07 February 2011

H. L. Mencken's Modest Utopia

The existence of a piece called "Portrait of an Ideal World" by H. L. Mencken came as a surprise to me. It's actually a chapter of a four-part piece called "Meditations in the Methodist Desert," published in Prejudices: Fourth Series and now appearing in the second of two Library of America Mencken volumes. I didn't take Mencken for a utopian; I've already commented here on his belief that perfecting society was futile. He only pitied "forward lookers" who strove the right the world's wrongs. But even though he doubted that society could be made just, he did seem to want people to be happy. At times, he seemed to believe that achieving personal happiness, or even momentary pleasure, was the only solace in an "insoluble" world. Unlike some of his libertarian heirs, however, he did not always think that it was each person's own business to achieve happiness. In this sub-essay, he offers his own modest proposal for spreading happiness around.

I marvel that no utopian has ever proposed to abolish all the sorrows of the world by the simple device of getting and keeping the whole human race gently stewed. I do not say drunk, remember; I say simply gently stewed -- and apologize, as in duty bound, for not knowing how to describe the state in a more seemly phrase. The man who is in it is a man who has put all of his best qualities into his showcase. He is not only immensely more amiable than the cold sober man; he is immeasurably more decent. He reacts to all situations in an expansive, generous and humane manner. He has become more liberal, more tolerant, more kind. He is a better citizen, husband, father, friend. The enterprises that make human life on earth uncomfortable and unsafe are never launched by such men. They are not makers of wars; they do not rob and oppress anyone; they invent no plagues as high tariffs, 100 per cent Americanism and Prohibition. All the great villainies of history, from the murder of Abel to the Treaty of Versailles, have been perpetrated by sober men, and chiefly by teetotalers.

I don't know if Mencken ever tried marijuana, but I suspect that he'd not object if some citizens elected to get a little high rather than a little stewed. The effect would presumably be the same. Since he was convinced that many troubles of life were insoluble, he apparently believed sincerely that most people would be better off forgetting them than trying in vain to master them. However humorously he intended this recommendation, Mencken probably tells us something true about his own philosophy when he considers the public-health consequences of his plan.

[W]hat I propose is not lengthening the span of life, but augmenting its joys. Suppose we assume its duration is reduced 20 per cent. My reply is that its delight will be increased at least 100 per cent....It is my contention that the world I picture, even assuming the average duration of human life to be cut down 50 per cent., would be an infinitely happier and more charming world than that we live in today -- that no intelligent human being, having once tasted its peace and joy, would go back voluntarily to the harsh brutalities and stupidities that we now suffer, and idiotically strive to prolong. If intelligent Americans, in these depressing days [c. 1924], still cling to life and try to stretch it out longer and longer, it is surely not logically, but only atavistically. It is the primeval brute in them that hangs on, not the man. The man knows only too well that ten years in a genuinely civilized and happy country would be infinitely better than a geological epoch under the curses he must face and endure every day.

Mencken, at least in his humorous moods, is a hedonist but not a materialist. Life, it seems, was not an end unto itself for him -- or at least its maximization wasn't. He had cause in later life to wish himself dead after a stroke left him unable to read or write for six cruel years, but one suspects that even in that purgatory the old hedonist found consolations in food, music, and so on. I suppose that he believed consolation of some kind within everyone's reach, and that he did men more of a service to recommend them than to drive them into battles he deemed hopeless. He's somewhere between the Voltairian insistence that each man cultivate his own garden and the modern lumpen-libertarian contempt for "whiners" and complainers in general. He did believe that individuals could improve themselves -- he did it -- but refused to believe that everyone could do it. He believed even less that they could be made to do it. In his view, those of us who think collective improvement is possible and necessary are only making ourselves miserable. Misery and frustration probably aren't desirable unto themselves, but the question to ask before answering Mencken is whether certain projects are worth the frustrations that are bound to come with them.

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