Men & Women

"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."

-- H.L. Mencken, In Defense of Women

I. Brief Introduction

II. Excerpts from Mencken's In Defense of Women

I. Brief Introduction

In H.L. Mencken's prose one finds all the gastric juice of the reviler and lampooner. Words for him were weapons, hurled as often to puff up an already distended ego as to do justice to some deserving laughingstock. It is unfortunate that many a modern polemicist should have inherited all of the man's derisive nastiness and little of his judgment and wit. The world might have been spared so much imitative writing and vanity.

The flashy stylist too often wins a reprieve for not developing an idea or buttressing a line of thought. Even educated minds, arrested by clever metaphors and impressed by rhetorical flourishes, can forget to ask whether what they're reading is true. The pitfall especially awaits the reader of Mencken.

His affirmation of feminine intelligence came when women were still toiling in the kitchen. He saw through much male pomposity and knew that most slights of women were wholly unjust, the concoctions of insecure men. Let seven-eighths of his Defense be taken as gospel. Let the rest of it be open to the same unsparing criticism that he himself so often meted out.

The average woman, he says, is well aware that "the differences between man and man, once mere money is put aside, are so slight as to be practically almost negligible." Is the good author being fair to his own kind? There really is no significant difference, in temperament and humor, intelligence and sensitivity, between men? How might he account for all the great male poets, philosophers, satirists, scientists, comedians, tragedians, playwrights, novelists?

Once a man is out of the sight of a woman, Mencken claims, he is also out of her mind. "Once replaced, a dead husband is expunged from the minutes. And so is a dead love." A widower will grieve and mourn the loss of a dead first wife, but a widow will quite easily get on with her business and find someone else. Isn't this more an indictment of the female spirit than of the male's? Is not the yearning for permanence the stuff of spirituality, the energy which informs all the best poetry and half the best philosophy? Don't savages merely "go with the flow" and let the transient moment be their lord?

Mencken laments the male "bag of tricks" -- "that complex of petty knowledges, that collection of cerebral rubberstamps" which allow men the illusion of possessing a superior intelligence. His point is well taken. One might, with equal force, however, celebrate heady and abstract conversation, the effort of two male mortals to haggle over the meaning of "truth" or "virtue" or to discuss some important point of business or world politics; one might just as easily deride much feminine conversation as mundane, the blithe indifference during leisure hours to weighty ideas and too much absorption in the practical and pragmatic side of life. But both emphases would be equally ungenerous, and the temptation to amplify them in "men v. women" discussions is often irresistible.

Apart from these few quibbles, and perhaps a few not mentioned, Defense is an amusing and instructive treatise.

II. Excerpts From In Defense Of Women

"Women, in truth, are not only intelligent; they have almost a monopoly of certain of the subtler and more utile forms of intelligence. The thing itself, indeed, might be reasonably described as a special feminine character; there is in it, in more than one of its manifestations, a femaleness as palpable as the femaleness of cruelty, masochism or rouge. Men are strong. Men are brave in physical combat. Men have sentiment. Men are romantic, and love what they conceive to be virtue and beauty. Men incline to faith, hope and charity. Men know how to sweat and endure. Men are amiable and fond. But in so far as they show the true fundamentals of intelligence -- in so far as they reveal a capacity for discovering the kernel of eternal verity in the husk of delusion and hallucination and a passion for bringing it forth -- to that extent, at least, they are feminine, and still nourished by the milk of their mothers. "Human creatures," says George, borrowing from Weininger, "are never entirely male or entirely female; there are no men, there are no women, but only sexual majorities." 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. The essential traits and qualities of the male, the hallmarks of the unpolluted masculine, are at the same time the hallmarks of the Schafskopf. The caveman is all muscles and mush. Without a woman to rule him and think for him, he is a truly lamentable spectacle: a baby with whiskers, a rabbit with the frame of an aurochs, a feeble and preposterous caricature of God...

"What men, in their egoism, constantly mistake for a deficiency of intelligence in woman is merely an incapacity for mastering that mass of small intellectual tricks, that complex of petty knowledges, that collection of cerebral rubberstamps, which constitutes the chief mental equipment of the average male. A man thinks that he is more intelligent than his wife because he can add up a column of figures more accurately, and because he understands the imbecile jargon of the stock market, and because he is able to distinguish between the ideas of rival politicians, and because he is privy to the minutiae of some sordid and degrading business or profession, say soap-selling or the law. But these empty talents, of course, are not really signs of a profound intelligence; they are, in fact, merely superficial accomplishments, and their acquirement puts little more strain on the mental powers than a chimpanzee suffers in learning how to catch a penny or scratch a match. The whole bag of tricks of the average business man, or even of the average professional man, is inordinately childish. It takes no more actual sagacity to carry on the everyday hawking and haggling of the world, or to ladle out its normal doses of bad medicine and worse law, than it takes to operate a taxicab or fry a pan of fish. No observant person, indeed, can come into close contact with the general run of business and professional men -- I confine myself to those who seem to get on in the world, and exclude the admitted failures -- without marvelling at their intellectual lethargy, their incurable ingenuousness, their appalling lack of ordinary sense. The late Charles Francis Adams, a grandson of one American President and a great-grandson of another, after a long lifetime in intimate association with some of the chief business "geniuses" of that paradise of traders and usurers, the United States, reported in his old age that he had never heard a single one of them say anything worth hearing. These were vigorous and masculine men, and in a man's world they were successful men, but intellectually they were all blank cartridges...

"...the average woman is not strategically capable of bringing down the most tempting game within her purview, and must thus content herself with a second, third, or nth choice. The only women who get their first choices are those who run in almost miraculous luck and those too stupid to formulate an ideal -- two very small classes, it must be obvious. A few women, true enough, are so pertinacious that they prefer defeat to compromise. That is to say, they prefer to put off marriage indefinitely rather than to marry beneath the highest leap of their fancy. But such women may be quickly dismissed as abnormal, and perhaps as downright diseased in mind; the average woman is well aware that marriage is far better for her than celibacy, even when it falls a good deal short of her primary hopes, and she is also well aware that the differences between man and man, once mere money is put aside, are so slight as to be practically almost negligible. Thus the average woman is under none of the common masculine illusions about elective affinities, soul mates, love at first sight, and such phantasms. She is quite ready to fall in love, as the phrase is, with any man who is plainly eligible, and she usually knows a good many more such men than one. Her primary demand in marriage is not for the agonies of romance, but for comfort and security; she is thus easier satisfied than a man, and oftener happy. One frequently hears of remarried widowers who continue to moon about their dead first wives, but for a remarried widow to show any such sentimentality would be a nine days' wonder. Once replaced, a dead husband is expunged from the minutes. And so is a dead love...

"One of the results of all this is a subtle reinforcement of the contempt with which women normally regard their husbands -- a contempt grounded, as I have shown, upon a sense of intellectual superiority. To this primary sense of superiority is now added the disparagement of a concrete comparison, and over all is an ineradicable resentment of the fact that such a comparison has been necessary. In other words, the typical husband is a second-rater, and no one is better aware of it than his wife. He is, taking averages, one who has been loved, as the saying goes, by but one woman, and then only as a second, third or nth choice. If any other woman had ever loved him, as the idiom has it, she would have married him, and so made him ineligible for his present happiness. But the average bachelor is a man who has been loved, so to speak, by many women, and is the lost first choice of at least some of them. He represents the unattainable, and hence the admirable; the husband is the attained and disdained.

"...though every normal man thus cherishes the soothing unction that he is the intellectual superior of all women, and particularly of his wife, he constantly gives the lie to his pretension by consulting and deferring to what he calls her intuition. That is to say, he knows by experience that her judgment in many matters of capital concern is more subtle and searching than his own, and, being disinclined to accredit this greater sagacity to a more competent intelligence, he takes refuge behind the doctrine that it is due to some impenetrable and intangible talent for guessing correctly, some half mystical supersense, some vague (and, in essence, infra-human) instinct.

"Here we have a sufficient explanation of the general superiority of bachelors, so often noted by students of mankind -- a superiority so marked that it is difficult, in all history, to find six first-rate philosophers who were married men. The bachelor's very capacity to avoid marriage is no more than a proof of his relative freedom from the ordinary sentimentalism of his sex -- in other words, of his greater approximation to the clearheadedness of the enemy sex. He is able to defeat the enterprise of women because he brings to the business an equipment almost comparable to their own. Herbert Spencer, until he was fifty, was ferociously harassed by women of all sorts. Among others, George Eliot tried very desperately to marry him. But after he had made it plain, over a long series of years, that he was prepared to resist marriage to the full extent of his military and naval power, the girls dropped off one by one, and so his last decades were full of peace and he got a great deal of very important work done."