Friday, May 27, 2011

Mencken's "Mixed Martial Arts" For And Against Women

H. L. Mencken.  Funny, angry, and good-looking.  Why hasn't there been a major motion picture about this guy?
I knew going into it that reading H. L. Mencken's In Defense of Women was a high risk activity for me.  Not because it was written in 1918, and not because the writer is known for his brutal honesty, but because you just know when there's a "Defense" of that kind there's going to be trouble.  It's going to be "ironic," or it's going to actually be a defense of virginity, or it's going to be horrible in some other way you could never have foreseen.

And it's true: it is a mixed business, though not quite in any of those ways.  It's main good quality is that like all Mencken's writing, it's hilarious.  The main thesis is that women are smart -- really smart, like competent and intelligent and artistically sensitive.  Mencken hated posers, and he gleefully points out all the ways in which women are more realistic and open-eyed judgers of what is going on, unlike men who are blinded by vanity.  He thinks it's hilarious that women's superior judgment is called "women's intuition" instead of just, Hey, women are paying attention and have good practical judgment.

Money quote for this part of the book:
"If the work of the average man required half the mental agility and readiness of resource of the work of the average prostitute, the average man would be constantly on the verge of starvation."  -- Mencken, A Defense of Women.
There are some other good parts, like when he talks about the moronic myth that women don't actually enjoy sex and just submit to it in marriage.  He's merciless about the pretensions that keep the myth alive -- the way in which the myth functions in the pressures for monogamous marriage.  It's admirable the way he tries to provide evidence for his claim -- which, indeed, in 1918 in a book for publication is not easy.

The book is also full of rage and hatred.  Mencken was driven crazy by the ways in which he thought marriage benefited women way more than men, and furious about the fact that a woman who doesn't hold up her end of the marriage contract by cooking good meals and stuff wouldn't get in any trouble. 

Not that he supported any changes to the system.  It was appalling to him that women were so dependent on men and lived off of them like parasites, but it also was appalling to him that ugly,  mannish suffragettes were trying to fight for voting, equality, work and all those sorts of things.  That, for me, was probably the worst part of the book, that sense that sure, a woman could work, and could certainly be good at it, but only if she was going to give up on being attractive.  What a sucky choice that is.  And yet, I feel like you see it all the time, even now, people who think that way.

But the best aspect of this book is that in it, men and women both come off as The Other, both are The Second Sex, and truly, this is something only someone with Mencken's crazy clear-eyed and brutally honest approach can succeed with.  Even now, when you read about the sexes, women are always The Other sex -- always discussed as if men are normal, default, human, and women are somehow interesting in how they diverge from that.

It drives me nuts, and I was thrilled to see Mencken treating both men and women as if they were absurd deviations from anything that would make any sense.  I've already mentioned male vanity, which Mencken found preposterous and relentless.  He is also merciless on the subject of men's inability to govern their concerns with practicality, noting with scorn that any man with a mistress on the side necessarily gets into hot water  -- unless, as the French do, they simply let their wives manage everything.

The most striking example of this is when he talks about male nobility and honor.  He notices the way that men are constantly going on about fair play this and honor that, and acting like this proves their essential superiority to women who naturally just fight tooth and nail.  His theory about the source of this is that men feel manipulated in the marriage chase, in which women come after them with honed techniques, deception, and really, everything they've got.  They express their aversion to this practice in a confused way, by saying that "women have no sense of honor."

But men, he says, also have no sense of honor -- as long as anything real is at stake.  It's only in gambling and such nonsense that men really act honorably.  "The history of all wars is a history of mutual allegations of dishonorable practices, and such allegations are nearly always well-grounded."  As long as anything is really at stake, men fight just as tooth and nail as women.  One sees it in women's social interactions only because it is in social interactions that women's very lives are at stake -- in 1918, indeed, a woman's ability to marry was frequently her means of staying sheltered and fed.

Mencken admires the fighting spirit of women, which he takes as evidence that they're less civilized than men.  Since in true Nietzschean fashion he took civilization to be " a mere device for regimenting men," whose "perfect symbol is the goose-step," this seems to be high praise indeed.  

Mencken was merciless about the idiocy of marriage, saying that no man of any intelligence would ever get caught up in it, and that it represented "the end of hope."  So it is, of course, amusing that he did eventually get married himself:  to a woman named Sara Haardt, who was a writer, a professor of English (at Goucher college), and a gentle and genteel Southern woman.  They were very happy, and wrote lots of letters, and traveled around quite a bit, before she died a few years later at a young age of tuberculosis.

For some reason, Sara Haardt doesn't have her own Wikipedia page.  Surely if the minor characters of Beavis and Butthead can have a page, we can spare a few electrons for Ms. Haardt.  Can't we?

UPDATE, MAY 2012:  Anonymous Reader has solved the Wikipedia problem!


Anonymous said...

Wikipedia problem fixed:

Anonymous said...

Great review. I'm just now finding out about Mencken and treading cautiously lest I find myself cosying up to someone who turns out to be a bigot; racist; eugenicist etc etc.
What interested me about the (other) Anonymous writer's wiki entry was that the woman who married Mencken, Sara Haardt, was an accomplished author AND campaigned for the right for women to vote.
A very interesting marriage. I wonder if he changed his views as a result of his meeting this woman?

Anonymous said...

Hee! I also thought that this would be a high-risk activity for me, but I'm male: I was worried that this would be yet another ha-ha-only-serious "women are 'innately' smart/good/virtuous/whatever and men are not" polemic that I'd have to force myself to slog through--eyes firmly rolled up--like "On the Nobility and Excellence of the Feminine Sex [...]", but I was surprised to see Mencken (Mencken!) write:

"Nay; the superior acumen and self-possession of women is not inherent in any peculiarity of their constitutions, and above all, not in any advantage of a purely physical character."


"Find me an obviously intelligent man, a man free from sentimentality and illusion, a man hard to deceive, a man of the first class, and I'll show you a man with a wide streak of woman in him. Bonaparte had it; Goethe had it; Schopenhauer had it; Bismarck and Lincoln had it; in Shakespeare, if the Freudians are to be believed, it amounted to downright homosexuality."


"That is to say, she will address herself to acquiring that practical competence, that high talent for puerile and chiefly mechanical expertness, [...] which is probably much further than
they will ever actually go. Thus a shade of their present superiority to men will always remain, and with it a shade of their relative inefficiency"

This was certainly a far more amusing book to read than "Women after All"--one of the latest installments in the "women are really smart, competent, and intelligent" genre--which covers some of the same ground, but: it's framed in current "intelligentsia" progressive cultural norms, has fewer amusing passages, isn't as well-written, and has many tedious appeals to authority--I mean modern science--which, as pointed out by Cordelia Fine, Lise Eliot, or Janet Hyde, is often completely equivocal: there's no shortage of sex difference publications that indicate insignificant effect sizes.

I wish I'd live long enough to see how men and women write about gender and sex in the 23rd century.