Chapter 80

I was back in New York on September 9th and started at once to make arrangements to publish volume III of The Equinox. (I should explain that volume II consists of ten numbers of silence to balance those of speech.) I found a studio at 1 University Place, at the corner of Washington Square. Having only one room I thought I would camouflage the bed and had a large screen with three sections made for me. I covered the canvases with a triptych, my first attempt at painting in oil. The design was symbolic of the three principles, Sun, Moon and Agni (fire), of the Hindus. The bed being still visible from some parts of the room, I got a second screen of the same pattern, which brought me to fame. For some days it stood patiently pleading to be painted, but I could not think of a subject.

Early in January, I received a visit from the lady hereafter called the Ape of Thoth and her elder sister. The chain of circumstances antecedent is strangely tenuous.

I had brought a letter of introduction, from England, to Hereward Carrington from my friend the Hon. Everard Feilding. Through Carrington, it came about that I was asked to lecture under the auspices of a particularly transparent charlatan named Christiansen, who worked the sealed letter swindle with a crudity that paid a very poor compliment to his audience. Among my hearers was only one bearing even a remote resemblance to the human species, an old lady painted to resemble the cover of a popular magazine. I went to talk to her after the lecture and found she was an intimate friend of dear Hereward's. I saw no more of her except by accident for a few minutes' chat on two or three occasions.

One evening in the spring of 1918, I was surprised by her calling with her youngest sister. I could not ask them into the studio, being engaged in an important conference with an antique, but sprightly German lady who boasted of having introduced cabarets into America, and had abandoned worldly pleasures for spiritual joys. She had been entangled in the toils of one of the charlatans who worked the Rosicrucian racket, merrily disdainful of criticism based on his elementary blunders in Latin and his total ignorance of the history of the Order which he claimed to rule. The old lady was simple-minded, sincere and earnest. I did not grudge the labour of trying to get her to use common sense, but as almost invariable in America, and heartbreakingly common even in Europe, the task was beyond my powers. {791}

Just as extreme hunger makes a man shovel down anything that looks like food, so the ache of the soul for truth makes it swallow whatever promises. The poor old woman was so pathetically eager to find a Master, that she would not banish the phantasm. I proved in a dozen different ways that the man was a foul liar. That was easy enough. His claims were grotesquely absurd. For instance, he said that I don't know how many knights of England and France — the most improbable people — were Rosicrucians. He said the Order was founded by one of the early Egyptian kings and professed to have documentary evidence of an unbroken hierarchy of initiates since then. He called the Order Rosae Crucis and translated it Rosy Cross. He said that in Toulouse the Order possessed a vast temple with fabulous magnificent appointments, an assertion disprovable merely by consulting Baedeker. He said that Rockefeller had given him nine hundred thousand dollars and at the same time sent round the hat with an eloquent plea for the smallest contributions. He professed to be a learned Egyptologist and classical scholar on terms of intimacy with the most exalted personages. Yet, as in the case of Peter, his speech betrayed him. He was a good chap at heart, a genuine lover of truth, by no means altogether ignorant of Magick, and a great fool to put up all this bluff instead of relying on his really good qualities. But her faith in him was built on the rock of her wish that his nonsense was true, and because he stood between her and blank despair.

To return, I went out to excuse myself to my visitors. The “little sister” reminded me of Solomon's friend, for she had no breasts. She was tall and strangely thin, with luminous eyes, a wedge-like face, a poignant sadness and a sublime simplicity. She radiated an indefinable sweetness. Without wasting time on words, I began to kiss her. It was sheer instinct. She shared it and equalled my ardour. We continued with occasional interruptions, such as politeness required, to answer her sister in the rare intervals when she got out of breath.

They went away after a while and I saw them no more until this equally unexpected call in January. They wanted my advice about finding an apartment in the village (a geographically vague section in this part of New York is called “Greenwich Village”). She wished to be near the New York University, having begun a course of lectures on law, being sick of her job as a teacher in Public School No. 40, the Bronx, which meant telling lies to an amorphous mob of adolescent Hebrew huskies, the only consolation being the certainty that no one would notice the nonsense she was obliged, by the city, to grind out.

While we talked, I took off her clothes and asked her to come and pose for me when she felt inclined. I proposed, half in joke, to solve her problem by taking her as a lodger. They drifted out and I never expected to hear any more of the matter. But on the eleventh of January she suddenly blew in. (She {792} swears I telephoned to ask her and perhaps I did. I have my moments of imbecile impulse. I undressed her again, but this time not with impunity.)

To appease conscience I proceeded to make a sketch, a rough rude scrawl. I had never drawn from the nude before. The essential simplicity of the human body beneath its baffling complexities was the Sphinx itself. I threw down my pencil in disgust and despair. But after she had gone I could not sleep. I lay in the dark and found my thoughts drawn by invisible gossamer to the drawing. I picked it up and was suddenly aware that looked at with the figure vertical instead of horizontal, it meant something. I was seized with a spasm of creative energy and all night long I splashed the central canvas with paint. When she took the pose I had asked her, “What shall I call the picture; what shall I paint you as?” She had said, “Paint me as a dead soul.” My screen is called Dead Souls.

She stood central, her head the keystone of the arch of monsters. Her face is ghastly green. Her fleshless body lustreless, white and grey-blue shadows beneath the ribs. On the left-hand panel is a kneeling Negress, bestially gross, her gaze fixed adoringly on the Queen of Dead Souls. Perched on her shoulder, a parrot of brilliant plumage, many hued, surveys the scene with insolent indifference. On the opposite canvas is a kneeling woman huddled as if in agony, a cascade of lustreless hair tumbling to her hips.

Along the entire base are rows of misshapen heads; all anguish, all perversity, all banishment from the world of reasonable things is portrayed in almost endless variety. The screen is grotesque, yet is undeniably a work of genius. It possesses a unity. The dead souls have composed a living soul. Everyone who saw it went away horror-struck or in the spirit of Shimei. But they all talked of nothing else. Bob Chandler came again and again to gaze and gloat. He brought everyone he knew to look at it. And even artists famous for their classical refinement had to admit its grisly power. In short, the dead souls conquered the city and their Queen their creator. She came like Balchis to Solomon, bringing gifts, an endless caravan of fascinations. Innumerable elephants groaning under the treasury of virtues, while in her own slim-fingered hands, she brought her heart. Before her coming the concubines covered their faces and fled. We found almost at once a splendid studio on the south side of Washington Square, a long and lofty room with three wide windows, looking out across the tree tops to the opening of Fifth Avenue.

From this point of vantage the ensuing months appeared tolerable. I was occupied in defeating the dishonest intrigues of the people in Detroit who had sent emissaries to approach me in the winter. I was persuaded to put the publication of The Equinox, vol. III, No. 1 into the hands of those latter, and they immediately began to try to evade fulfilling the terms of the contract. I spent the summer in a tent beyond Montauk at the extremity of Long Island. {793}

The Magical Retirement made it clear that the current was exhausted. I had finished my work in America and began to prepare my escape.

In the autumn I accepted an invitation to visit my friends William and Kate Seabrook on their farm in Georgia to which they had retired. He had held an important position on the Hearst papers, and his sanity and decency had revolted against so despicably disgusting a job. He knew he was a genius and the effect of knowing me was to make him ashamed of himself. Alas, not long after my influence was removed, he became a backslider. He made sporadic attempts to escape from his environment, but the caress of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the artist's word and it becomes untruthful.

I passed a delightful six weeks in the south. Political and social conditions were of great interest. The standardized surface has overspread the south, but it has not completely smothered the old violence of passion and prejudice. The hatred of the Yankee and his fear of the Negro are as great as ever. In the latter case it has increased. The recent revival and the nation-wide spread of the Ku-Klux-Klan is one of the most sinister symptoms of recent years.

From Atlanta I went to Detroit and then took in the Mammoth Caves of Kentucky. I need not describe them. I content myself with the remark that they make a third wonder of the world worth seeing, from Niagara to the Grand Canyon. Except for the Yellowstone Park, which I have not yet seen, nothing else in America is worth seeing first or last for the matter of that.

A final inspection of the bughouse in Detroit left me free to get back to Europe. I reached London a few days before Christmas 1919.


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