Confessions of a Failed Egoist, and Other Essays
Baltimore: Underworld Amusements, 2014
The Gospel According to Malfew Seklew: and Other Writings By and About Sirfessor Wilkesbarre
Ed. Kevin I. Slaughter, Introduction by Trevor Blake
Baltimore: Underworld Amusements, 2014
We’ve been puking up novelties in every sector at nauseous speed over the past century and a quarter: from wonderful flying machines to contrivances for pestering people—sorry, I meant “communications technology.” Even religions and their schisms are festering at a sickening clip—including faiths of the tongue-in-cheek kind.
So as part of my catch-up series on Kevin I. Slaughter’s “Underworld Amusements” publishing venture, allow me to remark that a significant minority of this small press’s recent volumes have been devoted to a dialogue between the modern and ancient (er, 20th-century) branches of the creed of egoism.
Egoism is a sly, goof-nuts wink of a worship system—think of the words “system” and “worship” here in the loosest sense—that’s so young and limber we call it a philosophy. But current-day egoist Trevor Blake, unfooled by even his own self-worship, made it his business in his essay collection, Confessions of a Failed Egoist, to treat Self-as-Deity as an idea worthy of (or rotten enough for) a theological discussion.
Unlike “real” religions, egoism requires no man to bow down before anything outside himself; but unlike philosophy, Blake argues, egoism doesn’t give any more figs for truth, logic, or consistency than it has to spare for faith. As Blake puts it in the titular essay:
[A]s the contrarian’s philosophy, disproof is not enough to make egoism go poof. The magician’s cape whirls once again to reveal egoism puts the imp in impossible.
The spirit of egoism, Blake points out, has been whispering on the breeze for millennia, but in the mid-19th century Max Stirner pinned it to paper in The Ego and His Own. The most entertaining of Stirner’s disciples coalesced in Chicago in the first quarter of the 20th century—coming together strictly for their individual enrichment and pleasure, you understand—and also in 2014 Underworld Amusements published, alongside Confessions of a Failed Egoist, a collection of the writs and speeches of the old Chicago coven’s most colorful character, Fred Wilkes, more commonly known as Sirfessor Wilkesbarre.
Wilkes—a café preacher of egoism; a salesman of sausages and clip-on ties; writing partner to the infamous Ragnar Redbeard; and possibly the model for Everett True—had so much ego he needed several aliases to contain them. The title of this collection overtly parodies religious scripture, and features two of the Sirfessor’s alter egos quoting each other: it’s called The Gospel According to Malfew Seklew: and Other Writings By and About Sirfessor Wilkesbarre. Using your own alter egos in an appeal-to-authority argument with each other: this may be the point where magical egoism fades into the grim joys of Dada.
I might have been more skeptical of my own interpretation of Blake’s critique as having a hint of religious apostasy—however half-satirical it may be—were it not for my good reasons to suspect that Blake is goofing on the Sirfessor, who in turn was goofing on the Christian gospel. Blake wrote the intro to the Sirfessor’s Underworld Amusements collection, and he name-checks the Sirfessor and Ragnar Redbeard in his own book.
But Blake’s goofing is considerably closer to sincere theology than the Sirfessor’s. The Sirfessor mocked the seriousness of the religions of submission by masquerading as a preacher; Blake mocks the masquerade by corralling it closer to serious critique.
The Sirfessor, for example, wrote a parody of the “Sermon on the Mount,” subtitling it “For Subtermen and Christians”; his version, titled “The Sermon on the Mountain,” is “For Supercrats and Supermanitarians.”
Blake, on the other hand, skips this kind of parody to question the core of egoism bluntly: If our god is ourselves, what is a self? Is there an eghost in the machine?
The Sirfessor hinted at this question through his manipulation of masks and names, but Blake breaks the fourth wall and asks the question point-blank. He may perceive the magician’s cape, but he is not satisfied to use a stage prop for his main tool.
The Sirfessor’s old-school egoism was both descriptive and prescriptive: descriptively, he observed that all men act for selfish reasons even when they give alms; therefore, prescriptively, to be virtuous, we must fess up to and embrace our selfishness in order to become enlightened egoists.
Being an enlightened egoist is fun and profitable, first and foremost; but also, the only other option that exists for the Sirfessor is to be an unenlightened egoist—an egotist—and that’s antisocial and disgusting. Though he adored strict individuality, the Sirfessor spent a fair number of lines touting the social benefits of healthy cultivation of one’s own superiority. The default-egoist clods who stumble around imagining themselves to be altruists are not just miserable, they’re bad for those around them.
But this mild and slippery contradiction isn’t Trevor Blake’s main bone to pick with his egoist predecessors. He’s a more profoundly agnostic black sheep than that. His uncertainty is supermodern: given all we now know about the mind and its matter, he’s been led to wonder whether the deity—the Self—exists at all.
As Blake puts it:
Whatever ragged race you’re running, I assure you the finish line looms and is shared by the One and all. Death is certain but dying is a puzzle for egoists. Egoism has the problem of being unable to define when the Unique One ceases to be and thus in saying who is or was an individual.
How can there be an eghost in the machine, if our selves can be altered by everything from booze to a cold to the swapping of cells and the passage of time? I’m reminded of the scene in Michel Deon’s La Cour des grands in which the young protagonist’s charming egoist mentor pretends to be unable to speak as he lays dipsomaniacally dying; he breaks the semi-charade only to make a morbid joke for his protégé’s benefit. Strange is the deity who makes no pretense of immortality, or even immutability. We are worshipping a wave.
So what is Blake’s answer? Screw you, Dada!—pretty much. Or in his words: “Acting on my most rational conclusions will include unforeseen consequences. . . . Perhaps philosophy was never about vindication or truth or beauty or justice or equality, and we should have been looking for laughs all along.”
It’s typical of our times that even egoists are self-questioning. We have eaten through every philosophy, and there’s nothing left to do but ask serious questions of our favorite dead comedians, just to watch the corpses squirm. Well, it’s something to do, and if it trips your trigger and doesn’t keep you up at night, thank your lucky ghost: your agnosticism as an individualist has hit its limit.