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Urien's Voyage is an allegorical account of a sea voyage. From the stagnant, teeming waters of the Sargasso to the frozen Arctic, Gide charts in prose the fantastic journey of the Orion and the sexual and moral transformations of those aboard. The temptations, suffering, and surroundings of Urien and his companions are described with an extraordinary profusion of detail, yet the pilgrims can never be sure of the reality of their experiences. The eponymous Urien is, we now know, the young Andre Gide himself. ...
Urien's Voyage is an allegorical account of a sea voyage. From the stagnant, teeming waters of the Sargasso to the frozen Arctic, Gide charts in prose the fantastic journey of the Orion and the sexual and moral transformations of those aboard. The temptations, suffering, and surroundings of Urien and his companions are described with an extraordinary profusion of detail, yet the pilgrims can never be sure of the reality of their experiences. The eponymous Urien is, we now know, the young Andre Gide himself. Written under the spell of the great French Symbolist poet Mallarme, the novel is an illustration of both the techniques and the aesthetic credo of the Symbolist movement. Although written early in the career of this key French thinker and Nobel Prize-Winner, Urien's Voyage is now regarded as a significant work, articulating the powerful tension between sexuality and morality that would preoccupy Gide in his better-known later novels.
When the bitter night of thought, study and theological ecstasy came to an end, my steadfast soul, tortured since nightfall by loneliness, sensed the approach of dawn and stirred uneasily. Without my noticing it, my lamp had gone out; my casement had opened to the dawn. I moistened my brow with the dew from the panes, and relegating to the past my spent revery, I gazed toward the dawn and ventured into the narrow vale of metempsychoses.
Dawns! Dreams of memories of maritime wonders and oriental splendors which by night infused our wearisome study with longing for travel! Long had I wandered as if in a dream through a tragic valley, searching for exotic breezes and sounds, when finally I was overjoyed by the sight of towering rocks and a blue sea.
O sea eternal, I thought, shall we sail across these waves to our unknown destiny? Will our tender souls test their valor?
Awaiting me on the shore were my fellow pilgrims; I recognized them all but without knowing whether I had seen them somewhere before; our virtues were the same. The sun had already risen high above the sea. They had arrived at dawn and were watching the waves rise. I excused myself for being late; they forgave me, thinking that I had been detained along the way by certain dogmatic subtleties and scruples; then they reproached me for having reservations about consenting to come. As I was the last one and they were expecting no one else, we made our way toward the town with the great port where ships weigh anchor. Loud noises that emanated from there came to us on the shore.
The town that was to be our place of embarcation in the evening was vibrating from the sunshine, from loud noises and sounds of merry-making, from the white heat of high noon. The marbled quays burned our sandals; the festivities offered a medley of colors. Two ships had arrived the previous day, one from Norway and the other from the enchanting Antilles; and the crowd was hurrying to view the arrival of a third, a majestic ship, as it came into the port. It came from Syria, laden with slaves, nuggets, and bales of purple. There was much hurrying and scurrying on the deck; shouts of the crew were heard. From the top of the masts some sailors were loosening cords while others, near the waves, were throwing out ropes; the folds of flattened sails were hanging from the main yards, where oriflammes were displayed. The sea, on the shoreward side, was not deep enough to allow the ship to approach the quay; boats went out to the ship and first brought back the slaves; and as soon as they had been set ashore, the people scurried to see them; they were beautiful and almost naked, but sad. The sailors also placed perfumes and precious fabrics in the boats, but they cast into the sea the bales of purple; these were cheap goods; the waves carried them alongside dikes, where men were bending over with poles to guide them toward the stairway. From the Antilles had come rare weeds, variegated birds and shells that relayed the sound of the waves on these happy shores. There was haggling as they were auctioned off; the bazaars were cluttered with cages; some birds, more delicate than the others, were set loose in large cages; people paid to enter; all the birds sang, and merchants added to the confusion. Jugglers and mimics performed in improvised stalls. On a stage cavorting mountebanks tossed back and forth daggers and pennants.
Farther away were the town's ice-houses which were supplied by the Norwegian vessels returning with their rimy cargos. Some cellars were very deep, but all had been replenished, and this ship was unloading its burden on the deck. A mountain was rising, green, diaphanous and cool; thirsty sailors were coming there to enjoy its shadow and to put their burning hands and lips against its moist exterior. Saffron-skinned men in blood-stained cotton breeches were still carrying loads of snow on sagging boards and chunks of pure ice that they had recovered from the sea; snow and pieces of ice were being cast overboard; snow, ice and foam were borne along with the purple on the blue water which turned almost violet as waves dissolved the purple.
And now came the evening; the crimson sun was hidden by the cordage; crepuscular sounds arose; and in the becalmed port rocked the fabulous vessel that was to bear us away! Then, since this day had given us a foretaste of all that the future held in store, we ceased to look back and turned our eyes to the future; and the extraordinary ship, leaving behind it the port, the fair and the sunken sun, plunged into the night toward dawn.CHAPTER 2
Night at sea. We have been discussing our destinies. The night is clear; the Orion is sailing between two islands. The moon lights the cliffs. Blue sharks have come into view: the night watch called attention to them and to some dolphins; they were playing in the moonlight; near the sharks, they submerged and did not reappear; blue rocks glow dimly beneath the waves. Luminous jellyfish rise slowly from the deep and blossom in the night air, tossed by the waves like sea- flowers. The stars are dreaming. Leaning over the bow of the ship, near the cordage and above the waves, we turn our backs to the crew, to our companions, to all that is being done, and we look at the waves, the constellations and the islands. "We are watching the isles passing by," say the crewmen, who are somewhat contemptuous of us, as they forget while looking at each other that they are moving while these things are motionless and unaffected by our passing.
Changing aspects of massive cliffs, elongated promontories that vanish from sight! Precipitous banks! Metamorphoses of mountains! We know now that you remain; we look upon you as transient because we are moving; your aspect changes in spite of your constancy as we sail by. The night watchman calls attention to ships. We, leaning over the waves from dusk to dawn, learn to distinguish transient things from the eternal isles.
That night we talked about the past; none of us knew how he had managed to come to the ship, but no one regretted the bitter night of meditation.
"From what obscure sleep have I awakened?" asked Alain. "From what tomb? I never stopped thinking and I am still sick. O becalmed, oriental night, will you at last bring relief to a tired brain obsessed by thoughts of God?"
"I was tormented by a desire for conquest," said Paride; "I paced my room, valiant but sad, and more exhausted by dreams of heroic acts than by their performance. What conquests lie before us now? what noble deeds? where are we going? Tell me! Do you know where this ship is taking us?" Not one of us knew, but all of us trembled on sensing our courage.
"What are we doing here," he continued, "and what just what is this life if the other one was our sleep?"
"Perhaps we are living our dream as we sleep in our rooms," said Nathanael.
"Or perhaps we're searching for regions to satisfy our souls," said Mélian.
But Tradelineau shouted: "Without a doubt, the fallacy of using vain logic and believing that you can do a thing well only if its causes are known, still enslaves you and motivates this pointless discussion. Why try to imbue our presence on the Orion with highly mysterious motives? We left our books because they bored us, because an unconscious remembrance of the sea and the real sky destroyed our faith in study; something else existed; and when warm, balsamic breezes came to stir the curtains on our windows, we descended willy-nilly toward the plain and began our journey. We were tired of thought, we wanted action; did you see how our souls turned joyous when, taking from the rowers their heavy oars, we felt the liquid blue resist! Oh, the Orion will surely carry us to distant shores. The spasms of courage that we experience will of themselves elicit feats of valor; let's hope for the best as we wait for our glorious destinies to unfold."
That night we also spoke of the tumultuous town where we had embarked, of its fairs and of the crowd.
"Why keep thinking about those people whose eyes saw only things and who were not even astounded?" said Angleval. "I liked the way Bohordin was sobbing during the circus acts; everything should be done as a rite; those people were watching the performances unceremoniously."
"What do you think of all this, Urien?" Angaire asked me.
And I replied: "One must always represent."
Then, since the discussion was becoming unbearable for all of us and since thinking exhausted us, we promised not to speak further of the past or argue about things. Morning was approaching; we parted to sleep.
We had lost sight of the coasts and had been sailing on the open sea for three days when we came upon these beautiful floating islands that a mysterious current had been moving toward us for a long time. And our parallel flight in the midst of the incessantly agitated waves at first made us think the Orion motionless, stranded perhaps on the sand, but our illusion vanished when we examined the islands more closely. A boat brought us down to one of them; they were all almost identical and equally spaced. Their regular shape made us think that they were madrepores; they would undoubtedly have been quite flat without the luxuriant and magnificent vegetation that covered them; toward the front the slightly uneven coral reefs, wherever their roots were exposed, were as gray as volcanic stones; toward the rear they floatedlike tresses, their roots reddened by the sea. Trees of unknown species, exotic trees bent under the weight of heavy bindweeds, and delicate orchids blended their flowers with the leafage. These were sea-gardens; flights of insects followed them; pollen trailed along on the waves.
The impenetrable underbrush forced us to walk along the edge of the shore, and often, when branches overhung the water, to crawl between them, clutching roots and vines.
We wanted to remain to the rear for a while and watch the huge insects fly, but the stifling perfumes that arose from the whole island and were carried to us on the wind, the perfumes that were already making our heads swim, would have killed us, I believe. They were so dense that we could see the aromatic dust spiraling upward.
We made our way to the other shore; startled pink flamingos and ibises took flight. We sat down on a coral rock; wind from the sea wafted the perfumes away from us.
The island must not have been very thick, for beneath it, in the deep sea, under the shadow that it cast, we could again see the light. And we thought that each such island must have become detached, like a ripened fruit from its stem; and when they were no longer held fast to the natal rock by anything, then, like insincere actions, they were at the mercy of the waves, borne along by every current.
On the fifth day, to our regret, we lost sight of them.
As soon as the sun had set, we bathed in water that was pink and green; and, since it reflected the sky, it soon became reddish brown. The warm, pacific billows were soft but penetrating. The oarsmen were awaiting us. We climbed back into the boat just as the moon was rising; there was a slight breeze; tacking our sails, we forced the boat into the wind. And sometimes we saw clouds, mauve-colored still, and sometimes the moon. In the silver wake that it left on the calm sea, the oars dug eddies of light; before us, in the wake of the moon, the Orion moved along, mysterious. The moon appeared first behind a mast, then alone—then by morning it had again fallen into the sea.CHAPTER 3
On the seventh day we came upon a sandy shore interrupted by arid dunes. Gabiler, Agloval, Paride and Morgain went ashore; they kept us waiting for twenty hours; they had taken leave of us around midday, and we saw them returning the following morning, running and gesticulating. When they were quite near, Paride shouted to us:
"Let's go," he said. "There are sirens on the island and we have seen them."
After they had caught their breath, while the Orion was sailing at full speed, Morgain related:
"We had walked all day among the blue thistles on the shifting dunes. We had walked all day without seeing anything but the hills that loomed before us, their crests wavering in the wind; our feet were burned by the sand, and the flashing dry air parched our lips and made our eyes smart. (Who can describe your pomp and plenitude, suns of the East, suns of the South on these sands!) When evening came, having reached the foot of a high hill, we felt so tired.... We slept in the sand, without even waiting until the sun had set.
"We did not sleep long; the coldness of the dew awakened us long before the dawn. During the nightthe sands had shifted, and we no longer recognized the hill. We set out once again, climbing always, without knowing wherewe were going, whence we had come, where we had left the ship; but soon behind us appeared the light of dawn. We had reached a very wide plateau—at least it seemed to us very wide at first—and did not realize that we had traversed it until suddenly the plateau ceased and there opened before us a mist-filled valley. We waited. Soon the light of dawn appeared behind us, and as the sun rose the mists disappeared.
"Then it appeared, this prodigious city, not far from us in an immense plain. It was a gold- colored Moslem city with fantastic minarets; flights of stairs led to hanging gardens and, on terraces, mauve palms swayed. Above the town hovered fog banks penetrated by pointed minarets. The minarets were so high that the clouds remained imprisoned by them, looking for all the world like oriflammes, like oriflammes fully distended, without a wrinkle, in spite of the fluid air untroubled by the slightest breeze.
"Such, then, is our uncertainty: before high cathedrals we used to dream of mosque towers; before the minarets today, we dreamed of church steeples, and in the morning air we waited for the angelus. But in the still too cool dawn there was no sound save the unknown tremors absorbed by the empty air; suddenly with the appearance of the sun, a chant went up from a minaret, from the minaret nearest the rising sun—a strange, pathetic chant that almost made us weep. The voices quavered on a piercing note. A new chant resounded, then another; and one by one the mosques awoke melodiously as each was struck by a ray of sunlight. Soon all resounded. It was an uncanny plea brought to an end by a burst of laughter only to begin anew. Like larks, the muezzins answered each other in the dawn. They proffered questions followedby other questions, and the tallest, on the tallest minaret, lost in a cloud, said nothing.
"The music was so wonderful that we were spellbound, enraptured; then, as the voices became lower and softer, we wanted to draw nearer, unconsciously attracted by the beauty of the town and by the moving shadows of the palms. The voices became lower and lower; but as they fell, the city, staggering with the strophe, moved away from us and disintegrated; the slender minarets and palms disappeared; the stairway crumbled; through the discolored terraces of the gardens we saw the sea and the beach. It was a fleeting mirage that fluctuated with the chant. The chant ended, and this marked the end of the spell and of the fanciful city. Our frightfully constricted hearts had seemed on the verge of death.
"A vanishing vision tottering on a trill, a gasping for breath—and then we saw them lying on the seaweeds; they were sleeping. Then we fled, shaking so violently that we could hardly run. Happily we were quite near the ship; we caught sight of it behind a promontory: it alone separated you from the sirens. How dangerous it would have been for you if they had been able to hear you—and we dared not shout until we were quite near you for fear that the noise would awaken them. I don't know how we managed last night to walk so far and advance so little; I believe now that we marked time while these moving hills changed positions under our feet and that this plateau, this valley were but the effect of the spell cast by the sirens."
They tried then through discussion to determine how many sirens there were and marveled over their having escaped from the wily creatures.
"But tell us," said Odinel, "what were they like?"
"They were lying in the sea-weeds," said Agloval, "and their glowing green and brown tresses, which covered them entirely, blended with the vegetation around them; but we ran away too quickly to see them distinctly."
Excerpted from Urien's Voyage by André Gide, Wade Baskin. Copyright © 1964 Philosophical Library, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Philosophical Library.
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