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A Successful Alchemist

The Abyss

by Marguerite Yourcenar, translated in collaboration with the author by Grace Frick
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 374 pp., $10.00

Historical novels continue to be written in considerable numbers, though most of them attract little attention from reviewers. From time to time there develops a more or less fervid cult of some practitioner—of Bryher, for example, now half-forgotten, or of Robert Graves or Mary Renault. But The Memoirs of Hadrian, first published in English twenty-two years ago, seems to have given Marguerite Yourcenar a special place in the modern history of the genre.

I have just read that book for the first time, so this expression of my admiration is very belated. The obvious comparison is with Graves’s book on Claudius, and perhaps his Belisarius, but it is not too helpful. Graves cultivates a terse modernity; he seems to want to minimize the differences between ancient and modern men, or at any rate not to indicate them by any archaism of language. Mme Yourcenar has a different purpose. Her book is “the written meditation of a sick man who holds audience with his memories,” and represents the inner voice rather than the conversation, recollections of activity rather than activity. The tone is therefore one of intelligent gravity, without pomposity and of no particular time.

This manner of presentation also enables the author to evade some of the dangers of the genre—the awkward intrusion of historical information, for example, and the kind of tushery—gadzooks or mehercle or whatever—which Graves so fastidiously abjured, but which is a famous feature of dialogue in many historical narratives. Yourcenar’s prose is somewhat mandarin, no doubt, but never self-consciously or vapidly so; and it carries a considerable freight of thinking. The translation, by the way, is exceptionally fine.

The historical novel seems, in principle, so difficult a thing to do well that it is quite surprising to reflect how many very good ones there are. The qualities necessary to success in it were, I imagine, easier to come by in the nineteenth century than they are now. A Scott or a Tolstoy could entertain strong feelings or strong theories about the past, without troubling himself with the consideration that his attitude must be powerfully and indeterminately affected by his own historical position. No intelligent writer can now avoid that modern complication; he must know that however completely the past seems to possess his mind and imagination, he has little power to alter the conditions under which he has to think about it, or even to understand the true nature of such constraints. And if he insists too much on these limiting conditions he may destroy the whole sense of a living past which he thinks it urgent to express. Too self-conscious a modernity, arising from a wholly serious conviction that the laws of history were reaching a state of intelligibility, probably accounts—to take an early example of a subtle mind at work in the form—for the failure of Romola; no amount of firsthand research could redeem that error.

In Hadrian, Mme Yourcenar avoided it, even when she allowed her hero a prophetic glance into the future (always a dangerous device in such books). I want to illustrate this point, and at the same time give a sample of the prose, by quoting a passage from Hadrian:

It was indeed vain to hope for an eternity for Athens and for Rome which is accorded neither to objects nor to men, and which the wisest among us deny even to the gods. These subtle and complex forms of life, these civilisations comfortably installed in their refinements of ease and of art, the very freedom of mind to seek and to judge, all this depended upon countless rare chances, upon conditions almost impossible to bring about, and none of which could be expected to endure…. Our feeble efforts to ameliorate man’s estate would be but vaguely continued by our successors; the seeds of error and of ruin contained even in the good would, on the contrary, increase to monstrous proportions in the course of centuries. A world wearied of us would seek other masters; what had seemed to us wise would be pointless for them, what we had found beautiful they would abominate. Like the initiate to Mithraism the human race has need, perhaps, of a periodical bloodbath and descent into the grave. I could see the return of barbaric codes, of implacable gods, of unquestioned despotism of savage chieftains, a world broken up into enemy states and eternally a prey to insecurity. Other sentinels menaced by arrows would patrol the walls of future cities; the stupid cruel and obscene game would go on, and the human species in growing older would doubtless add new refinements of horror. Our epoch, the faults and limitations of which I knew better than anybody else, would perhaps be considered one day, by contrast, as one of the golden ages of man.

You can see how the gravity is sometimes verging on mere heaviness, but it is also clear that the passage escapes the charge of platitude and retrospective prophecy. In fact the style becomes an indispensable instrument in the assembling of this portrait of the emperor; it is a weighing, considering style. Hadrian was a politically ambitious man, yet had considerable purity of intellect; his extraordinary imperial achievements as soldier and administrator did not prevent his being the possessor of the Greek as well as of the Roman past; his cities have Greek names. A man of reason, he valued erotic ecstasy, and was initiated into the mysteries of Mithra, Eleusis, and the Cabiri. The philosophical voluptuary is also an ascetic; the politician who deals so effectively with foreign and domestic enemies sustains a vision of empire as the nearest thing that can be got to Vergil’s Saturnian kingdom. These are the burdens the prose must bear. We are given, certainly, the sense of an age, as it expressed itself in so great a man. We are allowed to conclude that only such a man can understand and reflect the tides of power and of thought in any epoch.

The dying Hadrian nominates Antoninus and Marcus Aurelius as his successors; and somewhere behind this book stands Pater’s Marius the Epicurean: His Sensations and Ideas. Yourcenar does not say with Pater that the former age had much in common with our own, but she repeats his forward glances toward the Renaissance and the modern world; and the intellectual scope of the books is not dissimilar. Perhaps it is from this affiliation that the prose gets its slightly archaic flavor; one might just mistake it for the work of one of Pater’s disciples, say Rachel Annand Taylor, now forgotten, who was still alive when Hadrian was published. I mention this not in a disparaging way—there is nothing wrong with being sensitive and intelligent—but to “place” Yourcenar’s method, and her probably beneficial archaism. The placing may seem more plausible in the light of the author’s own Notes, which explain that she wrote the first version of Hadrian in early youth, between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three; after that she wrote in successive layers, until she finally produced the last continuously composed version.

The composition of The Abyss was also begun very early, and continued over an even longer period, for it first appeared in 1968. The Paterian flavor persists, reminding one a little of the Imaginary Portraits. This time Yourcenar invents her principal character, the philosopher-mechanist-alchemist-physician Zeno. Zeno was born in 1510. If you count among a man’s contemporaries both those who were old when he was born and those who were very young when he died, Zeno was a contemporary of Leonardo, Copernicus, Paracelsus, Servetus, Vesalius, Galileo, Tycho Brahe, Cardan, Campanella, Bruno, Erasmus.

The author tells us she borrowed something from all these persons, and from others too, in devising the career and personality of Zeno. His illegitimacy is that of Erasmus, and so is his early education; Paracelsus provides his career in alchemy; his cabbalistic studies are those of Campanella. From Tycho Brahe comes his episode at the Swedish court; Leonardo is the model for his researches into mechanics and physiology—and, with others such as Paracelsus and Campanella, for his pederasty. And so forth.

There was no single historical person who could have served as Hadrian did in the earlier novel, no one who could epitomize the contemplative as well as the active life in the years of the Northern Renaissance and the Reformation; hence this invention, which is supported by much minute and impassioned historical research. Though I think readers will be more at ease if they have some prior notion of the religious and political conflicts of the time, especially as they affected the Low Countries, it can be said that this book gives a sharp, sometimes a hideous impression of the conditions that fanaticism and cruelty created there.

Yet the point is not to offer panoramic views of the wars, with all the tortures and the burnings, or of the religious conflict—the Inquisition on one side and, on the other, the ruthless Protestant suppression of heresies bred on the extreme left wing of Reformation. It is not even simply to show how, despite these terrifying dogmatic constraints, the scientific intellect was in these years establishing itself. The point, as in the earlier book, is to create an image of a fully achieved humanity, of a man mature within the conditions of his time; unapologetic about the passions, undeceived yet never vulgarly incredulous in religion; with a deepening sense of the value of other cultures and a growing perception of historical perspective; with a skepticism recognizable as the lubricant of all intellectual achievement, yet compatible with that respect for faith which, against all the intellectual odds, kept so many adventurous minds on the Catholic side of the debate.

The object is to represent Zeno thus, as a free spirit. Scornful of dogmatic dispute (“Am I a Servetus, that donkey…to risk being burned in a public square because of this or that interpretation of a dogma, when I have studies far more important to me, my work on the diastolic and systolic movements of the heart?”), he nevertheless respects true piety as much as he detests bigotry and cruelty. He is willing to make accommodations, as philosophers had been for centuries, larding his works with conventional Aristotelian terms, so long as he can move in the vanguard of new thought such as the Aristotelianism of Padua and the Platonism recently revived and strengthened in Florence. As a free thinker, Zeno understands the most important fact about the history of thought, which is that all epochs are trapped intellectually in a net of opinion and presumption, and that thought is only important if it can escape those limits. Ideas die; “each concept collapses, eventually, to merge with its opposite, like two waves breaking against each other only to subside into the same line of white foam.” All “palpable verities,” he says, will be carried off in this flood. For he knows that in the absence of dogmatic invariance all speculation sinks into oblivion.

Nevertheless, his partial liberation from the cage of contemporary opinion gives Zeno a respect for certain exotic and occult modes of thought, for Pythagoreanism and the Cabala, and especially for alchemy, though in his day that science must have seemed the growing point of the future and not merely a curious survival. It was the science of transformation, and Zeno broods long on natural instances of miraculous transformation: not least in the erotic life, and even in the movement of the bowels. He is practical—he builds mechanical looms, devises a kind of napalm, performs blood transfusions (without understanding why they are sometimes rejected). He is speculative—a barely credible amalgam of the philosophical interests of the period. But alchemy, combining inseparably the ideas of physical and spiritual transformation, takes precedence over all.

The Abyss,” which provides the title not only of the novel but of its most important chapter, is an alchemical term; the French title is L’Oeuvre au noir, the Work in its dark stage, which is “the most difficult phase of the alchemist’s process, the separation and dissolution of substance.” It is the moment when the base metal is reduced to a formless chaos so that the spirit of the higher may enter it; but it represents also the moment of the mind freeing itself of “all forms of routine and prejudice.” So the novel is about the dark transformation of its hero into a higher kind of man. The alchemists also called this stage the “ruining” of the Work, and it is out of some kind of ruin that intellectual greatness comes.

All this Work, this transformation of the mind, goes on in the alembic of history; its fires are the fires of war and judicial murder. The torments of Tridentine Catholicism and institutionalized Protestantism are compounded by plague epidemics and the weapons of the military. Zeno moves about a stricken world, a scientist and a physician, at once welcome and suspect. His fame grows. We are asked to see his career in relation to that of one of his kinsmen, a soldier-poet, enjoying unspeculatively his active life (this is the least satisfactory element in the novel). Zeno, contemplative, astringent, finally returns to Bruges and works under an assumed name, to risk and then lose everything as the tale of his heresies and sins accumulates. Rejecting the possibilities of escape, he dies, as Hadrian with great difficulty refrained from dying, by suicide in the Roman style.

The Abyss is readable enough as a story, but the story merely serves Mme Yourcenar’s obsessive theme, the maturation of a full man; this time a Hadrian without political power, and in an age nobody would call golden. Such a man transcends his age, and being a new man can see what danger his purely intellectual power may hold for the future; for the connection between science and cruelty will not easily be broken. “Alchemists secretly aspire to a power more awesome than the Emperor Charles will ever have…. I have sometimes said that the attempt to organize and instruct our human race, and to equip it and enrich it, is perhaps only a makeshift for this universal disorder of ours; and that some Phaeton could one day set fire to the earth…. Who knows but what some baneful comet will emerge one day from our alembics?”

Zeno, then, is the second deity in this author’s cult of the full man, endlessly inquiring, ever skeptical, considerate of the body as of the spirit, of the future as well as the present. Does he represent as well as Hadrian this ideal maturity? The answer must be, I think, that this book works less well than its predecessor. Its best chapters are static, speculative; but they are few in relation to the rest, which have to report action and conversation. Perhaps Zeno is himself inescapably inferior to Hadrian; he is a composite, whom history has not stamped on coins, portraits, and cities. Yet The Abyss is a considerable achievement; years of passionate scholarship and long dedication to an ideal of humanity as limited, yet in the end expressed, by history, went to its making. The author deserves her special place in the story.

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