Tuesday, May 26, 2015


James Branch Cabell - Taboo: A Legend Retold from the Dirghic of Sævius Nicanor, with Prolegomena, Notes, and a Preliminary Memoir (1921)

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This is a real curiosity - a satire on censorship done in the form of (faked) classical scholarship from a once-famous, now little-known writer.

Cabell was a Virginia native who generally wrote a type of secondary-world fantasy fiction that attracted the attention of Edmund Wilson, H.L. Mencken, Carl Van Vechten and others.  The "fantasy" designation seems retrospective since his books were published by mainstream presses and not connected to the pulp-based writers formalizing the genre at that time.  (Clark Ashton Smith was a near-contemporary and possibly influenced by Cabell.)  Still, when Lin Carter compiled the landmark Ballantine Adult Fantasy series he included six Cabell novels (which is where I first heard about Cabell, reading Figures of Earth as a teenager and not quite seeing why it was considered fantasy).

Cabell made a splash in 1919 with his early novel Jurgen which quickly resulted in a trial for obscenity on the basis of numerous references to sex, however veiled or clothed in double entendre they were.  He was acquitted but acquired a whiff of scandal that kept his name familiar even as he continued to turn out a prolific list of books.  The decline in his reputation is usually attributed to his works' fantasy elements in a literary world increasingly devoted to realism and to his style's more florid elements when more plain, even blunt writing was on the rise.  In 1956 Edmund Wilson even started a lengthy essay on the author with "Cabell is out of fashion", two years before the latter's death.  The library at Virginia Commonwealth University is named after him and the school's literary magazine is called Poictesme after Cabell's version of medieval France that provides the setting for many novels.

Which brings us to Taboo.  First published in The Literary Review in 1921 shortly after the Jurgen case was decided in Cabell's favor, it was given a separate limited-edition release.  The main section of the text is claimed to be a story recovered from antiquity and is accompanied by the usual scholarly apparatus: a dedication, memoir of the supposed author, a prolegomena, footnotes and postscript.

The most interesting aspect, though, might be the supposed source.  Never heard of Saevius Nicanor?  As it turns out he's not Cabell's invention.  Nicanor was a Roman grammarian and satirist from probably second or third century BC whose work survives only in the merest fragments - a couple of incomplete lines.  We know about this from Suetonius and do you not remember that reference either?  Turns out it's not from Twelve Caesars but from a mostly lost work of Suetonius - a fragment of a fragment.  (And it's worth lamenting in passing the loss of Suetonius' Lives of Famous Whores - the mind boggles at what that could have been like.)  In other words, Cabell assigned his story to a real person but one so obscure that it's implausible for anybody to have recognized that without research.

So all of this aside, what about Taboo itself?  The main text concerns a traveler writing about his journey through Philistia (get it?) where one of their "mad customs" is that the act of eating can not be mentioned.  (Shades of Bunuel's The Phantom of Liberty.)  The traveler obliges but one person he meets shows how the text can be interpreted to reveal eating anyway, a lawyer argues the validity of the restriction, an academic (portrayed as a mummy) declares that older texts about eating don't matter today, and a man in the street is outraged by a mention of eating and attacks the traveler.

If this sounds fairly heavy-handed, well, it is but it's short and does have some (though only some) of the feel of an actual old legend.  And Cabell had just been through a trial for obscenity so he deserved a little victory dance.