Mind, Dec. 1905
Vol. XVI No. 6, pp. 1034-1038
BY BENJAMIN DE CASSERES.
The artist! he garners the world in a dream, and lo! the dream is more real than reality; he touches the dead and they tremble back into life and are more vital than the merely galvanized beings that stare at you in the street; his brain is fecund of worlds, of real men and women, systems and great cosmic dramas. What you see, what you feel, is not real; only feeling and seeing and understanding are the immortal realities. The mind incorporates the world, and what the artist gives forth is chaos transfigured, turmoil stilled in its frenzies, the old foolish gestures called action transfixed on an idea.
The difference between art and life is the difference between reality and a mirror—art being the reality, life the mirror. Art is the reality because it is the exact record of what we feel and know, of what we aspire to be, of the ideal—hence real—self-enactment. Life is only a faint reflection of our desires, and so the poet, the painter, the thinker, as men, are ghosts, mere flesh-films; but their poems and abstractions are the highest reality. Our ideals and instincts are our standards, and in a book, a poem, a picture, a statue, these ideals and instincts live to their fulness. Life wakes only our caricatures; art wakes the spiritual protagonist complete, substantial, sempiternal.
Art takes life for its theme; life has no theme. Practical life is aimless; it is the reel of a homeless, drunken man. It is detail, detail, detail spread to infinity. Our acts are stop-gaps between moments of painful disillusion—mud-floundering at their best; leering, obscene blasphemies at their worst. The artistic spirit constructs ends; having attained them, it rests, a marbled, immortal contemplation. It dwells in an everlasting Now, and has the power to hallow smut and areole beast. My vision! Who can take that from me? My impassioned dream that burst my brain-dikes and overflowed on to canvas, that forced the marble block to yield its curved  secrets, or that flashed on paper as a rhapsody—that is the real moment, over against which the seething caldron of mutilations we call the “great world” has only that validity for being that a fertilizer has.
The particular, seen as the particular, has no meaning. No man can understand anything until he thinks abstractly. The difference between the breed of slugs that move from point to point, from concretion to concretion, feeling their way like a snout along a dung-hill, and the god-like apprehension of the great creative artist, is not a difference in degree, but a difference in kind of brain-stuff. The mental difference between the Black Fellow and the anthropoid ape is not as great as the mental difference between a plantation darky and Henry James. Life is mean and petty to most people because they lack the artistic instinct. They see John and James, and they are commonplace. But read of John and James as Balzac saw them, or yon boor as Thomas Hardy sees him, and the scales have fallen from your eyes. The finite then has no longer any existence as such; the individual has ceased to be an individual: the man becomes a type; an abstraction made flesh—or breathing flesh becomes an abstraction; an insulated force; a concourse of ideas; an entombed universe.
It is this exaltation of consciousness—this challenge to the commonplace, this war of the Idea on the tyranny of the senses that would cudgel the soul to an abject subservience—that constitutes the superiority of the art-instinct over the life-instinct. That which we touch too often is either destroyed by us or destroys us. The habitual kills wonder and familiarity slays awe. The Alps guide has no sense of the grandeur and mystery which surrounds him; the astronomer sweeping the constellations nightly with his telescope soon dwindles to an automatic calculating machine. And the crowds of the pavement have no eye for the sublime. Did not the sun and moon rise yesterday? And Venus in her brilliance is only “pretty.”
Walt Whitman one day crossed over to Brooklyn on a ferry-boat. Years after he wrote a poem called “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” and all who read that poem want to cross the river and see the sky, the boat, the gulls, the deck-hands as Old Walt  saw them. The great artist is a seer; he stands outside of the world. The human race fills in a perspective. The creative dreamer is sundered from environment; he is his own milieu—he is brain-light, detached cell-ecstacy. He beholds the endless procession into being from out of the womb of nonenity, and etherealizes God and the diatom. The writhing, pain-gutted phantoms called men are the Epic of Evil, an epic of the artist’s creation. He alone is likest God.
Whether we writhe in the strait-jacket of pain or are solved in the radiant monotony of a transcendent perfection; whether we have flouted all the seductive but vengeful sanctities in our effort to preserve the greater sanctity—of self—whether we have challenged all the wooden deities of time and reviled the Arch-Bungler each day—these things that we have done or have not done are significant, but seldom of practical importance. The creative intellect looks down upon himself and draws the essential facts out of his experiences and fashions them into images for the elect. The artistic temperament is the philosophic temperament, and good and evil and the codified cant called the moralities are the clay with which the creative dreamer works; they have no other use. If a sin yield me truth or beauty it is no longer a sin; but this privilege belongs only to the strong. Weakness is the prerogative of power—only the strong man can afford to transgress. Before he falls he knows he will be up again. He never loses his strength. The great soul—the self-centred artistic temperament—thrives on his poisons—because to him they are not poisons. He would not always be with his Highest, because his Highest alone is sure. The transgressions of the weak have no ideality in them. The weak, in reality, never transgress; they merely lapse.
Nietzsche, Ibsen, D’Annunzio, Whitman!—four great storm petrels of the Inland Sea, workers in the Time-Mist—sombre heralds of dawn—or night. Their dreams are sublime futilities, but dreams that swaddle us in an aura of godhood. Could the crowd grasp them, could the world enact in its drab, vulgar way the passion-glozed hallucinations that are blown from the skulls of these men, life would lose its savor, ideal transgression  its fascination, and evil and good their aesthetic value. Only ideal transgressions are worth while; action is comic. What the gods wish to destroy they first make real. Were we all Hamlets, Iagos and Lears no one would read Shakespeare. Give us our immortal dreams, show us ourselves as we are not, give us the riot of our Anarch minds—foil us, foil us, eternally foil us, that we may dream again! Let the scavengers scrape the gutters for coppers and duck in the mud for dimes. They are the “Captains of Industry”—the grimy, smutty captains of the marts—and their “industry” a grimy, smutty, lurid hell of lies.
Philosophers are artists in ideas. They are the white heralds of the Great Release, eagles of the Infinite; they solve the iron thong of earthly limitation in a molten white idea, and walk not on terra firma. The creative philosopher seems in his highest flights to dam the eternal flux and in his widest generalizations to erase accident. In time under protest, he stands equipped for eternity, and his calamities are his foods. The abstract mind flows into the matrices of the concrete, but holds not the shape therein given. It hoods itself under all forms, but is none of these. It is that which perceives, but is never the perceivable. It sucks from a world of illusive appearances the marrow of reality, and spits whole epochs of social movement upon the gleaming point of a generalization. The philosophic mind of the first class packs all of history, with its crescendoes and decrescendoes of joy and woe, its evanishings and recrudescences, under a single scalp, and finds in the perversities, aspirations, meannesses and cruelties of a single soul the history of mankind in action. There lies in each soul a history of the universe; indeed, the soul of each is nothing but embryo and cadaver—the new springing from the old, life springing from death. Each impulse to action is a ghost seeking flesh again, some old dead ancestral self, scenting from its arterial prison-house its ancient loves, palpitating back into life. Within the recess of your clay, mewed up in brain-cell or aorta, there live Charlemagne, Christ, Peter the Hermit, Nero, Judas, St. Francis of Assisi, Attila and Shelley. Your temptations, your betrayals, your cruelties, your asceticisms,  your penances, your will to power, your cry for light, your lusts—that is history, and it needs not Gibbon in six ponderous tomes to tell me why Rome decayed. The poison that killed Rome is in me, and the fate of America I can forecast in a study of my own strengths and weaknesses. The law works everywhere. It is the one single reality. It is the immovable screen against which time projects her endless shapes.
The commonest objects have this in common with the sublimest spectacles which nature our man offers; that they are at bottom but phantoms of the brain, modes of cellular life. Children and geniuses bear on their faces a look of exalted wonder. That mingled expression of perplexity, awe, amazement on the face of a child when fingering a button on your coat differs only in degree from the feeling in the poet’s soul when for the first time he sees Mont Blanc. The same feeling of wonder overcomes the scientist when, step by step, he has tracked the variegated universe back to an impalpable, eternally persisting force. A touch of the soul melts solids to fluids, and a flash of insight in the brain of man discovers to him the great cosmic cataracts—the trembling, flowing forces—and we humans the perpetually evanescing débris on their surfaces. We are traveling toward a zenith of self, and all great art is a report of the progress made. Action is only valuable because it engenders reaction; because it shocks the brain to thought and moulds the soul to pictured moods which seek expression. The shocks, the moods, the visions are real; the external objects that caused them are illusions. The world is my dream, but I, the dreamer, am everlastingly, else I could not say “It is a dream.”
This essay was included in De Casseres’ collection, Chameleon: Being the Book of My Selves, under the title “The Artist,” pp. 89-98. The following edits were made in the collected version:
- The artist! he garners > The artist! ¶ He garners
- cosmic dramas. What you see > cosmic dramas. ¶ What you see
- is chaos transfigured > is Chaos transfigured
- transfixed on an idea > transfixed on an Idea
- as men, are ghosts > as men are ghosts
- their poems and abstractions > their poems and their pictures and their abstractions
- Our ideals and instincts are our standards, > Our ideals and our instincts are our standards;
- to their fulness. Life wakes > to their fulness. ¶ Life wakes
- its theme; life has > its theme. Life has
- detail spread to infinity > detail, infinitely spread
- ; leering, obscene blasphemies at their worst > [deleted]
- areole beast. My vision! > areole beast. ¶ My vision!
- from concretion to concretion > from fact to fact
- difference in degree, but a difference > difference in degree but a difference
- Henry James. Life is mean > Henry James. Life ¶ is mean
- them, or yon boor as Thomas Hardy sees him, and the scales > them or a boor as Thomas Hardy saw him and the scales
- on a ferry-boat > on a ferryboat
- saw them. The great artist > saw them. ¶ The great artist
- from environment; he is > from environment—he is
- a transcendent perfection > a transcendent Perfection
- greater sanctity—of self > greater sanctity—self
- for the elect. The artistic > for the elect. ¶ The artistic
- If a sin yield me > If a “sin” yield me
- no longer a sin; but this > no longer a sin. But this
- his Highest, because > his Highest because
- the Time-Mist—sombre heralds > the Time-Mist, sombre heralds
- life would lose its savor > life would lose its flavor
- aesthetic value. Only ideal > aesthetic value. ¶ Only ideal
- read Shakespeare. Give us > read Shakespeare. ¶ Give us
- the riot of our Anarch minds—foil us > the riot of our anarch minds; foil us
- the marts—and their > the marts and their
- of earthly limitation > of earthly limitations
- In time under protest > In Time under protest
- concrete, but holds not the shape therein given. > concrete and changes the shape of the moulds.
- mankind in action. There lies > mankind in action. ¶ There lies
- ancient loves, palpitating back into life. > ancient loves.
- Within the recess of > Within the recesses of
- mewed up in brain-cell > mewed in brain-cell
- your will to power > your will-to-power
- your cry for light > your “cry for light”
- The law works everywhere > The Law works everywhere
- eternally persisting force > eternally persisting Force
- cataracts—the trembling, flowing forces—and > cataracts—and
- their surfaces. We are > their surfaces. ¶ We are
- toward a zenith of self > toward the zenith of Self
- the external objects that caused them are illusions. The world > the objects that caused them are brain data. ¶ The world
- but I, the dreamer, am everlastingly > but I the Dreamer am everlastingly