The Gendered Form and Absolute Knowing in Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony

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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)


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