Benjamin DeCasseres - The Imp of 5th Avenue
“Wreak your soul on Life. Use your powers. Never question whether they are moral. Once you put the question you are already weak.”
For those who dredge through occult tomes (and by this I don’t mean whatever garbage is found in the New Age section of your local bookseller, but rare and dusty books by authors forgotten or intentionally hidden from the masses), occasionally you will strike … well, brimstone. An author you’d never heard of will have written the most incredible things that predate the first writer or thinker to have had that thought. Though it may cause stress to the believer in a revelatory doctrine, a Satanist knows his core ideas have always existed. And so instead of throwing his entire belief into a quagmire of doubt, he is delighted to read a passage from an older source that reflect the diabolical weltanschauung. It is even rarer to find someone who has captured the Satanic spirit for much more than just a phrase or singular essay or work, but I have recently done just that.
Benjamin DeCasseres (1873-1945) was a poet, essayist, journalist, diarist and one of the most explicit de facto Satanists you’ve never heard of. DeCasseres has been wholly forgotten not only by America, and even his beloved New York, where he lived his adult life. He was certainly a fringe figure during his lifetime, though his writing was published in the New York Times and H.L Mencken’s American Mercury, but also in hip literary journals printed in Greenwich Village. I aim to change that, not for America or the world as a whole (I could care less), but for my assorted comrades of the sinister and carnal persuasion.
Born in Philadelphia, a distant cousin of Spinoza, and of Sephardic extraction, DeCasseres has penned some of the most explicitly Satanic work to predate Anton LaVey that I have read. Other authors have embraced the Satanic, though the names and lives tend to be few and far between. DeCasseres embodies some of the best of each, though he is no derivative. In his work you can find some of the wit of a Twain, the hedonic poetry of a Baudelaire, and the evisceration of a Redbeard.
The more of DeCasseres work I have devoured, the more examples of what I call conceptual polygenesis that I found. The following quip is a prime example: “I have a demon in me; but I do not want to suppress it. I want to express it. That's the difference between me and a Christian.” LaVey’s phrasing a few decades later should instantly come to the mind of any Old Nick reader: “There is a beast in man that needs to be exercised, not exorcised.”
In all of my reading of LaVey, I have not seen a single reference to DeCasseres, nor when I’ve brought his name up to fellow comrades has it sparked recognition. It’s possible LaVey was familiar with him, but it’s equally plausible that - like the few intrepid individualists who have “joined the Devil’s party” (as Mencken proclaimed he had), these ideas have seemingly appeared separately and without direct influence, in what is also called “multiple discovery”.
One of DeCasseres writing projects was a sort of diary titled Fantasia Impromptu, and it is that where I discovered the preceding diabolical quote. Begun in the mid 1920’s and maintained for decades, he referred to it as his “spiritual autobiography” and subtitled it “The Adventures of an Intellectual Faun”. Later in life he began publishing it in a series of booklets, with the expressed intent of releasing it in full, parts at a time, indefinitely. By the time he began doing so in 1936 he claimed the totality had reached 400,000 words. He dedicated it “To the Thinkers, Poets, Satirists, Individualists, Dare-devils, Egoists, Satanists and Godolepts of Posterity”.
From it we find the following entry:
The Command to Look and the Satanas-Aestheticus
LaVey’s social psychology was influenced by a once-popular photographer name William Mortensen. He wrote a small, rather unassuming book in 1937 titled The Command To Look: A Formula for Picture Success. With a photo of an adorable baby on the cover it detailed a magical formula for creating powerful pictures that LaVey was to apply to a more diabolic purpose. In it he explicates three principal sources of interest to tap into the interest of humans: Sex, Sentiment and Wonder. He further details how to manipulate these elements to create an irresistible photographic display.
Similarly, five years earlier DeCasseres detailed his own infernal trinity in a pamphlet titled Prelude to DeCasseres Magazine. A seemingly unrealized project where he would write the entirety of every issue himself, this “prelude” is, yet again, both implicitly and explicitly Satanic.
This will be a magazine of aggressive individualism because the individual is the unit of all values... I am an Individualist—which means self-culture, autonomy, self-love. I am a believer in the State—so long as it is necessary—of Jefferson and Spencer—the ‘administrative nihilism’ of Huxley.
I have no programmes, panaceas, nostrums, cure-alls or a mission. Live and let live! And to the professional moralic busybodies and tumblebugs, political and religious Cromwells and Torquemadas, I say what Voltaire said to the Church, Crush the infamy!
This is all intrinsically Satanic, but when he details his core principles, we once again see an unadulterated display of Satanic philosophy:
But in this vast ocean of change and variety—without knowable aim, design or end, but which has an unseen guiding hand in back of it that I call Satanas-Aestheticus —I hold three things to be indestructible. There are three immanent Ideas in which all things float, three things that to me are metaphysical: Power, Beauty, Mirth. They are all ye need to know, and knowing them—realizing them—all the rest shall be added unto ye.
As Mortensen does, DeCasseres elaborates in his infernal trinity:
Power. I conceive the Will-to-Power to be fundamental and irreducible. In this matter I am an absolute Nietzschean. Power is another name for Will. Both are mystical, metaphysical, a priori. Whatever exists wills dominion over something else. No mental or physical movement is conceivable without the idea of conquest. The word self-conquest means will-to-power. Buddha’s extinction in Nirvana is will-to-power. It is a positive that admits of no negative. All ethical and religious systems are will-to-power. Power, my naïve Christian-Socialist brother, is your secret dream. I shall unmask humility-fakers.
Beauty. I am a Platonist. I hold Beauty to be transcendental, a Reminiscence of a superhuman state, an Idea that is metaphysical, mystical, the very essence of Satanas-Aestheticus, the Artist-God, who is the impersonal, indifferent, mystical Shakespeare of the electrons. This universe is a tragi-comic Poem. Beauty, in the terrible, the ironic sense, the sublimely mind-blasting sense, is of its essence. I am a Poet, a Mystical Poet, first, last, always. I glory in the word Poet in the very navel, the very bowels of a realistic, cash-down, materialistic age of mental, ethical and artistic dung-beetles. This magazine will always apotheosize Beauty. I am a Poet, like Satanas-Aestheticus, and I hurl that most glorious of words—Poet—at the bloodless and wingless minds of the smugmugs of this age and the utilitarian and realistic sandhogs and drainmen of politics, literature and the arts. You must write as Satanas-Aestheticus thinks and creates—in the rhythm of demonic and dynamic beauty.
Mirth. The two great liberators are mirth and money. Don Marquis went so far as to say that money was a spiritual thing. It is undoubtedly of mystical origin, for whatever is, is bought; whatever is has been paid for in some coin. I therefore hesitated whether to make the third of my irreducible trinity money or mirth. Money is, however, implicit in power. So I chose Mirth, the Homeric twinkle in the eye of Satanas-Aestheticus. Humor, irony, mirth are inherent in all forms of life. The most tragic happenings on Earth are comedies in the brains of the gods, who are the personification and imaginative incarnation of our aspiration to super-sight and demonic mirth. Their smile is frozen vitriol. Mirth is the mischievous pétarade at the banquets of the Staid and Solemn; it is what Mencken calls the dead cat in the shrine.
I Bring You Salvation in a Sneer
From his heroic biographical sketch of Gabrielle D’Annunzio that appeared in the New York Times to his self-published pamphlets, there is much in DeCassere’s work that any Old Nick reader will find to be a balm to the insipidness of popular culture and popular religion. An unabashed egoist and a deep well of linguistic Epicureanism, his work is bombastic, iconoclastic and has the appeal of being thoroughly occult in the most meaningful sense.
To that end I have sought to revive his work for my own delight and those select few with the discrimination to seek it out. My own publishing house Underworld Amusements will begin publishing individual volumes and curated collections of DeCasseres writings, beginning with an epic poem titled Anethema! Litanies of Negation. A slim volume featuring a single long poem that is a thoroughly egoistic and decadent declaration of the author as God, the Devil, and a thing that is beyond. Section 14 begins: “Men have been who have said they were the God?incarnate. Were they no more than that? / One said he was the Son of God. / I say God is my Son.”
DeCasseres is an uninhibited juggernaut of self-love and satirical evisceration of the common man. Section seven provides a suitable representation:
I am a monochord and I strum the eternal Nothing. I am built of the overtones of mind and matter. All intelligence finally streams toward me, and the death-rattle of the last hope shall be muffled on my bosom. You who stand over the trough of your instincts and fatten your eyes and your lips on the slops of this world, are you not nearly sated? Will you lap up the last shreds before listening to me and acclaiming my sneer? The Ideal and the Real—at those troughs you have fed since Time spun its webs. You are held in the vise of opposites, and gods and demons are squeezed from your vent-holes, and under a million guises you fabricate the same and the same and the same. I have selected you, microcosms of clay, to be my butts. It is against you I hurl my inextinguishable laughter, for I am the intangible point of your every perspective, the piston-rod of your motions, the humorous imp of chagrin secreted at the core of your hopes. From the discord of your lives I have extracted the harmonies of negation. Out of jangle I have constructed the melodies of discord. I bring you funeral plumes plucked from the catafalques of ancient cycles of life, now rigid in nullibiety. Let us wear them for boutonnières to celebrate the defeats of this day and the disasters of multiple morrows.
Anathema! is a Satanic orgy in 61 parts. In addition to the poem itself, I have preserved the original foreword by Eugene O’Neill and added an entirely new afterword written by myself. My afterword gives some biographical details (such as his connection to Ayn Rand), pertinent excerpts from other works and the story of my discovery of DeCasseres.
The Page as Ritual Chamber
DeCasseres writes about God and Satan and a myriad of forgotten deities in the same tone he discusses Nietzsche or Shaw. Though he explicitly rejects the label of atheist, he is still at most a pantheist (though it is my take that if everything is god, then nothing is), but in all realism he is an egoist. His paper is a ritual chamber, and therefore he is unrestrained to play with gods just as the characters they are, just as anyone who is not him is possibly a fiction. I leave you with one final excerpt from “Fantasia Impromptu” a cynicism that could have easily have come from the pen of Twain or LaVey.
Satan's Valedictory. Satan appeared to me and said (he looked melancholy, depressed, had lack-luster eyes, and—god of gods!—his goatee and eyebrows were graying!): "Since the advent of the scientific spirit, the decline in the belief in God, the disappearance of the virgin, the break-up of the churches and the universal rise of the cynical spirit even in young boys and girls life on earth has lost its savor for me. The romance of soul-potting is gone. There is nobody left to damn, since no one cares a damn. You all laugh at me—just as you all laugh at God, virginity, virtue, honesty and all the good old traits that were meat and nuts to me. You all beat me at my own game. You've all stolen my bag of tricks. You call me 'Sate', yank me by the goatee, kick me in the derriere, tell me I'm 'old stuff'.
"I ask God every night to resurrect, get back on the job, put the fear of Him in your hearts by some great world-catastrophe. Ah! what pickings, what sport, during the 'Dark Ages'! The whole world today has wise-cracked my job away. I'm out of work and I have not where to lay my epigrams. There are no longer any ears to whisper into: they laugh and show me a trick worth two of mine.
"I spend my evening under my lamp reading of my salad days in the pages of Milton, Marlowe, Goethe and Calderon. The Catholic Church still gives me now and then a handful of sinners to work on, but they're scurvy stuff. If God doesn't wake up soon, I myself will have to re-invent all the good old ideals of honesty, virtue, belief and duty so that I can resume my ancient sport."
And Satan sank into my armchair, read the Atlantic Monthly for a bit—and went sound asleep.
Kevin I. Slaughter is the owner of Underworld Amusements and an ordained priest in the Church of Satan. He has published “Anathema! Litanies of Negation” to coincide with the release of this issue of Old Nick. Find more information at www.UnderworldAmusements.com.