‘Un monde en feu’: Fire in Marguerite Yourcenar’s L’Œuvre au Noir

‘Un monde en feu’: Fire in Marguerite Yourcenar’s L’Œuvre au Noir

‘Un monde en feu’: Fire in Marguerite Yourcenar’s L’Œuvre au Noir


In the tumultuous year of 1968, a novel was published in Paris and, though it was set in another era and in other parts of the world, synchronistically reflected the turmoil taking place in France at the time. It earned for its author, Marguerite Yourcenar (1903–1987), the prestigious Prix Femina for that year and, along with her earlier Mémoires d’Hadrien (1951), was instrumental in Yourcenar’s election in 1980 to the Académie Française, the French Academy.[1]

L’Œuvre au Noir[2] (The Abyss in the English translation) is set in sixteenth-century Flanders, torn apart by the wars of religion. The protagonist Zénon Ligre, scholar, alchemist, philosopher, writer, anatomist, botanist, engineer, astrologer, surgeon and physician, is an amalgam of many Renaissance thinkers. Though he is a fictional character, his temperament, predilections, profession, research and writings are derived from authentic and conspicuous figures of the period, many of whom are mentioned by Yourcenar.[3] In spite of Zénon, when he is speaking to his cousin Henri-Maximilien, vehemently denying any resemblance to Michael Servetus — who was executed for heresy[4] — this physician, theologian, cartographer and humanist was in fact another model for Yourcenar’s protagonist. Similarly, the scholar, translator and printer, Etienne Dolet and the hermetic philosopher Giordano Bruno, both also executed for heresy, served as models.[5]

When the novel was first published, one French critic questioned its connection to alchemical processes. Despite the clear reference in its title to the first alchemical stage, the nigredo or œuvre au noir, and in spite of Yourcenar’s efforts to draw the reader’s attention to Paracelsus, the alchemist on whom Zénon was modelled, the critic R.M. Albérès, asked why a work which ostensibly regards alchemy as its principal concern does not deal with the subject.[6] As he expresses it, “Il n’y a ni fabrication de l’or, ni épuration de l’âme” (my emphasis); “There is neither manufacture of gold nor purification of the soul” (my translation and emphasis). He adds the following:

A aucun moment du livre nous avons l’impression que la pensée du XVIe siècle (même les sciences secrètes, même le fruit défendu, même l’hérésie et l’alchimie) ait apporté quelque chose à Zénon, et puisse nous apporter quelque chose à nous-mêmes. Albérès, 5; my emphasis)

At no moment in the book do we have the impression that sixteenth-century thought (even the occult sciences, even the forbidden fruit, even heresy and alchemy) have brought Zénon anything and can bring us anything. (my translation and emphasis)

Albérès hints at, but does not elucidate, Zénon’s involvement with heretical beliefs, such as the circulation of the blood, and dangerous practices, including abortions and anatomical dissection (“les sciences secrètes,” “l’hérésie”), while making a discreet reference to his homosexuality (“le fruit défendu”). For Albérès, all this has only a superficial bearing on the protagonist’s life and career, and does not in any way enrich the reader’s understanding of his character. Similarly, Albérès states, alchemy does not mark the protagonist or the reader.[7]

The novel itself may be the source of Albérès’s failure to detect any alchemy. One of the protagonist’s early conversations with his cousin Henri-Maximilien, for example, would seem to corroborate this critic’s opinion about the unimportance of alchemy in Zénon’s life. Questioned by Henri-Maximilien on his alchemical activities, Zénon refutes the idea that he can turn base metal into gold:

— Vous faites de l’or.

— Non, dit l’alchemiste, mais d’autres en feront. C’est affaire du temps et d’outils adéquats pour mener à bien l’expérience. Qu’est-ce que quelques siècles? (L’Œuvre au Noir, 654)

— You make gold.

— No, replied the alchemist, but others will. It is just a question of time and of suitable tools to bring the experiment to a conclusion. What are a few centuries? (my translation)

The alchemy in which Zénon is engaged is of an entirely different kind, which I shall seek to illuminate in this essay, particularly in regard to the importance of fire.[8] I shall also examine how the very subtlety of the journey of transfiguration on which the protagonist is engaged has eluded critics such as Albérès.

Associated temperamentally, symbolically and literally with fire across the novel, Zénon’s connections with this element are clear from the work’s outset, even before his birth. His father, Alberico de’ Numi, is an ambitious and fiery young Florentine prelate of noble lineage. Modeled on the real churchman, Giovanni Della Casa (1503–1556), the stormy Alberico moves in high circles, with links to the Farnese, the Medicis, and the Borgias. Endowed with Ciceronian eloquence, at one stage of his career he is seen — by virtue of his erudition and rhetorical brilliance and his passion for rediscovering forgotten manuscripts from antiquity — as the natural heir to Marsilio Ficino and the Florentine School of Neoplatonists.[9] He takes part in curial intrigues, becomes a cardinal at thirty and, while still a young man, dies, during an orgy in a vineyard belonging to the Farnese.

Though dying at a very young age, Alberico lives long enough to engender Zénon during one of his forays abroad. As apostolic secretary to the League of Cambrai, and in this capacity dispatched by his ambitious mother to retrieve funds to further his career as prince of the Church, Alberico is introduced into the opulent Bruges household of the Flemish merchant, his agent, Henri-Juste Ligre. There, Alberico becomes infatuated with Henri-Juste’s beautiful young sister, Hilzonde, to whom her brother entrusts the management of the household during his frequent absences on business ventures.

Alberico’s passionate wooing and seduction of Hilzonde — which gives rise to Zénon — is interlaced with Petrarchan resonances and dissonances, and early modern topoi and commonplaces around fire:

Le soir, assis devant le feu, l’amant et l’amante regardaient ensemble une grande améthyste apportée d’Italie où l’on voyait des satyres embrasser des nymphes, et le Florentin enseignait à Hilzonde les mots de son pays qui désignent les choses de l’amour’. (Yourcenar, L’Œuvre au Noir, 568)

In the evening, the two lovers, sitting by the fire, would gaze together on an amethyst brought from Italy, on which were carved Nymphs clasped by Satyrs, and the Florentine would teach Hilzonde the words from his country which denote matters of love. (my translation)

The function of fire as an emblem of human passion — a commonplace of the age in which the work is set, as Aleksondra Hultquist has outlined in her article for this special issue of Occasion — is reinforced here by other sixteenth-century iconographic associations.[10] The transience of human preoccupations and the vanity and brevity of terrestrial happiness, especially of terrestrial love, are reinforced by the amethyst on which is depicted a lascivious scene, recalling Cesare Ripa’s Novissima Iconologia of 1593 in which Felicità breve (Fleeting Happiness) is depicted as a woman holding a vessel filled with gold and jewels.[11]

These early associations with fire, reinforced during the life of the mature Zénon, become very clear in the central chapter of the whole novel — “L’Abîme” or “The Abyss” — a chapter constructed around alchemy. The protagonist’s association with fire is signaled early in the novel by his cousin, Henri-Maximilien, who unexpectedly meets up with him in Innsbruck:

Henri-Maximilien resta debout près du feu; une buée montait de ses vêtements. Zénon assis sur l’enclume, laissant pendre ses mains entre ses genoux, regardait les braises enflamées. (L’Œuvre au Noir, 640)

Henry-Maximilian remained standing near the fire, the steam arising from his damp garments. [Zénon] took a seat on the anvil, bending forward, hands between his knees, to watch the blazing brands. (The Abyss, 100; my modifcations).

He remarks “Toujours le compagnon du feu, Zénon” (L’Œuvre au Noir, 640); “You remain the companion of fire, Zénon” (my translation).

While still a student, Zénon’s reflections on the importance of the role of fire in the science of alchemy and his passion for the subject, are evidenced in the chapter “Les Loisirs de l’été” or “The Leisures of Summer.” Taking off from his uncle’s house for several days, he enters the forest of Houthuist, resonant with ancient wisdom, which can be read by a scholar attentive to the signs. Responsive to these signs all around him, Zénon reflects on alchemical processes taking place in the giant trees of the forest, which bear the signs of air and of fire, and carry within them the virtuality of an element that may end up destroying them.

Later during his time in the forest, Zénon encounters three charcoal burners, “maîtres et serviteurs du feu” (585) (masters and servants of the fire), converting damp wood into charcoal, a medium forever retaining an affinity with fire — “qui garde à jamais son affinité avec l’élément igné”(585) — just as he himself retains his affinity with this element throughout his lifetime. Fire, the destroyer, closes this sequence, hinting at later developments in the novel. Emerging from the calm of the forest, Zénon encounters, once again, the turbulence of the age, and a world on fire, as he witnesses a group of peasants running to put out a conflagration on an isolated farm targeted by an Anabaptist.

“L’Abîme,” “The Abyss,” the chapter at the center of the novel, that gives its name to the title of the English translation of L’Œuvre au Noir, as mentioned earlier, most powerfully and convincingly reveals Zénon’s connection to fire through alchemy and the governing role that this science plays over the course of his life. The central position of the chapter in the novel represents visually and thematically the centrality of alchemy and fire in Zénon’s life. As I shall endeavor to show, the chapter also represents these themes narratologically.

At an advanced age, after many years of fleeing from country to country to elude persecution for writings considered heretical and for engaging in forbidden medical practices, Zénon returns to his native Bruges, where — under the assumed name of Sébastien Théus — he exercises his role as physician, living and caring for the sick in the hospice of Saint-Cosme, adjourning the monastery of a group of monks known as the Cordeliers. The prior of the monastery, a saintly and learned man, is his closest friend and ally: the unlikely and rewarding friendship of the man of the cloth and the atheist.

When in the company of the prior, Zénon paradoxically feels in the presence of a free mind: “Le seul lieu de la ville où lui parût brûler une pensée libre était paradoxalement la cellule du prieur des Cordeliers” (L’Œuvre au Noir, 679); “The only place in town where it seemed to him that a free mind shed its light was, paradoxically, the cell of the Prior of the Cordeliers” (The Abyss, 146). Zénon is allowed to enjoy a fleeting sense of freedom, after his many years on the run, which allows the next and most important phase of his life to take place. It is in his small upper room in the hospice, where he is accorded this temporary reprieve, that the nigredo — the œuvre au noir or black phase of the alchemical process — commences. Intellectual constructs, pre-conceived ideas, time and space are dislocated, break down and dissipate, which gives rise to a transcendent and eternal dimension.

Up to this point in the work, Zénon has been a distant and elusive figure, which reflects the constraints under which he is forced to live. Now the reader comes closer to him and begins to form a creaturely bond, as the transformations of the alchemical journey of transfiguration begin to operate in him, a journey that the reader also undertakes through Yourcenar’s powerful narratological tools.

At first, Zénon is unaware that the transformative alchemical journey, or what C.G. Jung calls the journey of individuation, has begun. An analogy with digestive processes, namely ingestion, digestion and absorption, maps the beginnings of the journey of individuation, which has begun without his knowledge or awareness:

Peu à peu, comme un homme qui absorbe chaque jour une certaine nourriture finit par en être modifié dans sa substance, et même dans sa forme, engraisse ou maigrit, tire de ces mets une force, ou contracte en les ingérant des maux qu’il ne connaissait pas, des changements presque imperceptibles se faisaient en lui, fruit d’habitudes nouvelles qu’il s’était acquises. (L’Œuvre au Noir, 683; my emphasis)

Little by little, certain almost imperceptible changes began to take place in [Zénon], the result of new habits which he had acquired, much as a man who daily partakes of one certain food is finally changed by it in his substance or even in his form, growing stout or thin and drawing strength from these viands, or else, in absorbing them, contracting ills previously unknown to him. (The Abyss, 151; my modifications and emphasis)

At this stage, the narrator is very much in evidence and knows more than Zénon, revealed in the phrase, “un glissement s’opérait à l’insu de lui-même” (L’Œuvre au Noir, 684; my ­emphasis); “though he did not know it, a gradual change was at work within him” (The Abyss, 152; my ­emphasis). This recalls Genette’s evaluation of the omniscient narrator in texts (Genette, 206):[12] “Le ­narrateur en dit plus que n’en sait aucun des personnages”; “The narrator says more than any of the characters know” (my translation).

These “almost imperceptible changes” taking place in Zénon’s psyche, but of which he is only dimly aware, are the initial stages of the nigredo, the opus nigrum or œuvre au noir, the first phase in the alchemical process, characterized by matter breaking down and re-forming in the alembic, as it yields to the force of fire. The process is encapsulated by the alchemical formula of Nicolas Flamel, solve et coagula, appended to a section of the chapter (L’Œuvre au Noir, 702; The Abyss, 172).

Realizing that something is changing in his life, but not sure exactly what, Zénon is aware that close analytical scrutiny will not yield the answer:

La différence entre hier et aujourd’hui s’annulait dès qu’il y portait le regard: il exerçait la médicine, comme il avait toujours fait. … Son existence était clandestine et soumise à certaines contraintes: elle l’avait toujours été. (L’Œuvre au Noir, 683–4)

As soon as he paused to examine the difference between his present and his past life, the contrast appeared negligible, for he was practicing medicine, as he had always done. … His existence was clandestine, and was subject to certain other constraints, but it had always been so. (The Abyss, 151)

Though the outward signs of his life — his profession, his clandestine existence, the reduced space in which he operates — appear to be the same as they always have been, another process is ineluctably taking place without his intervention or, at this early stage, without even his knowledge of its inner workings:

Et pourtant, son destin bougeait: un glissement s’opérait à l’insu de lui-même. (L’Œuvre au Noir, 684; my emphasis)

And nevertheless, his destiny was on the move: though he did not know it, a gradual change was at work within him. (The Abyss, 152; my modifications and emphasis)

An arresting image drawn from the Petrarchan theme of the night-sea journey — in “Passa la nave,” Sonnet 189—a metaphor for the questing soul adrift on the figurative waters of existence, marks the beginning of the shift in Zénon’s understanding, as the individuation process — the alchemical journey — commences:

Comme un homme nageant à contre-courant et par une nuit noire, les repères lui manquaient pour calculer exactement la dérive. (L’Œuvre au Noir, 684)

Like a man swimming against the current, and at the dead of night, he had no landmark whereby to calculate exactly how far or in what direction he was being carried. (The Abyss, 152; my modifications)

Zénon’s quest is to realize the journey of individuation has begun, so that he may reach new insights and, eventually, through the transformative process as everything breaks down before re-forming, attain an eternal dimension beyond the everyday.

Though Zénon realizes that something unfathomable is going on in his life, to gain a full understanding of what is happening to him, he must first read, and then respond to, the complex signs of alchemy. The alchemical signs are, by their nature, atemporal, and therefore present an interesting challenge in a work that must necessarily deal with complex temporalities. Yourcenar’s stylistic gifts allow her to do this through her wielding of narratological tools in the form of four inter-related devices: the presence and absence, or intrusion and withdrawal, of the narrator; fluctuations in the distance between narrator, protagonist and reader; changes in focalization and voice; variations in the use of the imperfect tense from the iterative to the one-off use — one of the most powerful, nuanced and subtle tools in the French language.

“L’Abîme,” I would argue, becomes a tour de force of narrative alchemy, as the reader participates in the hero’s alchemical journey of individuation. As in the case of Zénon, he or she is progressively dislocated in time and space, as everything breaks down in the fire of the alembic, prior to re-forming. As the chapter moves from the reader as spectator of the hero’s initiation, to the reader as participant in the process, the inner recesses of Zénon’s mind become accessible. The focalization changes, and the protagonist becomes what Jean-Paul Sartre would call “Zénon-subject,” rather than “Zénon-object.”[13] At times there is a co-existence of Zénon as object and subject, the narrator’s vision delicately tinged with Zénon’s, as in the “Passa la nave” allusion mentioned above, in which the image, while suggesting that the protagonist is lost in darkness without landmarks, also suggests that he is, nevertheless, starting to realize that he is at the first stage of the figurative journey, when everything will dissolve, and bring about a much greater cosmic awareness.

As the novel moves to the position of Zénon-subject, signaling that the nigredo stage of the alchemical journey has begun, Yourcenar’s progressive use of free indirect speech ensures that the “dual voice” of this subtle form of speech can be heard,[14] that is, both Zénon’s voice and the narrator’s (in the latter case, adding a comment on the protagonist’s alchemical journey); but, even more important, it is Zénon’s vision that predominates. In other words, Zénon, not the narrator, is the one doing the seeing. It is his journey, a journey that the reader undertakes with him:

Parfois, sans raison apparente, il revoyait cette femme grosse qu’il avait consenti à faire avorter … ou le cousin Henri-Maximilien qui peut-être était mort. (L’Œuvre au Noir, 685; my emphasis)

Sometimes, for no apparent reason, he would call to mind the pregnant woman[15] for whom he had consented to perform an abortion. … or his cousin Henry Maximilian, who perhaps was dead. (The Abyss, 153; my modifications and emphasis)

Naguère encore, en retrouvant son chemin dans le lacis des venelles de Bruges, il avait cru que cette halte à l’écart des grandes routes de l’ambition et du savoir lui procurerait quelque repos après les agitations de trente-cinq ans. [ … ] Il s’était trompé. (L’Œuvre au Noir, 684–85; my emphasis)

Yet, at first, on finding his way again in the network of alleys in Bruges, he had supposed that this halt, so removed from the highroads of knowledge and ambition, might afford him some repose after thirty-five years of turmoil. [ … ]But he was mistaken. (The Abyss, 152; my emphasis)

The narrator is only delicately present and seems almost to disappear. As Zénon begins to progressively experience the disappearance of the divisions of time and space which marks the beginning of the gnostic quest — the solve of Flamel’s formula, as everything breaks down — the narrator is less and less in evidence, or only ambiguously so. The barriers of space and time dissolve as Zénon recalls events in the distant past, in a far-off country, events that paradoxically seem to be taking place in the present of his existence in Bruges. The demonstratives in the following extract function ambiguously, either as deictics signalling the presence of the narrator or as hinges between past and present, reinforcing the ambiguity of time and space, a point reinforced by the English translation of this passage, in which Yourcenar and her translator, Grace Frick have recourse to the two English demonstratives, this and that, suggesting the coexistence in the mind of narrator, protagonist and reader of past and present and the fusion of temporal and spatial planes:

Ce boucher, ce crieur de denrées … ce cheval fouetté … (L’Œuvre au Noir, 685; my emphasis).

This butcher, that hawking pedlar … that horse they were whipping …  (The Abyss, 153; my emphasis).

The frontiers separating time, space and matter blur, and there is a reduction of the distance between narrator, protagonist and reader: “Le temps, le lieu, la substance perdaient ces attributs qui sont pour nous leurs frontières” (L’Œuvre au Noir, 686; my emphasis); “Time, place and substance were losing those attributes which for us are their boundaries” (The Abyss, 154; my ­emphasis). A hypnotic rhythm causes the narrator to disappear completely:

La forme n’était plus que l’écorce déchiquetée de la substance; la substance s’égouttait dans un vide qui n’était pas son contraire; le temps et l’éternité n’étaient qu’une même chose, comme une eau noire qui coule dans une immuable nappe d’eau noire. (L’Œuvre au Noir, 686)

Form had ceased to be more than the torn bark of substance; substance dripped away into a void which was not its true counterpart; time and eternity were but one and the same, like dark water entering a vast expanse of dark water. (The Abyss, 154)

It is at this juncture that the narrator suddenly erupts into the text, giving a panoramic view of the steps in the transformation process and in this way distancing the hero, with whom, up until this point, the reader has been experiencing a single event in the protagonist’s life. The use of the verb s’abîmer in the imperfect tense, used in an iterative, rather than a one-off sense, brings about this wider perspective on Zénon’s odyssey:

Zénon s’abîmait dans ces visions comme un chrétien dans une méditation sur Dieu. (L’Œuvre au Noir, 686)

Zénon was lost in these visions, much as a Christian is while meditating on God. (my translation)

As spatial and temporal barriers disappear during Zénon’s engagement with the imaginative re-creation of the substance of the animals and plants which make up his room, he becomes an infinitesimal speck in the immensity of the universe and in the totality of human existence. The illusion of standing on solid ground dissolves as he recalls the revolution of the planet will cause other continents and other seas to fill the space he is occupying:

La sécurité de reposer stablement sur un coin du sol belgique était une erreur dernière; le point de l’espace où il se trouvait contiendrait une heure plus tard la mer et ses vagues, un peu plus tard encore les Amériques et le continent d’Asie. Ces regions où il n’irait pas se superposaient dans l’abîme à l’hospice de Saint-Cosme. (L’Œuvre au Noir, 702)

Any notion that he was on a stable part of Belgian soil was an ultimate error; an hour later, the space where he was would contain the sea and the waves, and, later still, the Americas and the continent of Asia. These regions to which he would never venture were superposing themselves in the abyss at the hospice of Saint-Cosme. (my translation)

This realization results in Zénon’s dissolution before the immensity of time and space and the eternal and before the multitude of humans who had existed or would exist; the narrator re-appears to dramatic effect:

Zénon lui-même se dissipait comme une cendre au vent. (L’Œuvre au Noir, 702)

Zénon himself was being dispersed like ash in the wind. (my translation)

The text is highly nuanced here. For Zénon having a name is immaterial,[16] as it represents the everyday, not the essence of who he is — that interior and hidden part undergoing the initiation process. Yourcenar’s use of the pronominal verb se dissiper, too, adds to the complexity. It suggests not only that Zénon is undergoing the dissolution of his being through the agency of fire — the passive meaning of the verb — but also that he chooses and submits to the process (in other words disperses himself). Zénon here undertakes the meditative practices attributed to “the East”, so as to “die” and to be “re-born” on a higher level of awareness. Once again, there is a sort of double vision here: though the narrator is clearly in evidence, Zénon’s perspective is delicately present as he gives himself to the cosmic processes which cause his being to dissolve like ash in the wind.

Throughout the chapter the narrator is, at times, very much in evidence, particularly when the imperfect is used in an iterative or repeated sense, which occurs, for example, when Zénon reflects on the material world:

Il n’employait plus ses veillées à s’efforcer d’acquérir de plus justes vues de rapports entre les choses, mais à une meditation informulée sur la nature des choses. (L’Œuvre au Noir, 686)

He no longer spent his waking hours trying to acquire a more just view of relations between things, but instead in meditation, wholly unformulated, on the nature of things. (The Abyss, 155)

At other times, the narrator disappears entirely from the text. The sudden re-emergence of the narrator into the text, and the consequent distancing of Zénon, or the contrary phenomenon of the disappearance of the narrator as Zénon comes closer and assumes (or reassumes) the role of Zénon-subject, rather than Zénon-object, interrupt the steady progress of the alchemical journey of transformation on which the protagonist is engaged, and on which the reader is engaged, with him. These processes are a vital component in the alchemy of the text.

The Heraclitan view of humoral theory, notably that humans are made of fire and water,[17] forms the basis of Zénon’s experiments, as he draws logical conclusions on the properties of these elements. Once again, the disappearance and reappearance of the narrator, linked to the power of the imperfect tense in French, enabling shifts in focalization, change of voice and variations in distance between the protagonist, the narrator and the reader, are vital in the dislocation process in which the reader’s journey echoes that of the protagonist. As Zénon strives to acquire insights into the links which unite matter, by uniting himself imaginatively, firstly with water, then with fire — “l’élément dont il s’était de tout temps senti une parcelle” (Yourcenar, L’Œuvre au Noir, 688; my emphasis); “the element of which he had always felt himself a part” (Yourcenar, The Abyss, 156; my emphasis) — a nervy rhythm reveals that his attitude to water is initially an empirical one:

Il avait calculé des déplacements, mesuré des doses, attendu que des goutelettes se reformassent dans le tuyau des cucurbites. (L’Œuvre au Noir, 688)

As engineer he had calculated its displacements, and as physician had measured it out in doses, as alchemist he had waited until its drops form again in the tube of the alembic. (The Abyss, 156)[18]

The divisions of space around him give way before a figurative invasion by water, the fluidity of the rhythm and the one-off function of the imperfect (rather than the iterative or repeated ­function)[19] bringing about the movement from the narrator to the protagonist and conveying Zénon’s engagement with ideas:

Il laissait l’eau qui est dans tout envahir la chambre comme la marée du déluge. Le coffre et l’escabeau flottaient ; les murs crevaient sous la pression de l’eau. Il cédait à ce flux. (L’Œuvre au Noir, 688; my emphasis)

He allowed the all-pervading water to invade the room like a flood tide; the chest and the stool were set floating; the walls caved in under its pressure. He yielded to this flow. (The Abyss, 156)

All dissolves, as the reader, like the protagonist, yields to the influx of water, and is suspended in an eternal present, represented by the image of water, a powerful metaphor for the fluid world of ideas.

Zénon’s meditations on water are followed by his internal visions of fire and its properties, visions reminiscent of those practised by the hermetic philosophers. Firstly, he turns his mind to the beneficial aspects of fire, source of succour and comfort:

Il tournait sa meditation vers le feu, sentait en soi cette chaleur modérée et béate que nous partageons avec les bêtes qui marchent et les oiseaux qui traversent le ciel. (L’Œuvre au Noir, 688; my emphasis)

He turned his meditation towards fire to feel that blessed and tempered heat which we share with the four-footed beasts and with birds which traverse the sky. (The Abyss, 156; my modifications and emphasis)

His experience as a physician then leads him to the analogy between disease and fire:

Il pensait au feu dévorant des fièvres qu’il avait souvent en vain essayé d’éteindre. (L’Œuvre au Noir, 688)

He thought of the devouring fire of fevers which he had tried, often in vain, to extinguish. (The Abyss, 156)

He recalls the process of the birth of a fire and its dying, a paradigm of his own life from his youthful upward-leaping, flame-like energy, through the steady red glow of concentration which characterizes his middle years, to his final demise as his fire dies down into ashes:

Il percevait le bond avide de la flamme qui naît, la rouge joie du brasier et sa fin en cendres noires. (L’Œuvre au Noir, 688)

He noted the avid leap upward of a newborn flame, and then the red joy of a burning heap, and finally its end in black ashes. (The Abyss, 156)

The protagonist’s association with fire is not only evident in his reflections on this element (and his experiences with the destructive power of fire), but, in accordance with early modern works on the humors,[20] is reinforced in Yourcenar’s portrayal of his temperament, notably his dry, acerbic, analytical character and his ability to cleave ideas in two, burn off the dross and temper the content. Just as fire makes its own energy by consuming all around it, becoming a force in its own right,[21] so, too, does Zénon’s “fire” feed off others who come before him or whose lives parallel his own — alchemists, scholars, astrologers, physicians, surgeons — as he absorbs their ideas, burning his own path.

As Alan Krell reminds us, fire is a paradoxical element, both positive and negative; source of succor and comfort, it is also a destroyer.[22] The conflicting feelings of terror and tranquility that fire engenders are present throughout Zénon’s turbulent life. His close identification with fire leads him, when he is in the hospice, to take his meditations into terrifying realms as he reflects on the terrible use of fire in his century. This affinity is evidenced in scenes he has seen as alchemist and especially as witness to the fate of those accused of heresy:

Osant aller plus loin, il ne faisait qu’un avec cette implacable ardeur qui détruit ce qu’elle touche; il songeait aux bûchers, tels qu’il en avait vu à l’occasion d’un acte-de-foi dans une petite ville de Léon, au cours duquel avaient péri quatre Juifs accusés d’avoir hypocritement embrassé la foi chrétienne sans cesser pour autant d’accomplir les rites hérités de leurs pères, et un hérétique qui niait l’efficacité des sacrements. (L’Œuvre au Noir, 688-9)

Daring to go even further in his experiments, he united himself completely with that implacable heat which destroys everything it touches; he recalled executions by fire, such as those he witnessed during an auto-da-fe in a small town of Leon, where four Jews had perished, accused of having hypocritically embraced the Christian faith without, however, having given up performing the rites of their forefathers and a heretic who denied the efficacy of the sacraments. (my translation)

In his imaginings, he becomes the victim of these acts of atrocity:

Il imaginait cette douleur trop aiguë pour le langage humain : il était cet homme ayant dans ses narines l’odeur de sa propre chair qui brûle ; il toussait, entouré d’une fumée qui ne se dissiperait pas de son vivant. (L’Œuvre au Noir, 689)

He imagined that pain too acute for human language to describe; he became that man whose nostrils were filled with the smell of his own burning flesh; he coughed, surrounded by smoke which would not disperse during his lifetime. (my translation)

Through his entanglement with a group of young neophytes living in the monastery, a group he sought to protect, Zénon’s true identity is discovered. The illicit nocturnal meetings of the group — who call themselves the Anges — are revealed through the pregnancy of one of the members, a young noblewoman living in the convent adjoining the monastery, and connected to it by a subterranean passage, that allowed their nightly meetings. Led by a young monk called Cyprian,[23] during these meetings the members of the group indulge in sexual play and in a parodia sacra in which they innocently parody the sacraments.

Before Zénon can remove himself from danger, the young woman gives birth prematurely and smothers her newborn baby. Implicated in the whole affair through the confession of the young monks, the true identity of Sébastien Théus — Zénon, the author of heretical tracts — is discovered. Denounced by an ecclesiastical court, he is sentenced to be burned at the stake unless he recants.

Mors ignea, “death by fire”. This is the horrifying ending of the young group of Anges whom Zénon has sought in vain to protect. As he tells his old tutor, Canon Bartholomé Campanus, who has come to visit him in prison, to urge him to retract, he has arrived at the point of blaming Prometheus for having given fire to mortals.

The novel ends with Zénon taking his own life by cutting his tibial and radial arteries with a small blade he has managed to secrete into his writing block. As the blood flows out of him, he participates in the final stage of alchemy, the rubedo. A fiery, red globe palpitates in his imagination and ascends to its zenith. He has crossed over into the eternal.

This is a novel in which fire is explored in all its terrifying and beneficial properties. Through fire, L’Œuvre au Noir conveys the destruction wrought upon innocent victims by the authorities—ecclesiastical and lay—as well as the powerful workings of a free mind belonging to a man determined to explore the confines of the prison that is life on earth. end of article


  1. It was the first time since the inception of the Prix Femina in 1904 that the committee — composed entirely of women, hence the name of the prize — had ever unanimously agreed on the choice of author upon whom this honor should be bestowed. The Prix Femina is awarded to both male and female authors. Yourcenar’s election to the French Academy was another first. An all-male bastion of “immortels” or “immortals” (as its members are called), from the inception of the institution in 1635, up until Yourcenar’s entry “sous la coupole” (under the cupola) in 1981, her election made her the first woman — or “immortelle” — to have a seat in this prestigious organization. As Yourcenar said in her induction speech on 22 January 1981, she represented countless women before her who had not received this distinction. For a comprehensive analysis of Yourcenar’s election to the French Academy and her speech to fellow members on the occasion of her induction, see Michael Hawcroft, “Marguerite Yourcenar at the Académie Française” in Rhetoric: Readings in French Literature (Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 1998), 65–79. ↩

  2. All references to L’Œuvre au Noir are taken from Yourcenar’s collected fictional works: Marguerite Yourcenar. L’Œuvre au Noir, Œuvres romanesques 2nd ed. (Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, no. 303, 1982; Paris: Gallimard, 1991), 557–833. Unless otherwise stated, English translations of the novel are taken from Marguerite Yourcenar, The Abyss trans. Grace Frick (London: Black Swan, 1985). The Abyss uses the name Zeno for the protagonist; I have, however, preserved the name Zénon throughout this essay. ↩

  3. In a “Note de l’auteur” appended to the novel (837–50), Yourcenar discusses the principal models for Zénon. ↩

  4. “’Suis-je Servet, cet âne’ reprit sauvagement Zénon, ‘pour risquer de me faire brûler à petit feu sur une place publique en l’honneur de je ne sais quelle interprétation d’un dogme, quand j’ai en train mes travaux sur les mouvements diastoliques et systoliques du cœur, qui m’importent beaucoup plus?’” (Yourcenar, L’Œuvre au Noir, 641). “’Am I Servetus, that donkey,’ [Zénon] continued, but now with vehemence, ‘to risk being burned by slow fire on a public square because of this or that interpretation of a dogma, when I have in hand studies far more important to me, my work on the diastolic and systolic movements of the heart?’” (Yourcenar, The Abyss, 101–102). ↩

  5. Many other early modern figures are important prototypes for the protagonist: the great French surgeon, Ambroise Paré, famous for his pioneer work in obstetrics and surgery; the polymath, Leonardo da Vinci; Andrea Cesalpino, physician, botanist, chemist and philosopher, who, before William Harvey, predicted the circulation of the blood; Erasmus of Rotterdam, social critic and humanist scholar; Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim and Giambattista della Porta, both writers on magic, and Girolamo Cardano, mathematician, physician and astrologer. Notable amongst these models is the alchemist, Paracelsus, also explicitly mentioned by Yourcenar. ↩

  6. René Marill Albérès, “Échec aux miracles,” Nouvelles littéraires (1 August 1968), 5. ↩

  7. A significant number of critics disagree and draw attention to the protagonist’s subtle complexity and to what they see as the sources of this complexity, while taking issue with Albérès’s opinion on the unimportance of alchemy in L’Œuvre au Noir, for either the hero or the reader: Carminella Biondi, “Zénon et l’alchimie. Voyage au bout de la connaissance,” in Voyage et connaissance dans l’œuvre de Marguerite Yourcenar, ed. Carminela Biondi and Corrado Rossi (Pisa: Goliardica, 1988), 15–30; Marie-Cécile Brebion, “‘L’Opus Alchymicum’ dans L’Œuvre au Noir de Marguerite Yourcenar,” Recherches sur l’imaginaire 13 (1985): 319–32; P. Fournarel, “L’Œuvre au Noir et son aspect alchimique,” Marginales 122 (October 1968): 73–75; Bernard Gorceix, “Littérature et alchimie. Marguerite Yourcenar et Michel Butor,” in Sprach, Literatur, Kultur. Romanische Beiträge (Berne: Lang, 1974), 159–170; Pierre L. Horn, Marguerite Yourcenar (Boston: Twayne, 1985); Robert Kanters, “L’Œuvre de Marguerite Yourcenar,” Le Figaro Littéraire, June 14, 1968, 19-20; Frank Kermode, “A Successful Alchemist,” New York Review of Books, October 14, 1976, 6–10; Manuela Ledesma, “Spirale narrative, spirale alchemique” in Roman, histoire et mythe dans l’œuvre de Marguerite Yourcenar, ed. Simone Delcroix and Maurice Delcroix (Tours: SIEY, 1995), 279–92; D. Rosse, “Alchimie sociale et alchimie littéraire dans L’Œuvre au Noir de Marguerite Yourcenar,” Bulletin, SIEY 14 (1994):45–59 ; Emese Soos, “The Only Motion Is Returning : The Metaphor of Alchemy in Mallet-Joris and Yourcenar,“ French Forum 4 (1979) : 3–16 ; Jane Southwood, ”Marguerite Yourcenar’s Alchemy,” Essays in French Literature 37 (November, 2000:): 152–64; Jane Southwood, ”The First Immortelle, Ten Years On,” Adelaide Review (January 1998): 19; Jane Southwood, ”Aux limites de la narration: L’universalité dans L’Œuvre au Noir,” in L’Universalité dans l’œuvre de Marguerite Yourcenar, ed. Rémy Poignault and Maria José Vázquez de Parga (Tours: SIEY, 1995), 2: 263–75; Geneviève Spencer-Noël, Zénon ou le thème de l’alchimie dans “L’Œuvre au Noir” de Marguerite Yourcenar (Paris: Nizet, 1981). ↩

  8. A useful history of alchemy and alchemical tracts is to be found in Lawrence M. Principe, The Secrets of Alchemy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013). See also Laurence M. Principe and L. Dewitt, Transmutations. Alchemy in Art (Philadelphia: Chemical Heritage Foundation, 2002). The work of C.G. Jung on fire and alchemy is also a particularly useful tool: Carl Gustav Jung, Collected Works, trans. Richard Francis Carrington Hull, coord. William McGuire, 20 volumes, Bollingen Series (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953–79). There are thirty-six references to fire in volume 12, “Psychology and Alchemy”, of the Collected Works, and fifty-one references to this element in volume 13, “Alchemical Studies.” See also Edward F. Edinger, Anatomy of the Psyche: Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy (Illinois: Open Court, 1985). Edinger discusses in depth the principal stages of alchemy: calcinatio, solutio, coagulatio, sublimatio, mortificatio, separatio, coniunctio. ↩

  9. “[L]es érudits italiens auxquels il communiquait ses trouvailles croyaient voir refleurir en lui le génie du grand Marsile” (Yourcenar, L’Œuvre au Noir, 568); “The Italian scholars to whom he wrote of these discoveries thought to see in him a new flowering of great Ficino’s genius.” (Yourcenar, The Abyss, 21) ↩

  10. “In secular iconography, fire is an attribute of Cupid/Amor/Eros and by association, Venus, as a symbol of burning passion or the inflamed heart.” See the print from the engraving in the British Museum by Étienne Delaune of Venus, holding a burning heart, standing in a landscape with Cupid. I am grateful to Arvi Wattel, Lecturer in the History of Art, School of Design, University of Western Australia, for his illuminating email discussion on the emblematic function of fire, the wording of which I have used in this footnote, and for alerting me to the 1576 Delaune engraving in the British Museum. I also discussed with Arvi the Gabrielle d’Estrées portraits from the Ecole de Fontainebleau, portraits frequently containing a fire in the background. He agreed with me that the Louvre portrait of Gabrielle d’Estrées (c. 1594), which, as he pointed out, has a painting of the death of Adonis over the fireplace, renders plausible my interpretation of fire as passion in this painting. See Jane Southwood, “Goddesses, Mistresses and the Tradition of Sixteenth-Century French Portraiture,” https://youtu.be/-UeDtsD8KSw. ↩

  11. Cesare Ripa, La Novissima Iconologia di Cesare Ripa 1593 (Padua, Italy: Pietri Paolo Toi, 1625). ↩

  12. Gérard Genette, “Discours du récit,” Figures III (Paris: Seuil, 1972), 67–286. ↩

  13. I have borrowed these useful terms from a 1947 essay on François Mauriac’s novel Thérèse Desqueyroux in which Jean-Paul Sartre distinguishes between Thérèse-subject and Thérèse-object: Jean-Paul Sartre, “M. François Mauriac et la liberté,” Situations 1 (Paris: Gallimard, 1947), 33–52. Discussions on focalization are to be found in Genette, “Discours du récit” and in Mieke Bal, “Narration et focalisation. Pour une théorie des instances du récit,” Poétique 29 (February 1977): 107–27. ↩

  14. Roy Pascal, The Dual Voice (Manchester, United Kingdom: Manchester University Press, 1977). ↩

  15. Yourcenar’s use of “cette femme” poses considerable problems in translation. ↩

  16. “Sébastien Théus était un nom de fantaisie, mais ses droits à celui de Zénon n’étaient pas des plus clairs. Non habet nomen proprium: il était de ces hommes qui ne cessent pas jusqu’au bout de s’étonner d’avoir un nom, comme on s’étonne en passant devant un miroir d’avoir un visage, et que ce soit précisément ce visage-là” (Yourcenar, L’Œuvre au Noir, 684; “He had chosen the name … Sebastian Theus somewhat arbitrarily, but even his right to the name [Zénon] was not wholly clear. Non habet nomen proprium: he was one of those men who are perpetually surprised at having a name, just as one marvels, in passing in front of a mirror, at possessing a face, and that it should be exactly the face it is” (Yourcenar, The Abyss, 151; my modifications). ↩

  17. Vivian Nutton, “Humoralism” in Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine ed. William F. Bynam and Roy Porter (Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge 1997), 281–91. ↩

  18. Marguerite Yourcenar and Grace Frick have added “as engineer … as physician. … as alchemist” into the English translation; these roles of Zénon’s are not in the original French. ↩

  19. The power deriving from the interplay of the iterative and the one-off function of the imperfect tense in French, one of the most important narratological tools in the journey of transfiguration depicted in the novel, can only be inadequately conveyed in English. ↩

  20. Noga Arikha, Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours (New York: Ecco/Harper Collins, 2007). ↩

  21. I am indebted to Tony Weaver for a discussion on the energy generated by fire, a discussion that enriched this section of my essay. ↩

  22. Alan Krell, Burning Issues: Fire in Art and the Social Imagination (London: Reaktion, 2011), 8–15. ↩

  23. Marguerite Yourcenar was undoubtedly reminded of the name Cyprian through her knowledge of the Cena Cypriani, believed to be based on St Zeno of Athens’ first communion address. See Helen Waddell, Medieval Latin Lyrics, 5th ed, (London: Constable, 1948), 316. See also Mikhaïl Bakhtine, Esthétique et théorie du roman (French translation) (Paris: Gallimard, 1978), 426–29. ↩