The Great White Negation


To wish for the fulfillment of your desire—that is childish. To fear the fulfillment of your desire—that is the beginning of spiritual senility. To desire not to desire—that is wisdom. All great negations are at least splendid affirmations. We renounce by desiring not to have, and to say, “I refrain” is really to say, “I will not to will.” This is the humor of all great refusals. We reject the pennies because we covet the gold pieces, and spurn brown bread for the angel food that falls to us. There is a latent Yea in each great Nay. Absolute renunciations cannot be conceived. We forsake the worse for the better, the gutter for the stars, counterfeit days for real days, the senses for the super sensuous. The dominating instinct can only be overcome by a dominating instinct. We are the gibes of an eternal Will. Turn wheresoever we may we cannot escape it. When we give it battle we are most its bondman. It smiles back at us from the end of our swords, and when we flee from it it is both pursuer and pursued.

The militant renunciants, from the Buddha to Schopenhauer, have been the founders of powerful movements—powerful negations, if one likes—strenuous noes. These flesh-walled prisons were too narrow for the mighty lusts of their souls; this spinning green pebble was too small a stage for their spirit-strut. They counseled renunciation here for a mightier life elsewhere. They would lay waste the temporal order with the flaming fagots of their dreams, let loose the baying, thirst-parched hounds of endless desire from their kennels of clay, rip the mask from the minute, drain eternity of its secrets, and plant their streamers of affirmation on the last cosmic ruin. Renunciation. There is no such thing. No is a transfigured Yes. Renunciations are the cocoons in which the delicate silk of our finer desires is spun.

The process of evolution, the whole of that marvelous ex[580]foliation from the Amoeba to Emerson, is a process of renunciation, a progressive leaving behind, a sloughing off, an endless denial, an eternal series of terminations that are beginnings, and beginnings that are only valuable because they record terminations. The universe is eternally dying in order to live. We give up what we must, when we must. A deeper necessity than our likes and dislikes commands. Our tears go for naught. We flower in pain. Poppy or pansy—it is still a flowering. We are exiles forever on the march to a Siberia whose terrors are purely imaginative.

All thought is action renounced. The elaborated brain of a Newton, the burrowing mental eye of a Shakespeare, the flame-crested dreams of a Keats, all record the inbreedings of the spirit. The finer, the higher life begins with a veto. Each new law repeals an old one, and when we have discovered the illusiveness of the scudding days we resolutely cancel the world in contemplation, and renounce our hobbyhorses for Pegasus. Action is characteristic of life on the instinctive plane. A will-less inaction can be reached only by the few. The centers of inhibition develop late in life. With our hand on that switchboard we may wreck with a smile the blind, plunging impulses. The iron-heeled spirit listens with joy the crunch, crunch of the bones of dead selves of a million yeas; those luring, seductive selves tricked out in a million guises, that solicit him by night, by day—selves born of a myriad lapses in a million lives, when still to see with the eye was to lust with the soul.

Procession, concession, recession—the defiant “Forward!” “Forward!” of youth, the compromises of half-disillusioned middle life; the “Peccavi!” of old age—that is, the psychical history of the average being—the average being who only learns that life is pure hallucination after going through the horrors, who has no organ of divination, who does not believe in sewage until he has swum through a sewer. He renounces when there is nothing left to renounce. He confounds renunciation with death. And Tolstoi is his prophet.

How few have learned the art of withdrawing from life noiselessly and yet with dignity! On a day you have discovered [581] the mockery of it all; some curious and swiftly knit suspicion has given you courage to rip the wrappings from your universe, and you behold where you thought to find God—bah!—a Cagliostro! You announce from the market-place your discovery. A million voices hiss in your ear “Traitor!” The totter-kneed gods on their pasteboard thrones crack their whips at you. But they avail not. You have become the spirit of revolt and you will lay the world in the dust. You have seen the core of creation and the vacuity thereof. You have beheld as in a vision the sinister soul of things and the grin thereon; and you strike back in blind rage at the lies sacrosanct with with age that enmesh you. Your rage is useless, admirable, asinine.  Spinoza glanced at the bill of fare, threw it out of the window and took to lens-grinding. Quit the stews without noise; thus only may one keep the beasts off his trail.

To-morrow, that million-spired mirage-city toward which the soul of man forever wends its way; To-morrow, with myrrh and spice in her casket, her fingers tipped with healing ointment for the wounds inflicted by this unromantic, calendared to-day—to-morrow can be won only by wooing to-day, by soaking up the past and future into an eternal present. How few can renounce the next Now! Yet that way alone lies wisdom. We live between times, and nothing is. We are noctambulists forever stepping off into space. We live between the minutes, in the ecstatic state that separates and yet unites a here and a beyond. We never quite touch our objects, never close the hand wholly on the realization of our desire. Always the essential escapes—the essence flies just above our heads. The St. Elmo fire of perpetual illusion flits around our untaught ego, and we are our own undoing.

We seek for a spirit of rationality in things and do not find it because the seeking is itself irrational. Renounce the pursuit of things and those things will glide silently into your soul. Seek not and ye shall find. Let us dig where we stand—there is gold under our feet—the future is a “pocket” and the fine glint on the outposts of things is but the phosphorescent reflection from the corpses of dead pasts on a vacuous perspective. There is a fine irony embedded in the spectacle of this unending [582] chase through fen and forest; bloodhounds on the scent of eagles and butterflies; arrows, poison-tipped, sent hurtling after fireflies; vast armies accoutred to the knees, making forced marches to reach Cockayne. Ring, Olympus, with thy eternal laughter! for the solemnity of man is the comedy of the gods.

The born renunciant’s elaborated apparatus of inhibition is a labor-saving device. He skips the living of life in order to attain a life that lives. It is not necessary to experience in order to know. Some souls hold the universe in solution at birth. Their lives are excursions of verification. They inventory the universe at a glance and divert their lusts toward the stars. Thrust into Eternity’s Black Hole with its three dimensions of Time, Space and Circumstance, they disdain the wall-feeling, wall-pounding and clamoring of their fellow-prisoners. Instead they fix their eyes on the white splendor of the dome—and wait. The keepers find their bodies rigid in calm, a placid mock upon their faces. Amid the babel their souls passed out through the little wicket in the great white dome—passed into—what matter?

Life is a lewd game of tag played by I Want and Catch Me. In the last analysis our acts are but the combustions of cells big with voids. And our dreams are in breedings—the obscene junctions of impotent potentialities. Understanding is the organ wherewith we comprehend that nothing is. Discrimination is that fine sense that places the dead fish in one pile and the maggots that feed on them in another. The passions are brewed in the cardiac vats and their steam singes and scorches the body with their senseless urgings. Life! a butcher’s picnic in the Alhambra; a column-cracked, half-foundered Venice; a vermin-ridden Arcady.

Those fine young seers, “the predestined,” who walk out of the gates of birth and with step swift and sure dart to the center of the banquet-room and overturn the grub-table without tasting the edible junk, have abridged their lives, it is true, but what they missed they never felt the want of. They might have eaten, you say, and then judged. Satiety is the hog’s judgment. Renunciation ex post facto is fashionable; besides, there are so many spiritual Baden Badens where one may have his maw washed clean. Real renunciants are born, not Tolstoied.

[583] The intellect is the mirror of Passion. She looks into that wondrous glass and murmurs: “The same—yet I cannot touch thee. You are my higher self shaped as a face in smoke. I gave thee birth; you follow me; antic me and are my slave—my pale and wondrous slave, as ethereal as I am gross—my slave to whose beauty I render up they shackles.” Intellect is the Frankenstein of the Will—Intellect, forged in the foundries of desire, that is destined to strike down the arm that poured it molten in the brain matrices and gouge out the eye that watched it cool to understanding. It is the Moses born amid the bull-rushes and tangled weeds of elemental passion—this mighty Moses, light-smitten with Horebic visions, bringing to the groundlings who will listen a new tablet of laws.

Every fine action implies or characterizes some aspect of self-conquest, which is another name for renunciation. Every fine action is such because, fundamentally, it is a negation; some door must be shut before we open another. Life opens outward to an inward. “I have gained on myself,” murmurs the progressive dreamer when he feels the life-energies boiling within him, and with the sure hand of him who controls the powers generated by Niagara Falls he directs those energies into the channels mapped out on the dream-parchment of his mind. None but those who have experienced it know of that virile joy, that bounding rupture, of the spirit who deliberately smiles a defiant no to some old lure, some petty, transitory tickle, and hears in his ear the long halloa of congratulations from somewhere up the heights.

There is nothing in the world that is not worth having, but there is nothing in the world that is worth lifting the hand to obtain. We pay too much for our prizes; we are the eternal dupes of the imagination. An Epicurean receptivity—the desire to know, to feel, to assimilate all things—with a semi-humorous reservation as to the value of the things received; a keen discernment of the prankishness that reigns at the bottom of things; the ability to outlaw what you cannot get; a looking without a lusting—or to lust with one’s hand on the valve; an alien attitude toward joy, so when she comes it is with the surprise of unexpected good news—something of calm, some meas[584]ure of surcease from the terror of vain days may be won in thus fronting life. Man makes of his will the measure of his demands. The dream versus the brutal fact!—the theme of the finest tragedy and comedy. What incongruity!—a Hottentot marooned on an iceberg, or an Esquimau dropped into the Sahara. And the Hottentot “adapts” himself into the belief that the iceberg is a green jungle and the Esquimau gravely assures himself that the desert is frigid. Man is capable of believing anything but the truth. Adaptability is the process by which one gets to the uselessness of things.

The intellectual renunciant—the pure skeptic, who has minimized the personal equation in his quest for rationality—which is, again, some principle that will coddle a temperamental bias—assumes all truths to be lies and all lies aspects of some truth. His universal premise is the denial of all premises—each premise being but the termination of some anterior syllogism. But he has faith: he assumes chaos. He rips from himself all the tatters of mental custom and aims at an oversight. His is what Nietzsche contemptuously called “the immaculate perception.” The contradictoriness of things lies open to his vision. Impact, shudder, dispersion, recombination in endless forms new and strange: this is his ultimate formula—beyond, the Black Panel. What “highest” shall he choose in this flowing frustration? In an evanescing universe what shall he waylay that will give him more satisfaction than himself? He turns within and chants with Walt Whitman “Me imperturbe.” So he stands at pause at the webbed crossroads, and life swirls in and out of these grooved highways at his feet. He takes no road. The view is finer from the forks. Besides, he has his secret.


Source: Mind, July 1905, Vol. XVI No. 3., pp. 579 – 584



This essay was reprinted in The Fra in July 1914 (Vol. 13, No. 4), pp. 126 – 128, under the title “The Illusion of Renunciation.” It was also reprinted in De Casseres’ collection, Chameleon: Being the Book of My Selves (1922), under the title “The Irony of Negatives,” pp. 51-62, with a number of additional edits, as well as some reversions.

A few changes were made consistently throughout both later versions:

  • to-morrow > tomorrow
  • to-day > today

The table below provides an overview of the additional textual differences between the three versions. A dash indicates no change.

1905 1914 1922
that is wisdom. All great

that is wisdom.

All great

“I refrain” is “I refrain,” is
for the angel food that falls to us for the manna that falls to us for the manna that may fall to us
There is a latent Yea in each great Nay. Absolute There is a latent Yea in each great Nay. Absolute

There is a latent Yea in each great Nay.


Absolute renunciations cannot be conceived. Absolute renunciations can not be conceived.
the super sensuous The supersensuous
The dominating instinct can only be overcome by a dominating instinct. The dominating instinct can only be overcome by a dominating instinct. The dominating instinct can only be overcome by a dominating instinct.
wheresoever we may we wheresoever we may, we
our swords, and when our swords; and when
flee from it it is flee from it, it is flee from it, it is
strenuous noes. These

strenuous nays.


strenuous nays. These
spirit-strut spirit’s strut
They counseled renunciation They counselled renunciation
a mightier life elsewhere a mightier life Beyond a mightier life “elsewhere”
the baying, thirst-parched hounds the thirst-parched hounds
Renunciation. Renunciation! Renunciation!
that marvelous exfoliation from the Amoeba to Emerson that marvelous exfoliation from the ameba to Emerson that marvellous exfoliation from the Amoeba to Thomas Hardy
of renunciation, a progressive of “renunciation,” a progressive of “renunciation,” a progressive
terminations that are terminations, that are
what we must, when we must what we must when we must
Our tears go for naught. [deleted]
Poppy or pansy—it is still a flowering. [deleted] [deleted]
Siberia whose Siberia, whose
All thought is action renounced


All thought is action renounced.

flame-crested flame-crowned
Keats, all record Keats—all record
The finer, the higher life The higher life
the illusiveness of the scudding days the illusiveness of days the illusiveness of days
renounce our hobbyhorses for Pegasus. Action

“renounce” our hobbyhorses for Pegasus.


will-less inaction willess inaction
listens with joy the crunch, crunch of the bones of dead selves of a million yeas listens with pride to the crackling of the bones of dead selves over which he stalks in grim, humorous defiance: those selves of a million yeas listens with pride to the crackling of the bones of dead selves over which it stalks in grim-humorous defiance—those selves of a million yeas
myriad lapses in a million lives, when still to see with the eye was to lust with the soul myriad lapses in a myriad lives myriad lapses in a myriad lives
the “Peccavi!” the Peccavil the “peccavi!”
that is, the physical that is the physical that is the physical
being who only learns that life is pure hallucination after being who learns that life is pure hallucination only after
swum through a sewer swam through a sewer
with death. And Tolstoy with death, and Tolstoy.
the market-place the market place
the core of creation the care of creation
the sinister soul the sinister Soul
enmesh you. Your rage enmesh you.

Your rage 

enmesh you.

Your rage

the bill of fare the bill-of-fare
the window and took the window, and took
without noise; thus without noise—thus
its way; To-morrow it’s way. Tomorrow
wooing to-day, by soaking up the past and future into an eternal present. wooing today. wooing Today.
between times between-times
noctambulists forever noctambulists, forever
in the ecstatic state in the mythic state in the mythic state
realization of our desires object of our desire
flies just above flies around just above
St. Elmo Saint Elmo
flits around our untaught ego flits around us
find it because find it, because
Seek not and ye shall find. Let Seek not and ye shall find. Let Seek not and ye shall find: Let
our feet—the future is a “pocket” and our feet—the future is a “pocket,” and our feet; the future is a “pocket” and
perspective. There is


There is

fen and forest; bloodhounds fen and forest: bloodhounds fen and forest: bloodhounds
poison-tipped, sent poison tipped, sent
Cockayne. Ring, Olympus


Ring, Olympus


Ring, Olympus

The born renunciant’s

The Born Renunciant

The born renunciant’s

dimensions of Time, Space and Circumstance dimensions of Time, Space and Circumstance dimensions of Time, Space and Circumstance
Instead they fix Instead, they fix
The keepers The Keepers The Keepers
their souls passed out their souls have passed out
into—what matter into—well, what matter
I Want and Catch Me. In I Want and Catch Me. In

I Want and Catch Me.


the combustions of cells the combustion of cells
in breedings inbreedings inbreedings
cardiac vats and cardiac vats, and
urgings. Life!



birth and birth, and
with step swift and sure dart with swift and sure step dart with swift and sure step dart
edible junk, have edible junk have
Renunciation ex post facto Renunciation ex post facto
Baden Badens Baden-Badens Baden-Badens
not Tolstoied not tolstoyed not tolstoied
The intellect is the mirror of Passion.

The Mirror of Passion

The intellect is the mirror of Passion.

gross—my slave gross; my slave
Intellect is the Frankenstein of the Will— [deleted]
bull-rushes bullrushes bulrushes
the progressive dreamer the dreamer the dreamer
life-energies life energies
dream-parchment dream parchment dream parchment
long halloa of long halloa! of
receptivity—the desire receptivity, the desire receptivity, the desire
at the bottom of things at the heart of things
a lusting—or to lust a lusting, or to lust a lusting, or to lust
fronting life. Man

fronting life.


The dream versus the brutal fact! The dream versus the brutal fact! The dream versus the brutal fact!
an Esquimau dropped into the Sahara an Eskimo gravely assuring himself that the desert is frigid an Esquimau gravely assuring himself that the desert is frigid
And the Hottentot “adapts” himself into the belief that the iceberg is a green jungle and the Esquimau gravely assures himself that the desert is frigid. [deleted] [deleted]
The intellectual renunciant—the pure skeptic

The Intellectual Renunciant

The intellectual renunciant, the pure skeptic

The intellectual renunciant, the pure skeptic
rationality—which is, again, some principle that will coddle a temperamental bias—assumes rationality (which is, again, some principle that will coddle a temperamental bias) assumes
strange: this is strange; this is
formula—beyond, the Black Panel formula, and beyond—the Black Panel formula, and beyond—the Black Panel
evanescing universe what evanescing universe, what
“Me imperturbe.” Me imperturbe
the webbed crossroads the crossroads the cross-roads
these grooved highways these highways these highways