One of the peculiarities of Bulwer was his passion for occult studies. They had a charm for him early in life, and he pursued them with the earnestness which characterised his pursuit of other studies. He became absorbed in wizard lore; he equipped himself with magical implements — with rods for transmitting influence, and crystal balls in which to discern coming scenes and persons; and communed with spiritualists and mediums. The fruit of these mystic studies is seen in “Zanoni” and “A strange Story,” romances which were a labour of love to the author, and into which he threw all the power he possessed — power reenforced by multifarious reading and an instinctive appreciation of Oriental thought. These weird stories, in which the author has formulated his theory of magic, are of a wholly different type from his previous fictions, and, in place of the heroes and villains of every day life, we have beings that belong in part to another sphere, and that deal with mysterious and occult agencies. Once more the old forgotten lore of the Cabala is unfolded; the furnace of the alchemist, whose fires have been extinct for centuries, is lighted anew, and the lamp of the Rosicrucian reillumined. No other works of the author, contradictory as have been the opinions of them, have provoked such a diversity of criticism as these. To some persons they represent a temporary aberration of genius rather than any serious thought or definite purpose; while others regard them as surpassing in bold and original speculation, profound analysis of character, and thrilling interest, all of the author’s other works. The truth, we believe, lies midway between these extremes. It is questionable whether the introduction into a novel of such subjects as are discussed in these romances be not an offence against good sense and good taste; but it is as unreasonable to deny the vigour and originality of their author’s conceptions, as to deny that the execution is imperfect, and, at times, bungling and absurd.
It has been justly said that the present half century has witnessed the rise and triumphs of science, the extent and marvels of which even Bacon’s fancy never conceived, simultaneously with superstitions grosser than any which Bacon’s age believed. “The one is, in fact, the natural reaction from the other. The more science seeks to exclude the miraculous, and reduce all nature, animate and inanimate, to an invariable law of sequences, the more does the natural instinct of man rebel, and seek an outlet for those obstinate questionings, those ‘blank misgivings of a creature moving about in worlds not realised,’ taking refuge in delusions as degrading as any of the so-called Dark Ages.” It was the revolt from the chilling materialism of the age which inspired the mystic creations of “Zanoni” and “A Strange Story.” Of these works, which support and supplement each other, one is the contemplation of our actual life through a spiritual medium, the other is designed to show that, without some gleams of the supernatural, man is not man, nor nature nature.
In “Zanoni” the author introduces us to two human beings who have achieved immortality: one, Mejnour, void of all passion or feeling, calm, benignant, bloodless, an intellect rather than a man; the other, Zanoni, the pupil of Mejnour, the representative of an ideal life in its utmost perfection, possessing eternal youth, absolute power, and absolute knowledge, and withal the fullest capacity to enjoy and to love, and, as a necessity of that love, to sorrow and despair. By his love for Viola Zanoni is compelled to descend from his exalted state, to lose his eternal calm, and to share in the cares and anxieties of humanity; and this degradation is completed by the birth of a child. Finally, he gives up the life which hangs on that of another, in order to save that other, the loving and beloved wife, who has delivered him from his solitude and isolation. Wife and child are mortal, and to outlive them and his love for them is impossible. But Mejnour, who is the impersonation of thought — pure intellect without affection — lives on.
Bulwer has himself justly characterised this work, in the Introduction, as a romance and not a romance, as a truth for those who can comprehend it, and an extravagance for those who cannot. The most careless or matter-of-fact reader must see that the work, like the enigmatical “Faust,” deals in types and symbols; that the writer intends to suggest to the mind something more subtle and impalpable than that which is embodied to the senses. What that something is, hardly two persons will agree. The most obvious interpretation of the types is, that in Zanoni the author depicts to us humanity, perfected, sublimed, which lives not for self, but for others; in Mejnour, as we have before said, cold, passionless, self-sufficing intellect; in Glyndon, the young Englishman, the mingled strength and weakness of human nature; in the heartless, selfish artist, Nicot, icy, soulless atheism, believing nothing, hoping nothing, trusting and loving nothing; and in the beautiful, artless Viola, an exquisite creation, pure womanhood, loving, trusting and truthful. As a work of art the romance is one of great power. It is original in its conception, and pervaded by one central idea; but it would have been improved, we think, by a more sparing use of the supernatural. The inevitable effect of so much hackneyed diablerie — of such an accumulation of wonder upon wonder — is to deaden the impression they would naturally make upon us. In Hawthorne’s tales we see with what ease a great imaginative artist can produce a deeper thrill by a far slighter use of the weird and the mysterious.
The chief interest of the story for the ordinary reader centres, not in its ghostly characters and improbable machinery, the scenes in Mejnour’s chamber in the ruined castle among the Apennines, the colossal and appalling apparitions on Vesuvius, the hideous phantom with its burning eye that haunted Glyndon, but in the loves of Viola and the mysterious Zanoni, the blissful and the fearful scenes through which they pass, and their final destiny, when the hero of the story sacrifices his own “charmed life” to save hers, and the Immortal finds the only true immortality in death. Among the striking passages in the work are the pathetic sketch of the old violinist and composer, Pisani, with his sympathetic “barbiton” which moaned, groaned, growled, and laughed responsive to the feelings of its master; the description of Viola’s and her father’s triumph, when “The Siren,” his masterpiece, is performed at the San Carlo in Naples; Glyndon’s adventure at the Carnival in Naples; the death of his sister; the vivid pictures of the Reign of Terror in Paris, closing with the downfall of Robespierre and his satellites; and perhaps, above all, the thrilling scene where Zanoni leaves Viola asleep in prison when his guards call him to execution, and she, unconscious of the terrible sacrifice, but awaking and missing him, has a vision of the procession to the guillotine, with Zanoni there, radiant in youth and beauty, followed by the sudden vanishing of the headsman — the horror — and the “Welcome” of her loved one to Heaven in a myriad of melodies from the choral hosts above.
“Zanoni” was originally published by Saunders and Otley, London, in three volumes 12mo., in 1842. A translation into French, made by M. Sheldon under the direction of P. Lorain, was published in Paris in the “Bibliotheque des Meilleurs Romans Etrangers.”
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