The Unrepentant—An Affirmation

Mind, Nov. 1905

Vol. XVI No. 5, pp. 939-946


To have the courage of one’s transgressions—that is heroic. To repent of one’s transgressions—that is merely virtue. All apology contains an element of baseness. To whom should we abase ourselves? All men are guilty of the same meannesses—and he to whom I bring propitiatory gifts will give them to some one whom he has offended. It is the penny that ever returns. No man ever asked to be forgiven a wrong whose knees did not quake. This joint-sag is the atavistic tendency to beg for mercy on the knees, a primitive obeisance to strength, the “Peccavi!” of the lost.

To apologize is human—all too human; to refuse verbal alms to those we have wronged is divine. The arch-unrepentant awes us in his assumption of power; in his fine disdains we catch gleams of the elemental, the barbaric. His is the confidence of the predestined; the aloofness and soul-sufficiency that rely on fate, whose will will be done. He is of the open spaces; conscience, with its sick-room airs, has not yet alchemized the Promethean fires in his soul to the poisonous drool wherewith the terror-hounded forever water the rank weakness—for conscience is the past trying to live twice, the frost that chills the seeds of godhood in us, the backwater poet of transcendent overdress recorded the fact that “Conscience does make cowards of us all”—and he gave us Hamlet from his hot, subtle brain to prove it.

To trace the evolution of conscience—of that pathologic still, small voice which mankind declares tells it when it is doing wrong—would be to write the history of mankind’s defeated dreams. Anything that man can accomplish is right—by a trick of thought; goaded on by some stern, masked necessity, he makes it so. What he has failed in he decrees wrong. The race is eternally adjusting itself to its own weak[940]nesses, which it styles its virtues. The individual soul is a hell of lost lusts whose ghosts forever trouble us with their claims. We seldom stop to ask whether they have real rights, whether the fetor of their breath on our pale, anemic souls is not the ancient beasts, whom we have denied in our fear, but who lie deep-buried in the sands of our souls, mumbling and drowsing and calculating like the Sphinx who flouts the pretty Chimera.

There is a living soul behind that hand which in the shadow of the gibbet firmly waves aside the rose-water consolations of the priest. The gesture has the sombre majesty of the inexorable. Murderer he may be ten times over—a murderer, like an adultress is a legal fiction, a transitory opinion—still the cry of the human to the Eternal One to reverse the iron order and sponge from time what time was bade do. We may hurl at the malefactor who is sullen defiance to the last our fatuous anathemas with the marvelous syntax, but in secret we revere his grim amiability in the face of the irrevocable. An inflexible necessity hounds him to the scarlet end. Is he the mesh-weaver? What has he to do with his own soul? He who builded the house, let him look to it. The tenant must take what he finds. And if we forgive him—that is the crowning puerility of mediocrity. For at bottom “I forgive thee” means “I no longer fear thee.” We never forgive those who have it still in their power to harm us. And the patronizing forgiveness of Eternal Omnipotence, the pat on the head, to have the dust smilingly flecked from your coat by the finger of Omniscience, what great soul will submit to that?

Hope is a masked blasphemy—and repentance is the mask turned inside out. The self swells to huge proportions beneath the introspective eye. The ego, reeling drunk on its own private lusts—intoxicated by its very thirst—makes of its own desires an endless tape-measure, which it unreels from the cradle to the pit—and even upon the brink of the clay-walled hole, with lean and flesh-poor fingers, it tries to measure some phantom, brain-born beyond. We will have no destiny but our own—no wide-circling, fate-full laws that have not pro[941]vided for us—no wind that does not blow our bark to some haven mapped out in the chaotic foreworld for the special delectation and eternal safe-housing of that gilded granule—the fadeless and indestructible me. This pretty egotism engenders the penitent.

There is not enough natural faith in the world. There is nothing we have doubted more than the fundamental verities. All believe that two and two make four until it comes time to die—then we ask God to make to and two five—or, please, God, four-and-a-half, and we twist and turn and try to blarney Him down to four-and-a quarter—“just this once, God.” This species of God-baiting is called repentance. Few have the courage to believe their evil deeds were predestined, were the outcome of an endless past, the sewage of great world-currents. “I am I,” cried Magda, the unrepentant and regal—and that fine challenge was answered by “Come up Higher, thou.”

Each trivial act is dissolved in a governing law, and all law is noosed in a remote necessity. Each smile is compounded of many smiles, and our faintest thought has a foreground that trails back to the sun. The very disbelief in a necessity for all our acts and thoughts that lies in an ageless backworld is a matter of necessity. There is a temperament that would deny the fatality of temperament. The author of Job gave us a peep into the star-chamber where our individual destinies are decided. And Goethe, who himself smiled from his citadel set on the other side of good and evil, made Faust the victim of a conspiracy.

The philosopher of unrepentance was the great Spinoza—Spinoza the remorseless and the daring. He was the master Immoralist—or non-moralist—and from his spiritual loins sprung the great German chimney-sweep, Friedrich Nietzsche. God created time, and Spinoza destroyed it. For him the past did not exist—his serene soul moved him Now to Now. Booted and sandaled, a Knight of the Open Road, he went forth in youth to do battle with the most profitable lie ever concocted—the lie of free-will—a priestly invention to absolve the Most High.

[942] Spinoza’s God we can pass over. It was nothing but a formula for ennui—an omnipotent, omnipresent, indestructible stupidity. It had no knowledge of good or evil, but abided in a transcendental state of total ignorance. it was a sort of spiritual glue that held all things together.

The days of this lens-grinder were white-capped negations. From the other side of life he watched the puppies playing and dissected their paltry emotions. He conceived the emotions as a sort of poisonous coil, a tangle that held man in the mud. For the tear-besotted sentimentality that is forever looking back upon an arid past he had that profound contempt which philosophers have masked under a brain-smile. Good and evil are relative terms and mean nothing to him whose vision extends beyond the immediate effect of each set. There is no code that lasts a thousand years. There is necessity, which is to say, no man can escape himself. His most unlawful acts are lawful, and in nature there are no such things as transgression. Government is an organized transgression. Its excuse for being is that it can carry on the cosmic system of vengeance of each on each better than the individual can. Spinoza was the most cold-blooded anarch who ever lived and certainly the boldest moral—or immoral—philosopher. He crawled out to the caves of things, peeped over—and boldly took the leap. He burned all bridges, cut all bonds, wiped all yesterdays from the mental slate—asked for no philosophic quarter and gave none.

What is evil? he asked. Evil is that which gives man pain. Not only pain that comes from external things, but pain that comes from ourselves is evil. Conscience is evil because it is the soul preying on itself. It is a Torquemada invented by sickly souls who still dwell in the mists of the emotional foreworld. Come with me into the beyond-world of the understanding, of the intellect, and see yourself and your comic sins as my placid, immovable, passion-dry God sees you, cried Spinoza. Get beyond your petty, necessitous acts that you call your sins.

“Repentance is not a virtue, nor does it arise from reason; [943] but he who repents of an action is doubly wretched and infirm,” he says calmly is a celebrated proposition. The original transgression has inflicted pain on some one—but the act was motivated not in you, but in an endless past that stretched away before your birth and was latent in the sidereal gases. What can your repentance do but add pain to pain, tear to tear, anguish to anguish? All the waters of Araby will not wash your damned spots out—for the waters of Araby cannot inundate the infinite—and your failures, which you call your sins, were predestined in unremembered past durations.

The doctrine of human responsibility is one that has its uses. Historically, society is an evolving illusion, and feeds on lies like the daughter of Rappacini lived and thrived on poisons. But there is a finer virtue than self-condemnation—it is self-absolution. Penitence is the basest of pains because it contains such a preponderant element of the pleasurable. It is an hysterical tickle-self. It is like one of those scorching, belly-burning dishes that degenerate Rome concocted to stimulate a jaded palate and a blasé-man. “Confession is good for the soul” it is said—that is, it is pleasurable, and we invent sins for the pleasure of confession and repentance. Like dead flies in a bowl of curdled cream so lies the soul of man in his tear-vats. The lives of men are an endless expiation, as Emerson, a crowned god of the Overworked, has said. The souls of the repentant are great penal colonies—their days a series of vicarious atonements.

Each day we should be apostate to a self, is the essence of the teaching of the unrepentant Spinoza. The progressive evolution of the individual soul is like the uncoiling of an infinite chain, each link of which differs from the other. Some links are dun-colored, some are slime-corroded, some are of gleaming gold, some of neutral tints, and some fleece-white. Not for a minute shall the slime-smeared link dominate the free soul. It was forged in hell—let hell look to her works. There are two orders of beings: they whom their devils use, and they who use their devils. Spinoza was Orestes triumphant.

Goethe—Faust (for Faust was Goethe as surely as Childe Harold was Byron or Oberman was Senancour) was a spiritual [944] titan who strode through his own soul and reached an outermost gate where he signaled back a “Come hither, and see” to the sickly age in which he lived—an age sick because of its very virility. Goethe saw life from so high a point that his rejection of life and his acceptance of life were the same thing. He stood where things merged, and comprehended in a glance the meaninglessness of any one thing and yet the necessity which urged on all things to disappear in each other. “Sin,” “evil,” “pain” were to him fine experiences which no great soul should shrink from; rather should pain be courted for the residuum of wisdom that lies at the bottom of it. Does the physician who has inoculated himself with deadly germs for the purpose of furthering an intellectual lust regret his action if the experiment has yielded him a truth, even though the looking on that truth has condemned him to death? So in the spiritual sphere Goethe would urge us to live our sins half-gayly for the knowledge they bring, and never to look back lest we turn to pillars of jelly.

Let him who is perfect and stupid repent, for he has not yet lived; but he who has been bludgeoned and has bludgeoned in turn; who has been taken and given in the combats where each instinct fights for its own; who has made of his own life a shambles and yet peered at himself from time to time from the little white turret in the brain-apex—let him rejoice and repent not. The fox is caught in the gin and the star is enmeshed in law and the souls of men are matrixes in their destinies. The lithe-limbed Goethe swam through the flotsam and jetsam of his acts and brushed the slime-matted seaweed from his eyes—swam to the point where the waters meet the stars and escaped with Spinoza into the unarithmetical spaces.

How fast our sickly pasts would decompose and vanish in their poisonous mists did we not forever keep them alive with our inverted hypnotic glances! We lie on the crest of an on-moving wave, but instead of taking our bearings from that everlasting height—that immovable present moment—we glance down with tear-stained cheeks into the hollow we believe we just rose from, or stand wringing our hands in fear at the hollow we believe we are about to disappear in.

[945] What is the outcome of our acts? Our most damnable lies may breed in time’s mighty tangle immemorial virtues. And if one could trace back those actions which make him fatty-complacent he would find them rooted in a degradation that would bring the inerasible pallors to his soul. The religion of Buddha is founded on the profoundest cosmic vision that ever illumined a human mind. The world is an expedient, and nothing is or is not, but thinking makes it so. In the view of the Buddhist, repentance is as idle as rejoicing, for both spring from the illusion of self—that transitory agglomeration of millions of individuals which science calls cells. All are in the whirl of law; the individual is bound to a fiery whirling wheel that at one moment ducks him in mud and the next moment whirls him to azure gleaming vistas. You are the mud, the azure-gleam, the wheel, and the fiery whirl—you are all but yourself. So the Buddhist, negativing past; present, top, bottom, good, evil, here, hereafter, folds his toga about him and lies down to pleasant Nirvanas, where nothing happens except nothingness.

Self-consciousness may destroy or create. The first peep into ourselves terrifies us, and if we do not succumb to what we see in that first glance into the inferno out of which we have wriggled we shall live to spurn it, or, better, utilize it. Your soul will in time become a fine drama—a playhouse with one silent auditor. You will love your sins for the sake of the climaxes that their triumph or defeat leads up to. You will become your own hero, your own ideal of perfect villainy—and when you grow tired of the performance you can enter, through the medium of art, into the marvelous adventures of other men’s souls, for all lofty minds at last dramatize or sing themselves in some form. Emerson’s essays are the chronicle of his spiritual escapades. Ibsen’s plays are his Jungle-story, Chopin set himself to music, and Balzac explored himself and made of truth a gorgeous fiction.

St. Augustine, who was so black that he turned white, and who, like Tolstoi, mistook impotency for self-mastery, says that we may rise on our dead selves to higher things. Rather may we rise on our live selves to higher things. The past is [946] dead only in the sense that it never existed. Walt Whitman sang of himself in his entirety—“deny nothing.” He was always just ahead of himself. Nature, he saw, had no penitential days; she was ruthless and blithe, possessed something of a naive cunning, used compost and lily-pollen in her laboratories, made poems of her rain-days and fair days—and nothing was ever amiss. Both Emerson and Whitman recognized evil, but refused to admit the idea of sin into their conception of things. They lived, like Spinoza and Goethe, in the overspaces and were never troubled by that form of spiritual dyspepsia which comes from overeating at the tables of the past.

Friedrich Nietzsche saw in conscience the greatest enemy that the brooding mind of man had ever raised up. This great rhapsodical psychologist, who flung down in passionate hate the gage of battle to the other-world roisterers, saw to the bottom of that pit of slime, the soul of man. Those who had lusted and failed in their lusts had spawned conscience, which begat guilt, which begat sin, which begat emaciation, penitence and heaven-hunger, which begat another world, where the strong men cease from taking and the eunuchs get the best. The weak, the tear-stained, the neurotic, the diseased, build and build, and into their earth-places they enter not, so they have conspired to overthrow the palaces that have been erected by their masters, the strong, the unrelenting, the never-regretting, the unrepentants. And they have made of their weaknesses virtues and put craft and cunning into the seat of power and made idols of pillars of salt. The demon eyes of the lost flash from behind their masks of love, and the knotted veins of cruelty are concealed by a crown of thorns.

There is no motive power in regrets—that way lies death—or, worse, the jealous rage that begets him who loves his fellow-man too much and himself not at all. Self-love is the condition of all love—the bud must flower before it can seed; the sun is the sun to its last outpost of flame. The unrepentant is himself to his last act; he presages a new series—where evolution and devolution are one; were there is neither growth nor decay, but an eternal transition—a rising from equilibrium to equilibrium, from infinite sweep to infinite sweep.