The famous 1922 obscenity trial over Jurgen has probably drawn away too much attention from literary issues of the novel’s style and organization, but the attempted censorship does provide a clue to the book’s continuing importance. Like James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), published only three years after Jurgen and also the subject of an obscenity case, Jurgen dares to lampoon all the sacred beliefs of Anglo-American ideology. It mocks human beings’ belief in their own importance, romantic notions of male-female relationships, belief in an afterlife, faith in cosmic justice, idealistic ideas of human motives, and the well-meaning idea of literary censorship. It mocks, however, in an upbeat, comic, and sometimes wistful tone. Cabell’s “Gallantry” is the most lighthearted form of cynicism ever conceived.
Cabell agreed with his critics that he opposed the prevalent naturalism of his time. It is true that Cabell diligently avoids realistic detail in his narrative, yet in one respect—his cynical treatment of human motives—he is in fact naturalistic. The novel is characterized by psychological realism while maintaining a veneer of romanticism in its incidents and motifs, which are drawn mostly from myth, folklore, and medieval romances. Because Cabell refuses to lie about the human heart, Jurgen, again like Ulysses, remains contemporary. Cabell’s honesty ensures that it does not appear dated.
The gaily disillusioned and cynical tone of the book is mainly a result of Cabell’s view of the sordidness of human motives. Because Jurgen is portrayed lying to himself about his own character and motives, Cabell’s irony and satire apply as much to the title character himself as they do to the characters he dupes and uses.
The ironic tone is also a constant reminder that this is a satirical farce, an artifice of words, and that Cabell in no sense believes in the world he has created. In this respect, he contrasts with those fantasy writers who maintain a serious tone and, by pretending to believe in their creations, lay claim to a transcendent importance that Cabell calls into question. His skeptical modernism is the opposite of Christian Neoplatonism.
The author’s tone should not divert attention from his staggering inventiveness and his ability to adapt and to develop characters and motifs from myth, legend, and folklore. Cabell, who was familiar with a wide range of sources, was surely one of America’s most...
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