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H.L. Mencken and The Meaning of Lif

February 9, 2012

I recently circulated an exchange between H.L. Mencken, one of my heroes, and Will Durant, another person who deserves heroic esteem. The topic: the Ultimate Question of Life the Universe and Everything. And no, his answer was not 42. Instead, Mencken provided a characteristically thoughtful response that makes his answer feel both inevitable and natural, in spite of the gravity of what he is describing. The whole letter is worth a read, but there are some particularly choice excerpts.

Dear Durant

You ask me, in brief, what satisfaction I get out of life, and why I go on working. I go on working for the same reason that a hen goes on laying eggs. There is in every living creature an obscure but powerful impulse to active functioning. Life demands to be lived. Inaction, save as a measure of recuperation between bursts of activity, is painful and dangerous to the healthy organism—in fact, it is almost impossible. Only the dying can be really idle.

The precise form of an individual’s activity is determined, of course, by the equipment with which he came into the world. In other words, it is determined by his heredity. I do not lay eggs, as a hen does, because I was born without any equipment for it. For the same reason I do not get myself elected to Congress, or play the violoncello, or teach metaphysics in a college, or work in a steel mill. What I do is simply what lies easiest to my hand. It happens that I was born with an intense and insatiable interest in ideas, and thus like to play with them. It happens also that I was born with rather more than the average facility for putting them into words. In consequence, I am a writer and editor, which is to say, a dealer in them and concoctor of them.

There is very little conscious volition in all this. What I do was ordained by the inscrutable fates, not chosen by me. In my boyhood, yielding to a powerful but still subordinate interest in exact facts, I wanted to be a chemist, and at the same time my poor father tried to make me a business man. At other times, like any other realtively poor man, I have longed to make a lot of money by some easy swindle. But I became a writer all the same, and shall remain one until the end of the chapter, just as a cow goes on giving milk all her life, even though what appears to be her self-interest urges her to give gin.

Are we to take Mencken’s reflection on The Question an anti-existentialist argument? From a professed Nietzschean? Or (to get technical) is it simply a form of existentialism that partially denies the nihilistic antecedent to existentialism by acknowledging contingency and the arbitrariness of actual life as we find it? To cut through the jargon, it seems as though Mencken is simply acknowledging that we have unavoidable and individualized tastes and abilities, and any notion that we can simply shrug those off by force of will is to deny the reality in which we find ourselves.

Speaking of denying reality and attempting to subjugate our inborn or naturally acquired values to arbitrary preferences…

As for religion, I am quite devoid of it. Never in my adult life have I experienced anything that could be plausibly called a religious impulse. My father and grandfather were agnostics before me, and though I was sent to Sunday-school as a boy and exposed to the Christian theology I was never taught to believe it. My father thought that I should learn what it was, but it apparently never occurred to him that I would accept it. He was a good psychologist. What I got in Sunday-school—beside a wide acquaintance with Christian hymnology—was simply a firm conviction that the Christian faith was full of palpable absurdities, and the Christian God preposterous. Since that time I have read a great deal in theology—perhaps much more than the average clergyman—but I have never discovered any reason to change my mind.

The act of worship, as carried on by Christians, seems to me to be debasing rather than ennobling. It involves grovelling before a Being who, if He really exists, deserves to be denounced instead of respected. I see little evidence in this world of the so-called goodness of God. On the contrary, it seems to me that, on the strength of His daily acts, He must be set down a most cruel, stupid and villainous fellow. I can say this with a clear conscience, for He has treated me very well—in fact, with vast politeness. But I can’t help thinking of his barbaric torture of most of the rest of humanity. I simply can’t imagine revering the God of war and politics, theology and cancer.

I do not believe in immortality, and have no desire for it. The belief in it issues from the puerile egos of inferior men. In its Christian form it is little more than a device for getting revenge upon those who are having a better time on this earth. What the meaning of human life may be I don’t know: I incline to suspect that it has none. All I know about it is that, to me at least, it is very amusing while it lasts. Even its troubles, indeed, can be amusing. Moreover, they tend to foster the human qualities that I admire most—courage and its analogues. The noblest man, I think, is that one who fights God, and triumphs over Him. I have had little of this to do. When I die I shall be content to vanish into nothingness. No show, however good, could conceivably be good for ever.

Isn’t that just poetry? Why make religion your sole answer to life’s questions, when religion is quite obviously a product of the world in which we find ourselves, rather than an antecedent cause of it (simply look to the fact that religion has developed over time if you need proof)? Like anything natural–whether it’s a fruit or a mountain or a sunset– or anything artificial–whether it’s a wheelbarrow or a bicycle or a computer–religion can be simply enjoyed by the subjective individual on an existential level. For some, the religious experience is deeply validating and satisfying for its ability to engage and organize like-minded people. For others, the irrational skips in the record-playing of religion is too grating to bear. And either one is perfectly acceptable, so long as it amuses you while you’re here.

And so I’ll posit this, alongside Mr. Mencken: when asked about the meaning of life, the best answer is to laugh.

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