The Multiplicity of Language in Temptation of St. Anthony

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While the Decadent novels we have read so far have celebrated multiplicity in a variety of ways (Rachilde’s gender inversions; Des Esseintes’ synaesthetic experiences; Dorian Gray’s self-conception as a “multiform creature”), Flaubert’s Saint Anthony grapples with it in an effort to distinguish the real from the illusory. Anthony associates artifice with Satan, as when he asserts his imperviousness to temptation: “Besides, do I not know all his [Satan’s] artifices?” (18). Similarly, Anthony attributes his visions at the end of Part I to a “strange play of light,” and Flaubert describes them as “images” and “paintings” (22). By contrast, Anthony considers the divine to be the real, drawing a distinction between the illusions of Satan and the miracles of God. (Interestingly, Anthony at one point seems to equate miracles with the scientific manipulation of nature, when he attributes Solomon’s resistance of the Queen of Sheba to his knowledge of science (17).)

Yet, Anthony’s distinction between miracles and illusions begins to break down as he experiences more visions. When Anthony suddenly sees a feast appear in front of him, he thinks of Jesus’ miraculous production of loaves and fish, directly associating an illusion with a miracle: “‘Instead of one which was there, lo! there are many!…It must be a miracle, then, the same as our Lord wrought!’” (25). Although he then recognizes the feast as an illusion, he is deceived by the seemingly miraculous cup, which continuously generates more and more gold and jewels (26-27). Even Anthony’s speech becomes infected with the multiplicity of the never-ending pile of jewels:

What! how! Staters, cycles, dariacs, aryandics! Alexander, Demetrius, the Ptolemies, Caesar!—yet not one of them all possessed so much! Nothing is now impossible! no more suffering for me! how these gleams dazzle my eyes! Ah! my heart overflows! how delightful it is! yes—yes!—more yet! never could there be enough! Vainly I might continually fling it into the sea, there would always be plenty remaining for me. Why should I lose any of it? I will keep all, and say nothing to any one about it; 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 upon it! (27)

Just as the cup continuously produces more and more jewels, Anthony spouts out repetitions of the same words and phrases. “Staters, cycles, dariacs, aryandics!” merely lists various names of coins; “Alexander, Demetrius, the Ptolemies, Caesar!” similarly lists various rulers. In both cases, each addition to the list does not add meaning but rather provides an empty effect of crazed multiplication. When Anthony asserts, “Vainly I might continually fling it into the sea, there would always be plenty remaining for me,” he might as well be referring to his reserve of effusive but empty phrases as to his pile of gold. By the end of the outburst, his thoughts extend in one elongated sentence, as if his phrases multiply to the point where it seems like the sentence will never end (“I will keep all…into sacks of grain”). Yet, just as the cup only produces illusory gold, the multiplication of Anthony’s language produces a frenzied rant rather than anything substantive or meaningful.

The multiplicity of language relates to Anthony’s later vision of the queen of Sheba. In contrast to Anthony’s prior visions, which either featured illusory objects or experiences described in narration (i.e. when he becomes Nebuchadnezzar), the queen of Sheba is a named character in the narrative who speaks and takes action. In a sense, she seems more “real” than the other illusions due to her aesthetic presence as a character. Furthermore, she herself provides descriptions that rival those of the narration, as when she describes her domain (40-42). The queen of Sheba wields language to entice Anthony, creating an imaginary world out of her description.

She even claims that she herself can change form: “All the women thou hast ever met…all the imaginations of thy desire thou hast only to ask for them! I am not a woman: I am a world” (42). With this declaration, she seems to announce herself as a product of language, a changeable and multiple entity. Indeed, we know that she is a product of language, in the sense that she is an illusion on par with the narrated illusion about Nebuchadnezzar.  Yet, then we must question how to distinguish her from Anthony himself, or any of the creations inhabiting Flaubert’s novel. Are there levels of ontology within the text, or does this question merely point to the artificiality of the novel itself? However, if we register some discomfort at the idea that the queen of Sheba is just as “real” as Anthony, then we should also begin to think about how we distinguish our own ontology from that of the fictional characters. Just as the distinction between the miraculous and the illusory breaks down, the multiplicity of language potentially blurs the distinction between the real and the aesthetic.

-Eusebius

Word Count: 872

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