Presentation: The Learned Dreamer: Temptations, pt. 2

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The Temptation of St. Anthony by Bosch

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.

The Buddha

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.

Discussion Questions

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

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