Lafcadio Hearn

Letter to the Editor, The Sun

16 June 1908, p. 6

A Thoroughgoing Admirer of His on Art, Vice and Disease.

To the Editor of The Sun—Sir: In the article in to-day’s Sun on Lafcadio Hearn the statement is made that “his [Hearn’s] work consisted largely in the transposition into equivalent English of the products of other minds, especially of Loti, Gautier and De Maupassant.” As a matter of fact, as every student and lover of Hearn knows, these are the least of his work. The work on which his ultimate fame will rest is the work inspired by two as antithetical influences as could be conceived—the “Psychology” of Herbert Spencer and the stupendous metaphysical conceptions of Hindu philosophy. “Kogoro,” “Gleanings in Buddhist Fields” (with its marvelous essays on preexistence, “Dust,” and  reincarnation), “In Ghostly Japan,” and “Retrospectives” (containing those unique and extraordinary essays in mystic psychology, “Moon Desire,” “First Impressions,” “Beauty Is Memory,” “Sadness in Beauty,” “Azure Psychology,” “A Serenade,”) these are the books, with his masterly studies of Japanese life, with which Hearn must make his bid for the laurel.

Hearn’s best work is caviare to the general. But so is the best work of Spencer and Nietzsche and Pascal. Amiel, Pascal and Lafcadio Hearn put in the form of confession and essay what Æschylus and Ibsen and Shakespeare put in the dramatic form—the terror and the mystery and the glory of man’s adventure in the infinite web of force and matter. Than Lafcadio Hearn no subtler mind has appeared in the English speaking world since Shakespeare, who, with Hearn, makes of us all ghosts, such stuff as dreams are made of.

As to Hearn’s irregularities, why does Dr. Gould (who has performed a great service in showing us Hearn as he was) seek to excuse them? In all time have not the irregularities of genius been its greatest asset? The great artistic creator knows neither good nor evil. He uses his vices and his virtues for copy. Vice gave us St. Augustine’s “Confessions,” Tolstoi’s “My Life,” Cellini’s “Memories,” Rousseau’s “Confessions,” Verlaine’s poetry, Thomson’s “City of Dreadful Night,” Wilde’s work in toto, Baudelaire’s “Artificial Paradises.” What a debt we owe to the “irregularities” of Marlowe, Greene, Shakespeare and other gods of the gay, golden time of Elizabeth!

May it not be that vice and disease have given us the greater part of our art? Suppose Hearn and Nietzsche were both eye diseased? For that very reason they saw the interior world with greater vividness than the average mind—that poor average mind that understands nothing but cakes and ale. Homer and Milton were both reputed to be blind. Tasso was crazy, Coleridge was a drug fiend (he wrote “Kubla Khan,” it is said, “under the influence”), Shelley was a ghost seer, Flaubert was an epileptic, Leopardi was an invalid all his life, as was Herbert Spencer: Amiel had what the French psychologists call “abula” (will paralysis), which disease inspired the greatest confessions extant; Nietzsche was crazy, Strindberg has been “put away” many times, De Maupassant died a hideous death, Schopenhauer and Comte both tried suicide, Keats was a consumptive, Verlaine a drunkard, Poe was never quite sane (what marvellous treasures the “unbalanced” have left us!). In fact, the history of genius is one long train of social, sexual, physical and moral irregularities. As for Whitman, George Sand, Beethoven, George Eliot, Tschaikowsky—basra!

Let us have done with literary muckraking, for in the mud there is copy. And let us not forget that Dr. Gould and his book are both from Philadelphia, where reposes the Kabbala of the Commonplace; Philadelphia, the Lourdes of Respectability.

Benjamin De Casseres. New York, June 14.