Repetition Generale

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/May, 1919


ARISTOTELIAN Obsequies. — I take the following from the Boston Herald of May 1, 1882:

A beautiful floral book stood at the left of the pulpit, being spread out on a stand. . . . Its last page was composed of white carrnations, white daisies and light-colored immortelles. On the leaf was displayed, in neat letters of purple immortelles, the word “Finis.” This device was about two feet square, and its border was composed of different colored tea-roses. The other portion of the book was composed of dark and light-colored flowers. . . The front of the large pulpit was covered with a mass of white pine boughs laid on loosely. In the center of this mass of boughs appeared a large harp composed of yellow jonquils. . . . Above this harp was a handsome bouquet of dark pansies. On each side appeared large clusters of calla lilies.

Well, what have we here? The funeral of a Grand Exalted Pishposh of the Odd Fellows, of an East Side Tammany leader, of an aged and much-respected brothel-keeper? Nay. What we have here is the funeral of Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was thus that New England lavished the loveliest fruits of the Puritan aesthetic upon the bier of her greatest son. It was thus that Puritan kultur mourned a philosopher.


The Uses of Adversity, — Adversity, after all, is not without its good fortune. With the advent of prohibition there will no longer be imported by Americans from Switzerland — and there will thus disappear from the United States forever — the musical beer mug.


Rosemaries. — A man, looking back over the bridge of the years, always sentimentalizes his first love affair. A woman always gives hers the laugh.


The Romantic. — There is a variety of man whose eye inevitably exaggerates, whose ear inevitably hears more than the band plays, whose imagination inevitably doubles and triples the news brought in by his five senses. He is the enthusiast, the believer, the romantic. He is the sort of fellow who, if he were a bacteriologist, would report the streptococcus pyogenes to be as large as a Newfoundland dog, as intelligent as Socrates, as beautiful as Mont Blanc, and as respectable as a Yale professor.


The Eternal Skeptic. — No man ever quite believes in any other man. One may believe in an idea absolutely, but not in a man. In the highest confidence there is always a flavour of doubt — a feeling, half instinctive and half logical, that, after all, the scoundrel may have something up his sleeve. This doubt, it must be obvious, is always more than justified, for no man is worthy of unlimited reliance — his treason, at best, only waits for sufficient temptation. The trouble with the world is not that men are too suspicious, but that they are too confiding — that they still trust themselves too far to other men, even after bitter experience. Women, I believe, are measurably less sentimental, in this as in other things. No married woman ever trusts her husband absolutely, nor does she ever act as if she did trust him. Her utmost confidence is as wary as a pickpocket’s confidence that the policeman on the beat will stay bought.


The Bald-Headed Afon.— The man with a bald head, however eminent his position, always feels slightly ill at ease in the presence of a man whose dome is still well thatched. He feels, however much he may try not to, just a trifle handicapped and inferior. In the presence of a pretty woman, he feels himself called upon to exercise twice the pains of the fellow with hair. The man whose head looks like a freshly laid egg is, in society, ever either Malvolio or Yorick.


Femina. — Woman is most lovable when there has just occurred in her life something that maddens her. No man has ever loved a woman passionately at that moment in her life when she was happiest.


Strange Enthusiasms. — Who has not marvelled, among artists, at the curious fascination of the absolutely unlike? Think of the violent enthusiasm of the Socialist platitudinizer, Robert Blatchford, for Henry James. Of that of Brahms for Johann Strauss. Of that of Richard Strauss for Mozart. Of that of Mark Twain for William Dean Howells. To his dying day Mark viewed the achievement of Howells with frank envy; he stood almost in awe of it. And, thus venerating Howells, he regarded his own “Huckleberry Finn’” with a half -ashamed disdain, and once spoke of his “Joan of Arc” as a pot-boiler! . . . Eheu, man is ever tortured by vain hopes, impossible desires. In the midst of the most colossal attainment his ego dwells wistfully upon the unattainable.


The Great Illusion. — Hope may be defined as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable. Or, psychoanalytically, as a wish neurose. There is thus a flavor of the pathological in it; it transcends the normal intellectual process and passes into the murky domain of faith. A man habitually hopeful is one who has lost (or never had) the capacity for clear and orderly thought. An optimist is not thus a mere ass; he is sick. Worse, he is incurable, for disappointment, being an objective phenomenon, cannot affect his subjective obliquity. His faith in the improbable takes on the passionate virulence of a pious devotion. What he says, in substance, is this: “Let us trust in God, who has always fooled us in the past.”


AEsthetic Dancing. — The numerous schools and cults of aesthetic dancing, interior and al fresco, are doubtless grounded less on the honest desire to make a beautiful art of the dance than on the Freudian desire of unwanted vestals to play indirectly, yet satisfactorily, with the masculine passions. A bevy of women running half naked around Central Park are not nearly so intent upon enthroning Terpsichore in her niche in the temple of the beaux arts as upon watching the effect on the park policeman out of the comers of their eyes. The unloved woman with legs gnarled and knotted like a rustic bench, galloping across the grass plots in a sheet and a diaper, thus takes out her sinister revenge. No women half-way admired by men, desired by men, and loved by men, go in for undressing in public, whatever the artistic purport of their intentions, save possibly upon the stage. The moment a woman runs around Pelham in the daylight clad only in a bed sheet, under the dubious impression that she is Psyche in the Arcadian Wood, that moment is it certain that she has reached the conclusion that her charms are unavailing against the fortress that is man. The schools and cults of aesthetic dancing are filled with leftovers, wall-flowers. These schools and cults are to art what a Japanese punk stick is to an old maid’s tea-room.


Add Webster. — Criticism is the art of appraising that which isn’t in terms of what it should be, and that which should be in terms of what it isn’t.


On Duty. — The loosest and most imbecile thinking in ethics revolves around the matter of duty. Practically all writers on morals agree that the individual owes certain unescapable duties to the race, for example, the duty of engaging in productive labor, and that of marrying and begetting offspring. And in support of this position it is almost always argued that, if all men neglected such duties, the race would perish. This logic is hollow enough to be worthy of the college professors who write such books. It confuses the inclination, the willingness, the regimentation of the average man with the duty of all men — two very different things. The average man is willing to accept docilely the government he is born under, to obey its laws, to support its theory — but is this the duty of all men? The affirmative answer comes, not from those who render the highest and most intelligent services to human progress, but precisely from those who stand most opposed to human progress. There are, in point of fact, no duties per se. There is no such thing as duty in itself. The race is helped along, not by conformity, but by aberration. The very concept of duty is thus a function of inferiority; it belongs naturally only to timorous and incompetent men. Even on such levels it remains largely a self-delusion, a soothing apparition. When a man succumbs to duty he merely succumbs to the habit and inclination of other men. Their interests pull against his own interests. Some of us can resist a pretty strong pull — the pull, perhaps, of thousands. But it is only the miraculous man who can withstand the pull of a whole nation.


On Charm. — A thing is charming in the degree that it is not true. The truth, nine times in ten, is ugly: but a lie, nine times in ten, is beautiful — or, at least, the flower of a beautiful gesture. The charming woman is not the woman who tells the truth beautifully, yet unconvincingly, but the one who tells a lie prettily and impressively. The charming man is the man who believes that she is lying when she is telling the truth and that she is telling the truth when she is lying. What in all the world could be at once more charming, and less true, than “Der Rosenkavalier,” or the Paris of Mürger, or the landscapes of Corot, or the memory of one’s first sweetheart?


A Nether Classic. — Considered as a piece of writing, probably the worst book in the world, at least among those of decent repute, is William H. Prescott’s “History of the Conquest of Peru.” Here was a stupendous story, and moreover it was virgin: no one else, not even a Spaniard, had ever told it. Well, how did Prescott manage the telling? Simply by reducing the whole thing to the commonplace level of a moral tale in a second-rate newspaper. It would be almost impossible to imagine worse writing. From cover to cover there is not a single original phrase. Everywhere he uses the ancient rubber stamps of the school-master turned artist — the old, old similes, the automatic adjectives, the stale and fly-blown verbs, the idioms of a dolt’s armamentarium. Moving through page after page of such flaccid commonplace, one falls in the end into a sort of stupid trance—the sheer badness of the thing acts as a narcotic. . . . In his preface Prescott makes acknowledgments to one Charles Folsom, librarian of the Boston Athenaeum, “whose minute acquaintance with the grammatical structure and the true idiom of our English tongue has enabled me to correct many inaccuracies.” One wonders about those inaccuracies. They were, perhaps, the gipsy phrases that might have made a great work of “The Conquest of Peru.” Their “correction,” it may be, converted it into the dullest, the prosiest, the soggiest, the most depressing history in history.


On the Critical Digestion. — The common accusation against the dramatic critic by the present day theatrical manager when the critic writes adversely of the manager’s production is that the critic suffers sorely from indigestion. Just where the connection lies I can’t exactly say, but the fact remains that Daniel Frohman’s famous old Lyceum Stock Company, which no critic of that day dispraised, was backed by the man who owned Carter’s Little Liver Pills.


Prohibition. — A doctrine based upon the theory that what I drink ruins your kidneys.


Pro Patria. — Despite the sneers of the European for the American, one will never find him belonging, as the European belongs, to a race of waiters. The tables in the hotels and restaurants and cafes of the world are servilely waited on by Englishmen, Irishmen, Frenchmen and Germans, with the Greeks and Armenians for bus boys, but one is at pains to find an American wearing an apron, with a napkin upon his arm, bending to serve fodder. The American may be, as the European jeers, a mere tradesman — but you will never find him like the Englishman, a butler; or like the Italian, a bootblack; or like the Frenchman, a head-garçon with his palm out. The American is never a headwaiter. But nothing flatters him half so much as a headwaiter’s speaking to him and addressing him by name — after he has bribed the headwaiter to the condescension with a five-dollar bill.


The Cerebral Mime. — Of all actors, the most offensive to the higher cerebral centers is the one who pretends to intellectuality. His alleged intelligence, of course, is always purely imaginary: no man of genuinely superior intelligence has ever been an actor. Even supposing a young man of appreciable mental powers to be lured upon the stage, as philosophers are occasionally lured into bordellos, his mind would be inevitably and almost immediately destroyed by the gaudy nonsense issuing from his mouth every night. This gaudy nonsense enters into the very fibre of the actor. He becomes a grotesque boiling down of all the preposterous characters he has to impersonate. Their stigmata are seen in his manner, in his reaction to stimuli, in his point of view. He becomes a walking artificiality, a strutting dummy, a thematic catalogue of imbecilities.

There are, of course, plays that are not wholly nonsense, and now and then one encounters an actor who aspires to appear in them. This aspiration almost always overtakes the so-called actor-manager — that is to say, the actor who has got rich and is thus ambitious to appear as a gentleman. Such aspirants commonly tackle Shakespeare, and if not Shakespeare, then Shaw, or Hauptmann, or Rostand, or some other apparently intellectual dramatist. But this is seldom more than a passing madness. The actor-manager may do that sort of thing once in a while, but in the main he sticks to his pishposh. Consider, for example, the late Henry Irving. He posed as an intellectual and was forever gabbling about his high services to the stage, and yet he appeared constantly in such puerile things as “The Bells,” beside which the average newspaper editorial or college yell was literature. So with the late Mansfield. His pretension, deftly circulated by press-agents, was that he was a man of brilliant and polished mind. Nevertheless, he spent two-thirds of his life in the theater playing such abominable garbage as “A Parisian Romance” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

It is commonly urged in defense of certain actors that they are forced to appear in such balderdash by the public demand for it — that appearing in it painfully violates their secret pruderies. This defense is unsound and dishonest. An actor never disdains anything that gets him applause and money; he is almost completely devoid of that aesthetic conscience which is the chief mark of the genuine artist. If there were a large public willing to pay handsomely to hear him recite limericks, or to blow a cornet, or to strip off his underwear and dance a polonaise stark naked, he would do it without hesitation — and then convince himself that such buffooning constituted a difficult and elevated art, fully comparable to Wagner’s or Dante’s. In brief, the one essential, in his sight, is the chance to shine, the fat part, the applause. Whoever heard of an actor declining a fat part on the ground that it invaded his intellectual integrity? The thing is simply unimaginable.


The Blue-Nose. — All the histories of American literature, with perhaps one exception, devote a good deal of space to the lofty idealism of the snuffling pre-Methodists who settled New England. Reading such books, one somehow gets the notion that these bilious theologians were, in some strange way, noble fellows, and that, in particular, they cherished the fruits of the intellect, and so laid the foundations of whatever culture now exists in the United States. But what is the actual fact? The actual fact is that the fruits of the intellect were held in about as much esteem, in Puritan New England, as the fruits of the vines of Burgundy now get at a banquet of Presbyterians. The Puritans not only tried their darndest to shut out every vestige of sound information, of clean reasoning, of ordinary intellectual self-respect and integrity; they absolutely succeeded in shutting these things out. The gigantic play of ideas that went on in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had no effect upon them whatsoever; it was not until foreign influences, slowly percolating into the country on the heels of commerce, gave a start to Transcendentalism that New England could show so much as a single third-rate college, a single readable journal or a single genuinely educated man. And even Transcendentalism was moony, hollow and sterile. Its highest product was a puerile confusion of European ideas, as in Emerson and Thoreau. It produced no art that is alive today — only poor school-boys, abominably forced to the business by idiot pedagogues, read its masterpieces. And it produced no civilization, but only a tawdry pseudo-civilization — a codfish civilization. Even in politics it has always been stupid and imitative. What! Even in politics? Then what of abolition? Answer: abolition was no more a New England invention than the affected broad a was a New England invention; both were borrowed from the English middle classes toward the end of the eighteenth century. And business? Here we let down the last bar: it requires a racking stretch of the imagination to put a talent for business among the evidences of culture. But even so. New England fails again. Can you think of a conspicuous captain of industry who was born there? Finally, there is war. Of the twenty-seven general officers who stood at the head of the Army List at the close of the Civil War exactly three were New Engenders.


Pensée. — Every woman, when she marries, fondly believes that she has married but one man: her lover-husband. It is only after a few years, upon looking one day wistfully out of the window, that she suddenly realizes that she committed bigamy.


Art and Sex. — One of the favorite notions of the Puritan mullahs who specialize in moral pornography is that the sex instinct, if suitably repressed, may be “sublimated” into the higher sorts of idealism, and especially into aesthetic idealism. This notion is to be found in all their books, pamphlets and tracts; upon it they ground the theory that the enforcement of chastity by a huge force of spies, stool pigeons and police would convert the republic into a nation of incomparable uplifters, forward-lookers and artists. All this, of course, is simply pious flapdoodle. If the notion were actually sound, then all the great artists of the world would come from the ranks of the hermetically repressed, i.e., from the ranks of Puritan old maids, male and female. But the truth is, as everyone knows, that the great artists of the world are never Puritans, and seldom even ordinarily respectable. No virtuous man — that is, virtuous in the Y. M. C. A. sense — has ever painted a picture worth looking at, or written a symphony worth hearing, or a book worth reading, and it is highly improbable that the thing has ever been done by a virtuous woman. The actual effect of repression, lamentable though it may be, is to destroy idealism altogether. The Puritan, for all his pretensions, is the worst of materialists. Passed through his sordid and unimaginative mind, even the stupendous romance of sex is reduced to a disgusting transaction in physiology. As artist he is thus hopeless; as well expect an auctioneer to qualify for the Sistine Chapel choir. All he ever achieves, taking pen or brush in hand, is a feeble burlesque of his betters, all of whom, by his hog theology, are doomed to hell.


The Incomparable Buzzsaw.— The chief (and perhaps the only genuine) charm of women is seldom mentioned by poets, romancers, vice-crusaders, fashionable clergymen and the other professors of the sex. I refer to the charm that lies in the dangers they present. The allurement that they hold out to men is precisely the allurement that Cape Hatteras holds out to sailors —they are enormously dangerous and hence enormously fascinating. To the average man, doomed to some banal and sordid drudgery all his life long, they offer the only grand hazard that he ever encounters. Take them away, and his existence would be as flat and secure as that of a milch-cow. Even to the unusual man, the adventurous man, the imaginative and romantic man, they offer the adventure of adventures. Civilization tends to dilute and cheapen all other hazards. War itself, once an enterprise stupendously thrilling, has been reduced to mere caution and calculation; already, indeed, it employs as many press-agents, letter-openers, card index experts and Chautauqua orators as soldiers. On some not distant tomorrow its salient personality may be Potash, and if not Potash, then Perlmutter. But the duel of sex continues to be fought in the Berserker manner. Whoso approaches women still faces the immemorial dangers. Civilization has not made them a bit more safe than they were in Solomon’s time; they are still inordinately barbarous and menacing, and hence inordinately provocative, and hence inordinately charming and romantic.


Codicil to a Last Will and Testament. — When I die, as die someday I must, I pray to God that it shall be on a warm, lazy late afternoon in the early Springtime of the year, and that my best friend among men shall sit himself down quietly and alone in Sherry’s and order two of our old cocktails, and that my best friend among women shall be waiting, as always, near her telephone and that when, the minutes passing, it fails to ring, she may at last for one small fleeting moment doubt that I am up to some deviltry with another girl.

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