The Mind of the Slave

 

ONE of the forgotten divisions between men and men is that separating those who enjoy the work they have to do in the world and those who suffer it only as a necessary evil.

…..At the one extreme lies the unmitigated slave–the man who has to spend his whole life performing tasks that are incurably uninteresting, and that offer no soothing whatever to his vanity. At the other extreme is what Beethoven called the free artist–the man who makes a living, with no boss directly over him, doing things that he enjoys enormously, and that he would keep on doing gladly, even if all economic pressure upon him disappeared. To the second category belong all the happiest men in the world, and hence, perhaps, all the most useful men. For what is done with joy is always better done, whether it be fashioning a material object, thinking out a problem or kissing a girl; and the man who can make the rest of humanity pay him for being happy is obviously a better man than the general, or, at all odds, a luckier one.

…...The slave is always conscious of his slavery, and makes constant and often desperate efforts to mitigate it or to get rid of it altogether. Sometimes he seeks that mitigation in outside activities that promise to give him the sense of dignity and importance that his daily labor denies him; sometimes he tries to give a false appearance of dignity to his work itself. The last phenomenon must be familiar to every American; it is responsible for various absurd devices to pump up lowly trades by giving them new and high-sounding names. I point, for example, to those of the real-estate agent and the undertaker. Neither trade, it must be obvious, offers any stimulation to men of genuine superiority. One could not imagine a Beethoven, a Lincoln or even a Coolidge getting any joy out of squeezing apartment-house tenants or pickling Odd Fellows. Both jobs, indeed, fail to satisfy the more imaginative sort of men among those compelled to practise them. Hence these men try to dignify them with hocus-pocus. The real-estate agent, seeking to conceal his real purpose in life, lets it be known grandly that he is an important semi-public functionary, that be has consecrated himself to Service and is a man of Vision–and to prove it he immerses himself in a private office with a secretary to insult his customers, joins Rotary, and begins to call himself a realtor, a word as idiotic as flu, pep or gent. The ambitious washer of the dead, until very lately a sort of pariah in all civilized societies, like the hangman and the dog-catcher, proceeds magnificently along the same route. At regular intervals I receive impressive literature from a trade-union of undertakers calling themselves the Selected Morticians. By this literature it appears that the members thereof are professional men of a rank and dignity comparable to judges or archbishops, and they are hot for the subtlest and most onerous kind of Service, and even eager to offer their advice to the national government. In brief, the realtor complex all over again. I do not laugh at these soaring embalmers; I merely point out that their nonsense proves how little the mere planting of martyred lodge brothers satisfies their interior urge to be important and distinguished–an urge that is in all of us.

But most of the trades pursued by slaves, of course, offer no such opportunities for self-deceptive flummery. The clerk working in the lime and cement warehouse of some remote town of the Foreign Missions Belt cannot conceivably convince himself that his profession is noble; worse, he cannot convince anyone else. And so with millions of other men in this great Republic, both urban and rural–millions of poor fellows doomed their life long to dull, stupid and tedious crafts–the lower sort of clerks, truck-drivers, farmers, petty officials, grabbers of odd jobs. They must be downright idiots to get any satisfaction out of their work. Happiness, the feeling that they too are somebody, the sense of being genuinely alive, must be sought in some other direction. In the big cities, that need is easily met. Here there is a vast and complex machinery for taking the slave's mind off his desolateness of spirit–movie cathedrals to transport him into a land of opulence and romance, where men (whom he always identifies with himself) are brave, rich and handsome, and women (whom he identifies with his wife–or perchance with her younger sister) are clean, well-dressed and beautiful; newspapers to delight and instruct him with their sports pages, their comic strips and their eloquent appeals to his liberality, public spirit and patriotism; radio to play the latest jazz for him; baseball, races, gambling, harlotry and games in arenas; a thousand devices to make him forget his woes. It is this colossal opportunity to escape from life that brings yokels swarming to the cities, not any mere lust for money. The yokel is actually far more comfortable on his native soil; the city crowds and exploits him, and nine times out of ten be remains desperately poor. But the city at least teaches him how to forget his poverty; it amuses him and thrills him while it is devouring him.

 

H.L.Mencken

From CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE STUDY OF VULGAR PSYCHOLOGY,

PREJUDICES: FOURTH SERIES, 1924, pp. 261-68