Pere Sebastian Rasfes
PICASSO (turning to look back, with a smile), Braque (brown cotton), Gertrude Stein (opening the doors of a cabinet of NISS.), Tzara (grinning), Andr6 Germain (blocking the door), Van der Pyl (speaking of St. Cloud), Bob Chandler (prodding Marcel), Marcel (shouting), Salmon (in a corner) and my good friends Philip and Madam Soupault; the Prince of Dahomi, Clive Bell (dressed), Nancy, Sylvia, Clotilde, Sally, Kitty, Mina and her two lovely daughters; James and Norah Joyce (in a taxi at the Place de l’Eroile), McAlmon, Antheil, Bryher, H. D. and dear Ezra who took me to talk with L6ger; and finally Adrienne Monnier—these were my six weeks in Paris. Adrienne is last since it was she who by her insistence brought me one of my best moments among those days of rushing about and talking and seeing, while my bronzed faculties strove to right themselves—among the scenes and fashions of this world where all the world comes, from time to rime, to shed its nerves—after my brutalizing battle of twenty years to hear myself above the boilermakers in and about New York, where I had embarked so precariously upon my literary career.
I was, during that time, with antennae fully extended. but nothing came of it save an awakened realization within myself of that resistant core of nature upon which I had so long been driven for support. I felt myself with ardors not released but beaten back, in this center of old-world culture where everyone was tearing his own meat, warily conscious of a newcomer, but wholly without inquisitiveness—No
wish to know; they were served. I saw exhibitions and sat at a few tables, here and there. “Gaite” told us of her sailor lover whom she would marry if she found that he really’ came from a large city, as he said. Brancusi sat us by his fire, the sheep slept about us while by constant rubbing his fingers carved the neck of his staff. This was a relief but like a fairy tale. It was not easy for me to be drunk; I had only a few weeks during which to see. I enjoyed the ballets, Derain— But it was no more than a kind of quickened sullenness. Could I have shouted out in the midst of it, could I have loosed myself to embrace this turning. shouting, rustling, colored thing, my mind would have been relieved. I could not do it. Could I have been Nancy to imagine myself a kitten and fall from a tree. I could not. It infuriated my meanness. Was it not my vanity and impotence? We did this, we did that, we drank at the Ritz bar. What did I presume? These questions made me shy. Marcel knows New York, I said, I shall investigate his drunken leer.
Adrienne Monnier pointed to a box at the Cigale. Look, she said, how enheartening. You will see that now in Paris everywhere. Look! there is a Tncmber of the Chamber of Deputies, there is a lawyer, there is a man of science, there is Cocteau, a few beautiful women and two or three pederasts. Is it not cheering? It makes me believe again that we are taking hold. H. D. listened. Adrienne Monnier seemed to be inviting my mood. It was she who, during the dark days of the war, had written her invitation to us all to come borrow and buy books of her; to read. A delicious savor it gave to the dinner she served us to have her lock the kitchen door and remain alone with her secret task of preparing the chicken—d la Adrienne Monnier, in the purest tradition of the Parisian art. To eat, to drink; wines, the delicious flesh, the poets—all good things of the world—these we must learn again to enjoy. Had she not wished to do with books, she would have enjoyed most to be a butcher, to kill a pig, to hear it squeal, eeeeEEEE! Bryher’s eyes snapped darkly. We looked at prints of Brueghel; the great
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fish, cut open, discharging from its slit belly other fish and each fish, slit in turn, discharging other smaller fish, and so on to the smallest. She laughed with glee. Secretly my heart beat high. Here was invitation. XVhen you come again, she said, I shall take you to le ddserr. You must talk to Val6ry Larbaud, she told me. He wants to see you. Why should I? I insist that you go.
Already from the pot of my brain the odors of foods cooking had begun to rise. This encouraged me to move. One afternoon I mounted a bus and let it drag me through the rain. Some laborers were taking their overcoats out of a kiosk to put them on; one of the younger of the men had a mirror between his hands which he kept holding before an old fellow who had to laugh, in spite of himself, but shyly, like an embarrassed boy, at his own silly face which he saw there. Who is this man Larbaud who has so little pride that he wishes to talk with me? The lump in my breast hardened and became like the Aztec calendar of stone which the priests buried because they couldn’t smash it easily, but it was dug up intact later. At least, so I prided myself that I felt. But after a few moments, seeing the man himself, I was unexpectedly confused. He is a student, I am a block, I thought. I could see it at once: he knows far more of what is written of my world than I. But he is a student while I am—the brutal thing itself.
At the bottom of an alley which opened out into a court, as of a decayed cloister, was the doorway which bore the number upon the card in my hand. It was a small room, nearly filled by a great table. He excused himself a moment to accompany a lady to the bus. AVe sat and looked at each other. So it was a pleasure to be sitting in this small room, in this secluded court, with this man whose totem is the hippopotamus—slumped down in his chair, smiling and looking. He knew what I had attempted. Almost at once he began to speak out of my imagination. He presumed too much. 1 am not a student; presently he will ask me questions I cannot answer! He spoke of Bolivar (he was engaged
with a treatise upon the great Venezuelan patriot and liberator) bringing four fat volumes from the Spanish history upon the subject, out of his bookcase for me to see, and piiing them one upon the other. Frightened I began to heal nevertheless.—The English appraised the New World too meanly. It was to them a carcass from which to tear pieces .for their belly’s sake, a colony, a place to despise a little. They gave to it parsimoniously, in a slender Puritan fashion. But the Spaniard gave magnificently, with a generous sweep, wherever he was able. (This tallies with the bounty of the New World, I said to myself.) They sought to make it in truth a New Spain, to build fine cathedrals, to found universities, to establish great estates. For this I like them, he said. They came as from the King himself to transport nobility, learning, refinement thither in one move.—Val6ry Larbaud seemed cultivating my intimate earth with his skillful hands, a gracious gesture (lost perhaps in its own shadows I thought); here is one at least of this world, moving to meet that other which is straining for release under my confining ribs—not wishing so much to understand it as to taste, perhaps, its freshness—Its freshness!
—if it exist! (John Barrymore’s “Hamlet” wins first night ovation in London.) A herd of proofs moved through my mind like stumbling buffalo; ornaments of woven moosehair! There is the Indian. We are none. Who are we? Degraded whites riding our fears to market where everything is by accident and only one thing sure: the fatter we get the duller we grow; only a simpering disgust (like a chicken with a broken neck, that aims where it cannot peck and pecks only where it cannot aim which a hog-plenty everywhere prevents from starving to death) reveals any contact with a possible freshness—and that only by inversion. Shall I never bring a look to bear which is not tawdry? Recruits to Pavlova’s corps de ballet, from Montclair and Sacramento, fillers-in. There are—so many things, there’s Edison, there’s—Must I make a choice between to scream like a locomotive or to speak not at all? If it be a
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day of delirious heat, leave your cool retreat, rush about to find a sufferer and carry ice to him. In the din we die—and rot into the magazines and newspapers—and books by the million—Books. AVe had mentioned books. We have no books, I said.
There you are wrong. Two or three are enough, to have
shown a beginning. Have you not yourself proven that
there is meat— Yes (so he had read what I intended!), the early records
—to try to find—something, a freshness; if it exist.
I said, It is an extraordinary phenomenon that Americans have lost the sense, being made up as we are, that what we are has its origin in what the nation in the past has been; that there is a source in AMERICA for everything we think or do; that morals affect the food and food the bone, and that, in fine, we have no conception at all of what is meant by moral, since we recognize no ground our own—and that this rudeness rests all upon the unstudied character of our beginnings; and that if we will not pay heed to our own affairs, we are nothing but an unconscious porkyard and oil-hole for those, more able, who will fasten themselves upon us. .Xnd that we have no defense, lacking intelligent investigation of the changes worked upon the early comers here, to the New World, the books, the records, no defense save brute isolation, prohibitions, walls, ships, fortresses—and all the asininities of ignorant fear that forbids us to protect a doubtful freedom employing it. That unless every
e . thing
that is, proclaim a ground on which it stand, it has no worth; and that what has been morally, aesthetically worth while in America has rested upon peculiar and discoverable ground. But they think they get it out of the air or the riv ers, or from the Grand Banks or wherever it may be, instead of by word of mouth or from records contained for us in books—and that, aesthetically, morally we are deformed unless we read.
You mean such books as the Ala gnalia of Cotton Mather.
What! Startled but thrilling with pleasure, I found that he
had read the Magnalia.
No. HE had read it I bad seen
the book and brushed through its pages hunting for something I wished to verify. Un grand pridicateur.
THIS in Paris. Tiresome, I said I had found him. Yes, he assented, but very strong, very real. (My French became inspired, it was like a
fountain when it is first turned on in the spring and all the moss and rust and loosened mud and sand are flung up with the water—I could see grotesque shapes of my desire escaping from me—and I laughed to myself in my intense pleasure.)
He saw my pleasure and he likewise smiled. Quelle rire omnivore d’berbes sousmarins! He had read the india Christiana with its two silver trumpets crying, “a joyful sound.” “The American savages were men Satan had whished away (via Asia) at the beginning sound of the two silver trumpets calling from the tabernacle, announcing the advent of the gospel.”
It is the Puritan.— By the strength of religion alone, they surmounted all
difficulties in which science has degraded us again today; all things they explain, with clarity and distinction. It is firm, it is solid, it holds the understanding in its true position; not beneath the surface of the facts, where it will drown, but up, fearlessly into a clear air, like science at its best, in a certain few minds. For our taste, it is perhaps a little grotesque, this explanation—but firm. There is vigor there—and b;’ that, a beauty.
True enough. I said, there is abundant vigor. But to them it was, America, “the seat of them that shall think an evil thought”; the savages were men lost in the devil’s woods, miserable in their abandonment and more especially, damned. Fiery particles, the Puritans, I said, acquainting him with my rigid tenet, seeds of Elizabethan vigor, few against the wilderness. Their sureness which you praise is of their tight tied littleness which, firm as it was, infuriates me today. It is their littleness that explains their admirable courage, close to the miraculous. It was good when through
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that first December they were going about in small boats in Cape Cod Bay, through rain and cold, under attack, when save for the finding of corn buried in the sand, they might not have had seed for the spring planting. Going about from place to place, seeking a lodgment, drowned, frozen, awaking to the howls of savages, dawn and the attack, rushing to die boat for their arquebuses, arrows in their hanging coats
, at the mercy of chance and the wind, they were themselves the corn I speak of. The things they did were of highest order, permitted only by lack of full knowledge, things which would have been terrifying to them beyond endurance had they not been reduced
to bear them.
Their courage, had they been gifted with a full knowledge of the New World they had hit upon, could not have stood against the mass of the wilderness; it took the form, then, for the mysterious processes of their implantation here, of a doctrinaire religion, a form, that is to say, fixed— but small. For the great task God had destined them to perform, they were clipped in mind, stripped to the physical necessities. They could not afford to allow their senses to wander any more than they could allow a member of their company to wander from the precinct of the church, even from Boston to Casco Bay, FOR WORLDLY PROFIT. This their formula condemned. For that Hannah Swanton was punished by captivity and TEMPTATION among the Catholics in Quebec—I Tilean, that this form, this FORM ITSELF, such a religion upon our lips, though it have an economic, biologic basis in truth, nevertheless it is bred of brutality, inhumanity, cruel amputations and that THIS is the sum of its moral effect. You speak of Mather’s books—? Yes, they were the flower of that religion, that unreasonable thing, on which they prided themselves for its PURITY. That is, its rigid clarity, its inhuman clarity, its steel-like thrust from the heart of each isolate man straight into the tabernacle of Jehovah without embellishment or softening. Its firmness is its beauty, it seems austere but limpid. Its virtue is to make
each man stand alone, surrounded by a density as of the Lord: a seed in its shell. The Kingdom of God; the Devil at fault fighting for souls; Christ the I)ivine sacrifice
; the Bible the guide; the Church its apostle. There it is, concise, bare, PURE:
blind to every contingency, mashing Indian, child and matron into one safe
They must have closed all the world out. It was the enormity of their task that enforced it. Having in themselves nothing of curiosity, no wonder, for the New World—that is nothing official—they knew only to keep their eyes blinded, their tongues in orderly manner between their teeth, their ears stopped by the monotony of their hymns and their flesh covered in straight habits. Is there another place than America (which inherits this tradition) where a husband, after twenty years, knows of his wife’s body not more than neck and ankles, and four children to attest to his fidelity; where books are written and read counselling women that upon marriage, should they allow themselves for one moment to enjoy their state, they lower themselves to the level of the whore? Such is the persistence of this abortion of the mind, this purity. These were the modes of a people, small in number, beset by dangers and in terror. They dared not think. If frightened by Indians or the supernatural, they shook and committed horrid atrocities in the name of their creed, the cost of emptiness. All that they saw they lived by but denied. And this is overlooked.
There was a book written at that time attacking them:
New England Judged by tbe Spirit of the Lord: it contains a relation of the Quakers in New England, from the time of their first arrival there, in 1656, to the year 1660 Wherein their merciless whippings, chainings, finings, imprisonments, starvings, burnings in the hands, cuttings off of ears and putting to death, with other cruelties, inflicted upon the bodies of innocent men and women only for conscience sake, are described. And a further relation of the Quakers’ cruel and bloody suffering in New England, continued
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froni i66o to 1666 beginning with the sufferings of one William Lcddra, whom they put to death. There is also an appendix attacking Cotton Mather.
When does one not hear Americans speak more often of
these important things?
Because th9 fools do not believe that they have sprung from anything: bone, thought and action. They will not see that what they are is growing on these roots. They will not look. Thex’ float without question. Their history is to them an enigma.
XVhat superb beauty! As with all histories, it begins with
giants—cruel, but enormous, who eat flesh, They were giants.
No, no. True they had their magnificent logic but it was microscopic in dimensions—against the flamboyant mass of savagery. This disproportion has no representation in the contemporary Puritan imagination. The Puritan, finding one thing like another in a world destined for blossom only in Eternity,” all soul, all “emptiness” then here, was precluded from SEEING the Indian. They never realized the Indian in the least save as an unformed PURITAN. The immorality of such a concept, the inhumanity, the brutalizing effect upon their own minds, on their SPIRITS—they never suspected.
And Xlather, a flower in mail, inhuman——
—a bee that stabs a bear. Blind seeds, I said, filled with the baleful beauty of their religion: an IMMORAL source—— A source at any rate, immoral or moral, religion, a blinding fury for the most part. They were seeds, a fiery concentrate of great virtues—dwarfed; the genus indistinguishable in the egg. It is that hidden, unacknowledged bias (that they were Elizabethans) that IS their strength. It is that violent bias that as with mocking, hellish whips would drive them still to change, to grow. But the direction, the objective has been lost in the mass of the NEW.
Never could they have comprehended that it would be,
that it WAS black deceit for them to condemn Indian sins,
while they cut the ground from under the Indian’s feet without acknowledging so much as his existence. The immorality, I say, of such an attitude never becomes apparent to them. Or, yes, up to a certain point it does: they bought their land instead of frankly stealing it and set up palisades to mark the two parts from each other; they instituted courts—but in themselves they were like pebbles. To them it was as nothing to desecrate the chief’s mother’s grave, in the name of sanctity’ pulling up the stakes, to shock the spirit of native reverence. Yet it cannot be said it was the time. For there was a Frenchman further north, a Jesuit, of different understanding. There was a maggot in theln. It was their beliefs.
‘[his THING and its effects you will detect in Mather, in him a curious blend of learning and intolerance that’s illusstrated when he says, “there are, they say, two hundred thousand books in the library which Ptolemy erected at Alexandria: but it was the addition of the scriptures xvhich made it a truly LEARNED library.” The turn of the word “learned” is the image of their sophistry.
Puritans, we name them, but they were not so called l)ccause of moral qualities. They were not blessed with that name in’ virtue (If a stern but just conception of the world. [hat is a Iriisconception of the name. They were called PurItans from a stripped dogma of four noncorrosive links, rhes’ thought. a saving bond in their desolation and abandonment between themselves and God.
He smiled and begged me to distinguish in my mind between the rugged English pioneers and a theoretic dogma that clung to them unevenly, doubtful how much any of it was a part of anxr one of them. But that is it, I answered. That is exactly what I pretend to do, to separate it out, to isolate it. It is an immorality that IS America. Here it began. You see the cause. ‘There was no ground to build on, with a ground all blossoming about them—under their noses. Their thesis is a possession of the incomplete—like