September 17, 2013

They don't do vituperation the way they used to

There are many different theories of what is the underlying essence of humor. A popular one is that what's funny consists of gentle surprises, of benign violations of expectations.

But I think what you find funny often depends upon what time of the day it is and how tired you are. At four AM, I often find sheer overkill hilarious. Warning: you may not. (Especially if it's not four AM.)

For my upcoming Taki's Magazine column, I was reading up on H.L. Mencken. In Modern Times, Paul Johnson writes:
Walter Lippman called [Mencken] "the most powerful influence on this whole [1920s] generation of educated people." 
A great part of his appeal lay in his ferocious attacks on Presidents. Theodore Roosevelt was 'blatant, crude, overly confidential, devious, tyrannical, vainglorious and sometimes quite childish." Taft's characteristic was "native laziness and shiftlessness." Wilson was "the perfect model of the Christian cad," who wished to impose a Cossack despotism." Harding was "a stonehead," Coolidge "petty, sordid and dull ... a cheap and trashy fellow ... almost devoid of any notion of honor ... a dreadful little cad." Hoover had a "natural instinct for low, disingenuous, fraudulent manipulators. ... 
Mencken excelled himself in attacking [Franklin] Roosevelt, whose whiff of fraudulent collectivism filled him with genuine outrage. He was "the Fuhrer," "the quack," surrounded by "an astounding rabble of impudent nobodies," "a gang of half-educated pedagogues, non-constitutional lawyers," starry-eyed uplifters and other such sorry wizards," and his New Deal "a political racket," "a series of stupendous bogus miracles," with its "constant appeals to class envy and hatred," treating government as "a milch-cow with 125 million teats" and marked by "frequent repudiations of categorical pledges." The only consequence of these diatribes was that Mencken forfeited his influence with anyone under thirty.
Mencken himself was variously described as a polecat, a Prussian, a British toady, a howling hyena, a parasite, a mangy mongerel, an affected ass, an unsavory creature, putrid of soul, a public nuisance, a literary stink-pot, a mountebank, a rantipole, a vain hysteric, an outcast, a literary renegade, and a trained elephant who wrote the gibberish of an imbecile. [Source: Charles Fecher, Mencken: A Study of his Thought, 1979]
Intellectuals, indeed, relished the paranoia of the rich and the conventional, and the extraordinary vehemence and fertility of invention with which [Franklin] Roosevelt was assailed. His next-door neighbor at Hyde Park, Howland Spencer, called him "a frustrated darling," a "swollen-headed nitwit with a Messiah complex and the brain of a boy scout;" to Senator Thomas Schall of Minnesota he was "a weak-minded Louis XIV;" Owen Young, chairman of General Electric, claimed he "babbled to himself," Senator William Borah of Idaho that he spent his time in his study cutting out paper dolls. According to rumor (often surfacing in pamphlets), he was insane, weak-minded, a hopeless drug-addict who burst into hysterical laughter at press conferences, an impostor (the real Roosevelt was in an insane-asylum), under treatment by a psychiatrist disguised as a White House footman, and had to be kept in a straitjacket most of the time. ... He was said to be suffering from an Oedipus complex, a "Silver Cord complex," heart trouble, leprosy, syphilis, incontinence, impotency, cancer, comas, and that his polio was inexorably "ascending into his head." He was called a Svengali, a Little Lord Fauntleroy, a simpleton, a modern political Juliet "making love to the people from the White House balcony, a pledge-breaker, a Communist, tyrant, oath-breaker, fascist, socialist, the Demoralizer, the Panderer, the Violator, the Embezzler, petulant, insolent, rash, ruthless, blundering, a sorcerer, an impostor, callow upstart, shallow autocrat, a man who encouraged swearing and "low slang," and a "subjugator of the human spirit."

I guess you could argue that these are now benign violations, since these passions have cooled over the last 80 years. But, as Sam Spade says to Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon, look how many of them there are. As Stalin liked to point out, quantity has a quality all its own.

At least at 4 A.M.


Anonymous said...

I guess Anglo-Americans were never puritanical in linguistic judgmentalism.

Anonymous said...

I scream you scream we all scream for ice cream.

ATBOTL said...

Politicians in America today are treated a lot more respectfully than they used to be, both by the press and by each other.

I think that's part of the problem today and related to issues like increasing corruption, increasing concentration of wealth and power etc.

Pat Boyle said...

Everyone should try to catch the earlier 'Maltese Falcon' starring Riccardo Cortez - an early "White-Hispanic'.

Cortez is perhaps truer to the book's conception but he won't make you forget Bogey.


anony-mouse said...

One of these insults may have had interesting historic ramifications.

When the war with Germany began and embassy staffs returned home, the Germany military attache was quizzed by Hitler, who apparently believed that the 'Rosenfeld' jibes were actually statements of fact (not believing of course that you could legally say something like that about your country's leader without it being true.)

Anonymous said...

Humor, like morality, has different gradations and nuances.

Kids laugh at anything. I remember watching THANK GOD IT'S FRIDAY as a child and finding it funny as hell in a theater full of Negroes.

I later saw it on TV and didn't laugh once.

There is also crowd-element to humor.

LOVE AT FIRST BITE isn't that funny but when I saw it in a theater full of Negroes as a child, I thought it was the funniest thing as the Negroes were howling like crazy to scenes like these:

Kids will often laugh like crazy at stuff they don't even understand because everyone else is laughing. Laughter is infectious that way.
So, humor comes before understanding. Something in us likes to be tickled.

Comedy, in contrast, tends to be a bit cruel as the laughter is usually at someone's expense. If someone slips on a banana peel, we laugh at the person who falls down.
Every joke has an intended victim.
Every caricature lampoons an individual, an ethnic group, religious group, or some social type.

Ex Submarine Officer said...

OT, but look at the age distribution of the victims of the Washington Navy Yard shooting.

Michael Arnold, 59
Martin Bodrog, 54
Arthur Daniels, 51
Sylvia Frasier, 53
Kathleen Gaarde, 62
John Roger Johnson, 73
Mary Knight, 51
Frank Kohler, 50
Vishnu Pandit, 61
Kenneth Bernard Proctor, 46
Gerald L. Read, 58
Richard Michael Ridgell, 52

Anonymous said...

Humor can also have a release valve after extreme tension.

Shown in a double billing with LOVE AT FIRST BITE was BLACULA, and I don't believe I heard frightened response as hysterical as the screams heard during this one particular scene.

As the newly awakened vampire woman ran toward the camera in slow motion, the howls of Negresses in the theater grew louder and louder in direct proportion to the figure lunging toward the audience. When the vampire woman's face filled the screen, the Negresses in the theater were screaming their minds off like they were under some voodoo spell, but as soon as the scene ended, the theater was filled with loud laughter as relief.

Anonymous said...

"quantity has a quality all its own"- G.C. wrote that too in TYE

Beefy Levinson said...

Every time the weenies start complaining about negative campaigning, I just link them to this.

"John Adams is a hideous hermaphroditical character with neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness or sensibility of a woman."

"[Alexander] Hamilton is the creole bastard brat of a Scotch peddler."

Auntie Analogue said...

Comedy has today reached its nadir, purely because when there are no standards, no boundaries, no nationally shared cultural conventions - except for the forced-obligatory avoidance of offense to sacred cow groups, nothing can really be sent-up or lampooned. This is the consequence of the ascent to power of progressive radical Left, whose humorless commissar-enforcers have now become The Man. Thus under our nouveau-NKVD nothing is funny because nothing can be funny.

Anonymous said...

"OT, but look at the age distribution of the victims of the Washington Navy Yard shooting."

You boomers better start hiring some young people to learn the business now or it's all going to come crashing down in 5-10 years.

Anonymous said...

Good God, you people.

The Frankfurt School invented Political Correctness precisely so as to shame all of you into submission and thereby do away with Vituperation once and for all.

Is this really The Dark Enlightenment?

Or are y'all just a bunch of poseurs?

Luke Lea said...

FDR was a pathological liar, which turned out to be a political asset. The most insightful and entertaining biography by far is Before the Trumpet Young Franklin Roosevelt.

Steiner said...

So Stalin liked to say that "quantity has a quality all its own"? Goes to show that the old Bolshie really had read his Hegel, who said it first.

Anonymous said...

You boomers better start hiring some young people to learn the business now or it's all going to come crashing down in 5-10 years.

The people there weren't actually doing anything. These are baby boomer welfare programs.

They take a two hour coffee break in the morning, a two hour lunch, and spend a couple hours doing the productivity equivalent of shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.

MLK said...

This one is both hilarious and brilliant. It seems so absurd iit takes on a strange credibility:

Senator William Borah of Idaho that he spent his time in his study cutting out paper dolls.

Ali said...

I like the term "starry-eyed uplifter".

Anonymous said...


"We’re Right, Even If Science Is Wrong"

Anonymous said...

Mencken couldn't write today. The entire country could be characterized as booboisie.

Dahinda said...

"swollen-headed nitwit with a Messiah complex and the brain of a boy scout" This describes most liberals. I sit on the board of a non-profit that advocates for small farmers and the local ag movement. The only thing that is stopping the local ag movement from going mainstream, like the craft beer movement did, are all of the people with this complex that are part of it. BTW, H.L. Mencken is p-robably my all time favorite writer.

Anonymous said...

Steiner said...
So Stalin liked to say that "quantity has a quality all its own"? Goes to show that the old Bolshie really had read his Hegel, who said it first.

The Sec. of Defense sadi that?

slumber_j said...

I only just noticed thanks to this post the straight line between Mencken and Hunter Thompson. E.g.:

"Richard Nixon has never been one of my favorite people anyway. For years I've regarded his existence as a monument to all the rancid genes and broken chromosones that corrupt the possibilities of the American Dream; he was a foul caricature of himself, a man with no soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena and the style of a poison toad. The Nixon I remembered was absolutely humorless; I couldn't imagine him laughing at anything except maybe a paraplegic who wanted to vote Democratic but couldn't quite reach the lever on the voting machine."

And in terms of the all-important quality of quantity, there's *plenty* more where that came from.

Mark said...

Mencken kind of mellowed in his opinion of Coolidge later on and looked more kindly on his administration. People today would have trouble placing Mencken on the political left-right spectrum. He was basically a member of the pre-National Review Old Right which was more libertarian, more isolationist and less religious than today's right.

David said...

That's one of the juicy spots in Johnson's Modern Times. I also like the related passage where novelist Thomas Wolfe is quoted as saying that whenever he spoke well of FDR to rich men, he caught holy ell; their boiled collars rolled up and exploded and their wives' pearl necklaces violently came apart and dropped pearls all over the yacht deck. (Or words to this effect.)

Dutch Boy said...

A better description of Mencken: an irascible, closeted homosexual. His vituperation against the presidents was popular until he ran up against FDR, whose own popularity trumped Mencken's spleen and changed the public perception of Mencken from witty gadfly to embittered spoilsport.

Anonymous said...

Duth Thing,

Until 30 years ago there never was such a thing as "a" homosexual, closeted or otherwise. As for Henry, I'm not aware of his having shtupped any men but, frankly, don't care if he did. If it was good enough for Plato, Socrates and Augustus it's good enough for Roy Cohn. By adopting the terminology and belief system of the Victimologists you grant them instant victory.

Back to Mencken, I know a lot about him and again - though I couldn't care less if he did - I know of no evidence of his having had sexual experiences with men.

As for his relationships with women, who the hell cares? It happens to be that he married, and before doing so had indicated as clearly as possible in those days without being pornographic that he had interest in women and was aware of the different things one might do with one and that in fact he did them (though he thought kissing was overrated).

So Dutch Thing, don't go picking around Mencken. The man was as marvelous a human specimen as you're bound to have found on this earth and your dismissals are as ludicrous as your handle.

David said...

Mencken says in his diaries that he has a distrust, even distaste, of "homos," as he called them; but he evinced no viturperative hatred of them there or elsewhere. He made gentle references to "Sapphic" women in his published writings. He played the field with females before and after his ill-starred marriage, as biographer Marian Rodgers makes clear, one of whom was a silent screen star.

FredR said...

Reminds me of Dennis Miller going off on Pelosi, an increasingly outlandish series of charges capped off with 'and I guarantee you that woman sleeps upside down!" Pretty good stuff.

Dahinda said...

"People today would have trouble placing Mencken on the political left-right spectrum." That is beacause Mencken was a reality based writer not really political at all. Reality is hyperdimentional not one dimentional like the left-right spectrum is.

Anonymous said...

Mexers as new Italian-Americans but not in bad way.