|H. L. Mencken. Funny, angry, and good-looking. Why hasn't there been a major motion picture about this guy?|
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.
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!