-flecked Middle English at the slightest provocation. I loved him.)
posted by wenestvedt at 8:23 AM on February 1, 2012


"The precise form of an individual’s activity is determined, of course, by the equipment with which he came into the world."

Hear that noise? That's Malcolm Gladwell loading his gun; he's got a tombstone to shoot.
posted by Turkey Glue at 8:27 AM on February 1, 2012


I love that he's so firmly in the innatist camp about career choice.
it is good when people take positions like that

it lets me know what to expect
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 8:44 AM on February 1, 2012


(i.e. mencken's innatism)
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 8:56 AM on February 1, 2012


"What is the meaning of life?"

"To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women."
Warren Ellis has, on occasion, ruined this quote's reference for me, and by "ruined," I mean "provided links to images that sear my brain."
posted by stannate at 9:21 AM on February 1, 2012


Kenneth Rexroth's remarks on Mencken.
posted by Bureau of Public Secrets at 9:34 AM on February 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


Oh the poor jaded intelligentsia, who believe Mencken is obsolete because his ideas are dated because they are so commonplace. They don't realize these ideas are commonplace because Mencken made them ubiquitous.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:53 AM on February 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's all about the abilities you're born with: the cow gives milk even if self-interest dictates she give gin. She also gives it for her own satisfaction, not because it helps the dairy man. Excellent.

That reminds me of a crotchety old Irish psychiatrist that is a friend of my family. He once said, "As much as the calf likes to suck, the cow likes to suckle."
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:56 AM on February 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


That reminds me of a crotchety old Irish psychiatrist that is a friend of my family. He once said, "As much as the calf likes to suck, the cow likes to suckle."

This says a lot about various "helping" behaviors, I think
posted by grobstein at 10:32 AM on February 1, 2012


There is no meaning to life. We're here, we don't know why, we must occupy ourselves or fester uselessly. That's it. Obviously. Trying to pretend otherwise is the desperate spiritual masturbation of someone who hasn't looked at the stars enough.

The Mencken piece is, predictably enough, terrific. Especially this:

The act of worship, as carried on by Christians, seems to me to be debasing rather than ennobling.

And this:

I do not believe in immortality, and have no desire for it. The belief in it issues from the puerile egos of inferior men.

posted by Decani at 11:36 AM on February 1, 2012


"What is the meaning of life?"

"To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women."


Infusing your Spiritual Life with Conan.
posted by Sebmojo at 11:40 AM on February 1, 2012


Dammit I said INFUSING YOUR SPIRITUAL LIFE WITH CONAN.
posted by Sebmojo at 11:42 AM on February 1, 2012


I do not believe in immortality, and have no desire for it. The belief in it issues from the puerile egos of inferior men.

Alex, what is "whistling in the graveyard"?
posted by Crabby Appleton at 11:50 AM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Whatever you might think of Durant, his answer to the meaning of life was far better than this guy. (From the same site linked in the OP). Thanks for the find to the entire site! Great stuff there.
posted by webhund at 12:16 PM on February 1, 2012


An entertaining essay on Mencken by fellow unabashedly atheistic curmudgeon Gore Vidal.
posted by Atom Eyes at 1:23 PM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Mencken reminds me of Christopher Hitchens: a gleeful shit-disturber whose frequent profound insights are almost but not quite countered by his odd phases of being woefully off-base.

As for Will Durant, I personally feel that every first year Liberal Arts college student should take a compulsory overview course of the 11 volumes of The Story of Civilization.
posted by ovvl at 4:50 PM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


The entire book is well worth reading if you can find it. There are replies to Durant from Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Andre Maurois, and many others. A terse reply from Gandhi (after a set of brief answers to the questions): "You have asked me to write at leisure and at length if I can. Unfortunately I have no leisure and therefore writing at length is an impossibility." Bertrand Russell: "I am sorry to say that at the moment I am so busy as to be convinced that life has no meaning whatever .... I do not see that we can judge what would be the result of the discovery of truth, since none has hitherto been discovered." George Bernard Shaw: "How the devil do I know? Has the question itself any meaning?"

My favorite is from a lifer at Sing Sing named Owen Middleton: "In the knowledge that I am an inalienable part of this great, wonderful, upward movement called life, and that nothing, neither pestilence, nor physical affliction, nor depression, nor prison, can take away from me my part, lies my consolation, my inspiration, and my treasure."
posted by blucevalo at 7:45 PM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


« Older A heartwarming rendition of a Sonic Drive-In order...  |  A swarm of nano quadrotors.... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments