Sunday, 25 October 2009

A Room Returning From The Sum To Its Parts: Marguerite Yourcenar's Abyss

Pieter Janssens Elinga, Room in A Dutch House. The Hermitage Museum.

This is the point in the book “Zeno of Bruges” (or “The Abyss”) by Marguerite Yourcenar, where the main character, a physician, alchemist and philosopher in sixteenth century Flanders, begins a descent during the process of which all forms of meaning, use and abstraction, applied and overlaid onto the material and physical world by man, begin –for him- to fall away, eventually revealing a vast, certain, terrifying, meaningless, but ultimately liberating Nature, into which, at the end of the book, he calmly releases himself in an act that takes him back to a state like the one he is imagining of the room and its contents below. Spending his entire life in buildings and cities, discussing ideas, science and theology, he himself goes through several shifts in perception where the constructs of man, both logical and spatial at first seem tenuous, then infinitely ephemeral, dissolving into an unending and timeless process against which they stand as strange, illusory solidities, vainly encrusting tiny moments of space and time with systems and values which although meaning everything to their respective civilisation, count for nothing in the march of time and the teeth of nature.

For nearly half a century Zeno had used his mind, wedge-like, to enlarge, as best he could, the breaks in the wall which on all sides confines us. The cracks were widening, or rather, it seemed that the wall was slowly losing its solidity, though it still remained opaque, as if it were a wall of smoke and not of stone. Objects no longer played their part merely as useful accessories; like a mattress from which the hair stuffing protrudes, they were beginning to reveal their substance. A forest was filling the room: the stool, its height measured by the distance that separates a seated man’s rump from the ground, this table which serves for eating or writing, the door connecting one cube of air, surrounded by partitions, with another, neighbouring cube of air, all were losing those reasons for existing which an artisan had given them, to be again only trunks or branches stripped of their bark, like the Saint Bartholomews, stripped of their skin, in church paintings; here and there the carpenter’s plane had left lumps where the sap had bled. These corpses of trees were laden with ghostly leaves and invisible birds, and still creaked from tempests long since gone by. This blanket and those old clothes hanging on a nail smelled of animal fat, of milk, of blood. These shoes gaping open beside the bed had once moved in rhythm with the breathing of an ox at rest on the grass; and a pig, bled to death, was still squealing in that lard with which the cobbler had greased them.
On all sides there was violent death, as in a slaughterhouse, or in a field of execution. The terrified cackling of a goose could be heard in the quill pen scratching its way, over old rags, to record ideas deemed worthy of lasting forever. Everything was actually something else: this shirt that the Bernadine sisters laundered for him was, in reality, a field of flax, far more blue than the sky; but it was, at the same time, a mass of fibres put to soften in the bed of a canal. The florins in his pocket, stamped with the head of the late Emperor Charles, had been exchanged or given away, stolen, weighed, or shaved off a thousand times before he had thought them, for one brief moment, his own; but all such turnover and back and forth between hands avaricious or prodigal was of short span as compared with the inert duration of the metal itself, which had lain infused in the earth’s veins before Adam had ever lived. The brick walls around him were resolving into mud from which they came, and which they would again become one day.

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