Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 523

During his trial, Zeno reflects thatno lasting accord exists between those who seek, ponder, and dissect, and pride themselves on being capable of thinking tomorrow other than they do today, and those who accept the Faith, or declare that they do, and oblige their fellow men to do the same, on pain of death.

This reflection expresses the essential theme of the novel: polarization. Tension and hostility separate freethinkers, on the one hand, from hypocrites and fanatics, on the other. Four subthemes emerge as a consequence of this primary choice: danger, parallel worlds, self-transmutation, and paradox.

Any link involving Zeno is not only polarizing but also dangerous. Some associations form a clear and present danger: Zeno with Cyprian, or with Han, the injured Calvinist. Other associations, such as with Catherine, appear harmless but prove damning. Still others are directly or indirectly lethal: the Duke of Alba, whose murderous Council of Blood controls the prosecutor; Catherine of Medicis, who would not halt censorship; Philibert and Martha, whose inaction disowned and condemned a relative. These dangers give The Abyss some of the flavor of a spy novel.

Zeno’s repeated exposure to the same persecution leads him to approve Democritus’ hypothesis of an infinite series of parallel universes. Countless ironic juxtapositions demonstrate the theory. While Zeno awaits sentence in prison, Philibert sups with the Duke of Alba. As Henry Justus fetes Madame Marguerite, his weavers shiver from cold and hunger. While Zeno is plunged into the abyss, the prior passes through his own “dark night of the soul.” The year 1491, carved on a beam of Zeno’s monastery room, could as well have been 1941. Jan Myers is a comfortable Zeno. The Lady of Froso is Zeno as a woman. Zeno himself is that version of Galileo who refused to recant.

Merchants, who transmute labor into gold, and Inquisitors, who transmute flesh into ashes, are the true alchemists of the novel. In contrast, Zeno’s aim is not gold, but knowledge, and he transforms his mind, as well as materials. The figure of Zeno thus unites the twentieth century goal of self-improvement with the medieval archetype of alchemy. The resulting “self-transmutation” is the process through which Zeno learns to recognize structural invariance in his Democritean universe of variation. The process has three recurring phases: black (analysis and synthesis), white (ascetic purification), and red (unity through passion).

Throughout the novel, the dichotomy between faith and truth remains intractable. This unresolved paradox is the abyss: the gaping absence of tolerance and reason, the void left by death and revolt, and the lack of causal dependency between compartmentalized worlds. Like his counterpart, Zeno of Elea, Zeno of Bruges also confronts the paradox of motion and immobility.It seemed to him now that he had almost insulted the infinite possibilities of existence by withdrawing for so long a time from the vast outer world. Assuredly, the mind’s effort to penetrate the inner meaning of things leads to awesome depths, but it nullifies the very process which living is.

Zeno’s skill with similarity transformations gave him mental mobility, but he had to give up life to pay for it.

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