Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

La Lecon Des Tenebres: The Edenic Quest and Its Christian Solution in Andrew Lytle's the Velvet Horn

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

La Lecon Des Tenebres: The Edenic Quest and Its Christian Solution in Andrew Lytle's the Velvet Horn

Article excerpt

The crowning piece of Andrew Lytle's fiction, The Velvet Horn (1957) (1) epitomizes the quest of most of the characters of his novels and short stories, a quest whose conscious or unconscious drive was a yearning for Paradise, the all-powerful, irresistible dream which seems to have urged his own ancestors into leaving the old world for the new at the beginning of the eighteenth century. (2)

In Lytle's fiction, indeed, the whole American experience from its beginnings to its present-day achievements is presented as a quest that has not fulfilled the questers' dream of happiness and renewal, and from novel to novel he shows them committed to violence and destruction; hoping to be regenerated in the fountain of youth and innocence the new continent had promised them, they are instead constantly confronted by their own inescapable selves, their own old appetites for lust and power.

In a letter to his editor in 1938, (3) Lytle had in fact mentioned his intention to write "a series of novels which would be progressive in time and dramatize the different forms of exploitation perpetrated on the American soil. First, he wrote, it would be the search for gold: this produced At the Moon's Inn, in 1941, with its introductory novella "Alchemy," in which Hernando de Soto, the conqueror of Florida, appears as the forerunner of the successive waves of American settlers who destroyed their environment, enslaved their fellow men, and finally consumed themselves in a Faustian apotheosis. (4)

In A Name for Evil, the novel that followed in 1947, de Soto's empire-building ambition shrank to the humbler pioneering ventures of a major of "the Revolutionary wars" and of his twentieth-century descendant, but its nature remained essentially the same, death-dealing and self-destructive; and into this pattern and Lytle's historical design we can also fit the criminal dealings of most of the characters of The Long Night (1936), the demonic Tyson Lovell, the depraved Judge Wilton, the monomaniac Pleasant McIvor and his mediocre neighbors, all of them corrupted by the seemingly inexhaustible resources of the land and their own lust for power and self-gratification.

In The Velvet Horn, the edenic quest has, as it were, inverted itself; it is no longer an attempt to derive maximum benefit from the world, but rather to withdraw from that world; it is a yearning for some impossible state of innocence and wholeness, which is denial of life. Indeed, as we shall see later, all the poetical, strongly evocative images of Paradise that abound in the novel appear at closer view as images of death, whether they harbor some violent and death-dealing action or conjure up the void of the Original Chaos which in most mythical cosmogonies preceded the creation of the world. (5) These images were already to be found, although in a more embryonic state, in Lytle's first two novels, in the tangled wilderness that confronted de Soto in At the Moon's Inn and the pioneers of The Long Night, but they acquired full symbolic status in A Name for Evil, where the abandoned wood and the hexagonal garden of The Grove appear as the metaphoric locale of an ever-frustrated, ever-deviated edenic quest that stops dead in the heart of darkness. (6)

What makes the originality of The Velvet Horn, however, is that among the different quests undertaken by its characters, the central quest carries its hero to a kind of successful completion, insofar as he is finally persuaded to abandon the life-denying illusions of wholeness and to accept man's fallen condition and his redemption in Christ. The journey, we shall see, definitely clips the seeker's wings, but its promise is the only transcendence offered to man's limited possibilities pending the advent of the "new Adam" (7) at the end of time. If the yearning for Paradise, on the one hand, causes two brothers to kill each other; if it causes one of them, Beverly Cropleigh, first to withdraw from the world to live with the beasts of the forest and the other, Duncan, to force incestuous sex upon his sister, on the other hand, the acceptance of the world and of man's duality exacts its own price: Lucius and Pete Legrand lose their illusions, Dickie Cropleigh a leg and his brother Jack his life. …

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