The Renaissance of the Irrational

FIVE hundred years before Christ there lived a man in Ephesus by name Heraclitus. He was a philosopher more modern than Bergson. His doctrine was the Eternal Becoming. All things are in a perpetual state of flux. Nothing exists; things only seem. The Absolute is change. Fugacity is the Law. All is vibration, mobility. Mont Blanc is a Niagara of atoms and force. Its unchangeability is an illusion. Our bodies, our minds, our houses, our wills are traveling at an inconceivable rate of speed nowither, everywither. Some things do not travel as fast in this great cosmic simoon as other things; hence the illusion of rest, stability.

Heraclitus was the first great Western Irrationalist, the first great Institutionalist, the first philosophic Anarch, the first Romantic. He was the father of Hegel. Today the world is going back to Heraclitus of Ephesus. What is the soul of the movement which may be summed up in the names of Jules de Gaultier, Picasso, Remy de Gourmont, Anatole France, Claude Debussy, Gustave Le Bon, Eduard Von Hartmann, Nietzsche, Stirner, Maurice Barrès, William James, Picabia? It is the sense of the Irrational as a principle of existence. It is the divination of Chance. It is the apotheosis of the Intuitive.

From the lofty promontories of the abstract intelligence the artistic and philosophic world hurls itself into the trumpeting, foaming sea of the Elemental. The Intellect is bankrupt. It is only a park pond. The Mississippi and the Amazon flow through the heart. All ends are myths. Life itself explains life. Chance, danger and the irrational constitute the new Trinity. Dionysus dances in menadic frenzy on the skulls of Darwin, Spencer, Taine, Buckle and Haeckel. Keep away from the shore, for there the fisherfolk called logicians have sunk their nets. Stick to the open where the waves run high and where you are tossed toward lying bewitching horizons. The rational, the sure-and-fast is a cock-and-a-bull story.

And the giant figure of Heraclitus rises out of the East. “They have come home to me again,” he says. But the Heraclitean danse macabre—for Heraclitus was a philosopher of sorrows, the Schopenhauer of his time—has become the Zarathustrian dervish whirl. The eternal snow-storm of atoms flying in spiral billions from inconceivable zeniths to hypothetical nadirs is now a storm of throbbing red corpuscles—the heart of the world is warm. The individual is in the solar system of a perpetually creative tendency.

Paradox of paradoxes! The new atheism is optimistic! Chance is a beneficent god! The Irrational has become a faith! There is no “far-off divine event to which the whole creation moves,” but—better yet!—each moment is a near-at-hand divine event in which the whole creation is incarnated.

Again the paradox. Out of the heart of the most practical people in the world—the Americans—have come the three supreme Irrationalists of the [23] age—Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman. No matter what they prated about “law,” they were intuitionalists, miracle-seekers, chevaliers of the Divine Moment. They were the fathers of the cubists and futurists, for they reported what they felt, not what they saw. They let themselves go. They risked the open sea at each moment. “Thy will be done” they uttered—to the great god Chance. They boasted that no ill could befall them, for they were both Rhine-deep and Valhalla threshold-star. From them come the “æsthetic lookers-on,” the mystical pragmatists, the illusionists, the irrationalists. All Orientals, whether they know it or not. From Emerson to Picasso the march has been Asia-ward. We are carrying our candles to the buddhas.

The irrational is the groundwork of all existence. Life is itself an error—and here we come to the psychological meaning of the myth of the Fall of Man—because it is divided against itself. So long as there is subject and object—or a brain AND a world, a perceiver AND a thing perceived—there will be antagonism. A universe divided against itself may stand forever, but it will never arrive at a common “truth,” for there is no common ground on which object and subject can meet except the Absolute, which abolishes the seeker and the thing sought. The irrational, the antagonistic, error, the ironical, the paradoxical will reign on the Olympus of metaphysics while the universe is what it is.

The “law of causation” is a myth, as David Hume long ago pointed out. But it is a necessary myth, a working lie, a beneficent illusion—like free-will, heaven and hell, providence and the other creations of Maya, the eternal hopesmith. It is the Irrationalists who are ever widening the breach in the “law of causation.” The dikes of “law” are crumbling and the waters of Chance are flowing in from the open. As no two bodies ever touch, so no one thing can be said to directly precede another thing in the order of time. “Cause and effect” is merely a working hypothesis. Between a cause and an effect there is an unknown land, a “space,” an intercalated something where the contingent, the unforeseen, the fortuitous lurk. Here in this no-world’s-land Chance is king. The irony of history, the irony of the life of each individual is nothing but the perpetual incursion of this unknown quantity, the unforeseen, into the world of plan and purpose. All economical, political and religious programmes fail because of the belief in a rational, ordered future. The future is not like a military road, but is like a pattern in a carpet woven by Puck and Mephistopheles.

The brain is rational, but the brain is the antithesis of Life. Thought is mathematical, organized, but Life is unmathematical, unorganized. Two and two make four in the world of logic; but two and two do not make four in the subconscious or in the superconscious. Certainty is the supreme error of consciousness. The subconscious, the irrational, mocks and grins at the sorties of the Brain into the Infinite. All the brains in the world amalgamated would not produce sufficient phosphorus to light up a square in in [24] the Cimmeria of the unknowable. The quantity and quality of intelligence on this planet is unchangeable, while the unconscious is perpetually adding to its domain—just as the dead of the earth outnumber the living a billion to one and the ratio widens with the minutes. Only a few ever reclaim an inch of earth from the eternal swirl. They are men of transcendent wills and their triumphs are only momentary.

The illusion of an “Immanent Reason” is one of the oldest of metaphysical illusions—and one of the most necessary. “All things exist for a purpose.” God is the first utilitarian, the first pragmatist. There is a “far-off divine event toward which the creation moves.” Rationality, a Supreme Logic, is predicated everywhere except in Buddhism, which teaches the irrationality of existence. The spirit of the West is dynamic. Whatever moves moves toward a point, whatever moves has a reason for moving; all things move toward a Point; hence all things have a Reason for moving. Therefore a Supreme Brain. The syllogism mounts here into the infinite. A finite, utilitarian process emanating from a finite, ephemeral organ—the brain of man—is used to solve the meaning of an infinite, irrational unknowable! The New Jerusalem and the Mansion in the Skies are proved by an ironclad logic; but so is the existence of Mahomet’s celestial brothels. And why not? The Immanent Reason is temperamental, and Logic may enter any paradise.

To the pyre with Euclid, Jevons, Newton and the rest of the pontiffs of Abracadabra! Bog-light, be though my pole star! Impulse, be thou my compass! Hoist sail for the Land of Prester John, where all things are unreal, topsy-turvy, irrational, indefinite, unreasonable, unstable. I will what I will. Seize the emotion of the minute and loot it with lip, heart and brain. Squeeze the color out of it; suck the thought out of it; strike on it like a keyboard (the fugues of the seconds!)

There is no unity but the unity of each sensation, of each emotion. What has intelligence done for the race but broken spontaneity on the wheel of logic? Every thought is the requiem for a dead emotion. We are bathtub Neptunes and vaudeville Jupiters, the arteries of the irrational will of man have been slashed by the knives of reason and the red blood is soaking into the moving sands of time.

Cut down the sacred Bo-tree of science with its mock orange and stuffed nightingales! Those winged cows of culture that we have mistaken for Pegasus—hurl them from the Temple!

The blazing constellations in the zodiacs of the irrational are calling us, and up the sun-shaft of the ages we go dancing the lascivious dance of the atoms; we go like gods sweating stars, chanting a Te Deum—to Chance.

Benjamin De Casseres.

Source: Camera Work, June 1913, Special Issue, 22-24