Saturday, August 20, 2011

Notes on Democracy, by H. L. Mencken

I've never been more depressed about America or its prospects than I am right now. During the Bush years, I thought, perhaps stupidly, that everything would return to a tolerable state after he left. Obama's speeches on the campaign trail even made me hope for something better than a return to normalcy. Now it looks like the most aberrant and brutal policies of the Bush era are simply going to continue as part of a bipartisan consensus. And looking at the current field, there is no obvious hope of things getting better, only the very real possibility of them getting much worse.

So: what can a person do, assuming that you have the luxury to care about something beyond paying your bills and getting through the day?

1) You can get involved in fixing a broken system: lobbying for changes in the political process, supporting or creating a viable third party, maybe even running for something yourself.

2) Like Thoreau (before his John Brown days), you can try to reformulate your sense of idealism to function entirely outside the existing systems of power. Your program will then involve only yourself and maybe a few other people. Also, it'll probably require some surplus income or a wealthy friend. Individual civil disobedience falls somewhere between the first and second categories.

3) You can take a historical perspective, realize that things have never been all that much better or worse in America, and then have a good laugh at the endless procession of smooth-talking frauds and pious idiots that this country manages to produce.

Most people move up and down this list, but each has a natural resting place. If the third option has any appeal for you, and to a lesser extent the second, H. L. Mencken's Notes on Democracy might prove sympathetic. If the first, prepare to be quite brilliantly mocked:
...there are still idealists, chiefly professional Liberals, who argue that it is the duty of a gentleman to go into politics—that there is a way out of the quagmire in that direction. The remedy, it seems to me, is quite as absurd as all the other sure cures that Liberals advocate. When they argue for it, they simply argue, in words but little changed, that the remedy for prostitution is to fill the bawdyhouses with virgins. My impression is that this last device would accomplish very little: either the virgins would leap out of the windows, or they would cease to virgins.
You have to be in a very particular mood to enjoy Mencken. The publisher kindly sent me this book several years ago, and it took increasing quantities of dismay to finally, a few weeks ago, arrive at it. Mencken is an entertaining writer but not, for me, an endearing one. Americans are naturally idealistic, which is part of the reason we are so easily fooled, and have such a hard time recognizing when we're working on ruining our own lives while actively destroying those of others.

When there is so little to be patriotic about, though, and you are both completely fed up and have no idea how to improve the situation, Mencken can provide a kind of desperate consolation. As he writes in the concluding section of the Notes, "I am not engaged in therapeutics, but in pathology."

This book was published in 1926, when increasing concentration of wealth, virtually unregulated markets, and runaway war spending were preparing the way for a massive collapse. Manning the helm at the period were, among others, an inarticulate idiot, whose English was "so bad a kind of grandeur creeps into it," and a pseudo-idealist who reduced "all the difficulties of the hour to a few sonorous and unintelligible phrases, often with theological overtones," and whose avowed principles were quickly compromised in the face of any resistance.

Notes on Democracy is not particularly cohesive; it is basically a series of witty political pamphlets with titles like "The Eternal Mob" and "The Occasional Exception." For some reason, it fell out of print for decades, and this useful re-issue features an excellent introduction by Marion Elizabeth Rogers, as well as extensive footnoting of Mencken's references to scandals of the day and America's political past. Most of these footnotes are useful; some are a little insulting—I wonder what Mencken would make of the fact that Bach and Freud as well as batches of fairly common foreign phrases, from Reich to vox populi, now apparently need to be identified.

Here are some of Mencken's arguments: most people are stupid and this is simply a genetic necessity. Forget education or any other system of improvement; these people are dumb because they have simply absorbed as much as they are constitutionally able to absorb. He expresses admiration for eugenicists like Francis Galton, and incredulity that anyone could think that folk music or folktales actually rose out of the common mass. He supports the theory that some great, now forgotten individual artists created this work, with the folk acting only as "referees, choosing which should survive," although he fails to explain why the idiotic folk would have such unerringly good taste.

(Note: I find this side of Mencken repellent, but there is enough that is worthwhile that I suggest simply getting past it. Most of this stuff is at the beginning of the book.)

Now, intelligent and honorable politicians, Mencken argues, when faced with this mob, either don't last long or quickly become frauds, consciously or unconsciously. Then the exploitation of the office begins. "The business of victimizing [this public]," Mencken writes, "is a lucrative profession, an exact science, and a delicate and lofty art. It has its masters and it has its quacks ... The adept practitioner is not only rewarded; he is also thanked. The victims delight in his ministrations, as an hypochondriacal woman delights in the flayings of the surgeon. But all the while they have the means in their hands to halt the obscenity whenever it becomes intolerable, and now and then, raised transiently to a sort of intelligence, they do put a stop to it."

As you can see, there is both wit and insight here, both about why the bums do eventually get thrown out, and then inevitably thrown back in, with renewed hope. Again, Mencken suggests no solutions, but it is at least something to hear the truth spoken. Mencken once wrote, incidentally, that his only objective was only to make "life measurably more bearable for the civilized minority in America."

So what, you might ask, is Mencken's standard for "civilized"? He is not, it turns out, devoid of idealism; he simply believes—like Carlin, incidentally—that honor does not exist in groups, which inevitably work to destroy it, but only in isolated free individuals. In Europe, he says the aristocrats might once have filled this role; in America, their absence is filled, in the public mind at least, by the plutocracy. "[This plutocracy] is, of course, something quite different," he writes. "It lacks all the essential characters of a true aristocracy: a clean tradition, culture, public spirit, honesty, honour, courage—above all, courage. It stands under no bond of obligation to the state; it has no public duty; it is transient and lacks a goal. Its most puissant dignitaries of to-day came out of the mob only yesterday—and from the mob they bring all its peculiar ignobilities."

He fails to identify the historical aristocracy that actually possessed these noble qualities, but he at least makes it clear what he admires. So, what should the few men and women in America that fit this description do for their country? Mencken's answer: leave it alone, and fight to make sure it does the same to you.
Liberty means self-reliance, it means resolution, it means enterprise, it means the capacity for doing without. The free man is one who has won a small and precarious territory from the great mob of his inferiors, and is prepared and ready to defend it and make it support him. All around him are enemies, and where he stands there is no friend. He can hope for little help from other men of his own kind, for they have battles of their own to fight. He has made of himself a sort of god in his little world, and he must face the responsibilities of a god, and the dreadful loneliness.
It is partially Mencken's fault that this passage is all too easy to applaud. How else could someone who endlessly castigated America become such a celebrated figure in his time? Most people like to think of themselves as surrounded by inferiors, and this kind of writing lends itself to self-congratulation of the stupidest kind. But Mencken is constantly slipping out of such traps if you read him carefully; he has a complicated mind, and this is why his writing is still worth reading for more than turns of phrase. The capacity for doing without—there is a line that, say, Ayn Rand, would never have written. She would also never have mentioned public duty or any kind of obligation, to the state or otherwise. But Mencken's brilliant and racy style makes it very easy to read fast and miss the harder lessons, so the laughter his insults produce often settles into arrogant complacency.

This is finally, though, the reader's fault and not the writer's. And it is good to know that Mencken, in his own life, was capable of appreciating real artists and true statesmen, and seems to have been a man of both courage and (occasional) open-mindedness. I still find him, as I always have, a difficult writer to like. I admire people whose instinct, in the absence of definite evidence, is to believe before they disbelieve, who are willing to be fooled and disappointed repeatedly before they reject anything that might be worthwhile. Mencken's constant shoveling out of bullshit means he often loses his eye for gold. Notes from Democracy is filled, for example, with mockery of chiropractors and osteopaths, both of whom have long since proved—in the face of immense opposition—that they are not in fact quacks.

Something else bothers me too. Adjusting for comic exaggeration, many of the things Mencken says have the absolute ring of truth, but I feel like they should be said with sadness or rage instead of relish, because no one suffers more from the current arrangements in America than the masses on whom Mencken heaps so much contempt. It is also hard, today, to be satisfied with Mencken's vision of lonely and honorable individualism. Our most pressing problems, particularly the ecological ones, have demonstrated that we are an interconnected community whose private actions affect each other. Simply removing yourself from the contagion doesn't seem like a real solution.

But, well, maybe there is no solution, and that's that. This could be something, at long last, to consider, and Notes on Democracy makes the point too incisively to be ignored. If you have arrived at the mood I mentioned earlier, and need some desperate consolation, I recommend seeking it out.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Last Words, by George Carlin

I was beginning to realize something: I had a powerful new tool for my tool kit, though I've only made sparing use of it since. Getting laughs all the time wasn't my only responsibility. My responsibility was to engage the audience's mind for ninety minutes. Get laughs, of course, dazzle them from time to time with form, craft, verbal fireworks, but above all engage their minds.
                                        —George Carlin
, Last Words

As I've written before, I think stand-up comedy is one of the few remaining vibrant art forms in this country. There are, as always, only two or three great talents, but there's a whole constellation of worthwhile secondary talents, a real sense of excitement about the medium, and a sizable and engaged audience.

Part of the energy comes from diversity: stand-up comedians are racially, economically, and philosophically much more varied than the usual creators of today's "fine" arts. Also, since good comedians work in many different registers—jumping, like Shakespeare, from farts and boners to reflections on death—they also attract a very mixed audience. Louis CK will riff at great length about masturbation, and then include a bit—maybe based on Peter Singer's ideas, maybe just his own thoughts—about how we make needless purchases when we know, on some level, that the same amount of money could probably save someone's life in another country. George Carlin could win over a crowd with an accomplished but fairly safe routine on airline jargon, and then hit them with a subtle and disturbing monologue on the fraudulence of most modern environmentalism (“The Planet Is Fine”).

While I was watching Carlin's routine on the American Dream, I remember thinking—Jesus, people are paying to hear this! These are some of the most honest and destructive reflections that anyone is going to hear on the state of this country, things a few wise writers have been saying for years (although maybe not so sharply) to a tiny and shrinking audience—and here this comedian has an auditorium of thousands, and millions on HBO and now on YouTube, willing to listen to him say them. And they're enjoying it! It's possible they ignored the disturbing parts and went home chuckling about something else, but the words still reached them. The seeds are in their head now.

I noticed, though, that some of Carlin's most profound routines, like the two I've mentioned, work better as transcripts. The ideas are coming too fast to digest in the monologue—they need the time and space that the page grants them. Nothing fundamental is lost when you read the words instead of hearing him deliver them. As Carlin notes in the quote above, which is from his "sortabiography" Last Words, it's not just about getting laughs anymore, it's about fully engaging the mind, and the page is usually a better way to do this than performance.

So I thought I would read one of his books. Last Words is the posthumous autobiography that Tony Hendra compiled from a hundred pages that Carlin wrote about his early life and many hours of interviews. I wish Carlin had lived to complete the writing, because the first third of the book about his childhood is by far the best part. A sample of his writing:
The highlights of my life were my trips to midtown with Bessie, listening to the radio, and thumb-sucking. I was a world-class thumb-sucker. My specialty at bedtime was to loosen part of the bottom sheet, wrap it around my thumb, and cram the whole thing into my mouth for extended, overnight sucking.
Imagine reading this out loud, delivering it like a comedian—I don't think it makes it better. This is written humor. And there's many more passages in the first third of the book that are just as charming. It's a wonderful picture of growing up in 50s New York, with all of the education and energy that a largely unsupervised street childhood can provide.

The book then goes into Carlin's time in the Air Force and the beginnings of his comedy career. And then Hendra must have had to step in, because the book features more transcripts of Carlin's routines, and the prose is less sharp, although it is animated with the same lively intelligence. Carlin's life becomes less interesting when he gets famous: the work takes over, along with predictable cycles of drugs and rehab, creative exhaustion and reinvention.

There are still thoughtful passages on the art of comedy, though, and the book is worth reading all the way through. In one section, Carlin discusses a line about abortion that he wanted to include in a routine, but that never seemed to work. “Audiences wouldn't follow me there,” he writes. “It was one step too far. They didn't enjoy the risk. I'm a realist. After a while, I dropped the line. And maybe they were right: maybe it was too complex an idea or the phrasing was too harsh. But it shows how the audience shapes the material. They are part of the process. I write, they edit.”

Now, a writer might say that this is selling out, the kind of compromise that makes stand-up comedy something less than a genuine art form. I'm not so sure. A few decades ago, Philip Larkin wrote about the two tensions from which art springs: “the tension between the artist and his material and between the artist and his audience.” In the previous century, he wrote, for most serious artists “the second of these has slackened or even perished.” And he saw this as a disaster for both the arts and the audience, as artists restrict themselves to ever smaller circles (and begin to say increasingly inconsequential things) and the mass audience falls back on purely commercial entertainment, never encountering anything that might wake them up a little.

Undeniably, most stand-up comedy falls into the category of commercial entertainment. It is slavish in its desire to please, exhausting in its endless facetiousness and refusal to say anything serious. (Go to a comedy club on a bad night and it is about as depressing an evening as you can pay for.) But when a comedian realizes, as Carlin did, that getting laughs is not his only responsibility—that something honest and challenging can take place in the space between the artist's personal vision and the audience's expectations—the night can become special.

Louis CK, who wrote a fine piece about Carlin when he died, is probably the best stand-up around right now, has been freeing himself more and more from the obligation to be continuously funny, especially on Louis, his TV show, and some of the episodes of that show are simply works of art (“The Bully” is my favorite of the ones I've seen). So are parts of Carlin's specials; and this book may have reached the same heights if Carlin had had time to complete it. It is interesting that he names more writers as inspirations than comedians: Noam Chomsky, Hunter Thompson, Gore Vidal. It's a shame he died before finishing—I think he had another career ahead of him.