The Smart Set/March, 1922
THRENODY— Where is the graveyard of dead gods? What lingering mourner waters their mounds? There was a day when Jupiter was the king of all the gods, and any man who doubted his puissance was ipso facto a barbarian and an ignoramus. But where in all the world is there a man who worships Jupiter today? And what of Huitzilopochtli? In one year — and it was but five hundred years ago — no less than 50,000 youths and maidens were slain in sacrifice to him. Today, if he is remembered at all, it is only by some vagrant savage in the depths of the Mexican forest. Huitzilopochtli, like many other gods, had no human father; his mother was a virtuous widow; he was born of an apparently innocent flirtation that she carried on with the sun. When he frowned, his father, the sun, stood still. When he roared with rage, earthquakes engulfed whole cities. When he thirsted, he was watered with 10,000 gallons of human blood. But today Huitzilopochtli is as magnificently forgotten as Allen G. Thurman. Once the peer of Allah, he is now the peer of General Coxey, Richmond P. Hobson, Nan Patterson, Alton G. Parker, Adelina Patti, General Weyler and Tom Sharkey.
Speaking of Huitzilopochtli recalls his brother, Tezcatlipoca. Tezcatlipoca was almost as powerful: he consumed 25,000 virgins a year. Lead me to his tomb: I would weep, and hang a couronne des perles! But who knows where it is? Or where the grave of Quetzalcoatl is? Or Tlaloc? Or Chalchihuitlicue? Or Xiehtecutli? Or Centeotl, that sweet one? Or Tlazolteotl, the goddess of love? Or Mictlan? Or Ixtlilton? Or Omacatl? Or Yacatecutli? Or Mixcoatl? Or Xipe? Or all the host of Tzitzimitles? Where are their bones? Where is the willow on which they hung their harps? In what forlorn and unheard-of hell do they await the resurrection morn? Who enjoys their residuary estates? Or that of Dis, whom Caesar found to be the chief god of the Celts? Or that of Tarvos, the bull? Or that of Moccos, the pig? Or that of Epona, the mare? Or that of Mullo, the celestial jackass? There was a time when the Irish revered all these gods as violently as they now hate the English. But today even the drunkest Irishman laughs at them.
But they have company in oblivion: the hell of dead gods is as crowded as the Presbyterian hell for babies. Damona is there, and Esus, and Drunemeton, and Silvana, and Dervones, and Adsalluta, and Deva, and Belisama, and Axona, and Vintios, and Taranucus, and Sulis, and Cocidius, and Adsmerius, and Dumiatis, and Caletos, and Moccus, and Ollovidius, and Albiorix, and Leucitius, and Vitucadrus, and Ogmios, and Uxellimus, and Borvo, and Grannos, and Mogons. All mighty gods in their day, worshipped by millions, full of demands and impositions, able to bind and loose — all gods of the first class, not pikers. Men labored for generations to build vast temples to them — temples with stones as large as hay-wagons. The business of interpreting their whims occupied thousands of priests, wizards, archdeacons, evangelists, haruspices, bishops, archbishops. To doubt them was to die, usually at the stake.
Armies took to the field to defend them against infidels: villages were burned, women and children were butchered, cattle were driven off. Yet in the end they all withered and died, and today there is none so poor to do them reverence. Worse, the very tombs in which they lie are lost, and so even a respectful stranger is debarred from paying them the slightest and politest homage.
What has become of Sutekh, once the high god of the whole Nile Valley? What has become of:
All these were once gods of the highest class. Many of them are mentioned with fear and trembling in the Old Testament. They ranked, five or six thousand years ago, with Jahveh himself; the worst of them stood far higher than Thor or Wotan. Yet they have all gone down the chute, and with them the following:
Arianrod Nuada Argetlam
Sokk-mimi Llaw Gyffes
Dea Dia Mars
Iuno Lucina Diana of Ephesus
Gasan-lil U-Tin-dir ki
You may think I spoof. That I invent the names. I do not. Ask your pastor to lend you any good treatise on comparative religion: you will find them all listed. They were all gods of the highest standing and dignity — gods of civilized peoples — worshipped and believed in by millions. All were theoretically omnipotent, omniscient and immortal. And all are dead.
Deus Nobis Haec Otia Fecit.— The marvel is that the human body lasts so long. Consider the stomach. Think of the things that go into it in the course of a year: grease, staphylococci, bones, sinews, cartilages, caffeine, ethyl alcohol, castor oil, ginger, pepper, mustard, mayonnaise, live oysters, hair, gravel, chicken pin-feathers, sugar, starch, ptomaines, green apples, seeds, cellulose, sour milk, tobacco juice, paprika, sausage-skins, contaminated water, citric acid, blood, vinegar, garlic, embalming fluid, bad air. Eat mustard, and you eat allyl isothiocyanate, a violent poison; when applied to the skin it raises huge blisters. Put pepper on your tomatoes, and you assault your mucosa with capsicin, a substance that is even more irritating. Take a dose of castor oil to repair the damage, and you reinforce the allyl isothiocyanate and capsicin with ricinoleic acid, a poison so violent that it is the cause of a definite disease, ricinism, the chief symptoms of which are hemorrhagic gastroenteritis and icterus, i.e., jaundice. Yet the human stomach goes on taking in and disposing of such stuff, year in and year out, sometimes for nearly a century. Of all the wonders of God, certainly it is one of the chiefest. Let us remember it the next time we pray.
L’ Amour. — It is difficult for even the most skillful actors to keep such a play as Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” from degenerating into a farce. The reason is not far to seek. It lies in the plain fact that such transactions as Ibsen sets forth — a silly woman’s efforts to be heavily romantic, the maneuvers of a diabetic lover, the cuckolding of a husband wearing whiskers — are intrinsically farcical. All love affairs, in truth, are farcical — that is, to the spectators. Have you ever observed one in real life without grinning? When I hear that some old friend has succumbed to the blandishments of a woman, however virtuous and beautiful, I laugh. When I hear that they are quarrelling, I laugh. When I hear that she is carrying on with the curate of the parish, I laugh. When I hear that her husband, in revenge, is sneaking his stenographer to dinner in an Italian restaurant, I laugh. And so do you. But when you go to the theatre, the dramatist often asks you to wear a solemn frown while he displays the same nonsense — that is, while he depicts a fat actress as going crazy when she discovers that her husband, an actor with a face like the abdomen of a ten-pin, has run off to Asbury Park, N. J., with another actress who pronounces all French words in the manner of Akron, O.
The best dramatists, of course, make no such mistake. In Shakespeare, love is always depicted as comedy — sometimes light and charming, as in “Twelfth Night,” but usually rough and buffoonish, as in “The Taming of the Shrew.” This comic attitude is plainly visible even in such plays as “Hamlet” and “Romeo and Juliet.” In its main outlines, I suppose, “Hamlet” is properly looked upon as a tragedy, but if you believe that the love passages are intended to be tragic then all I ask is that you give a sober reading to the colloquies between Hamlet and Ophelia. They are not only farcical; they are obscene; Shakespeare, through the mouth of Hamlet, derides the whole business with extravagant ribaldry. As for “Romeo and Juliet,” what is it but a penetrating burlesque upon the love guff that was fashionable in the poet’s time? True enough, his head buzzed with such loveliness that he could not write even burlesque without making it beautiful — compare “Much Ado About Nothing”— but nevertheless it is quite absurd to say that he was serious when he wrote this tale of calf-love. Imagine such a man taking seriously the love spasms and hallucinations of a cutie of 14, the tin-pot heroics of a boy of 18! Shakespeare remembered very well the nature of his own amorous fancies at 18. It was the year of his seduction by Ann Hathaway, whose brothers later made him marry her, much to his dismay. He wrote the play at 45. Tell it to the Marines!
I have a suspicion that even Ibsen, though he seldom showed much humor, indulged himself in some quiet spoofing when he wrote “A Doll’s House,” “Hedda Gabler,” “The Lady From the Sea” and “Little Eyolf.” The whole last act of “Hedda Gabler” could be converted into burlesque by changing ten words; as I have said, it is almost always burlesque as bad actors play it. In the cases of “Ghosts” and “The Master-Builder” there can be no doubt whatever. The former is a piece of buffoonery designed to make fun of the fools who were outraged by “A Doll’s House”; the latter is a comic piece founded upon personal experience. At the age of 60 Ibsen amused himself with a harmless flirtation with a girl of 16. Following the custom of her sex, she took his casual winks and cheek-pinchings quite seriously, and began hinting to the whole neighborhood that the old boy was hopelessly gone on her, and that he intended to divorce Frau Ibsen and run off with her to Italy. All this gave entertainment to Ibsen, who was a sardonic man, and he began speculating as to what would happen to a man of his age who actually yielded to the gross provocations of such a wench. The result was “The Master-Builder.” But think of the plot! He makes the master-builder climb a church-steeple, and then jump off! Imagine him regarding such slap-stick farce seriously!
The world has very little sense of humor. It is always wagging its ears solemnly over elaborate jocosities. For 600 years it has slobbered and sweated over the “Divine Comedy” of Dante, despite the plain fact that the work is a flaming satire upon the whole Christian hocus-pocus of heaven, purgatory and hell. To have tackled such nonsense head-on, in Dante’s time, would have been to flout the hangman; hence the poet clothed his attack in an irony so delicate that the ecclesiastical police were baffled. Why is the poem called a comedy? I have read at least a dozen discussions of the question by modem pedants, all of them labored and unconvincing. The same problem obviously engaged the scholars of the poet’s own time. He called the thing simply “comedy”; they added the adjective “divine” in order to ameliorate what seemed to them to be an intolerable ribaldry. Well, here is a “comedy” in which human beings are torn limb from limb, boiled in sulphur, cut up with red-hot knives, and filled with molten lead! Can one imagine a man capable of such a poem regarding such fiendish imbecilities seriously? Certainly not. They appeared just as idiotic to him as they appear to you or me. But the Palmers and Burlesons of the day made it impossible to say so in plain language, so he said so behind a smoke-screen of gaudy poetry. How Dante would have roared if he could have known that six hundred years later the President of the United States, as a good Baptist, would take the whole thing with utter seriousness, and deliver a nonsensical harangue upon the lessons in it for American Christians!
The case of Wagner’s “Parsifal” is still more remarkable. Even Nietzsche was deceived by it. Like the most maudlin German stock-broker’s wife at Baireuth he mistook the composer’s elaborate and outrageous burlesque of Christianity for a tribute to Christianity, and so denounced him as a jackass and refused to speak to him thereafter. To this day “Parsifal” is given with all the trappings of a religious ceremonial, and pious folks go to hear it who would instantly shut their ears if the band began playing “Tristan und Isolde.” It has become, in fact, a sort of “Way Down East” or “Ben Hur” of music drama — a bait for luring patrons who are never seen in the opera-house otherwise. But try to imagine such a thumping atheist as Wagner writing a religious opera seriously! And if, by any chance, you succeed in imagining it, then turn to the Char-Freitag music, and play it on your victrola. Here is the central scene of the piece, the moment of most austere solemnity — and to it Wagner fits music that is so luscious and so fleshly — indeed, so downright lascivious and indecent — that even I, who am almost anaesthetic to such provocations, blush and giggle every time I hear it. The Flower Maidens do not raise my blood-pressure a single ohm; I have actually snored through the whole second act of “Tristan.” But when I hear that Char-Freitag music all of my Freudian suppressions begin groaning and stretching their legs in the dungeons of my unconscious. And what does Char-Freitag mean? Char-Freitag means Good Friday.
The Critic as Gentleman. — It is impossible for the true critic to be a gentleman. I use the word in its common meaning, to wit, a man who avoids offense against punctilio, who is averse to an indulgence in personalities, who is ready to sacrifice the truth to good manners and good form, and who has respect and sympathy for the feelings of his inferiors. Criticism is intrinsically and inevitably a boorish art. Its practitioner takes color from it, and his gentlemanliness — if he has any— promptly becomes lost in its interpretative labyrinths. The critic who is a gentleman is no critic. He is merely the dancing-master of an art.
Impressionism and Expressionism. — Impressionism : the expression of an impression. Expressionism: the impression of an expression.
A Needed Reform. — Now that bootlegging, once confined to the South and Middle West, has taken on the proportions of a nation-wide business, enlisting millions of capital and affording a livelihood to thousands of investors and wage-earners, it is high time to look into its methods and its personnel, and to take measures against its corruption by abuses. Legally, I suppose, very little can be done. The legislative arm is paralyzed by the idiotic constitutional assumption that the public sale of alcoholic liquors has ceased. But the history of the common law (as lately expounded very eloquently by Prof. Dr. Roscoe Pound, of Harvard) shows that the same difficulty has been encountered very often in the past, and that it has been surmounted successfully. What the legislatures can’t do, our grand and petit juries can do, and must do. That is to say, they must devise means of regulating bootlegging, so that those practitioners of it who are honest may be protected from unfair competition, and those who are scoundrels may be whipped of justice. One bootlegger of the latter variety, peddling poisonous synthetic gin in a large city, is sufficient to discredit the whole profession.
In the old days of the regulation of what is called “vice,” before vice crusading dispersed prostitution to all parts of our larger cities, the practitioners of the venerable profession were supervised, in certain enlightened cities, by a device which might be conveniently applied to bootlegging. Even in those days, it will be recalled, it was theoretically unlawful to keep a bordello, and any woman keeping one was liable to summary arrest. This liability, of course, exposed the proprietors of such establishments to constant blackmail by the police, just as bootleggers are now blackmailed by the prohibition enforcement officers. In order to put an end to the abuse— which caused the ladies to rob their patrons, just as the bootleggers now rob their customers — the appropriate judicial officers set up a system whereby every offending Jezebel was formally brought into court, once or twice a year, and forced to pay a fine. If she had conducted her establishment in an orderly manner and there were no complaints against her, that fine was small. If, on the contrary, she had permitted disorder on her premises, she was fined heavily. If, finally, she had connived at anything downright criminal, such as the garrotting of a Y. M. C. A. secretary or the robbery of a United States Senator, she was sent to jail, and her place ordered closed.
This system, though plainly extralegal, worked admirably. The learned judges in charge of it were enabled to confine “vice” to appropriate neighborhoods, to divorce it from robbery, and, most important of all, to prevent blackmailing by the police, who invariably practice the art when the way is open. The vice crusaders, when the white slave buncombe of nine or ten years ago gave them their chance, destroyed the scheme by appealing to the letter of the law (cf. Matthew XXIII), and so the ladies of the town were scattered, and now they settle wherever they may and carry on their business in the ferocious manner of curb-brokers or small-town bankers, and the police prey upon them in a wholesale and lamentable manner. The net result is that the amount of money they take from the average American city is three or four times what it was under the system displaced, and the incidence of what is mellifluously called social disease, despite the improvements in prophylaxis, is at least twice as great. So much for the practical benefits of “moral” reforms.
What I suggest is that the abandoned plan be revived, and applied to the bootleggers. As things stand, there is no way of controlling them. A bootlegger who manufactures bad gin out of cologne spirits and juniper oil is just as able to pay the graft demanded by the police as a bootlegger who observes the strictest ethics of his profession, and so deals only in the genuine smuggled goods. In fact, he is more able to pay it, for his margin of profit is much larger. The consequences are visible on all sides; outrageous prices, universal distrust, and a great deal of mysterious illness. If, now, the proper judicial officers should take the matter into their own hands, summon all known bootleggers before them, lay down reasonable rules for the conduct of the business, and keep it in order by a system of graduated fines, there would be an immediate fall in prices, the police would be unable to carry on their present blackmailing, and innocent men and women would be protected from the dangers of poisoning. Say a bootlegger offered one a case of genuine Scotch whiskey, and it turned out on examination to be an Italian imitation. with crudely forged labels. One would simply take a specimen bottle to the judge, a note would be made of it, and when the offending bootlegger came up for his annual, or semi-annual, or monthly inspection he would be fined $1,000, and perhaps sent to jail. By the same token it would be possible for the clients of a thoroughly reliable and honorable bootlegger to speak for him when his turn came, and have his fine reduced to a purely nominal sum.
It will be objected, of course, that this scheme would violate the law — the same objection, precisely, that the vice crusaders made to the brothel regulation that I have described. But the choice, it must be manifest, is not between violating the law and not violating the law, but between violating it decently and in order and violating it corruptly and dangerously, as is done now. If anything in this world is plain, it must be that no conceivable scheme of enforcement will ever make the large cities of the United States actually dry. In the smaller towns it may be possible, at least theoretically, but certainly no one not idiotic looks for it to happen in such places as New York and Chicago. The present scheme is simply a scheme for debauching the police — and the cost of debauching them must be borne by the consumer. Worse, it tends to degrade the bootlegger — in fact, to make him a professional criminal, with all a professional criminal’s lack of conscience. He has no definite standing, his rights are not protected, he is subject to the competition of the lowest sorts of scoundrels. No wonder he occasionally works off a case of raspberry juice as vermouth, or sells a barrel of crudely reinforced near-beer as a barrel of authentic Heiles!
You would do the same if your business were invaded by a horde of pickpockets, ex-policemen, jockeys, apartment house janitors, street-walkers and other such criminals, and you had to submit to the arbitrary and unconscionable extortions of an indefinite number of enforcement officers, always changing and always rapacious.
My plan, I need not argue, would also greatly improve the morale of the enforcement force, and so inspire it to an honest effort to take and jail all of the current forgers of labels, refillers of bottles, and manufacturers of wood alcohol liqueurs. The trouble at present is that the temptation confronting the enforcement officers is almost irresistible, and that even when one of them manages to resist it he must nevertheless face the public suspicion that he has succumbed. Popular cynicism, in fact, now bathes the Prohibition spies and agents provocateurs with all of the cruel doubts that it used to heap upon Sunday-school superintendents. No one seems to want to admit that it is possible for them — or, at all events, for some of them — to be honest.
This is unjust. I believe that a good many of them are absolutely honest, even today, and that many more would be honest if it were not so difficult. They carry on an enterprise that is intrinsically hopeless, just as the enterprise of putting down “vice” is intrinsically hopeless. If they were permitted to abandon it, and to concentrate their effort upon lesser enterprises of a more feasible character, they would improve in morale, and also in morals. No man can do good work if impossibilities are demanded of him. To ask anybody of men, however ingenious and however conscientious, to reduce New York— or Chicago, or San Francisco, or Philadelphia, or Boston, or Baltimore, or Pittsburgh, or any other large town — to actual dryness is to ask an impossibility beside which jumping over the moon sinks to the estate of a parlor trick for paralytics, and squaring the circle becomes a recreation for morons, or even for Congressmen.
I am often accused of failing to make my criticisms of life in the Republic constructive— of tearing down without building up. Well, here I offer constructive criticism. My scheme is simple, convenient, inexpensive, and safe. It would diminish roguery. It would put an end to the corruption of the police. It would protect the innocent. Which great American city will be the first to adopt it?
Reply to a Remonstrance. — Nevertheless, my dear fellow, simply try to imagine Beethoven playing golf! Or joining a Rotary Club! Or reading the Philadelphia Ledger! Or voting for Harding!
Observation No. 314 — It may not always be true, yet it has been my experience to find it common, that love and a precisely conducted household do not often go together. When I see a home meticulously managed, I generally feel, and learn subsequently, that the love of the man for the woman and of the woman for the man has been chilled in the degree that their house and home have been brought to a point of machinelike operation. Love and butlers are not handmaidens. Laughing love and the happiness that comes of it are given to carelessness and disarray, at least in some measure. Perfect routine is a stranger to them. No woman who loves a man deeply, wildly, passionately, has ever been a perfect housekeeper.
Moral Reminiscence. — In my apprentice years as a literatus I made a living, like many others, as a dramatic critic for a daily newspaper. Compared with certain others I was ignorant, but compared to the great majority, even of old practitioners, I was extremely well-informed, and hence very cocky. Worse, I had a waggish pen, and knew how to make the booboisie snicker. This gift, exercised upon the poor mimes who frequented the town of my residence, frequently cast a blight upon the box-office, and so the local Frohmans often complained to my paper, and even demanded that I be cashiered forthwith. But that paper was so rich that it could afford to be virtuous, and every time the Frohmans complained I simply threw on ten or twenty more amperes of my mockery, and drove a few more hundreds of possible patrons away from their houses. Finally, they gave it up. Then I tired of my job, and quit.
Who was right, the Frohmans or I? I had no doubt in those days that I was right. I have no doubt today that the Frohmans were right. On the one hand stood a group of reputable business men who had invested their money in a lawful business, and were trying to make a living at it; on the other hand stood an irresponsible young man who deliberately tried to cut down their profits. I do not say that I was wrong about the plays and players they offered to the boobs; on the contrary, I believe that I was usually right. But the essential thing is that I was absolutely without conscience or responsibility in the matter — that the worst that could have happened to me would have been the loss of my job, and that this was very unlikely and I knew it to be unlikely — that, to all intents and purposes, I was engaged in a combat in which my antagonists could and did suffer grievous wounds, whereas I myself stood as secure against injury as if I had been armed with Excalibur.
That was years ago, before experience of the world had brought me sense, and before foreign travel had awakened me to a consciousness of honor. I was young, and hence a savage. But I often think of it today. And whenever I think of it, the thought intrudes that this, fundamentally, is what is the matter with the whole art of criticism: that every critic is in the position, so to speak, of God, and has no responsibility save to his own decency.
He can smite without being smitten. He challenges other men’s work, and is exposed to no like challenge of his own. The more reputations he breaks, the more his own reputation is secured — and there is no lawful agency to determine, as he himself professes to determine in the case of other men, whether his motives are honest and his methods are fair. God Himself is less irresponsible for He at least must keep the respect of the theologians, or go down to ruin with His predecessors, all flung into the ash-heap for high crimes and misdemeanors, but the critic is judged only by public opinion — nay, by a very narrow and special opinion — and if he is a clever man, if he really knows his trade, he is himself the chief influence in forming that opinion.
Vox Populi. — Sometimes, of course, the great masses of human Fords and Camels are right about this or that, just as the rev. clergy are sometimes right. They were right about slavery in the United States; they were right about Bryan; they were right now and then during the late war. But if the fact revives your belief in their intelligence, go read the arguments whereby the Abolitionists goaded them into the Civil War, and the reasoning whereby McKinley and Mark Hanna rescued them from the Bryan madness in 1896, and the preposterous nonsense with which Woodrow wooed and won them in 1914, 1915 and 1916!
The Penalty. — One of the harshest burdens that a civilized man living under a democracy must bear is this: that all his acts are ascribed to sordid and degrading motives, i.e., to the sort of motives that would move his fellow citizens if they were capable of his acts. In many years of controversy, chiefly with Methodists, Prohibitionists, the petty variety of pedagogues, politicians, anti-vivisectionists, osteopaths and other such vermin, I have noticed that they constantly assume that I am as venal as they are, and hence incapable of maintaining any opinion without being directly rewarded for it. The Prohibitionists, in the old days, accused me of being in the pay of the brewers; today they accuse me of being in the pay of the bootleggers. The Methodists, when I object to their buffooneries, charge that I am a secret agent of Rome. The osteopaths and their associated quacks hint that I take a retainer from the Medical Trust, i.e., from such fellows as the Mayo brewers. Dr. George Crile and Dr. William S. Halsted. And when I am not accused of accepting money I am accused of sycophancy, of cowardice, of superstition, or of some other peculiar weakness of the Homo boobus. During the war, every time I loosed a cackle against American hypocrisy and knavery I was denounced either as a hireling of the Wilhelmstrasse or as a German patriot of almost Rooseveltian imbecility. After the war, when I presumed to speak out against the shysterism of the American courts, the extravagant tyrannies of Burleson, Palmer et al. and the poltrooneries of the American Legion, I was damned as a Bolshevik, i.e., as a mixture of brigand and idiot.
I formally protest against these libels, and give notice that I shall challenge them hereafter in a very waspish and unpleasant manner. In my own case, of course, they do no practical harm, for I have no desire for the favorable opinion of the proletariat, but in other cases they obviously work against the good of the country. Imagine an educated and self-respecting American going into politics — not for selfish ends, but for the altruistic and patriotic purpose of displacing at least one thief from the public trough, and of raising at least one voice against the prevailing stupidity, corruption and dishonor. How many Americans of the mob would actually believe in his bona fides? Not one in a hundred thousand. The others would assume as a matter of course that he was animated by the same low motives that would move them in like case — in brief, that his apparent decency was no more than a mask to hide an interior villainy — that he was out, in the common phrase, for what he could get out of it. Every intelligent American knows this to be true, and so it is very rare for an intelligent American, if also honest, to go into politics. The result is visible daily. Our politics is so degraded that its most ordinary and routine practices would disgust and humiliate a society of polecats. The men who could improve it are kept out by the mob’s belief that they are members of the mob themselves, and thus share in its venality and subscribe to its code of honor.
Clothes and Music. — Although there doesn’t seem to be much sense in the remark, I yet believe that fine music and fashion somehow do not jibe. I don’t believe that one can get full pleasure out of fine music when one is all dolled up; Beethoven can’t be profoundly enjoyed in a swallowtail, nor the songs of Schumann in décolleté. Fashion is all right for the banalities of the operatic stage, but truly beautiful music and negligé go best together.
Personal Notice. — Every mail brings me a letter urging me to contribute money to this great cause or that, or to consecrate my God-given literary talents to it, or to bore my friends with solicitations about it, on the loftiest patriotic and altruistic grounds. Service, spelled with a capital S, seems to be a shibboleth that is extraordinarily effective against the pocket-books and tear-ducts of the American boobery. If it were not for their susceptibility to it, the Y. M. C. A. would go bankrupt, and all the other swindles that are aimed at them would show a heavy falling off in receipts. May I be permitted, therefore, to give formal notice that, for the purposes of all such thimble-rigging schemes, I have not the honor of being a boob? Not a cent of my funds shall ever be devoted, with my consent, to the uplift of my fellow men. Never willingly shall I give any aid, direct or indirect, to the spread of Christian snivelization in any part of the world. As for what becomes of the Republic after I am dead, I hereby make public that I do not care a single damn.
Off Again, On Again. — In the days of genuine monarchy, now everywhere denaturized by the international uplift, one of the chief arguments against it was that it exposed the life and limb of the subject, to say nothing of his property, to the exigencies of dynastic interest. That is to say, it was argued that war was waged and peace was made, not in the interest of the whole population, but simply in the interest of the ruling family. In particular, this charge was frequently brought against the Hapsburgs, whose insatiable land hunger was sometimes calamitous to the peoples they ruled.
A sound objection to monarchy, it must be obvious. A true bill. But I am unable to see that democracy has brought any appreciable improvement. In the old days policies were determined by the self-interest of the king; today they are just as surely determined by the self-interest of the reigning demagogue. If it was Frederick the Great’s desire to cut a figure in the world that got Prussia into the first Silesian War, then it was quite as plainly the late Woodrow’s desire to cut an even gaudier figure in the world that got us into the cloaca maxima of the Paris Conference. A demagogue, like a king, is simply a man with a special gift of inflaming the childish imagination of the masses. The king does it by virtue of his position; the demagogue by virtue of his talent for nonsense. In each case the best thought of the country affected is frequently arrayed against the performer, and the best interests of that country (as proved by subsequent events) are actually damaged, but in each case the mob follows the flag and the band-wagon.
The truth is that dynastic interests probably offer a far less serious menace to national well-being, taking one day with another, than the purely personal interests of such political mountebanks as Lloyd George, Churchill, Ebert, Briand, Clemenceau, Roosevelt, Scheidemann, Lenin, Trotsky and Wilson. A king may be extremely selfish, but the very dynastic considerations that make him so also make him look into the future; he has a son and a grandson to consider as well as himself . But a demagogue under democracy, if he knows anything at all, knows that his time of period is necessarily limited — that soon or later the mob will depose him, and substitute some rival charlatan. Hence he has far less reason than the king has to consider any national interest that may be opposed to his private and immediate interest. He can rock the boat all he pleases, knowing very well that some other quack will have to right it after it upsets. Moreover, a demagogue under democracy lacks the professional pride and conscientiousness that even the worst king usually has: he comes from a much lower class, and is quite devoid of any aristocratic sense of honor. Knowing how brief his tenure is, it is hard for him to convince himself that his private interest is identical with the best interest of his country — usually an easy matter for a king. Who believes that Lloyd George, for example, if he thought that he could extend his own time in office by doing England some gross disservice, would refrain? Who believes that, with an imbecile mob bawling for national suicide and an intelligent and patriotic minority seeking to hold it back, he would go with the minority? Or that Briand would? Or Vivani? Or Harding? Or any of the ex-shoemakers and country schoolmasters who now rule and ruin Germany?
The Short Story. — Every day I receive at least one short-story manuscript from some author or other who tells me in an accompanying note that he (or she) was advised to send it to The Smart Set by a professor in one of the apparently innumerable schools of short-story writing. I do not know at firsthand what is taught in such seminaries, or what the experience and intelligence is of the pedagogues who teach it, but this I do know: that all such stories turn out, on reading, to be very bad. More, they all seem to be bad in the same way. That is to say, they all represent efforts to devise an “original” plot, and then to fit characters to it. Really good short-stories, I believe, are concocted in an exactly opposite way. That is to say, the author first visualizes a character, and then imagines him in a series of situations. If the character is seen clearly, if the author visualizes him as vividly as we visualize the people all about us, then the nature of the situations is of minor consequence: the result is bound to be a good story, even if crudely written. The best stories of the world are quite devoid of what bad authors call plots. But they are full of accurate and penetrating observation.
As I say, I have no personal acquaintance with the obscure gentlemen who profess the science of fiction in the academies of the Republic, but judging by the work of their pupils I venture the guess that they suffer from the same handicap which oppresses the teachers of English. That is to say, they are quite unable to perform decently the business that they essay to teach. I doubt that any university, even in America, would employ a teacher of chemistry who was unable to make an ordinary urinalysis correctly, or a teacher of German who could not read the Staats-Zeitung without a dictionary, or a teacher of mathematics who was incompetent to solve a simple equation, but when it comes to the writing of the English language, a far more difficult enterprise than any of those that I have mentioned, they seem to hold that any reasonably literate man (or woman) is good enough. The result is visible in the atrocious style of the average educated American. If you want to discover the sources of the American business letter, with its idiotic circumlocutions and its painful misuse of words, simply go to the text-books of the rhetoric professors. There you will find the same clumsy thinking, the same flatulent bombast, and the same magnificent anaesthesia to the rhythms of the language. I know of no such text that is not a shining example of bad writing. Even the best of them too often suggests a handbook of therapeutics by Lydia Pinkham.
The trouble with all of the professors is that they try to account for good English by sawing it into sections and filing it in pigeon-holes. Their books are all full of solemn nonsense about various divisions and sub-divisions of style. There are, in fact, only two divisions in English: good English and bad English. The former is achieved by the simple process of putting clear thoughts into plain words, with an ear ever alert to the color and rhythm of those words. If the thought is muddled, then no conceivable art will ever make the writing good. And if the words are obscure, then no imaginable reader will ever unearth the thought. There are no other rules. The better a writer’s mastery of words, of course — that is, the firmer and more extensive his grasp upon his materials— the more gracefully and picturesquely he will be able to express his ideas. But unless he has been taught that he must first reduce those ideas to simplicity and clarity — or has learned it by the study of sound writers — then he will never be able to write decently, no matter how diligently he sweats through the donkeyish categories of the rhetoric professors. This capital fact is not taught in the lecture room for the plain reason that very few such professors are aware of it They apparently believe that the writing of English is simply a matter of memorizing a mass of nonsensical definitions. It is actually a matter of forgetting all definitions. I am firmly convinced, indeed, that a man who knows just what an epiploce is, or an epistrophe, or an asyndeton, will never be able to make a good one, just as an anatomist who has dissected half a dozen head of women will never thereafter desire to kiss one, or even to speak to one.
To return to the professors of fiction, they apparently corrupt and obfuscate the art they profess in much the same way. What they concentrate their attention upon, judging by the product of their pupils, are the immaterial externals of story writing — the little tricks that are worthless unless there is sound stuff behind them. O. Henry seems to be the idol and ideal of all these pupils — an author who never created a single living character, and whose chief admirers are readers of the Saturday Evening Post and school-teachers. The tricks of O. Henry, laboriously taught to imbeciles by worse imbeciles, spoil nine-tenths of the stories that I have to read every day. I struggle through the intricacies of a complex plot, with a moving-picture surprise at the end, only to discover that the people of the tale are stuffed dummies, without either souls or gizzards. The cheap magazines are full of such puerile stuff. Its manufacture becomes a great industry. But who ever heard of a manufacturer of it emerging from the sweat-shop, and writing anything honestly describable as literature? Literature is not written by tricksters, but by men and women who begin by observing the life about them, and who are so profoundly moved by it that they are impelled irresistibly to record their observations. A true story-teller never has to study textbooks on the concoction of plots. Whenever he sees a human being he imagines a plot sufficient for him.
It is common for rhetoricians to make a distinction between plot and style — that is, between the content of a story and its manner. This distinction is largely imaginary. Any man who can imagine a moving story about genuine human beings and who has enough command of the language to express his ideas — any such man can write what deserves to be called good English. Whenever you find bad English — that is, tedious, blowsy and obscure English — you will find that muddled thinking is at the bottom of it. Such muddled thinking explains most of the obscurity of Henry James. James, to be sure, is sometimes unintelligible to the general and hence repellent, simply because he deals in ideas that are above the mental reach of the general, but not infrequently those ideas pass beyond his own reach too, and then he is tangled and stupid. At the other extreme is Dreiser, a man often denounced because his style is without ornament. To the uncritical it therefore seems to be without distinction. But when Dreiser is dealing with anything that he has visualized clearly — say the character of Muldoon, or Jennie Gerhardt at Lester’s funeral — his English is actually beautifully clear, direct, melodious and charming. He then writes vastly better than any of his critics. When he writes badly — that is, artificially, painfully, obscurely — it is simply because the ideas he is seeking to convey are not clear in his own mind. Are his philosophical essays hard to read? Then it is because the thinking behind them is muddled. When his thoughts are sound and well-ordered, as in “Art, Life and America,” his style is sound and well-ordered too.
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