And the luminosity said: silence! Blind man who thinks
He reads, fool who thinks he knows! I tell you:
For all eternity does the wondrous emerge from the mysterious! (God, The Ocean of the Heights, IX, ll. 314-6, p. 133)
The End of Satan (1886) has the advantage of familiar stories. Hugo makes them less familiar, sometimes, but I have a baseline. I know where the story has to go, whatever ornamentation Hugo piles on.
But Dieu (1891), God, Hugo’s other big posthumous semi-unfinished epic, it’s a tough one. More philosophical. More abstract. It is a series of encounters between a Hugoish narrator, who has become a winged ghost (“because Man becomes wingèd when he muses”), flying upward in a kind of inverted abyss, and a variety of voices and semi-allegorical figures, most of them also winged figures, who deliver a monologue full of anti-wisdom, a perspective to be rejected. I think. For example, The Bat, which is atheism (Hugo says so), who declaims:
And all of Creation, with Man,
With what the eye sees and what the voice names,
Its worlds, its suns, its rare currents,
Its dazzling, streaking, mead meteors,
With its golden globes like great domes,
With its eternal passage of phantoms, waters,
Swarms, birds, the lily that we believe blessed,
Is only a vomiting of darkness into the Infinite! (The Ocean of the Heights, I – The Bat, ll. 92-9, p. 91)
A hundred and thirty lines of this black spew, in the original in rhyming couplets. Thank goodness the translator, R. G. Skinner, did not try to reproduce the rhyming couplets. They don’t sound ridiculous in French, but in English ruin the poem.
However, the translator does omit most of the animals, so I have no idea what the owl or eagle are supposed to represent. The griffin, included is Christianity, progress, human thought moving in the right direction, but still, to Hugo a now unnecessary mediation between himself and a direct encounter with God. I guess.
Oh wait, I see that the eagle is Judaism. “You hail from Sinai, but I come from Golgotha,” says the griffin to the eagle.
It is all a bit like a compressed, misty Divine Comedy, with the spirit ascending towards a direct encounter with God, and thus with death. As programmatic as the scheme of the poem is, even in this abridgment, the end, what I take as Hugo’s death, or his preparation for his death, has power.
Listen – Up to now you have seen only dreams,
Only vague glimmers floating on falsehoods,
Merely the muddled appearances which pass in the winds
Or tremble in the night for you living creatures. (Epilogue, ll. 1-4, p. 135)
Hugo demands his encounter with God, knowing that it means death – “Yes! – I shouted. / And I felt that creation trembled like a fabric.”
Specter, you misled me, I still know nothing.
(God is infinite. He keeps withdrawing perpetually –
No transformation of life ever reaches
him. – One only advances into the
light.) (Epilogue, p. 137)
Some kind of gnosticism is where Hugo is going. I don’t know why I am worrying about the poem’s ideas, rarely a great strength with Hugo, rather than the imagery to be found within the monologues of the bat and griffin and so on. I suppose because I understand the poem so poorly that I am have to work on the structure first, just to see what it is. The quotation up top, that is pretty funny.