"The Mysteries of Noyon":
Emblem and Meaning in The Enormous Room
W. Todd Martin

[Spring 9 (2000):125-131]

Once Christian, the protagonist of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), enters onto the pathway toward his desired end—the Celestial City—he has only taken the first step. From a theological standpoint, he has yet to be fully initiated into the Christian faith, for while his heart has been softened by Evangelist, he is still acting more out of fear of damnation than out of love for Christ. Because of this, Christian must be indoctrinated into the mysteries of the divine, which are revealed to him in the form of emblems in the House of the Interpreter. Thus, upon exiting the House of the Interpreter, Christian has been instructed in the mysteries of the love and grace of God as well as in the devastation resulting from failure to acknowledge that grace. The cell at Noyon in E. E. Cummings’ The Enormous Room (1922) serves a similar purpose. Having mentioned C’s journey in relation to Christian’s (from "the Slough of Despond, commonly known as Section Sanitaire Vingt-et-un . . ."), Cummings implies that the next stop after Section Sanitaire, the "mysteries of Noyon," corresponds to Bunyan’s House of the Interpreter. C’s reactions to the emblem-like encounters in the cell, particularly the comfort and camaraderie he finds in his three unexpected guests, should cause the reader to infer that the significance of the cell goes beyond mere description or narrative. The emblems portrayed demonstrate Cummings’ full understanding of the design of the source to which he alludes. C is being introduced into the mysteries of what it is to be Alive or to be an IS, even as Christian discovers the doctrines of Christianity in the House of the Interpreter.

Three emblems in the cell receive particular attention and gain a life of their own, capturing the essence of what Cummings will find in the Enormous Room; their importance is emphasized since C identifies them as friends—"My friends:the silhouette and la lune,not counting Ça Pue, whom I regarded almost as a part of me" (The Enormous Room 21). Each of these provides C with a sense of companionship and foreshadows some of the wonderful people whom he will encounter in the Enormous Room. La lune (the moon) does not represent one of the Delectable Mountains, but it is nonetheless a significant reference to four prostitutes in the Enormous Room who demonstrate a determination to live in the midst of hardship; while their bodies are defeated, they refuse to surrender their souls. The silhouette (the rat) is Zulu; he embodies the essence of IS through his friendship. Ça Pue is the Christ-figure, Surplice; covered with excrement, he is a sacrifice, taking upon his own person the filth and stench of those around him.

Looking out of the small window in the cell, C notices the moon, and as he looks at it he is moved to sing: "I sang a song the ‘dirty Frenchmen’ taught us,mon ami et moi. The song says Bon soir,Madame la Lune . . . . I did not sing [end page 125] out loud,simply because the moon was like a mademoiselle,and I did not want to offend the moon" (The Enormous Room 21). The distinction that Cummings makes between Madame and mademoiselle is significant, for Madame not only suggests a married woman, but also a prostitute; mademoiselle, on the contrary, suggests a single woman, a virgin. This distinction echoes the contrast made between les putains (whores) and les femmes honnêtes in the Enormous Room; the former were arrested for practicing prostitution in the war zone and the latter were the wives of some of the men who were imprisoned at La Ferté (The Enormous Room 60). Significantly, following through with his desire to eliminate stereotypical and prejudicial viewpoints that feed the need for conformity, Cummings destroys these distinctions in the portrayal of The Machine Fixer, who initially holds strong convictions about the differences in character between prostitutes and honest women. However, like C, The Machine Fixer is lastingly affected by the heroism demonstrated by les putains, causing him to reconsider his oversimplified moral categories. It is this breakdown of signification that parallels C's hesitation to sing the song out loud. The moon is not fully defined in the character of Madame; its brilliance belies such a constricting definition. [1]

The moon, then, is an emblem of the women found in the Enormous Room, particularly four prostitutes whom Cummings fully develops and who demonstrate the struggles and triumphs of life itself. The most memorable of the four, though, is Celina Tek. Significantly, Thomas Linehan explains that the name "Celina" is derived from Selena, the Greek goddess of the moon, evoking the connection with "Madame la Lune" (Linehan 48-49). [2] Celina is described as "fearlessly alive," demonstrating a sheer determination to live; she is "a kinesis"—she is action personified. Perhaps the most incredible exhibition of strength and courage described by Cummings is her refusal to allow her spirit to be broken. The four women—Lily, Renée, Lena, and Celina—were in cabinot (isolation from the other inmates) together and were being so loud that the guards feared that the Director would be disturbed by the noise. To avoid confrontation, they sealed the cracks in the doors with mats and lit them, waiting to see the results. Soon afterwards, the women began screaming that one of them was dead, so the guards finally opened the door and the women emerged, and in one of the clouds of smoke stood Celina, "erect and tense and beautiful as an angel . . . [she] stood, triumphantly and colossally young" (The Enormous Room 124). Here, she stands in the presence of the Director, Apollyon himself,

who for once had found someone beyond the power of his weapon—Fear, someone in contact with whose indescribable Youth the puny threats of death withered between his lips,someone finally completely and unutterably Alive whom the Lie upon his slavering tongue could not kill. (The Enormous Room 125)

The death to which Cummings refers is not so much physical death as it is the death of the soul. Celina Tek's spirit would not be destroyed; she might have been [end page 126] physically beaten and destroyed, but her soul would live on. In the face of such grandeur of spirit, even the threat of physical death has no power. Raised from the stature of whores, these women take their place among the truly alive who are the models with which Cummings presents his readers.

C evokes the presence of another significant figure by leaving a piece of chocolate on the windowsill: "As I lay on my back,a little silhouette came along the sill and ate that piece of a piece,taking something like four minutes to do so. He then looked at me,I then smiled at him,and we parted,each happier than before" (The Enormous Room 18). The presence of this rat is comforting to C, who later hears but cannot see his newfound friend. This description of the rat anticipates the description of the Zulu, who demonstrates true friendship to both C and B, as well as a few others.

The Zulu's modesty and shyness, according to C, cause him to bestow gifts upon his friends by unique means. He cannot bring himself to give the gifts outright; rather, he prefers that they not seem like gifts at all, in essence making the recipient less uncomfortable upon receiving the gifts. For example, Zulu gives C and B some money to buy cheese, chocolate, and other items from the canteen of La Ferté. Rather than allowing them to give him the goods, Zulu insists that they keep them for him. As C recalls, however, Zulu had an interesting way of asking for a nibble of his purchase:

Now (he said soundlessly), you may if you like offer me a little. We did. Now have some yourselves,The Zulu commanded. . . . Whereupon The Zulu rose up, thanked us tremendously for our gifts, and—winking solemnly—floated off. (The Enormous Room 176)

Likewise, Zulu is described as ephemeral and always unobtrusive—he did not walk off, he "floated off." It is almost as if the quiet shadow of the rat from C's cell were re-embodied in this man who painstakingly desires to repay C for his earlier kindness.

The Zulu represents an ideal that Cummings establishes for himself and for his readers, and we get a hint as to his significance in the title of the chapter that focuses on him. Spelled "Zoo-loo," rather than "Zulu" as in the text, the title stands out, puzzling the reader. However, once C explains how he and B chose the name, the significance begins to come clear. They chose the name Zulu "partly because he looks like what I have never seen,partly because the sounds somehow relate to his personality and partly because they seemed to please him" (The Enormous Room 168). The second reason, the sound of the name, provides a clue as to the full significance of the name itself, for the title of the chapter is the name spelled phonetically. In an essay entitled "The Secret of the Zoo Exposed," Cummings discusses the significance of the animals in the zoo, but he is careful to point out that most misinterpret the word zoo: [end page 127]

Whoever takes the trouble to look it up in a dictionary will find that "zoo" comes from the Greek zoon, meaning "animal." The misapprehension that zoos have to do with animals would appear to be universal. Actually, however, the syllable "zoo" originates in that most beautiful of all verbs, zoo, "I am alive"—hence a zoo, by its derivation, is not a collection of animals but a number of ways of being alive. As Hamlet might have put it: "to zoo or not to zoo, that is the question." ("The Secret of the Zoo Exposed" 174)

The notion of "living" defined above best suits the character of Zulu (Zoo-loo), for Cummings describes him early on as an IS, a form of the verb "to be," to live, reiterated in Cummings’ paraphrase of Hamlet.

Living, for Cummings, includes, among other things, the manner in which Zulu bestows gifts; it is also evident in his concern over a young friend whose desire to impress the girls gets him beat-up more than once; it is perhaps most evident in his kindness to Orange Cap, who is friendless and lonely except for Zulu's kindness. Thus, more than chocolate and cheese, Cummings explains that Zulu gave "that Something whose discovery was worth to me more than all the round and powerless money of the world . . ." —himself, as a friend (The Enormous Room 184).

Even before he encounters the rat or la lune, C finds himself in the presence of something at once revolting and yet at the same time something quite friendly. He finds in the can located next to the window a "new human turd" that he names Ça Pue. After a short period, C admits that he regards Ça Pue with "complete friendliness" (The Enormous Room 20). One of the key reasons for this is that it gives C a sense of companionship; it is an indication of humanity, that he is not alone--as signified by Cummings’ own comparison with the single footprint in Robinson Crusoe. And, C's developing understanding of filth and the way that Cummings develops a relationship between filth and divinity—as explained in David Smith's article—create a relationship between Ça Pue and Surplice. Smith argues that Cummings turns the scatological imagery in The Enormous Room on itself, creating godliness that corresponds to filth. He claims that Cummings uses ". . . images of the erotic, urinary, and excremental to symbolize the most precious mysteries of Christian brotherhood" (124). The human turd that Cummings finds in his cell at Noyon, then, can be seen as a symbol of Surplice, who is described both in name and in deed as a Christ-figure, despite his infatuation with—or, perhaps, tolerance of—human feces.

The name "Surplice" has great significance, for inasmuch as it is the robe of a priest, it is also in the garment of this lowly man that Christ makes his appearance. Surplice is the embodiment of the love of Christ, and this is demonstrated in the role that he plays in the Enormous Room, for he provides the other prisoners with a scapegoat—even as Christ was—on whom they can load all of their anxiety and fears. Cummings notes: [end page 128]

It struck me at the time as intensely interesting that,in the case of a certain type of human being,the more cruel are the miseries inflicted upon him the more cruel does he become toward any one who is so unfortunate as to be weaker or more miserable than himself. Or perhaps I should say that nearly every human being,given sufficiently miserable circumstances,will from time to time react to those very circumstances(whereby his own personality is mutilated)through a deliberate mutilation on his own part of a weaker or already more mutilated personality. I daresay that this is perfectly obvious. I do not pretend to have made a discovery. (The Enormous Room 191-192)

Jeffery Walsh points out that by taunting Surplice and making him do the menial tasks in the Enormous Room, the other inmates are actually degrading themselves "by imitating the actions of their own oppressors" (Walsh 40). But in the Enormous Room, these men have a sacrificial lamb who is not only their sacrifice, but a willing one, who desires to take their inadequacies upon his own back and bear them to make their lives more bearable. For it is especially in the face of such misery that men need to purge themselves of their inadequacies in order to survive.

In spite of the way the others treat him, Surplice always demonstrates a true interest in their lives. C points out that for Surplice, "of nobody can he say My Friend, of no one has he ever said or will he ever say My Enemy" (The Enormous Room 186). And to demonstrate this, Surplice always shows interest in those who leave the walls of La Ferté. No matter who they are, he is always anxious to know if they are going free or if they are going on to Précigné for the duration of the war. He is always pleased at news of the former and disappointed at news of the latter. He is concerned about all and wants them all to be free. This is the embodiment of Christ’s unconditional love.

That love is significant to Cummings' aesthetics is demonstrated in an essay that he wrote as the foreword to a book celebrating the cartoon Krazy Kat. It is the ability to truly love that distinguishes Krazy for Cummings, who sees her as a "living ideal" because of her love:

Let's make no mistake about Krazy. A lot of people "love" because, and a lot of people "love" although, and a few individuals love. Love is something illimitable; and a lot of people spend their limited lives trying to prevent anything illimitable from happening to them. Krazy, however, is not a lot of people. Krazy is herself. Krazy is illimitable—she loves. She loves in the only way anyone can love: illimitably. She isn't morbid and she isn't longsuffering; she doesn't "love" someone because he hurts her and she doesn't "love" someone although he hurts her. She doesn't, moreover, "love" someone who hurts her. Quite the contrary: she loves someone who gives her unmitigated joy. How? By always trying his limited worst to make her unlove him, and always failing . . . [;] our villain's every effort to limit her love with his unlove [end page 129] ends by a transforming of his limitation into her illimitability. ("A Foreword to Krazy" 324-325)

In spite of every attempt Ignatz makes to spoil her love, Krazy continues to love. To love in this manner, as Krazy does, one must have achieved "perfect selfhood," according to Friedman. Only one who can "give freely, only a true individual can love." Unless one has complete faith in himself, he cannot truly love because he needs the person he loves to give him this faith; love, then, becomes a commodity for exchange, and this is ‘love,’ not Love. Real love, Friedman continues, "makes no demands, asks for no rewards, does not seek for control, and covets no possession" (51-52).

This is precisely the kind of love that Surplice demonstrates toward his fellow prisoners. Surplice, as George Peek states, is an "ideal of goodness, an ideal sadly neglected in the modern world. Surplice suffers so that others might ease their burden of existence; he suffers so that others might live--greater love hath no man" (Peek 59). Playing the fool, he is the target of the metaphoric bricks of the other inmates' jeers and ridicule. But like Krazy, he continues to love and care for each of them, always interested in whether they are going free or going to another prison. Inasmuch as Krazy becomes an icon for Cummings' understanding of pure love, Surplice becomes its embodiment in the Enormous Room.

Concluding his essay on Krazy Kat, Cummings states, "Krazy Kat—who, with every mangled word and murdered gesture, translates a mangling and murdering world into Peace and Good Will—is the only original and authentic revolutionary protagonist" (328). If this is true, then Cummings has created another, perhaps not now original, revolutionary protagonist in Surplice—and in Celina Tek and Zulu. And the end result of each of their actions is precisely the goal that Cummings himself hopes to achieve in his works, to create a world of Peace and Good Will by eliminating all of the prejudices that exist. Thus, through these three encounters¾these emblems¾C is initiated into the secrets of what it is to truly live, to be Alive, to be an IS. C may not fully understand the significance of these emblems when he leaves Noyon, but they point him in the right direction; they provide him with clues for finding those who can show him the way to full self-understanding and vitality, the Delectable Mountains. Like Christian, he now has the key to understanding the ideals that make up such a Romantic vision of the world and the individual; more than this, he has been introduced to what is in store for him in the Enormous Room.

—Huntington College, Huntington, IN

[end page 130]


[1] In a letter to his sister, Cummings writes: "#(1) for Christ’s sake,this is utterly important—it is the entire secret to being alive: NEVER TAKE ANYONE’S WORD FOR ANYTHING." He follows this up with a practical example:
    "A)e.g. I am taught to believe that prostitutes are to be looked down on. Before believing that,I will,unless Iam afraid to do it,make the following experiment:I will talk with,meet on terms of perfect equality,without in the slightest attempting to persuade,a prostitute. Through my own eyes and ears a verdict will arrive,which is the only verdict for me in the entire world—unless I take somebody’s word for something,which(because I desire to be alive)I do not" (Selected Letters 84; 85-86).

[2] Linehan focuses specifically on the fact that the name evokes divine, goddess-like implications but does not relate Celina to the moon mentioned in the Noyon episode.

Works Cited

Cummings, E. E. The Enormous Room. New York: Liveright, 1978.

---. "A Foreword to Krazy." E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised, Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: October House, 1965. 323-328.

---. "The Secret of the Zoo Exposed." E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised, Ed. George J. Firmage. New York: October House Inc., 1965. 174-178.

Dupee, F. W. and George Stade. eds. Selected Letters of E. E. Cummings. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1969.

Friedman, Norman. "The Meaning of Cummings." E. E. Cummings: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Norman Friedman. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1972. 46-59

Linehan, Thomas. "Style and Individuality in E. E. Cummings’ The Enormous Room." Style 13.1 (1979): 45-59.

Peek, George S. "The Narrator as Artist and the Artist as Narrator: A Study of E. E. Cummings' The Enormous Room." Forum 17.4 (1976): 50-60.

Smith, David. "The Enormous Room and The Pilgrim’s Progress." E. E. Cummings: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Norman Friedman. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1972. 121-132.

Walsh, Jeffrey. "The Painful Process of Unthinking: E. E. Cummings' Social Vision in The Enormous Room." The First World War in Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Holger Klein. London: Macmillan, 1976. 32-42.

[end page 131]

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