Jest in Literature - Where devils fear to tread !
Sep 25, 2002 08:13 PDT
JEST in LITERATURE
23rd September 2002 # 024
IN THIS DIGEST :
Where devils fear to tread !
~ The Doc
~ The Doc
Inspiration Corner -
~ The Doc
Winding up -
~ The Doc
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====> Where devils fear to tread !
Hi everyone. The reason for the above statement is because
"0f JURGEN eke they maken mencioun,
That of an old wyf gat his youthe agoon,
And gat himselfe a shirte as bright as fyre
Wherein to jape, yet gat not his desire
In any countrie ne condicioun."
That's just a bit of middle English. Not too hard to figure out,
really, but what is of note is that it is the introduction to a book
which was published in 1921. Not 921, but 1921. It is the only
middle English in the book, so to repeat the number one rule of
hitchhikers in the galaxy: Don't Panic.
I remember reading this book a number of years ago, and then I
lost my copy. I have looked for it intermittently, but without
success. Then I stumbled across it again.
The title of the book is "Jurgen," and it was written by James
Branch Cabell. To this day, I don't know how to classify it. It
seems like satire, but satire has the purpose of changing something,
and unless we have a way of changing heaven and hell, the book
falls short of that definition in a way.
Perhaps it is just humor with no other purpose in mind. So says
the introduction by Hugh Walpole. He says to take it as you find
it, and do not go beyond that.
The book creates a world of fiction/fantasy in which the hero,
Jurgen, makes a journey in search of his lost wife. He does so
with mixed feelings about actually finding her. He crosses paths
with all the former loves of his life (and we are warned that he
was a prodigious lover) who remain in the state they were when
he left them.
For all the sounds of its seeming British dialogue, Cabell was a
writer from the United States. I am glad to have come across the
book again, because parts of it seem more pertinent today than
ever before. Especially the manner in which he treats heaven and
hell, god and satan, and what is and is not "proper behavior."
It is hard to argue with his logic as he deems hell to be a
democratic place where all the devils are more dedicated to the
work god has given them than men seem to be, and heaven as a
place of autocracy or dictatorship.
Of particular note is the manner in which he determines hell to be
a place of man's own creation, born of arrogance and pride,
where the devils are beleaguered to find new and more painful
ways of salving the conscience of those who feel so important
that their wrong-doings in this life deserve and better get fitting
The results of this demanding leads to a situation of great labor
and grumbling by those overworked devils who feel their duty
is too much given the great numbers of people who insist that
their personal sins are greater than anyone else's. It's a case of
"keeping up with the Joneses," and the devils are getting a bit
tired of it.
"Jurgen" has been banned in various places since its first printing.
It has been called everything from lewd to pornographic, though
this last tag would be a bit hard to support. Maybe it was nature
of things in the early 1920's that led to this censure, but then how
would one explain its continued banning today?
Perhaps what bothers some is when Jurgen determines to go to
Cocaigne. There he meets a most accomplished woman who tells
him: '"For all men that live have but a little while to live,' said
Anaitis, 'and none knows his fate thereafter. So that a man
possesses nothing certainly save a brief loan of his body: and yet
the body of man is capable of much curious pleasure. As thus
and thus,' says Anaitis. And she revealed devices to her
Or perhaps it is the seeming entendres like:
"Ali, my dear," says Anaitis, "you were controlled by the finger
"I do not altogether like that figure of speech. It makes one seem
too trivial, to be controlled by a mere finger. No, it is not quite
complimentary to call what prompted me a finger."
"By the long arm of coincidence, then."
"Much more appropriate, my love," says Jurgen, complacently:
it sounds more dignified, and does not wound my self-esteem."
This seeming does indicate that our hero does not like to be
underestimated in any department. However, when he does
finally land in the land of Cocaigne, he finds numerous
gratifications, but still, there is that pride thing: "Well, where
I go reasonably equipped with Caliburn (the name Jurgen gives
his own 'sword'), Priapos carries a lance I envy-"
"Like all the Bacchic myths he usually carries a thyrsos, and it is
a showy weapon, certainly; but it is not of much use in actual
"My darling! and how do you know?"
"Why, Jurgen, how do women always know these things ?
-by intuition, I suppose."
Oh, yea, intuition........
And, indeed, his stay in Cocaigne is enlightening and bears many
trysts that teach him much, but our hero has a mission, that of
hunting for his wife, and even joyous hedonism soon wear thin.
"Thus Jurgen abode among the offspring of heathen perversity,
and conformed to their customs. Death ends all things for all, they
contended, and life is brief: for how few years do men endure, and
how quickly is the most subtle and appalling nature myth explained
away by the Philologists! So the wise person, and equally the
foreseeing nature myth, will take his glut of pleasure while there is
yet time to take anything, and will waste none of his short lien upon
desire and vigour by asking questions."
Sadly, our hero does ask questions, many of which hinge on his
fear that his weapon does not measure up to those of the creatures
of mythology, even though his temporary wife in this place, Anaitis,
tells us that by her experience with both myths and men, he has no
reason to doubt that his weapon is formidable.
"But in Cocaigne there was no regret and no variability, but only an
interminable flow of curious pleasures, illumined by the wandering
star of Venus Mechanitis.
"Why is it, then, that I am not content?" said Jurgen. "And what thing
is this which I desire? It seems to me there is some injustice
being perpetrated upon Jurgen, somewhere."
Ah, Cocaigne, that country that puts one right on the edge of
satisfaction, yet always falls a wee bit shy. The "more" drug
masquerading as the "more" country.
Jurgen then travels to the home of a Master Philologist to engage
in a battle for the sake of his consort, Anaitis. He goes in the
name of justice, depending on his sword to win him the day.
However, he soon discovers that the word is indeed mightier
than the sword.
"...but the man showed me a huge book wherein were the names
of everything in the world, and justice was not among them. It
develops that, instead, justice is merely a common noun, vaguely
denoting an ethical idea of conduct proper to the circumstances,
whether of individuals or communities. It is, you observe, just a
Now, in this world where we bandy about things like civil rights,
human rights, and "justice" to condone our behaviors, this thought
alone should give us pause. Justice is only a notion.
Jurgen thusly departs from Cocaigne, leaving his worldly lover to
pick up the sword which he has decided is less powerful than
words, and to languish as "she gave this sword to King Arthur,
who with its aid rose to be hailed as one of the Nine Worthies
of the World. So did the husband of Guenevere win for himself
eternal fame with that which Jurgen flung away."
Certainly this puts our hero into perspective when that which he
cast away is the basis for one of the English's favorite legends.
Jurgen pursues his quest, and will later, as it were, journey into
the very pit of hell, and it is here where he meets his father,
chained to a chair, and deriding all the devils that punish him
because their work does not equal the greatness of the sins he
has committed. And how dare they design for him cruel tortures
which are beneath the claims of his arrogant sins?
Jurgen's father is working the hell out of the devils, and to be
honest, they are growing a bit weary of his constant demands
for new punishments.
But before he travels to this new place and philosophy, he has
a chance to view all the different worlds where he might go ere
he leaves Anaitis. She shows him these places in a looking glass
left to her when Time stopped. "It is Atlantis you behold, and the
sleeping of ancient Time - Time, to whom this glass belongs,
--while Briarcus watches."
"Time sleeps quite naked, Anaitis, and, though it is a delicate matter
to talk about, I notice he has met with a deplorable accident."
"So that Time begets nothing any more, Jurgen, the while he brings
about old happenings over and over, and changes the name of what
is ancient, in order to persuade himself he has a new plaything. There
is really no more tedious and wearing old dotard anywhere, I can
Well, that certainly explains why history seems to repeat itself,
doesn't it? Even when the excuses are different, the results seem
to always be the same, and now we know why: Time is sleeping,
and is impotent to boot. What a thought!
I realize this has been a bit disjointed, but it is so because I am
attempting to put too much into this one short space. I have
decided that this needs to be continued to give it a fine finish and
robust body. So, rather than rush to a climax that will satisfy no
one, let me end this first part of Jurgen, sans all the political views
that he has which will really set you back on your heels, with this
little piece about how a man should break up with a woman when
the time has come. Take heed the methods from the
"Why, you remember what Calpurnius Bassus says about all
"No, I believe not. What did he say, dear?"
"I would only spoil the splendid passage by quoting it inaccurately
from memory. But he was quite right, and his opinion is mine in
every particular. So if that is the best Leuke can offer, I heartily
agree with you I had best go into some other country."
"I suppose you already have your eyes upon some minx or other?"
"Well, my love, those girls in the Hesperides were strikingly like
you, with even more wonderful hair than yours: and the girl Aille
whom we saw in Tir-nam-Beo likewise resembled you remarkably,
except that I thought she had the better figure. So I believe in either
of those countries I could be content enough, after a while. Since part
from you I must," said Jurgen, tenderly, "I intend, in common fairness
to myself, to find a companion as like you as possible. You conceive
I can pretend it is you at first: and then as I grow fonder of her for her
own sake, you will gradually be put out of my mind without my incurring
any intolerable anguish."
Anaitis was not pleased. "So you are already hankering after those
huzzies! And you think them better looking than I am! And you tell
me so to my face!"
"My darling, you cannot deny we have been married all of three
whole months: and nobody can maintain an infatuation for any
woman that long, in the teeth of having nothing refused him.
Infatuation is largely a matter of curiosity, and both of these
emotions die when they are fed."
I suppose, you are wondering, as I did, whether he walked from
this situation with his health, or bleeding profusely from his head
and body. I can say this for Jurgen, he pulls few punches of his own,
and his wit extricates him from tighter spots than this.
A warning, however: Jurgen is a professional; do not try this at home.
And a tickle for next time... Where Bre'r Rabbit was known to cry,
"Don't throw me in the briar patch" in hopes of having that very thing
done, Jurgen cries, "Do not create a creature so lovely that I will be
satisfied by her mounting upon me. "Dame Phyllis knows how to take
a joke, and to return as good as she receives."
Of course, as you might guess, nothing is so perfect as it seems,
even if it is just a small thing that bothers about that perfect
person: "Then, too, he had a sort of prejudice against the way in which
Florimel spent her time in seducing and murdering young men."
Ah, but forgiveness and understanding are among Jurgen's greatest
gifts, so let us see if he can surmount this one flaw of this otherwise
perfect mounting, next time.
Or, as Monte said to the Black Knight:
"I've cut off your arm!"
"Oh, 'tis but a trifle."
Comments or Questions :
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===> Poetry Corner
Okay, lookie here, I got the submissions. In fact more than
we have had for most any other prompt (damn that Gunjan!)
And I put them in a file... and you know the rest. I am not
indifferent! But, I will move heaven and earth to find them
and comment on them for next time, along with the ones that
I know are on their way for "slippery" from last issue.
(Please don't worry, nothing ever gets lost on my desk.
It just plays this game where it sometimes pretends it's a
The last issue was about some poets' view of the penis. While I
didn't think of it as a prompt, one of our readers did and
responded with a quite astounding poem on the topic herself. I
am pursuing permission even now to reprint it for you. If anyone
else feels so moved, get moving.
Poetic Submissions For Slippery
Poetic Submissions For Indifferent
The Devil's Dictionary defines LOVE as
'A temporary insanity curable by marriage.'
But if you're serious about finding it here's
The Easiest Way to Find the Love of Your Life!
Check out http://ebooks.wz.com/dating/a277.html
to have a great date next weekend...
==> Inspiration Corner
What millions died that Caesar might be great!
(I'd never thought of it from this point of view. It is a sad state
that I had tended to ignore that very thing that made Caesar
great, even though I knew it. How high should a man be allowed
to ascend on a pile of bodies?)
Some people see things that are and ask, Why?
Some people dream of things that never were and ask,
Why not? The rest of us have to go to work and don't
have time for all this crap.
(George Carlin to save the day.)
A couple of actual State laws in the United States,
then we go International:
In California: It is a misdemeanor to shoot at any kind of
game from a moving vehicle, unless the target is a whale.
....and a personal favorite from Chico, California:
Detonating a nuclear device within the city limits results
in a $500 fine.
In Canada: "It is illegal to kill a sick person by frightening them."
....and "It is illegal to pretend to practice witchcraft."
(I wonder if the first law came after the second one?)
In South Africa: "Young people wearing bathing suits are
prohibited from sitting less or more than 12 inches apart."
(Okay, I'll admit I had to read this one a couple of times.
I still don't get it, though.)
And Denmark: "One may not be charged for food at an inn
unless that person, by his or her own opinion, is "full"."
(Well, think about it. Maybe this one isn't as stupid as it first
seems. Tricky Danes. But, they also have a law that says
before starting any vehicle, you must first check the headlights,
and you must make sure no one is underneath the car. Hmm,
Turning Dreams into Dollars...
An ebook in which you won't find the get-rich-quick
garbage or motivational fluff that sounds good but never
works. Not too surprising, since the editors of
Internet ScamBusters are publishing it."
==> A QUICK PEEK
Next issue: A humorous journey into Hell; poetic Indifference;
poetic Slipperiness; some prompts, some inspiration, and a law
or two to make you scratch your head, no matter what country
I'd like to end with a little reminder:
There is none so blind as he who will not see.
(Which leads to the joke about the blind guy in the supermarket
caught swinging his dog around by its legs. He said he was just
Comments or Questions :
If you're looking for a really fun way to earn some
extra money with humor, check out John Cantu's ebook -
Getting Paid to Make People Laugh
(Without Being a Comedian)
[John is the guy who showcased Robin Williams, Paula
Poundstone, Kevin Meany, Rob Schneider, and Dana Carvey.]
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