Month: February 2014
Wilde’s short one act Salomé, does not tell the story of love between man and woman, but rather the narrative of unquenched, dangerous desires. As we discussed the 19th century stereotypes of femininity in a previous class session, Salomé evokes here the prototypical femme fatale. She is beautiful and desirable, yet evil and bewitching. The depiction of Salomé is similar to Delville’s Idol of Perversity and Franz von Stuck’s The Sin, where the female is presented through a veil or in the shadows, as if half present, yet thoroughly dangerous.
As a written play, the reader can only imagine the alluring Salomé, yet her dangeous nature derives not from her beautiful looks, but from her callous desires. A princess, she commands impulsive wishes, never taking no for an answer. She gets what she wants. Her strong character is reminiscent of Raoule in Rachilde’s Monsieur Vénus. Like Raoule, Salomé craves the physical touch of Jokanaan, not an emotional relationship. She fetishizes his body parts, “amorous of thy body […] it is thy hair that I am enamoured of […] it is thy mouth that I desire” (Wilde, 208). Between each switch in obsession, she meticulously describes through similes and imagery, Jokanaan’s body, hair, and mouth. Unable to turn Jokanaan voluntarily, she must conquer him by his death. Her desires must be fulfilled; refusal brings death as its reward.
The final scene, where she seizes the head of Jokanaan sitting on a silver charger, is the culmination of fetishism. This head no longer belongs to a body, to a life. Still, Salomé is capable to speaking to it, kissing it, and owning it. Her victory exemplifies not love as prize, but death as retribution. Again, we may compare this final scene to Monsieur Vénus, where Raoule “embrace[s] it [the wax figure of Jacques], kiss[es] it on the lips [… and] spreads apart the thighs” (Rachilde, 210). Salomé possesses the mouth that once emitted the voice she yearned, but now can no longer speak. There will be no rejection of Salome. Neither the lips that refused her kiss, nor the eyes that avoid her gaze, will survive.
The eyes that Salomé craved in the beginning can no longer see her. This motif of the look and the gaze is prevalent throughout the play. For example, the Young Syrian is “always looking at her [Salomé], looking at her too much” (Wilde, 197). Another pair of eyes that “are always looking at her” is Herod’s. Multiple pairs of eyes on one character focus the reader to take a deeper look at –and into—Salomé. She is the personification of sin, and Wilde invites us to investigate her evil temptations and her malevolent desires.
Unlike Rachilde’s austere and stolid ending, Wilde’s ending is both vigorous and wild. Salomé is in hysterics: She scorns the bleeding head of the mistakes it made by not looking at her, not kissing her, not loving her. This rejection, assuredly a new concept in the life of this princess, promotes her madness. Unlike Jokanaan’s disembodied head that can neither kiss nor gaze, we as readers taste the poisoned lips of Salome and peer into her deranged soul.
-La Dame Jaune
As he attempts to persuade Salomé to dance for him, Herod lapses into a moment of commentary on reading and interpretation: “It is not wise to find symbols in everything that one sees. It makes life too full of terrors. It were better to say that stains of blood are as lovely as rose petals. It were better far to say that…. But we will not speak of this” (225). Despite his view that the interpretation of textual “symbols” is dangerous, Herod’s remark simultaneously invites interpretation of its meaning and metaphors. This push-and-pull effect can be found throughout Salomé, making the analogous activities of interpretation and reading subjects of serious inquiry.
The concept of textual interpretation is enmeshed in Salomé’s structure and plot. On a linguistic level, individual words and even full sentences recur with only slight changes, spoken by a variety of characters; as a result, they seem to transcend their immediate contexts and take on symbolic meanings, calling for analysis in order to be understood. The images of doves (195), flowers (200), and “a woman who is dead” (195) reappear throughout the text, referring both to Salomé and to other characters and entities (for instance, the moon); likewise, the various characters’ admonitions to one another “not to look at” Salomé are repeated so often that they are nearly hypnotic (200). To match this writing style that seems to beg for interpretation, many episodes within the play can be viewed as exercises in literary analysis, seeking to interpret yet never achieving consensus or clear understanding. One example is that of the Jews, who fail to reach an agreement on whether “God is…hidden” and “how God worketh,” instead offering multiple conflicting “readings” of an opaque, text-like deity (215).
The play’s characters likewise serve as symbols to be interpreted and artistic objects to be analyzed, doubling as independent texts situated within the larger text of Wilde’s play. Like Wilde’s language itself, they both demand interpretation and push it away; other characters clamor for an almost authorial knowledge of these character-symbols, seeking to understand their words and “see” them fully (199), while the character-symbols recognize their allure as textual objects and manipulate it in their interactions with others. Jokanaan represents the unreadable written word, the enigmatic symbol that deliberately rejects attempts at interpretation. The First Soldier notes early in the play that “it is impossible to understand what [Jokanaan] says” (199), quickly establishing Jokanaan as an object of failed analysis; later, Jokanaan himself rejects his potential “reader” Salomé’s efforts to understand his words, stating that “[i]t is not to her that [he] would speak” (206). Yet if Jokanaan denies the possibility of a reader understanding a symbol, Salomé deliberately tempts her prospective “reader” with the false promise of knowledge. Playing on her position as an eternal object of sight, she persuades Narraboth to do her bidding by assuring him that she “will look at [him] through the muslin veils,” bridging the gap between symbol and interpreter and offering him the personal understanding he seeks (203).
If these characters, linguistic features, and plot events typically demand interpretation only to reject it, I wonder if it might be possible to link the protagonist’s death at the end of the play to her upending of this paradigm. Although Jokanaan refuses to provide his potential “readers” with the ability to interpret or comprehend his language, his death grants Salomé full power over his body. Consequently, she gains a nearly authorial control over this previously inscrutable textual symbol. Not only can she “do with it what [she] will” (234), but she can project her own thoughts and predictions onto it: “If thou hadst looked at me thou hadst loved me. Well I know that thou wouldst have loved me” (236). In doing so, she usurps Jokanaan’s intentionality as a “writer” of his own symbolic self and gains an unprecedented level of power as a reader and writer within the play. I’m curious whether it might be this new power that makes her “monstrous” in Herod’s eyes, and which leads him to order her death (236).
Wilde, Oscar. Salomé. Trans. Lord Alfred Douglas. 1894. Aesthetes and Decadents of the 1890s: An Anthology of British Poetry and Prose. Ed. Karl E. Beckson. 2nd ed. Chicago: Academy Chicago, 1981. 194-237.
Word Count: 678
The Moon as a Mirror of Salomé
The presence of the moon in Salomé is hard to ignore: Oscar Wilde is basically hitting you over the head with it. The importance and meaning of it; however, are much more subtle. In the fascinating article, “Salomé, the Moon and Oscar Wilde’s Aesthetics: A Reading of the Play,” the authors, Joost and Court, posit that the moon in Salomé is a Wildean creation and that it effectively works as a mirror of the eponymous character, reflecting back to each character (including herself) their subjective idealized version of her. To Herod, for example, the moon appears as “quite naked” and “reeling like a drunken woman,” which is precisely how he wishes Salomé to be. Salomé, on the other hand, sees the moon as white and chaste which is the way she wishes to think of herself– it represents the idealized version she has of herself. The authors also argue that it is the threat that Jokanaan poses to this idealized version of herself that compelled Wilde to change the story from that of the Bible and have Salomé ask for the head out of her own will as opposed to at the behest of her mother. Wilde wanted to show that Salomé, herself, wanted to end Jokanaan due to this threat. She is the femme fatale (96-102.)
The Difference between Wilde’s Salomé and the Salomé of the Bible
Dierkes-Thrun points out this agency and independence on the part of Salomé in the Introduction to her book, Salomés Modernity (1-2.) In his article, “Distance, Death and Desire in Salomé,” Donohue points out another important difference between Wilde’s play and the Bible’s account of the story. In the Bible, Salomé agrees to dance for Herod and he then offers her anything she’d like. In Wilde’s play; however, Herod asks her to dance for him and offers to give her anything she’d like and then Salomé agrees to dance with him (125.) In my opinion, this change in sequence was made with the purpose of showing that Salomé was conniving– she danced knowing full well what she would get and then actually asked for it. The fact that, in contrast to the Bible, Wilde’s Salomé asks for the head under her own steam and not at the behest of her mother also serves to illustrate this willfulness and adds to this willful characterization the agency needed to carry out her caprices.
Reception and Controversy around Salomé
Unfortunately, many people did not see these two marked differences as proof of an original undertaking. Donohue also points out that many people, particularly in Britain, accused Wilde of plagiarism (123.) More importantly, however, Lord Chamberlain’s Examiner of Plays, E.F.S. Pigott, denied a license for performance on the basis of a prohibition against Biblical characters on the stage (118.) As Dierkes-Thrun points out, however, this was a law from the 16th Century that was rarely enforced. Furthermore, Pigott privately admitted in a letter that he was much opposed to the mixture of female sexuality and Biblical blasphemy calling the work, “half biblical, half pornographic” (4.) Unfortunately, this had sad consequences for Wilde. Due to the ban, the actress he wanted to play Salomé and who had originally agreed to do so, Sarah Bernhardt, backed out ( Donohue118.) The play was finally put on in 1896 in Paris while Wilde was serving for his conviction on “acts of gross indecency” (Donohue 119.) The play became well known on the continent and was especially well received in France by the public and by the intellectualls but the British kept ignoring it (Donohue 119-122.) It is this difference in reception, in the understanding of his work that compelled Oscar Wilde to declare that he would much rather be a French citizen (Dierkes-Thrun 5.)
Aubrey Beardsleys’ Climax, for Salomé (1894.)
1. Joost and Court point out that the moon is not only a mirror of Salomé, it shows people her mask.They cite the Tetrarch who says “Only in mirrors is it well to look, for mirrors do but show us masks” (98.) In this play we see an added layer of illusions: mirrors. Do they allow us to see the truth better or do they simply allow us to see the truth of how we perceive the person? In other words, do they infringe on our access to objective perceptions about others but give us access to our true subjective perceptions of them? Sometimes, the way we see a person or the way we want a person to be is hard to come to terms with. Does the added layers of the mirror that reflects some of us back to us but also shows us the masks of others in this light allow us to come to terms with these facts?
2. Throughout the play, the moon and Salomé are referred to almost interchangeably. This has the effect of ambiguity: in some cases it is really not clear which of the two a particular character is referring to. In the French, this ambiguity would have been further reinforced by the use of the gendered pronoun “elle” which could refer to both Salomé or the moon, as it is a feminine noun. Even in the English this ambiguity can be observed to some extent. The moon, for example, is personified, she is referred to as a dancing princess (583, 588) and as a woman in various instances. The Princess, on the other hand, is described as pale (584, 593) and as rising (585.) How does this contribute the idea that the moon is a mirror or mask of Salomé? Does the excessive similarities between the two weaken or strengthen this thesis? How does it influence our understanding of Salomé?
3. Joost and Court also point out that Salomé is literally a lunatic play in which its characters, including Salomé, are driven mad by the moon (99.) I would posit, however, that Salomé drives every other character mad and that the moon only drives her mad. This can be evidenced by the fact that the Young Syrian has the first line in the play in which he looks at Salomé before the moon is mentioned (583) and by the fact that Herod calls for Salomé before he sees the moon (586.) Salomé, on the other hand, first observes the moon and the idealized version of herself she sees reflected in it and then starts acting strangely (586.) What significance does this have for the influence of the moon in the play? Does it only affect the other characters indirectly, through the influence of Salomé? Or does the influence it has on Salomé parallel (mirror) the influence Salomé has on the other characters?
4. Following from this influence she has on the different characters, Salomé definitely is a femme fatale. She causes the death of two men (one who was feared even by the king) and manages to make the king act completely against his will. She doesn’t have the same influence over her mother, for example, a female character. Joost and Court point out that Herodias is the only character who does not reflect her perception of Salomé onto the moon because she knows who she really is (98.) Is Salomé able to become a femme fatale and wreak the havoc she does because of the masking effect the moon has, because the male characters are able to lie themselves into ignoring her true nature simply by reflecting the qualities they want of her onto the moon?
5. The biographer Richard Ellman, in his book Oscar Wilde, theorizes that there is an autobiographical element to be found in Herod (90.) Although this is not a theory I think I can pursue with my limited knowledge of Wilde’s life, I would like to use this idea to explore the possibility of seeing Herod as a sympathetic character. Yes, Herod is a lusty old man that blatantly desires to sleep with the young daughter of his wife. But he can also be see as a man that is bewitched by a desire that is not allowed to him by society. He can be seen as a man that is so bewitched that he gives up his agency to see the desire fulfilled to a very small degree. He is also a man that then has the unattainable object of his desire cause him to destroy her. Seen in this light, the misfortunes that befall Herod in this play are tragic. Can he be seen as a sympathetic character? Do you feel sympathetic for him?
Dierkes-Thrun, Petra. Salome’s Modernity : Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetics of Transgression. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011.
Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. 1st American ed. New York: Knopf , 1988.
Joost, Nicholas and Franklin E. Court. “Salomé, the Moon and Oscar Wilde’s Aesthetics: A Reading of the Play. PLL 8 Suppl. (1972): 96-111.
Raby, Peter. The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Wilde, Oscar. Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. 5th ed. Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2003.
Circumstances of composition:
By the time of his 1891 return to Paris, Wilde had established himself as a successful man of letters and was a frequent guest of ascendant French poet Stephane Mallarme. Wilde’s presence at Mallarme’s mardis, colloquia of French literary luminaries, signaled his arrival to the ranks of the literary elite and provided him with a cadre of preeminent French writers (Marcel Schwob, Pierre Louys, and Andre Gide were his closest friends in Paris) whom he would soon consult during Salome’s composition. The topic of Salome held interest not only for Wilde but also for many of Mallarme’s associates; Wilde was the beneficiary of having been surrounded by some of the greatest French literary minds of the time who also happened to share interest in Salome. Wilde, Ellman writes, “pervaded Paris.” He was the “great event” of French literary salons, remarkable for his promiscuous consumption of opium-tinctured cigarettes and absinthe. Most salient, thought, was the extent of Wilde’s interest in Salome: he was nothing short of consumed. He held a knowledge of Salome iconography that was close to comprehensive and was reported to talk every day about her–women in the streets assumed her figure, and jewelry in shopfronts he imagined decorating her body. Wilde’s focus was singular. His treatment of Salome, however, was not originally conceived of as a work of theatre. First he experimented with prose, then verse, and then, one night after telling his rendering of Salome’s story to a salon of young French writers, wrote the story as a play. Even then, as a play, it was not necessarily a work of theatre; Wilde was initially reluctant to put the play on stage. Eventually, however, perhaps out of a desire to best Mallarme or to cast Sarah Bernhardt as the eponym, it was staged (Ellman). On the whole, it is important to understand Salome as a work composed in Paris with the aid and encouragement of a consortium of French writers.
Wilde’s Salome in context: the heritage of the story of Salome:
Wilde was not the first to treat the story of Salome. Indeed, his rendition is one among a legacy of works by such writers as Heinrich Heine, Gustave Flaubert, Mallarme, Jules Laforgue, and Joris-Karl Huysmans. The story’s ultimate provenance is found in the gospels of Mark and Matthew, but Wilde’s Salome bears little resemblance: the tradition he inherited had expanded on the gospels so liberally that the story had become “fundamentally transformed” (Thrun 15). Wilde drew especially from Mallarme’s dramatic poem “Herodiade.” Mallarme is responsible for the recasting of the story of Salome as that of her “search for ideal beauty” and, more basically, for establishing Salome (Herodiade in Mallarme’s poem) as the central figure (Thrun 17). It is in “Herodiade” that such modernist points of interest as “existential isolation, human alienation, and rebellious modern individualism” take form, and it was under Mallarme’s framework of modernity that Wilde composed his account of the Salome story. But where Mallarme’s Herodiade remained mired in stasis, “a passive, artificial, self-absorbed, and conflicted figure,” Wilde’s Salome, with her shocking and resolute decision, “suggests the possibility of an individually-willed escape from the deadening ennui of Herod’s court” (Thrun 25). Wilde, then, is more optimistically disposed toward the human condition in modernity, more willing to embrace transgression as an appealing and worthy alternative to conformity to a stultifying morality .
Wilde also drew influence from Flaubert, who introduced Wilde to the idea of lust as a compelling analog to desire for the divine. In the historical novel Salammbo and prose poem The Temptation of Saint Anthony sexual desire and religious experience often intermingle. The Queen of Sheba tempts Anthony in Temptation and Salammbo’s entreaties to the goddess of fertility are couched in terms of the sex act–the prevailing image is that of an orgasm (Thrun 26). Wilde develops this trope in Salome. Her desire, unlike that of Flaubert’s characters, is absent of a metaphysical character: she wishes to join herself only physically, not spiritually, to the prophet. Found in Saint Anthony is a prefiguration of sorts of the conflict in Salome. At play is the tension between asceticism and concupiscence that drives so much of the intrigue of Salome. The Queen, like Salome, is at once the “heartbroken lover and the ruthless femme fatale,” and is that which tempts a religious figure. In Wilde, however, the paradigm is reconstructed (Thrun 29). His world is “post theological,” one which in the transcendence previously associated only with religion is obtainable through aesthetic and erotic transgression (Thrun 34).
In Huysmans’ A rebours Wilde found inspiration for Salome’s “smoldering sensuality and ruthless femme fatale qualities” (Thrun 34). Huysmans’ Salome was a “goddess of hysteria,” something of an antithesis to Mallarme’s conception of Salome as virginal and innocent. Des Esseintes in A rebours is transfixed by Moreau’s depiction of Salome. The paintings, and perhaps even the state they conjure in Des Esseintes, are a “mixture of sexual transgression and quasi-metaphysical sublimity” that hold similarity to the ecstasy of Salome’s kissing the prophet’s severed head. Des Esseintes achieves a kind of metaphysical ecstasy that is absent of a religion–it is purely aesthetic–in much the same way Salome’s climactic moment is not spiritual, but physical (Thrun 37). The “aesthetic ideal,” has been set as the equivalent “to the religious one” (Thrun 38).
Salome’s final monologue can be understood as the quintessence of aestheticism. She, in the words of Walter Pater, “‘burns with this hard, gem-like flame’,” and has, at least for a moment, lived in a complete ecstasy that is, again, notable in its absence of a traditional morality. It not despite of transgression, but because of it, that in Wilde’s Salome transcendence is achieved (Thrun 45). Nowhere is more apt Marx’s pithy statement: “all that is solid melts into air.”
Moreau’s Salome: http://m.flikie.com/wallpaper/download?paperId=33575132
1. What fruit does an examination of Salome in light of our knowledge of the Queen of Sheba in Temptation bear? As noted above, there is unusual dichotomy at play: they are vulnerable, desirous, but also dangerous, embodiments of the femme fatale. What is the definition of femininity that is advanced–is there even one?
2. In Salome’s ecstatic final monologue she speaks of Jokanaan’s head as a “ripe fruit”; she is “hungry” for his body; his voice was “a censer that scattered strange perfumes” (Wilde 604). Her desire is couched in terms of the senses in a way that evoked the experiences of Des Esseintes in his palace of fine taste. Is it valid to assert that Salome and Des Esseintes have very similar goals–transcendence through a moment of complete aesthetic ecstasy?
3. Is Wilde’s Salome an optimistic play? Does Salome successfully come to terms with her existential isolation, or is Wilde’s alternative to the framework of morality he resists unsatisfying?
4. Often in Salome it is mentioned that Salome is being observed: by Herod, by the young Syrian. But he by whom Salome wishes most to be observed, Jokanaan, refuses. “I do not wish to look at thee,” he says (Wilde 591). Is the act of looking transgressive? Again it seems that a reference to Des Esseintes, who spends so much of his time observing, is productive. (Note: on 604, Herod cries, “I will not look at things, I will not suffer things to look at me.”)
5. Why is Salome so attracted to Jokanaan? Like the attraction of Raoule for Jacques, Salome’s desire for the prophet is seemingly unaccountable. He is remarkably unprepossessing and yet she is consumed by her desire. What should we make of this?
Thrun, Petra. Salome’s modernity: Oscar Wilde and the aesthetics of transgression. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011. Print.
Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. Markham, Ont.: Viking, 1987. Print.
In Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony, one of the important themes in the second half of the novel is the separation between Absolute being and the physical form. Specifically this relates the dualism of form in the Christian religion. In this novel specifically, Flaubert uses the example of gender as a way to question the role of form in determining truth.
For example, a god is described by Flaubert as “beardless, young, more beautiful than a girl, and covered with diaphanous veils,” indicating his feminine and therefore androgynous sexuality. He is also described as having an accessory of a tiara, whose pears “gleam softly like moons;” (119). Moon imagery also points to a feminization of the male figure, as it is associated with Diana. Flaubert ties in this melding of the sexes with a philosophical question of form versus knowledge. Hilarion remarks after the god’s description that “Such is the primordial duality of the Brahmans,—the Absolute being inexpressible by any form.” Form therefore cannot contain absolute truth. The god defies form as Flaubert writes: “From the navel of the god has grown the stem of a lotus flower; it blossoms, and within its chalice appears another god with three faces” which are the combined Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The god is turned female, with the procreative capabilities of the ‘chalice,’ and similarly his form is warped with the growth of the lotus flower.
Flaubert also includes the theme of de-sexing in the novel, as many male figures tear their genitalia, therefore destroying the boundaries between the male and female form. For example, the Buddha prophesizes that all will be destroyed, and then “a great dizziness comes upon the gods. They stagger, fall into convulsions, and vomit forth their existences. Their crowns burst apart; their banners fly away. They tear off their attributes, their sexes” (126). The act of tearing off the sex acts as a dissolution of the gendered form, which is paired with Buddha’s earlier remark that he learned “the essence of things, the illusion of form” (123). The form of the gods is therefore an illusion, just as their sex was.
A further example of emasculation occurs when Atys tells Cybele of his envy of her feminine traits. He says “it is no longer possible for me to penetrate they essence. Would that I might cover myself with a painted robe like thine. I envy thy breasts, welling with milk, the length of they tresses, thy flanks that have borne and brought forth all creatures. Why am I not thou?—Why am I not a Woman?—No, never! Depart from me! My virility fills me with horror! With a sharp stone he emasculates himself and runs furiously from her, holding his severed member aloft. The priests imitate the god; the faithful do even as the priests. Men and women exchange garments, embrace;—and the tumult of bleeding flesh passes away” (135). In this episode, gender is overtly destroyed, and both sexes exchange clothing, showing a blending of form.
Flaubert connects the disintegration of traditionally gendered bodies with a discussion of the relationship between matter and thought, when Anthony remarks: “But Substance being unique, wherefore should forms be varied? Somewhere there must be primordial figures, whose bodily forms are only symbols. Could I but see them, I would know the link between matter and thought; I would know in what Being consists” (179). In this passage Anthony connects the duality between body and soul with the idea of form and symbol, as the forms that he takes for physical truth and matter are only symbolic. This idea is related to discussion of whether gender is constructed through symbols and language, or through the material bodily form.
Gender roles are further made irrelevant in the novel through literal disintegration and fragmentation of form. For example, the Nisnas “have only one eye, one check, one hand, one leg, half a body, half a heart. They say “We live quite in our halves of houses, with our halves of wives and our halves of children” (183). This passage indicates a divided body, not unlike an exaggerated form of Plato’s conception of gender in The Symposium. Here, male and female are themselves divided into mere body parts, therefore making the initial formal gender labels obsolete. This is similar to the rending of Osiris’s body into his different ‘members’ as Isis says “Hideous Typhon the red-haired slew him, tore him in pieces! We have found all his members. But I have not that which rendered me fecund!” (138). His disintegrated form is missing his penis, showing that gender is obsolete when the body is fragmented.
Disintegration of form is also seen in the transformation of gods beyond a changing gender. As Flaubert writes, “And among these gods are the Genii of the winds, of the planets…multiple are their aspects, rapid their transformations. Behold! There is one who changes from a fish into a tortoise: he assumes the form of a boar, the shape of a dwarf…That he may preserve the equilibrium of the universe, and combat the works of evil. But life exhausts itself; forms wear away; and they must achieve progression in their metamorphoses” (121). The dissolution of form in this passage therefore is offset by the progression in the multiplicity of continual metamorphosis. The transformation of forms in this passage relates to the end passage of creation at the end of the novel, where Saint Anthony vows that he himself wants to transform into all matter:
“And then the plants become confounded with the stones. Flints assume the likeness of brains; stalactites of breasts; the flower of iron resembles a figured tapestry…O joy! O bliss! I have behind the birth of life…Would that I…could breath out smoke, wield a trunk, —make my body writhe,—divide myself everywhere,—be in everything…—assume all forms—penetrate each atom—descend to the very bottom of matter,—be matter itself! (190).Here, forms become blended together at the point of creation, as matter is all that exists. Anthony therefore wishes to divide himself and break down the boundaries of form.
Ultimately the discussion of the gendered form of humans is combined with Saint Anthony’s search for god. In his discussion with the devil, the devil says “For He is the only being, the only substance. If the Substance could be divided, it would not be the Substance, it would lose its nature: God could not exist. He is therefore indivisible as infinite;—and if he had a body, he would not be composed parts, he would not be One—he would be infinite. Therefore he is not a Person!” (167). Therefore, God, Anthony’s ultimate image of truth, cannot be contained within form. Therefore absolute knowledge, just like gender, is also unable to be bound by form.
-Nora (1137 words)
Part I: Background and Analysis of Odilon Redon’s “The Temptation of Saint Anthony”
Odilon Redon (1840-1916) was born in Bordeaux, France, and studied art in Paris. (Cotter, 2005) Redon was an avid reader of Decadent era authors Baudelaire, Edgar Allan Poe, and Flaubert in his youth, spending much of his time in solitude. In Paris, he developed an individual style, becoming best known for his charcoal sketches and lithography. His art, heavily inspired by his childhood in the countryside as well as gothic folklore, was distinct in that “instead of choosing between imagination and mimesis, fantasy and nature, Redon deployed one to get the other” (Hauptman, 24). When describing his artistic philosophy, Redon writes: “It is only after making an effort of will to produce a meticulous depiction of a blade of grass, a stone, a branch, a bit of old wall, that I feel almost tormented to create something imaginary” (25). Gustave Flaubert’s novel “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” is characterized by a scintillating imagery of all things fantastical, serving to illustrate an intense religious and moral critique: due to this, it is not surprising that it caught Redon’s artistic taste.
When The Temptation of Saint Anthony was published, Redon was immediately shaken by the intense characters and images described by Flaubert. He commented on the novel: “It is a literary marvel and a mine for me” (Dickey). In 1888, Redon decided to release a collection of ten lithographs illustrating Flaubert’s novel. The novel easily resonated with Redon’s style: as an artist concerned with nature, the grotesque and the fantastic, Flaubert’s supernatural scenes were a treasure trove of artistic inspiration. As art historian Stephen F. Eisenman comments, “Like Flaubert, Redon saw himself as unique, an accident, a monster, and all the more remarkable an artist for these very reasons” (Eisenman, 25).
Cover of Lithograph Collection, “The Temptation of Saint Anthony: Illustrations” By Odilon Redon. (MoMA)
In the collection of lithographs “The Temptation of Saint Anthony”, Redon transposes certain images of the text into black and white marks on paper. Each image is captioned with a direct quote from Flaubert’s novel, describing the exact scene being illustrated. His images “read like anagrams,” inviting the viewer to “create order out of the apparent chaos” (Eisenman, 25).
“Saint Anthony: Beneath her long hair, that covered her face, I thought I recognized Ammonaria.” To Gustave Flaubert, 1889. (Wilder, 2012).
In the image above, Redon depicts Ammonaria, the virgin who suffers martyrdom in his hallucination of Alexandria. This image was not in the original portfolio “The Temptation of Saint Anthony,” but published later in a larger volume of prints titled “Dedicated to Gustave Flaubert” in 1889. Redon created ten separate proofs of this image, highlighting its importance. (The Fitzwilliam Museum) This image truly exhibits Redon’s mastery in the use of light and shadow, as well as an ability to capture Flaubert’s scene in a moment in time. Eisenman describes this piece as an “odd stillness which obscures the exact nature of the depicted action. Is the tormentor bringing back the flagellum or casting it forward? Does the woman recoil from the blows or turn expectantly to receive them? Do we receive an ambient of pain or desire?” (216) These questions immediately bring up Flaubert’s thematic concerns of sin, guilt, violence, and self-inflicted pain.
Decadence can be “described as a series of refusals: of the visible world, of religious faith, of love, of community, of nature,” causing artists to turn instead to “the exquisite refinements of sensation.” (Hauptman, 23). Odilon Redon is invariably presented as an artist of this era, a creator of those soul-wrenching images that touch upon these refusals. Incidentally, Decadent Joris-Karl Huysmans, prior to the release of Au Rebours, writing at the time, reviewed the collection of Lithographs in his work “Le Salon” of 1879:
“Another artist has recently come forward and offered to France the painting of the fantastic; I wish to speak of M. Odilon Redon. Here is the nightmare transposed into art. Plunged into a macabre milieu, imagine somnambulistic characters, twisted with fear, having a vague kinship to those of Gustave Moreau, and perhaps you will have an idea of the bizarre talent of this most singular artist.” (Eisenman, 102)
Huysman was so roused by this collection, that he later “paid homage to Odilon Redon in his classic novel Au Rebours, in which the main character Des Esseintes collects prints by Redon… A move that helped catapult Redon into the mainstream [of the Decadent movement].” Huysman’s praise did not go unreciprocated; after reading Au Rebours, Redon released a lithograph titled “Des Esseintes,” depicting this antihero of decadence in black and white (Dickey).
There is a certain darkness that defines Redon’s depictions of St. Anthony’s visions. Unlike the past artistic interpretations of the Temptation of Saint Anthony, these sketches plumb specific moments of the sensual, phantasmagorical experience of Saint Anthony’s night in the desert. In the image below, Redon captures the moment in which Anthony questions the Devil on the purpose of God. The chalk-white face of the Devil is cocked at an unnerving angle, appearing to stare intently at something behind the spectator. The inscrutability of the Devil’s expression captures the ambiguity of his aims; is he merely challenging Saint Anthony’s beliefs, or is there a stronger reason behind his critiques, perhaps rooted in truth?
“Saint Anthony: What Is the Purpose of All This? The Devil: There Is No Purpose!”, by Odilon Redon from his “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” (Dickey).
The hair and shadow behind the Devil melts into the shaded figure of Saint Anthony, in contemplation behind the Devil. While the Devil’s facial features are clearly defined, Anthony’s expression is blurred in gray shading. Emile Hennequin, a young admirer of Redon’s, accurately captured this unsettling quality in his description of the collection as “a treasure of dreams and suggestions which should be used cautiously.” These dreams and suggestions seem to lie in the obscure expressions of Flaubert’s characters.
“And in the same disc of the sun shines the face of Jesus Christ,” Odilon Redon. Plate X in The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1888. Lithograph. (Wilder).
The tenth and final image of Redon’s original collection is the depiction of the last scene of The Temptation of Saint Anthony: “Even in the midst thereof, and in the very disc of the sun, beams the face of Jesus Christ. Anthony makes the sign of the cross, and resumes his devotion” (Faubert, 191). And thus, the novel is finished, leaving us with a vast sense of contradiction; is the nightmare truly over? Can Anthony go back to his previous life of ascetiscism, even after this night of unholy terrors and religious challenge? Redon illustrates this jarring image of Jesus Christ as a sun in the midst of a brooding, explosion-like black shadow. This intense black radiating from the sun inevitably taints the image with a feeling of mystery and uncertainty, a feeling akin to what the reader is left with at the end of the novel.
Part 2: Discussion Questions (Part 2 of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, pg. 115-191)
1. When the Goddess of Idean appears, the faithful band of followers begins a worshipping frenzy, which quickly transforms into a scene of self-flaggellation, and the sacrifice of a lamb: “She is sorrowful, let us be sorrowful! Our suffering is necessary in order to please her! Thereby your sins will be remitted. Blood purifies all– flings its red drops abroad like blossoms!” (134). While he says nothing of this, when the lamb is being sacrificed, Anthony is “siezed with horror.”
Why does he seem to recognize the slaying of the lamb as a more barbaric sacrifice than self-flagellation? Does this serve to point out the hypocrisy of his beliefs? Is he unable to see fault or sin in self-inflicted pain?
2. Caught in a whirlwind of these indulgent pagan Gods, Anthony laments sorrowfully of the “souls that may have been lost to these false Gods.” (141) Hilarion in response, states: “But luxury, in its greatest fury, has all the disinterestedness of penitence. The frenzied love of the body accelerates the destruction thereof– and proclaims the extent of the impossible by the exposition of the body’s weaknesses.” Hilarion seems to accept that by putting a premium on the body, degeneracy is inevitable. However, is the appreciation and celebration of the physical, the exposition to sensory pleasures, not also a means for vulnerability? How does this challenge Anthony’s idea of vulnerability? If one can commit penitence through the flesh, why can one not commit sin through the flesh?
3. The Devil tells Anthony: “But evil and good concern only thee– even like the night and day, pleasure and pain, death and birth, which are relative only to one corner of space, to a special centre, to a particular interest.” He pushes even further, stating: “The knowledge of things come only to thee through the medium of thy mind. Even as a concave mirror, it deforms the objects it reflects, and thou hast no mean whatever of verifying their exactitude.” (168) The Devil’s assertions go back to Plato’s Theory of Forms– essentially, he seems to tell Anthony that he will always be chained inside the cave, living in a subjective reality. Have all of Anthony’s ant-temptation thoughts and actions throughout the nightmare been in vain? Is the presence of his doubt a confirmation that he has already inherently been tempted? How does this relate back to Hilarion’s accusation of his chastity as corruption?
4. At the very end of the novel, an intertwining of Lust and Death occurs, creating a fantastical creature: “It is a skull, crowned with roses, dominating the torso of a woman nacreously white. Below, a shroud starred with specks of gold forms something of a tail, and the whole body undulates, after the fashion of a gigantic worm erect on end.” (178) Anthony recognizes this creature as “The Devil yet again, under his twofold aspect: The spirit of fornication, and the spirit of destruction.” (179) Why does Flaubert choose to introduce a fusion of Lust, a temptation, and Death, a fear, into a depiction of the Devil? Does this portray Anthony’s greatest want and his greatest terror?
5. The final line of the novel is ” Anthony makes the sign of the cross, and resumes his devotions.” (191) Why does he so swiftly back to devotion after this nightmare? Is Flaubert taking an “easy way out,” so to speak, or is this a way for him to leave the reader on edge?
 Sketches created by writing in greasy crayon on slabs of stone and then printing them with rolled-on ink. The word is so called from the Latin for stone,litho, and mark, graph. (Met Museum)
The Learned Dreamer
Michael Foucault says of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, “It may appear as merely another new book to be shelved alongside all the others, but it serves, in actuality, to extend the space that existing books can occupy” (Foucault xxvii). Indeed, the characters with which St. Anthony interacts throughout the temptations are brought to life through the vigorous study of other texts. Flaubert is in conversation, then, with ideas and archetypes from throughout the centuries. The theatrical nature of the work allows Flaubert’s characters, such as the Queen of Sheba or King Nebuchadnezzar, to be seen as reenactments of older characters. The dreamlike quality of the visions makes the characters seem like products of St. Anthony’s unconscious, smoky figurines crafted in an instant by the incredible power of the dreaming mind. However, as Foucault notes, the figurines are actually sculpted through vigorous studying on Flaubert’s part: “fantasies are carefully deployed in the hushed library” (Foucault xxvi). Taking a closer look at some of the characters and concepts in The Temptation of St. Anthony will enhance our appreciation for Flaubert’s attention to detail and his desire to participate in the textual universe of the library.
Orientalism is the constructed imagine of “Eastern” people and society by those in the “West.” The concept is elaborated on in Edward Said’s Orientalism, which goes into detail about the construction, its ancient roots, and its contemporary effects: “The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences… the main thing for the European visitor was a European representation of the Orient…” (Said 1). Because the characters and visions in Flaubert’s work are vivified through the imaginative power of St. Anthony’s subconscious (using his vast textual knowledge as a basis), so too is the Orient an actual place in the book with personified representatives. Just as the Devil is a constructed, personified representative of all that is evil in the world, so too is the Queen of Sheba the Orient personified, with all its lust and luxury. The Queen of Sheba, though in the first half of the book and not the second, has important reverberations throughout the text because she is everything that St. Anthony, as a Western ascetic, is supposed to hate. Still, she is everything he wants, his mirage, his unreal oasis in the driest desert of his fast: “And he sees before him… clad in robes of green… camels’ heads with halters of red silk… precious glimmering things are laid upon the ground… a woman so splendidly clad that she radiates light about her” (Flaubert 36). What Flaubert has done here is masterful—his recreation of the Queen of Sheba has the precise, seemingly arbitrary detail reminiscent of ancient texts (12 camels, 268 golden beads, 6 wise eunuchs, etc.) because she is a product of reading those texts and therefore her image bares a shimmer of what she is made of. Still, for St. Anthony in the state he is in, her presence is tantamount to reality: “There is a natural brown spot upon her left cheek” (Flaubert 57). In this moment of the text, the Queen of Sheba occupies two spaces. First, she is the personification of the Orient of luxury, of desire, a thousand year old parchment that St. Anthony has read again and again sitting alone in a library. But heat, and fasting, and pain, and doubt make the mind play tricks. She is, second, a woman standing in front of him and he has never wanted something so much in his life and there has never been anything more real.
Mary Orr advocates for a reading of Temptation that gives more credit to Flaubert for his portrayal of certain characters that draw from Southeastern Asian religions, such as the Buddha. Orr, too, recognizes the mastery of Flaubert’s character portrayals through the mind of St. Anthony, but for different reasons: “Antoine’s reading of them provides a much more dynamic model than critical theories of text—source hunting, genetic criticism, intertextuality—for how to read the ideas of his age” (Orr 115). I think it’s hard to deny the presence of an intertextual space existing upon which stands the stage of Temptation, to me it seems the work upon which all of the figures are based. Still, I agree with the goal of her paper, which is “to shock and shift ‘writerly’ critical positions to ‘readerly’ ones” (Orr 116). In other words, to understand that Temptation is less about authorship than it is about readership, reception, and the imagination of the subconscious. When the Buddha gives his traditional narrative of undergoing torments to purify himself of desire, St. Anthony interjects, “I also endured all that in other days!” (Flaubert 125). Buddha, here, does not even seem to notice what St. Anthony is saying. The interjections read like scribbled annotations in the margins of a book. Their interaction has been made real and established as an intertextual relationship, but the give and take, the substance behind real human interactions, can not take place with a book. The siren call of the Queen of Sheba, Buddha’s inspiring story of his hardships—they play their record on repeat for all to hear. St. Anthony can insert his experiences, proclaim his desire, and try to relate to what he has read but his words fall on ears long buried.
Hilarion, on the other hand, is someone St. Anthony knew, a disciple and former student. His presence is intermingled with that of the entirely textual figures like the Buddha. His interactions with St. Anthony, while also imagined, are based on memories. Memories are records of real interactions with give and take and unique, customized reactions. Hilarion is there with St. Anthony in part to mock him, and to grow and feed on the pain. After the Buddha disappears, Hilarion remarks, “Thou hast even now beheld the belief of many hundreds of millions of men” (Flaubert 126). This can be read as mocking St. Anthony’s experience, which is far from unique. Laurence Porter, in his paper about the role of the devil in various 19th-century texts, casts Hilarion as a foil to St. Anthony: “Flaubert underlines the fact that Hilarion has emerged from the saint’s preconscious” (Porter 327). Porter goes on to say that Hilarion changes throughout the text, becoming more and more a reflection of St. Anthony’s subconscious perception of his biggest weakness: “Initially the disciple represents an apparently harmless, and even admirable disguised form of Saint Anthony’s pride in his intellect and desire to influence others…he risks becoming infatuated with his own singularity, at the expense of his devotion to God” (Porter 327). This argument is compelling to me because it rejects the tempting idea that maybe the Queen of Sheba’s beauty or one of the various feasts or hordes of wealth is St. Anthony’s biggest issue. No, Hilarion, because he is real to St. Anthony, a person who looks back unlike the texts St. Anthony has developed relationships with, the disciple is the most likely to judge St. Anthony and deliver the most unique criticism that only he can deliver.
1. “The souls of the Gods are attached to their images… Those possessing the beauty of forms might seduce. But the others… those of loathsome or terrible aspect… how can men believe in them?” (Flaubert 117). At times ascetic and aesthetic ideals seem drastically opposed, in other instances they are difficult to distinguish. After all, Temptation, a book about the feverish dreams of a desert dwelling saint was Oscar Wilde’s favorite. On page 117, Flaubert unites the Platonic, the ascetic, and the aesthetic with an observation about the necessity of beauty to attract believers. How does the concept of beauty function here and what are its philosophical implications? How would Oscar Wilde read this?
2. “I also endured that in other days!” (Flaubert 124) St. Anthony’s comments to certain figures, like the Buddha, often border on marginalia. To me, these are the most distinctively “readerly” moments in Temptations. How do moments like these function, and how do they contrast/work with more theatrical elements of Flaubert’s work?
3. “Anthony dreams of the Mother of Jesus. She speaks: Thou didst emerge from the Orient, and didst take me, all trembling with the dew, into thy arms, O Sun! Doves fluttered upon the azure of thy mantle… and I abandoned myself wholly to thy love, delighting in the pleasure of my weakness. Alas! Alas—Why didst thou depart, to run upon the mountains?” (Flaubert 137) In a book full of the weird, this may have been the most bizarre moment for me. What is going on here? I might read it as a blending of the Christian tradition with Greco-Roman myths, where a beautiful young woman will be seduced or taken by a god in the form of a bull or a ray of light. Is this simply a feverish dream? Foucault and others say the dream is carefully constructed… what then is a passage like this so carefully constructed to do?
4. “Aye! The love of death is strong. Many an anchorite has succumbed to it.” (Flaubert 174) Suicide and the lure of death is one of the strongest temptations for St. Anthony. On 174, the philosophy of suicide and self-destruction is discussed, and it is reminiscent of Freud’s death drive. How does psychology function here and how does it interact with literature and theater? Does St. Anthony’s psychology somehow shape his readings, point his questions, or aid in the conjuring of the characters?
5. “Anthony thinks he sees a caterpillar between two leaves: it is a butterfly that takes flight.” (Flaubert 189) Many concepts are at play in the final pages. Nirvana, the constant flux of the universe, pantheism, release, etc. What is the meaning of the ending of the book? In other words, what exactly has occurred in the final pages? Has St. Anthony reached Enlightenment? Have his perspectives evolved? How much has he changed since the start of the book?
Flaubert, Gustave, Lafcadio Hearn, Michel Foucault, and Marshall C. Olds. The Temptation of St. Anthony. New York: Modern Library, 2001. Print.
Orr, Mary. “Antoine, Reader of His Age: The Textual Tentation and Its Intertexts of Science.” Dix-Neuf 15.1 (2011): 115-26. Print.
Porter, Laurence M. “The Devil as Double in Nineteenth-Century Literature: Goethe, Dostoevsky, and Flaubert.” Comparative Literature Studies 15.3 (1978): 316-35. JSTOR.
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979. Print.
“The Temptation of St Anthony (Bosch Painting).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Feb. 2014. Web. 23 Feb. 2014.
–Presentation by SVZ
The Temptation of St. Anthony is a profoundly disturbing text, for reasons which I will attempt to make clear. I find Flaubert’s work to be a far more “poisonous” work than À Rebours. I make this claim for two main reasons: first, because of St. Anthony’s status as a saint and the religious underbelly of his very carnal desires; second, because the manner in which it is written is far more successful at pulling the reader into the story and thereby encouraging them to share the temptations and doubt of St. Anthony.
I had little knowledge of the story of St. Anthony before reading Flaubert’s work: what I most certainly did not expect from the paintings I had seen was the degree to which St. Anthony was complicit in his torment. The first chapter, ironically entitled “The Holy Saint”, makes the depths of St. Anthony’s internal torment clear. He describes himself as “wretched”(9); whines about how everyone “blamed him” (9), he tells how he “ceased to fear God” (11).
The following passage is even more contentious: “This is such a delightful life—to twist palm branches in the fire to make shepherds’ crooks, to turn out baskets and fasten mats together, and then to exchange all this handiwork with the Nomads for bread that breaks your teeth! Ah! wretched me! will there never be an end of this? But, indeed, death would be better! I can bear it no longer! Enough! Enough!” He stamps his foot, and makes his way through the rocks with rapid step, then stops, out of breath, bursts into sobs, and flings himself upon the ground.” (8) This is far more than an innocent saint being tormented by Satan. This language almost parallels a temper tantrum, even making me think of various times in Monsieur Venus when Jacques Silvert would ‘act out’ and rebel against Raoule’s control; St. Anthony’s words betray his immense internal torment. He is questioning his faith on a very profound level; he is bored by his contemplation of God. He is doing what he believes he should do, morally and spiritually, and yet it bores and frustrates him. As troubling as this expression of doubt is, what follows is far more poisonous: “The night is calm; multitudes of stars are palpitating; only the crackling noise made by the tarantulas is audible” (14). St. Anthony’s cry for help has no immediate answer. A moment later he perceives the shadow of a cross, but as he is raging against his monastic life God gives him no sign to confirm his faith. The night is empty, with only natural features (stars and tarantula) being perceived. There is a clear sense transmitted in this phrase that St. Anthony is alone.
From this tantrum, the ‘holy saint’ proceeds to use passages from the Bible itself to justify his anger and doubt. The profundity of this blasphemy is absolutely astounding: “”Suppose I take—the ‘Acts of the Apostles’—yes, no matter where!
“And he saw the heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending, as it were a great linen sheet let down by the four corners from heaven to the earth–wherein were all manner of four-footed beasts; and creeping things of the earth and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him: ‘Arise, Peter! Kill and eat!’
Then the Lord desired that his apostle should eat of all things? …while I….” (14-15)
Again and again St. Anthony uses quotations from the Scriptures to prove that his anger at his condition is justified, to make an exception for himself in the moral code he believes to be true: if Peter can eat red meat, why can’t St. Anthony? If Ezechias can delight in worldly goods and in particular luxuries, why can’t St. Anthony? In these passages, it is fairly clear that St. Anthony is not being tempted by demons, as he is elsewhere in the work. He is tempting himself. He is twisting the Bible itself in order to justify his resentment and boredom.
Another profound and critical passage follows shortly after:
“Then the two shadows formed behind him by the arms of the cross, suddenly tlengthen and project themselves before him. They assume the form of two great horns. Anthony cries out:
Help me! O my God!
The shadows shrink back to their former place.
‘Ah!….it was an illusion….nothing more. It is needless for me to torment my mind further! I can do nothing!–absolutely nothing.” (16-17)
Anthony cries out for God’s help, and it seems that he receives it–the horns disappear immediately following his cry for divine intervention. And yet it appears that Anthony’s call for help was merely the continuation of a habit, or for appearance’s sake, because he does not even consider that the apparition of the horns has been banished by God. Instead, he remarks that “it was an illusion”.
The number of such distressing passages, even confined to the first few chapters, are too many to discuss here: I will remark on only a few: “I will have a chamber hollowed out for me in the rock, and lined with plates of bronze, and I will come here from time to time to feel the gold sinking down under the weight of my heel; I will plunge my arms into it as into sacks of grain. I will rub my face with it, I will lie down up on it!” (27), St. Anthony exclaims. St. Anthony is rapturous at the contemplation of such wealth, to an irrational extent–he doesn’t think about what he could do or buy with all these riches; he contents himself with fantasizing about it, almost sexualizing it as he repeatedly imagines plunging his body into it and covering himself with it.
Anthony himself recognizes, soon after these various fantasies, that his torment is self-inflicted and comes from some failing within himself: “Am I, then, accursed? Ah! no; it is my own fault! I allow myself to be caught in every snare! No man could be more imbecile, more infamous! I should like to beat myself, or rather to tear myself out of my own body! I have restrained myself too long!”(28). Here he fully shifts the agency off of any divine forces, good or evil, and onto himself.
I will discuss only one more passage:
” ‘Again I have allowed myself to be deceived! Why these things? They come from the rebellion of the flesh. Ah! wretch!’
He rushes into his cabin and seizes a bunch of thongs with metallic hooks attached to their ends, ,strips himself to the waist, and, lifting his eyes to heaven, exclaims:
‘Accept my penance, O my God: disdain it not for its feebleness. Render it sharp, prolonged, excessive! It is time, indeed!–to the work!’
He gives himself a vigorous lash–and shrieks.
‘No! No!–without mercy it must be.’
‘Oh! oh! oh! each last tears my skin, rends my limbs! It burns me horribly! Nay!–it is not so very terrible after all!–one becomes accustomed to it. It even seems to me…’
‘Continue, coward! Continue! Good! good! –upon the arms, on the back, on the breast, on the belly–everywhere! Hiss, ye thongs! bite me! tear me! I would that my blood could spurt to the stars!–let my bones crack! –let my tendons be laid bare! O for pincers, racks and melted lead! The martyrs have endured far worse; have they not, Ammonaria?’
The shadow of the Devil’s horns reappears.
‘I might have been bound to the column opposite to thine,–face to face–under thy eyes–answering thy shrieks by my sighs; and our pangs might have been interblended, our souls intermingled.’
He lashes himself with fury.
‘What! what! again. Take that!–But how strange a titillation thrills me! What punishment! what pleasure! I feel as though receiving invisible kisses; the very marrow of my bones seems to melt! I die!'” (35-36)
This is a fairly clear example of masochism, and shows that St. Anthony’s desire to be a martyr derives far less from love for God and the Christian faith and much more from some latent enjoyment of pain, both physical and mental. He calls out to God and, as he does throughout the work, follows the rituals of devout Christianity to an extreme degree, but his devotion is obviously superficial. Even as he beats himself, he rhapsodizes about the pain in a way highly similar to the way he earlier fantasized about luxurious goods and red meat. This pseudo-sexual nature is only underlined by the way in which Anthony remembers Ammonaria and dreams about sharing pain (and probably pleasure) with her.
What is so profoundly disturbing and perhaps even ‘poisonous’ about Flaubert’s work is that, due to its subject material and its form, it forces the reader to share Anthony’s tremendous internal torment. We ourselves are not sure what to think–one minute he is clearly torturing himself, both physically and mentally, and he is at the same time the tormentor and the victim. At moments we undoubtedly feel pity for St. Anthony, and this is encouraged by Flaubert’s text, as it occasionally conjures up actual demons or images of the Devil to torment St. Anthony. At other times St. Anthony’s beatitude is far more in question as his rage against God and profound doubt is spotlighted. The subtitle of the work taps into this disturbing undercurrent of doubt and a state of existential crisis: “A revelation of the soul”. Whose soul? Is it a revelation of the falsity of St. Anthony’s devotion? Or is it a revelation of some fundamental fault in the soul in general, in humanity’s souls, an inevitable predisposition to moral decay? This is the profound, thought-provoking, and ‘poisonous’ question at the center of The Temptation of St. Anthony.
As before I started to read Gustave Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony I heard that this was one of the favorite books of Oscar Wilde, who would ask for it during his imprisonment from 1895 to 1897 (as far as I understand, with no successful results though), I took up this prose-poem wondering what might be the reasons why Wilde was attracted to this book so much that he would feel a strong urge to immerse himself in it even during his imprisonment. Thus, this reading response is a speculation resulting from such wonderings.
Harford Montgomery Hyde in The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1962) describes the cell at Pentonville where Wilde had to spend the first term of his imprisonment as “bare and repellent as it was possible to make it,” a space where prisoners were not allowed to have anything that “might break the monotony of the cell wall.” (Montgomery Hyde, 278) When one imagines the conditions that Wilde was confined to live in and the mental suffering that the writer might have experienced as a result of the state he was in, it would be hardly surprising that Wilde might have been able to identify himself with Saint Anthony as he was depicted by Gustave Flaubert from the very first pages of The Temptation of Saint Anthony – a hermit who would contemplate his existence and pass by every day by grievous but somewhat relieved exclamation: “Another day! another day gone!” (Flaubert 10) It is not hard to imagine Wilde quietly agonizing: “What solitude! what weariness!—will this never end? Surely death were preferable! I can endure it no more! Enough! enough!” (Flaubert 14-15) Wilde would not even have as much freedom as Saint Anthony had, who attempted to escape his suffering to some extent through the amusement of “arranging everything in my hut.” (Ibid.) Similar mundane routine would not be unfamiliar to Wilde. In his case, however, “arranging everything” would by no means be an amusement. On the contrary, it would be enforced by strict and regular examinations of the arrangements in his prison cell by the guards under whose strict surveillance the writer was. It did not give him freedom of amusement but rather robbed him of yet another kind of freedom of expression, which later, as H.Montgomery Hyde points out, would developed into a nervous habit of the writer to arrange all the things symmetrically. (Montgomery Hyde 278)
As Montgomeny Hyde indicates, during the first three months of his incarceration Wilde would have an access only to three books – a Bible, The Prayer Book, and a hymn-book. (Ibid 278) Without further examination of the materials related to Wilde, it is difficult to judge to what extent Wilde might have felt the inclination to question the religious scripts accessible or to claim that the writer identified himself with Saint Anthony and perpetually struggled with his own temptations in identic way. It is also hard to imagine that self-pity and a masochistic inclination to torture himself even more by read over and over such statements as – “Assuredly there is no human being in a condition of such unutterable misery!” (Flaubert 19) – made by Saint Anthony, which might seem to be Wilde’s own voice imprinted in the book, were only reasons why the writer wished to have an access to Flaubert’s work.
Rather than struggling with temptations, it seems more likely that Wilde, a widely known dandy and a great admirer of the beauty, would be suffocating in the horrible reality of his existence in the prison as he was deprived of all that he could not exist without. Thus, one could imagine that, not unlike Des Esseintes in À rebours, Wilde would be searching for a possibility not only to enter “into complete intellectual communion” with Flaubert or, perhaps, even Saint Anthony, but also “soar up, more so than with other books, high above this petty existence of which he was so weary.” (Huysmans 146) The Temptation of Saint Anthony for Wilde would be also a means to escape the death of his own imagination and emotional world that he might have been feeling insistently creeping closer. One can easily imagine that Wilde would be able to channel the thoughts of Des Esseintes during the ventriloquist’s performance of the dialogue between the Chimera and the Sphinx: “It was to him that this voice, as mysterious as an incantation, was speaking; it was to him that it was describing its feverish craving after the unknown its unattained ideal, its need to escape the horrible reality of existence, to pass beyond the confines of thought, to cast about, without ever arriving at a certainty, in the misty reaches that lie beyond art!” (Ibid 88-89)
It seems that it would be Des Esseintes, the character that “poisoned” Dorian Grey, which would perfectly verbalize Wilde’s relationship to The Temptation of Saint Anthony: “in reading them [such books as The Temptation of Saint Anthony], he who had engendered them, because they had then been in a spiritual state analogous to his own. Indeed, when the period in which a man of talent is condemned to live is dull and stupid, the artist is haunted, unknowingly perhaps, by a yearning for a different era. —He recalls memories of beings and things, which he personally has never known, and the time comes when he breaks violently out of his prison of his century” and wander “in complete freedom in a different period with which – as an ultimate self-deception – he imagines he would have been more in harmony.” (Ibid 147)
Hyde, Harford Montgomery. The Trials of Oscar Wilde. New York: Dover Publications, 1962.
Other texts cited are the ones that are used in our class.
Decay, privation, indulgence and imagination in “Against Nature” and “The Temptation of Saint Anthony”
Both Anthony and Des Esseintes exchange the comforts and pleasures of normal existences for the privation of a solitary life. In place of the decay that surrounds them–what they perceive as an overindulgence of the senses–they choose salutary asceticism. But although they deny themselves pleasures of the body, the imagination is unfettered. In Des Esseintes’ case, this is by design: he thinks the pleasures of the city, his prior bibulousness and lecherousness, to be tawdry and decadent. In the isolation of his hermitage more refined and valuable pleasure, that brought about by dint of the imagination, can be achieved. Anthony’s isolation, though, is undertaken with the purpose of denying himself all pleasure. He cannot establish a hierarchy of pleasures in the manner of Des Esseintes because he is of the mind that pleasure itself is decadent. Des Esseintes eschewed the indulgences of Paris for a purer pleasure, but Anthony sequesters himself so that he might escape all comforts–those both of the body and the imagination. But in both instances, an argument can be made that the only exchange present is not that of decay for enrichment, probity, or whatever can be understood as the antithesis of decay, but that of one form of decay, wanton indulgence of the senses, for another, what Hilarion calls the “banquets, perfumes, naked women, and […] applause of multitudes” generated by the imagination.
Travel, Des Esseintes, believes, is “pointless” (Huysmans 18). Why leave the house when a richer, more fulfilling experience of travel could be achieved via the imagination? Instead of the “vulgar reality of actual experience,” Des Esseintes chooses “imaginary pleasures in every respect similar to the real ones” (Huysmans 18, 19). The implication here, of course, is that what Des Esseintes calls the “reality of actual experience” is a decadent indulgence: the pleasure of this sort of experience is that from which Des Esseintes flees. The alternative he espouses, the employment of the imagination, he holds up as the purer, correct method of achieving pleasure. His plight, however, suggests that the indulging of the imagination is no less decadent than the indulging of the body and its senses. Des Esseintes is, after all, concerned only with himself in much the same way he was before rejecting a life of debauchery. In his hermitage he indulges his intellect and imagination; in Paris he indulged his lust. In both cases decay is the result.
At least in the eyes of Hilarion, Anthony too fails to escape the decay of overindulgence. He has removed himself to the top of a mountain where he lives with the most extreme abstemiousness–all but the necessities for existence have been given to the poor and others in need–and so has accomplished a state of privation far more complete than Des Esseintes, who lives in comparative luxury. And yet according to Hilarion, Anthony’s imagination offers him splendor; he is a “hypocrite” whose “chastity is but a more subtle form of corruption” (Flaubert 48). Anthony holds that “man must retreat from material thing” and that “all action is degrading,” but Hilarion sees it differently. Anthony is dissatisfied with the world but his only response to is retreat to a lonely hut. Instead of confronting the world’s decay, Anthony removes himself to the solitude of his imagination. This, Hilarion seems to think, is another form of decay: the decay of being human. How can Anthony “repel the caress of a dog” or “frown upon the smile of a child?” (Flaubert 48). The world beckons, but Anthony arranges himself so that the only world he encounters is his own. As is the case in “Against Nature,” the trajectory of events suggests that to reject one form of decay is to invite the arrival of another. Decay is natural and necessary.