Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Cream Of Whose Jest?

During the early 1900s, James Branch Cabell wrote a long series of books throughout his life that were all tied together as part of a whole. The series is known as "The Biography of Manuel," and in it, at least one or more of the main characters is always a descendant of one Dom Manuel from the first book who thought he lived on through them. In the book I'll be commenting on here, The Cream of The Jest, it's his youngest daughter, Ettarre, who shows up, as she does in many of Cabell's other works. Speaking of characters, another who is nearly always present (as he is in this book) is Horvendile. In Cabell's other stories, Horvendile represents the author himself entering the tale. In Jest, however, Horvendile represents a fictitious author by the name of Felix Kennaston (who in turn may represent Cabell). These are the only two characters we're going to concern ourselves with because the others only play small supporting roles and have little to do with Cabell's philosophical and spiritual outlook, and this is what I'm mainly concerned with.

The main theme in all the stories from "The Biography of Manuel" is a quest for an object of beauty or happiness (usually a woman, and usually Ettarre) and almost, but not quite, attaining that goal. Thus, every book ends in loss but with the hope that some day happiness may yet be found.

Jest is a story about the dreams of a famous author by the name of Felix Kennaston and his then using those dreams as the basis for the stories he writes. These dreams take place in several different geographic locations, but most of them are in the land of Poictesme—a fictional province somewhere in Europe. When Kennaston enters his dreams, he does so as a different man, a much younger man by the name of Horvendile. Kennaston always finds Ettarre waiting for him in those dream worlds. And once there, he is never eager to return to what he perceives as a the mundane life of a middle-aged man in a loveless marriage during waking existence:

Thus he walked in twilight, regretful that he must return to his own country, and live another life, and bear another name, than that of Horvendile.... It was droll that in his own country [waking life] he should be called Felix, since Felix meant "happy"; and assuredly he was not pre-eminently happy there.
Kennaston invented the province of Poictesme and it's characters just as any writer of fiction invents the people and places in his books by way of imaginative day-dreams, the substance of which may be found in the heart of God as George MacDonald suggested. But Kennaston hasn't learned this yet, and he still believes that he himself is the force behind the world of imagination just as many inconsiderate people often do.

Imagine that you are wide awake in your dreams (as I have often been) and that you try to make the people who populate your dreams understand that you are from another world and that they are mere creations of your inner self... as many foolish psychologists have claimed.

"I will tell you," Horvendile replied, "though I much fear you will not understand—" He meditated shook his head, smilingly. "Indeed, how is it possible for me to make you understand? Well, I blurt out the truth. There was once in a land very far away from this land—in my country—a writer of romances. And once he constructed a romance which, after a hackneyed custom of my country, he pretended to translate from an old manuscript written by an ancient clerk—called Horvendile. It told of Horvendile's part in the love-business between Sir Guiron des Rocques and La Beale Ettarre. I am that writer of romance. This room, this castle, all the broad rolling countryside without, is but a portion of my dream, and these places have no existence save in my dreams, and fancies. And you, messire—and you also, madame—and dead Maugis here, and all the others who seemed so real to me, are but the puppets I fashioned and shifted, for a tale's sake, in that romance which now draws to a close."
This statement appears early in the book during a day-dream as Kennaston walks through a garden. He is apparently thinking about his book and the things he will write in it and how he will end his story. It seems very odd that he would say such things to characters in a mere day-dream, a reverie. But at this point reality and imagination cross paths. Before he left his day-dream, Ettarre gave him half of something along the lines of a brooch which she wore as a pendant around her neck. (How she managed to break it in half is unknown since it's made of metal.) This brooch/pendant is called "the sigil of Scoteia." Of course a day-dream character can't give you an object that you can take back with you to waking reality. But as Kennaston walks in the moonlight he spots something glowing in the path and stoops down to pick up what is obviously the same half of the pendant which Ettarre had given him in the day-dream. He decides that he must have glanced at it much earlier in the day and then incorporated the likeness of the object into his reverie. Of course, this doesn't exactly turn out to be true as you'll find out later in the story.

One thing you need to know, however, is that Kennaston finds that if he lies in bed and allows light to shine on the sigil at just such an angle, he will soon find himself in another world with Ettarre. The book never refers to the phrase "out of body," but we may assume that some such thing has happened. In any event, Kennaston finds himself, or at least his consciousness, in a different kind of reality, and unlike his day-dreams, he has no control over his destination, nor much of anything else.

"Things happen so in dreams," he observed. "I know perfectly well I am dreaming, as I have very often known before this that I was dreaming. But it was always against some law to tell the people in my nightmares that I quite understood they were not real people. To-day in my daydream, and here again to-night, there is no such restriction; and lovely as you are, I know that you are just a daughter of sub-consciousness or of memory or of jumpy nerves or, perhaps, of an improperly digested entree."

"No, I am real Horvendile—but it is I who am dreaming you."
And thus he comes to understand that this world is very different from the day-dream worlds he created, for here he surely is not the creator. But is she just teasing him? Is he really part of her dream? How does a dream character have the power to dream us into their worlds? He finally decides that neither is dreaming the other into existence, but rather, they are somehow equally a part of the same dream, and that the sigil has something to do with it. He also quickly comes to realize that something else is quite different from his mere day-dreams. In those, he could touch Ettarre. Here he cannot. If he tries to, the dream ends, and it's the same in every dream he has of her thereafter. This woman whom he thought he had invented through sheer will applied to imagination, and who he grows to love as such, has become untouchable. Even his travels through other worlds with Ettarre is something he believes he has unwittingly invented through that psychological fiction called the subconscious. He even begins to show some excitement about this newfound power he has.

"He looked at her; and again his heart moved with glad adoration. It was not merely that Ettarre was so pleasing to the eye, and distinguished by so many delicate clarities of color—so young, so quick of movement, so slender, so shapely, so inexpressibly virginal,—but the heady knowledge that here on dizzying heights he, Felix Kennaston, was somehow playing with superhuman matters, and that no power could induce him to desist from his delicious and perilous frolic, stirred, in deep recesses of his being, nameless springs. Nameless they must remain; for it was as though he had discovered himself to possess a sixth sense; and he found that the contrivers of language, being less prodigally gifted, had never been at need to invent any terms wherewith to express this sense's gratification. But he knew that he was strong and admirable; that men and men's affairs lay far beneath him; that Ettarre belonged to him; and that the exultance which possessed him was the by-product of an unstable dream.
It's not long after this that twice Kennaston is queried about his book—Men Who Loved Allison—both times by men who might be considered influential and/or powerful. They seem concerned about the sigil of Scoteia (Kennaston has written it into the story), and they talk of white pigeons (essentially doves) and hold small mirrors in their hand. One of these men is a Church Bishop by the name of Arkwright.

"Yes, I was often a guest at Alcluid—a very beautiful home it was in those days, famed, as I remember, for the many breeds of pigeons which your uncle amused himself by maintaining. I suppose that you also raise white pigeons, my son?"

Kennaston saw that the prelate now held a small square mirror in his left hand. "No, sir," Kennaston answered...

"The pigeon has so many literary associations that I should have thought it would appeal to a man of letters," the prelate continued. "I ought to have said earlier perhaps that I read Men Who Loved Alison with great interest and enjoyment. It is a notable book. Yet in dealing with the sigil of Scoteia—or so at least it seemed to me—you touched upon subjects which had better be left undisturbed. There are drugs, my son, which work much good in the hands of the skilled physician, but cannot without danger be entrusted to the vulgar."

He spoke gently; yet it appeared to Kennaston a threat was voiced.

. . .

"Since then, sir, by the drollest of coincidences, a famous personage has spoken to me in almost the identical words you employed this evening, as to the sigil of Scoteia. The coincidence, sir, lay less in what was said than in the apparently irrelevant allusion to white pigeons which the personage too made, and the little mirror which he too held as he spoke.... I could find it in my heart t o believe it the cream of an ironic jest that you great ones of the earth have tested me with a password mistakenly supposing that I, also, was initiate. I am tempted to imagine some secret understanding, some hidden co-operancy, by which you strengthen or, possibly, have attained your power.

"Think well, my son! Suppose, for one mad instant, that your wild imaginings were not wholly insane? suppose that you had accidentally stumbled upon enough of a certain secret to make it simpler to tell you the whole mystery? Cannot a trained romancer conceive what you might hope for then?"

Very still it was in the dark room....

Kennaston was horribly frightened....
So into the mix comes the suggestion of a secret society with an occult power that enables them to be in power the world over.

Upon first reading of the sigil I was taken aback at the name because typically I think of a sigil as a symbolic drawing used in magic. It later dawned on me however, that a sigil can also be something used as a seal like the signet rings kings used in ancient times, and that's what this pendant in the story is for. It's three inches in diameter (when both halves are together) and has a long line of reverse writing on it which will be read forward after the seal is stamped with the sigil. There's an illustration of the sigil on the book's frontispiece. The writing reads:

James Branch Cabell made this book so that he who wills may read the story of man's eternally unsatisfied hunger in search of beauty. Ettarre stays inaccessible always and her loveliness is his to look on only in his dreams. All men she must evade at the last and many are the ways of her evasions.
So Cabell is just having a little fun with the sigil's writing. There is some talk about the material that makes up the sigil, who manufactured it etc., but none of that is important. What's important is the fact that Kennaston eventually finds the other half of the sigil in waking life, and it belongs to a woman he knows quite well and whom he never would have suspected it belonged to. This discovery changes everything, as you will see, and reality takes yet another bizarre turn.

Cabell may owe something to Mark Twain's short story—My Platonic Sweetheart—written in 1898 (though not published until 1912, well after Twain's death). Cabell claimed to have written Jest sometime between 1911 and 1914. Both stories are essentially about a man who meets a woman during recurrent dreams who is the love of his life, (though not necessarily in the way you may be thinking). They always look a little different from dream to dream, yet they always find one another, and each knows the other straight away even though their names may have changed as well. In Twain's story, the man (Twain himself) is always seventeen and the girl fifteen no matter what Twain's age was in waking life. In Jest, Horvendile and Ettarre are also young in all of Kennaston's dreams except for one (as I recall anyway), while Kennaston is in late middle-age during waking life. We also find in both stories that our young couples occasionally travel to exotic localities in the Earth's past and meet historic figures.

While Twain is able to hold his dream sweetheart and kiss her (though nothing more is mentioned), Horvendile cannot touch Ettarre. If he does, the dream ends and he awakens. Thus, while Horvendile deeply loves Ettarre, he can never have her as anything more than something like a friend, and yet something more special and quite uncommon than merely a friend. This may sound different from Twain and his dream girl, but Twain makes an odd remark in his account:

The affection which I felt for her and which she manifestly felt for me was a quite simple fact; but the quality of it was another matter. It was not the affection of brother and sister - it was closer than that, more clinging, more endearing, more reverent; and it was not the love of sweethearts, for there was no fire in it. It was somewhere between the two, and was finer than either, and more exquisite, more profoundly contenting. We often experience this strange and gracious thing in our dream-loves; and we remember it as a feature of our childhood-loves, too.
Journalist, Burton Rascoe, wrote in his introduction to the 1921 edition of Cabell's book—Chivalry: Dizain des Reines—the following:

It is perhaps of historical interest here to record the esteem in which Mark Twain held the genius of Mr. Cabell as it was manifested as early as a dozen years ago. Mr. Cabell wrote The Soul of Melicent, or, as it was rechristened on revision, Domnei, at the great humorist's request, and during the long days and nights of his last illness it was Mr. Cabell's books which gave Mark Twain his greatest joy.
So we know that late in the life of Samuel Clemens, he befriended Cabell, and even had some influence on his stories before he died. It is perhaps not unreasonable to consider that Jest may owe something to My Platonic Sweetheart.

What Jest has to say to us is really nothing more than the echo of what every great mystic had said before him—that reality isn't what we think it is. That there are binding strands which link waking existence to both the worlds of dream and imagination. At first Felix Kennaston's love for Ettarre is such that all he can think of are those dream worlds and being with her as a man loves a woman. But by the end of the tale, he begins to think more deeply about things like creation, life, and a creator. His dream lover becomes for him, just as those dream lovers did for so many other writers before him, a personification of God, for that's what the Helen of Troy motif represents for writers, dreamers, and lovers. She's the object of desire who symbolizes all that is beautiful, good, and perfect. She's always to be admired, but never to be owned. She was Beatrice to Dante. She was the Marble Lady to Anodos in George MacDonald's Phantastes. She was Mark Twain's Platonic Sweetheart.

She certainly takes center stage in many of my own dreams and probably in many of yours. I've been dreaming of my Helen for at least a decade now. I've never quite been able to have my dream lover either. We're always playing cat and mouse—always a little leery of one another. And yet we're always together. Not lovers, but more than friends. Yet the relationship is deeper than either lovers or friends as Twain said. It's only been during the past year or so that I've come to realize that she represents...well, many people at times, but on the highest level she's symbolic of the "Holy Other". Hers is a love we must all strive for, and I believe it is a love we will find if we keep knocking at love's door long enough. She is nothing less than God calling out to humanity saying, "Come and dine."

I'm not sure if Cabell's story expresses this in quite the way I would have hoped. For a time in his life, he did become interested in magic and secret societies. (The episode about the white pigeons and mirrors surely owes itself to the "magic mirror of Solomon" to some degree.) He seemed to move away from all that rather quickly though, and when none other than freemasonry's class clown, Aleister Crowley, tried to correspond with him, Cabell was cordial enough, but in private seemed very put off and had very little use for Crowley and his type. (Crowley did write an essay on Cabell that appeared in a Virginian publication called "The Reviewer" that was actually pretty accurate in most ways, but failed to truly understand what Cabell was trying to say on a deeper level.)

Mostly I find in Cabell's Kennaston someone whose search for Helen hadn't quite reached fruition yet. But, does anyone's this side of Heaven?

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