The Mencken Paradox

by F.

I recycled some books yesterday at a local used bookstore and bought The Diary of H.L. Mencken. As Publishers Weekly says, it’s “delightfully compulsive reading,” even if (like me) you haven’t read that much Mencken.

One things struck me, though, as I read the introduction. Mencken was an acerbic writer, which is part of his charm. And yet in his will he said the diary should not be opened until quite a while after his death. The editor of this book explains that Mencken didn’t want to hurt the feelings of anyone mentioned in the book. Mencken thought that, if the diary was in cold-story for many years, most of those mentioned would be dead when it was brought back into the light.

Acerbic…and yet concerned about hurting others feelings? Huh? And yet, I think I get it. On the one hand, one wants to be free to think (and say) what one wants. To be a freethinker. To know what one thinks and state it clearly. On the other, one doesn’t want to actually inflict pain on someone else. In the former case, the writing is for the benefit of the self. In the latter case, the concern is for others. I don’t think that’s a contradiction after all.

Sometimes we don’t know why we are writing—for self-analysis or to communicate to others (or a mixture). The medium is the same (words on a page or on a screen), yet the purposes quite different.

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