Wednesday 11 June 2008

The Question of Love in Francois Mauriac's Vipers' Tangle - An Essay

Vipers Tangled and Untangled:
The Question of Love

The book Vipers' Tangle by Francois Mauriac is a very interesting story of a family told by the patriarch, Louis, who is embittered and angry at most of his family for most of the novel. The book is called Vipers' Tangle, yet those words do not appear till more than halfway through the book, and they appear five times between then and the end of the book. The reference to a viper's nest, or a tangle of vipers, always is in reference to people's hearts, either Louis referring to his own or to those of his family members.
In order to examine Louis' life as to the question of whether he loved, we will use Henri J.M. Nouwen's definition of love. For Nouwen, a person who experiences love is: "People might call us crazy idealist, an unrealistic dreamer, a first class romanticist, but it does not touch us very deeply because we know with a new form of certainty which we had never experienced before that peace, forgiveness, justice and inner freedom are more than mere words." Through examining changes in Louis's life, we will prove that, based on that criteria, Louis did indeed experience love and a changed heart. We will examine each of the instances of vipers in the book and through them some of the transformation incidences in Louis's life.

When Louis first refers to his heart as a knot of tangles he states: "Oh, above all don
't imagine that I have any very high idea of myself! I know this heart of mine - this heart, this tangle of vipers. Stifled under them, steeped in their venom, it goes on beating under the swarming of them: this tangle of vipers that it is impossible to separate, that needs to be cut loose with a slash of a knife, with the stroke of the sword." Louis is speaking about his heart and he knows that it is tied up in knots and at this point in our story, he does not care about that; in fact, he seems to take some pleasure in it.

In our next occurrence, the Vipers' Tangle has shifted from being Louis's heart to the hearts of his wife, children and grandchildren. He declares: "I had compared my heart with a tangle of vipers. No, no; the tangle of vipers was outside myself. They had gone out of me and rolled themselves together, that night. They formed that hideous circle at the foot of the steps, and the earth still bore their traces." Louis was referring to the family conference he overheard from his dressing room window. Louis heard them conspire to have him committed so they could get their hands on his money. Some interesting questions to consider are: did the vipers move back and forth between Louis and the family throughout the story because of a lack of love? Did they start in Louis and move to the family because of how he treated them, only to return grown and more entangled, to re-infest Louis? Was it a vicious cycle because they all failed to show love to each other?

Next Louis makes reference to the vipers in regards to members of his family, but this time it includes his bastard son, whom he was trying to provide for, and had become ensnared by the rest of the family. He is referring to how his son and son-in-law are enslaving the bastard son by their ensnarement of him. He states how he will crush this brood of vipers: "And I, witness of this struggle, which I alone knew to be useless and futile - I felt like a god, ready to crush these feeble insects in my powerful hand, to grind these entangled vipers under my heel; and I laughed." Here Louis sees the vipers as the family and he plans on destroying them.

Next Louis sees the vipers as a mistake, as a fault, and as something separate from the true nature of his heart; it is part of the turning point in Louis's life. He declares about himself: "I felt, I saw, I had it in my hands - that crime of mine. It did not consist entirely in that hideous nest of vipers - hatred of my children, desire for revenge, love of money, but also my refusal to seek beyond those entangled vipers. I had held fast to that loathsome tangle as though it were my very heart - as though the beatings of that heart had merged into those writhing reptiles." Louis has turned the corner from hate to love; his heart is here opening up again, first by realizing his mistakes, his wrongs and his sins, and he was now going to do something about it.

In t
he first instance that we examined about vipers, Louis was referring to cutting the vipers of his heart; here he finally seeks to make changes and make up for lost time. He declares: "I must not lose a moment in getting to know them, in making myself known to them. Should I have time to put my discovery to the test before I died, I would go straight to the hearts of my children, I would pass through everything that had separated us. The tangle of vipers was at last cut through. I should advance so quickly into their love that they would weep when they closed my eyes." Louis has been transformed and he makes commitments to making changes and transforming his relationships with his children.

These change are the evidence of a rebirth and a renewal in the heart of Louis. Early in this process he states: "Imagine waking up at sixty-eight - being born again on the point of dying! May I be given a few years more, a few months, a few weeks! …" Louis's change is even evidenced in a physical healing: "And I, too - I was isolated; but I was not in pain. Never had my heart given me such a long respite. During this fortnight and well beyond it, a radiant autumn lingered in the world." Louis asks for time to make changes, he has forgiven his family and now, after he has given up the hate and anger in his heart, he finds relief from physical symptoms and ailments that had plagued him for years. His emotional transformation has helped to heal his body.

Therefore, Nouwen has three conditions for true love, which are: truthful, tenderness, total disarmament, and he also states: "If we are willing to believe that wheat can only come to full maturity if we allow the weeds to exist in the same field, we don't have to be afraid of every conflict and avoid every engagement." Louis came to realize this very late in life - he came to understand that and to experience love. He says: "Never had the appearance of other people presented itself to me as something that must be broken through, something that must be penetrated, before one could reach them.
It was at the age of thirty, or at the age of forty, that I should have made this discovery. But today I am an old man with a heart that beats too slowly, and I watch the last autumn of my life."

Louis learned to see people as they were, not as they presented themselves. As such, he learned how to love, for he could love their true selves. And in learning to love himself and others, he can finally grieve for all that he has lost - time, Isa, Luc, Marie and so much more. Thus we must conclude that, yes, Louis did learn how to love, both himself and others.

End Notes:

Nouwen, Henri J.M., Intimacy Toronto: Harper Collins, 1981 p. 29 (Re-Issue)
Mauriac, Francois., Vipers' tangle Garden City, NY, 1957 p.104
Mauriac, Francois., Vipers' tangle Garden City, NY, 1957 p.128
Mauriac, Francois., Vipers' tangle Garden City, NY, 1957 p.141
Mauriac, Francois., Vipers' tangle Garden City, NY, 1957 p.173
Mauriac, Francois., Vipers' tangle Garden City, NY, 1957 p.175
Mauriac, Francois., Vipers' tangle Garden City, NY, 1957 p.169
Mauriac, Francois., Vipers' tangle Garden City, NY, 1957 p.185
Nouwen, Henri J.M., Intimacy Toronto: Harper Collins, 1981 p. 29-30 (Re-Issue)
Mauriac, Francois., Vipers' tangle Garden City, NY, 1957 p.174

(Written for RS 100M Love & Friendship Fall 2006.)

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