Chameleon: Being the Book of My Selves

Chameleon: Being the Book of My Selves

Being a collection of De Casseres’ works, it would be redundant to reprint all of the essays from this volume here. Therefore, below are provided only those items specific to the book – the title page, dedication, and prefatory note – and a table of contents with links to the original published versions of each essay. Notes about editorial changes are provided at the bottom of each essay, as applicable. Reviews of Chameleon are provided at the end.


Copyright, 1922,
By LIEBER & Lewis


These essays have appeared  (1903-1917) in the New York Sun, the Philistine, MindReedy’s Mirror, the Critic, LibertyMoods and Wiltshire’s Magazine. Thanks are hereby extended for permission to reprint them.

Table of Contents
The Brain and the World 7-12
The Mirth of the Brain 13-19
Wonder 20-30
The Almightiness of Might 31-38
The Intangible Life 39-50
The Irony of Negatives 51-62
History 63-74
The Passion of Distance 75-81
The Comic View 82-88
The Artist 89-98
Under a Mask 99-105
A Memorable Escape 106-116
The Masquerade 117-123
Respectability 124-130
The Impenitent 131-145
The Eternal Renaissance 146-153
Silence 154-162
Posterity: The New Superstition 163-169
An Evaporating Universe 170-179
The Trail of the Worm 180-187
Cosmic Marionettes 188-193
The Drama of Days 194-198
Absorption: A Universal Law 199-207
Acatalepsy 208-214
Coda 215-221


Reviews of Chameleon

Following are contemporary reviews of Chameleon.

John McClure, Double Dealer
Oct. 1922, pp. 211-3

BENJAMIN DE CASSERES may be, as some contend, half a mountebank. I am sure he has written much foolishness—most of it, however, for butter—and that at times his playboy impulse leads him into labyrinths of words from which he seems unable intelligibly to extricate himself. But a writer stands or falls on his good writing, not on his bad. De Casseres’ finest work is extremely good. He is on occasions a great writer, if judged by the comparative standards of our American literature, and his peers, dead and alive, in the English-speaking nations are not an army.

De Casseres commands respect on two counts: he is an intelligence and he is an artist. As a thinker he strikes the superficial reader as being excessively fickle, insincere, irresponsible and imitative. This is to a certain extent true. “Chameleon” is a good title for “the book of his selves.” He has been influenced by all the great minds with which he has come in contact. He echoes them constantly. They have colored his mental processes, his style. Throughout all the work of Benjamin De Casseres, however, there is a steady thread of diabolical dogma. There are deep currents of sound thinking beneath all his serious proclamations in which he decorates his style with plunder from a dozen predecessors. He steals from anybody, but he steals because he can afford to steal. He has as good stuff of his own and “borrows out of good nature.” The chameleon-like texture of his writing is a sort of masquerade costume which he has chosen to clothe his eery and very original personal self. The mind of De Casseres is actually able to barter ideas with the minds of Spinoza, Shopenhauer, Nietzsche, Emerson, and most of the philosophers of the past and present. He is on his own ground. He knows what he knows.

If his playboy instinct runs away with his intellect, it makes his work more amusing, more stimulating. If he perversely leaps from an affirmation to a negation and back again, through a whirl of paradoxes, it seems perhaps insincere and very loose thinking to those who have never questioned the moon as cheese. But they overlook the bedrock nihilism at which Benjamin De Casseres long ago arrived. It is a conception which they cannot grasp, that of the unreality of all appearances and the merger of negation and affirmation in nihility. For all his gyrations and excursions into frolicsome bypaths, De Casseres preaches a consistent dogma. It is the dogma of an intelligent being. It is a trifle diabolical, but so is the world. Thomas Hardy has said of his work: “What you call your philosophical prejudices are, I hunk, becoming by slow degrees the convictions of honest thinkers concerning the world as they see it around them.”

I consider Benjamin De Casseres one of the rarest minds now functioning in [212] America. He has the exuberance which great minds have always had. And it is that exuberance of mental activity which makes him the good writer he is. He is at his best, in the art of letters, in his volcanic eruptions. He spews an astonishing vocabulary. His feeling for the mystery of words is that of a rare artist. His feeling for cadence, rhythm and intellectual form in prose is often excellent, almost always good. At his best he writes prose as few men have written it. He takes his reader on many a nightmare ride, but I am grateful to him for the wildest of his flights. I am interested in all that De Casseres has written. I wish to see not only his best, but his shoddiest work. For I know that here and there in the most workaday prose, he strikes unexpected sparks of genius.

European observers have credited De Casseres with his due for several years. In America, where intelligence usually goes begging, he has found little recognition. But Messrs. Lieber and Lewis have set out to introduce to the public those of his works which he wishes to preserve. It is a service for which they deserve our gratitude, for the prose of De Casseres has gone from pillar to post for fifteen years.

“Chameleon” is the first of his books in prose to be issued.

I would not wish to be without it. It is the work of a rare writer and a rare thinker. It is a book in which a man who has delved deeply into all philosophies presents his hodge-podge of conclusions—his amused, undisturbed nihilism tempered with his exuberant interest in the vain show of existence. You have in “Chameleon” the almost irrefutable dogma of the intellectual mystics coupled with that pagan faith in the world which makes life most delightful. De Casseres, viewing infinity, is as mystic as Buddha. Viewing the tangible world at a given instant, he is as jolly as Voltaire. Where he differs from many transcendental mystics is in that he eats his shadow-apples, frolics with his ghosts, goes on a jagg with the phantasmal wine of existence, the reality of which he denies. He, like Anatole France, gets increased enjoyment from the world because he suspects it is vain.

“Chameleon” contains twenty-five essays: “The Brain and the World,” “The Mirth of the Brain,” “Wonder,” “The Intangible Life,” “The Irony of Negatives,” “The Passion of Distance,” “The Comic View,” “The Artist,” “The Eternal Renaissance,” etc. There is much cheap writing in it—De Casseres cannot refrain from a certain facetious vulgarity now and then—but there is a great deal of good writing.

De Casseres leaps from a vaudeville figure of speech to a godly trope in one breath. It is often irritating, especially when he grows windy, but one can forgive him his faults, as one can forgive Carlyle and Whitman theirs. He resembles them both in his ability to write wretchedly and beautifully.

I select a few passages from various parts of the book:

We dreamed as impulse and desire in our parents…. Whatever one dreams tends to beget a body, and what we are now is old dream come to be the phantasm of place, ancestral imagination turned brain and sinew and blood.

The star sees itself throughout he medium of [213] the human eye, and the moon shines on itself.

Form is purely accidental, and the accidental is the unexpected inexorable.

The finest minds are those in which intelligence and insight spread out like the gradual opening of a circular fan. They come to perceive all sides in one glance. They are like a man who stands at the north pole—all longitudes centre in him; he sees all the imaginary lines that men map and number and believe in. He is conscious for the first time of the absurdity of direction; he comes to know in a flash how purely arbitrary are affirmative ideas about anything.

It may be charged that all these ideas have been expressed before. This is true. But they are the common property of philosophers as the conceptions of love and death, disillusion, yearning, pain and pleasure are the common property of poets. It is no disgrace, but a high accomplishment, to write ingeniously concerning eternal subjects.

Benjamin De Casseres has been acclaimed as a rare genius by the following men: Thomas Hardy, Remy de Gourmont, James Huneker, James Branch Cabell, William Marion Reedy, Don Marquis, Edwin Markham and Edgar Saltus. If you do not believe me, perhaps you will believe one of them.


Gorham B. Munson, The New Republic
Oct. 11, 1922, p. 180

Mr. De Casseres apparently chose his title to evade the responsibility of writing philosophic essays—but there is no other excuse for not judging Chameleon as such. One can make several minor reservations in favor of Mr. De Casseres, but beyond them he exemplifies chiefly the danger of having an idiom rather than a style. Given a capitalized, excited, hurried, paradoxical, epigrammatic, imagistic, personifying and dramatic idiom, and all one needs to do is borrow viewpoints. It is not necessary to develop or apply or even restate accurately the original concepts. Pyrotechnics will substitute, and so Mr. De Casseres vulgarizes the thoughts of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche into a cheap display. “All knowledge is word-juggle,” he ballyhoos, thereby making philosophy an easy game for virtuosi. He consistently avoids definition to offer an image, which often is loose, which anyone who changes Imagination to Art or Instinct in this metaphor can verify: “Imagination is a spurt from the depths of Being, a swirling geyser that gravitates to a zenith set in the infinite.” With Mr. Van Vechten, Mr. De Casseres carries the flush of excitement which Huneker paraded for American criticism into an obvious cheat. A reaction finds our younger writers beginning to forsake exclamations for architecture, flashes for solidity. That is, our intellectual adolescence shifts into maturity.

One suspects Mr. De Casseres’s overemphasis to be compensation for weakness, for his inability to criticize or deepen the philosophic concepts he accepts, and so wrest free from the grip of stronger minds.

On the social side, the damage from his environment suffered by Mr. De Casseres is a minor case document in What America Has Done to Literary Genius and Talent. That is why it is just to add that Mr. De Casseres deserves a plaudit for writing about Nietzsche and Schopenhauer as far back as 1903, and that his idiom achieved better results in a book of poetry, The Shadow-Eater in 1915.