Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Blind man who thinks \ He reads, fool who thinks he knows! - Victor Hugo's God

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 have to work on the structure first, just to see what it is.  The quotation up top, that is pretty funny.


  1. You're a better man than I; I love Hugo in the original, where he sounds like God himself, but this translation reminds me of Nabokov's Onegin, sucking every last bit of poetry out of the original, and I couldn't hack my way through more than a page of it, I suspect.

  2. Maybe End of Satan simply worked better as a translation. God was rough going. I had to read it in a scholarly spirit.

  3. I have this little pet theory in which poetry is a kind of magic performance, prestidigitation to be precise, where poets keep us distracted from what they're doing by means of the resonances of their poems' rhythm, words and images. Now imagine translating a prestidigitation act into English (and that's how most translations end up feeling like) and almost all the magic is removed: "Raise the left hand, move the head to the left a little, hold the cards on the right hand, bring both hands close together," etc...

  4. Translators supply their own magic. Even here, where the main purpose of the book is to answer the question "What is this?"

    I think I am going to get to Gottfried Benn this week, in Michael Hofmann's translation. These issues will return! Boy will they.

  5. Benn, you say, that is one tough cookie to translate. He was almost flippantly brilliant in verses like these:

    More darkness is not possible
    than at this hour, which sinks
    with all the burdens of the earth
    drowning in the foreign night;
    and, even if all shapes are absorbed
    into one single large form,
    the lemurs are threatening
    from the dark of the woods.

    Dunkler kann es nicht werden
    als diese Stunde, die sinkt,
    mit allen Lasten der Erden
    in fremder Nacht ertrinkt,
    enteignen sich die Figuren
    zu einer grossen Gestalt,
    drohen die Lemuren
    aus dem Schattenwald.

    To you only revealed
    pushed to the void and abyss
    eternally unfulfilled
    promesse du bonheur,
    You just can not be,
    every hour that sinks,
    under all the burdens of the earth,
    drowning in the foreign night.

    Dir nur sich enthullte
    bis zum Schlunde leer
    ewig unerfullte
    promesse du bonheur,
    dir nur kann es nicht werden,
    jede Stunde, die sinkt,
    mit allen Lasten der Erden
    in fremder Nacht ertrinkt.

    The "promesse de bonheur" is a quote from Stendhal, by the way: la beaute n'est que la promesse de bonheur/beauty is nothing but the promise of bliss.

  6. Hofmann omits Benn's entire "middle period." Forget it, he says, untranslatable. At least by me, he adds.

    Lemurs are pretty scary. No arguing with that.

  7. For Hugo's posthumous poetry I like volume 3 of the 1972 Seuil version of his Poésie, edited by Gaulmier & Leulliot, because of its handy critical apparatus.

    Dieu's mixture of the cosmic with the tender, the epic and the ironic is something else.

    Te le figures-tu comme un vieillard de Greuze
    Toujours les bras en l'air, maudissant, bénissant,
    Faisant du mélodrame avec quelque astre absent,
    Et larmoyant de voir rentrer une comète?
    Mais je te quitte, dit la voix intérieure,
    ...Voici l'aube. C'est l'heure
    Des vagues chants du coq dans le lointain décrus,
    Et de l'effacement des spectres disparus,
    Remportés dans l'obscur, repris par l'ombre épaisse,
    Ainsi que des poissons pour une mer qui baisse.

    And yet, I can understand why Maurois in the preface to Olympio would describe Hugo's Toute la lyre and La Dernière gerbe as "almost uninterrupted sequences of masterpieces". Those 2 posthumous collections can be read as a return to the earlier, more lyrical and less epic Hugo.

    1. "Hugo's posthumous poetry"

      Could even death not stop him writing?
      Somehow I'm not surprised.

    2. It must have seemed that way to the harried younger French poets. There was new book of Hugo material almost every year from his death in 1885 through 1902. I can imagine the complaints. "I thought we got rid of him!"

    3. Death was powerless against Hugo even when he was alive.

      He participated in some seances while he was living in Jersey during 1853 to 1855, and wrote down what the spirits of the dead had told him then. These revelations were published in 1923 under the title Les Tables tournantes. For example, Aeschylos confessed to him that:

      I wanted to carry on my back your tiger-like skin,
      And I wanted to be known as Aeschylus the lion,
      I failed...

      But after me came him who saw the three Weird Sisters,
      Oh lions!, emerge from the deep of the woods,
      And pour over our souls, those boiling caldrons,
      The hell-broth charms of their secret witchhood.

      J'ai voulu sur mon dos porter ta peau tigrée,
      Et j'ai voulu qu'on dit: Eschyle néméen.
      Je n'ai pas réussi...
      Après moi, vint Shakespeare: Il vit les trois sorcières,
      O Néméens, arriver du fond de la forêt,
      Et jeter dans nos coeurs, ces bouillantes chaudières,
      Les philtres monstreux de leur immense secret...

  8. I don't believe I have read anything from those volumes. An incentive to work on my French.