What I’m Reading
The Temptation of Saint Antony (1848-1872)
Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)
Translated and with an introduction and notes by Kitty Mrosovsky
Cornell University Press, 1981
To call this strange and marvelous book a novel does it a disservice, especially since we count Madame Bovary, Flaubert’s first (!) novel, among the great works that define the genre, and The Temptation of Saint Antony is as far removed from Madame Bovary as the visions of the epileptic in the midst of a seizure from those of a corporate bureaucrat out for Saturday afternoon golf. Temptation is less a novel than an extended hallucination that takes as its inspiration a passage from The Life of Saint Anthony, the biography of Christianity’s “first” monk (251?-350 C.E.), as written by the fourth century bishop Athanasius. In that famous passage — inspiration for countless painters over the ages, which says a great deal about the trials of the lonely artist — St. Anthony, praying in his cave, is assailed by demons who take forms so fantastic as to put Avatar to shame:
Because of the blows [from the demons, Antony] was not strong enough to stand, but he prayed while lying down. And after the prayer he yelled out, “Here I am — Antony! I do not run from your blows, for even if you give me more, nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ.” . . . Now schemes for working evil come easily to the devil, so when it was nighttime they made such a crashing noise that the whole place seemed to be shaken by a quake. The demons, as if breaking through the building’s four walls, and seeming to enter through them, were changed into the forms of beasts and reptiles. The place immediately was filled with the appearances of lions, bears, leopards, bulls, and serpents, asps, scorpions, and wolves, and each of these moved in accordance with its own form. The lion roared, wanting to spring at him; the bull seemed intent on goring, the creeping snake did not quite reach him; the onrushing wolf made straight for him — and altogether the sounds of all the creatures that appeared were terrible, and their ragings were fierce.
Athanasius’ biography of Saint Anthony is a hagiography in the style of its day, in which the writer consciously fleshed out the details of the life of a famous person as a springboard for advancing a particular point of view.
By way of contrast, Flaubert takes into the hermit’s interior life as he shared his desert cave with few companions other than the jackals and vultures of the desolate mountains of the Sinai Peninsula. Flaubert’s Antony lives on the cusp between terror and grandeur as he views the universe from the vantage point of the Devil’s shoulders. Anyone who has written a novel will understand.
For two hundred pages Antony journeys among Christians condemned to be devoured by beasts, converses with the Queen of Sheba (“her ring-laden hands tipped with nails so sharp that her fingers finish almost like needles . . . a flat golden chain spirals around her blue-powdered hair . . . and clenches over her chest on to a diamond scorpion, which sticks out its tongue between her breasts”), confronts the sorcerer Simon Magus, the Chimera, and the Sphinx, before finally on the last page arriving at his goal:
O happiness! happiness! I have seen the birth of life, I have seen the beginning of movement . . . I feel like flying, swimming, yelping, bellowing, howling. I’d like to have wings, a carapace, a rind, to breathe out smoke, wave my trunk, twist my body, divide myself up, to be inside everything, to drift away with odors, develop as plants do, flow like water, vibrate like sound, gleam like light, to curl myself up into every shape, to penetrate each atom, to get down to the depth of matter — to be matter!
This outburst of joy is followed by a vision of the face of Jesus Christ, “inside the very disk of the [rising] sun.”
The “happiness” that Antony describes is death, in which each of us will indeed “get down to the depth of matter,” as the chemicals that make up our sentient selves decay into their constituent elements (oxygen, nitrogen, calcium . . ..), to be taken up in turn as other forms of life.
As Flaubert understood — and dramatizes through his Antony — the key to accomplishing this philosophical journey from despair to happiness is the achievement of what the Buddhists call “nonduality.” Superficially, the world presents itself to us as self-evidently dualistic:
day / night
good / evil
woman / man
life / death
Wisdom consists of understanding and embracing these apparent dualities as a single, fully integrated, interdependent whole, the unity of being. Or, as the philosopher Professor Godbole says in another solitary’s novel Passage to India (where “India” stands in comfortably for “wisdom”):
Because nothing can be performed in isolation. All perform a good action, when one is performed, and when an evil action is performed, all perform it. . . . When evil occurs, it expresses the whole of the universe. Similarly, when good occurs. . . . Good and evil are different, as their names imply. But . . . they are both of them aspects of my Lord. He is present in one, absent in the other, and the difference between presence and absence is great, as great as my feeble mind can grasp. Yet absence implies presence, absence is not non-existence . . .
Because this is true, Godbole says, we are enabled and entitled to invoke God, the gods, to pray . . . and sure enough, Antony’s visions culminate as he “makes the sign of the cross and returns to his prayers.” Having experienced the supreme ecstasy, he quietly returns to saying his prayers.