Victor Hugo on the Universe within the Poet

By Riffaterre, Michael | The Romanic Review, January-March 2002 | Go to article overview
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Victor Hugo on the Universe within the Poet


Riffaterre, Michael, The Romanic Review


Montrez-moi le ciel charge de nuages Repetant le monde enfoui sous mes paupieres

Eluard

The soul, the mind, moral entities, mental functions, have always, in literature as well as in the arts and folklore, been personified in human or animal form. Whether it be the souls of the dead symbolized by winged figures, or Jupiter's wisdom symbolized by Minerva springing from his brow, or the thoughts of comic strip characters symbolized by pictures enclosed in little clouds rising from the tops of their-heads--they have a durability that testifies to their archetypal nature. Likewise archetypal in the human imagination is that portion of the body chosen as theatre for the play of thoughts and passions. Shape influenced the choice; sort and inert, the brain was not very inspiring; the heart made an easy metaphor because of its obvious reaction to emotion so poetry let it burn, bleed, suffer in the clutches of Jealousy and other monsters--but its plastic possibilities are limited. Not so with the natural architecture of the head, especially of the skull, with the eyes that are windows, and the hollow within made familiar by centuries of Christian art as the soul's abode. Thus the poets have called it man's sanctuary, "temple ou son ame habite," in the words of Lamartine, (1) or they have called it an inner universe where, says Baudelaire, "les revolutions et les evenements les plus curieux se passent sous le ciel du crane." (2) At times we find the metaphor sustained by other images, such as the camera obscura, which was a minor literary fashion around the rime the daguerreotype was invented. This kind of image usually throws into relief a mental obsession, as when Proust locks in his head the memory of the girl his jealousy had long held captive: "l'Albertine d'autrefois, invisible a moi-meme, etait pourant enfermee au fond de moi comme aux plombs d'une Venise interieure, dont parfois un incident faisait glisser le couvercle durci jusqu'a me donner une ouverture sur ce passe," (3) or else the image emphasizes an acute distress, like Mallarme's migraine, mixed with nostalgia,

 
  Des crepuscules blancs tiedissent sous mon crane 
   Qu'un cercle de fer serre ainsi qu'un vieux tombeau. (4) 

But no writer exploits this theme more thoroughly than Hugo or in such a visionary manner. His obsession has two sources. First, death is ever present to his mind, hence a veritable fixation on the obvious symbol of the death's head: even objects only remotely similar, like a ruined tower or a submarine cave, (5) will remind him of a skull--an inhabited one, so to say. Some poets see the inside of the head as a diminutive sky; Hugo sees the sky as a giant skull. (6) Second, Hugo, like Nerval, his protege, like the Illuminists (above all Swedenborg), believes in symbolism and in correspondences that weave between similar things the web of universal harmony, relating the flower and the star, the beast and the criminal, the depths of ocean and the depths of heart, the vault of the skull and the celestial vault. In one text, their common roundness was sufficient for him to assert an affinity between heaven, earth and skeleton's head, and to declare it their common function to serve as mansions of the spirit. (7) No wonder he so often chose this theme when he would oppose and relate the human microcosm to the universal macrocosm.

In a first and relatively simple application of this theme, the skull is but the prison of the soul. Hugo uses and graphically develops the traditional opposition between a purer essence never really at home in us, and the body, its temporary dwelling place. But he pushes this opposition to its extreme and draws from it effects of pathos by substituting for lien, chaines or enveloppe, the usual metaphors of the flesh, a new metaphor, semantically similar but stylistically hyperbolic--the metaphor of the prison cell:

 
  Ne sens-tu pas en toi comme une aile captive? 

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