Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 460
Based on Yourcenar’s earlier story, “D’après Rembrandt” (1934; after Rembrandt), “An Obscure Man,” published in the collection Comme l’eau qui coule (1982; Two Lives and a Dream , 1987), describes the life and travels of Nathanaël. In the process he steeps himself in the classics, medieval tales, and plays by...
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Based on Yourcenar’s earlier story, “D’après Rembrandt” (1934; after Rembrandt), “An Obscure Man,” published in the collection Comme l’eau qui coule (1982; Two Lives and a Dream, 1987), describes the life and travels of Nathanaël. In the process he steeps himself in the classics, medieval tales, and plays by William Shakespeare while living the life dictated by his surroundings, whether in the relative refinement of Europe or the wilderness of the New World. In spite, or perhaps because, of his varied experiences in these settings, he only incompletely understands life, viewing existence in impressionistic fashion, as if his thought barely touches reality. Thus the author’s recurrent theme of an absurd world in which human destiny is directed as much by chance as by free will emerges.
In Amsterdam, Nathanaël works in his uncle’s print shop, where he continues his self-teaching by reading Greek and Roman texts. He compares the societies of Greece and Rome to his and sees with despair the religious, political, social, and economic injustice of his time. Although he fully embraces the grandeur of Christian principles, he rejects dogma and conventional religion as nonsense. Such conflicts between society’s expectations and individual passions resurface repeatedly throughout Yourcenar’s work, and they are resolved in large measure as a result of the strength of the protagonist’s personality.
Nathanaël falls in love with, marries, and is soon rejected by Saraï, a honky-tonk singer and prostitute. Then, through a series of events, he finds himself as game warden for a wealthy philanthropist, sailing to his employer’s island property. When he overhears that his wife has been hanged for stealing, he cries out her name, and then God’s, repeatedly, with no answer. All alone, he becomes a thing among things, merging with the night. Nathanaël now knows, regardless of the old philosopher’s wish “to give at least the appearance of order to chaos,” that God or the Self or Nothingness is not at the center of the universe, that ultimately all, including humankind, is guided not by design, but by accident, and that he will die soon like the other creatures around him.
Far from being the failure suggested by the title, Nathanaël succeeds, like the majority of Yourcenar’s heroes, in imposing his own view of the world, in this case through conscious open-eyed acceptance of the Self. Thanks to his sensitivity, to his love for plants, trees, birds, and animals, to his gentleness, and to his refusal to act according to preconceptions or judgmental ideas, his life can be considered successful because he has evolved the peace of mind and acceptance of cosmic darkness that others, powerful and weak alike, have been unable or unwilling to acquire.