Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Ce que dit la bouche d'ombre

I don't actually like Hugo's poem "Ce que dit la bouche d'ombre."  It's a well-engineered but overwrought vision of a kind of Happy Ending Apocalypse.  Full of grandiloquent "O"s, ecstatic exclamations and poetic dexterity of all sorts, this "show stopper" is intended to convey Hugo's devout belief--nay, his "prophetic" certainty--that fallen mankind will at last be resurrected, redeemed and restored by the power of love.  This optimistic assurance is, (as I literally translate the title line) "what the mouth of the shadow says/said." (Actually, the final word of the poem--uttered by an angel--is "commencement."  All the orchestrated hysteria, as in Ravel's Bolero, had been building up to that pre-ordained climax!  Cute.)

Don't get me wrong:  I like the idea that Good will eventually triumph and that the horns of evildoers will simply melt away in the fiery radiance of God's love.

But the very fact that Hugo goes on, and on, and on--piling metaphor upon metaphor upon rime riche upon rime riche--suggests that he's not as sure about all of this as he'd like to be.  He doth protest too much and, in the end, the effusive artifice of his poem makes me question his authenticity.  Is he posturing?  What does he really know?

Like the televangelist screamers who are trying so desperately, pounding their pulpits and their Bibles, to convince their listeners (and themselves?) that THEY are the only legitimate purveyors of truth.  As Robert Graves might ask:  is this genuine nakedness or merely artful nudity?

Can I hear an "amen" here?  AMEN.

But there are parts of Hugo's poem that appeal deeply to me--most especially, the very title.  I am fascinated by the expression "la bouche d'ombre."  How in the world can one translate that formula?  The mouth of the shadow?  The yawp of darkness?  The mouthpiece of the unknown?  The voice of the depths?  The language of intuition?

Well, whatever the translation, I'm inclined to believe that such a "bouche d'ombre" does, in fact, exist.  I can't help thinking about Levin's enlightenment--at the end of Anna Karenina.  After a lifetime of skepticism and doubt, after years of attempting to extract some shred of "meaning" from life, Levin discovers (with a joy and a simplicity that I find lacking in Hugo's overblown poem) that what he is seeking, he has always known--and not just he, but everyone else as well.

"Don't all philosophical theories do the same thing," Levin asks himself, "leading man by way of thought that is strange and unnatural to him to the knowledge of what he has long known and known so certainly that without it he would not even be able to live?  Is it not seen clearly in the development of each philosopher's theory that he knows beforehand (...) and only wants to return by a dubious mental path to what everybody knows"?

In short, when the voice of darkness talks to us (like a shadow's whisper), it says, not something uplifting like "commencement", but dumb stuff that we've always known-- "don't fret; it's OK; all is well."

And this, inevitably, reminds me of Emerson's "Self-Reliance."  And of Jesus' admonition to "consider the lilies."  We don't really need a Hugo (or a Pat Robertson) to be our "lighthouse" or our "seer" because la bouche d'ombre speaks to us all equally--in the ordinary but eloquent commonplaces I just mentioned.

And also, perhaps, in an ancient admonition too little heeded by Hugo, Tolstoy or myself (I'm not humble, am I?)--another commonplace that might just summarize the profoundest wisdom of humankind:  "For GOODNESS' sake, SHUT UP!"

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