Victor Hugo

By Benjamin De Casseres.

SAVE, perhaps, Walt Whitman and Shakespeare, no poet of any century possessed a vaster imagination than Victor Hugo. Shelley’s imagination was subtle, tenuous and gained in luster and glory through its very limitations. With Shelley one may die of ecstasy and be blasted by light from etheric suns, but one is never lost.

In Shakespeare, Whitman and Hugo one may be lost utterly. In these titanesque minds the infinite put its sightless logic. With them, you are lost, unlodged—unless you know the highways over the constellations.

The brain of the scholar, of the savant, absorbs the culture of men. It is fed in libraries and museums. The brain of the poet absorbs the culture of the time-spirit itself. The imperial imagination of Victor Hugo penetrated the pores of the infinite, and on the finite world it acted like a giant suction valve. His culture, like the culture of the greatest geniuses, was a miracle of trans-substantiation. Until it reaches the alembical imagination of the poet and seer the universe is vegetative.

He seethed, and he made all nature seethe with him. Whatever Leconte de Lisle looked at, died; whatever Victor Hugo looked at, lived. The academic tape measure failing to reach around his form, they have said that he lacked unity, restraint, measure. He had the unity of Niagara, the restraint of lightning, and the measured motion of the earthquake. When the capon looks at the eagle it no doubt believes the eagle insane. The only limit that the mind of Victor Hugo knew was death, and that, too, was to him a limitless limit, a lure, a promise. Whoever believes that chaos has its laws will understand Victor Hugo. Whoever believes that there is a discoverable unity in existence will never understand him.

The passion for unity is a symptom of fatigue. Hugo never grew tired of diversity. He revelled in difference. Life with its torrential and eternal multiplication of forms satisfied, and would have satisfied throughout an eternity, that gluttonous soul, and his passion for God was a craving for partnership. He sought out God in order to find His secret. He, Victor Hugo, craved to make atoms, stars, hurricanes, utopias, hells, and Shakespeares.

Since Prometheus had MAN ever such a glorifier? Was genius ever so worshipped? Hugo’s hero is the human soul. The evolution of the human mind was the evolution of God. Mind was the pontoon that carried man from age to age. The Ideal was the aeroplane that carried man to the mystical Mansion in the Skies.

Hugo’s brain was a portable universe. He was always big with God and Man. He constituted himself the knight-errant of the race. All his life he stood sword in hand at some moral Thermopylæ. His arrogance was the arrogance of a Jupiter. He was melodramatic; but so is God. He raved and stormed and ranted; but so does the Jehovah of the Jews, in whose likeness he was uttered. His books are a carnival of words, but they have at their best the sovereign solemnity of the “I Am” of the Lord.

The flaming veil of day, the sombre drop-curtain of night all are glorified. He is a pantheist, Deist, Pagan and Christian. He marshals atoms and epochs, thunders and Ceasars, battlefields and hovels before our eye with the gesture of a man who was the director-general of a Cosmos.

In his hands language became incandescent. Words were fennel-rods whence this Titan drew a creative fire. Words explain everything. The poet is Nature’s sacred syllable Om. All thoughts and feelings aspire to be words. No thought or emotion can be completely realized until it becomes crystallized in a word, a phrase, an epigram, a poem. To name a thing is to isolate it, confer on it a soul, give it entity. If names, words, language did not exist it is doubtful whether number would exist. Words are worlds, and Hugo sat down and wept because there were no new verbal assonances to conquer.

From sound he squeezed blood and light and tears, with the cymbals of syllables he struck crashing preludes, passionate intermezzos and tortuous postludes. There are sentences in Hugo’s pages that are trumpet-calls from trans-stellar Sinais. There are paragraphs that are fulgurant fanfares of sound—nothing more. Sound turning somersaults and becoming light and lightning. Vibration changed into auroras and sibilant twilights, fused into sulphurous anathemas, dissolved into vaporous innuendoes. Victor Hugo was the Wagner of words.

Had Victor Hugo a religion? Had Shakespeare? Had Goethe? Had Wagner? Genius needs no religion, as that word is used generally. It is sufficient unto itself. It sees into hell; it sees through hell. It sees into heaven; it sees beyond heaven. The plummet of its thought sounds all bottoms. It penetrates the soul of atom, weaves itself into the mystery of the sea and, vicariously, lives the life of seer and murderer. What dogma shall genius hold when all dogmas come to it for interpretation? What has genius to do with belief when it is conscious of miracle and mystery only?

Has God a religion? Does He believe in Himself? God falls from grace at each minute. He repented of Adam and lost faith in Himself on the cross—“My God, my God, why has thou forsaken Me?” The religion of genius, like that of God, is to participate in whatever is, to partake of existence, to vitalize life. Genius cannot sin, it can do no wrong. The passion for experience knows not morality. It absorbs and it emits. Goethe said, “I understand the murderer, for I am he.” The mind of the genius is a matrix. Verlaine and Christ, Hugo and Napoleon, are equals in the realm of the imagination.

The great tragedy of genius is its essential godlikeness. It has the instinct for omnipotence, omnipresence and omniscience. It has the vision of God, but not the attributes. It absorbs the infinite, but it can only create the finite. It is Homunculus with the will to be Jupiter. Shakespeare, Byron, Christ, Wagner, Nietzsche, Flaubert, Rodin, Michelangelo, had the passion for CREATION. They remained artificers in words, sounds, marble, paint. Sublime cobblers! Samsons of comprehension, they strained at the pillows that sustain the Temple of Life—and the Temple budged not. Brazen, inexorable granite! Unbreakable fetters of our eternal finitude!

In the cosmic carnival of chance the brain of genius, by its art, fabricates order and harmony. Beethoven and Shelley and Spencer unified their dreams. But genius can never fabricate the supreme thing, the one thing needful to be God. It cannot create diversity without unity, it cannot create a chaos, it cannot strike from the keys of matter and motion that stupendous note of discord prolonged throughout an eternity that we call life. Only the insane understand God; and great genius just falls short of insanity—and godhood.

Sick in his impotence, Victor Hugo, in a divine rage, bespattered his God. He accuses Omnipotence of monotony. The words are put into the mouth of Zollus, but the thought—and the words—is the thought of Hugo.

Charlatan! Have done with this game of blind man’s bluff. We are sick of the [342] eternal humbug called life. For once and for all let us tell the Almighty some facts about himself. His work has neither beginning, end, nor middle. His imagination is exhausted. He repeats himself eternally. He wrote himself out after the first seven days. Winter and summer; night and day; birth and death; storm and sunshine. Eternal renewal! The poet chants. Eternal repetition! Eternal boredom! says the thinker. Each thing is made in the pattern of some other thing. The moon looks like an orange. The tree looks like a hedgehog. The river looks like a serpent. No invention anywhere. Sterility and stagnation everywhere. Motion itself is an illusion. Human beings invent strange perversions of natural instincts to bless themselves with new sensations. They die of ennui. The eternal blue of heaven is setting us crazy. We know hope to be a liar and despair is as stupid as death. Still, we must do one or the other.

In history God creates nothing new. From Herodotus to Carlyle it is the same scoundrel that holds the center of the stage and the same humanity that is mulct, revolts and is mulct again. He does over a Tiberius, replasters a Nero, regalvanizes a Robespierre. Since Cain not a new crime has been invented. His butchery at Kishineff is an old story in the Old Testament. The disaster at Messina is of no more importance than that at Pompeii. The same clay; the same men. The same natural causes; the same tiresome consequences.

The normal look on the face of every being over twenty-five is one of fatigue. All other looks are counterfeit. After the twenty-fifth year nothing new can happen; before that our acts repeat our ancestral acts. After that, we repeat ourselves. We are highly organized parrots and apes. We have the capacity to enjoy newer sensations, newer worlds, newer combinations. The human being is passionately in love with the unknown; but we have exhausted life. We are still young; life is stale, worn out, as commonplace as light, as wearisome as love. God is defunct; He is a tired old man, exclaims Victor Hugo. He has nothing more to show us, nothing more to tell us, nothing more to teach us. Euclid, Plato, Aristotle, Aeschylus said everything—and they were second hand.

There is, indeed, only one puzzle: Why is anything? And if God exists of what use is He? Why does He exist? There are only three dimensions for us. Two and two—will they forever make that stale four? God, if thou would’st divert us, invent ten more dimensions for us. Point us the way to some marvelous planet hidden beyond our telescopes in your wrinkled ether that we may emigrate there bag and baggage and refresh our bored brains and hearts. Or fabricate for us the unimaginable, the unguessable, the new macrocosm and the new microcosm. Even we have invented marvelous myths and fairy stories. Can’st not thou do as much in Thy omnipotence?

If not, raffle off Thy stale wonders to the monkeys, O God. We have outgrown Thy nursery wonders. Have done! Have done!

Pose! Pose! Pose! That is the cry that has eternally assailed the savage incursions of genius into the empire of the forbidden and its assaults upon the ramparts of the conventional God. Swine, cows, hens and goslings never pose. But they believe that the eagle perched upon its rock for a flight into the azure and the lion erect, expectant, do. The critical Poloniuses dispose of the satanism of Baudelaire, the trumpetings of Hugo, the Don Juanism of Byron, the protean attitudes of Heine, the kaleidoscopic multi-incarnations of Wilde with the word “pose.” It is the judgment writ in Liliput.

Genius without pose is not genius. All grandeur becomes self-conscious. All superior beings seem to be acting a part. What is called pose in genius is the manifestation of multiple and contradictory personalities. The simple, logical, cut-and-dried minds whose thoughts, emotions and life-development have been surveyed by their ancestors, and of whom they are merely a sparkless increment and not a vital development, are puzzled before the myriad masks that genius wears. They have the look on the face of a cow, before the changing colors of the dawn.

Genius is both Cain and Abel, Lucifer and God, Hamlet and Falstaff, Munchhausen and Euclid. Hugo had multitudes locked up in him. As Leonardo da Vinci struck every mental attitude, so Hugo struck every imaginative attitude. He, with Byron and Wilde, was the sincerest man of his age. Did Francois Villon pose when he turned housebreaker? I believe he did. It was a splendid piece of irony. Sometimes the poses of genius are a sacred sport. To amaze the burgeois, to flabbergast the galvanized masterpieces of routine, to turn somersaults over the social Ark of the Covenant, to do the supremely absurd and indecorous thing before the yes of owl-like Common Sense this is the sinister irony with which genius confronts stupidity. It is even said that Jupiter himself once turned cow to astound the groundlings.

Genius is said to be egoistic. It assumes, in fact, a still higher form of psychological development than egoism. It is impersonal. It not only believes in itself utterly, but it subdivides itself ad infinitum that it may worship itself under a myriad forms and revel in its own luminous magnificences. It worships itself in the third person plural. The brain of a Hugo, a Goethe, a Whitman, has a gigantic mirror at the top of it. Against it there is flashed all the attitudes of its diurnal physical, moral and cerebral existences. Before that mirror congregate for rehearsal the embryos of the things they dared not do and the flesh-and-blood embodiment of the things they have dared to do. Before that passionless, incorporate reflector the countless selves of a genius are always on parade. It is the marvelous phenomenon of self-consciousness at the zenith of its earthly evolution. It is the Self reviewing its own protean poses. It is the consciousness of a mighty Sun that holds within its monstrous grip a countless number of satellites.

Against Hugo as against Shelley they have hurled “Blasphemer!” As though the mind could blaspheme! As though a thought could be unpious! As though the brain could ever do wrong! The human mind invented God; the human mind is privileged to kill Him whenever it pleases. There is only one blasphemy of which the human mind is capable—that is, to exclude from it any thought that knocks for entry. Genius is never so sublime as when hurling its anathemas against the walls of heaven. Lucifer marshalling his hosts against the Lord, Prometheus launching his thunderbolts from the Caucasus against Jupiter, Cain with imprecatory fist pointed at the stars, Lucretius cancelling God in the soulless atom, Flaubert ramming the snouts of all the credulous into the trough with St. Anthony’s pig, Shelley prying Christ from his cross and hurling him into the ditch, Nietzsche trying to drag Dionysus onto the throne of God until the blood vessels in his brain burst, Baudelaire placarding the courtyard of Heaven with litanies in praise of Satan, Victor Hugo, posing as Zoilus, bespattering his God: How does this compare with the sanctimonious, buttoned-up air of a Pecksniffian race?

Since commandments are always a la mode, I venture this one: “Thou shalt not blaspheme against genius. Only genius may say with authority, Noli me tangere! All geniuses are incarnate gods. They may bespatter all things, but thou shalt not bespatter them!”


Source: The International, Nov. 1915, Vol. IX No. 11, pp. 341 – 342