Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1058
The Abyss is the story of one man’s devotion to truth. As Zeno relentlessly searches for knowledge, vast historical forces—Catholicism and Protestantism, France and the Holy Roman Empire, agrarianism and commercialism—turn Reformation Europe into a bloodbath. Marguerite Yourcenar’s careful documentation adds to this continent-sized clash between dissidence and dogma a great sense of period realism.
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The story opens in 1530. Henry Maximilian Ligre runs into Zeno outside Dranoutre, Henry Justus Ligre’s Belgian country estate, and the two discuss plans. At sixteen, Henry Maximilian is planning to serve with King Francis I. At twenty, Zeno is leaving to study alchemy in Spain. Both have abandoned the merchant House of Ligre. Henry Maximilian has chosen war, poetry, and women. Zeno has chosen a rendezvous with himself.
A flashback recalls Zeno’s youth. His father, Alberico, was a friend of Michelangelo and prelate to Cesare Borgia. While staying with Henry Justus,his business agent in Bruges, he is smitten with Hilzonda. He later abandons her when she becomes pregnant with Zeno.
Alberico, a Roman cardinal by age thirty, is killed in an orgy. Simon Adriansen then courts Hilzonda. Zeno learns the classics from Canon Campanus and medicine from Jan Myers, and designs the mechanical looms used in the Ligre workshops. At the School of Theology in Louvain, Zeno comes to disdain dogma. His summer vacations are spent at Dranoutre, where his best moments are passed in alchemical speculations on the changing color of the leaves and the combustion of charcoal. He pities the numerous religious sects he sees forming and wishes to renounce his clerical vows.
One evening at Dranoutre, Henry Justus mounts a royal reception for Marguerite of Austria, who is there to ask for a loan. Henry Justus’ weavers interrupt the festivities to request a raise and a pardon for their foreman, who has destroyed the looms. Henry Justus grants the loan, but no raise or pardon. Zeno, equally disgusted by the cynicism of the high life and the technophobia of the low life, departs in search of another critical mind. He will remain underground for the next twenty years.
Simon and Hilzonda are married and move to Munster, where they help found an Anabaptist City of God. A joint Catholic and Protestant army lays the city to siege. Inside, a mountebank proclaims himself God, executes the underzealous, and takes seventeen wives. The troops overrun the city and resume executions. Simon returns from a fund-raising expedition to find his wife beheaded. On his deathbed, he writes Salome, his sister. She will rear Simon’s surviving daughter, Martha.
Salome is married to Martin Fugger of Cologne, whose money makes him more powerful than any prince of Europe. The elder Ligre has sent his son, Philibert, to learn banking under Martin. Martin betroths Philibert to his blood daughter, Benedicta. Benedicta, however, is stricken by the plague. Zeno, traveling incognito, visits and treats her. She dies, but Martin merely substitutes Martha’s name on the wedding contract.
During the Council of Trent (1551-1552), Henry Maximilian again encounters Zeno at an inn in Innsbruck. Maximilian is employed by Marshall Piero Strozzi to spy on the Pope’s messenger, Nuncio della Casa. Coincidentally, Zeno is Nuncio’s physician and alchemist. The two cousins compare life histories. Zeno has performed dissections in Montpellier, invented liquid fire in Algeria, published a philosophical treatise, had an Arab male servant as his lover, and fought the plague of 1549. Henry Maximilian has served both France and Spain as a mercenary for twenty-five years. He sees Europe not only as a puppet show, with financiers pulling the strings, but also as a beauty pageant, with many a fair nymph for whom to compose verses. Henry Maximilian will die from a stray bullet at the Battle of Sienna in 1555.
Zeno escapes from Innsbruck a hair’s breadth from the Inquisition. He is then successively an alchemist in Wurzburg, a surgeon in Poland, and an astronomer in Uppsala. In Paris, the Queen Mother refuses her protection, and Zeno’s Protheories are seized. He renounces his life as a fugitive and returns to Bruges under the guise of Dr. Sebastian Theus.
Jan Myers provides lodging for him. Zeno treats Jan’s patients and discusses current events with Prior Jean-Louis de Berlaimont. Twice, the crude maidservant Catherine warms his bed. Catherine poisons Jan Myers, supposedly for Zeno. Outraged, Zeno inherits Myers’ house but donates it to the monastery’s hospice and retains only the duties of pharmacist.
Zeno can neither speak nor write freely. This deprivation triggers “the abyss,” a deep descent within himself in search of pure concepts. Cleansed by this “black work” of mental alchemy (l’oeuvre au noir), Zeno returns to everyday realities to find the prior terminally ill with an inoperable throat polyp. The atrocities of the Duke of Alba, a Spanish terrorist named Governor of the Low Countries in 1567, weigh heavily on the prior’s conscience.
Zeno’s innocent knowledge of a sex cult, “The Angels,” imperils his life. The monastery’s accountant, Pierre de Hamaere, and two monks, Cyprian and Florian, meet at night to “worship” the noble damsel Idelette de Loos. Zeno fears the consequences of a pregnancy. When the prior’s death deprives him of a protector, he departs immediately. His plan is to cross the channel in a clandestine boat, but he is overcome by a feeling of “insupportable weariness” and returns to the hospice.
Idelette strangles her newborn child. Cyprian is arrested and falsely implicates Zeno. The physician is in turn brought to trial. The judge is Bartholomew Campanus, now a bishop. Pierre Le Cocq, the duke’s representative, prosecutes. The indictment bears on every facet of Zeno’s life. Zeno’s co-accused are swiftly dispatched: Florian burns screaming, Idelette’s head is hacked off; Pierre de Hamaere poisons himself. Catherine’s ravings of intercourse with Zeno are particularly damaging.
Pierre Le Cocq is deeply indebted to the Ligre Bank, and the bishop writes to Philibert, asking him to sway the prosecutor toward clemency. With Martha’s silent approval, Philibert does nothing.
Zeno is convicted of atheism and impiety. The bishop calls on Zeno to offer him a reprieve in return for a public retraction. Zeno refuses, having “lost his aptitude for lying.” Choosing suicide over torture, he opens his veins. Zeno the wanderer finally keeps his appointment with himself.