Marcel Schwob: The Death of Lucretius

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The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
…….– William Blake

One of my favorite tales of Marcel Schwob takes the legend of Lucretius’s death and marries it to the decadent music of the eros and thanatos. One of the great late decadents or Symbolists he was a friend to almost all of greats of the era: Léon Daudet, Paul Claudel, Anatole France, Edmond de Goncourt, Jean Lorrain, J.-H. Rosny aîné, Alphonse Daudet, Auguste Bréal, Paul Arene, Maurice Spronck, Jules Renard, Paul Margueritte, Paul Hervieu, Charles Maurras, Rachilde, Octave Mirbeau, Catulle Mendès, Jules Renard, Guillaume Apollinaire, Henri Barbusse, Georges Courteline, Paul Valéry, Colette, Oscar Wilde, Pierre Louÿs, George Meredith, Maurice Maeterlinck, Alfred Jarry, Aristide Bruant, Marcel Proust, Robert de Montesquiou, Édouard Manet, Auguste Rodin, Camille Claudel and Jehan Rictus.

To read the French Decadents and Symbolists is to enter the music of language, to know the inner contours of affect immanently, to feel the body’s motions in the senses – the haptic movement of flesh on flesh, the sensual patterns of decay and life at the edge of dissolution and corruption. Yet, in the midst of death and decay there is life, a life felt with such gusto and intensity that the subtle flavors of the mind barely grasp the intricate art of its baroque embellishments and arabesques. Painter, poet, journalist, he wrote over a hundred short stories, essays, biographies, literary reviews and analysis, translations and plays. Marcel Schwob was a monstrous being of energy and grace.

The lover is eventually united with his beloved, but in death rather than life. His Cleopatra is scornful of his apparent immersion in imaginative need; and, yet she yields to its ritual intent, considering one moment of living ecstasy infinitely more valuable than an eternity of disembodied companionship.

What we discover in this tale is the simple truth of ecstatic Dionysian life, of energic power under the sign of death and dissolution. In the moment of sex and violence the organismic self-feeling of excessive life brings with it the madness of inhuman truth even at the expense of duration. We’d rather feel the power of ecstatic life in a moment of pure rapture and excess than live out our dire existence under the burden of banality and mediocrity. Only in the moments when we move beyond the human into that mad terrain of erotic ecstasy do we begin to touch the power flowing out of chaos from within us, to ride the loa of daemonic life like annihilating sparks severing the root and tree and following the line of flight into that broken world where our inhuman becoming merges with the electric night. Like Shamans riding the Tree of Time we scurry up and down the branches into heavens and hells seeking the lost embrace of our hidden lives, momentary glimpses of an alternate bliss where corruption takes on the hue of a many splendored light beyond the gray world of our decaying and transient flesh… in that abyss where all light devolves into darkness beyond darkness, where time and space revolve into a final kernel of the void and fade into the eternity of endless death we begin to know and see the “visible darkness” of the annihilating light…

Below is one of my favorite tales from Schwob…

The Death of Lucretius

LUCRETIUS was born into a grand family that had long since withdrawn from public life. His early days were lived in the shadow of the black porch fronting a tall house built on a mountainside. The atrium was severe and the slaves silent. Since his childhood he had been nourished with a contempt for politics and men. The noble Memmius, who was the same age, suffered the games that Lucretius imposed on him when they played in the forest. The two of them marvelled at the deeply wrinkled bark of old trees, and at leaves quivering in the sun like a green veil streaked with light. They mused on the striped backs of the wild piglets which snuffled the earth. They passed through swarming streams of bees and moving columns of ants on the march. One day they broke through from a thicket into a clearing completely surrounded by cork-oaks, which were growing in a circle so densely packed together it seemed like a well sunk into the blue sky. The place was infinitely restful. As though they were on a clear, wide road that led to the rarefied air of the divine. Lucretius was touched there by the blessing of calm spaces.

Accompanied by Memmius, he left the serene temple of the forest to study eloquence at Rome. The aged gentleman who ruled over the tall house found him a tutor to teach him Greek, and enjoined him not to return until he had learned the art of despising the world and all its ways. Lucretius never saw him again. He died alone, railing against the tumult of society. When Lucretius returned, he brought with him into the tall empty house, under the severe atrium among the silent slaves, an African woman who was beautiful, barbarian, and perverse. Memmius had returned to the paternal home. Lucretius had witnessed bloody factions, feuding parties, and political corruption. He was in love.

At first his life was an enchantment. Against the wall-tapestries the African female pressed her tangled mass of hair. Her languid body married with its full length the contour of every couch. She held mixing-bowls full of foaming wine, with her arms encrusted in translucent emeralds. She had a strange way of lifting one finger and shaking her head. Her smiles had their deep source in the rivers of Africa. Instead of spinning, she would shred the wool patiently into tiny flecks that floated round about her.

Lucretius wanted nothing more ardently than to melt into that beautiful body. He squeezed her metallic hands and placed his lips against her dark, scarlet mouth. The words of love were exchanged and sighed out; they made them laugh and became worn out. The pair of them brushed against the supple and opaque veil that separates lovers. Their desire grew ever fiercer and sought to become the other. It reached an inflamed extremity that is released over the flesh rather than deep in the entrails. The African withdrew into her remote heart. Lucretius grew desperate at being unable to consummate his love. The woman grew haughty, grim and silent, like the atrium and the slaves. He wandered into the library.

It was there that he unfolded the scroll on which a scribe had copied out the treatise of Epicurus.

No sooner had he done so than he understood the huge variety of things in this world, and the futility of trying to turn them into ideas. The universe seemed to him similar to the little flecks of wool the African scattered through his halls. The bees in their clusters and the ants in their columns and the leaves in their moving tissue were like groups and sub-groups of atoms. And within his own body he felt an invisible mutinous people, eager to fly apart. The gaze seemed to him to be more subtly embodied rays, and the image of the beautiful barbarian was now a pleasant and colourful mosaic; he felt the end of this infinity of movement to be sad and vain.

He viewed the bloodied factions of Rome, with their armed and insulting partisans and claimants, as analogous to the swirling of troops of atoms dyed with the same blood, fighting for some obscure supremacy. And he understood that the dissolution that comes with death was nothing other than the releasing of this turbulent mass that rushes on to a thousand further futile movements.

So when Lucretius had received instruction from the scroll of papyrus, on which the Greek words were interwoven with each other like the atoms of the world, he went out into the forest through the black porch of the tall ancestral house. He saw the stripy backs of the piglets, with their snouts still snuffling at the ground. Next, slashing through the thicket, he was once more in the middle of the serene temple in the forest, and his eyes plunged into the blue well of the sky. And it was there that he placed his repose.

From there he contemplated the teeming immensity of the universe; all the stones, all the plants, all the trees, all the animals, and every single man, in all his colour, with all his passions and his instruments, and the history of the most diverse things, and their birth, their diseases, and their death. And as part of all-encompassing and necessary death, he perceived the individual death of his African bride. And he wept.

He knew that tears spring from a special movement of little glands underneath the eyelids, and that they are caused by a procession of atoms arriving from the heart, and that the heart in turn has been struck by a succession of coloured images emanating from the surface of the body of the beloved woman. He knew that love was caused by nothing more than the swelling of atoms which desire to join with other atoms. He knew that grief at the death of a loved one is the worst of all earthly illusions, because the dead person has ceased to be unhappy and to suffer, while he who is left to mourn does no more than afflict himself with his own miseries and dream darkly of his own death. He knew that there remained of us no simulacrum to shed tears for our own corpse laid out at our feet. And yet, for all his close knowledge of grief, and love and death— that they are but vain images when contemplated from the calm space where he would seal himself off— he continued nevertheless to weep, and to desire love and to fear death.

Which is why, on returning to the tall and gloomy ancestral house, he went up to the beautiful African, who was brewing something up in a metal pot on the fire. For she too had been thinking, and her thoughts had joined the deep source of her smile. Lucretius looked at the boiling liquid on the brazier. He lightened bit by bit and became like a green turbulent sky. And the beautiful African shook her head and lifted her finger. Then Lucretius drank off the potion. No sooner had he done so than he lost his reason, and he forgot the Greek words on the scroll of papyrus. And for the first time, because he was mad, he knew love. And in the night, having been poisoned, he knew death.

  1. French Decadent Tales (Oxford World’s Classics) (2013-05-09). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.

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