By Benjamin De Casseres
The Eternal Tragi-Comedy
Humor is the safety valve of the tragic spirit. It is the perception of Horror from the Infinite. It is the great wardrobe mistress who takes the skeletons of Fact and decks them out for a charivari.
The publication of Mark Twain’s only posthumous work, “The Mysterious Stranger,” reveals us the hair-shirt that this prince of humor and satire wore beneath the motley. Nothing more pessimistic, ironical and mournful has ever come from the pen of an American writer. He sees Man as a grain of dust in a mighty sirocco of blind forces blowing from a Nowhere to a Nowither, and over all the author of “Huckleberry Finn” sees nothing but Vanitas Vanitatum, scrawled by Satan.
This will astonish only the jobbernowls and dry-as-dusts, for the caustic irony and pungent satire of Mark Twain could have been incubated nowhere else than in the dark canyons of the heart. Rainbows are fabricated by storms, and great satire is born of the impotence of the human before the Juggernaut of Law.
Well, says Mark, the world may be damned from all eternity, and you and I may be only galvanized atoms, dowered with a dream for a day, but we have that which the gods cannot destroy, a shield against which their arrows rain in vain, and that is Laughter, for it is the Comic View that is the menstruum of all ills.
The world is broken now, and a great pall hangs over human destiny, and the Dark Ages may not be far away, but no matter!—for the world will always be young so long as there is a child to look up at you and lisp, “Tell me a story.”
The Little Superpeople
Before the Fall, children dominated the world. They were the sages, the embodied wisdom of Life. These divine mites were the supermen and superwomen of the Earth, for they were Innocence incarnate and lived Beyond-Good-and-Evil. The mystical and psychological meaning of the Fall is that we ceased to be as little children in our attitude toward life, to live it riantly, carelessly, superbly unconscious of “right” or “wrong.”
A beautiful, healthy child is like a dream fallen from a star. It is the ecstasy and rhythm of Nature expressed and heard in her most delicate instrument. Their eyes are belled laughter, the patter of their feet the hum and swish of the Earth as it runs around the Sun, their laughter the clash of porcelain vases against silver urns.
Tristan and Isolde, rising into the empyrean on vast Chimeras of sound,
Once more shall sweep to their immortal death
And proclaim their passion from some utter star.
Salammbô and Mimi—each destined for a tragic grave—
Will rend the night with their plaints and maledictions,
And Parsifal, the pink-cheeked Tolstoi of his time,
Will ascend in a milk-white robe to his plush and pallid heaven.
Carmen, whose eyes are Gothic mysteries and whose breath is pestilent with sweetness,
Will tread the boards ironically, the while Done José goes singing to his hell.
The melting sweetness of The Master-Singers will flood the ear with the magic melodiousness of Orpheus,
While from their mausoleums of air the downfall’n gods will glare at us
To the weltering sonorities, and whelming crescendoes of “Gotterdammerung.”
What’s in a noise. Would not Noise by any name sound like “Billy” sunday?
Glory is to receive a letter of praise from Everybody—after you are dead.
The Opera is the instinct-to-noise in its highest and most refined form.
So Like a Woman
Virginia: This war can go on forever, for a new generation comes of age each year, and there is always a rising generation.
Paul: But, my dear Virginia, where are the fathers coming from if they continue to slaughter each other at the present rate?
Virginia: Dear me! I never thought of that!
The little ripples in a woman’s laugh have drowned many a champion swimmer.
In the Street of the Years I prowl, in the light and the dark,
An immortal phantom, mailed in impenetrable veils.
Source: Puck, Dec. 16, 1916, p. 18