Mencken on the Palo Alto Process

H.L. Mencken is actually the coiner, as it were, of the term “Palo Alto Process”. He was not, as some believe, talking about how long it takes to install, or get the proper permits if one wants to install, the bath tub, which incidentally was invented here, by Jane Stanford, when Leland Junior was 3 years old, at the Old Barn, which is now very fittingly a children’s hospital, with free McDonalds Hamburgers as well, poor dears.

I thought of this today, I head read Mencken some years ago, as at undergrad, at Dartmouth, with James Melville Cox, who used to play stud poker with the great columnist, because of a local pundit writing in our paper of record, the electronic probably not the pulp one.

But he paraphrased H.L, which is not easy to do. He said HL said:

Every problem has a simple solution. But it is probably, like drinking bath water towards the end of the week, wrong.

What the Baltimore Booya actually said was:

there 

is always a well-known solution to every human 

problem neat, plausible, and wrong.

 

 

IV. THE DIVINE AFFLATUS

 

THE suave and cedematous Chesterton, in a late

effort to earn the honorarium of a Chicago

newspaper, composed a thousand words of

labored counterblast to what is called inspiration in

the arts. The thing itself, he argued, has little if any

actual existence; we hear so much about it because

its alleged coyness and fortuitousness offer a con-

venient apology for third-rate work. The man taken

in such third-rate work excuses himself on the ground

that he is a helpless slave of some power that stands

outside him, and is quite beyond his control. On

days when it favors him he teems with ideas and

creates masterpieces, but on days when it neglects him

he is crippled and impotent a fiddle without a bow,

an engine without steam, a tire without air. All

this, according to Chesterton, is nonsense. A man

who can really write at all, or paint at all, or compose

at all should be able to do it at almost any time, pro-

vided only “he is not drunk or asleep.”

 

So far Chesterton. The formula of the argument

is simple and familiar: to dispose of a problem all

that is necessary is to deny that it exists. But there

are plenty of men, I believe, who find themselves

unable to resolve the difficulty in any such cavalier

manner men whose chief burden and distinction,

in fact, is that they do not employ formulae in their

thinking, but are thrown constantly upon industry,

ingenuity and the favor of God. Among such men

there remains a good deal more belief in what is

vaguely called inspiration. They know by hard ex-

perience that there are days when their ideas flow

freely and clearly, and days when they are dammed

up damnably. Say a man of that sort has a good

day. For some reason quite incomprehensible to him all his mental processes take on an amazing ease and slickness. Almost without conscious effort

he solves technical problems that have badgered him

for weeks. He is full of novel expedients, extraor-

dinary efficiencies, strange cunnings. He has a

feeling that he has suddenly and unaccountably broken

through a wall, dispersed a fog, got himself out of

the dark. So he does a double or triple stint of the

best work that he is capable of maybe of far better

work than he has ever been capable of before and

goes to bed impatient for the morrow. And on the

morrow he discovers to his consternation that he has

become almost idiotic, and quite incapable of any

work at all.

 

I challenge any man who trades in ideas to deny

that he has this experience. The truth is that he has

it constantly. It overtakes poets and contrapuntists,

 

critics and dramatists, philosophers and journalists;

it may even be shared, so far as I know, by advertise-

ment writers, chautauqua orators and the rev. clergy.

The characters that all anatomists of melancholy mark

in it are the irregular ebb and flow of the tides, and

the impossibility of getting them under any sort of

rational control. The brain, as it were, stands to one

side and watches itself pitching and tossing, full of

agony but essentially helpless. Here the man of

creative imagination pays a ghastly price for all his

superiorities and immunities; nature takes revenge

upon him for dreaming of improvements in the scheme

of things. Sitting there in his lonely room, gnawing

the handle of his pen, racked by his infernal quest,

horribly bedevilled by incessant flashes of itching,

toothache, eye-strain and evil conscience thus tor-

tured, he makes atonement for his crime of being

intelligent. The normal man, the healthy and honest

man, the good citizen and householder this man, I

daresay, knows nothing of all that travail. It is

reserved especially for artists and metaphysicians.

It is the particular penalty of those who pursue strange

butterflies into dark forests, and go fishing in en-

chanted and forbidden streams.

 

Let us, then, assume that the fact is proved: the

nearest poet is a witness to it. But what of the under-

lying mystery? How are we to account for that

puckish and inexplicable rise and fall of inspiration?

 

My questions, of course, are purely rhetorical. Ex-

planations exist; they have existed for all time; there

is always a well-known solution to every human

problem neat, plausible, and wrong. The ancients,

in the case at bar, laid the blame upon the gods:

sometimes they were remote and surly, and sometimes

they were kind. In the Middle Ages lesser powers

took a hand in the matter, and so one reads of works

of art inspired by Our Lady, by the Blessed Saints,

by the souls of the departed, and even by the devil.

.In our own day there are explanations less super-

natural but no less fanciful to wit, the explanation

that the whole thing is a matter of pure chance, and

not to be resolved into any orderly process to wit,

the explanation that the controlling factor is external

circumstance, that the artist happily married to a

dutiful wife is thereby inspired finally, to make an

end, the explanation that it is all a question of Freu-

dian complexes, themselves lurking in impenetrable

shadows. But all of these explanations fail to satisfy

the mind that is not to be put off with mere words.

Some of them are palpably absurd; others beg the

question. The problem of the how remains, even

when the problem of the why is disposed of. What

is the precise machinery whereby the cerebrum is

bestirred to such abnormal activity on one day that

it sparkles and splutters like an arclight, and reduced

to such feebleness on another day that it smokes and

gutters like a tallow dip?

 

In this emergency, having regard for the ages-long

and unrelieved sufferings of artists great and small,

I offer a new, simple, and at all events not ghostly

solution. It is supported by the observed facts, by

logical analogies and by the soundest known prin-

ciples of psychology, and so I present it without apolo-

gies. It may be couched, for convenience, in the

following brief terms: that inspiration, so-called, is

a function of metabolism, and that it is chiefly con-

ditioned by the state of the intestinal flora in larger

words, that a man’s flow of ideas is controlled and

determined, both quantitatively and qualitatively, not

by the whims of the gods, nor by the terms of his armis-

tice with his wife, nor by the combinations of some

transcendental set of dice, but by the chemical content

of the blood that lifts itself from his liver to his brain,

and that this chemical content is established in his

digestive tract, particularly south of the pylorus. A

man may write great poetry when he is drunk, when

he is cold and miserable, when he is bankrupt, when

he has a black eye, when his wife glowers at him

across the table, when his children lie dying of

smallpox; he may even write it during an earthquake,

or while crossing the English channel, or in the midst

of a Methodist revival, or in New York. But I am so

far gone in materialism that I am disposed to deny

flatly and finally, and herewith do deny flatly and

finally, that there has lived a poet in the whole history

of the world, ancient or modern, near or far, who

ever managed to write great poetry, or even passably

fair and decent poetry, at a time when he was suffer-

ing from stenosis at any point along the thirty-foot

via dolorosa running from the pylorus to the sigmoid

flexure. In other words, when he was

 

But perhaps I had better leave your medical adviser

to explain. After all, it is not necessary to go any

further in this direction; the whole thing may be

argued in terms of the blood stream and the blood

stream is respectable, as the duodenum is an outcast.

It is the blood and the blood only, in fact, that the

cerebrum is aware of; of what goes on elsewhere it

can learn only by hearsay. If all is well below, then

the blood that enters the brain through the internal

carotid is full of the elements necessary to bestir the

brain-cells to their highest activity; if, on the contrary,

anabolism and katabolism are going on ineptly, if the

blood is not getting the supplies that it needs and not

getting rid of the wastes that burden it, then the brain-

cells will be both starved and poisoned, and not all

the king’s horses and all the king’s men can make

them do their work with any show of ease and effi-

ciency. In the first case the man whose psyche dwells

in the cells will have a moment of inspiration that

is, he will find it a strangely simple and facile matter

to write his poem, or iron out his syllogism, or make

his bold modulation from F sharp minor to G major,

or get his flesh-tone, or maybe only perfect his swindle.

But in the second case he will be stumped and help-

less. The more he tries, the more vividly he will be

conscious of his impotence. Sweat will stand out in

beads upon his brow, he will fish patiently for the

elusive thought, he will try coaxing and subterfuge,

he will retire to his ivory tower, he will tempt the

invisible powers with black coffee, tea, alcohol and

the alkaloids, he may even curse God and invite death

but he will not write his poem, or iron out his syl-

logism, or find his way into C major, or get his flesh-

tone, or perfect his swindle.

 

Fix your eye upon this hypothesis of metabolic

inspiration, and at once you will find the key to many

a correlative mystery. For one thing, it quickly ex-

plains the observed hopelessness of trying to pump

up inspiration by mere hard industry the essential

imbecility of the 1,000 words a day formula. Let

there be stenosis below, and not all the industry of a

Hercules will suffice to awaken the lethargic brain.

Here, indeed, the harder the striving, the worse the

stagnation as every artist knows only too well. And

why not? Striving in the face of such an interior

obstacle is the most cruel of enterprises a business

more nerve-wracking and exhausting than reading a

 

newspaper or watching a bad play. The pain thus

produced, the emotions thus engendered, react upon

the liver in a manner scientifically displayed by Dr.

George W. Crile in his “Man: An Adaptive Mechan-

ism,” and the result is a steady increase in the intes-

tinal demoralization, and a like increase in the pollu-

tion of the blood. In the end the poor victim comes

to a familiar pass; beset on the one hand by impo-

tence and on the other hand by an impatience grown

pathological, he gets into a state indistinguishable

from the frantic. It is at such times that creative

artists suffer most atrociously. It is then that they

writhe upon the sharp spears and red-hot hooks of

a jealous and unjust Creator for their invasion of

His monopoly. It is then that they pay a grisly super-

tax upon their superiority to the great herd of law-

abiding and undistinguished men. The men of this

herd never undergo any comparable torture ; the agony

of the artist is quite beyond their experience and even

beyond their imagination. No catastrophe that could

conceivably overtake a lime and cement dealer, a

curb broker, a lawyer, a plumber or a Presbyterian

is to be mentioned in the same breath with the torments

that, to the most minor of poets, are familiar incidents

of his professional life, and, to such a man as Poe,

or Beethoven, or Brahms, are the commonplaces of

every day. Beethoven suffered more during the

composition of the Fifth symphony than all the judges

 

on the supreme benches of the world have suffered

jointly since the time of the Gerousia.

 

Again, my hypothesis explains the fact that inspira-

tion, save under extraordinary circumstances, is never

continuous for more than a relatively short period.

A banker, a barber or a manufacturer of patent medi-

cines does his work day after day without any notice-

able rise or fall of efficiency; save when he is drunk,

jailed or ill in bed the curve of his achievement is

flattened out until it becomes almost a straight line.

But the curve of an artist, even of the greatest of

artists, is frightfully zig-zagged. There are moments

when it sinks below the bottom of the chart, and im-

mediately following there may be moments when it

threatens to run off the top. Some of the noblest

passages written by Shakespeare are in his worst plays,

cheek by jowl with padding and banality; some of

the worst music of Wagner is in his finest music

dramas. There is, indeed, no such thing as a flawless

masterpiece. Long labored, it may be gradually en-

riched with purple passages the high inspirations of

widely separated times crowded together , but even

so it will remain spotty, for those purple passages will

be clumsily joined, and their joints will remain as ap-

parent as so many false teeth. Only the most ele-

mentary knowledge of psychology is needed to show

the cause of the zig-zagging that I have mentioned.

It lies in the ‘elemental fact that the chemical consti-

 

tution of the blood changes every hour, almost every

minute. What it is at the beginning of digestion is

not what it is at the end of digestion, and in both

cases it is enormously affected by the nature of the

substances digested. No man, within twenty-four

hours after eating a meal in a Pennsylvania Railroad

dining-car, could conceivably write anything worth

reading. A tough beefsteak, I daresay, has ditched

many a promising sonnet, and bad beer, as every one

knows, has spoiled hundreds of sonatas. Thus in-

spiration rises and falls, and even when it rises twice

to the same height it usually shows some qualitative

difference there is the inspiration, say, of Spring

vegetables and there is the inspiration of Autumn

fruits. In a long work the products of greatly differ-

ing inspirations, of greatly differing streams of blood,

are hideously intermingled, and the result is the in-

evitable spottiness that I have mentioned. No one

but a maniac argues that “Die Meistersinger” is all

good. One detects in it days when Wagner felt, as

the saying goes, like a fighting cock, but one also

detects days when he arose in the morning full of

acidosis and despair days when he turned heavily

from the Pierian spring to castor oil.

 

Moreover, it must be obvious that the very condi-

tions under which works of art are produced tend to

cause great aberrations in metabolism. The artist

is forced by his calling to be a sedentary man. Even

a poet, perhaps the freest of artists, must spend a

good deal of time bending over a desk. He may con-

ceive his poems in the open air, as Beethoven conceived

his music, but the work of reducing them to actual

words requires diligent effort in camera. Here it

is a sheer impossibility for him to enjoy the ideal

hygienic conditions which surround the farmhand, the

curb-broker and the sailor. His viscera are con-

gested; his eyes are astrain; his muscles are without

necessary exercise. Furthermore, he probably

breathes bad air and goes without needed sleep. The

result is inevitably some disturbance of metabolism,

with a vitiated blood supply and a starved cerebrum.

One is always surprised to encounter a poet who is

ruddy and stout; the standard model is a pale and

flabby stenotic, kept alive by patent medicines. So

with the painter, the musical composer, the sculptor,

the artist in prose. There is no more confining work

known to man than instrumentation. The composer

who has spent a day at it is invariably nervous and ill.

For hours his body is bent over his music-paper, the

while his pen engrosses little dots upon thin lines.

I have known composers, after a week or so of such

labor, to come down with auto-intoxication in its most

virulent forms. Perhaps the notorious ill health

of Beethoven, and the mental break-downs of Schu-

mann, Tschaikowsky and Hugo Wolf had their origin

in this direction. It is difficult, going through the history of music, to find a single composer in the

grand manner who was physically and mentally up to

par.

 

I do not advance it as a formal corollary, but no

doubt this stenosis hypothesis also throws some light

upon two other immemorial mysteries, the first being

the relative aesthetic sterility of women, and the other

being the low aesthetic development of certain whole

classes, and even races of men, e. g., the Puritans, the

Welsh and the Confederate Americans. That women

suffer from stenosis far more than men is a common-

place of internal medicine; the weakness is chiefly to

blame, rather than the functional peculiarities that

they accuse, for their liability to headache. A good

many of them, in fact, are habitually in the state of

health which, in the artist, is accompanied by an utter

inability to work. This state of health, as I have said,

does not inhibit all mental activity. It leaves the

powers of observation but little impaired; it does

not corrupt common sense; it is not incompatible

with an intelligent discharge of the ordinary duties

of life. Thus a lime and cement dealer, in the

midst of it, may function almost as well as when

his metabolic processes are perfectly normal, and

by the same token a woman chronically a victim

to it may yet show all the sharp mental competence

which characterizes her sex. But here the thing

stops. To go beyond to enter the realm of

constructive thinking, to abandon the mere application

of old ideas and essay to invent new ideas, to precip-

itate novel and intellectual concepts out of the chaos

of memory and perception this is quite impossible

to the stenotic. Ergo, it is unheard of among classes

and races of men who feed grossly and neglect per-

sonal hygiene; the pill-swallower is the only artist

in such groups. One may thus argue that the elder

Beecham saved poetry in England, as the younger

Beecham saved music. . . . But, as I say, I do not

stand behind the hypothesis in this department, save,

perhaps, in the matter of women. I could amass

enormous evidences in favor of it, but against them

there would always loom the disconcerting contrary

evidence of the Bulgarians. Among them, I suppose,

stenosis must be unknown but so are all the fine arts.

“La force et la foiblesse de 1’esprit,” said Roche-

foucauld, “sont mal nominees; elles ne sont, en effect,

que la bonne ou la mauvaise des organes du corps.”

Science wastes itself hunting in the other direction.

We are flooded with evidences of the effects of the

mind on the bodv, and so our attention is diverted

from the enormously greater effects of the body en the

mind. It is rather astonishing that the Wassermann

reaction has not caused the latter to be investigated

more thoroughly. The first result of the general em-

ployment of that great diagnostic device was the dis-

covery that thousands of cases of so-called mental

disease were really purely physical in origin that

thousands of patients long supposed to have been

crazed by seeing ghosts, by love, by grief, or by re-

verses in the stock-market were actually victims of the

small but extremely enterprising spirochaete pallida.

The news heaved a bomb into psychiatry, but it has

so far failed to provoke a study of the effects of other

such physical agents. Even the effects of this one

agent remain to be inquired into at length. One now

knows that it mav cause insanitv, but what of the

 

lesser mental aberrations that it produces? Some of

these aberrations may be actually beneficial. That

is to say, the mild toxemia accompanying the less

virulent forms of infection may stimulate the brain

to its highest functioning, and so give birth to what

is called genius a state of mind long recognized, by

popular empiricism, as a sort of half-way station on

the road to insanity. Beethoven, Nietzsche and

Schopenhauer suffered from such mild toxemias, and

there is not the slightest doubt that their extraordinary

mental activity was at least partly due to the fact.

That tuberculosis, in its early stages, is capable of the

same stimulation is a commonplace of observation.

The consumptive may be weak physically, but he is

usually very alert mentally. The history of the arts,

in fact, shows the names of hundreds of inspired con-

sumptives.

 

Here a physical infirmity produces a -result that is

beneficial, just as another physical infirmity, the

stenosis aforesaid, produces a result that is baleful.

The artist often oscillates horribly between the two

effects; he is normally anything but a healthy animal.

Perfect health, indeed, is a boon that very few men

above the rank of clodhoppers ever enjoy. What

health means is a degree of adaptation to the organ-

ism’s environment so nearly complete that there is no

irritation. Such a state, it must be obvious, is not

often to be observed in organisms of the highest com-

plexity. It is common, perhaps, in the earthworm.

This elemental beast makes few demands upon its

environment, and is thus subject to few diseases. It

seldom gets out of order until the sands of its life

are run, and then it suffers one grand illness and dies

forthwith. But man is forever getting out of order,

for he is enormously complicated and the higher

he rises in complexity, the more numerous and the

more serious are his derangements. There are whole

categories of diseases, e. g. 9 neurasthenia and hay-

fever, that afflict chiefly the more civilized and delicate

ranks of men, leaving the inferior orders unscathed.

Good health in man, indeed, is almost invariably a

function of inferiority. A professionally healthy

man, e. g., an acrobat, an osteopath or an ice-wagon

driver, is always stupid. In the Greece of the great

days the athletes we hear so much about were mainly

slaves. Not One of the eminent philosophers, poets or

statesmen of Greece was a good high-jumper. Nearly

all of them, in fact, suffered from the same malaises

which afflict their successors of to-day, as you will

quickly discern by examining their compositions.

The aesthetic impulse, like the thirst for truth, might

almost be called a disease. It seldom if ever ap-

pears in a perfectly healthy man.

 

But we must take the aloes with the honey. The

artist suffers damnably, but there is compensation in

his dreams. Some of his characteristic diseases

cripple him and make his whole life a misery, but

there are others that seem to help him. Of the latter,

the two that I have mentioned carry with them concepts

of extreme obnoxiousness. Both are infections, and

one is associated in the popular mind with notions

or gross immorality. But these concepts of obnox-

iousness should not blind us to the benefits that appar-

ently go with the maladies. There are, in fact, mala-

dies much more obnoxious, and they carry no com-

pensating benefits. Cancer is an example. Perhaps

the time will come when the precise effects of these

diseases will be worked out accurately, and it will

be possible to gauge in advance their probable influ-

ence upon this or that individual. If that time ever

comes the manufacture of artists will become a

feasible procedure, like the present manufacture of

soldiers, capons, right-thinkers and doctors of philos-

ophy. In those days the promising young men of

the race, instead of being protected from such diseases

at all hazards, will be deliberately infected with them,

as soils are now inoculated with nitrogen-liberating

bacteria. … At the same time, let us hope, some

progress will be made against stenosis. It is, after

all, simply a question of technique, like the artificial

propagation of the race by the device of Dr. Jacques

Loeb. The poet of the future, come upon a period

of doldrums, will not tear his hair in futile agony.

Instead, he will go to the nearest clinic, and there get

his rasher of Bulgarian bacilli, or an injection of

some complex organic compound out of a ductless

gland, or an order on a masseur, or a diet list, or

perchance a barrel of Russian oil.

 

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About markweiss86

Mark Weiss, founder of Plastic Alto blog, is a concert promoter and artist manager in Palo Alto, as Earthwise Productions, with background as journalist, advertising copywriter, book store returns desk, college radio producer, city council and commissions candidate, high school basketball player; he also sang in local choir, and fronts an Allen Ginsberg tribute Beat Hotel Rm 32
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