L’œuvre au noir

L‘œuvre au noir (The Abyss) is a 1968 book written by Marguerite Yourcenar I read decades ago and took with me this summer. It tells the story of Zeno(n), a mediaeval precursor of the Renaissance humanist, involved in medicine, alchemy, engineering and philosophy, but above all fighting or at least resisting the pressure of irrational beliefs and superstitions until they lead him to suicide. As acknowledged by Yourcenar in her notes, the character borrows from Renaissance scientists like Erasme, Giordano Bruno, Mikołaj Copernic, Leonardo da Vinci, and medical pioneers like Paracelsus (very much like Paracelsus!), Michel Serat and Etienne Dolet. Zenon is an atheist at a time when atheism is punished by burning at the stake, and an experimenter in an epoch when alchemy and dissection were assimilated to sorcery. The original title (translated as nigredo) is the first of the three steps in the alchemist transmutation process but also applies to the transformation of Zenon from what the society planned for him into a free and rational man. So free that he could choose himself the time and manner of his death. So rational that he reached a spiritual solitude that made him see his fellow humans with the doctor’s detached compassion and the philosopher’s pessimistic analysis of their superstitions. (The English title is just missing the point!)

This is a 20th century novel (on which Yourcenar tolled for many years, from three short stories to the final version), which makes the highly modern vision of the imaginary Zenon less remarkable than the steps made by the above real characters, but the text abounds in remarkable discussions and monologues that reminded me of similar passages in Memoirs of Hadrian. Both books are centred on (impossibly and unrealistically) exceptional men with visions that set them out of their historical time. The fate of Zenon is somehow underlying the whole book and his weak and failed attempt at fleeing Bruges and the Inquisition can be understood at the first step towards his philosopher’s suicide, preferring to face the ecclesiastical tribunal and debate of some of his ideas than Flemish smugglers and an inglorious end by being tossed into the North Sea. L‘œuvre au noir is a remarkable if pessimistic book that reflects on science and intolerance in a beautiful style, a book that I put in par with the equally great Memoirs of Hadrian.

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