The Great Wonder

Mind, Jan. 1905

Vol. XV No. 1, pp. 58-64


To see, one must close the eyes. This is the paradox of insight—a seeing into. The physical world is nothing but insulated force. It is only the mind’s eye that can pierce the arras of images and behold the universal knit.

The mystic sense is a form of vascular activity. It is the palpitant ethereal in us, the radio-activity of the corpuscle. In the sluices of the brain cells it rises to consciousness.

Our brains are portable universes, and our souls are unbirthed worlds. God created the material world, Bishop Berkeley destroyed it, and Herbert Spencer recreated it. We are coequal with the creative gods. Man weaves microcosm into macrocosm, bastes the ideal to the real, hems soul to body. He tracks the roving ideal from its lair in the cell of the polyp to its full growth in his own brain, and he pins the Eternal to a Law. His dreams transfigure the Known to the Unkowable.

We have no criterion for anything. We live in a Mystery. The data of life are consciousness and pain, and these may be myths; one may be dream texture and the other an illusion of the nerve cells. Seas of Sound, Light and Motion swirl in our brains, and the “great processes” are cell-eddy. Thought is cerebral sight. We may trial Circumstance back to the Primal Antagonism and there it is lost. Consciousness is the flash produced by friction. Birth is recomposition of old matter, and death is dissolution and recomposition. Mind is evolved from mud, and mud is mind in transition. Form is purely accidental, and the accidental is the unexpected inexorable. Time is the space between thoughts, and thought is Time spluttering. Space is the distance between two illusions, [59] and illusions are what might have been projected on the blank screen of to-morrow. All growth presupposes pain, and all pain engenders growth. Society is the systematization of instincts, and instincts are stratified lusts. All knowledge is word-juggle. To know all would be to know nothing. The mystic waits and wonders.

And yet this Great Wonder is the back stairs to the stars—it is the Northwest Passage to the pinnacle of the cosmos. It is where one beholds most, but where one knows least. It is to feel all things—and yet to stand in universal relations. It is a vision of things in their totality, but not in their wholeness.

Everything is grounded in mystery. Nothing is certain, not even the uncertain. Everything is swimming, and the stable does not exist. The commonplace is the habitual, and the habitual is a mystery that has grown stale from sense-insistence. Life undulates; there is no such thing as a level; a straight line is a myth, and all directions are indirections. Up and down are movable points on horizons that do not exist; focus is an eye trick, and motion is cell-palpitation.

All things radiate from a common point, and differences are the same looked at from various angles. The sap that flows in the tree, the blood that flows in the veins, the fires that flame from the sun, the waters that run to the stars, the flush that mantles the maiden’s cheek, and the passion litanies breathed by silent lovers are aspects of force. Starshine and eye-glance and water-gleam are the same. The star sees itself through the medium of the human eye, and the moon shines on itself. Law created the brain, and the brain is a crucible of Law. So each thing is a compendium of all things, and still the All is not found.

All acts are multiplied in the doing. Our breathing builds or destroys unknown universes, and a gesture is a signal to [60] eternity. The cells are chalices of desire. Every act is a breeder of beings. On what shore breaks the last vibration caused by the lowering of an eyelash? Does the lover alone throb with ecstasy when his beloved’s eyes thicken with love-mists? And who shall say that our most subtle smile does not stir to life a thousand unseen existences who have been quivering on the thresholds of life?

No act ever succeeds or fails; it does both. We influence the unknown at every turn. We are unknown workers in an unknown world. We weave to-morrow on the shuttle of to-day and unravel the past each minute. All things are trying to stand still and go at the same time. Men desire rest and motion simultaneously. They desire rest in order to accumulate the power to go on; and they desire to go on in order to be able to rest. Self-consveration is the basic principle in both rest and motion. It is an everlasting ebb and flow. But the mind ravished by the Great Wonder is beyond ebb and flow.

“Things pass into their opposites by accumulation of indefinable quantities,” says Walter Pater. In that process is buried the paradox of evolution and the concept which breeds the mystic mind. Hate is comic, for you shall in time become that which you hate; and the thing you scorn—behold! that thou art. “Tvat Twam Asi” (“for that thou art”) repeats the Hindoo sage when the west talks of Me, Thou, It. A fact is but a glazed surface on an abysmal mystery. It is the symbolist in art who knows this. And all symbolists are mystics.

Evolution is a method, and method is the mantle of law. The Law itself lies out of time and space—it is the Spencerian Eternal Energy; it is the thing that knows neither “forward” nor “backward,” “upward” nor “downward;” like ether, it permeates all things; it floods the atoms; it is worldshine—consciousness. The Law—that is the Great Wonder.

[61] Our souls are a method—part of the mantle, and every act is redolent of the past. Things rise to a summit and flow down on the other side, and the baby in its birth hour may have attained the highest pinnacle of the inconceivable, for the birth of a babe has more of accomplishment in it than the maturity of a man.

Nothing is spurious; all things are in their place. Artificiality is the curd on the natural. No man wills; he is willed; for he is a growth, and his roots are in the primordial. The secret is in the seed, and the seed is the Secret. No man can say, “I am evolved;” he is forever evolving. He is a “god in the crib,” and his acts are only hints of his dreams.

Decay is growth seen from the other side. Decay and growth flout permanence. An eternal continuance dragging its anchor; a measured swirl of unmeasured waters; light flowering to form; abstraction masking as a concretion—what else do we know?

We came from the simian and tend to the sublime; and as the simian for ages was big with man, so is the sublime heavy with its unborn gods. The worm treads fast upon the heels of God. Change has woven shrouds for myriads of Creators, for the universe subsists en passant. The opal in the dawn was spun by the lilies of the field, and the human form is chiselled stardust. Alchemy is as universal as gravitation.

The universe began in an equilibration and will end in an equilibration. A sigh, an unrest, a faint ripple caused by some antagonistic principle—and the Law moved, and Suffering was born. The pageantry of the flooding fates began. Vega in Lyra and the ant on its hill were diswombed in travail. But why? With that question the Great Wonder falls on us.

You cannot seize upon the past or the future. The universe is an eternal minute forever tottering to its doom—cosmic splash; mist torrent; dream follicles that have burst on the [62] brain walls. Our sublimest act is still the abracadabra of an Unknown God—a God who hides behind a leaf and scribbles his contrarieties; a God who is flea and futurity; who is oxygen and Arcturus. There are cabals held in the acorn, and the gods are enthroned in diatom. The radiating laws are hubbed on a pimple, and “evolution” is but a spoke in the Wheel of Fire.

Genius has the Great Wonder; it is its sixth sense. The mind that has envisaged the cosmos in a glance exhales the ether of the unplumbed spaces his eyes have beheld. He is a white flame fleshed for the nonce. And his poems and pictures and philosophies are fables of the Great Wonder.

Without this sense of wonder the singing of the stars is tin-can music. The universe is doggerel. With the mystic gleam the universe is still doggerel—but scrawled by a Shakespeare.

The mystic—the epiphany of the Great Wonder—in literature and art persists through the systole and diastole of realism and romanticism. Zola has been called the prince of realists—yet he gave us “The Dream”—mediæval in its touch. There are some pages in it as ethereal as filtered dawn. And the glamour of mystery pervades it all.

No action is complete—and there is no such thing as a “rounded deed.” Our bravest acts are but balked dreams—fine conspiracies of the soul turned away in a word of chance. So realism cannot satisfy. The soul craves completion. It accepts “Madame Bovary” and “Nana,” but it will read “Paul and Virginia” to the end. And on the day after the end it will demand “Pilgrim’s Progress.”

Science is bankrupt. The unlettered mystic in the Indian forest three thousand years ago knew what science is just now beginning to tell us. Wisely they announce that atoms are, after all, but centres of force. “There is no such thing as matter,” said the Hindoo, complacently, ages ago. Goggle-[63]eyed Science has just discovered a substance called radium, which gives forth particles without losing weight. Nothing can be lost, nothing can be gained in an infinite universe, has been the essence of mystical teaching from Heraclitus to Emerson. The Great Wonder’s method is divination.

To the mystic, life is a “conscious slumber.” Goethe, Balzac, were great somnambulists who in a dream wrote hastily and feverishly what they thought they saw, then went back to bed again. Poe’s soul never awakened to a single reality. From the ebon vaults of the Unconscious it stole upon a world of toppling shadows, ashen-hued days and vaporous, opiate sallows. Instead of universal law he felt the universal awe, and his life was a meditation on shadows.

Walt Whitman had but to name a thing and straightway that thing became a mystery. This solid seeming and substantial world he made to reel, and hung the mystic glamour of his soul upon the ant. He saw no greater mystery than the hair on the back of his hand, and he said that “a glance of the eye shall confound the science of all time.” The plodding fact-grubber crawls upon a rim like a fly on a vase, but the mystic is the light within.

To those who walk the world with open eyes, yet see not—those bald realists who believe that when you have named a star you have explained it—Ideas stand for things. But to the mystic things stand for Ideas. They translate particulars into generals. Goethe drew the universe into his soul, and his dying words were, “More Light!” He had translated all things into thoughts and all thoughts into visions, and, standing of all men of the century on the pinnacles of the spirit, he still stood in the dark. The light he had was just great enough to show him the impenetrability of the darkness beyond and around. But he fared forth with the Great Wonder in his soul.

[64] The mystics in philosophy, literature and art do not differ essentially in any age. Environment cannot touch them. Knowledge comes—and goes; the mystic lingers. He is above time and clime, and the “modern investigators” are ancient crooners that shall be. Heraclitus or Maeterlinck, Lucretius or Tolstoi, Spinoza or Thomas Hardy, Sir Thomas Browne or Amiel, Buddha or Carlyle, Shelley or D’Annunzio—their premise is everlastingly the same: Shadows—shadows that emerge from a Void, scud across the earth, some in fury, some in pallid calm—and then the Void again. A ring, a circle; an arc of consciousness, an arc of sleep; an emergence and a disappearance—like that modern illusion of stagecraft wherein fifty men, by marching in a circle before and behind the scenery, simulate an infinite host—that is life.

These solemn-suited Brethren of the Great Wonder dwell in the husk of things, but are not of the Husk. They are wizard souls glaring through the lattice of dreams, praying sceptics immured in the Tomb with the Black Panels. Their type of face is the face of Percy Bysshe Shelley—the Angel Israfel in flesh.


This essay was included in De Casseres’ collection, Chameleon: Being a Book of My Selves under the title “Wonder.” The following edits were made in the collected work:

  • behold the universal knit > behold the unimaginable
  • In the sluices of the brain > In the sluiceways of the brain
  • The data of life are consciousness and pain > The data of life are pleasure and pain
  • these may be myths; one may be dream texture and the other an illusion of the nerve cells > these may be myths; an illusion of the nerve cells
  • nerve cells. Seas of Sound, Light and Motion > nerve cells. ¶ Seas of sound, light and motion
  • Primal Antagonism and there > Primal Antagonism, and there
  • illusions are what might have been projected > illusions are what-might-have-been projected
  • to know nothing. The mystic > to know nothing. ¶ The mystic
  • And yet this Great Wonder > And yet this Wonder
  • Nothing is certain, not even the uncertain. > [deleted]
  • the stable does not exist. The commonplace > the stable does not exist. Life is a series of guesses, and there is mystery in a match. The commonplace
  • stars, the flush that mantles the maiden’s cheek, and the passion litanies breathed by silent lovers > stars, and the passion litanies breathed by lovers
  • the same. The star > the same. ¶ The star
  • on itself. Law created > on itself. ¶ Law created
  • They desire rest in order to accumulate the power to go on; and they desire to go on in order to be able to rest. > They desire to go on in order to be able to rest.
  • ravished by the Great Wonder > ravished by Wonder
  • (“for that thou art”) > (for that thou art)
  • neither “forward” nor “backward,” “upward” nor “downward;” like ether > neither “upward nor downward.” Like ether
  • worldshine > world-shine
  • The Law—that is the Great Wonder. > [deleted]
  • mantle, and every act > mantle; and every act
  • he is willed; for he is > he is willed—for he is
  • the seed is the Secret > the seed is the secret
  • He is a “god > He is a “God
  • and Suffering was born > and suffering was born
  • in travail. But why? With that question the Great Wonder falls on us. > in travail. ¶ But why? With that question Wonder falls on us.
  • mist torrent > torrent-mist
  • Genius has the Great Wonder > Genius has Wonder
  • The mind that has envisaged > The being that has envisaged
  • fables of the Great Wonder > fables of Wonder
  • Without this sense of wonder the singing of the stars is tin-can music. The universe is doggerel. With > Without this sense of Wonder the singing of the stars is calliope music; the universe is doggerel. ¶ With
  • The mystic—the epiphany of the Great Wonder… > [paragraph deleted]
  • No action is complete—and… > [paragraph deleted]
  • said the Hindoo, complacently, ages ago > said the Hindoo complacently ages ago
  • Goggle-eyed Science > Science
  • The Great Wonder’s method is divination. > Wonder’s method is divination.
  • Goethe, Balzac, were > Goethe and Balzac were
  • This solid seeming and substantial > This solid-seeming and substantial
  • of all time.” The plodding > of all time.” ¶ The plodding
  • explained it—Ideas stand > explained it—ideas stand
  • things stand for Ideas > things stand for ideas
  • with the Great Wonder in his soul > with Wonder in his soul
  • Shadows—shadows that emerge > Shadows that emerge
  • Brethren of the Great Wonder > Brethren of Wonder
  • are not of the Husk > are not of the husk

This essay is quoted in The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, 2012:

1905 Benjamin De Casseres, “The Great Wonder,” Mind 15: 60: “Hate is comic, for you shall in time become that which you hate; and the thing you scorn— behold! that thou art.”