AN AMERICAN WRESTLES WITH GOD
BY BENJAMIN DE CASSERES
LIKE all children, I was born without a belief in or a knowledge of God.
A four-year-old may astound the world by suddenly improvising a melody on the piano, reciting Pindar in the original, doing lightning calculations, or writing a passable poem, but that same child will look at you in a perfectly idiotic manner when you ask it, “Do you believe in God?”—unless it has been coached. Child evangelists—the most revolting of human abortions—are all made, not born. They are the machine products of evangelistic parents. There is no such thing as a spontaneous religious prodigy. It is always a hideous mutilation of childhood. No such being ever made its appearance in a family that was non-religious. Of any real knowledge of God, of course, it has none.
Thus the child is born, and generally continues until puberty, an atheist, or, at least, an indifferentist. It plays, it makes believe. It plays at being papa and mamma, but it never plays at being God, or the devil, or Jesus, or Mary. It may have a tremendous imagination. It may be inventive. It may listen by the hour to fairy tales and tales of adventure; but it never imagines God or gods. It looks on Sunday-school or church as a bore, or as a rendezvous for meeting other girls and boys, or as a place to dress up. It looks on its prayers at night as a branch of play, or, again, as a bore.
It is only at puberty that the idea, the feeling of God takes form—with sex, death, good and evil. And even then, with the vast majority of boys and girls, God is the last and least important of concepts.
The parental notion of the Creator, along with the bag and baggage of the standard creed, is accepted, and then dismissed as something to be used, like the wall fire-extinguisher, only in case of emergency. The interest that a few children, before puberty, show in God is only part and parcel of their intense curiosity. They are merely curious, not religious—and often unconsciously satiric.
“Now I lay me down to sleep. . . . If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.” This was my earliest contact with God. I said it every night for years, following the words as my mother pronounced them. They hadn’t the slightest meaning to me. There was even a trace of aversion in me when I hopped into bed and awaited the meaningless formula. My head was full of the game of prisoner’s base, or pussy, that I had played in the afternoon, or of Captain Mayne Reid or my real God, Oliver Optic. The prayer finished, I resumed my thoughts about the street boys or the characters in Optic’s book, more real at that time then ever God was to Plotinus. I had no curiosity at any time, as I remember, about the meaning or the words of the prayer. It was a duty, like the weekly dose of rhubarb and magnesia.
I remember only one other contact with God until I was fourteen years old. “Remember,” said my mother one day, apropos of what I do not now recall, “that God can see you everywhere—no matter where you are.”
“Do you mean to say, mother,” I asked, “that God can see me if I stand under Schimmel’s awning on the corner?”
I now recall the peal of laughter that I heard from her with far more pleasure than I got from my first lesson in the omnipresence of God.
I went to a Jewish Sunday-school (Saturday morning), where we were read to out of the Old Testament with explanations, based on the stories, of the goodness (!) of Jehovah. These readings and lectures left no more impression on me than the Einstein theory on a flea. The class, when it got loose, never spoke of the matter, but went straight to marbles and pussy.
The boys and girls that I played with up until my twelfth year were, as I analyze them now, either vapid or cruel. They were all obscene, either actively or passively, including myself. All of us coming of middle-class, ultra-respectable, church-going people, we inherited our instinct for the obscene. We had in us the germs of sexual perversion, pyromania, greediness, theft, cowardice, all forms of cruelty and exhibitionism. Those that were passive in regard to these matters we regarded as milksops—they were not part of our gang. The most popular girl among us was almost hermaphroditic. She spat, fought like a boy, took a chew of tobacco with us, and was always in our stone-fights. I, with the rest of the boys, had my sling-shot with which to kill sparrows. I tortured mice, and used to help pull the rope on the cattle at the slaughter-house, and watch the men cut the throats of the cows and bulls, delighting in seeing the blood gush forth and the dying struggles of the animals. This was the “divine innocence” of our childhood —and maybe it was just that that Jesus meant when He said we must be as little children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I do not know.
But the point is this: As a boy, I, along with the others, took my inherited “wickednesses” naturally and with glee. But there was one name never mentioned in all those years either by myself or my pals, male or female, and that was the name of
God. Those golden days were deliciously atheistic. Nor did we ever hear of the Devil, or if we did, the word had no meaning. So it remains, to me, the most curious and significant of my backward.. looking experiences that the belief in God, the consciousness of God, is not inherited, is not instinctive, although every other psychic attribute—including kindness and good-fellowship—is in the blood and nerves of every child.
So there was no inkling, no herald, of the great adventure that was to befall me—the adventure of my soul with the idea of God—until puberty, which came in my fifteenth year. My interest in the universe awoke when I began to blush and stammer before girls. From my twelfth year to my fifteenth I accepted God and the inspiration of the Old Testament without any thought about the matter. I had been told that they were facts, like the Boston Tea Party, the assassination of Lincoln, and the belief that a strip of bacon around the throat would cure a sore throat.
But tumescence begot in me revery, a sense of mystery, a vague uneasiness, solitude, apprehensions, glamour, questionings. I fell in love. I began to pity street beggars. I read the newspapers and pondered. What made me walk? Look! I could stop walking whenever I willed! I peeped through a street telescope at the moon, and nearly fainted at the overwhelming power of my first cosmic emotion. I did not know what I was doing for an hour afterwards. Space! the Infinite! a world hanging in space unsupported!—what was anything? What were we all? What was this thing I was living on? Something expanded tremendously in me. I reeled like a drunken boy through the streets. The hush of a mighty awe fell upon my soul. Human beings whirled before me like ghosts. My girl-love became an ethereal being. I walked on air.
An immense tear—a stupendous tear, an unburst tear—seemed to keep my heart from beating.
God! That word dropped into my brain like a bomb. That word now became the Word. Sex-ache and God-ache took possession of me simultaneously with a demoniacal fury. All this took place within a period of an hour after looking through a street telescope for a nickel. That night was the first broken night’s rest in my life, a healthy, regular life until then. The next day I went through my work in a cigar-store in a trance. The Moon, the Universe, Space, Time, Women, Life, Will —it was a witches’ dance, an initiation, a dreadfully beautiful Awakening. It was the Footprint on the sand. I had discovered the presence of the Being Who was destined to become my Friday, Whom I was to hate, deny, curse, love, cajole, thump, dismiss, call back, slay, resurrect.
That was my first adventure with the World Spirit, with the Presence; the beginning of a prolonged and eternal parley, of a perpetual love-hate duel between myself and God.
Thenceforward nothing was of any ultimate importance, nothing was worth while, compared to the existence or nonexistence of God. All turned on that question. Until that was established, all that was, is or could be was meaningless. I was embarked on the Sublime Adventure. I was looked on askance—above all, by my parents. “You can never know .. . Do not think about such things . . . You will go crazy.” But the mystical bud had opened in my brain, and no power, parental, economic or religious, could prevent the unfolding of that marvelous flower with its changing perfumes—that monstrous poppy which breeds ecstatic poisons, kills with rapturous swoons, emaciates and dilates simultaneously: God.
I now no longer believed in the Old Testament. The New Testament I had not yet opened. I bought a booklet at the Friendship Liberal League’s clubrooms which pointed out one hundred and forty-four contradictions in the Old Testament. I marked them out carefully in an old second-hand Bible that I picked up on the stalls of Leary’s Old Book Store. I showed them to my father. “We should not inquire into such things.” He feared what I now knew—that God had not actually written the Old Testament. I had the pleasant thrill of fear in this adventure. Had any one adventured there before? I asked myself timidly, knowing nothing of the Higher Criticism. “While I do not believe in the inspiration of the Bible, I do believe in a God,” I murmured to myself over and over in my lonely meditative walks in Fairmount Park. I was afraid to let go of God—a good God, a merciful God.
But how reconcile this belief with that singing, blind boy that an elderly man led down Eighth street every day? His sweet face, twisted in pain, nearly made me faint with pity. He was the symbol of earthly injustice, an enormous question-mark, a challenge to my belief. I hurried by him as though I were guilty of something I could not define. The problem of Evil thundered with iron knuckles on the door of my belief in a good and merciful Father. Maybe the Devil ruled the world! —I swept that aside as monstrous. l feared the personal consequences of such a belief. I might be paralyzed or blinded if I accepted it.
Then came the great event which seemed to be manufactured for me. On May 31, 1889, the dam above Johnstown, Pa., broke and the waters carried away the town of Johnstown and drowned five thousand whirling, plunging, struggling men, women and children. As everything that has ever happened to me, mentally or physically, since puberty is related primarily and fundamentally to the two questions, Is there or is there not a God? and if there is, How does anything I am experiencing modify my conception of Him?, the Johnstown flood and its heart-wrenching details acted with the same power on my imagination and nerves as Voltaire said the destruction of Lisbon by an earthquake in 1754 had acted on him—”from that moment I disbelieved in the goodness of God.”
I read all the pathetic details of the brutal “act of God” in the Philadelphia papers. I saw each day the wagons going up and down the streets collecting bedding, clothing and money. I saw at night in my dreams the children wrenched from the arms of their mothers, families obliterated in an hour, and the horrors of death as the waters receded. In my inflamed imagination I could hear the prayers and curses of thousands.
The thundering waters of the Conemaugh washed away forever my belief in a good, merciful, humanized God. My rage knew no bounds. I hurled oath after oath at Him. I consigned Him and His universe to Hell. I declared everlasting war on the Author of the universe. Lucifer, Cain and the Devil looked like saints to me now. I did not turn atheist (I have never been an atheist). I turned God-hater. I was anti-God. The Creative Power was evil! God was more real than He had ever been. But He must be destroyed! Atheists were cowards, just as cowardly as those who affirmed a smiling, beneficent, all-merciful God. I would destroy the belief in a good God and take up the war against Him where Lucifer and the revolting angels had dropped it—for dropped it they had; one could see that, I thought, by the way prayers still went up from the churches and synagogues.
Prayers instead of anathemas! I instinctively felt that if I turned atheist my evolution would cease. I might as well turn Catholic. There was too much fight in me to let God go. I had never believed in free will; therefore I had no bone to pick with man. He was a victim. I wept over his ills, his fate. To the degree that I pitied man I cursed God. I shouted my challenges and questions into the spaces. I came to understand the legends of Prometheus and Christ. I felt the need of world-sacrifice. I felt like stopping people in the street and telling them the Truth —they muss know who I was and what I was here for!
The blind boy was individual evil. He was Man. Johnstown was History, natural and racial. My adventure by 1890 had come to attain cosmic proportions. I was a black pessimist, furiously anti-God. Death was a fact. Immortality, like free will, was the ruse of priests to let God out of a bad theological hole. I nearly fainted more than once at the sight of thousands on the street who lived in mortal error. They walked and talked and acted as if they were going to live for eternity! How to tell them that the grave was the end, that the universe itself would come to an end, that all was futile?
The stars began to obsess me as the moon had. I studied astronomy. I knew the names of all the stars. My own nothingness in endless space fed my instinct for suicide. Why exist if I was nothing? I wrote mournfully pessimistic poems on the transitoriness of life. And always came back to God, incessantly, like a cat returning to watch a mouse-hole.
I began to read. I literally ate up books —the Baron d’Holbach’s “System of Nature,” which satisfied my prejudices but did not satisfy my intellect or my metaphysical mysticism; Huxley, Spencer, Darwin, Ecclesiastes, the Greek tragedies, Byron, Locke, Omar Khayyam, Tom Paine, Bradlaugh, Saltus’ “The Philosophy of Disenchantment,” which had a powerful effect on me; von Hartmann, Schopenhauer, Büchner, Buckle, Gibbon, Berkeley, Tyndall, Lyall, all the theological writers I could find in the old Mercantile Library at Tenth and Chestnut streets, George Henry Lewes, Shelley, Humboldt, Wallace, Haeckel, Voltaire—
History, physics, philosophy, metaphysics, poetry, astronomy, fiction—I was looking for a point to assault God, to argue Him out of His universes, to find a weapon to drive through His heart and liberate Man in an eternal sleep. Men at that time were talking about the mystery of the Northwest Passage, the mystery of the Poles. Baby talk! Here was a boy walking among them—in Fairmount Park —meditating the dethronement of God!
I went into the gallery of the Park Theatre at Broad street and Fairmount avenue one night to hear Robert G. Ingersoll lecture on Voltaire. Pleasing, eloquent, true, and worth the quarter I paid. But an agnostic! Pah! Agnosticism was a liberalized form of atheism. “I do not know!” Why, God was the one thing I did know! His works, his methods, his existence were staring you in the face, Mr. Ingersoll! God exists-écrasez l’infame’, I hurled back at Ingersoll.
The core of the matter was that I had not yet outgrown the God of the Old Testament. My rage was the rage of Jehovah Himself, the rage of King David, the rage of Isaiah and Jeremiah. It was pity and mental torture sublimated to a devastating anger.
At war with God, looking on man as something that had better be annihilated, the frustrated religious forces in me then transferred their need of worship and love to Nature. At sixteen I became panaleptic. It came at about the time of my moon intoxication and increased in madness as my rage against God increased. It actually took the place of sex-rapture. I regarded girls as nuisances, toys, snares of God, a way of damnation. (This attitude toward the female has never quite worn off.)
I made every foot of Fairmount Park my own. I watched the waning and the coming of seasons as one watches the sleeping and waking of his mistress. I rolled in the grass in ecstatic frenzy. I kissed the trees, I almost swooned in the breezes, I lay on the ground staring for hours into the blue of heaven until I was near to bursting with mad pleasure, all of which had strange sex-implications which troubled my then chaste soul, but which now cause me an ironic grin. The great event of my life then was Springtime, a hallowed miracle. I did not at that time confound God and Nature. But I think it was this early Nature-worship that was the germ in me of that supreme consciousness of Beauty and Power, unstained by ethical conceptions, that finally swallowed the old God in me and incorporated him in a transcendent apotheosis of xsthetic amorality.
From 1890 until the turn of the century my life was occupied with four things—God, books, alcohol and suicide. The three latter were all roads to the first, modes of noosing Him, underground passages to His throne, where I intended to confront Him and demand in the name of all things that had lived and died since the beginning of Space and Time the Why?
I now discovered Pascal and Descartes, and through them returned to Ptolemy’s egocentric universe. The stars may not revolve around the earth, but they did revolve around me, for if, as Pascal or Descartes said, the universe is a circle with its circumference nowhere and its centre everywhere, then each one of us is the centre of the universe. Each being is then the measure of all things. I did not revolve around the sun and the stars; they revolved around me!
Following Pascal and Descartes came Emerson and Whitman to confirm my egocentricity in trumpet tones. They lifted me to the pinnacle of extreme individualism. They dared me to dare all things. They dared me to confront God. They gave me back my dignity as a unique being. But while accepting their doctrine of the almighty ego, I rejected—my bitter, militant, ethical sensibility rejected—their smug acceptance of things and the essential goodness of the Oversoul. Egoity, dilated to cosmic proportions, superposed itself on a raging hatred of the temporal order, its futility and imbecility.
It was about 1903 or 1904 that there was a fissure in my brain, a sinister slit in my consciousness. A face, humorous, satanic, ferocious, floated up from the depths of that fissure. It was the Spirit of Tragic Humor. I lost Thee, my Enemy, my Friend, my Torturer and my Consoler, in the billows of my laughter. As my consciousness and my brain halved, I saw myself for the first time as a ridiculous little witling, and God, if I thought of Him at all at that time, as a Scaramouch, a roguish bluebehinded ape. Lucifer died that Narcissus might be born. I guffawed with God, with the gods, for I felt also at this time my monotheism dissolving into polytheism. I forgot Heaven and discovered Olympus. I was a gay Narcissus. I looked into the lake of my mind and saw a clown-face. I found the exquisite uses of my flesh. God incarnated as a bawdy Eros. He winked at me out of the ale-pot. I still thundered at times against Him, but I felt I was cursing a phantom. The sense of evil, the sense of sin, vanished.
Spinoza until then had been but a name. I knew his philosophy only by hearsay, in second-hand expositions. I began to read him. I began to meditate on pantheism, on a God who was the spirit of evil as well as the spirit of good, a God who was Power and Beauty unallied to manmade ethical attributes. I heard the first notes of a transcendental symphony, or, rather, the beginning of a titanic struggle between two opposing and equally powerful forces such as Wagner put into the Overture to “Tannhäuser”
Now the Great Adventure was in full march again! Spinoza and King David were face to face at Armageddon—and Armageddon was in my soul. The Psalmist of Hate and Humility faced the serene eternist of Amsterdam. I passed from bitter curses to ecstatic swoonings. I rocked Heaven with my shrapnel, and recouped my strength by rendering up my soul to the Impersonal Spirit. I celebrated both of my brain armies in a passionate prose-poem to Spinoza and his God.
Then came 1914. Dead was the God of Spinoza in me, dead the God of the ale-pot and the bawdy Eros, during those four years of planetary cannibalism. The spirit of King David and his immortal barbaric God possessed the world, possessed me, and I hurled anathema upon anathema at Him, reversing the smug attitude of David, but preserving his passion and his rant.
This bearded old Jehovah of the Jews, this marvellous creation of the Old Testament poets, would not walk out of my soul. In my Great Adventure He remains my sword of Excalibur. He is the greatest and truest of man’s anthropomorphic creations. He is the very garment and texture of Reality. He is Mars, the Serpent, the Instinct of Self-Preservation, Big Brother with a club and sling-shot. He was not born of closet speculations and theological subtleties, but of direct contact with reality.
He mirrors the Earth we live upon and its sublime victim—Man. He was built of blood, thunder, lightnings, fear, flood, famine, pest, hate, murder, life, death, war and covetousness: an epitome of the adventures of the human race on the planet Earth. He was (and is) the perfect mirror of life in all its cruelty, irony, humility, hypocrisy, implacability and amoralism. No Spinoza, no Nietzsche, no Christ can dynamite Him out of His heavens, because those heavens that lock in Jehovah —the old storm-god of the Midianitesare locked forever in our hearts and brains. He is practical, pragmatic, the literal I Am of every-day life. He is mud-andblood humanity. He is the Errinye of personal vengeance. Christ may have a Second Advent; Jehovah’s Second Advents are perpetual. Flatten Him out to a philosophical abstraction in times of peace and prosperity, He will round to form, gather up His lightnings and His siege-guns when Death stalks the world. Jehovah, in a word, is not a God but the Superman.
So during the World War I hated Him and I loved Him. I used to fling anathemas at Him. He became confusedly identified with the God of Spinoza, and both lapsed into Satan.
In 1918 admiration was born like sweet lullaby music out of the fantasia of hate, despair and disillusion. I again heard the Pan-phallic pipes of Greek polytheism. God was laughing at me—impotent sun-midge of a day! I took the God of Spinoza and the God of King David and Hellenized Them. I renounced homogeneous unity for heterogeneous diversity. I carved gods out of God. I paraphrased the saying of Goethe, that the meaning of Life is life itself, into The meaning of God is earth-spirits, air-spirits, water-spirits, flower-spirits, star-spirits, individual daemons, familiars. The bright, etheric face of Shelley rose out of the wreck of Spinoza and King David. I was in the clutch of material ecstasy. A mystical atheist!
But polytheism was, after all, only a Merlin garden that I had stumbled on and loitered in with half-closed eyes and wide-open nostrils on my way to the Bright Tower. I am primarily a creature of intellect, and not of sentiment. The heart is the cloudy crucible of all problems. The brain is the clarifier. Too long had I been imprisoned in the crucible.
Near my fiftieth year the ascension to the eyries of the brain began in earnest. Liberty dwells on mountain-tops. There one has unobstructed vision, preternatural sight, a sudden revaluation of values. My brain is the mountain-top of my soul. I myself had the Bright Tower within me all these years, obscured and weed-hidden until now by my emotional judgments, by my “common humanity,” by my unconscious craving for “salvation”—salvation of my own blowsy ego. All great, enduring revelations come from Intellect, the cold, clarified visions of Artists and Ironists. And I saluted Goethe, Nietzsche and Jules de Gaultier.
So at last! Artist and Ironist!—that is God! Supreme, innominable, immanent bainter, poet, musician, satirist, roman-:et, mathematician—that is God! He is an ethereal Beethoven and Shakespeare, a Rodin and Cervantes, a Euclid and Einstein, an Aristophanes and Aeschylus, a Wagner and Dostoievsky, an Aphrodite and Zeus. God is all of these—and myself!
God has nothing to do with human beings except as characters in an eternal serial, an eternal dream-tale, an eternal fabulous drama. Good and evil are art-motives. God is superhuman, unhuman, inhuman. He dreams scenarios, of which we are the puppets. Our agonies and prayers are situations. He is Spinoza’s God, the Eternal Return of Nietzsche, the Oversoul of Emerson, the Unknowable of Spencer, the Mephistopheles of Goethe. He is All—omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, eternal creator, eternal playboy, eternal incarnation; the great dramaturge.
Arriving at this truth, I was released. I, with the rest of the species, am part of the music, drama, farce and mathematics of the Supreme Artist. And when I utter sadly “Such is life!” because of my disillusions, defeats and strangled desires I say, “But such is God, too!” For God is Life.
But Why? my brain still asks at times; and then again I am Lucifer organizing the revolting angels against Heaven, Prometheus launching curses at Zeus, and a King David raining death and destruction on Life. Why? Is the tragic farce, the music, the artistry worth while?
And a veiled sigh comes to me from the depths of myself; a veiled sigh, or is it a veiled laugh?—and I hear a voice:
“I have assigned to man the sublime role of Why? for an Eternity. Why? is the master-key to my art. That word Why? is the name of all My dreams, tragedies and farces on all the stars. It is the real name of every being I have ever made. It is the name of every sun I have ever created. It is the name of every picture I have ever painted. In the Legend of Life Why? is my eternal Hamlet.”
So I am thus, like all living things, identified with God in all His manifestations, in all forms and on all planes—a Tantalus of Eternity.