From Flaxius: Leaves from the Life of an Immortal, a collection of Leland’s contemporary (for 1902) fables:
Out of mere mischief and mockery grew evil, even as Loki from playing boyish tricks became the devil. To do evil is one thing, to study and understand it is another, but in all ages men have confused the two.
‘TWAS on a Syrian summer afternoon, therefore a warm one, that Flaxius sat in the silent solitude of a ruined city of most ancient days, in Midian, a place wherein the satyr has not even yet met the English tourist, nor the Egipani, or demons of the lonely wildnesses, been called to stand and deliver statistics to the German savant.
He sat on a wedge-inscripted stone, about a young bird’s flight from what had been of yore a purplelined palace of sweet sin, but so tremendous in its majesty, even in decay and decency, that the sternest Puritan who ever iconoclasted a cathedral would have thought twice ere ravishing this House of Baal.
‘Beauty,’ said Flaxius, ‘may be its own excuse for being—very naughty—but grandeur, even when touching in its old decay, is more than an excuse; it is a vindication for the sins, however great, of all who are possessed of it. And they were great in glory and splendour! How great the men were who dwelt here in the olden golden time! and how little idea has any man on earth in this age of small things, of what it was to live in greatness, though it were in great delusions.’
As he said this—’twas in the first dimness of twilight—a breeze began to stir the palms and he heard the hoot of an owl, which was re-echoed far and far away by the monotonous and much more unmusical song of some Arab peasant at his plough.
‘I would like to know,’ quoth Flaxius, ‘whether the song of the owl portends the death of that peasant, or the song of the peasant the death of the owl? Methinks the owl has the worst of it, for the ploughman hoots fifty per cent. more horribly. Now, of the nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine divinations invented by Kai Umarat, the first of the Magi, and first born of Adam, can I not find one here at hand to settle the weighty question?’
As he said this, while idly digging in the sand with his staff, he struck something hard, which shining, seemed to be of bronze. The sage picked it up and found he had unearthed an axe of the richest and deepest green patina.
‘Just the thing,’ thought Flaxius. ‘Thou comest, as Germans say, “unto the call.” It was by Axiomancy or the balanced axe that the ancients were wont to decide a question—halfpence to toss not having been then invented; and I can bear Pliny out in his assertion that the game was extremely fashionable. In neolithic days they drew a circle, bisected it with a line, put the kelt in the middle, and made it spin, inferring from the way it pointed when at rest whether Yes or No had been vouchsafed. The thing still exists as a little game among American Red Indians. They spun on their axes, unde nomen derivatur. The Romans hung the hatchet with a cord; and if I remember aright, Francesco della Torre Biana1 declares that the fallof Jerusalem was thus predicted. I wonder who predicted it?’
Whether it was from the ground, or the tombs, or the ruins, or the great palm-tree was not apparent, but there was heard a hollow sound like no earthly voice, but a sound as of wings. There was a mocking tone in it which said:
‘I with that axe which thou holdest in thy hand.’
‘And who in the name of Desolation art thou who dwellest here in solitude?’ inquired Flaxius.
And the voice replied:
‘What! Asmodeus, the Devil on two Sticks! Well, old friend, I was a fool to put the question, for I now remember (and Wierus has said it) that thou art the demon of all games and gambling. I would fain see thee again. What ho, Chammadai! Sidonai! Aschmodai, appear! In the name of thy master Am-oimon!’
‘Thou forgettest,’replied the Voice,more mockingly than before, ‘that according to the Pseudomonarchia Daemonum, he who invokes Asmodeus must stand firmly on his legs and call loudly.’
‘Well,’ replied the Magian, ‘I am seated firmly sur mon seant, which will do just as well, sans cermonie among old friends, and since thou hearest me it is loud enough. Come forth, I say!’
And, lo! there came forth from the doorway of the ruined temple an unearthly form, in appearance awful and appalling, but so strangely mingled with the grotesque, a demon with the laughing nightmare, that the wisdom of this our age, and all its art of pen or pencil would have failed to depict it.
It paused in silence, seeming like a statue, and when the Magian himself spoke, it was not in words but with Thought to the arch-demon of delusion and of mockery:
‘I see thee as thou art, O Spirit, who wert once mighty to impose on man in so many forms, O stupendous scarecrow of the past, and its jester withal, for the day is wellnigh gone by when mankind at large can grasp thy paradoxes! Yea, they are rapidly becoming a vexation, or a bore, or a trifle, as the idol of the past becomes the nursery toy of the present.
‘Truly, there was a time when Dante and Milton and many more were, to every word, living truths for all who read them, and the form was animated with the idea. Now, the Inferno burns no more, Pandemonium and Theism and Satan are all mere senile fables. What remains is the art of the poet—nothing more—a beautiful, petrified figure—very beautiful —but—dead. And thy spirit, O Daemon, in its best meaning, still lives in Aristophanes and Shakespeare and Chaucer, and Rabelais and Villon; but the comprehension of it is dying—dying fast, O Daemon !— and ere long they too will be petrifactions, wearing indeed the outward semblance of what they were, but from them life will be gone. Men think that they still enjoy the poet in spirit and in truth, but what they really enjoy is only their own criticisms and sense of vain intelligence—and with that the signs of death begin. For where intelligence and selfknowledge awaken, feeling for that which is without us ceases. It was never meant that man should enjoy at once the two extremes of pleasure—even as the Catholic moral casuist determined that man could not combine the extreme of passionate love with the holy sweetness of relationship. Yes, the humour and absurdity, and wild contrast which was the deepest problem in human nature, become before criticism a poor shadowy thing. And thus endeth the first lesson. Let me look a while longer into thy eyes, O Daemon, and find a second.’
And yet anon to Flaxius, as he gazed on the form, it was as if he were looking through some wondrous arch into a Vanity fairy-land, and, advancing, saw at every step newer and stranger arches, richly and wildly adorned; through which, as in a marvellous vista, he beheld Infernos, Paradises, Fiddler’s Greens, Edens, Tom Tiddler’s grounds, convents. These he knew were lupanars, witch-burnings at which holy men sang hymns to God, martyrdoms for smoke, or the toss of a farthing, millions killed in battles for quarrels about things which had no existence, men and women tortured to death for not believing in nothing but a farce—ages following ages, all mad with lies against Nature. And busy in it all was the spirit Aschmodai or Asmodeus, whose business it is on earth to turn chance to mischief, to inspire all the manias and follies and delusions which make men fools in every way, and awaken in them vanity and error. And it was no wonder that, as he beheld him, something like a vision or a song swept through the soul of Flaxius. For this was He
‘Who grappled once with mighty Solomon,
And cast him from his throne, and then in turn
Was fettered heavily and made to work
On the great temple of Jerusalem,
To which he gave its last magnificence
Beyond the monarch’s hope, yet jeered at all;
Yea, at his chains as at his victory;
And who, as he was borne in fetters thus,
When all men deemed him sunk in deep despair,
Burst out a-laughing. “Wherefore art thou glad?”
Inquired a sage. He answered, ” Lo, I laughed,
Because I saw a conjurer in the street,
Who promised unto all his dupes to tell
Where buried treasure lay, yet never knew
That such a treasure lay beneath his feet,
Even as he spoke during his conjuring.”
He too it was of old who tempted Job:
Nay, there are Rabbis who maintain to-day
‘Twas he who as the Serpent tempted Eve,
Not out of evil but from mockery,
Deeming the Tree and all a mighty joke,
The farce primaeval, out of which has grown
A thousand-farced series which men call
The History of Man—which were indeed
A mighty jest to devils, as the frogs
Were to the boys of old—and might be too
Unto the baratrachians, were not
The pebbles which are cast, so sharp and large,
Yes, in a thousand times ten thousand forms,
As mocking devil, or as god supreme,
Asmodeus is known unto the world.’
‘Do not forget,’ said Asmodeus, ‘ my last—albeit my weakest and most stagey and shallow incarnation—the Mephistopheles of Goethe. Yet he made me say one good thing, when I call myself, “der Geist der stets verneint.” Do you know what verneint means?—for if you do, you know more than most folk.’
‘I opine,’ said Flaxius,’ that it means “denies.”‘ ‘That, and something more,’ laughed Asmodeus. ‘Verneinen meant, of yore, also to enchant, conjure, bewitch, or humbug. C’est mon metier, I cast a spell on every work of man, and make thereof in time a mockery—all mockery is denial in the end— denial is the bringing all to naught.’
‘Truly, from thy point of view thou hast seen rare jests in thy time, Aschmodai,’ said Flaxius. ‘A history of the world, written by thee, with comments, would be amusing reading—as would the review thereof in the Presbyterian—and I could find it in my heart to wish a plague on ye both, did I not know that there are some grains of truth between ye.’
‘Ay, I should catch it hot beyond a doubt,1 replied Asmodeus, ‘for the less intellect a man has the more he believes in it, and is therefore the more furious with those who mock the sublime wisdom in whose army he is a corporal. But what thinkest thou, Flaxius, of Thought?’
‘I read not long ago,’ replied the Sage,’ an essay by a she-philosopher, who said that as we ever deeper go into the subtlest mystery of things, the more impossible it still becomes not to perceive an action as of mind, working co-relative with natural law. The good girl left out of sight the small fact that thought and natural law maybe one in Nirvana. It is a marvellous, apparent law that man is not allowed to solve the problem as yet; could he do so he would settle down into superstition or atheism —both unprogressive.’
‘Ay,’ quoth Asmodeus, ‘ thought and natural law now carry one another alternately. See the boys in Florence when they play at scaricabarile. One boy, back to back with a rival, locks arms with him, and so they lift each other up and down. ‘Tis a game much resembling polemics, because in it both of the combatants—whether lifting or lifted—appear by turns ridiculous.’
‘Ah, well,’ replied Flaxius,’ it is a vigorous game, and developes muscle, as does all struggling. Out of peaceful parthenogenesis and idleness, starvation, and the struggle for life, evolve energy and male strength, intellect, and will. But, Aschmodai, what thinkst thou more of Thought.’
‘Though I was one of the very first thoughts ever thought, if not the first itself, as many think,’ replied the Spirit,’ the answer to that question is still unto me a mystery. Yet as we see that in life the crystal precedes the flower, or organic growth, monsters come before man, Egyptian pyramids before Greek and Gothic grace, barbarism before enlightenment, so do I deem that natural law preceded thought and involuntary action will, which was first, creatingness or a creator. With the first motion in matter came the first act, in the unorganic the organic was born ;—but how this was it knew not, nor do we know, O my Flaxius, for truly there is an immense amount of things which it would be better for man to look after before he afflicts his small soul with the problem of the egg and the hen. But so long as man shall make a fool of himself, either as atheist, theist, or agnostic waiting to see how the fight will turn, so that he, the Mugwump of faith, may join the conqueror—even so long shall I, Aschmodai, live in glory and triumph. This trinity has been my very life, even as alchemy drew from the spirit of the three its elixir vitce. And mighty have been the mockeries and many the jests which I
refundere dicimus: E/anno a scaricabarili. Inter hoc autem et illud de quo supra: Fan a scaricalasino, ea est differentia quod hoc significat alterum in alterum culpam suam rejicere; illud ver6 simpliciter alicujus criminis culpam a se dimoverc.’—Angeli Monosinii Floris Italica Lingua Libri Novem, A.D. 1604.
have drawn from it, nor is the merriment as yet quite o’er—albeit I know that I am perishing—and passing with the Triad fast away. Oh, it was glorious to behold the Jew—the original inventor of man’s vilest vanity, Chauvinism or national pride, who first created religious oppression, and believed with Rabbi Jochanan that, ” as the best of serpents deserves to have its head crushed, so the best of Gentiles ought to be killed “—’tis sweet, I say, to live to hear him raise the martyr’s cry, even as the Pope is now raising it—” the po-oo-r Pope “—as a prisoner in the Vatican! Then were the discoverers of the art of Martyrdom avenged by seeing the humblest among them made the gods of the oppressors; and so Men all rolled on into time, burning and torturing millions, especially old women, for the love of Him whose one great doctrine was mercy, charity, love, and sweetness. Then there were revolts of the oppressed, and peasants’ wars and gladiators’ revolts, and French Revolutions—alternate black and white —and in it all hell throve, and I laughed.’ ‘But thou art dying.’
‘Well, my Flaxius, I have had a call. Thou rememberest the tale of the Three Warnings, or how Death promised a man that he should be signalled thrice ere called away. So he became lame and deaf and blind—these were the three.’
‘And when was thy first warning?’
‘When Christ preached unconditional altruism unto mankind—cosmopolitanism and equality. That lamed me.’
‘And the second?’
‘When a Hindu set up a religion on the word Sikh. It means, “seek!” What goes beyond faith,unbelief, or uncertainty is to inquire and search and seek for truth. So I was deafened by that awful cry.’ ‘And the third?’
‘Aristotle, Friar Bacon, Francis Bacon, Darwin, Induction, Evolution. That will soon finish me. But the first blow was the worst, and I knew it. I bore up well, and made a gallant fight, but I am dying. Vicisti, GaliUee/’
As he spoke, the full golden Syrian moon shone o’er their heads in an unclouded sky, a gentle breeze was wantoning in the palms, yet from afar there came a jackal’s cry, and then the booming of a lion’s roar.
‘I shall pass away, my Flaxius, but I shall live again in some form; evil or good, my spirit cannot die. For there is a good in me—a good of strength —and while matter casts a shadow, or contrasts and paradoxes exist, I shall be. All in a softened form I well previse. As the sun which set is followed by yonder moon, so shall I be softer, and yet as eternal. When God shall assume a higher form, I shall inherit the old throne and sceptre.’
‘Yes,’ replied Flaxius, ‘it well may be. Shelley and sundry other inspired lunatics had that idea; ’twas known to the Greeks, not without thy aid, O Aschmodai! For thou hast always thrown doubt and a fine frenzy and confusion over all great truths.’
‘Recte dixisti, thou speakest truly,’ answered Aschmodai. ‘Had all been all at once, nothing had ever been.’ Son Flaxius, thou too art a moon, and thou art my son; but thou wouldst fain enjoy the paradox without the pain. As the old hard-griping peasant grows rich, unheeding of what misery he makes, while his cultured heir grows gentle and amiable, so wilt thou, and the world which has been enriched by the past, grow milder. Le diable est mort—vive le diable!
‘Hcecfabula docet,’ penned the sage,’ that men, with all their wisdom, do not train their wondrous power of putting numbers together to make sums, or the faculty of deduction, by means of which stupendous results of prophecy may be attained. This might be increased to a degree which would seem to us miraculous. Edgar A. Poe had strange intuitions of what might be in his theory that he who observes all antecedents and possible combinations may surely foresee consequences.
‘And, as his name reminds me, Poe mentions that at Palaechosi, in Sparta, there is existent on a stone an inscription L.A.S.M., which is probably a part of GELASMA or Laughter, indicating a shrine to the merry god. Apropos of which M. Marcel Schwob remarks that laughter is destined to die away with advancing culture. “It is,” he declares, “a mere tic, a gross physical manifestation of the perception of disharmony in the world, which will vanish before complete scepticism, absolute science, general pity, or intolerance of suffering and respect for all things.” This idea should assuredly please Anglo-Americans, among whom, while a sense of humour increases, the laugh diminishes, till we generally find in their greatest jesters men who never laugh at all.
‘But M. Schwob errs in his Essai de Paradoxe sur le Hire, when he declares that this species of contraction of the zygomatic muscles is peculiar to man, it having been an indication of his feeble intelligence and the conviction of his own superiority. The Newfoundland dog laughs at times, and that with an expression which is completely human. I had heard of this several times before I witnessed it, and also heard that the expression, though droll, was so uncanny in a dog as to awaken something like awe, as I, indeed, experienced. These dogs have a keen sense of humour, entering with intelligence into the games and romps of boys. But the error of M. Schwob, as well as that of Matthew Arnold, is to believe that seriousness or mere gravity is essential to genius. The French writer is of opinion that laughter expresses only sneers, sarcasms, vanity, and short-witted scepticism. It means far more than this to greater minds. As the Schwobian view is diabolical, so is there, on the other hand, a divine humour, a sweet and sacred gelasma, which we only do not associate with sacred things and grandeur, simply because we know nothing about their true inner nature and are not at home there. There is a sweet laughter of innocence, purity and youth, in which a smile always irradiates the face, lighting it to higher beauty. Is not a smile divine? Is not all beauty as the smile of God in nature? And there is also a bitter smile —a sardonic laugh—the very life of Aschmodai, and the meaning of this chapter is that this laugh is vanishing in the world, and with it the brutal bray and idiotic ‘yawp’ and silly snigger of the vulgar mind; but that the merry musical laugh of the gentle heart, and the smile divine which thrills the heart of love like wine, will remain to man, after asinine seriousness shall have vanished for ever.
Tis a delicate thing to draw the lines which divide the gold from the dross, and show how the harsh humour will be neglected in Shakespeare and Rabelais, as theology is dropped from our admiration of Dante, but all of them will live in so far as the angelic smile beams in them.
Note that had this world been without variableness or the shadow of turning, darkness and light, or night and day, rise and fall, it had not been at all; and that, while there shall be change and contrast and evolution, or nature itself, there will be humour, which is the soul and life of laughter, and though it has been easily checked in this priggish fin de Stecle (when dolts have wellnigh got the upper hand, and dismal dulness shadows all the land) yet with the great coming Renaissance of Nature, which is just beginning to show under the aid of science, as the morning redness comes with the rising sun, men will laugh merrily once more, not in bitterness, but in love.
FLAXIUS IN FLORENCE
OR, THE GOBLIN OF THE TOWER DELLA
TRINITA, BY THE PORTA SAN NICCOLO.
‘They do not speak as mortals speak,
Nor sing as others sing:
Their words are gleams of starry light,
Their songs the glow of sunset bright:
Or meteors on the wing.1
The following story belongs to this book ‘in good faith of all sorts,’ be it salted, pickled or sugared; since it was originally the first ever recorded of the great and good Flaxius. But as it was of Florence, Florentiny, so, following the saying, ‘first come, first served,’ and being engaged on The Legends of Florence1—in which book the lovers of romance and the occult will find many a rare treat, showing how all Florence is a charmingly haunted city— therefore did I first introduce the sage in it to the world.
And in the introduction I said that the legend is of great antiquity, since there is a hint of it in an ancient Hebrew work by Rabbi ben Mozel-toff, or the learned Rev Gedauler Chamar, besides being found in poetic form in my own great work The Music Lesson of Confucius ; also in a marvellous cabalistic manuscript which I bought in sight of Santa.