« When Public Policy Imitates The Onion | Main | Caption Contest - Special VD Edition »

February 14, 2014

Love, In An Unexpected Place

Before she happened upon this diary excerpt in the comments section of a post about a college class called Marriage 101, the blog princess knew HL Mencken mostly as a self described cynic and the author of several stinging quotes about marriage that men seem to rejoice in repeating.

So imagine her surprise to read this:

Sara is dead five years today--a longer time than the time of our marriage, which lasted but four years and nine months. It is amazing what a deep mark she left upon my life--and yet, after all, it is not amazing at all, for a happy marriage throws out numerous and powerful tentacles. They may loosen with years and habit, but when a marriage ends at the height of its success they endure. It is a literal fact that I still think of Sara every day of my life, and almost every hour of the day. Whenever I see anything that she would have liked I find myself saying that I'll buy it and take it to her, and I am always thinking of things to tell her.

-- H. L. Mencken, diary, May 31, 1940

Curious about the woman who had touched such a cynical heart, I searched for something about her life and was touched to find this tidbit:

In 1930, Mencken married German American Sara Haardt, a professor of English at Goucher College in Baltimore and an author who was eighteen years his junior. Haardt had led efforts in Alabama to ratify the 19th Amendment. The two met in 1923, after Mencken delivered a lecture at Goucher; a seven-year courtship ensued. The marriage made national headlines, and many were surprised that Mencken, who once called marriage "the end of hope" and who was well known for mocking relations between the sexes, had gone to the altar. "The Holy Spirit informed and inspired me," Mencken said. "Like all other infidels, I am superstitious and always follow hunches: this one seemed to be a superb one." Even more startling, he was marrying an Alabama native, despite his having written scathing essays about the American South. Haardt was in poor health from tuberculosis throughout their marriage and died in 1935 of meningitis, leaving Mencken grief-stricken. He had always supported her writing, and after her death had a collection of her short stories published under the title Southern Album.

Eventually my random Googling led me to some of Mencken's writings which I had not known existed, but which pretty much sum up my view of the oft-mangled relations between men and women. I am not sure I agree with Mencken in the particulars but I could not agree more in his final conclusion that neither men nor women are all one sex and without each other, we fail to reach our full potential as human beings:

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 hall-marks of the Schalskopf. 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.

It would be an easy matter, indeed, to demonstrate that superior talent in man is practically always accompanied by this feminine flavour—that complete masculinity and stupidity are often indistinguishable. Lest I be misunderstood I hasten to add that I do not mean to say that masculinity contributes nothing to the complex of chemico-physiological reactions which produces what we call talent; all I mean to say is that this complex is impossible without the feminine contribution that it is a product of the interplay of the two elements. In women of genius we see the opposite picture. They are commonly distinctly mannish, and shave as well as shine. Think of George Sand, Catherine the Great, Elizabeth of England, Rosa Bonheur, Teresa Carreo or Cosima Wagner. The truth is that neither sex, without some fertilization by the complementary characters of the other, is capable of the highest reaches of human endeavour. Man, without a saving touch of woman in him, is too doltish, too naive and romantic, too easily deluded and lulled to sleep by his imagination to be anything above a cavalryman, a theologian or a bank director. And woman, without some trace of that divine innocence which is masculine, is too harshly the realist for those vast projections of the fancy which lie at the heart of what we call genius. Here, as elsewhere in the universe, the best effects are obtained by a mingling of elements. The wholly manly man lacks the wit necessary to give objective form to his soaring and secret dreams, and the wholly womanly woman is apt to be too cynical a creature to dream at all.

When either sex imagines itself to be the source of all that is good and right in the world, we deny our true nature; one that is in no way as separate and distinct from the other half of humanity as we would like to believe.

Men and women were - and are - meant for each other.

Posted by Cassandra at February 14, 2014 01:38 PM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


Lovely, Cassandra. Thank you.

Posted by: Elise at February 14, 2014 02:34 PM

Nice VD essay.
Very nice indeed.

Posted by: DL Sly at February 14, 2014 06:01 PM

I agree.

Posted by: spd rdr at February 14, 2014 06:07 PM

Excellent essay

Posted by: CAPT Mike at February 14, 2014 06:43 PM

Excellent essay, and on Valentine's Day.

Posted by: htom at February 14, 2014 07:53 PM

Motion carried!
*crunches a beer can*
Outstanding essay, Princess.

Posted by: DL Sly at February 14, 2014 09:14 PM

Man, without a saving touch of woman in him, is too doltish, too naive and romantic, too easily deluded and lulled to sleep by his imagination to be anything above a cavalryman, a theologian or a bank director.

One of these things is not like the other! Besides, who said there was anything above a cavalryman?

Posted by: Grim at February 15, 2014 10:33 AM

That's a great example of where I don't agree with Mencken in the particulars. I think he's too harsh on men in the service of making his point.

I think there are lots of things above a cavalryman, though. It's an honorable job, but I wouldn't call it the height of human endeavor. There are many people in the armed forces who are very good at war, but not very good people. Being skilled at war doesn't make a person virtuous or wise per se. There are several evil knights in Arthurian legend who demonstrate that quite well.

I'll even apply that to artillerymen :p

Posted by: Cass at February 15, 2014 11:15 AM

There's a very long argument in Aristotle about what constitutes the height of the human endeavor. He's on your side here: he thinks that while there are several plausibly good lives, the best candidate is the contemplative life (which could be the life of the theologian), though the active life and the life of the citizen have their advantages also.

However, what he describes as the capstone virtue is the virtue of magnanimity, which is to say, the virtue of having a great soul. It is the man who has learned to take setbacks and honors dispassionately, because he has learned to order his life in accord with what deserves honor instead of whether he obtains honors.

I've written about how learning to tame horses and ride them to war develops that quality in the soul. There are good and bad men in every walk of life, but even wicked knights have to have some virtues or they couldn't ride their horses at all.

There are other lives that allow for the development of magnanimity, and certainly I am no enemy of the contemplative life. Still, sometimes the contemplative life lets it slide more than it should. As Francis Parkman said, "For the student there is, in its season, no better place than the saddle, and no better companion than the rifle or the oar."

Posted by: Grim at February 15, 2014 12:33 PM

"...the best candidate is the contemplative life..."

One must have a life to contemplate first. Wisdom is gained in the making of mistakes, and as I've told the VES many times, "If it takes you 100 times to get something right, you've learned 101 things."

"I think he's too harsh on men in the service of making his point."

I thought so as well, but attributed that more to Mencken's general ascerbic style for the wording is basically the same wrt to women, and while he does reserve his more derogitory words for men, I don't think you can say that, "They are commonly distinctly mannish, and shave as well as shine." is a compliment for women.

Just my .03....keep the change.

Posted by: DL Sly at February 15, 2014 02:42 PM

Hi Grim: A submariner.

Posted by: CAPT Mike at February 16, 2014 09:42 PM

If a submariner is above a cavalryman, he's away from his duty station. :)

Posted by: Grim at February 16, 2014 10:00 PM

Love in an unexpected place? That'll cost you extra, sweetie.

Posted by: a former european at February 18, 2014 07:38 AM

afe, darlin', that wins Comment of the Day :)

Posted by: Cassandra at February 18, 2014 08:13 AM