Diabolistic Idealists: Shaw, D’Annunzio, Tolstoi

By Benjamin De Casseres

THE one great universal paradox that the human race has never faced and never will face is this: The soul of evil in things good. The human race is an eminently respectable institution. As a body it holds itself aloof from anything that would tend to disturb its equanimity. The legitimacy of this instinct is never in question. There are reasons profounder than the deepest reaches of intuition and instinct why the reverse of the above paradox (that there is a soul of good in all things evil) should never lose its dogmatic and infallible character. These reasons and justifications are in the keeping of Isis, her good man Satan, and their only begotten son, Pierrot.

No idealist, no reformer, no passionate and meddlesome lover of his kind ever doubts the immortal nature of his activity. His acts, he believes, will go on forever just as he conceived them. He is the dynamo of an absolute and unanswerable force. What he has hatched will go on hatching for an eternity in his image. In his absolutism he tyrannizes over the future like the eye of a god. He suspects nothing. He has the solemnity of Don Quixote and the sublime smugness of Plato. He is the truth, the way and the life, and all who do as he directs shall be saved.

That the heart of all goodness ends in diabolistic cruelty, that every messiah carries in the very heart of his teaching an Inquisition, that every Buddha wills, unknown to himself, juggernaut and suttee, that the tears of a  Rousseau warm into life a Robespierre and Napoleon, that socialism is today weaving in the depths of itself the brains and bodies of Neros, Torquemadas and Tiberiuses, that at the core of every idealist there reigns a demon of cruelty, a monster thirsty for blood—no one must admit this as a universal law, else Time, the suave imposter, could not go on with Life, his miracle-farce. But every reformer at bottom is a John of Leyden, every founder of an aesthetic school—whether it be an Oscar Wilde, a William Morris or a Gabriele d’Annunzio—is at bottom a Marquis de Sade, and every renunciant of the flesh is at bottom a Saint Anthony, whose mind was, according to Flaubert, the Sodom of his age.

The Ideal is the luminous cloud that floats over the forests and jungles of our concrete nature. In that cloud are dust and dynamite, fiery metoric [sic] stones, deadly world-enveloping poisons, demons of creation and demons of destruction. Aphrodite and Azrael ride on its summit. Beauty and Death stand side by side, in an eternal entente, at the birth of every Idealist. The day that discloses to him his upland dream in all its glory that day he must also behold Gog and Magog. Mater Triumphalis and Mater Dolorum were born twins. The calvaries of Idealism reach from Cain to Ferrer, from the legendary Prometheus to the quite ascertainable Emmeline Pankhurst.

Every ideal is in its very essence a lie, an illusion, a come-on. It is the imaged future. So long as we believe that there is another hour to come after this hour in which we are living we will people it with a beautiful race of shadows. The instinct to manufacture ideals is thus as profoundly imbedded in us as the time-instinct—and as illusive; for that next minute or that next hour or that next day arrives only to mock us, and the beautiful worlds that our imaginations painted there turn out to be pasteboard parlor cycloramas, and that far-off, or very near, “divine event” dissolves into the same old irksome “get-it-done” task. This law applies to races as well as to individuals; and every dream of freedom or amelioration is doomed to failure. It carries in its own blood the seed of its own destruction, for if you pare an idealist to the quick you will find a Nero.

George Bernard Shaw is not a Nero, but a Cromwell. His brilliant intellect was given to him to mask the tyrant that only half-slumbers in his blood. Cruel, narrow, puritanical, an anti-individualist and anti-libertarian, Shaw is today the finest type, now that Tolstoi is dead, of the diabolical idealists who infect life with their perversive anti-natural doctrines.

Socialist, vegetarian, ascetic, reformer, the brilliant Irishman is more English than the English he caricatures. It is only in England, where the greatest care is taken of individual rights and where the profound common sense of the Englishman is a perpetual safeguard against the erruption [sic] of mystical mountebanks, that Shaw can feel himself safe. He would not trust himself among a Latin people, for he knows at bottom that the spirit of an inquisitorial propagandist is the spirit that dominates him. It is said that he thanks God each day that the English law protects him against himself and the fanatical hordes that race up an down his blood sniffing for vent-holes.

Shaw’s fixed idea is his belief in his own infallibility. This crops out everywhere. He is the true type of idealist, disciplined by wit; the thoroughgoing bourgeois saved from the schoolmaster’s desk by a constant inundation of intellectual diabolism over his field of consciousness; the boresome busybody-exalté redeemed by a satanic touch.

Rabelais and Molière created through their emotions. They are immortal. If George Bernard Shaw had created through his emotions we should have had tracts à la Anthony Comstock. He is a diabolistic moralist, as hopelessly unintellectual as Savonarola, saved from the gallows or the insane asylum by a paradoxical mind. [130] In him middle-class idealism finds its revengeful messiah.

Gabriele d’Annunzio, the greatest living Italian, has made of the Beautiful a Moloch. He is a real overman, an aesthetic wizard, a cruel god filled with the passion for mighty spectacles and dazzling psychological scenarios. The Artist is everything; humanity is nothing. He would throttle a race as one throttles a rat to extract a tragic emotion from its heart or an unknown nuance of thought. All his novels, plays and poems are exudations of himself, of his mystical and maniacal frenzy in the presence of life and nature. Emotion, action and desire are only the swollen rivulets and streams that swell the wild waters of his imaginings. Words are drained of their thousand souls. The Italian language was invented so that Gabriele d’Aunnunzio might unlock with it the subconscious palaces in the soul of his race. The tragedies and comedies of existence are only the grammar of Art. His prose reeks with immemorial odors, pestilential perfumes and the effluvium of the dreams of the uncreate and the dead.

The earth is his mother and the intellect his redeemer. There are poems of D’Annunzio [sic] wherein one hears the rush and roar of sunquakes and the furious birth-chant of forests still deep in the womb of the mystical Mother. He slakes his thirst at every spring. He writes of superb incests like Shelley, Ford or Wagner. Whatever is is sublime. The planet, the stars, the universe are censers that he, Gabriele the Announcer, swings on the golden chains of his genius in the cathedral of Time. There is only one sin that it is possible for him to commit: lèse beauté. He has never committed it. He could not commit it—for he is to the manner born, as Shaw and Tolstoi were not.

A great French psychologist said of D’Annunzio that “his soul was the soul of the universe”! There is, indeed, in him that hypostatic union of object and subject that philosophers and metaphysicians write about, but that only the supreme Artist, dowered with the diabolistic idealization of his instincts, ever attains. There are gleams of the superworld about such men. They rape Life each hour, and Life knows that each assault is a transfiguration and beatification of its innate nullity. D’Annunzio is the Marquis de Sade of art.

Tolstoi was the very antithesis of D’Annunzio [sic]. His instinct-to-torture worked in an entirely different direction. Naturally a great artist, an aesthetic seer, he allowed himself to be carried away by his submerged atavistic tendency toward a perverted humanitarianism which at the last almost completely dominated him. He was the idealist who has turned traitor to life. Either consciously or unconsciously, Tolstoi, the prophet and announcer, was a rank poseur. It is probable he was nauseatingly sincere. Setting up before him two sublime figures, Buddha and Christ, as patterns into the likeness of which he sought to torture his own soul, he became merely Miss Buddha, with regular reception days and “days out”. Lacking the brains of Buddha and the militant strength of Christ, he became a social and religious reformer, a pamphlet peddler, a fanatic of the street corners, capable of every form of diabolistic repression in the name of “the way, the truth and the life”. And he had the smugness of auto-divinity.

He hated the beautiful, the ornamental and the amusing with the same passion that, lifting the mask, we find in George Bernard Shaw. The latter saw in Wagner a socialist, nothing more; Tolstoi saw in God something of a Schlatter or a Dowie. The demon of morality destroyed his brains and poisoned his art. His demon-like frenzy before the flesh and the devil—and may their kingdoms never be lessened!—would have made Mephistopheles serious. His constantly reiterated love for his fellow-creatures was the decoy mask that his insatiable will-to-power wore. Had he ever had mankind in his keeping for a single year St. Bartholomew night and Kishineff would have been enacted twenty times over and Salem and Tyburn and Toledo and Cordova would have come back reinvested with their ancient glory—all in the name of “social purity” and the “spiritualization of humanity”. For there is no hell like the heart of a world-reformer, nothing so neronic [sic] as his skull, nothing so menacing to the world, the flesh and free thought. Tolstoi was an impotent Calvin.

Idealists are the threat and the glory of the race. Without them no drama, no comedy, no history, no devil, no god. Every ideal is evil and every ideal is good, because evil and good are one and the same thing. We are all the guests of Maya, the god of all ideals and idealists. We live and move and have our being in Illusion, the heart of which is an unarithmetical and undecipherable Smile.


Source: The International, April 1914, Vol. VIII No. 4, pp. 129-130



This essay was subsequently published in The Philistine in Dec. 1914 (Vol. 40, No. 1) on pp. 20-28, without any attribution to De Casseres. In addition to adding a large number of additional paragraph breaks, and the regularization of “Tolstoi” to “Tolstoy” throughout the version in The Philistine, the following changes were made to the text:

  • never faced and never will face is this: > never faced—and never will face—is this:
  • The soul of evil in things good. > the soul of evil in things good, or the benefits and advantages of sin.
  • will go on forever > will continue forever
  • smugness of Plato > smugness of an English bishop
  • an aesthetic school > an esthetic school
  • according to Flaubert > according to Gustave Flaubert
  • fiery metoric stones > fiery meteoric stones
  • all its glory that day > all its glory, that day
  • essence a lie, an illusion >  essence an illusion
  • we are living we will > we are living, we will
  • profoundly imbedded > profoundly embedded
  • that far-off, or very near, “divine event” > that far-off or very near “divine event”
  • profound common sense > profound commonsense
  • erruption > eruption
  • the true type of idealist > the true type of an idealist
  • busybody-exalté > busybody-exalte
  • Molière > Moliere
  • à la > a la
  • aesthetic wizard > esthetic wizard
  • a cruel god > a demitasse god
  • a tragic emotion from its heart or an unknown nuance of thought > a tragic emotion from its heart, an unguessed groan, or an unknown nuance of thought
  • life and nature > Life and Nature
  • poems of D’Annunzio > poems of d’Annunzio
  • Whatever is sublime. > Whatever is, is sublime.
  • lèse beauté > lese beaute
  • There is, indeed, > There is indeed
  • They rape Life each hour > They assault Life each hour
  • an aesthetic seer > an esthetic seer
  • Either consciously or unconsciously, Tolstoi, the prophet and announcer, was a rank poseur. > [deleted]
  • It is probable he was nauseatingly sincere. > He was nauseatingly sincere.
  • Setting up before him two sublime figures, Buddha and Christ, as patterns into the likeness of which he sought to torture his own soul, he became merely Miss Buddha, with regular reception days and “days out”. > [deleted]
  • a pamphlet peddler > a pamphlet-peddler
  • the street corners > the street-corners
  • And he had the smugness of auto-divinity. > [deleted]
  • a single year St. Bartholomew > a single year, St. Bartholomew
  • twenty times over and Salem > twenty times over, and Salem
  • neronic > Neronic
  • no devil, no god. > no devil, no god!

By virtue of being printed without attribution in The Philistine, that version was later included in Vol. 9 of Selected Writings of Elbert Hubbard, the titular entity being the the publisher of The Philistine, The Fra, and several other publications over the years. Hubbard’s posthumous compilers apparently did not realize this essay – along with several others that were unattributed – had been written by De Casseres. As Freeman Champney tells the story in Art & Glory: The Story of Elbert Hubbard (Kent State University Press, Nov. 1983):

One volume of Selected Writings was titled Olympians (subtitle: “Tall, sun-crowned men”). It contained thirteen essays. Ten of them, said De Casseres, were entirely written by him, and he had the records to prove it. After two years of negotiation, he received a cash settlement and assignment of the copyrights. Olympians was withdrawn. (Later, the Roycroft-William H. Wise Company team that was handling the posthumous publishing brought out a new edition of Selected Writings. To make things easy for bibliographers, they substituted a new collection titled Olympians.) 

…One of [De Casseres’s] essays in Olympians was on “Diabolistic Idealists” and the phrase was typical. For about twelve years, he had sent occasional essays to Hubbard, and Hubbard had occasionally sent back a small check and tossed the manuscript into the Roycroft hopper. Eventually it would appear in the Philistine or the Fra, usually unsigned. And when the Selected Writings were being selected, how was anyone to know? (pp. 200-201)

One way to know, of course, would have been to take better care when compiling the volumes. Given that the piece was published – with De Casseres’ name on it – in The International eight months before appearing in The Philistine shows that the piece was clearly his.

At any rate, Champney is wrong about this essay appearing in Olympians (Vol. 2 of Selected Works of Elbert Hubbard), which was published in 1922 and contained 39 essays on various personages. The earlier collection, published year before, was titled The Olympians: A Tribute to Tall, Sun-Crowned Men, and contained 13 essays. These volumes do not overlap in content, nor do either of them contain “Diabolistic Idealists.”

Rather, “Diabolistic Idealists” was included in Vol. 9 of Selected Writings, which was titled Philistia. At least one other of De Casseres’ essays was included in that volume under the title “Life a Paradox,” and it seems likely the other eight essays Champney refers to were published in that volume as well.

In Feb. 1923, this essay appeared in Shadowland (Vol. VII, No. 6, pp. 26, 68) under the headline “Shaw, D’Annunzio, Tolstoi: Diabolistic Idealists.” As of yet, I have not been able to obtain a complete copy of that version. However, an inspection of the portion I have found indicates that it closely followed the original April 1914 version published in The International.