Caesar's Column, by Ignatius Donnelly

Chapter 21.

A Sermon of the Twentieth Century

Max and I entered the church together. It is a magnificent structure — palatial, cathedral-like, in its proportions — a gorgeous temple of fashion, built with exquisite taste, of different-colored marbles, and surrounded by graceful columns. Ushers, who looked like guards in uniform, stood at the doors, to keep out the poorly-dressed people, if any such presented themselves; for it was evident that this so-called church was exclusively a club-house of the rich.

As we entered we passed several marble statues. It is a curious illustration of the evolution of religion, in these latter days, that these statues are not representations of any persons who have ever lived, or were supposed to have lived on earth, or anywhere else; and there was not in or about them any hint whatever of myth or antique belief. In the pre-Christian days the work of the poet and sculptor taught a kind of history in the statues of the pagan divinities. Bacchus told of some ancient race that had introduced the vine into Europe and Africa. Ceres, with her wheat-plant, recited a similar story as to agriculture. And Zeus, Hercules, Saturn and all the rest were, in all probability — as Socrates declared — deified men. And, of course, Christian art was full of beautiful allusions to the life of the Savior, or to his great and holy saints and martyrs. But here we had simply splendid representations of naked human figures, male and female, wondrously beautiful, but holding no associations whatever with what you and I, my dear Heinrich, call religion.

Passing these works of art, we entered a magnificent hall. At the farther end was a raised platform, almost embowered in flowers of many hues, all in full bloom. The light entered through stained windows, on the sides of the hall, so colored as to cast a weird and luxurious effulgence over the great chamber. On the walls were a number of pictures; some of a very sensuous character; all of great beauty and perfect workmanship; but none of them of a religious nature, unless we might except one of the nude Venus rising from the sea.

The body of the hall was arranged like a great lecture-room; there were no facilities for or suggestions of devotion, but the seats were abundantly cushioned, and with every arrangement for the comfort of the occupants. The hall was not more than half full, the greater part of those present being women. Most of these were fair and beautiful; and even those who had long passed middle age retained, by the virtue of many cunning arts, well known to these people, much of the appearance and freshness of youth. I might here note that the prolongation of life in the upper classes, and its abbreviation in the lower classes, are marked and divergent characteristics of this modern civilization.

I observed in the women, as I had in those of the Darwin Hotel, associated with great facial perfection, a hard and soulless look out of the eyes; and here, even more than there, I could not but notice a sensuality in the full, red lips, and the quick-glancing eyes, which indicated that they were splendid animals, and nothing more.

An usher led us up one of the thickly carpeted aisles to a front pew; there was a young lady already seated in it. I entered first, and Max followed me. The young lady was possessed of imperial beauty. She looked at us both quite boldly, without shrinking, and smiled a little. We sat down. They were singing a song — I could not call it a hymn; it was all about the “Beautiful and the Good”— or something of that sort. The words and tune were fine, but there were no allusions to religion, or God, or heaven, or anything else of a sacred character. The young lady moved toward me and offered to share her song-book with me. She sang quite sweetly, but there was no more soul in her voice than there was in the song.

After a little time the preacher appeared on the platform. Max told me his name was Professor Odyard, and that he was one of the most eminent philosophers and orators of the day, but that his moral character was not of the best. He was a large, thick-set, florid, full-bearded man, with large lips, black hair and eyes, and swarthy skin. His voice was sweet and flute-like, and he had evidently perfected himself in the graces of elocution. He spoke with a great deal of animation and action; in fact, he was a very vivacious actor.

He commenced by telling the congregation of some new scientific discoveries, recently made in Germany, by Professor Von der Slahe, to the effect that the whole body of man, and of all other animals and even inanimate things, was a mass of living microbes — not in the sense of disease or parasites, but that the intrinsic matter of all forms was life-forms; the infinite molecules were creatures; and that there was no substance that was not animated; and that life was therefore infinitely more abundant in the world than matter; that life was matter.

And then he went on to speak of the recent great discoveries made by Professor Thomas O’Connor, of the Oregon University, which promise to end the reign of disease on earth, and give men patriarchal leases of life. More than a century ago it had been observed, where the bacteria of contagious disorders were bred in culture-infusions, for purposes of study, that after a time they became surrounded by masses of substance which destroyed them. It occurred to Professor O’Connor, that it was a rule of Nature that life preyed on life, and that every form of being was accompanied by enemies which held its over-growth in check: the deer were eaten by the wolves; the doves by the hawks; the gnats by the dragon-flies.

“Big fleas had little fleas to bite ’em,

And these had lesser still, ad infinitum.”

Professor O’Connor found that, in like manner, bacteria, of all kinds, were devoured by minuter forms of life. Recovery from sickness meant that the microbes were destroyed by their natural enemies before they had time to take possession of the entire system; death resulted where the vital powers could not hold out until the balance of nature was thus re-established. He found, therefore, that the remedy for disease was to take some of the culture-infusion in which malignant bacteria had just perished, and inject it into the veins of the sick man. This was like stocking a rat-infested barn with weasels. The invisible, but greedy swarms of bacilli penetrated every part of the body in search of their prey, and the man recovered his health. Where an epidemic threatened, the whole community was to be thus inoculated, and then, when a wandering microbe found lodgment in a human system, it would be pounced upon and devoured before it could reproduce its kind. He even argued that old age was largely due to bacteria; and that perpetual youth would be possible if a germicide could be found that would reach every fiber of the body, and destroy the swarming life-forms which especially attacked the vital forces of the aged.

And then he referred to a new invention by a California scientist, named Henry Myers, whereby telephonic communication had been curiously instituted with intelligences all around us — not spirits or ghosts, but forms of life like our own, but which our senses had hitherto not been able to perceive. They were new forms of matter, but of an extreme tenuity of substance; and with intellects much like our own, though scarcely of so high or powerful an order. It was suggested by the preacher that these shadowy earth-beings had probably given rise to many of the Old–World beliefs as to ghosts, spirits, fairies, goblins, angels and demons. The field in this direction, he said, had been just opened, and it was difficult to tell how far the diversity and multiplicity of creation extended. He said it was remarkable that our ancestors had not foreseen these revelations, for they knew that there were sound-waves both above and below the register of our hearing; and light-waves of which our eyes were able to take no cognizance; and therefore it followed, a priori, that nature might possess an infinite number of forms of life which our senses were not fitted to perceive. For instance, he added, there might be right here, in this very hall, the houses and work-shops and markets of a multitude of beings, who swarmed about us, but of such tenuity that they passed through our substance, and we through theirs, without the slightest disturbance of their continuity. All that we knew of Nature taught us that she was tireless in the prodigality of her creative force, and boundless in the diversity of her workmanship; and we now knew that what the ancients called spirit was simply an attenuated condition of matter.

The audience were evidently keenly intellectual and highly educated, and they listened with great attention to this discourse. In fact, I began to perceive that the office of preacher has only survived, in this material age, on condition that the priest shall gather up, during the week, from the literary and scientific publications of the whole world, the gems of current thought and information, digest them carefully, and pour them forth, in attractive form, for their delectation on Sunday. As a sort of oratorical and poetical reviewer, essayist and rhapsodist, the parson and his church had survived the decadence of religion.

“Nature,” he continued, “is as merciless as she is prolific. Let us consider the humblest little creature that lives — we will say the field-mouse. Think what an exquisite compendium it is of bones, muscles, nerves, veins, arteries — all sheathed in such a delicate, flexible and glossy covering of skin. Observe the innumerable and beautiful adjustments in the little animal: the bright, pumping, bounding blood; the brilliant eyes, with their marvelous powers; the apprehending brain, with its sentiments and emotions, its loves, its fears, its hopes; and note, too, that wonderful net-work, that telegraphic apparatus of nerves which connects the brain with the eyes and ears and quick, vivacious little feet. One who took but a half view of things would say, ‘How benevolent is Nature, that has so kindly equipped the tiny field-mouse with the means of protection — its quick, listening ears; its keen, watchful eyes; its rapid, glancing feet!’ But look a little farther, my brethren, and what do you behold? This same benevolent Nature has formed another, larger creature, to watch for and spring upon this ‘timorous little beastie,’ even in its moments of unsuspecting happiness, and rend, tear, crush and mangle it to pieces. And to this especial work Nature has given the larger animal a set of adjustments as exquisitely perfect as those it has conferred on the smaller one; to-wit: eyes to behold in the darkness; teeth to tear; claws to rend; muscles to spring; patience to wait; and a stomach that clamors for the blood of its innocent fellow-creature.

“And what lesson does this learned and cultured age draw from these facts? Simply this: that the plan of Nature necessarily involves cruelty, suffering, injustice, destruction, death.

“We are told by a school of philanthropists more numerous in the old time, fortunately, than they are at present, that men should not be happy while their fellow-men are miserable; that we must decrease our own pleasures to make others comfortable; and much more of the same sort. But, my brethren, does Nature preach that gospel to the cat when it destroys the field-mouse? No; she equips it with special aptitudes for the work of slaughter.

“If Nature, with her interminable fecundity, pours forth millions of human beings for whom there is no place on earth, and no means of subsistence, what affair is that of ours, my brethren? We did not make them; we did not ask Nature to make them. And it is Nature’s business to feed them, not yours or mine. Are we better than Nature? Are we wiser? Shall we rebuke the Great Mother by caring for those whom she has abandoned? If she intended that all men should be happy, why did she not make them so? She is omnipotent. She permits evil to exist, when with a breath of her mouth she could sweep it away forever. But it is part of her scheme of life. She is indifferent to the cries of distress which rise up to her, in one undying wail, from the face of the universe. With stony eyes the thousand-handed goddess sits, serene and merciless, in the midst of her worshipers, like a Hindoo idol. Her skirts are wet with blood; her creation is based on destruction; her lives live only by murder. The cruel images of the pagan are truer delineations of Nature than the figures which typify the impotent charity of Christendom — an exotic in the midst of an alien world.

“Let the abyss groan. Why should we trouble ourselves. Let us close our ears to the cries of distress we are not able to relieve. It was said of old time, ‘Many are called, but few chosen.’ Our ancestors placed a mythical interpretation on this text; but we know that it means:— many are called to the sorrows of life, but few are chosen to inherit the delights of wealth and happiness. Buddha told us, ‘Poverty is the curse of Brahma’; Mahomet declared that ‘God smote the wicked with misery’; and Christ said, ‘The poor ye have always with you.’ Why, then, should we concern ourselves about the poor? They are part of the everlasting economy of human society. Let us leave them in the hands of Nature. She who made them can care for them.

“Let us rejoice that out of the misery of the universe we are reserved for happiness. For us are music, painting, sculpture, the interweaving glories of the dance, the splendors of poetry and oratory, the perfume of flowers, all delicate and dainty viands and sparkling wines and nectars; and above all Love! Love! Entrancing, enrapturing Love! With its glowing cheeks — its burning eyes — its hot lips — its wreathing arms — its showering kisses — its palpitating bosoms — its intertwining symmetry of beauty and of loveliness.”

Here the young lady with the song book drew up closer to me, and looked up into my eyes with a gaze which no son of Adam could misunderstand. I thought of Estella, like a true knight, and turned my face to the preacher. While his doctrines were, to me, utterly heartless and abominable, there was about him such an ecstasy of voluptuousness, associated with considerable intellectual force and passionate oratory, that I was quite interested in him as a psychological study. I could not help but think by what slow stages, through many generations, a people calling themselves Christians could have been brought to this curious commingling of intellectuality and bestiality; and all upon the basis of indifference to the sorrows and sufferings of their fellow-creatures.

“On with the dance!” shouted the preacher, “though we dance above graves. Let the very calamities of the world accentuate our pleasures, even as the warm and sheltered fireside seems more delightful when we hear without the roar of the tempest. The ancient Egyptians brought into their banquets the mummied bodies of the dead, to remind them of mortality. It was a foolish custom. Men are made to feast and made to die; and the one is as natural as the other. Let us, on the other hand, when we rejoice together, throw open our windows, that we may behold the swarming, starving multitudes who stream past our doors. Their pinched and ashy faces and hungry eyes, properly considered, will add a flavor to our viands. We will rejoice to think that if, in this ill-governed universe, all cannot be blest, we at least rise above the universal wretchedness and are reserved for happiness.

“Rejoice, therefore, my children, in your wealth, in your health, in your strength, in your bodies, and in your loves. Ye are the flower and perfection of mankind. Let no plea shorten, by one instant, your pleasures. Death is the end of all things — of consciousness; of sensation; of happiness. Immortality is the dream of dotards. When ye can no longer enjoy, make ready for the grave; for the end of Love is death.

“And what is Love? Love is the drawing together of two beings, in that nature-enforced affinity and commingling, when out of the very impact and identity of two spirits, life, triumphant life, springs into the universe.

“What a powerful impulse is this Love? It is nature-wide. The rushing together of the chemical elements; the attraction of suns and planets — all are Love. See how even the plant casts its pollen abroad on the winds, that it may somewhere reach and rest upon the loving bosom of a sister-flower; and there, amid perfume and sweetness and the breath of zephyrs, the great mystery of life is re-enacted. The plant is without intellect, but it is sensible to Love.

“And who shall doubt, when he contemplates the complicated mechanism by which, everywhere, this God–Nature — blind as to pain and sin and death, but tender and solicitous as to birth and life — makes Love possible, imperative, soulful, overwhelming, that the purposed end and aim of life is Love. And how pitiful and barren seem to us the lives of the superstitious and ascetic hermits of the ancient world, who fled to desert places, to escape from Love, and believed that they were overcoming the foul fiend by prayers and fastings and scourgings. But outraged Nature, mighty amid the ruins of their blasted hearts, reasserted herself, and visited them even in dreams; and the white arms and loving lips of woman overwhelmed them with hot and passionate caresses, in visions against which they strove in vain.

“Oh, my brethren, every nerve, fiber, muscle, and ‘petty artery of the body,’ participates in Love. Love is the conqueror of death, because Love alone perpetuates life. Love is life! Love is religion! Love is the universe! Love is God!” And with this climax he sat down amid great applause, as in a theater.

I need scarcely say to you, my dear Heinrich, that I was absolutely shocked by this sermon. Knowing, as you do, the kind and pure and gentle doctrines taught in the little church in our mountain home, where love means charity for man and worship of God, you may imagine how my blood boiled at this cruel, carnal and heartless harangue. The glowing and picturesque words which he poured out were simply a carpet of flowers spread over crawling serpents.

The audience of course were familiar with these doctrines. The preacher owed his success, indeed, to the fact that he had courageously avowed the sentiments which had dwelt in the breasts of the people and had been enacted in their lives for generations. The congregation had listened with rapt attention to this eloquent echo of their own hearts; this justification of their Nature-worship; this re-birth of Paganism. The women nestled closer to the men at the tender passages; and I noticed many a flashing interchange of glances, between bold, bright eyes, which told too well that the great preacher’s adjurations were not thrown away upon unwilling listeners.

Another song was sung; and then there was a rustle of silks and satins. The audience were about to withdraw. The preacher sat upon his sofa, on the platform, mopping his broad forehead with his handkerchief, for he had spoken with great energy. I could restrain myself no longer. I rose and said in a loud voice, which at once arrested the movement of the congregation:

“Reverend sir, would you permit a stranger to make a few comments on your sermon?”

“Certainly,” he replied, very courteously; “we welcome discussion. Will you step to the platform?”

“No,” I replied; “with your permission I shall speak from where I stand.

“I can only say to you that I am inexpressibly shocked and grieved by your discourse.

“Are you blind? Can you not see that Christianity was intended by God to be something better and nobler, superimposed, as an after-birth of time, on the brutality of the elder world? Does not the great doctrine of Evolution, in which you believe, preach this gospel? If man rose from a brute form, then advanced to human and savage life, yet a robber and a murderer; then reached civility and culture, and philanthropy; can you not see that the fingerboard of God points forward, unerringly, along the whole track of the race; and that it is still pointing forward to stages, in the future, when man shall approximate the angels? But this is not your doctrine. Your creed does not lead forward; it leads backward, to the troglodyte in his cavern, splitting the leg-bones of his victim to extract the marrow for his cannibalistic feast. He would have enjoyed your sermon!” [Great excitement in the congregation.]

“And your gospel of Love. What is it but beastliness? Like the old Greeks and Romans, and all undeveloped antiquity, you deify the basest traits of the fleshly organism; you exalt an animal incident of life into the end of life. You drive out of the lofty temples of the soul the noble and pure aspirations, the great charities, the divine thoughts, which should float there forever on the pinions of angels; and you cover the floor of the temple with crawling creatures, toads, lizards, vipers — groveling instincts, base appetites, leprous sensualities, that befoul the walls of the house with their snail-like markings, and climb, and climb, until they look out of the very windows of the soul, with such repellent and brutish eyes, that real love withers and shrinks at the sight, and dies like a blasted flower.

“O shallow teacher of the blind, do you not see that Christianity was a new force, Heaven-sent, to overcome that very cruelty and heartlessness of Nature which you so much commend? Nature’s offspring was indeed the savage, merciless as the creed you preach. Then came God, who breathed a soul into the nostrils of the savage. Then came One after Him who said the essence of all religion was man’s love for his fellow man, and for the God that is over all; that the highest worship of the Father was to heal the sick, and feed the hungry, and comfort the despised and rejected, and lift up the fallen. And love! — that was true love, made up in equal parts of adoration and of pity! Not the thing you call love, which makes these faces flush with passion and these eyes burn with lust!”

I had gotten thus far, and was proceeding swimmingly, very much to my own satisfaction, when an old woman who stood near me, and who was dressed like a girl of twenty, with false rubber shoulders and neck and cheeks, to hide the ravages of time, hurled a huge hymn-book, the size of a Bible, at me. Age had not impaired the venerable woman’s accuracy of aim, nor withered the strength of her good right arm; and the volume of diluted piety encountered me, with great force, just below my right ear, and sent me reeling over against Max. As I rose, nothing disconcerted, to renew my discourse, I found the air full of hymn-books, cushions, umbrellas, overshoes, and every other missile they could lay their hands on; and then I perceived that the whole congregation, men, women, children, preacher, clerks and ushers, were all advancing upon me with evil intent. I would fain have staid to have argued the matter out with them, for I was full of a great many fine points, which I had not yet had time to present, but Max, who never had any interest in theological discussions, and abhorred a battle with Amazons, seized me by the arm and literally dragged me out of the church. I continued, however, to shout back my anathemas of the preacher, and that worthy answered me with floods of abuse; and the women screamed, and the men howled and swore; and altogether it was a very pretty assemblage that poured forth upon the sidewalk.

“Come along,” said Max; “you will be arrested, and that will spoil everything.”

He hurried me into a carriage and we drove off. Although still full of the debate, I could not help but laugh when I looked back at the multitude in front of the church. Every one was wildly ejaculating, except some of the sisters, who were kissing the hands and face of the preacher — dear, good man — to console him for the hateful insults I had heaped upon him! They reminded me of a swarm of hornets whose paper domicile had been rudely kicked by the foot of some wandering country boy.

“Well, well,” said Max, “you are a strange character! Your impulses will some time cost you your life. If I did not think so much of you as I do, I should tell you you were a great fool. Why couldn’t you keep quiet? You surely didn’t hope to convert that congregation, any more than you could have converted the Council of the Plutocracy.”

“But, my dear fellow,” I replied, “it was a great comfort to me to be able to tell that old rascal just what I thought of him. And you can’t tell — it may do some good.”

“No, no,” said Max; “the only preacher that will ever convert that congregation is Cæsar Lomellini. Cæsar is a bigger brute than they are — which is saying a good deal. The difference is, they are brutes who are in possession of the good things of this world; and Cæsar is a brute who wants to get into possession of them. And there is another difference: they are polished and cultured brutes, and Cæsar is the brute natural — ‘the unaccommodated man’ that Lear spoke of.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37