The OF Blog: Gustave Flaubert, The Temptation of Saint Anthony

Monday, January 21, 2008

Gustave Flaubert, The Temptation of Saint Anthony

Before I begin looking at the book itself, a few words as to why I chose to review this instead of the half-dozen others I had recently read. Recently, I had an email conversation that dealt with, among a great many other things, works of fantasy that were challenging and which showed some daring to go away from a now "conventional" model. Afterwards, I started to look through my bookshelves and chose a book that I had bought a few months ago at the urging of a very dear friend of mine. It was Gustave Flaubert's 1874 classic, The Temptation of Saint Anthony.

Throw out whatever preconceptions of Flaubert's work you may have garnered from a read of Madame Bovary or Sentimental Education. This is not a Realist work. Far from it. The book reads like a hallucinatory drama/prose work and its language is extremely vivid. The book has a blurb from Sigmund Freud that I think will set the stage nicely for the quotations to follow:

"[The Temptation of Saint Anthony] calls up not only the great problems of knowledge, but the real riddles of life...and it confirms the awareness of our perplexity in the mysteriousness that reigns everywhere."
The English translation of this book is contemporary with the book itself, done by Lafcadio Hearn (himself a rather interesting figure) around 1876, and is written in a style which will appear to be rather ornate to the modern reader, but which contains some excellent renderings of Flaubert's own high style. The story, based on the legenda surrounding the monastic hermit St. Anthony (who lived during the second half of the third century AD) and the various temptations that he faced, has been the subject of Western art for over a millennium now. Flaubert spent over thirty years crafting this story, tossing out elements and altering scenes to fit his own changing opinions regarding what constituted the proper vehicle for approaching this legend steeped in misteria. In the end, Flaubert went with a prose-play form, where in italics, the reader has the "scenes" described at length, before the prose dialogue hits like a thunderclap. Below are some excerpts:

It is in the Thebaid, at the summit of a mountain, upon a platform, rounded off into the form of a demilune, and enclosed by huge stones.

The Hermit's cabin appears in the background. It is built of mud and reeds, it is flat-roofed and doorless. A pitcher and a loaf of black bread can be distinguished within also, in the middle of the apartment a large book resting on a wooden stela; while here and there, fragments of basketwork, two or three mats, a basket, and a knife lie upon the ground.

Some ten paces from the hut, there is a long cross planted in the soil; and, at the other end of the platform, an aged and twisted palmtree leans over the abyss; for the sides of the mountain are perpendicular, and the Nile appears to form a lake at the foot of the cliff.

The view to right and left is broken by the barrier of rocks. But on the desert-side, like a vast succession of sandy beaches, immense undulations of an ashen-blond color extend one behind the other, rising higher as they recede; and far in the distance, beyond the sands, the Libyan chain forms a chalk-colored wall, lightly shaded by violet mists. On the opposite side the sun is sinking. In the north the sky is of a pearl-gray tint, while at the zenith purple clouds disposed like the tufts of a gigantic mane, lengthen themselves against the blue vault. These streaks of flame take darker tones; the azure spots turn to a nacreous pallor; the shrubs, the pebbles, the earth, all now seem hard as bronze; and throughout space there floats a golden dust so fine as to become confounded with the vibrations of the light.

Saint Anthony

who has a long beard, long hair, and wears a tunic of goatskin, is seated on the ground cross-legged, and is occupied in weaving mats. As soon as the sun disappears, he utters a deep sigh, and gazing upon the horizon:

Another day! another day gone! Nevertheless formerly I used not to be so wretched. Before the end of the night I commenced my orisons; then I descended to the river to get water, and remounted the rugged pathway with the skin upon my shoulder, singing hymns on the way. Then I would amuse myself by arranging everything in my hut. I would make my tools; I tried to make all my mats exactly equal in size, and all my baskets light; for then my least actions seemed to me duties in nowise difficult or painful of accomplishment.

Then at regular hours I ceased working; and when I prayed with my arms extended, I felt as though a fountain of mercy were pouring from the height of heaven into my heart. That fountain is now dried up. Why?... (pp. 9-10)
In this opening scene, not only does the reader get a very detailed (almost too detailed, perhaps) picture of the desolate desert, but the careful reader can see in Saint Anthony's opening "monologue" some of the disaffection that will serve as the conduit by which the various temptations sent by Satan shall reach him during the course of the night to follow.

Continuing a bit further, this dissatisfaction with his solitary life and his straining against the yoke of holy servitude that he placed upon himself becomes even more apparent:

Laughing bitterly:

A happy life this indeed! - bending palm-branches in the fire to make shepherds' crooks, fashioning baskets, stitching mats together - and then exchanging these things with the Nomads for bread which breaks one's teeth! Ah! woe, woe is me! will this never end? Surely death were preferable! I can endure it no more! Enough! Enough! (pp. 14-15)
But in this moment of frustration, an interesting act occurs that will play an important symbolic foreshadowing role for later in the book:

He stamps his foot upon the ground, and rushes frantically to and fro among the rocks; then pauses, out of breath, bursts into tears, and lies down upon the ground, on his side.

The night is calm; multitudes of stars are palpitating; only the crackling noise made by the tarantulas is audible.

The two arms of the cross make a shadow upon the sand; Anthony, who is weeping, observes it.

Am I, then, so weak, O my God! Courage, let me rise from here! (p. 15)
Anthony, inspired by this perhaps natural occurrence, goes back into his hut and reads passages of how the Most High exalted his believers upon even the most puissant of monarchs. Stories of how the faithful overcame great obstacles and temptations, from avarice to lust to hubris to each of the other Seven Capital Sins. As Saint Anthony falls asleep, Satan himself materializes out of the desert air and his devils begin a bit of mischief that leads to Anthony awakening and being confronted first by the lust-filled "Queen of Sheba," whom he can barely resist. In the following passage, Satan has assumed the form of a fellow hermit/saint, Saint Hilarion, in order to tempt Anthony to committing the grave sin of heresy:


Hypocrite! burying thyself in solitude only in order the more fully to abandon thyself to the indulgence of thy envious desires! What if thou dost deprive thyself of meats, of wine, of warmth, of bath, of slaves, or honours? - dost thou not permit thy imagination to offer thee banquets, perfumes, naked women, and the applause of multitudes? Thy chastity is but a more subtle form of corruption, and thy contempt of this world is but the impotence of thy hatred against it! Either this it is that makes such as thyself so lugubrious, or else 'tis doubt. The possession of truth giveth joy. Was Jesus sad? Did he not travel in the company of friends, repose beneath the shade of olive trees, enter the house of the publican, drink many cups of wine, pardon the sinning woman, and assuage all sorrows? Thou, thou hast no pity save for thine own misery. It is like a remorse that gnaws thee, a savage madness that impels thee to repel the caress of a dog or to frown upon the smile of a child.


bursting into tears.

Enough! enough! thou dost wound my heart deeply.


Shake the vermin from thy rags! Rise up from thy filth! Thy God is not a Moloch who demands human flesh in sacrifice!


Yet suffering is blessed. The cherubim stoop to receive the blood of confessors.


Admire, then, the Montanists! - they surpass all others.


But it is the truth of the doctrine which makes the martyrdom.


How can martyrdom prove the excellence of the doctrine, inasmuch as it bears equal witness for error?


Silence! - thou viper!


Perhaps martyrdom is not so difficult as thou dost imagine. The exhortations of friends, the pleasure of insulting the people, the oath one has taken, a certain dizzy excitement, a thousand circumstances all aid the resolution of the martyrs...

Anthony turns his back upon Hilarion and moves away from him. Hilarion follows him.

Moreover this manner of dying often brings about great disorders. Dionysius, Cyprian and Gregory fled from it. Peter of Alexandria has condemned it; and the council of Elvira...


stops his ears.

I will listen to thee no longer! (pp. 48-49)
And so it continues, each temptation building upon each other, Saint Anthony assailed more and more with each sharp thrust. Flaubert's story structure lends itself well to creating such highly charged scenes, imaginative in how these temptations are portrayed in both symbolic and literal forms. By the end of this 200 page book, the reader has seen Saint Anthony brought to the cusp of collapsing into concupiscence, only to be granted a last minute reprieve...perhaps. It is this ending (and for any who know the story of St. Anthony, this is no "spoiler," as it takes a close reading of how Flaubert presents this well-known end for the full effect to hit the reader) that left me feeling drained, exhausted, and full of questions and images of what would happen in a similar case. This is an effect that most books lately have not had upon me and it is a rather addictive one, I will admit. I can only hope that those reading this may be persuaded into looking at this somewhat-obscure gem of Flaubert's and to give it a chance. Unsettling works of such a nature as this are none-too-common and perhaps it'll be an intoxicating read for you as well. Most highly recommended.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A very good review of a spectacular work.

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