Review of Contemporary Fiction

Cut and pasting here for safe keeping…

Publication: Review of Contemporary Fiction
Author: Cohen, Joshua
Date published: April 1, 2011

I have thought of writing the lives of some great artist- Shelley, Manet, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Chopin, Keats, Sappho, Emerson, Nietzsche, Redon, for instancedirectly from a complete inhalation of and meditation on their work without any regard to the facts. Wherever the known facts conflict with my my thus, I shall reject them or flatly deny them. It would be a fascinating undertaking- the lives of Shakespeare, Chopin, Verlaine, for instance, as I conceive them to have been from their faces and work alone.

Such an endeavor would take considerable egotism, and that Benjamin De Casseres was possessed of that quality is no “mythus” but verifiable truth. The paragraph above is an extract from his voluminous, life-spanning diary that no one reads, and that, perhaps, no one will ever read. In this essay we will try to be more responsible, though the sources are obscure: Despite Shakespeare dying centuries ago, the dates and important events of even his contested life are more thoroughly available than those of De Casseres, who wrote regularly for newspapers and magazines in the most public city in the world, New York, during the heyday of the most public century before ours, the twentieth.

It is regrettable that for a man who wrote so much, so little is known, so little is the desire to know. There is hardly any scholarship about De Casseres (he’s mentioned in a handful of doctoral dissertations regarding internar New York literary society); none of his books are in print; and the manuscript of that thousand-page diary, Fantasia Impromptu, reposes in the basement of the New York Public Library where I might have been the first person to read through its pages since they were interred there by De Casseres’s widow, Adele “Bio” Terrill, following her husband’s death in 1945.

Benjamin De Casseres was born April 3, 1873, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to a Jewish family of Sephardic descent. And so, an outsider: this man so vocal about his Manhattan credentials was born out of town, in the sixth borough; not Ashkenazi like the majority of American Jewry, he was a nonimmigrant from comparatively exotic stock. The family name derives from C?ceres, the ancestral capital of the same-named Spanish province, and De Casseres liked to speculate that he was related to a hero of his, Spinoza: Samuel De Casseres married Spinoza’s youngest sister, Miriam, became a rabbi and scribe, and offered the funeral eulogy for his teacher, and Spinoza’s excommunicator, Rabbi Saul Levi Morteira of Amsterdam.

Neither seminary nor academic philosophy for their American descendant, De Casseres moved to New York by the turn of the century, began losing his hair, smoking and drinking to excess. His habit required an average of twenty cigars a day; on December 5, 1933, he earned the distinction of having the first legal drink after Prohibition’s repeal, downing a scotch highball two and a half seconds after the radio bulletin. Physically, De Casseres writes of himself: “I am strong meat; false teeth and babies, lay off! Fat and Jewish; bedroom eyes; voluptuous flesh.” Surviving photographs by Arnold Genthe show a paragon of sly dissolution, tempered by self-seriousness, in precarious pince-nez, dark worsted suit, and patterned, probably colorful, tie (Genthe’s nitrate negatives, dating from 1925, are black 8c white).

However, the most telling autobiographical detail might be that of the outsized ambition he did his narcissistic best to conceal. If De Casseres was, as he weekly reminded himself in print, the equal if not better of any writer who ever lived – including, one would think, his Shakespeare, his Emerson – then he was so unwittingly, as if against his will. He was, he says, like Rip Van Winkle of the Catskills, in that he “grew famous while [he] slept. I slept all day and worked on a New York newspaper all night (1900 to 1920), and almost precisely at the end of twenty years I was astounded to find out that I was famous not only in my own country but that I was being translated into French by no less a person than Remy de Gourmont, who was writing about me in the Mercure de France and La France.”

From his backrooms at 11 West 39th Street, in a building that no longer exists, De Casseres mass-produced articles for dozens of publications: the American Spectator, Bookman, Boston American, Chicago Examiner, Fra Magazine, Gay Book Magazine, Greenwich Village Quill, Haldeman-Julius Monthly, Los Angeles Examiner, Metropolitan Magazine, New York Evening Post, New York Herald, New York Journal-American, New York Times, New York World, People’s Favorite Magazine, Philadelphia Inquirer, Philistine, Reedy’s Mirror, Revolutionary Almanac, San Francisco Examiner, Smart Set, Sun, Washington Herald; he wrote for Alfred Stieglitz at Camera Work; at the American Mercury he was edited by H. L. Mencken. De Casseres also provided ad copy for, among other concerns, cheesecake manufacturers, and graphomaniacally ghostwrote radio commercials: “With a genius that is profoundly Latin to my latter atom, I have been accepted and printed in various magazines in an Anglo-Saxon and puritan country. I am a one-call salesman. IfI don’t succeed at first, I never try again.”

Not just columns on literature syndicated by the Hearst Service and interviews with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, De Casseres amassed reams of drama, and fiction: “And some days I love to write lines for poems I’ll never write.” His books and booklets include: The Adventures of an Exile; Anathema! Litanies of Negation; Black Suns; The Book of Vengeance; Broken Images; The Chameleon; The Comedy of Hamlet; The Communist-Parasite State; The Complete American; Don Marquis; The Eighth Heaven; The Elect and the Damned; Enter Walt Whitman; The Eternal Return; Finis; Forty Immortals; I Dance with Nietzsche; The Individual Against Moloch; James Gibbons Huneker; The Last Supper, The Love Letters of a Living Poet; Mars and the Man; Mencken and Shaw; Mirrors of New York; The Muse of Lies; My New York Nights; The Overlord; Robinson Jeffers, Tragic Terror, The Second Advent; The Shadow-Eater; Sir Galahad: Knight of the Lidless Eye; Spinoza: Liberator of God and Man; The Superman in America; When Huck Finn Went Highbrow; Words, Words, Words; one of his most personal preoccupations was editing The Sublime Boy, a volume comprising poems by his younger brother Walter, a depressed homosexual who committed suicide at the age of nineteen by hurling himself into the Delaware River (poet Edwin Markham, in a letter to De Casseres: “I am touched by your brother’s failure to fit himself to this tragic existence, touched also by the pathos of his fate”; other of the surviving De Casseres correspondents: British sexologist Havelock Ellis, French writer Maurice Maeterlinck, science-fiction writer Clark Ashton Smith, paranormal investigator Charles Fort, Hollywood screenwriter Ben Hecht, poet Edgar Lee Masters, novelist Damon Runyon, and Nietzschean Oscar Levy).

De Casseres’s posterity – his reputation as “a Dionysian pessimist” (George Sterling), “a Titan in an inkstand” (Edgar Saltus) – rests on a single poem, “Moth-Terror,” first collected in the Second Book of Modern Verse in 1919, edited by journalist colleague and correspondent Jessie Rittenhouse, and subsequently recycled into numerous reprints that proliferated in schools, colleges, and book clubs even after the Second World War (which should tell our writers of today that if they intend their work to live for tomorrow, they should make friends with anthologists):

I have killed the moth flying around my night-light; wingless and dead it lies upon the floor.

(O who will kill the great Time-Moth that eats holes in my soul and that burrows in and through my secretest veils!)

My will against its will, and no more will it fly at my night-light or be hidden behind the curtains that swing in the winds.

(But O who will shatter the Change-Moth that leaves me in ragstattered old tapestries that swing in the winds that blow out of Chaos!)

Night-Moth, Change-Moth, Time-Moth, eaters of dreams and of me!

All of these elements of a life- the journalism, the interminable pamphleteering of poesy, the feverish letter-writing to more celebrated contemporaries – can be bound between two covers that don’t exist: De Casseres’s Fantasia Impromptu, subtitled ridiculously “The Adventures of an Intellectual Faun.” Unlike the preciously polished texts of the chapbooks and broadsides De Casseres self-published, sent around to friends for free, and offered for sale to the general public for fifty cents apiece, this daybook – and, often, latenightbook- could never be collected into finished form; excerpts last appeared in an unedited 1976 Gordon Press Selected Works reprint of a privately subvented 1935 Blackstone edition (Blackstone seems to have been De Casseres’s own venture). “I can see the standpoint of the American publishers: an American thinker must be a fakir of some sort because fake is a national trait. They simply will not believe in the possibility of my existence – as an American. They can, and do, conceive me as a Spaniard or a Frenchman, but as a Philadelphia-born original – Jamais!”

Begun in 1925, soon extending to multiple volumes, De Casseres’s diary was dedicated “to the thinkers, poets, satirists, individualists, dare-devils, egoists, Satanists and godolepts of posterity”; the introducing author continues, on the manuscript’s frontispiece: “This book will be continued to the end of my life- a new volume about every two years. Please read carefully and to the end to get full flavor of book. It is all spontaneously set down, and all literally my self?’ De Casseres kept making random undated entries into older, mentally weaker age; le prosateur was going on seventy when he noted that the world had never appeared so threatening: “This jealousy of likeness, that is at the bottom of the German persecution of Jews today” and “Adolf Hitler is as personal, private, and peculiar to the German people as my morning bowel movement is to me.” Toward diary’s end, just before his death’s obscurity, the physical evinces and affects as much as the written: not only is De Casseres writing letters to God, but he’s writing letters as God, too, to himself; the paper gets cheaper, thinner; typewriting gives way to handwriting, a shaky agitated scrawl.

Interleaved with metaphysical whimsy, racism, and misogyny (“God couldn’t possibly be a female, for He keeps so well and so long the profoundest secrets of life.”), along with a loathing regard for his own Judaism, is to be found a trove of the most startling epigrams our country has ever knownthe work of an American La Rochefoucauld or Lichtenberg, a Karl Kraus, or George Bernard Shaw. Indeed, these stacks of incomprehensible, often insipid pages could be edited down to a one-hundred page book of surpassing aphorism; but because I haven’t yet received that commission, and not everyone has the time for a library visit to pile through the archives, I offer the following – a De Casseres Chrestomathy, as Mencken styled his own collection of a career’s worth of the miscellaneous but brilliant:

A practical man should have knuckles in his eyes; a poet should have them in his images.

To almost any American “thinker”: the feet of your thoughts are always asleep.

All summits are cemeteries.

Art can only influence artists.


If you have no ideas, beware of your tenses and your grammar.

An emotion has more reality than a nail.

Hope is the promise of a crucifixion.

Genius, or how to achieve a popular crucifixion.

Whatever we do is a remedy.

Beauty is distance.

Only the ugly are modest.

Identity is partisanship.

Breakfast. Tragic mood; cheese. I do not think Bernard Shaw eats cheese.

The very core of humor: to curse necessity.

We are rich – shop-window-rich.

If you want to get rid of people let them know you are in financial trouble.

I am getting so poor that we’ll have to give up buying toiletpaper (three packages for a quarter) and use the eight hundred pages of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. AU my manuscripts come back. I might use them, but it would not do to have my genius at both ends of my spine.

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his bank account for his friend, Benjamin De Casseres.

Classes: Life is like a moving escalator- no matter when the steps are the distances between the steps remains the same.

The metaphysical Why? is always superior to the scientific Eureka!

The difference between Science and Theology is that Science is evolving ignorance and Theology is static ignorance.

We used to say, “It is raining.” Now (1930) it would be more appropriate to say: “The bladders of the atoms have opened and torrents of electronic urine lave the asphalt.”

To the Ladies and Gentlemen of the Year 2029.- At precisely 9:39 p.m., daylight savings time, on September 9, 1929, the weather, which has been unbearably muggy all day, suddenly changed for the better. (In ten thousand years this fact will be as important as anything that may happen between the recording of this fact and your own death. Aloha!)

As the Infinite deepens around man his importance as a nonentity grows.

All Nature is supernatural.

To slay your victory.

I, too, slept into fame, but more nearly in the manner of Rip Van Winkle than of Lord Byron.

Carelessness is the great secret of life. To the prudent come all ills.

How many of my great epigrams died with my cigarette and how many great poems lay drowned in highballs!

We should write with a loose wrist, as we dance with loose ankles.

With me, to take off my clothes- even my overcoat – is an erotic gesture.

Symbol- I live behind a statue of myself.

Esoteric. – If you swallow your jewels you will have to recover them in your excrement.

The Cannibals.- IfI have three or four ideas in my brain, I let them compete with one another for days, and the one that survives their communal cannibalism is mine. The lost ones were mere fatteners.

Eating and stooling abolish all differences.

Dear Heraclitus: Souls delight to get wet, but don’t drown yourself.

The Johnstown (Pa.) Tribune only the other day criticized Winston Churchill for cribbing my ideas without credit.

Sullen stoicism is the only resistant that conquers without loss.

To Shock a Pessimist.- All pessimists wish to live to an old age in order to distil from life, to the very end, the exquisite pleasures of verification. If a pessimist should ever discover that he was all wrong, the shock would probably kill him.

The quality of our laughter is determined by the quantity of our hells.

All clergymen have a kept look.

Perfect, unruffled love can only exist between two imbeciles.

Faithful lovers begin to age very quickly.

The human race, if it is to go on, can do without love but not without rape.

When a woman is acquitted of a crime she has been acquitted twice, having already acquitted herself.

The brain is a star that thinks.

All ultimate knowledge is negative knowledge.

I shouldn’t converse with myself crossing Third Avenue.

Went to the bank. Did some business with the thieves. I am a conservative, a Republican, as my bank account grows. As it lessens I become a swaggering physical force radical. There is no such thing as a “political belief”; there is only I have and you haven’t, or vice versa, I thought as I crossed Lexington Avenue, missing by a hair being flung to Jesus by a garbagecarrying truck.

“Redeem” means to “purchase back.”

Motto for the Artist. – Whatever is is wrong but beautiful.

“Literary” Success. – Write to make women weep. Write to make men guffaw. But don’t write to make them think.

There are only two forms of atheism: dislike of music and dislike of poetry.

On the white tentacles of the octopus of Reality as it drags me down to death I have tattooed some beautiful images and epigrams in crimson ink.

Things that intoxicate me. – Gardens; the sea; mountain solitudes; great poetry and great prose; abstract ideas; profound sleeps; twilight; music; God, the sense of Wonder and Mystery; Satan; amorous sports; Bio’s love; the peace of death; wine; fastflying automobiles when I am in one; the voice of little children; the word Shelley; the word Baudelaire; the words Victor Hugo; imaged coitions with ideal women of an impossible beauty; well-buttered lima-beans; spaghetti; the flash of a metaphor through my brain; praise from superior minds; the stars; checks, checks, checks.

Whatever exists aspires to tell a lie about itself.

Every satirist tends to become the thing he ridicules.

Keep the masses happy. Unhappiness should be the privilege of the few.

Horror! – The writer who continues to write when he has nothing more to say is like an actor who continues to maunder his part after the curtain has gone down or a general who continues to wear his sword after his arms have been amputated.

He came, he saw, he yawned.

To have written a book that no one has ever read is like having a face that no one has ever looked at.

Money is an eye.

Pleasure has no eyes.

All life aspires to mirrors.

It is not through fear that my eyes lower before you, but because I do not want you to see yourself.

Now, as to that part where you speak of my work as “balderdash” I must, with all respect for your profound learning point out to you the etymological origin of that word. The word comes from Balder, a Norse god (sometimes known as Balder the Beautiful), the god of the Life-Force, and from dash, which connotes in this special word, vividness. Therefore you will now see, mon cher maître, that my Balderdash is, etymologically, Vivid Life-Force, which is just what James Huneker, Maurice Maeterlinck, Thomas Hardy, Remy De Goncourt and other of your pupils, mon cher maître, have pronounced it.

[from a letter to David Cort of Vanity Fair]

* Shorter versions of this essay appeared in Tablet Magazine, 8/26/09, and in Agriculture Readertio. 3, 2010.

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