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Without a doubt, the central fact of human existence must be the inevitable end of that existence: death. No philosophies, no beliefs, no ways of life that are not founded on a careful examination of the significance of life as seen in the light of death are worth a pitcher of warm spit.
James Branch Cabell was a man who had, earlier in life than most do (of those who do at all, that is), stared long and hard at the face of death and then reached his private accommodation with it. That is rare: any life-insurance salesman will tell you that everyone lives forever, or at least conducts their affairs apparently firm in that belief. Some--many I suppose—of those who have looked at that grinning skull have taken their refuge in one or another religion; Cabell was not one of them.
And the tale says that in the cave of Clioth was not absolute darkness, but, instead, a dim blue glowing everywhere, as though the gleam of decay were intermingled here with the gleam of moonshine. Upon both sides of the cave showed a long row of crumbling altars; and every altar was inscribed with the device of one or another god.
Thus upon the first altar that Alfgar came to was engraved: “I am the Well-doer. I only am the Lord of the two horns, the Governor of all living, and the Conqueror of every land.”
But upon the next altar you read: “I am the Beneficent. I ordained created things from the beginning. There is no other god save me, who am the giver of winds to all nostrils, and the bestower of delight and ruin to every person.”
The device upon an altar of square-hewn granite said: “I am that I am. I am a jealous god: my thoughts are tempests. Thou shall have no other god before me.”
Yet upon an altar of green malachite carved with four skulls was written: “I am the Warrior, the far-darting Slayer of all life and the Slayer of death also. No other god is my peer: through me the sun is risen, and I alone reign over the place where all roads meet.”
Such were the devices on these altars, and upon yet other altars showed yet other devices, but no living man might say to what gods any of these altars had been erected, for all these gods had passed down into Antan long ago.(“Antan”—in Cabell’s fictive universe a place—is French for “yesteryear”; Cabell is very much given to wordplay of all sorts—mostly names that are anagrams, but also such obscure references as that. Devotees cite all this wordplay as one of Cabell’s excellences, but to me they detract somewhat from the collective force of his works.)
Cabell’s accommodation to the fact of a permanent death is his election of a certain style of living as giving some sort of value and possibly meaning to what would otherwise be a cruel and idle jest. That style is the recognition and continuing pursuit of the beautiful—“continuing” because capture is inherently impossible. That pursuit will take a man (not an idle pronoun—Cabell’s world-view is masculine, not universal) down lonely and painful roads, to a doom that will invariably be mocked by his fellows, who live their sorts of lives, the sorts meant by the phrase “an unconsidered life”, in faithful obedience to conventionality—to doing, as Cabell so often puts it, that which is expected of them.
Such description may leave the unfamiliar with the sense that Cabell is a gloomy fellow to read, but the reality is just the opposite, for what is part and parcel of his approach is a jaunty attitude, a mocking raillery both at conventionality and at his own philosophy, which he concedes is a form of folly, albeit a fine folly. Indeed, many readers—those with sensibilities less refined than yours—can read extensively in Cabell and come away thinking they have experienced nothing but a comic: a light satirist or comedian of manners. But not at all far beneath that genteel surface of brittle humor is, always, that iron-cold recognition of the finality of death and the need of humankind to face it.
“I fight against the gluttony of time with so many very amusing weapons—with gestures and with three attitudes and with charming phrases; with tears and with tinsel, and with sugar-coated pills, and with platitudes slightly regilded. Yes, and I fight him also with little mirrors wherein gleam confusedly the corruptions of lust, and ruddy loyalty, and a bit of moonshine, and the pure diamond of the heart’s desire, and the opal cloudings of human compromise: but, above all, I fight that ravening dotard with the strength of my own folly.”
So speaks Horvendile, that “wandering demiurge” who flits in and out of so many of Cabell’s tales and who might be Cabell’s persona in his own tales or who might be humankind itself—or at least sophisticated adult humankind—or both. The brief passage quoted above (which, like the previous passage, is from the short work The Way of Ecben) is in many ways a summing-up of Cabell, though one must read many of the individual books before returning to it to see how truly so it is. The "little mirrors" are, of course, tales, fictions--especially, but not necessarily only, Cabell’s tales, which are indeed filled with the things he mentions.
To anyone who has read even a few pages of each author, it may seem bizarre to compare Cabell to Eric Eddison. But the differences, which are obvious, are in the superficies: Eddison writes an Elizabethan prose, his characters are larger-than-life heroes doing suitably heroic deeds, and in his books—and, apparently, his personal beliefs—he envisions rewards for right living (as he defines it) beyond this life; Cabell writes a languid Victorian prose, his characters (his male characters, that is) are, in the main, petty if droll fellows out for the main chance by way of whatever deceits they find necessary, and—despite the prevalence in his tales of numerous afterlives (the simultaneous prevalence!) from the Christian Heaven and Hell to the Norse Valhalla—Cabell himself sees no afterlife waiting.
But the kinship is there beneath those superficies. Both Eddison and Cabell see as the sole point of life the wholehearted, singleminded pursuit, through all vicissitudes, of the ideal of Beauty, and both see that Beauty as idealized or incarnated in woman (or, I suppose one should type, Woman). And, once agreed on the sole point of life, what differences then matter?
Two references in the quoted passage especially call for explication. The first is “the pure diamond of heart’s desire”, for it is here that Cabell is most closely like Eddison: his ultimate value is ultimate beauty, forever unobtainable, forever sought. It is perception of that beauty, and the lifelong devotion to pursuing it, despite the sure knowledge that it is unobtainable, that ennobles man. I say “man” advisedly, for—yes, yet again—like Eddison, Cabell embodies that ultimate of Beauty in feminine form. The two themes that represent that quest and that ideal are “the music from behind the moon”—the call that once heard must be forever followed—and Etarre, a personification of ideal Woman. No: not “ideal”—supreme, for Etarre, and the ideal she incarnates, can and usually does bring vast grief to the men who would pursue her, yet pursue her they do, even in full knowledge of that banefulness. Here is yet more from the same work:
“Then I must tell you”, said Horvendile, “that my immortality has sharp restrictions. For it is at a price that I pass down the years, as yet, in eternal union with the witch-woman whose magic stays—as yet—more strong than is the magic of time. The price is that I only of her lovers may not ever hope to win Etarre. This merely is permitted me: that I may touch the hand of Etarre in the moment that I lay that hand in the hand of her most recent, foredoomed lover. I give, who may not ever take.”
Now Horvendile is certainly Cabell himself, the writer who can but fleetingly touch Etarre—Beauty, the very ideal of Beauty—as he delivers her to her next lover—you, his reader. This is the eternal pain of the artist who has a vision of ultimate beauty that he knows he cannot ever truly attain: nothing he can write can capture that which is innately ineffable.
The other reference requiring explication is to the “three attitudes”, for much of Cabell’s work revolves around examination of those “three attitudes”, which Cabell sees as man’s (but, I think, not necessarily woman’s) basic ways of meeting life; those attitudes are, in Cabell’s terms, the poetic, the chivalrous, and the gallant. Each of his books, in or out of the Biography cycle (see below), explores at length a working-out in life of one or another of those attitudes. As Cabell uses the terms, they are perhaps not quite what you might think they are. The poetic attitude is to remain largely unaffected by what befalls one, to regard it as grist for the esthetic mill; the poet, as Cabell uses the term, seeks not any realization of his poetic dreams, nor does he suffer from that lack of realization. The chivalrous attitude Cabell frequently associated with the word “vicarship”; the vicar, the chivalrous one, acts always for another—his God, his Lady, his honor (for to the chivalrous, their honor is effectively an abstract thing distinct from themselves). The gallant is the ironist, the one who accepts “reality” and makes the best of it—often his own looking-out-for-number-one “best”—with no great scruple.
Those attitudes are just that: attitudes, broad strategies. There are many varieties of tactics by which each of the three may be attempted in this world, and that is what I mean when I say that Cabell’s books are each an exploration of one working-out of a given attitude, showing the possible or probable consequences of certain kinds of tactical decisions within the framework of a specific one of his three perceived attitudes.
Cabell was once the bright pole star of American literature. H. L. Mencken wrote of him that “his one aim in life [was] to make himself a first-rate writer—and this aim, I am inclined to think, he has come nearer to realizing than any other American of his time”; today, however, Cabell hangs quite low and dim in the literary firmament. It is not opinions of Cabell or his quality that have changed: it is opinions on what literature is. Today, Cabell’s literary form—belles lettres—is about as popular (and salable) as horse-drawn carriages.
Lengthy essays could be—have been—written on whether or not that contemporary lack of popularity, indeed unpopularity, stands as a milepost on the road to intellectual Hell (here are few thoughts from Cabell himself on the general topic). But we are concerned here with the value of writers sub specie æternitatis, and Cabell so seen is a master, if nothing else for his philosophical illuminations--but his work is not a matter of “nothing else”, for Cabell was, above (or below) the stimulating of our mental processes, exquisitely accomplished in the basic elements of giving pleasure with his writing.
Cabell’s characters play out their various histories in widely differing settings. It is the underlying theme that provides the unity, not the mode or style of a given work. Some are “fantasies” of the classic sort, in which magical things happen in lands that never were; some are comedies of manners set in period or near-contemporary Virginia (where Cabell lived). Some are tales, some are plays, some are poems, some few are essays. All have the Cabell touch, even when, as in many of the tales in medieval settings, he sounds like Balzac in The Droll Stories. (I am not much taken with seeking “sources” for authors, but the likeness between Cabell’s tales and Balzac’s is striking.) No individual attribute of his settings stands out save this single but crucial one: they are authentic. Cabell wrote every passage with some particular real place, whether indoors or out, in mind as his model; that is especially clear in his many charming descriptions of the countryside in medieval Poictesme—all taken from views of rural Virginia. (There is much about this in his book These Restless Heads, which is a sort of envoi to the “Biography”, which is in turn described below).
(I say “near-contemporary” because Cabell made it a point never to write things set in truly contemporary times, lest he be taken for something he despised: a “modern” author dealing with “today’s affairs”.)
Cabell’s plots have at times seemed invisible to hostile critics (and there were many of those, for the times in which Cabell wrote were not congenial to works containing pretty unsubtle sexuality, and Cabell achieved his artistic renown despite, not because of, popular sentiment about his works—recall that his fame derives largely from the ridiculous “obscenity” trial sprung from the bletherings of one of that tribe of self-appointed guardians of public morals so common then and by no means unknown in our own age—the particular book singled out being Jurgen); but that “invisibility” arises largely because those critics were unaware of or indifferent to the themes Cabell was playing out. The tales often seem episodic but, in retrospect and with some idea of what the tale was trying to show us, the plots can be seen to have been cleverly woven of threads of just the needful size and color, with the true pattern emerging only when the weaving is fully done.
Cabell’s characters vary considerably, as they must needs to act out the themes they are being called on to elaborate; but most or all of them are not, nor are they expected to be taken for, “realistic” portrayals of plausible persons. Nor should we expect to find many of them to be what is usually called “sympathetic” characters—persons we might think to have to dinner. But though “unrealistic” and often unsympathetic, they are nonetheless most curious, quirky, and thoroughly interesting folk whose disportings amuse us vastly.
That lack of sympathy characterizes primarily the males in Cabell’s works (though there are some “sympathetic” male characters, most are what, exercising the utmost possible charity, we would have to call “scamps”, thereby avoiding the more natural phrase “selfish bastards”). The women in Cabell usually—though by no means always—are persons with whose fortunes or misfortunes we can have sympathy, but the men who so often victimize those women usually end up paying the piper, with their victims calling the piper’s tune.
Still, of what I have set out as the four methods by which tales may please—language, plot, characters, and setting—easily the foremost element in Cabell is his language. It is, as I have already noted, a languid Victorian sort of prose, filled with dry, understated ironies and subtle (and sometimes unsubtle) double entendres. Here are a few random samples.
In such estate it was that Count Manuel came, on Christmas morning, just two days after Manuel was twenty-one, into Provence. This land, reputed sorcerous, in no way displayed to him any unusual features, though it was noticeable that the King's marmoreal palace was fenced with silver pikes whereon were set the embalmed heads of young men who had wooed the Princess Alianora unsuccessfully. Manuel’s lackeys did not at first like the looks of these heads, and said they were unsuitable for Christmas decorations; but Dom Manuel explained that at this season of general merriment this palisade also was mirth-provoking because (the weather being such as was virtually unprecedented in these parts) a light snow had fallen during the night, so that each head seemed to wear a nightcap.
That from Figures of Earth. Then we have, from Domnei:
“Since she permits me to serve her, I may not serve unworthily. To-morrow I shall set new armies afield. To-morrow it will delight me to see their tents rise in your meadows, Messire Demetrios, and to see our followers meeting in clashing combat, by hundreds and by thousands, so mightily that men will sing of it when we are gone. To-morrow one of us must kill the other. To-night we drink our wine in amity. I have not time to hate you, I have not time to like or dislike any living person. I must, instead, devote all faculties which Heaven gave me to the love and service of Dame Melicent.”
“To-night we babble to the stars and dream vain dreams, as other fools have done before us. To-morrow rests—perhaps—with Heaven: but depend upon it, Messire de la Forêt, whatever we may do to-morrow will be foolishly performed, because we are both besotted by bright eyes and lips and hair. I trust to find our antics laughable. For you and I are different, messire, in that I imagine every looking-glass to afford me nourishing food for mirth and wonder and derision. Yet there is in me that which is murderous when I reflect that you and she do not dislike me. It is the distasteful truth that neither of you considers me to be worth the trouble. I find such conduct irritating, because no other persons have ever ventured to deal in this fashion with Demetrios.”
Or, to round out, this from Jurgen:
“It was not my husband’s negligence that I minded. In fact, Smoit killed me in a brutal fit of jealousy, and jealousy is in its blundering way a compliment. No, it was a worse thing than that which befell me, Jurgen, and embittered all my life in the flesh.” And Sylvia began to weep.
“But what was that thing, Sylvia?”
Queen Sylvia whispered the terrible truth. “My husband did not understand me.”
“Now, by Heaven”, says Jurgen, “When a woman tells me that, even though the woman be dead, I know what it is she expects of me.”
So Jurgen put his arm about the ghost of Queen Sylvia Tereu, and comforted her. Then, finding her quite willing to be comforted, Jurgen sat for a while upon the dark steps, with one arm still about Queen Sylvia. The effect of the potion had evidently worn off, because Jurgen found himself to be composed no longer of cool imponderable vapor, but of the warmest and hardest sort of flesh everywhere.
That is the sort of thing that got Jurgen prosecuted for obscenity, without the benefit of which notorious and amusing prosecution Cabell would likely today be an obscure footnote in literature.
Cabell wrote over fifty books, but is best remembered today for the 18 (or 20, or more, depending on how you count) works making up what is usually called “The Biography of Manuel”, that Biography being loosely in the form of a multi-generational saga beginning with the medieval exploits of Dom Manuel, pig-herd become Count of Poictesme—a fictitious region of France—and running through the centuries up almost to Cabell’s own time. Cabell afterwards took the position that the Biography was a single work—he always called it a book, as if it were one continuous tale. Well, it is not a continuous tale in the narrative sense, but a good case can be made out for its continuity in a philosophical and even literary sense, for each volume is integral to what the whole is presenting to us. The order in which the volumes are read is probably not critical, but on the whole the best approach is doubtless to follow Cabell’s own plan of ordering.
(The definitive edition of the complete Biography is the so-called "Storisende" edition, named after a castle in the saga—that castle’s name itself being a simple jest—of 18 volumes, the edition supervised directly by Cabell himself and containing some changes from previously published versions of some of the books.
Note that after completing the Biography, Cabell took to publishing under the name “Branch Cabell”, to avoid confusion between works belonging to the Biography and his other, later, independent works.)
The Biography is considered Cabell’s magnum opus; nevertheless, it would be a fool who ignores his other works. My own feeling is that as excellent as the Biography is, some of Cabell’s later work is at least as good if not better (though all is masterly). It is as if Cabell, having finished the Biography, felt a leisure not previously available to him, and indeed his writings suggest strongly that to finish the Biography before his death was a morbid obsession (folk died younger then, and he had in his mind examples of other contemporary writers who had died relatively young before finishing their chief projects). With that leisure, he wrote some leisurely books; I am not sure that the Nightmare trilogy mightn’t be his real magnum opus, and the so-called Heirs and Assigns trilogy is on a par with his best. The Florida trio begins with a non-fiction book, part of a commissioned set, Rivers of America, by various authors—Cabell, in partnership with A. J. Hanna, wrote on the St. Johns river of Florida, but the book, though a history, has a flavor much like Cabell’s novels—but the next two are much like the Biography in style and flavor. Cabell seemed constitutionally unable to write a book less than as perfect as he could make it, and, so far as I can see, he never did.
Envoi: Cabell’s non-fiction and quasi-fiction (essays lightly disguised as fiction, or simply set as conversations between him and one of his characters, the author John Charteris) are gems in every way as scintillant as his fiction; the reader will do well to not overlook These Restless Heads and—from the Biography—Straws and Prayer-Books and Beyond Life.
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First off, there is a dedicated Cabell site, The Silver Stallion. Then there’s the Virginia Commonwealth University’s useful Cabell page with links to a few other Cabell sites (there are not that many out there). And Mike Keith has a modest but pleasing Cabell page up. Beyond those, there is an insightful essay, from the December, 1921 issue of The Pacific Review, plus the always interesting David Langford has a nice appreciation at the Ansible site. And, as a top-off, there is a recounting, “Lewd, Lascivious and Indecent”, of the infamous Jurgen obscenity trial that made Cabell famous. There are a few other pages, but this skims the cream.
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Desmond Tarrant’s book James Branch Cabell: The Dream and the Reality is considered the definitive study of Cabell and his works; a brief essay about Cabell by Tarrant [archived copy] is available on line. (Tarrant there remarks that “His best books and those on which his reputation really and firmly rests include chiefly…" and lists (ordered by publication date, not order in the Biography):
(See the Cabell books list farther below for links.)
By and large, I concur, though I would add a few other titles; but, truth to tell, all of Cabell is comet-vintage wine.
Another book on Cabell is James Branch Cabell and Richmond-In-Virginia by Edgar E. MacDonald.
Also, author Michael Swanwick (who wrote one of the few available appreciations of Hope Mirrlees) has produced a chapbook (circa 18,000 words) titled What Can Be Saved From the Wreckage? James Branch Cabell in the Twentieth Century; of it, Neil Gaiman has remarked I love Michael’s essay, although I'm not entirely convinced by it. (Michael feels that Cabell doomed himself to obscurity. I think it was more time, and fashion what dun it.). I would be less genteel; while Swanwick is to be applauded for his championing of “lost” writer Hope Mirrlees, in his evaluation of Cabell he has, in my estimation, seriously missed the boat, badly conflating his own tastes and sensibilities with those of all posterity. While the present day’s chunk of posterity may not much esteem the sort of writing that Cabell did—which is more or less the dictionary definition of belles lettres—it was not so long ago highly prized, and I should be deeply surprised were it not again so in the middle future. As Gaiman says, fashion; and fashion notoriously dances a lively jig.
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This page was last modified on Tuesday, 13 October 2020, at 5:39 pm Pacific Time.