Mencken on Life and Death

Yesterday, January 29, 2017, was the sixty-first anniversary of H. L. Mencken’s death. He contemplated mortality frequently and even considered suicide. For the last eight years of his life, after suffering a massive stroke, he lived like a kind of dead man, since he was so incapacitated that he could not do what made him tick for most of his life — read and write. His candor about the meaning of life is still remarkable:

All men who, in any true sense, are sentient strive mightily for distinction and power, i.e., for the respect and envy of their fellowmen, i.e., for the ill-natured admiration of an endless series of miserable and ridiculous bags of rapidly disintegrating animo acids. Why? If I knew, I’d certainly not be writing books in this infernal American climate; I’d be sitting in state in a hall of crystal and gold, and people would be paying $10 a head to gape at me through peep-holes. But though the central mystery remains, it is possible, perhaps, to investigate the superficial symptoms to some profit. I offer myself as a laboratory animal. Why have I worked so hard for years and years, desperately striving to accomplish something that remains impenetrable to me to this day? Is it because I desire money? Bosh! I can’t recall ever desiring it for an instant: I have always found it easy to get all I wanted. Is it, then, notoriety that I was after? Again the answer must be no. The attention of strangers is unpleasant to me, and I avoid it as much as possible. Then is it a yearning to Do Good that moves me? Bosh and blah! If I am convinced of anything, it is that Doing Good is in bad taste.

Once I ventured the guess that men worked in response to a vague inner urge for self-expression. But that was probably a shaky theory, for some men who work the hardest have nothing to express. A hypothesis with rather more plausibility in it now suggests itself. It is that men work simply in order to escape the depressing agony of contemplating life – that their work, like their play, is a mumbo-jumbo that serves them by permitting them to escape from reality. Both work and play, ordinarily, are illusions. Neither serves any solid or permanent purpose. But life, stripped of such illusions, instantly becomes unbearable. Man cannot sit still, contemplating his destiny in this world, without going frantic. So he invents ways to take his mind off the horror. He works. He plays. He accumulates the preposterous nothing called property. He strives for the coy eyewink called fame. He founds a family, and spends his curse over others. All the while the thing that moves him is simply the yearning to lose himself, to forget himself, to escape the tragic-comedy that is himself. Life, fundamentally, is not worth living. So he confects artificialities to make it so. So he erects a gaudy structure to conceal the fact that it is not so.

Imagine what such candor would do to claims of American greatness or critics of presidents who claim to be great. It would take away the pump that inflates so much of American life into a cosmic struggle between justice and injustice. Don’t most hyperventilators on the left at least agree with Mencken that no God exists. Do they continue to walk with Mencken and conclude that without the divine, no meaning is left either to esteem U.S.A. or berate President Trump. It’s all folly. As Mencken also wrote:

The basic fact about human existences is not that it is a tragedy, but that it is a bore. It is not so much a war as an endless standing in line. The objection to it is not that it is predominantly painful, but that is it lacking in sense. . . . The end is always a vanity, and usually a sordid one, without any noble touch of the pathetic. The means remain. In them lies a secret of what is called contentment, i.e., the capacity to postpone suicide for at least another day. (Prejudices, Sixth Series “The Human Mind: On Suicide”)

11 thoughts on “Mencken on Life and Death

  1. I’m glad I’m not in a depressed state of mind this morning- I’ve gotten lots of rest this weekend. I do easily get jarred back into depression so I have to be careful about what I do and what I allow myself to think about for extended periods of time. I guess what I am trying to say is that I can relate with the post. I enjoy reading about Mencken and Machen. And I should thank you for getting me interested and watching, “The Wire,” too. It keeps me coming back to oldlife even though I am not really sure I am welcome here.


  2. Whatever happened to Eminem, aka, Michael Mann, alias the blues guy? Is he the hatchet man that monitors the website in the backround? To quote a Dylan song, “oh where have you been my blue eyed son?”


  3. “It is not so much a war as an endless standing in line.” Exactly true, at least experientially. Just look at former ‘Braveheart’ Mel Gibson, who now looks like Tom Bombadil. The newsflash for all the self-importance is that everyone grows old, loses vitality, and dies — and no science discovery or judge will help change that injustice. Apple could outfit the world, the Senate could mandate magnificent health care, the U.S. Gov could institute a ‘Your Children’s Legacy’ Fund, and none of these would really reduce the suffering that the last third of life holds for almost everyone, regardless of social scheme or legacy. Which is why ‘human flourishing’ is a concept on which the expiration date will always be stamp large, no matter how flamboyantly Casting Crowns may sing otherwise. Lloyd-Jones preaching his sermon on the text “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry,” sounds rather lame to people today living in the extreme affluence of the West…but that fact is itself a bit lame considering the point is essentially theological common sense. He got it even if modernist popes and evangelicals with environmental campaigns don’t. And yes, I already know, Polyanna I am not.


  4. Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture,—“The inmost significance of the exaggerated value which is set upon hard work appears to be this: man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy, with a good conscience, what he has acquired with toil and trouble; he refused to have anything as a gift.”

    Click to access keynes1.pdf

    Keynes–For many ages to come the old Adam will be so strong in us that everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented. We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich to-day, only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines. But beyond this, we shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter-to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while.Three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!

    Keynes–I see us free, therefore, to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue-that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanor, and the love of money is detestable, that those walk most truly in the paths of virtue and sane wisdom who take least thought for the morrow. We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honor the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin.

    Psalm 49: 10 For one can see that wise men die;
    foolish and stupid men also pass away.
    Then they leave their wealth to others.
    11 Their graves are their homes,
    though they have named estates after themselves.
    12 Despite his assets, man will not last;
    he is like the animals that perish.
    13 This is the way of those who are arrogant,
    and of their followers,
    who approve of their words.
    14 Like sheep they are headed for Sheol;
    Death will shepherd them.

    15 But God will redeem my life
    from the power of Sheol…
    Do not be afraid when a man gets rich,
    when the wealth of his house increases.
    17 For when he dies, he will take nothing at all;
    his wealth will not follow him down.
    18 Though he praises himself during his lifetime—
    and people praise you when you do well for yourself—
    19 he will go to the generation of his fathers;
    they will never see the light.
    20 A man with valuable possessions[
    but without understanding
    is like the animals that perish.


  5. Come to think of it, the JM post sounds like something Eminem/Michael Mann/the Blue’s guy might say. Have you changed your identity again, Eminem? Are you now hiding behind the JM moniker? You always did like playing mind games. Of course, I could be all wrong about this. If it is you, do you have any Son House, Blind Willie or Howling Wolf recommendations? Are you still blogging about the blues? I lost the web address to the site. I’d like to have it again.

    Speaking of Mencken and Machen- has anyone read John Piper’s critique of Machen’s ministry? I believe he wrote it about 20 years ago or so. I ran across it somewhere on the internet a couple months ago and I can’t find it again. What I kept thinking about when reading it was this is what it would probably sound like if Peter tried to critique the ministry of the Apostle Paul. It made me want to gag. There was some interesting stuff about Machen in the short bio though. Does anyone know where I can get a hold of that again? How about some more Machen resources? I have read CHRISTIANITY AND LIBERALISM but what are some of the other good books by Machen to read?


  6. Machen—The regenerative power of God can overcome all lack of preparation, and the absence of that makes even the best preparation useless. but as a matter of fact God usually exerts that power in connection with certain prior conditions of the human mind, and it should be ours to create, so far as we can, with the help of God, those favorable conditions for the reception of the gospel. False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion….”

    John Piper is John Frame against antithesis with evangelical twist (Fuller Seminary)

    Piper– Is there evidence for Machen’s view in Ephesians 5:11, where we are told to expose the fruitless works of darkness? Or should we consider Matthew 5:14-16, where we are called light and salt, which may perhaps include spreading the preservative idea that there is truth and beauty?…

    Piper—When Machen was 21, he inherited $50,000 from his maternal grandfather… He may have lived at a level of cultural wealth and comfort that made it hard for him to see and feel the painful side of being poor and living without the freedom and luxury to travel to Europe repeatedly and go to hotels in order to have quiet for writing. The privations and pressures of the urban poor were so far from Machen’s experience, that the issue of how to minister more immediately did not press him as hard as it might others.”


  7. Thanks for that, McMark! – that is the one. Interesting contrast between Piper’s approach and that of Machen’s. Not sure if Machen’s inheritance has as much relevance as Piper seems to think it does.


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