The Abyss

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Historical novels that can be recommended without reservation to students of history, literature, and philosophy alike, as well as to the general reader, are rare. Marguerite Yourcenar’s excellence in this genre was announced by Hadrian’s Memoirs; The Abyss confirms her reputation. None of the usual weaknesses of the form appear here: the historical research, covering most of Europe during the first half of the sixteenth century, could be used as a historical text of persons, events, ideas, and attitudes; the characters are fully rounded; the subplots are neatly interwoven, and the thematic concerns are universal humanistic questions about the nature of man, of man’s relationship to other men, and his ultimate relationship to higher powers (State, Church, his Creator) which control his free will. Using the traditional formula of the education of a young man and of life as a pilgrimage, Yourcenar makes the reader aware of the co-existence of past and present in the modern world; of shifting power bases, customs, values, and beliefs; and of the unchanging nature of basic human concerns.

In the richly panoramic tapestry of this novel, two groups of men stand out, the businessmen and the Churchmen; and the unfeeling businessmen come out worse for the comparison. Henry Justus Ligre’s self-satisfaction is primarily in the luxuries he can buy and the power he holds over the princes of this world because of his money. He admires only other men who wield similar power, such as Martin Fuggers of Germany, to whom he sends his son, Philibert, to learn the “finer points” of banking. Philibert, in turn, schemes to replace both men, using the money to achieve even greater power and prestige. Humane concerns matter little to any of these men: when the Black Plague comes, Fuggers locks himself in his office to avoid contamination, even though his wife and daughter are infected. The deaths of both interfere only briefly with plans to merge the Ligre and the Fuggers households. Later in life, Philibert is depicted as acting coolly to his older brother, and refusing to help Zeno, Martha’s half-brother, because helping might be awkward for his financial and social status. The only one of these prosperous banker-businessmen to show any concern for the human heart and spirit is Simon Andriansen, whose understanding words help Henry Justus’ sister, Hilzonda, recover from the repulsion she feels for herself and her body for having an affair with an Italian prelate which resulted in an illegitimate son. Later, their marriage is happy and serene, completed by the birth of a daughter, and their riches, even their home, shared with the poor. Unfortunately, Simon errs in becoming too concerned with the spiritual; he and his family sell all and set out for Münster to establish the City of God on this earth with the Anabaptists. Hilzonde, spiritually crazed and physically degraded, is executed at the end of the siege; Simon, arriving three days later, dies of heartbreak. Only their daughter is left.

Of all the characters in the novel, none is as totally without feeling as Philibert Ligre; none shares the fanaticism of the Anabaptist Andriansen, either. The first churchman encountered, Alberico de’ Numi, impetuous, handsome, and lusty, first finds advancement at the court of the Borgias. When he suddenly decides upon a life of a scholarly ascetic, he seems to disavow ambition. But later, he decides to become a “prince” of the Church. To collect money for his advancement, he goes to Bruges, where, instead of money, he finds love. He seduces Hilzonda, and leaves her at an hour’s notice from a de Medici cousin that advancement is...

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possible in Italy. In contrast, the Prior of the Cordeliers of Bruges, Jean Louis de Berlaimont, is presented as an ideal churchman, intelligent, righteous, wise, and compassionate in his talks with Zeno, who is running the Hospice under an assumed identity. It is Zeno’s devotion to the Prior that keeps him in Bruges when he recognizes that he should flee; it is the Prior’s dying words that reveal the depth of his danger to Zeno and reveal to him that the Prior has known who he really is, and has protected him from Church warrants for his arrest as a heretic. Within the Prior’s monastery, however, there are men hungry for power and young lusty fools, such as Cyprian—many men not the spiritual equal of their leader. The depiction of the Bishop of Bruges is ambivalent: he seems open-minded and generous in his conversations with Zeno and his offer of clemency, but he is actually using the trial for furthering his own interests. Canon Campanus, having been Zeno’s first instructor in theology, letters, and alchemy, as well as his uncle, proves to be the only one who truly cares about Zeno’s body or soul. The poignancy of their final parting, their inability to communicate their real feelings to each other, is memorable. The churchmen, then, fare better than the bankers.

Next to this view of the Catholic churchmen, the almost complete depravity and insanity of the Anabaptist reformers in Münster seems worse. The depiction of Hans Bockhold’s egotism, seen in his lust and in the rotting food left in his cellar while he throws handfuls of grain to his starving followers, stumbling over frozen corpses, is powerfully and economically written. Yourcenar’s psychological analysis of these people also makes the reader understand and sympathize with what they did. The Catholic Bishop’s siege on the town and the executions and torture that follow his victory, are no less dismaying than the actions of the Anabaptists. Nor are the cruelties of the Inquisition in the torturing of witnesses or the executions by burning at the stake—two examples from the book that summarize all the other horrors described and mentioned. Other scenes memorable for their grisly horror include the burning of the young Adamite cultists and the execution of Idelette, who, because of her high social status is “allowed” to be beheaded (it only took three blows). The horrors perpetuated in the name of Christianity, as Zeno remarks, seem to be focused on the sins of the flesh without consideration of sins of cruelty.

To the numerous instances of ruthless business practices and violence in the name of spirituality, Yourcenar adds the wars between the nations and the internal rebellions of sixteenth century Europe, as well as graphic descriptions of the Black Plague sweeping through Europe. The brief depiction of its effects on Benedicta Fuggers and Martha, who nurses her, renders its horrors unforgettable. It was indeed, as Yourcenar so aptly states, “one of those periods when the human mind gets trapped in a circle of flames.”

Yet this age also saw a tremendous explosion of knowledge. Zeno’s life is placed between 1510 and, ironically, Mardi Gras Eve of 1559. His life, then, coincides with those of Leonardo, Copernicus, Vesalius, Servetus, Paracelsus, Galileo, Campanella, Cardan, Bruno, Tycho Brahe, and Erasmus. In the “Author’s Notes” at the end of the novel, Yourcenar annotates which bits of Zeno’s life and ideas she borrowed from each of these pioneers. It is such painstaking scholarship that gives the novel its total sense of reality of person, time, and place. However, Zeno, as a person, assumes proportions much beyond the conglomerate detail of the historical alchemists, inventors, physicians, and philosophers upon which he is modeled.

Zeno’s name itself has ramifications. Born illegitmately of an Italian prelate and a rich Flemish woman, he is named after the Greek philosopher who became the founder of Stoicism. Zeno likewise studies philosophy and is much of a Stoic. He cares for others, both emotionally and physically, and is drawn to the beauties of the flesh, but he never deeply commits himself to another over a long period of time. Even when he has a chance to excape to England, he chooses to return to his fate. Again, when the Canon comes to him with a proposal to save him from execution the next day, Zeno chooses, stoically, to face the fate that he and Chance have dealt: a Stoical, dignified suicide, even though suicide was considered the ultimate sin by the Church of his time. What makes The Abyss an impressive novel rather than simply a panoramic history of the times is the development of the character of Zeno, and, more briefly, that of his relative, Henry Maximillian Ligre, and the thematic philosophical implications derived from their experiences, coupled with those of the other characters of the novel.

On a primary level, the novel is a traditional genre, the education of a young man, life as a pilgrimage. The two relatives leave home at the same time, both abjuring a comfortable future of status, in search of something more. Their chance encounter on the road away from Bruges illuminates their separate goals: Henry Maximillian seeks power and prestige in this world as a soldier and poet; Zeno, by contrast, seeks to pursue knowledge in freedom through alchemy, and, finally, to know himself. Of the two, Zeno proves more successful. When the two meet again by chance in Innsbruck, years later, both still hold to their original conception of what is important in life, even though each has been disillusioned by what he has learned. Henry Maximillian still finds the problems of justice and God’s existence and life after death totally irrelevant to life in this world, the only world which counts to him. He no longer believes that he will become a great general or a great poet; he only wishes to live each day happily. He has found love a game no more idiotic than war, but often more pleasant; he cites freedom as his most important possession, although he admits that his present boring job is nothing different from procuring.

Zeno, in response, recognizes the truth behind many of Henry Maximillian’s statements: although he refused advancement in the Church to obtain freedom, he has not achieved it; he must compromise his ideas to have them published, and procure protectors from the great to continue his studies. Yet he still believes that knowledge is the goal to pursue, and sees the potential power of the knowledge of healing, seeing the knowledge of the body as analogous to that of the universe. The dialogue and contrast between these two men ends much too abruptly; Henry Maximillian is killed in a battle in the chapter after their conversation, without having a chance to challenge the maturer Zeno.

These two meetings between Zeno and Henry Maximillian, then, pose the novel’s central thematic concerns: the meaning and value of love, of the body, and of this world as opposed to the love of the spirit and of knowledge of the other world; the questions of the existence of man’s free will and of the existence of God; the significance of the final mysterious answer to all of these posed by death. The Prefaces to each of the three major divisions of the novel speak also to these concerns: Part I concerns man’s total free will; Part II, the power of knowledge; and Part III, the significance of the choice between life and death.

The final chapters concerning Zeno’s escape from Bruges and his return to it, his trial and condemnation, and the last-minute possibilities of escape from death, sum up and resolve the major themes of the novel. Zeno, now fifty-nine, possesses more knowledge, more humility, and more humanity then previously, but still maintains the significance of his own independent thought. He has learned, as he explains to the Canon, that to be alive is to be partially free, like the man he remembers from childhood chained to a burning pyre; the chain allows release only by acceptance of death. All knowledge and ideas, he has learned, like persons, die; human love, he states, is the most accessible connection with the “realm of infinite creativity.” He has descended into the depths of his own body as a microcosm of the world and learned that time and eternity are one. His earlier skepticism, which condemns him, worries Zeno less than the reaction of the populace, who cannot see the absurdity of the human condition. In spite of his condemnation for atheism and the violence he has witnessed by Church and man, Zeno finds belief in a spirit which communicates in the dying Prior; he tells the Bishop that total skepticism is the worst enemy of mankind; and he affirms to the Canon that he feels the spirit of God within man—himself. Earlier, at the seacoast, Zeno thinks of himself as the representative Adam, perceiving and naming whatever he sees; this moment recalls the words of the epigraph to Part I; both Zeno and Adam do become what they choose for themselves; many others are only too willing to become what history makes of them. At that same time, he remembers a game he played in his childhood, chasing the broken halves of shells of eggs across the dunes; he thinks of this game as a parable of his life, of his wanderings and researches and struggle, freely chosen, against the forces of chance and of the times.

Zeno’s search for total freedom and knowledge is ended by his death. But any other course would have led to the same finality. The original title of the work in French is L’Oeuvre au noir, a term signifying the supreme moment of the alchemist’s work when he dissolves substances into chaos but then unites the substances with spirit. In this novel, the alchemist’s term also becomes synonymous with the world and universe in which we live, with the “dark night of the soul” which we all suffer, and finally, with death itself. Tired of a life of being “almost free,” Zeno chooses to commit suicide, fully in keeping with his statement to the Bishop that each person is fully responsible for his own destiny. During his death scene, however, Zeno approaches that supreme moment of the alchemist’s art as his bodily substance dissolves into chaos, time dissolves, and he moves, possibly, toward a spiritual union. The darkness of death for him, that black abyss, seems charged with a steadily increasing light. Summing up as it does all of the major themes of the book, this last chapter is powerfully and memorably written. The Abyss is a novel to read, enjoy, contemplate, and return to: the questions it raises are the enduring ones of humanity.

Form and Content

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In The Abyss, Marguerite Yourcenar combines chronological order and flashbacks, both short and long, to juxtapose a single character against a complicated historical background. She introduces the reader to her protagonist, Zeno, in his twentieth year, when he has already embarked on his quest for knowledge of self and the world. In “The Wanderings,” the first of three parts, Yourcenar’s narrative crisscrosses time and space just as Zeno crisscrosses Europe. The novel opens as he meets his younger cousin Henry Maximilian on the roads of France. On his way to join the forces of Emperor Charles V in Italy, Henry Maximilian calculates that the shaky provisional peace now reigning will soon break down and that he, as a mercenary, will soon gain his share of glory and riches. Zeno the scholar scoffs at his plans and at the very notion of love and fame; when Henry says that leaving the Woolmarket is a question of being a man, Zeno replies that “it’s a matter of being more than a man.” As they go their separate ways—Zeno to study alchemy in Spain, Henry Maximilian to join the wars—the narrative turns back to Zeno’s boyhood and fills in the blank spaces of their conversation.

As a bastard, Zeno has no hopes of inheritance, and his mania for learning makes him a convenient candidate for the Church. Yet, even as a boy he is fascinated by mechanics and medicine, by astronomy, botany, and geology, and he is soon bored and annoyed by the scholasticism of his tutors. Zeno, like many Renaissance philosophers, will be drawn to the grand synthesis and unifying metaphor of the suspect art of alchemy.

Later rumor will claim that Zeno invented Greek fire for the Turkish sultan, spied for the king of Sweden, practiced both medicine and sorcery from Hungary to Catalonia, and performed miracles of healing in plague-stricken Basel. Yourcenar leaves these years obscure, describing them fleetingly in anecdote and snippets of Zeno’s memory, and traces the actions of secondary characters. She follows Zeno’s mother Hilzonda Ligre through her marriage to saintly Simon Adriansen to her death amid the sectarian rebels at Munster, and Simon and Hilzonda’s daughter, Martha, through her marriage into the Fugger family of Cologne, which unites two mercantile empires. Zeno himself appears only briefly, when as one of the few physicians willing to tend plague victims in Basel, he encounters Martha and, in an almost casual exchange, learns of their mother’s bizarre end.

A second chance meeting with Henry Maximilian, twenty years after the first, presages the end of both men’s wanderings. Henry Maximilian, only moderately successful in love and war, is cheerfully cynical, although he still nurses the hope that like his beloved writer Plutarch, he will live on in letters; Zeno, hunted by the Church for his shocking blasphemies in both word and deed, seems embittered and despairing. Henry Maximilian returns to Italy to meet his death in a routine foraging expedition, while Zeno takes refuge from the Inquisition in Germany, Poland, and Sweden. After a vain attempt at gaining the protection of Catherine de Médicis, queen of France, Zeno gives up the itinerant life to lie low in Bruges.

The second section, “Immobility,” virtually describes Zeno’s physical state: He becomes physician to the prior of the Cordeliers (Franciscans) and the hospice of St. Cosmus, living an obscure and circumscribed life. He descends into an abyss of the self, what Christian mystic tradition terms “the dark night of the soul,” and contemplates the very essence of his physical being and the nature of his memory. He is also trapped within his own times, as he and the prior cautiously discuss the brutal excesses of Protestant and Catholic factions alike, and he is trapped by his own feckless assistant, who implicates Zeno in debauches by a forbidden sect. The prior, his protector, dies, and although Zeno has a chance to escape to England, he chooses at the last minute not to go.

The section “Prison” finds Zeno facing trial and certain execution by fire. Although the absurd charges of complicity in “The Angels” orgies are dropped, and the charges of aiding Flemish rebels cannot be proved, Zeno is doomed by his own heresies. His sympathizers try to enlist the aid of Zeno’s Fugger relatives, who hold the purse strings of kings and bishops, but self-interest wins out over compassion, and Zeno’s only hope of survival is to recant. He instead slits his veins, finally escaping both imprisonment and the auto-da-fé. Ever the observer, he watches himself die.


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Marguerite Yourcenar was a writer of tremendous range and diversity, but it is difficult to say just what part—if any—her dense and cerebral fiction has played in the history of women’s literature. Public recognition did come late, but in ample measure, and in 1980, after much stormy debate, she became the first woman ever to be admitted to the Académie Française, that exclusive society dedicated to the preservation and purity of French language and culture. Yet she consistently refused to use her celebrity to further any causes except perhaps ecology, and she argued against “particularism,” be it sexual, racial, or national. She dismissed the notion that she avoided the female voice, citing her prose-poem collection Feux (1936; Fires, 1981) and her novel Denier du rêve (1934, rev. 1959; A Coin in Nine Hands, 1982), yet she seemed at her best when working from the male—although the bisexual or androgynous male—point of view.

In The Abyss, as in her other acclaimed novel, Mémoires d’Hadrien (1951; Memoirs of Hadrian, 1954), she had in mind a panoramic view of an entire historical era which, she argued, had to be filtered through the male eye. Women’s roles in Zeno’s life are consistently minor and episodic: Whether the women portrayed are kindly or cowardly, shrewd or stupid, servant, prostitute, goodwife, or noblewoman, they are all remote and somehow opaque. Hilzonda, Zeno’s mother, is entirely passive; Martha, his half sister, is bound by fear and self-interest. Zeno has his share of sexual encounters with women, but for reasons Yourcenar suggests are as much pragmatic as aesthetic or biological, Zeno prefers men. Yet in general, his true passions are intellectual rather than sensual.

The only woman who might have been not only a lover but also an intellectual companion and equal for Zeno is the Lady of Froso, by whom Zeno may have fathered a son. Time and custom confine her to her Swedish manor, however, and neither her inner nor her outer journeys can cover the territory Yourcenar wants to explore. Admirable as she may be, the Lady of Froso is barely delineated, and remains merely a sketch, a possibility.

Yourcenar once remarked that the lives of women were for the most part too limited, too secret, to write about. She sought the universal, impersonal voice, something beyond the merely human, and she claimed to find it more often in great men than in great women. If her character Zeno aspired to be more than a man, then Marguerite Yourcenar as a writer aspired to be more than a woman—or, for that matter, a man.


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Farrell, C. Frederick, Jr., and Edith R. Farrell. Marguerite Yourcenar in Counterpoint. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983. A short collection of essays devoted mostly to Yourcenar’s lesser-known early fiction. It attempts to counter some commonly held critical assumptions about Yourcenar’s work, such as her avoidance of woman protagonists and women’s issues. It assumes prior acquaintance with Yourcenar.

Horn, Pierre. Marguerite Yourcenar. Boston: Twayne, 1985. A short chronological overview of all Yourcenar’s work, with a brief biographical introduction. Focuses on her major fiction, but also discusses her autobiographical writings and her forays into theater and translation.

Howard, Joan E. From Violence to Vision: Sacrifice in the Works of Marguerite Yourcenar. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992. Howard looks for coherence amid Yourcenar’s wide-ranging intellectual and thematic interests, and she finds it in the writer’s use of classical myth in various contexts and of the theme of sacrifice within the mythic framework.

Savigneau, Josyane. Marguerite Yourcenar: Inventing a Life. Translated by Joan E. Howard. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. Yourcenar was a private, even reclusive person who remained determinedly aloof from literary circles. She even had her private papers sealed until 2037. Nevertheless, Savigneau’s biography is thoroughly researched, and it won critical praise for its combination of accuracy, verve, and tact.

Shurr, Georgia Hooks. Marguerite Yourcenar: A Reader’s Guide. Landham, Md.: University Press of America, 1987. A guide to Yourcenar’s fiction, with emphasis on the evolution of her creative imagination and her temperament as sources of her style.

Yourcenar, Marguerite. With Open Eyes: Conversations with Matthieu Galey. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Boston: Beacon Press, 1984. A series of interviews spanning a number of years. The talks range from Yourcenar’s childhood to her late interest in ecology, her works, and her opinions on social issues such as racism and feminism.


Critical Essays