Monday, January 27, 2014

Mencken and Nietzsche

Those who have done me the honor of reading this blog will know that I hold in high regard the Sage of Baltimore, the great journalist H.L. Mencken, and that I deplore the fact we have not seen his like since he departed this life.  Now we have pundits aplenty, but none with his wit and learning, certainly none with his gift for words.  The late Christopher Hitchens was a worthy successor, but not a newspaperman, really, in the sense Mencken was; but then there may be no such thing as a newspaperman now.

But for all the admiration I have for him, I have trouble understanding his admiration for Nietzsche.  How could Mencken, so accomplished at deflating the egos of the pompous, so sardonic, so disdainful of boosterism in all its forms, admire a man who, I think, is likely to have used more exclamation points in his work than any person in history?  And of course question marks, or perhaps more properly rhetorical questions, and italics.  One imagines Nietzsche breaking pen after pen in his efforts to declaim, frustrated that writing his thoughts (feelings may be more appropriate) was so little like shouting them which it seemed he longed to do--and perhaps did; I don't know.

Of course, Mencken was in his twenties when he wrote his book on Nietzsche's philosophy, and it was apparently the first book about that philosophy published in English.  Mencken, though, read him in the original German.  I've often wondered if translators are at fault for making Nietzsche (and others as well) appear so frenzied, but they seem to do so consistently.  It may be that exclamation points, endless rhetorical questions, and trumpeting italic emphasis were typically used by Europeans in the 19th century, but I doubt it.  Perhaps Mencken thought that as he was in a way introducing Nietzsche to the English speaking/reading world, it made sense to emphasize aspects of his works which he felt were new and interesting.

But since Mencken was relatively young, and Nietzsche's thought new to the English or American-English world, it's possible that Mencken found himself overwhelmed by a kind of Dionysian madness of the type Nietzsche seemed to extol.   He can be an intoxicating read for a young person.  I admit he was for me, in any case.  I read Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, The Birth of Tragedy, in my teens, and was most impressed.  I may have read more of his work.  I'm not sure, though; they seem to run together in my mind as a kind of torrent, full of the kind of bold and dramatic assertions so pleasing to read at that age.

As I'm confessing, I may also just as well note I read Ayn Rand in those heady years, and was also impressed by her works.  I'm sure I'll insult someone by noting this, but I think there are similarities between the two, at least as to style--declamatory, condemning, absolute, intolerant, angry.

I like to think an older, wiser, or at least more jaded Mencken would have had second thoughts about Nietzsche.  But unfortunately even an admirer of Mencken must acknowledge that he was something of an elitist (also something of a racist, unfortunately) and did not think fondly of most of his fellow humans.  He was certainly not a fan of American democracy or American politicians, for the most part.  It may be he shared with Nietzsche a certain contempt for the common herd, and what Nietzsche thought was the herd mentality.  This may have lead him to believe that we had no choice but to be mere members of the herd or a superman of sorts.  This can be a dangerously suggestive belief.

And there can be no doubt that Mencken shared with Nietzsche a distaste for Christianity.  Mencken was, I believe, far wittier than Nietzsche in his treatment of it, though, as he was in his treatment of all things.  What I have read of Mencken indicates he felt Christianity was to be criticized because of its status in his mind as a superstition, and its disregard of what reason and science tells us.  Nietzsche may have felt this way about Christianity also, but it seems he was primarily repulsed by it because it renders us meek in a way he found objectionable.

I think wit makes us tolerant, or at least serves to make us less inclined to think highly not only of others but ourselves.  Nietzsche I would not consider a witty man; he took everything far too seriously, including I would say himself.  His little essays about why he was more clever, etc., than everyone else may have been intended as wit, though.  It seems to me that if that was his intent in writing them, his good intentions soon gave way to his tendency to pontificate. 

They say opposites attract, however, and it may be that Mencken in reading Nietzsche recognized in him a disparate soul, with a kind of enthusiasm and feeling Mencken lacked, being an analytic mind and not an intuitive one like the philosopher.  Like that philosopher, I should say, who may more properly considered a poet, or at least a frustrated one. 

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