Wednesday, March 3, 2010

An Adventure of Cynicism

Having finally finished three large personal projects in the space of two weeks, I finally have some room to breathe. Although most of that new breathing room will be directed towards homework--only two classes to go to finish my MSEE! So please enjoy this review. You can also see my latest review for Strange Horizons, of Brain Thief by Alexander Jablokov. Check out Andrew Wheeler's review of the same book for an interestingly different slant on it.

Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice by James Branch Cabell may be one of the most deeply cynical books that I have ever read. It's probably not a coincidence that it was published in 1919 in the immediate aftermath of World War I. Like so many other books I've read for my learning-about-the-classic-roots-of-the-genre project, Jurgen tells the tale of a man wandering through fantastic landscapes, having 'adventures' and dialogues about weighty topics. Unlike any of those books, but more like contemporary D. H. Lawrence, Jurgen is chock full of sex. While never using explicit or graphic language, the eponymous character has lots and lots of sex: anything that can be a double entendre is one in this novel.

Jurgen starts on his journey after he speaks in praise of the devil to a priest. The god-figure Koschei (a sinister character lifted from Slavic mythology) overhears this and takes a liking to this middle-aged pawnbroker and self-described "monstrous clever fellow." When asked for a boon, Jurgen requests to be freed from his shrewish wife. That works fine for a while, but eventually he goes off looking for her. He first encounters the centaur Nessus (Greek mythology) and is granted his shirt (the same shirt that killed Hercules, presumably). Then his adventures truly begin.

At first he meets the idealized persona of a girl (not his wife) that he loved in his youth. After that rather dispiriting encounter, he is granted youth (and a somewhat disturbing shadow) by another mythical figure. He gets to go back to that youthful lover one more time, with youth himself, but even then he cannot recapture idealism--he can't unknow the rather less pleasant woman she becomes.

Now representing himself as a duke, he rescues and woos (and has sex with) Guinevere before her marriage to Arthur (with her father's consent). Letting Guinevere go to her proper destiny, he is taken to Avalon to be the play thing of the Lady of the Lake. Even in a land of non-stop sexual pleasures he gets bored. He becomes the Sun symbol to the Lady's Moon symbol, and eventually must leave her land, following the seasons. (The tale places itself very specifically in time, with various days, seasons, and festival days mentioned. I believe the whole journey takes up one full year, reinforcing its cyclical nature.) Jurgen chooses to head to another mythological land where Queen Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, rules. He sees her, and to him she looks just like his youthful and idealized love. But she is married to Achilles. Jurgen, now representing himself as a King, instead settles down with a tree nymph. He doesn't love her the way she loves him, but he feels quite a bit of affection for her. Eventually he sneaks into Queen Helen's bedroom, and could have his way with her but after lengthy debate with himself instead walks away.

Unfortunately, then the kingdom is overrun by Philistines. (Cabell has nothing but scorn for censors, especially after they worked very hard to get Jurgen banned. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice filed an obscenity lawsuit over it; apparently Cabell eventually won and added even more derision to a new edition of the book.) Representing himself as a great philosopher, Jurgen is taken to the queen of the Philistines, and over the course of a night quite wins her over with his *ahem* mathematical discourses. But it does not avail to save his nymph, the kingdom, or Jurgen's life, and he is dispatched to Hell.

This is where the narrative becomes even more fascinating. Hell is basically ruled by the damned according to their own preferences and demands for painful atonement. Jurgen's father runs the demons ragged, insisting that he is not yet suffering enough for his sins. Jurgen (promoting himself to Emperor, but still transparent to his father) can't trick the old man into imagining him out of Hell, but he does get him to imagine a really luscious vampire/succubus for Jurgen to shack up with on the shores of a lake of blood. Here's a representative sample of the style of Jurgen's conquests (I've left out mention of several of his more casual encounters):

So Florimel [the vampire] conducted Jurgen, through the changeless twilight of Barathum, like that of a gray winter afternoon, to a quiet cleft by the Sea of Blood, which she had fitted out very cosily in imitation of her girlhood home; and she lighted a candle, and made him welcome to her cleft....

So Florimel extinguished the candle, with a good-will that delighted Jurgen. And now they were in utter darkness, and in the dark nobody can see what is happening. But that Florimel now trusted Jurgen and his Noumarian claims was evinced by her very first remark.

"I was in the beginning suspicious of your majesty," said Florimel, "because I had always heard that every emperor carried a magnificent sceptre, and you then displayed nothing of the sort. But now, somehow, I do not doubt you any longer."
Jurgen talks with Satan quite a bit, and learns that while Hell is technically a representative democracy, the demons have voted 'temporary' dictatorial powers to Satan 'for the duration of the War with Heaven.' This is probably where the 1919 publication date is most obvious, but it certainly hasn't ceased to be a problem since.

Eventually Jurgen's lover has to head back to the world, and Jurgen decides to take himself to Heaven. There as well everything is run according to the notions of the inmates, in this case Jurgen's grandmother. He first meets himself as a child--in fact, as his grandmother's idealized version of his childhood self. He bluffs himself into Heaven by pretending to be a Pope, for whom there are loopholes in the rules. Then he spends some time talking to his younger self, and in brief but poignant moment:

"And Jurgen talked with the boy that he had once been, and stood face to face with all that Jurgen had been and was not any longer. And this was the one happening which befell Jurgen that the writer of the tale lacked heart to tell of."
Eventually Jurgen goes to talk with God. Even looking at Him, Jurgen professes his unbelief. Unsurprisingly, God is not the all-powerful creator of the universe. In fact, He was created by Koschei to satisfy the imaginings of people like Jurgen's grandmother. God doesn't quite disappear in a puff of logic, but Jurgen does eventually sit upon the throne of Heaven:

Jurgen sat thus, for a long while regarding the bright vacant courts of Heaven. "And what will you do now?" says Jurgen, aloud. "Oh, fretful little Jurgen, you that have complained because you had not your desire, you are omnipotent over Earth and all the affairs of men. What now is your desire?" And sitting thus terribly enthroned, the heart of Jurgen was as lead within him, and he felt old and very tired. "For I do not know. Oh, nothing can help me, for I do not know what thing it is that I desire! And this book and this sceptre and this throne avail me nothing at all, and nothing can ever avail me: for I am Jurgen who seeks he knows not what."
He shrugs, leaves the throne, and returns "to such illusions as are congenial." After a chat with St. Peter (who is quite annoyed with horridness committed in the name of the Apostles) Jurgen begins to wend his way back towards his wife. He gets his normal shadow back and has a concluding conversation with Koschei, who offers him several beautiful and nobel women. But Jurgen decides to return to his normal life with his shrewish wife, and indeed is returned exactly to the starting point of the book.

Jurgen is the earliest book that I've yet read that contains the idea that people literally create their own heavens and hells. Obviously this has since shown up in innumerable sf/f pieces since, from Heinlein to Piers Anthony. Jurgen is an acknowledged influence on Heinlein, who titled one of his books Job: A Comedy of Justice (1984). Now Heinlein's Job, named Alex, has tribulations that are much less under his control, and instead of bluffing his way from encounter to encounter he mostly gets by through hard work and luck. Also, he doesn't do so much wooing of women as being seduced by them. Alex ditches his original shrewish wife, never looking back after picking up the gorgeous & infinitely sexually available Margrethe (a pagan herself) to accompany him on his travels through the universes.

By the way, with all the sex and also Jurgen's commentary on women, I was a bit surprised that the book did not strike me as egregiously misogynist. Frankly, the narrative gives rather more respect to the women characters than Jurgen does, imbuing several of them with rather more wisdom and intelligence than Jurgen gives them credit for.

Anyway, Heinlein's Alex has a journey of a devout Christian man coming to grips with the fact that the world is in no way what he thought it was (and that he wouldn't like it even if it was). Jurgen basically discovers that the world is pretty much exactly what he feared: devoid of any meaning or justice. In his travels he often says that he is looking for justice, but I don't see that he ever found any, except perhaps to be returned to his life as he had been living it. And Koschei, as a more-or-less hands-off creator god, who may in fact be the puppet of some even higher creator god, doesn't offer much in the way of a moral compass. Jurgen is cynical about sex, religion, mythology, literature, politics, morals, and fate. Although written in a pseudo-archaic style as seen in the above quotes, it is not grating or wearing. It is indeed a comedy, although not one that often induces outright laughter. It is thought-provoking, and still relevant to the moral and public climate we find ourselves in today. Certainly its influence on later sf/f writers is undeniable. If you don't mind lots of thinly veiled sexual humor wrapped around close-to-nihilistic philosophy, I'd highly recommend this to the student of the field.


Tim Walters said...

The "near-" in "near-nihilistic" is important. The universe may not give a damn about humanity, but Cabell does. Admittedly, this is clearer in his other masterpiece, Figures Of Earth (which also has a very nice bit that Heinlein nicked for "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag").

Late Heinlein's even-nearer-solipsism, on the other hand, puts me off completely.

Karen Burnham said...

Very good point about Cabell's humanism. Although I have to say, after reading "Jurgen," I'm not terribly eager to jump into more of his books. That was the sort of book that I *appreciate* more than *enjoy*.

Tim Walters said...

For what it's worth, Figures is much less bawdy, and somewhat more like what we've come to expect a fantasy novel to be (except for the fight scenes, which are deliberately, perversely terse: "then they fought, and Manuel slew him"). But of course any Cabell book is more like another Cabell book than it is like anything else.