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Impromptu Fantasias

Inside the world of Benjamin De Casseres: aphorist, diarist, egotist

Joshua Cohen
August 26, 2009
Benjamin De Casseres(Photogravure by Marius De Zayas, originally published in Camera Work XXIX, 1910)
Benjamin De Casseres(Photogravure by Marius De Zayas, originally published in Camera Work XXIX, 1910)
I have thought of writing the lives of some great artist—Shelley, Manet, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Chopin, Keats, Sappho, Emerson, Nietzsche, Redon, for instance—directly from a complete inhalation of and meditation on their work without any regard to the facts. Wherever the known facts conflict with my mythus, I shall reject them or flatly deny them. It would be a fascinating undertaking—the lives of Shakespeare, Chopin, Verlaine, for instance, as I conceive them to have been from their faces and work alone.

Such an endeavor would take considerable egotism, and that Benjamin De Casseres was possessed of that quality is no “mythus” but verifiable fact. The paragraph above is an extract from his voluminous, life-spanning diary that no one reads, and that, perhaps, no one will ever read. In this essay, we will try to be more responsible, though the sources are obscure. Despite Shakespeare dying centuries ago, the dates and important events of even his contested life are more thoroughly available than those of De Casseres, who wrote regularly for newspapers and magazines in the most public city in the world, New York, during the heyday of the most public century before ours, the 20th.

It is regrettable that for a man who wrote so much, so little is known, and so little is the desire to know. There is hardly any scholarship about De Casseres (he’s mentioned in a handful of doctoral dissertations regarding interwar New York literary society); none of his books are in print; and the manuscript of his thousand-page diary, Fantasia Impromptu, reposes in the basement of the New York Public Library, where I might have been the first person to read through its pages since they were interred there by De Casseres’ widow, Adele “Bio” Terrill, following her husband’s death in 1945.

Benjamin De Casseres was born April 3, 1873, in Philadelphia, to a Jewish family of Sephardic descent. And so, an outsider: This man so vocal about his Manhattan credentials was born out of town, in the sixth borough; not Ashkenazi like the majority of American Jewry, he was a nonimmigrant from comparatively exotic stock. The family name derives from Cáceres, the ancestral capital of the same-named Spanish province, and De Casseres himself liked to speculate that he was related to a hero of his, Spinoza: one Samuel De Casseres married Spinoza’s youngest sister, Miriam, became a rabbi and scribe, and offered the funeral eulogy for his teacher, and Spinoza’s excommunicator, Rabbi Saul Levi Mortera of Amsterdam.

De Casseres moved to New York by the turn of the century, began losing his hair, smoking cigars, drinking to excess. Physically, De Casseres writes of himself: “I am strong meat; false teeth and babies, lay off! Fat and Jewish; bedroom eyes; voluptuous flesh.” Surviving photographs by Arnold Genthe show a paragon of sly dissolution, tempered by self-seriousness, in precarious pince-nez, dark worsted suit and patterned, probably colorful, tie. (Genthe’s nitrate negatives, dating from 1925, are obviously in black and white).

However, the most telling autobiographical detail might be that of the outsized ambition De Casseres did his narcissistic best to conceal. If the man was, as he weekly reminded himself in print, the equal if not better of any writer who ever lived, then he was so unwittingly, as if against his will. He was, he said, like Rip Van Winkle of the Catskills, in that he “grew famous while [he] slept. I slept all day and worked on a New York newspaper all night (1900 to 1920), and almost precisely at the end of twenty years I was astounded to find out that I was famous not only in my own country but that I was being translated into French by no less a person than Remy de Gourmont, who was writing about me in the Mercure de France and La France.”

From his backrooms at 11 West 39th Street, a building that no longer exists, De Casseres mass-produced articles for dozens of publications: to begin with, The American Spectator, The Bookman, The Boston American, The Chicago Examiner, Fra Magazine, Gay Book Magazine, The Greenwich Village Quill, Haldeman-Julius Monthly, The Los Angeles Examiner, Metropolitan Magazine, The New York Evening Post, The New York Herald, The New York Journal-American, The New York Times, The New York World, People’s Favorite Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philistine, Reedy’s Mirror, The Revolutionary Almanac, The San Francisco Examiner, The Smart Set, The Sun, The Washington Herald; he wrote for Alfred Stieglitz at Camera Work; at the American Mercury he was edited by H. L. Mencken. De Casseres also provided ad copy for, among other concerns, cheesecake manufacturers, and graphomaniacally ghostwrote radio commercials: “With a genius that is profoundly Latin to my latter atom, I have been accepted and printed in various magazines in an Anglo-Saxon and puritan country. I am a one-call salesman. If I don’t succeed at first, I never try again.”

Not just columns on literature syndicated by the Hearst Service and interviews with the likes of Charlie Chaplin. De Casseres amassed reams of drama, and fiction: “And some days I love to write lines for poems I’ll never write.” His books and booklets include: The Adventures of an Exile; Anathema!: Litanies of Negation; Black Suns; The Book of Vengeance; Broken Images; The Chameleon; The Comedy of Hamlet; The Communist-Parasite State; The Complete American; Don Marquis; The Eighth Heaven; The Elect and the Damned; Enter Walt Whitman; The Eternal Return; Finis; Forty Immortals; I Dance with Nietzsche; The Individual Against Moloch; James Gibbons Huneker; The Last Supper; The Love Letters of a Living Poet; Mars and the Man; Mencken and Shaw; Mirrors of New York; The Muse of Lies; My New York Nights; The Overlord; Robinson Jeffers, Tragic Terror; The Second Advent; The Shadow-Eater; Sir Galahad: Knight of the Lidless Eye; Spinoza: Liberator of God and Man; The Superman in America; When Huck Finn Went Highbrow; Words, Words, Words. One of his most personal preoccupations was editing The Sublime Boy, a volume comprising poems by his younger brother Walter, a depressed homosexual who committed suicide at the age of nineteen by hurling himself into the Delaware River. (Poet Edwin Markham, in a letter to De Casseres: “I am touched by your brother’s failure to fit himself to this tragic existence, touched also by the pathos of his fate”; other of the surviving De Casseres’ correspondents: British sexologist Havelock Ellis, French writer Maurice Maeterlinck, science-fiction writer Clark Ashton Smith, paranormal investigator Charles Fort, Hollywood screenwriter Ben Hecht, poet Edgar Lee Masters, novelist Damon Runyon, and Nietzschean Oscar Levy.)

But De Casseres’ posterity mainly rests on a single poem, Moth-Terror, first collected in the Second Book of Modern Verse in 1919, edited by journalist colleague and correspondent Jessie Rittenhouse. The poem was subsequently recycled into numerous reprints and subanthologies that proliferated in schools, colleges, and book clubs even after World War II (which should tell our writers of today that if they intend their work to live for tomorrow, they should make friends with anthologists):

I have killed the moth flying around my night-light; wingless and dead

it lies upon the floor.

(O who will kill the great Time-Moth that eats holes in my soul

and that burrows in and through my secretest veils!)

My will against its will, and no more will it fly at my night-light

or be hidden behind the curtains that swing in the winds.

(But O who will shatter the Change-Moth that leaves me in rags —

tattered old tapestries that swing in the winds that blow out of Chaos!)

Night-Moth, Change-Moth, Time-Moth, eaters of dreams and of me!

All these elements of a life—the journalism, the interminable pamphleteering of poesy, the feverish letterwriting to more celebrated contemporaries—can be bound between two covers that don’t exist: De Casseres’ Fantasia Impromptu, subtitled ridiculously “The Adventures of an Intellectual Faun.” Unlike the preciously polished texts of the chapbooks and broadsides De Casseres self-published, sent around to friends for free and offered for sale to the general public for 50 cents apiece, this daybook—and, often, latenight book—could never be collected into finished form. Excerpts last appeared in an unedited 1976 Gordon Press Selected Works reprint of a privately subvented 1935 Blackstone edition (Blackstone seems to have been De Casseres’ own venture). “I can see the standpoint of the American publishers: an American thinker must be a fakir of some sort because fake is a national trait. They simply will not believe in the possibility of my existence—as an American. They can, and do, conceive me as a Spaniard or a Frenchman, but as a Philadelphia-born original—Jamais!”

Begun in 1925, soon extending to multiple volumes, De Casseres’ diary was dedicated “to the thinkers, poets, satirists, individualists, dare-devils, egoists, Satanists and godolepts of posterity”; the introducing author continues, on the manuscript’s frontispiece: “This book will be continued to the end of my life—a new volume about every two years. Please read carefully and to the end to get full flavor of book. It is all spontaneously set down, and all literally my self.” De Casseres kept making random undated entries into older, mentally weaker age; le prosateur was going on 70 when he noted that the world had never appeared so threatening: “This jealousy of likeness, that is at the bottom of the German persecution of Jews today,” and, “Adolf Hitler is as personal, private, and peculiar to the German people as my morning bowel movement is to me.” Toward diary’s end, just before his death, the physical evinces and affects as much as the written: Not only is De Casseres writing letters to God, but he’s writing letters as God, too, to himself; the paper gets cheaper, thinner; typewriting gives way to handwriting, a shaky agitated scrawl.

Interleaved with metaphysical whimsy, racism, and misogyny (“God couldn’t possibly be a female, for He keeps so well and so long the profoundest secrets of life”), along with a loathing regard for his own Judaism, is to be found a trove of the most startling epigrams our country has ever known — the work of an American La Rochefoucauld or Lichtenberg, a Karl Kraus or George Bernard Shaw. Indeed, these stacks of incomprehensible, often insipid pages could be edited down to a one-hundred page book of surpassing aphorism; but because I haven’t yet received that commission, and not everyone has the time for a library visit to pile through the archives, I offer the following—a De Casseres Chrestomathy, as Mencken styled his own collection of a career’s worth of the miscellaneous but brilliant:

A practical man should have knuckles in his eyes; a poet should have them in his images.

To almost any American “thinker”: the feet of your thoughts are always asleep.

All summits are cemeteries.

Art can only influence artists.

If you have no ideas, beware of your tenses and your grammar.

An emotion has more reality than a nail.

Hope is the promise of a crucifixion.

Whatever we do is a remedy.

Beauty is distance.

Only the ugly are modest.

Identity is partisanship.

The difference between Science and Theology is that Science is evolving ignorance and Theology is static ignorance.

We used to say, “It is raining.” Now (1930) it would be more appropriate to say: “The bladders of the atoms have opened and torrents of electronic urine lave the asphalt.”

Symbol. — I live behind a statue of myself.

Esoteric.— If you swallow your jewels you will have to recover them in your excrement.

Things that intoxicate me. — Gardens; the sea; mountain solitudes; great poetry and great prose; abstract ideas; profound sleeps; twilight; music; God, the sense of Wonder and Mystery; Satan; amorous sports; Bio’s love; the peace of death; wine; fastflying automobiles when I am in one; the voice of little children; the word Shelley; the word Baudelaire; the words Victor Hugo; imaged coitions with ideal women of an impossible beauty; well-buttered lima-beans; spaghetti; the flash of a metaphor through my brain; praise from superior minds; the stars; checks, checks, checks.

Keep the masses happy. Unhappiness should be the privilege of the few.

To have written a book that no one has ever read is like having a face that no one has ever looked at.

Pleasure has no eyes.

All life aspires to mirrors.

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books, The Forward, n+1, and others. His first essay collection, Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction, will be released in August. In 2017 he was named one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists. He lives in New York City.

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books, The Forward, n+1, and others. He is the recipient of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, for The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family. He lives in New York City.