The Dark Brain of Piranesi, and Other Essays

by Marguerite Yourcenar
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The Dark Brain of Piranesi, and Other Essays

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1988

The Dark Brain of Piranesi and Other Essays is an English translation of a collection of seven essays issued in France in 1962 and reprinted in 1978 under the rather enigmatic title Sous Bénéfice d’Inventaire. This newest edition is presumably intended both to acknowledge and enhance further the international reputation of the scholar and novelist who in 1980 became the first woman elected to the Académie Française. Yourcenar has held dual American and French citizenship since 1947 and has resided in the United States for many years. As a result, she has become quite well known here. American readers unfamiliar with her work, however, may find this volume a puzzle. No preface or introductory remarks are offered to a new generation of readers, a new national audience; no organizing or selection principle is delineated, and no common thread appears to bind the essays. The subject matter spans seventeen hundred years, ranges across nations from Greece to Sweden, and unites history, art, and literature. If there is any single force which holds this diverse collection together, it is the force of Yourcenar’s impressive interdisciplinary scholarship and her eclectic synthesizing style. The reader must respond sympathetically to her personal style if this volume is to be of value.

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Perhaps the essay “The Dark Brain of Piranesi” was made the title piece of the English edition because Piranesi’s style resembles Yourcenar’s. Both styles are characterized by complex and multiple perspectives, fervid interest in history and art, and fascination with the searching mind. Or more simply perhaps, the essay on Piranesi was made the title piece because it is the most provocative of all the essays and of greatest interest to English readers in its intimations of the influence of Piranesi’s art on English Gothic and Romantic movements. For whatever reason, this essay is both title piece and centerpiece of the collection, and it does indeed represent Yourcenar at her interdisciplinary, international, scholarly, and stimulating best. More a generalist than a specialist, more a reconstructionist than a critic, Yourcenar presents her observations in a style aimed not at ending argument but at spurring further discussion.

In “The Dark Brain of Piranesi,” a phrase taken from Victor Hugo, Yourcenar crystalizes her major critical concerns: art, history, and man’s creation of and relation to each. Giambattista Piranesi, classically trained, eighteenth-century Italian architect commissioned to design only one building in his life, of necessity worked lifelong as an engraver. He is best known for two series of engravings, Le Antichità romane and Carceri d’invenzione. Yourcenar touches upon how English architects Robert Adam and George Dance and writers Horace Walpole, William Beckford, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas De Quincey, John Keats, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley found in Piranesi resonances of their own fascinations with the past and the mind, their forms and transformations. In his etchings of Rome, Piranesi at once records the deaths of monuments and makes them immortal. Collapsing, broken, sliding into ruin as if actively being reclaimed by nature, enormous edifices reveal themselves in strangely intimate ways, their interiors made exterior by the violence of time and man. Tiny images of man dot the scenes, indifferent, gnomic, seemingly insignificant when juxtaposed to these mammoth constructions. Piranesi’s ruins are visual contemplations of man’s relation to the grandeur and fleetingness of his own history. In contrast, the subjective architecture of Piranesi’s imaginary prisons is a visual metaphor of mind. The few figures suggest pinpoints of consciousness confronting vast chambers of awareness, each varying in design, locked together in a single, shadowy interior. Glimpses of exteriors, some seemingly inaccessible, imaginatively marry inner and outer experience. It is little wonder that Romantics were powerfully drawn to his work. Piranesi may have had most direct influence on the work of an artist not mentioned by Yourcenar. Dutch artist M. C. Escher studied Piranesi while training as an architect. Like Piranesi, Escher moved into the graphic arts, and like Piranesi, he devoted himself to the exploration of the structure of space, to discovery of simultaneous and contradictory perspectives, and to imaginative expansion of one’s perceptions of one’s place in the world. His men, too, are enigmatic accessories to labyrinthine monuments, moving but going nowhere, captive to edifices of their own construction. The nature of Piranesi’s work and influence has not yet been fully plumbed. Yourcenar’s essay should spark fuller examination of the intricate networks of response surrounding his work.

Three essays of literary criticism more conventional in style follow the Piranesi essay: one on Swedish novelist Selma Lagerlöf, one on Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, one on German novelist Thomas Mann. Even though the Lagerlöf essay appears to have been written in 1975, like the two written decades before, it seems curiously dated and oddly unconvincing in its estimation of its subject’s artistic powers. Yourcenar declares Lagerlöf one of that rare species, a woman of artistic genius. In fact, she asserts, “Among these women of great talent or of genius, none, in my opinion, is to be placed higher than Selma Lagerlöf. She is in any case the only one who consistently mounts to the level of epic and of myth.” A Nobel Prize winner in 1909, a member of the Swedish Academy and the Nobel jury, a woman distinguished by a long and prolific writing life, Lagerlöf was very much a nineteenth century woman. Her novels depict marriage as the center of life; sensual rites remain behind closed doors and emotional turmoil behind impassive Swedish faces. Yourcenar tells readers that beneath this surface of domestic realism lies a depth and complexity epic in stature, but she does not demonstrate that. The reader of this essay is likely to be left unsatisfied with her claims and puzzled over the relative statures of other women of genius, George Eliot, Colette, Nathalie Sarraute, and particularly Doris Lessing. Yourcenar does not succeed in what she hopes to do. Almost certainly, the reader will not go running to the bookshelves to discover in Lagerlöf what he may have missed.

Similarly, “A Critical Introduction to Cavafy,” which first appeared in 1958 as the introduction to Yourcenar’s translation of his poems, attempts to strengthen recognition of a writer’s creative powers but will probably leave readers unconvinced. An intensely private man, a man self-consciously seeking the commonplace, thirty years an employee of Alexandria’s Ministry of Irrigation, Cavafy projected no public persona through which his work may be viewed. Yourcenar dedicates herself to convincing readers that Cavafy’s dry landscapes and his spare accounts of small moments peopled by young, banal, working-class lovers contain poetic genius. Her defense of his poesy is impassioned, but the poems remain lifeless. This stanza holds no discernible magic:

For a month we had loved each other.Then he went away—to Smyrna, I think,where he had a job, and we never saw each other again.

In spite of Yourcenar’s protestations to the contrary, Cavafy’s poems seem limpid, not distinctive; carnal, not sublime; self-absorbed, not self-revealing; honest perhaps, but not moving.

Alone among all the essays, “Humanism and Occultism in Thomas Mann” focuses on “classics.” Two pervasive themes of Mann’s novels, already widely discussed by critics, are observed: “the equivocal nature of the artist and the dubious activity of the intelligence.” To Yourcenar, each of Mann’s novels is in some way a complex exploration of art’s real dependence on and independence from life. Still, what “classic” is not? Patterns of what Yourcenar terms the occult appear in initiation rites, necromantic séances, symbolic descents into death, esoteric disguises, and bizarre metamorphoses, but explanation of their origins and their significance in Mann’s work is inadequate. The thesis is essentially that the slow, linear, accretive disclosure of mind and action in the stolid bourgeois realism of Mann’s novels is shaped by an involved hermeneutic, a diffuse system of physical and spiritual alchemies arising in a “mysticism of terror.” His prose style, she suggests, is the mundane embodiment of the inexpressible sacred mysteries, the necessarily awkward translation of the “foreign language” of the irrational. One may readily agree with this in essence, but little new is added to one’s understanding of Mann’s humanism; little light is cast on Mann’s purported use of the occult.

The remaining three essays in this collection are of less general interest. “Faces of History in the Historia Augusta” examines a rather mediocre third century collaborative history noteworthy only for its portrait of Rome in accelerating decline under the late Caesars. Yourcenar dwells on the relevance of this cultural collapse to modern readers. In Historia Augusta are vividly portrayed “the evils by which a civilization dies.” These evils, she warns readers, will cease needing repetition only when the very notions of politics and the state which man has inherited from that civilization are called into question.

Les Tragiques by Agrippa d’Aubigné is the subject of the second essay in this collection, and it is the closest that Renaissance France came to an epic as grand as Dante’s or John Milton’s. Sprawling, digressive, downright unreadable at times, Les Tragiques is by Yourcenar’s own admission more a sketch or a draft of a great epic than a great epic. Scholars of French history and art may find this work of significance. To most English readers, it will remain at best a curiosity.

“Ah, Mon Beau Château” is a quaint study different in character and tone from the others. Yourcenar terms the essay a “promenade,” a walk through the history of Chenonceaux, a relatively small jewel of a château on the Loire. The parade of residents, through four centuries, has the effect of time-lapse photography. One sees in unreal conflation the lives associated with this single domicile; one sees what Henri-Louis Bergson might have termed its “Duration.” Unfolding before readers in time is a pageant of people whose lives entered this domain. One shares the long abode of Catherine Bohier, widowed in 1524 before the château was completed, and later watches the arrivals of distinguished visitors, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau while employed by Madame Dupin, George Sand while countrying with her cousins, and Gustave Flaubert and Madame Du Camp while traveling as conventional tourists in 1847. Yourcenar’s twentieth century voice concludes that “a visit to old houses can lead to points of view we did not anticipate.” Her artful magic-lantern show of the life of a single structure, like Piranesi’s ruins, resurrects the past, objectifies it in the present, preserves it for the future, and so expands one’s perceptions of oneself in this world.

Unifying all of these essays are Yourcenar’s lively sensibility, her impressive range of scholarship, and her recurring themes of the value of history and of art to man. History warns and teaches. Art records and transforms history. Each helps to redirect and revitalize one’s life. If there is a critical stance in this collection, it is generated by indirection and implication. The critic should be very much a cosmopolitan spirit, widely read, flexible enough to move freely through time gathering perspectives which provide new angles from which to perceive Now, and wise enough to put the knowledge so gained to work for a better future. A clue to Yourcenar’s essay style may be found in her discussion of Historia Augusta: “It is the modern reader’s imagination which isolates and disengages from the huge mass of more or less fabricated anecdotes the tiny drop of poetry, or, what comes down to the same thing, the particle of intense and immediate reality.”

Significance, vision, poetry are things only an individual himself can extract from the world—or from an essay. Yourcenar’s critical judgments are not always reliable, but she demonstrates surely the necessity and value of making judgments. The imperative to her readers is clear. Be a critic.

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