The Mocker

AS immortal as error, fairer than vice—being herself the first vice, the omnipotent decoy—squats that painted Jezebel,—the Ideal,—at the crossroads of thought, of instinct, of action. She has trafficked with our blood and brain and soul—is the misshapen spirit of time and space itself, and she has lured us time out of memory to her painted paradises, her pasteboard Utopias, her mirages set in bubbles. Tantalus walks in our streets and rubs our elbows, on the faces of men are the chagrin of a million ancient deceptions, the grief and tease of things lost out of hand. But the newer generations pour out from the ever-fruitful wombs and are swift upon the scents of life before the elder dupes have died. And the ancient blower of bubbles has her smile again, for she knows that the newer generations are the dead generations come again.

A history of the evolution of the Ideal would be the history of the evolution of Illusion, a fable of a continuously evoked Image and a chronicle of a persistently recurring disaster. Every action presupposes an ideal of action; each thought is only a tentacle feeling blindly for another thought which shall be its own perfection. So all action and all thought in this passionate quest are hurried into their own tombs, perpetually erasing themselves—one may say telescoping one another. Once the attainable becomes the attained, purpose steps into its winding-sheet—only, in perfect amaze, to resurrect as another purpose. And it is so the circular days of Brahma are spun, and it is thus we mortals play upon the shining films.

If it be defeat that constitutes the tragedy of individual lives, it is the endless deception practised upon us that gives the tragedy meaning. The chagrin of defeat is not so poignant as the mockery of success. Ah! the mockery of success—that is the sting of victory: the suddenly perceived incongruity—a gap sinister—between the thing I willed and the thing that has come to pass. Can that be it I labored to produce—labored in that sweaty divine purpose—that poor thing standing just there in front of me, nude, accomplished, out of hand, the gray light of reality pouring upon it—standing there so piteously before me with that question in its eye: “Where are my purple robes?” Out! I know thee not!

There are as many ills as there are souls; each has its special disease, unique, incommunicable; a special characterization, one may say, of the universal malady: progressive disillusion. We have all nibbled at some rare bait only to feel the carefully concealed hook enter the raw flesh. We wear about us the beautiful rags of our grief as best we may, some dragging in the mire, others flaunted in a kind of defiance to the stars.

Into our hands, in our heyday, we took so confidently, so buoyantly,—and with what an acceleration of the blood!—this heathenish, elfish matter, thinking to mould it to some likeness of the mind’s native dream; to stamp upon it, as we thought, as one stamps upon a disc of gold, some everlasting memento of ourselves, some souvenir of our too transitory presence here upon the earth. But youth knows nothing of that eternal flux which makes of all [36] things its own paradox, of that endless flowing-away and simultaneous reappearance of all visible things. His too, too substantial universe does verily thaw and resolve itself into a shadowy monster before his suddenly awakened perceptions, and, agape, he finds himself a hungry speck of dust in that great gale of matter which blows steadily through the world of time. How rotten now the underpinnings of his House of Life! How abysmal that fundament of void over which he so lately frolicked!

The myriad trivial disappointments of the year-round are the little nails that cleave the temples of Expectation. In Disappointment the will of man stands face to face with his mocker, with the sneering, prankish god that has in secret fabricated the arrows of intent and so blunted their heads that they will stick nowhere. This god of merry deviltries peeps at us in that hour of baffled purpose and asks with a kind of counterfeit grimness: “How now, Earth-whiffet! where is thy whim?” Was he not the soul of that laugh of Mephisto—the chuckle of insight, of prevision—hidden in the scented garden when Faust and Marguerite decreed in joy their own everlasting pain?

All the ills of mankind can be traced to the idealizing instinct, to that ineradicable romanticism that crowns the ass and calls it “My lord,” that calls a plain latrine a marvellous palace, sees in sewage-vents something of “divine purpose,” that labels beautiful those cosmic processes that are in reality the most obvious in their malignity—flower-covered traps that, with exquisite irony, swallow up finally all the petty princelings of Kingdom Come, the idealists themselves. They are the sickly victims of a psychic glamour, a thaumaturgic light streaming out of endless pasts, the dupes of that endless becoming that bears on its crest the mystic ironic phosphors.

Benjamin De Casseres.


Source: Camera Work, July 1912, No. 39, pp. 35-36