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As with so many other good things, I have come late to the writings of H. L. Mencken.  I have long known of him by reputation, of course, and have often relished his acid-drenched remarks when quoted by others.  I have been known to refer to the "booboisie", or to quote/misquote Mencken's definition of Puritanism, but I had not ever read him in any depth.  

I am remedying that omission now, reading through the Library of America's new 2-volume edition of  Prejudices: The Complete Series.  The six series of Prejudices, published from 1919 to 1927, collected Mencken's essays on the full range of political, literary and cultural issues of the day. As his title suggest, Mencken was one for taking a stand as his own and stating it without equivocation, for the benefit of whoever was equipped to take it in and assess it.   His contempt for those who were not so equipped was on full display in the Prejudices, as was his loathing for all those who would impose their own sentimental prejudices on others by force.  Mencken had no place for overweening self-importance in the powerful, even as he had no particular place for the thought-free "boobs" and rubes who were most frequently the targets of the powerful.

My favorite discovery thus far is that one of the better known Menckenisms turns out to have been inspired by, of all people, Ezra Pound.  It comes from an essay in the First Series of Prejudices, "The New Poetry Movement," and uses the wonderful word "abysmal" in it best sense, meaning "low and bad" but "deep to the point of bottomlessness":

Ezra Pound? . . .  His knowledge is abysmal; he has it readily on tap; moreover, he has a fine ear, and has written many an excellent verse.  But now all the glow and gusto of the bard has been transformed into the rage of the pamphleteer: he drops the lute for the bayonet.  One sympathizes with him in his choler. The stupidity he combats is actually almost unbearable.  Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.  But this business, alas, is fatal to the placid moods and fine other-worldliness of the poet.  Pound gives a thrilling show, but -- . . . .

Fine as that passage is, what I wanted to post here runs more to the political than the poetical.

T R Obamicon

When former President Theodore Roosevelt died in 1919, Mencken published not an obituary but the forensically titled essay, "Roosevelt: An Autopsy."  While largely admiring of Roosevelt -- particularly as compared to then-President Woodrow Wilson for whom Mencken reserved a particularly virulent strain of disgust -- the "Autopsy" is insistent on Roosevelt's character as a brilliant, activist, virile figure, a born manipulator of the masses, but working not for the masses but for benevolent rule over the masses, and with the ultimate controlling Prussian instincts of a Bismarck.  

It is a complex and sophisticated argument, and I recommend reading it in full.  The passage that leapt at me is this one, from which I quote at length: 

[At] bottom he was against them [the Progressives], and not only in the matter of their specific sure cures, but also in the larger matter of their childish faith in the wisdom and virtue of the plain people.  Roosevelt, for all his fluent mastery of democratic counter-words, democratic gestures and all the rest of the armamentarium of the mob-master, had no such faith in his heart of hearts.  He didn't believe in democracy; he believed simply in government.  His remedy for all the great pangs and longings of existence was not a dispersion of authority, but a hard concentration of authority.  He was not in favor of unlimited experiment; he was in favor of a rigid control from above, a despotism of inspired prophets and policemen.  He was not for democracy as his followers understood democracy, and as it actually is and must be; he was for a paternalism of the true Bismarckian pattern . . . -- a paternalism concerning itself with all things, from the regulation of coal-mining and meat-packing to the regulation of spelling and marital rights. . . .  All the fundamental objects of Liberalism -- free speech, unhampered enterprise, the least possible governmental interference -- were abhorrent to him. . . .  When he tackled the trusts the thing that he had in his mind's eye was not the restoration of competition but the subordination of all private trusts to one great national trust, with himself at its head.  And when he attacked the courts it was not because they put their own prejudice before the law but because they refused to put his prejudices before the law.

     In all his career no one ever heard him make an argument for the rights of the citizen; his eloquence was always expended in expounding the duties of the citizen. . . .  The duties of the citizen, as he understood them, related not only to acts, but also to thoughts. There was, in his mind, a simple body of primary doctrine, and dissent from it was the foulest of crimes. . . .

Leaping forward to the present day, and putting aside the more obvious differences between the two figures, of whom are we reminded by that passage, and particularly by the final sentence?  As you may have already guessed, it is the man currently putting the "bully" in the bully pulpit . . . .

Obama Question Othority

Illustrations by the blogger, with an able assist from


Meet the Beagles


I am flying today to Orlando, Florida, for a weekend of risk-and-insurance jollity with my fellow CPCUs.  If you should find yourself loitering about the Marriott World Center hotel on Sunday morning, you might try sneaking in to the annual Mock Trial, in which I will be fighting the good fight on behalf of my fictional client in a spirited Appellate Cage Match of vasty deepness.

The sign above was photographed in the Orlando International Airport in 2008.  I do not know if it is still there.  Much is communicated by this sign, though but little is revealed.

It is comforting to know that Security Theater, like the vaudeville of old, still has a place for a good dog act.

The promise that I might be permitted to help sniff luggage is intriguing.  

The promise that I will be fined for smuggling if I declare my food, plant, and animal products is dismaying.  

The question of whether the beagles, as animals, must declare their own products is unanswered, as is how best to declare them in polite company.

That said, a little traveling music:

The Handsome Family - All the Time in Airports


Photo by Mark Kobayashi-Hillary, via Wikimedia Commons, under Creative Commons license.


A Breathing Room of Choral

Ariel and CalibanReaders of this blog, and particularly followers of my Twitter feed, are already well aware that I am a partisan for composer Nico Muhly.  Those folk are probably also aware that this week saw the US CD release of two new Muhly-composed recordings on big-deal classical label Decca:

  • The Los Angeles Master Chorale, under the direction of Grant Gershon, performing a selection of Muhly's sacred and secular choral music, A Good Understanding; and

I have been planning to take this occasion to write not only about these two recordings, which reached me only yesterday, but also more broadly about my interest in and assessment of Nico Muhly, at some length. There's no time for that just now, however, as I am clearing my desk and serving my clients in advance of a whirlwind weekend jaunt to Florida to participate in a mock trial for attendees at the Annual Meeting and Seminars of the CPCU Society.  So, that longer piece is just going to have to wait.

(By way of a preview, it will probably not surprise anyone that I like both of the new recordings very much.  I have a bone to pick with the Los Angeles Times over its review of one of them, which bears as well on the larger theme of the Times' oddly out of joint view of the entire current crop of younger NYC-based composers.  The terms "overrated" and "precious" will not appear in my post, unless perhaps as clay pigeons to be shot to fragments without mercy.  I'm thinking I'll be pleased with this one when it is finally written. But I digress.)

To fill the gap, I am posting a collection of media related to I Drink the Air Before Me.  First, a player courtesy of Bedroom Community, that will allow you to stream two segments from that work.

Then, two videos to show the work in context.  I Drink the Air . . . was composed as live accompaniment to a dance of the same title choreographed by Stephen Petronio.  The piece premiered in Boston late last year, and is scheduled to be remounted in London in early October.  

These clips focus on the dance, but they also provide an opportunity to hear some more of the music and to see the musicians, conducted from the keyboard by the composer, at the rear of the stage.



Illustration: Ariel pestering Caliban, by Arthur Rackham, for The Tempest in the Lambs' Tales from Shakespeare.

The title of I Drink the Air Before Me is a line of Ariel's from Act V, scene 1, emphasizing excellent customer service in responding to one of Prospero's final directives:

    I drink the air before me, and return
    Or ere your pulse twice beat.


Equinox Falls

All things being [not quite] equal, this fool wishes a jolly Autumnal Equinox to you all.  By all means emulate the allegorical exemplar of Fall Fashion below, and enjoy the fruits of the harvest.

Autumnus - Hendrick Goltzius

Autumn (Der Herbst), Hendrik Goltzius, ca. 1589.


Max Richter - Autumn Music 1

Max Richter - Autumn Music 2

Seasonally appropriate musical interludes: Max Richter, Songs From Before.





See Emily Play

And you read your Emily Dickinson
And I my Robert Frost
And we note our place with bookmarkers
That measure what we've lost.

The Dangling Conversation (P. Simon) performed by Simon & Garfunkel.
By happy coincidence, this is exactly the verse excerpted in this audio sample:

More Simon & Garfunkel music on iLike


Emily Dickinson never really goes away, and you can never tell when she will turn up along your path to remind you of that fact.  Here, two recent such reminders.

First, from a week or so ago, a Dickinsonian installment of a well-known webcomic.  It's the Belle of Amherst vs. the Hearse of Amherst.

image from

[Click to enlarge.  Better yet, view the full size original version at xkcd.]

The perspicacious reader will note that this item is not only amusing but also practical.  It is just the right size and shape to be printed out, scissored neatly, and used by the said reader as a bookmarker with which to note a place or to measure a loss.

Number two: to counter the unfortunate musical revelation hidden in the alt-text of that cartoon, David Sylvian proffers an austere, altogether humorless setting of Miss Dickinson's "There's a certain slant of light".

David Sylvian - A Certain Slant of Light