Monday, November 9, 2015

Hugo plunges into chaos and writes in the margins of the abyss - the end of The End of Satan and also the middle

Victor Hugo, in The End of Satan (1886), is describing the Gospels and their authors (“four simple men”):

This story seems added by them to God,
As if they wrote on the margins of the abyss;
Their entire book resembles a shaft of light from a summit;
Each page thrills there under the sacred shudder;
And that is why the earth said: I shall read it!  (The Gibbet, Jesus Christ, VI – After Passover, ll. 200-5, p. 261)

A big part of the translation covers Christ’s death and resurrection.  This passage is a perfect Hugolian blend of devout Christianity and outright heresy.  It also serves as a good self-description.  Then a bit more modestly, a good description of creativity, of art.  Written on the margins of the abyss – a rich metaphor.

The section with the crucifixion is titled “Le Gibet,” “The Gibbet,” for didactic reasons.  Hugo is continuing his lifelong argument against capital punishment.  Christ as Everyprisoner.  His death is shocking; the world takes on a Gothic tinge:

Tombs, suddenly opened wide,
Revealed their caverns where the moles dug up
Fragments of skeletons lying in shrouds;
The ghastly dead, having emerged from their graves,
Were seen by several of those who dwelled in the city.”  (The Gibbet, The Crucifix, ll. 105-9, p. 293)

Those skeletons return after a lecture on the death penalty, now prisoners – former prisoners, I guess – in the Bastille. 

… it is here that men’s steps tremble,
Here that their dark hair turns white.  (The Prison, The Skeletons, ll. 29-30, p. 395)

What is really curious is that the skeletons are a digression in the middle of a long Browning-like monologue by Satan in which he is a prisoner in a dungeon, or thinks of himself as such.  If he is a prisoner, he is owed a great deal of sympathy, and the monologue is a brilliant mix of sincere yearning and ironic self-pity (a Browning specialty).

I love him! – Night, sepulchral cell, living death,
Darkness that my sombrous sob frightens, [Skinner is squeezing in the word “ombre”]
Solitudes of evil where flees the great punished one,
Measureless glaciers of infinite winter,
O torrents of dark chaos which saw me banished,
Despair whose cowardly peal of laughter I hear,
Void where Being, Time, Place, vanish,
Deep chasms, hells, abysses!  I love God.
I love him.  That is all.  (Beyond the Earth III, Satan in the Night, I, ll. 1-9, p. 309)

But Satan can hardly remain in that last state.  He cycles through every injury done to him, vowing revenge, before collapsing back into the condition we see here.  Hugo’s vision of hell, of Satan’s punishment, is an endless loop of self-inflicted anger and despair.  But the poem ends, or almost ends, with a section titled “Satan Forgiven,” in which God, or Hugo, calls on him to “arise out of the darkness with the dawn on your brow” – “you need only say: I shall live!” (p. 409)

Hugo does not give Satan’s answer.  Perhaps God’s offer is another part of the endless cycle.  Instead, Hugo presents a vision of his death, of his own afterlife, in which he joins “[t]he plungers into chaos, the sounders of disaster,” like Moses, Michelangelo, and Shakespeare, “[a]ll the other shepherds of somber humanities,” who gather to “burst forth their thoughts which become / Stars.”

These comets are those we sometimes see passing
Though the heavens with an immense brilliance,
Stretching across the silent aether,
Formidable, amidst the eternal shadow,
Tongues of fire from off their crowns taking wing.  (p. 415)  


  1. As I read this post, I thought of Browning, and there in the middle, you point right at him. Hugo's work sounds more like it's got high voltage running through it, though. I keep getting images of Victor Frankenstein's lightning-powered machines when I read this. All quite tempting. The book is $40 new, but I'm sure the uni library here has a copy. Maybe in the spring.

    Solitudes of evil where flees the great punished one,
    Measureless glaciers of infinite winter,
    O torrents of dark chaos which saw me banished,
    Despair whose cowardly peal of laughter I hear

    This is all really good. Satan flees into solitudes of evil where he hears his own cowardly laughter of despair. Really good. Milton's Satan was never aware of his own cowardice, of what he lost by turning away.

  2. I, too, considered buying this book, but a $40 paperback is, as they say, library-priced.

    Satan's self-pitying monologue is excellent, and there are fine images and surprises all through the poem. The apocalypse around the Noah story, for example. There is also plenty of symbolic activity that I do not understand well. I will move to God later today and admit defeat.

  3. Wonderful stuff. Hugo can take a thing - comets above, for instance - and make you never be able to see that thing again without thinking of how he saw it.

  4. I feel bad that, in the post on God I just put up, I neglected the imagery, which is the best part, by far, for some desperate failed attempt to understand what Hugo is trying to say.