Sunday, 30 December 2012

H.L. Mencken and life's end

The central aim of life is to simulate extinction.’ H.L. Mencken

Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956) was a journalist very much of the old school, which is to say, he combined immense erudition with an ease and facility of language that makes even the most trivial of matters deeply engaging. The words of Homer, Socrates, and other ancient Greeks meander through his writing as if just uttered in a casual conversation by a good friend; Kant appears to make some profound pronouncement from time to time, while Spinoza jostles with Hobbes to a get a word in. And then there are the literati, the great wordsmiths through the ages, observing on this and commenting on that, adding their lustre to the bright light Mencken’s words possess as naturally as a tree has leaves.
They don’t make journalists like that now, and perhaps they didn’t even make them like that then. He was certainly a rare bird, perhaps even unique among his kind. In fact, Mencken was really no journalist at all; he was an observer of the human condition with eyes like laser beams, who just happened to publish his thoughts in the newspapers.
Time passes and we forget much. Some of the tomfoolery and chicanery – particularly that of the booboisie, as he styled them - that caught Mencken’s eye means nothing to us now, yet his writing is so captivating it retains an immediacy, as if we are reading today’s paper. Others, such as the Scopes Monkey Trial, are famous in themselves, and will always warrant our attention. Finally, there are those of his writings which treat of timeless subjects, his musings on mortality, for instance. These will always speak to us, so long as we retain our human concerns.
Mencken - life as a belly-aching laugh.
His writings are filled with a bubbling joie de vivre, a genuine amusement at the circus of it all, even as he gazes, unblinking, into the great abyss of meaninglessness at its heart. A wry smile lurks behind everything he wrote. And behind much of what he wrote there is a belly-aching laugh.
Like many of those who think more than cursorily about life and what it’s all about, Mencken thought long and often about death. And he wrote about it well and often. In the end, he concluded, in all that we do, we seek to obliterate the awareness that we are. There are times when literary paradoxes are little more than party tricks, the verisimilitude of profundity standing in the place of actual profundity. But in this instance – as in so many others – Mencken was not dealing in cheap prestidigitation; he was merely speaking the profoundly mundane truth.
In the still hours of the night, we all become aware of our essential nothingness, a dreadful awareness that assaults the misguided but persistent sense we all have of our own significance. Fiercely conscious, as I am, of my Self, I cannot accept this Self is quite literally without meaning. The Self asserts its own importance, and so we await the dawn, when we can rise and busy ourselves with myriad trivia, dressed up as matters of much meaning, so that for a time at least we are no longer aware of pointlessly being. In other words, by busying ourselves with all we can conjure, we strive to achieve the same state we will enjoy when we are dead – a state of being in which we are no longer troubled by the awareness of being, and the fruitlessness of existence. We are ostriches with our heads buried deep in the existential sands. It is an unsurpassable irony that our awareness, however subconscious, of the pointlessness of existence – and all that we do while we exist – leads us to give meaning to all that we do. It is the means by which we hide from ourselves what we could not otherwise face. It is, wonderfully, a paradox of the most sublime truth, the sort of sublime truth that brought a great and knowing smile to Mencken's face.

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