The Poisonous Pen: The Subtle Perversity of Flaubert’s Temptation of St. Anthony

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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.’

He recommences.

‘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…’

Anthony pauses.

‘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.

–Paloma (1610)

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