A Tale of a Renaissance Man
Updated: Oct 20
In my review of Memoirs of Hadrian, I mentioned I was going to read another novel by Marguerite Yourcenar: The Abyss. I did, and it was well worth the time. The novel, published in 1968 and translated by Grace Frick, is traditional in form. Where Memoirs of Hadrian is told in the form of a fictional autobiography, The Abyss is a typical third-person omniscient narrative. The author contributes a degree of irony to the telling, but otherwise does not intrude. The descriptions are vivid, but we do not drown in details. The treatment of the characters is humane, i.e. they are portrayed with a reasonable amount of sympathy and not demonized, to the extent that that is possible in the brutal sixteenth century in which it is set.
The English title of the novel is not a translation of the French title. I think that was bad choice. In French, the title is L’Oeuvre au Noir. This means “the work in black.” In the author’s words it “designates what is said to be the most difficult phase of the alchemist’s process, the separation and dissolution of substance. It is still not clear whether the term applied to daring experiments on matter itself, or whether it was understood to symbolize trials of the mind in discarding all forms of routine and prejudice.”
Such trials of the mind form the core of the story. Zeno Ligre, illegitimate son of a girl from a rich banker family in sixteenth-century Flanders, is on a quest to escape prejudice and discover knowledge. He was born at a time both dreadful and propitious for such an undertaking. While astrology and fanaticism still have a grip on the minds of the time, the foundations of modern science and medicine are being laid. While religious wars and the Inquisition bloody the land, it is still possible to wander from place to place, gleaning knowledge where one can.
Zeno is not based on any one thinker from that time, but he is representative of many great men. He is similar to Leonardo da Vinci, although Zeno is not an artist, but he is also similar to a host of other, more obscure figures of the Renaissance, such as Michael Servetus. Zeno is primarily a physician and publishes a book on the anatomy of the heart. But he is also a philosopher who writes about the nature of matter. And not least of all, Zeno is an alchemist, just as that proto-science was being transformed into real chemistry. (Alchemy also had a mystical-philosophical component, which Zeno draws the best from.)
Zeno travels all through the civilized world, from Turkey to Sweden, gathering wisdom along the way. Some of his works are heretical, and when he returns to the town of his birth, he disguises himself by adopting the name Sebastian Theus. The choice of aliases is telling on both Zeno’s and Yourcenar’s parts: Saint Sebastian was a martyr who became a gay icon, and “theus” means “god.” Zeno (like Hadrian) is predominantly gay (although he sometimes had relations with women), is constantly in danger of being martyred, and is a non-believer in God. (Interestingly, Yourcenar was a lesbian who had a number of frustrating infatuations with gay men. Perhaps that’s why she wrote about so many of them.)
The novel does not concern itself with Zeno’s wanderings through Sweden and the Muslim world, but is centered on events Flanders and Germany before and after his wandering. We see how Zeno forms his basic identity (he starts out studying for the priesthood and is diverted by his interest in building mechanized looms), and later we see his interaction with clerics and common folk back in Flanders, when his wandering is done. These interactions are the real test of Zeno’s character.
Along the way we have a few interesting side-plots. One concerns Zeno’s beloved cousin Henry Maximilan Ligre, who leaves home to become a soldier and a poet. Henry represents another kind of escape from suffocations of “normal” life. Perhaps his story is Yourcenar’s way of saying that you do not have to be an intellectual to live a passionate and authentic life.
We also follow Zeno’s mother, who never cared for him. She becomes involved with an older merchant who leads her into trouble. The merchant is an Anabaptist. Anabaptism was a hydra-headed group of radical Christian sects that came into being in the early 1500s. Zeno’s step-father is a rich merchant who gets involved with the Anabaptist takeover of the German town Muenster in 1534 and the establishment of a brief polygamous, communistic, theocratic society there. Zeno’s mother and half-sister have the misfortune of being in the town at the time of the takeover and later siege. This is a long digression if you think the novel should be just about Zeno, but if you want to see Zeno in the context of his age, it serves an integral purpose.
Yourcenar is highly—and rightly—praised for her ability to take us into other times and into minds from those times. In the chapter entitled “The Abyss,” we see Zeno having an existential crisis as he ponders the earth spinning through space and the idea of human beings as in some sense interchangeable flesh. It’s hard to put our modern selves in the position of someone just realizing that there are infinite worlds out in space and that human beings are nothing more than meat-like tissue. Yourcenar’s imagination assists our own. Fortunately for Zeno and the story, the crisis does not last.
Zeno, despite the passion he feels for his quest for knowledge and freedom from dogma, is understandably bitter about living in a world where every town has a gallows and men are slaughtered by the thousands for following the wrong monarch. But somehow he always succeeds in not drowning in bitterness.
Zeno does grow during the story. At first he sees his patients as almost experimental subjects, but later he puts himself in danger in order to treat people he empathizes with. In some ways he “settles down,” although he never settles into thinking like other people. Furthermore, while he will dissemble to protect himself, he will not be a hypocrite.
Are we to take Zeno to be a great man, like Hadrian? In his own way, I think, yes. Zeno is portrayed as one of the pioneers of the modern world, struggling to leave the Middle Ages behind. It is easy to forget that being a Renaissance Man was not just exhilarating: One had to face both the dark night of the soul and the dark nights in prison. We are all in debt to these intrepid men.
One of the themes of both of Yourcenar’s major novels is the self-realization of great men who do not believe in gods and who do believe in themselves. If you are interested in the earthly, earthy details of such men’s lives and not just in seeing them as marble statues, then Yourcenar is an author for you. The Abyss is available on Amazon.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also like my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs Reality in American Life.