Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice

By JAMISS BRANCH CABELL. New York; Robert M. McBride & Co. 1919. 12mo, 368 pp. $2.00.
THE laughter of Mr. Cabell in Jurgen has a twofold difference in degree, though none in kind, from any that has been heard in the same quarter. In his dozen books Mr. Cabell has loosed no small amount of laughter at and with humanity; but it has never been quite so light in tone, and never quite so deep in meaning. In mere sound, it is gay to irresponsibility; the inflection makes one try to imagine what a Milesian tale would be, retold at leisurely length by Rabelais. Never was a merrier crackling of throne (if the metaphor be not disqualified by its ambushed suggestion of pot-boiling). And yet the sources of this mirth lie deeper than the multitude of portentous and venerable illusions we daily take for realities and suppose ourselves to live by. It springs up from a region beneath all the sentiments, all the despairs, and penetrates all truisms to the core of truth. It is the cosmic laughter of the universe at the expense of man’s limitations, turned by art into human laughter of man learning to comprehend the absurdity of his own limitations. The author lias the same indubitable right that Meredith had, to identify his achievement with the profoundest meaning of the word ‘comedy.’
Jurgen is the tale of a fat,middle-aged,respectably married pawnbroker of Poictesme, to whom befell a sequence of most strange adventures, beginning ‘just after sunset upon Walpurga’s Eve, when almost anything is rather more than likely to happen.’ From ancient Mother Sereda, patroness of the middle day of the week he borrows a certain Wednesday of his twenty-first year, and relives it with extravagant variations. Briefly panoplied in his lost youth, he then exists for one crowded year as the dashing and romantic figure of his own earlier dreams. He visits Heaven and Hell and many a queer region between, including Cocaigne, ’wherein is the bedchamber of Time : wherein also he becomes, by a curious phallic ceremony, the bridegroom of Anaïtis, its queen. And on his journeyings he has many a strange encounter with his old lost loves, as well as with ladies of myth and fable. But the sequence leads him inexorably back in the end to the fat, middle-aged, respectably married pawnbroker; and he concludes, as sensible folk do after a glimpse of supernal, lawless beauty has made them for an instant forget themselves, that I he has been the victim of a fantastic dream.
Just as a tale, Jurgen is beyond the praise that one knows how to contrive for its qualities of fineness and dexterity, raciness and inordinate wit. But there is more. Underlying the tale, and in no wise interfering with it, there runs an implicit allegory of man’s eternal search for some fulfillment in life of that instinct of justice and reason which he finds written clearly enough in his own heart. Discovering that fulfillment nowhere save in his dreams, man settles down at length to a working compromise between the romantic, rebellious, art-making impulses in himself (the shirt of Nessus which Jurgen wears throughout) and the opposite instinct of conformity to how things are and to what is expected of him (the shadow of Mother Sereda which dogs him at every step, so that he is truly himself only in the dark). He who has clutched at the stars in their orbits makes himself at the last well content to grub among earthworms in the garden.
This book is a comedy of that sad ultimate wisdom whereby each of us robs life of its power to hurt us through ravaging our illusions. Jurgen is, in fine, Everyman, a creature who saves himself from madness by wholesomely setting up his own limitations as the ordained standard of excellence.
Here, as elsewhere, Mr. Cabell holds himself up to his own rather austere criterion of success. He is content with nothing less than increasing the number of rereadable books.
W. P.