La Tentation from a Girardian Perspective
Flaubert in La Tentation has confronted the epoch, summed up in Anthony’s spiritual tribulation, in which archaic sacredness, passing through the urbanity of Hellenistic culture and mixing itself with the charisma of the Roman Empire, must acknowledge the new dispensation that accretes around the Passion of Christ and takes the form of a unique non-sacrificial religion, Christianity. Voegelin argues that Imperial “Summodeism” was so similar to Christianity that the distance between them had become minimal; and yet that very brevity appeared, to many, as impassable. Flaubert and Voegelin, brought into juxtaposition, become mutually illuminative. While it is always très triste to take leave of Voegelin, it is equally always très plaisant to find oneself chez Girard. If only Girard might have slipped himself into Flaubert’s text!
Hilarion takes advantage of the saint’s naivety by pestering him with false syllogisms in a mode of aggressive nit-picking skepticism. To the barrage of discrepancies that, as Hilarion sees it, qualifies Scripture only as a farrago, Girard might aptly have replied as he does to Michel Treguer, in a similar imbroglio, in When These Things Begin (1996; English version 2014):
“I’m not bothered in the least . . . I define Christianity as the event that wrenched the first Christians away from the power of myth, which is the power of the unanimous mimetic lie.” Girard might have pointed out to Anthony’s nightmare-inquisitor, again as he points out to Treguer, that, “Christianity is the same drama as the fundamental myths and major foundation stories, and in both cases the result is religion. In the eyes of our ‘wise and learned,’ it has to be a myth.”
Girard even makes use of the luminosity metaphor common to Flaubert and Voegelin: “Christianity sheds light on mythical religion whereas mythical religion doesn’t shed light on anything at all.”
Looking at La Tentation in light of Girard offers the further advantage that Girard’s “Fundamental Anthropology” more or less begins with the discovery, which Girard elaborates in Deceit Desire & the Novel (1962), that the touchstone realist novels of the second half of the Nineteenth Century invariably put in counterpoint with their meticulous sociological descriptions of middle-class banality an implacable machinery of ritual and theological – that is to say, sacred – metaphors that seems at odds with the pretense of science that ostensibly motivates the authors. Yet in another way, the Girard of Deceit Desire & the Novel offers slightly less overt help in the project of making sense of La Tentation than does Voegelin’s essay on James.
Girard surprisingly omits to mention La Tentation in his study of “Self and Other in Literary Structure.” More surprising even than that, the Flaubertian title most closely associated with La Tentation, namely Madame Bovary (1857), receives only four dedicated pages of Girard’s text out of more than three hundred in the English edition. Girard’s theme in Deceit Desire & the Novel of deviated transcendence nevertheless promises to illuminate La Tentation. Likewise what Girard does say about Madame Bovary, scant though his discussion is, will prove applicable, especially when it is coordinated with Girard’s later work, to La Tentation.
The insight that Madame Bovary indeed tells the same story as La Tentation belongs originally to Charles Baudelaire, who knew the latter text in its serialized 1856 version. In a review (1857) of Madame Bovary and its attendant scandal, Baudelaire writes (P. E. Charvet’s translation) how, had he conducted a systematic comparison of the two works, he “would have found it easy to recognize, under the closely woven texture of Madame Bovary, [Flaubert’s] high capacity for irony and lyricism that lights up La Tentation.” Extending the parallelism, Baudelaire remarks of La Tentation that:
“Here the poet appears without disguise, and his Bovary, tempted by all the devils of illusion, of heresy, by all the lusts of the physical surrounding – in short, his St, Anthony, harassed by all the lunatic urges that get the better of us, would have provide a better apologia than his humble tale of bourgeois life.”
Baudelaire regards La Tentation as being “more interesting for poets and philosophers” than Madame Bovary. Given the considerable overlap between the concepts of temptation and mediation, it is easy to repair Girard’s omission of La Tentation from Deceit Desire & the Novel.
The chapter in Girard’s first book most relevant to La Tentation is the one bearing the title “Men Become Gods in the Eyes of Each Other.” Girard writes, “The denial of God does not eliminate transcendency but diverts it from the au-delà to the en-deçà.” Every projection of Anthony’s internal struggle in La Tentation involves a demonic mediator – a mediator-manipulator – who aims to wrench back Anthony from the wrenching-away from myth, that Christian version of the periagoge, which constitutes the glowing nucleus of his conversion. Thus, quite as Athanasius asserted in his Life of the saint, all tempters of the holy man were metamorphoses of Satan. One simple way of grasping the necessity of eremitic solitude is to see it as the surest means whereby to remove oneself from the constant pressure to fixate on the neighbors and thereby to neutralize the nasty peer-pressure that existing vestigial Christianity rouses itself ritually now and then to denounce. Not only, according to Girard, does denial of God not abolish the vertical or spiritual dimension, but it ensures rather that “the imitation of one’s neighbor” should replace “the imitation of Christ.”
Flaubert gives it to Anthony in Section I of La Tentation to describe the stages of his deliberate self-extraction from society: “When I left home, everyone found fault with me. My mother sank into a dying state; my sister, from a distance, made signs to me to come back; and the other one wept, Ammonaria, that child whom I used to meet every evening, beside the cistern, as she was leading away her cattle.” [“Tous me blâmaient lorsque j’ai quitté la maison. Ma mère s’affaissa mourante; ma sœur, de loin, me faisait des signes pour revenir; et l’autre pleurait, Ammonaria, cette enfant que je rencontrais chaque soir au bord de la citerne, quand elle amenait ses buffles.”]
The departure adds up to the first temptation: Not to wrench oneself away, but to yield to the cozy closure that reveals itself as sacrificial indignation as soon as anyone flouts its solidarity. In Anthony’s recollection, Ammonaria tries to follow him, but the camels carry him away too swiftly. She too is detaching herself, but too late. Later, in a dreadful nightmare, Anthony sees Ammonaria being martyred, as her historical type was under the Decian persecution.
Flaubert sees the scene that Anthony physically, but also, and more importantly, spiritually, flees, as a society in a state of demonic crisis – what Girard would call a mimetic crisis. The scene resists flight. Indeed, after initial tribulation in the desert, Anthony finds himself back in Alexandria, where, as Flaubert gives it to his persona to recount, “I became a pupil of the venerable Didymus.” [“Alors, j’ai voulu m’instruire près du bon vieillard Didyme.”] Dunne’s English is a bit defective. Flaubert’s French emphasizes Anthony’s sense of stifling closeness (“près du bon vieillard”) in his unwilled homecoming. Whatever and whoever the historical Didymus might have been, even supposing him to have been a moral paragon and an intellectual prodigy, Flaubert will have attended carefully to the etymological basis of his name – from the Greek for twin, with its suggestion of imitative doubling and absolute proximity. Flaubert’s Alexandria is the milieu of Voegelin’s “dogmatomachy,” in an acute historical manifestation. Flaubert anticipates Voegelin in his characterization of ecumenic societies as shattered local societies forced into new and disturbing shapes by imperial conquest. He anticipates Girard in his intuition about the danger in propinquity.
Anthony describes Alexandria as thronged by “men of every nation” [“homes de toutes les nations”]. He recalls seeing in the Alexandrian commons “Cimmerians, clad in bearskin, and the Gymnosophists of the Ganges, who smear their bodies with cow-dung” [“des Cimmériens, vêtus de peaux d’ours, et des Gymnosophistes de Ganges frotté de bouse de vache,”] images that suggest mythic undifferentiation via a descent into bestiality and in the form of mimetic contagion. “Besides,” as Anthony continues, “the city is filled with heretics, the followers of Manes, of Valentinus, of Basilides, and of Arius, all of them eagerly striving to discuss with you points of doctrine and to convert you to their views.” [D’ailleurs la ville est plein d’hérétiques, des sectateurs de Manès, de Valentin, de Basilide, d’Arius – tous vous accaparent pour discuter et vous convaincre.”] The notions of discussion and conviction take from the context an ominous coloration. Discussion becomes inquisition; and the question of conviction becomes the agenda to identify the scapegoats, as demanded by the crisis.
Girard remarks in Deceit Desire & the Novel that whenever the distance separating the subject and the mediator shrinks so that the mediator becomes the rival the stature of the mediator seems to the subject to increase. The subject makes of the mediator, now become a model-rival, “a monstrous divinity,” as Girard writes. Flaubert undertakes in Anthony’s colloquy with Hilarion in Part III of La Tentation that Hilarion should demonstrate this tendency of perceiving aggrandizement in nearness. “What an air of authority,” says Anthony to Hilarion; “it appears to me that you are growing taller.” [“Quel air d’autorité! Il me semble que tu grandis . . .”] Flaubert adds in the scenic description that, “In fact, Hilarion’s height has progressively increased; and, in order not to see him, Antony closes his eyes.” [“En effet, la taille d’Hilarion s’est progressivement élevée; et Antoine, pour ne plus le voir, ferme les yeux.”] The trouble is that Hilarion goes on talking while Anthony goes on mistaking Hilarion’s aggression and mood-swings for intrepidity. Hilarion has meanwhile changed his tactic: He now ceases speaking for himself and becomes, in Part IV, the master of ceremonies for a review of preachers, ranters, and sectarians.
The review takes place in a vast basilica with numberless galleries, niches, and chapels, through which the saint wanders. The cast of characters consists in a nearly exhaustive round-up of Late-Antique theo-maniacs drawn from every aspect of terminal Paganism and both Orthodox and heretical Christianity. Mani is there; so are Valentinus, Bardesanes, Simon Magus, Origen, Irenaeus, and Basilides. The Elkhasaites, Carpocratians, Nicolaitans, Marcosians, Helvidians, and Messalians put in appearances. Every shouting voice propagates a doctrine that purports itself to be truth; a prescriptive ritual regime, usually sadomasochistic in one way or another, accompanies every doctrine. About a third of the way through Section IV, after the appearance of the Cainites, Anthony witnesses a bizarre performance:
“The Audians draw arrows against the Devil; the Collyridians fling blue veils to the ceiling; the Ascitians prostrate themselves before a wineskin; the Marcionites baptise a corpse with oil. Close beside Appelles, a woman, the better to explain her idea, shows a round loaf of bread in a bottle; another, surrounded by the Sampsians, distributes like a host the dust of her sandals.” [“Les Audiens tirent des flèches contre le Diable; les Collyridiens lancent au plafond des voiles bleus; les Ascites se prosterent devant une outre; les Marcionites baptisent un mort avec de l’huile. Auprès d’Apelles, une femme, pour expliquer mieux son idée, fait voir un pain rond dans une bouteille; une autre, au milieu des Sampséens, distribue comme une hostie la poussière de ses sandales.”]
The performance reaches its climax when “the Circoncellions cut one another’s throats; the Velesians make a rattling sound; Bardesanes sings; Carpocras dances; Maximilla and Priscilla utter loud groans; and the false prophetess of Cappadocia, quite naked, resting on a lion and brandishing three torches, yells forth the Terrible Invocation.” [“Les Circoncellions s’entr’égorgent, les Valésians râlent, Bardesane chante, Carpocras danse, Maximilla et Priscilla poussent des gémissements sonores; et la fausse prophétesse de Cappadoce, toute nue, accoudée sur un lion et secouant trois flambeaux, hurle l’Invocation Terrible.”] The exhibition, provoked by the competitive oratory of the doctrines, descends from the level of discourse to the level of ritual action, and finally, through sacrificial suicide, to beastly “groans” and the equally non-verbal “Invocation.”
Flaubert’s chain of events reverses the process of cultural development, as summed up in Girard’s brief formula in The One by Whom Scandal Comes (2014): “Historical chronology should begin with the evolution of the human race, accompanied by the rising power of mimetic desire, which gave birth to crises of murderous and destructive violence for human populations.” Rituals of sacrifice channel violence until the Passion reveals the underlying scapegoat mechanism. As in Voegelin’s reading of history so too, in Girard’s, does the appearance of the new dispensation exacerbate the feebleness of the already weakened sacred of the superannuated Greco-Roman world, producing desperate reactions right down to the present day.
In the second half of La Tentation, in Part IV, Flaubert brings on stage the embodiment of Late-Antique resistance to the action of the Gospel Logos – none other than the man proposed under the official syncretism of Septimius Severus to fill the requirement for a Pagan Counter-Christ, Apollonius of Tyana (15 – 100). The writer Philostratus (172 – 250) composed his Life of Apollonius, Flaubert’s source, on a commission by the emperor’s wife, lady Julia around 220. Flaubert remembers to let the herald of Apollonius, Damis, go before him, announcing the approach of the “Master,” who, to Anthony, “has the appearance of a saint” [“il a l’air d’un saint”]. Apollonius, whom Flaubert portrays as a psychopath, rehearses to Anthony his curriculum vitae. He tells Anthony, “I will first describe to you the long road I traveled to gain doctrine; and, if you find in all my life one bad action, you will stop me – for he must scandalize by his words who has offended by his actions.” [“Je te raconterai la longue route que j’ai parcourue pour obtenir la doctrine – et si tu trouves dans toute ma vie une action mauvaise, tu m’arrêteras – car celui-là scandaliser par ses paroles qui a méfait par ses œuvres.”] Violence has followed Apollonius along his route. A priest in jealousy slits his own throat; a governor who threatens the mystic with death, dies. Apollonius recalls how “the plague ravaged Ephesus” and “I made them stone an old mendicant,” to which Damis adds, “and the plague was gone!” [“La peste ravageait Éphèse; j’ai faire lapider un vieux mendiant . . . Et la peste s’en est allée!”]
Whereas Girard never wrote about La Tentation, he addressed emphatically the case of Apollonius of Tyana. In particular, in I See Satan Fall like Lightning (2004), Girard has written about the episode in The Life of the plague at Ephesus and the stoning of the old beggar. Girard reminds his readers concerning Apollonius that “among pagans his miracles were viewed as superior to those of Jesus.” The details of Philostratus’ account of the episode that pique Girard are the reported persistence of the plague, the fact that Apollonius convenes the Ephesians in the civic amphitheater, the initial reluctance of the Ephesians to heed Apollonius’ admonition to stone the beggar, and the transformation of the victim after the stoning, when the bloody corpse is no longer that of a human being but of a large, rabid dog. As Girard writes, “If [Philostratus had been] a Christian, he would have been accused of slandering paganism.”
For Girard, the epidemic of Philostratus’ story functions in the typical mythic way to designate a state of communal or civic crisis, similar to the pestilence that afflicts Thebes in the Oedipus Myth. “The miracle,” Girard writes, “consists of triggering a mimetic contagion so powerful that it finally polarizes the entire population of the city against the unfortunate beggar.” According to Girard, “Apollonius’ miracle embodies the kernel of a teaching rightly termed religious, which would escape us if we took the miracle to be imaginary.” By instigating the lapidation in the theater, moreover, Apollonius reinforces the ritualistic character of the purgation – bringing it close to the catharsis that Aristotle attributes to tragic performance.
Flaubert offers Apollonius as a summation of Late Antiquity’s religious contentiousness, which frequently led to riots, killings, and massacres. Flaubert disdains to exclude Nicene Christians from being bodied forth along with the Pagans and the heretics in Apollonius. The heresiologist Irenaeus is part of the bellowing crowd of dogma-worshippers, as is the church-historian Eusebius. It seems, given the erudition of La Tentation, that Flaubert’s train of thought anticipated Girard’s. In I See Satan Fall, Girard remarks that “Eusebius of Caesarea . . . aware of the harm that The Life of Apollonius did to Christianity… set out to show that the miracles of Apollonius are not impressive at all.” Yet, Girard continues, Eusebius “never denounces the monstrous stoning,” but rather he “reduces the debate, just like the partisans of the guru, to a mimetic rivalry between miracle workers.” Girard goes on to compare Apollonius’ lapidation of the old beggar to Jesus’ refusal to sanction lapidation in the famous episode in the Gospel of John of the woman taken in adultery. “Saving the adulterous woman from being stoned, as Jesus does,” Girard writes, “means that he prevents the violent contagion from getting started.”
Flaubert’s Apollonius sufficiently frightens Anthony that the latter, crying out to God to help him, “flings himself against the Cross” [“il précipite vers la Croix”]. Apollonius wants to know of Anthony, “What is your desire?” [“Quel est ton désire?”] When Anthony prays aloud for Jesus to aid him, Apollonius mistakes the petition as a request to him to “make Jesus appear” [“Veux-tu que je le fasse apparaitre Jésus?”]. Apollonius tells Anthony that Jesus shall not only appear, but “He shall cast off His crown, and we shall speak together face to face” [“Il jettera sa couronne, et nous causerons face à face”]. The guru’s rhetorical figure, “face to face,” communicates with the Flaubert’s invocations of closeness and thronging elsewhere in La Tentation. The prophesy, which is really a demand in disguise, that, coming “face to face” with Apollonius, Jesus shall “cast off His crown,” also speaks to the mystic as a personification of rivalry and resentment. Jesus, of course, remains absent. The metaphysical rivalry belongs to Apollonius alone revealing what Girard, writing of Flaubert in Deceit Desire & the Novel, calls “the emptiness of oppositions” that stems from “metaphysical desire.” Girard indeed credits Flaubert with having invented “the style of false enumerations and false antitheses” that aims at the representation of “double nullity.” Every model is a rival and vice versa.
Girard’s commentary in Deceit Desire & the Novel concerning Flaubert’s last (incomplete) novel Bouvard et Pécuchet (Opus Posthumus 1881) applies equally to La Tentation: “In that novel, modern thought loses what dignity and strength remained, with the loss of continuity and stability . . . Ideas, systems theories, and principles confront each other in opposed pairs, which are always determined negatively.” Rightfully, then, at the very beginning of La Tentation, Part V, looking back on the encounter with Apollonius, Flaubert gives these words to Anthony: “That was really hell” [“Celui-là va tout l’enfer”].
Readers must remind themselves, however, of what Dos Passos reminds them in Three Soldiers: Whereas Flaubert sets his action in the Fourth Century he uses that action to comment on modernity. The indignity of the dogmatomachy is identical with the indignity of ideological contentions in the Nineteenth or Twentieth or Twenty-First Century. A cross-section of any day in 2016, as reported in the New York Times or on the Cable News Network, may serve as a mirror to Anthony’s vision in La Tentation, Section IV, complete with bloody persecutions, throat-cuttings, and actual stonings-to-death. Demonic heads bark at one another across the ether. In Evolution and Conversion (2007), responding to João Cezar de Castro Rocha, Girard opines that “the idea of the end of history as the end of ideologies is simply misleading” because “the ideologies are not violent per se, rather it is man who is violent.” Nevertheless, “ideologies provide the grand narrative which covers up our victimary tendency”; ideologies are, “the mythical happy endings to our histories of persecutions.”
La Tentation from a Gansian Perspective
In La Tentation, Part I, as night falls and the saint’s vision begins to take shape, Flaubert gives an odd detail: “Through the deepening shadows of the night pointed snouts reveal themselves here and there with ears erect and glittering eyes. Anthony advances . . . the animals take flight . . . a troop of jackals.” Anthony notices that “one of them remains behind, and, resting on two paws, with his body bent and his head on one side, he places himself in an attitude of defiance.” That is Dunne’s translation.
Kitty Mrosovsky renders the same phrase with a slight but significant difference: “One of them remains, standing on two paws . . . ” [“Un seul est resté, et qui se tient sur deux pattes, le corps en demi-cercle et la tête oblique, dans une pose pleine de défiance.”] Anthony remarks out loud that it would mitigate his loneliness were he able to pet the attractive canine, but when he whistles invitingly, the creature runs off “to rejoin his fellows” [“il s’en va rejoindre les autres”]. The little episode, likely to escape the attention of the reader, piquantly if also subtly insists on a necessarily central theme of La Tentation, that namely of the saint’s humanity, or rather of his essential nature qua human. Flaubert never editorializes; he never announces his themes, but he works always by the most subtle indirection. Given that bringing his central personality into face-to-face confrontation with numerous contrasting others is a structural device in the narrative, this early instance of the contrasting gesture must be important to what follows. How so?
The jackals first appear in search of prey; Anthony, weak and alone, is potential prey. The pitched ears and bright eyes of the predators indicate, however, noticeable animal intelligence. The pack’s cooperation indicates its social character. By separating from the pack and by rising in a quasi-human stance, the alpha jackal resembles something halfway between animal and human rather like the satyrs and werewolves of myth. The semblance proves false; he returns to the pack. The animal-human mixture will recur in Part V of La Tentation, where Anthony reviews the totality of known religions from the earliest Mesopotamian cults through to the modern god who calls himself “Science.” It will recur one more time in Part VI, where the chief figures are the Sphinx and the Chimera. An animal might rise towards human status; but then so might a human being lapse back into animal status. Flaubert’s category of bêtise communicates with such a lapse. Flaubert’s idea of consciousness is, moreover, a thoroughly historical idea: For the humble anchorite to represent the struggle of consciousness to ascend to the highest, the visionary or revelatory, niveau, the subject of that consciousness must resume the totality of human experience beginning at the first glimmer of self-awareness.
The episode of the jackal has another meaning: In it Anthony is the tempter rather than the addressee of temptation. The alpha jackal’s “defiance” functions as a paradoxical mute model for Anthony moments before the serial temptations of his phantasmagoric experience commence. The alpha jackal has followed his nature and Anthony must now summon the fortitude to defend his ascetic commitments against the seduction of détente at a lower level of consciousness. Anthony feels the tug of self-pity. At that moment: “The two arms of the cross cast a shadow on the sand; Antony, who is weeping, perceives it.” [“Les deux bras de la croix font une ombre sur le sable; Antoine, qui pleure, l’aperçoit.”]
The symbol calls Anthony back to himself in a notable way. Picking up his Bible he begins to read, by the light of a torch, in the Acts of the Apostles. What he reads, however, far from consoling him provokes his resentment: “Arise, Peter! Kill and eat”; “The Jews slew all their enemies with swords”; “Ezechias . . . showed them his perfumes, his gold and silver, all his aromatics, his sweet-smelling oils, all his precious vases, and the things that were in his treasures.” [“Pierre, lève-toi! tue, et mange”; “Les juifs tuèrent tous leurs ennemis avec des glaives”; “Ézéchias… leur montra ses parfums, son or et son argent, tous ses aromates, ses huiles de senteur, tous ses vases précieux, et ce qu’il y avait dans ses trésors.”] It is the mood of resentment that triggers the sequence of temptations, the first phase of which culminates in the Queen of Sheba.
The way out of the imbroglio is to recognize, as Flaubert has, that resentment is constitutive of consciousness. As Gans reminds his readers in The End of Culture (1985), Western consciousness, as represented in the literary continuum, commences with Achilles’ expression of resentment against Agamemnon in Homer’s Iliad. Gans writes: “Resentment may be defined as the scandal of the peripheral self at the centrality of the other which transforms the equality of the original scene of representation into an absolute polarity of significance.” It is not merely Western consciousness, of course, but consciousness per se that necessarily integrates resentment. For Gans, resentment “differs from mere envy in being directed not at contingent but at communally significant and hence ethically necessary differences.”
Indeed, Anthony’s mood of resentment prompts a vision in which the saint sees himself acting out his resentful impulses in the most extravagant ways. Imagining himself back in Alexandria, Anthony sees “monuments in various styles of architecture . . . an uninterrupted succession of Royal structures . . . [and the] glass, perfume, and paper factories” [“monuments d’architecture différente… une suite interrompue de constructions royales . . . [et les] fabriques de verre, de parfums et papyrus”]. He sees, in other words, the signs of the social and cultural establishment from which he originally exiled himself precisely so as to escape the charisma of their attraction. A militant crowd forms and begins to march through the streets. Anthony thinks to himself that these must be the monks of the Thebaïd – his followers – who have mobilized themselves to kill the heretics, the Arians, who dominate the Church in Alexandria.
When the slaughter begins, Anthony joins in. He “meets all his enemies one after another . . . Before killing them, he outrages them . . . rips them open, cuts their throats, knocks them down, drags the old men by their beards, runs over children, and beats those who are wounded.” [“Antoine retrouve tous ses ennemis l’un après autre . . . avant de les tuer il les outrage . . . ils éventre, égorge, assomme, traîne les vieillards par la barbe, écrase les enfants, frappe les blesses.”] Later, Anthony is led by the Emperor to witness a humiliation: “Anthony perceives slaves at the end of the stalls,” who turn out to be “the fathers of the Council of Nicæa, in rags, abject.” [“Antoine Remarque des esclaves au fond des loges . . . les pères du Concile de Nicée, en haillons, abjects.”]
Anthony has experienced, in the form of a nightmare-hypothesis, what Gans, in The End of Culture, describes as the horror that resentment might burst out in practical realization, which informs Christian morality. “This is to say,” Gans writes, “that the form of sublimation carried out within the Judeo-Christian tradition is ultimately vulnerable to the prior reduction or sublimation of resentment by means internal to the operations of the social structure.” Resentment is “sublimated” when it is deferred, as Anthony defers it by the practical expedient of absenting himself from the social structure. Since his consciousness necessarily takes the social structure with it, however, Anthony can never eliminate resentment – no more than anyone else.
Anthony suffers the seizure, as it were, of resentment even though he grasps that his ascetic discipline draws nourishment from a leap in consciousness that, in a decisive way, leaves the ethos represented by the hoary monuments of Alexandria far behind. One telling sign of this is that in the panorama of Alexandria with which the dream of slaughter commences Anthony sees among the museums and palaces rows of religious statuary representing Hermes on the one hand and Anubis, on the other, with his dog’s head and long snout. As sophisticated as the Late Hellenistic society is, it has not fully disentrammeled itself from its primitive origins. Here one might also pause to recall Flaubert’s representation of Apollonius of Tyana, who mentions to Anthony his dispelling of the plague in Ephesus through fomenting the lapidation of a beggar.
The invocation of Anubis also forcibly recalls the encounter with the jackal, which seems momentarily to yearn towards human status but which retreats into its animality. Religion is, with language, one of the distinguishing marks of the human. Religion articulates itself as revelation. La Tentation de Sainte-Antoine is a revelatory text. In Science & Faith (1990), in a discussion of revelation, Gans remarks that “human self-discovery” is not “an eventless accumulation of knowledge on the model of the evolution of an academic discipline.” Rather, “Man’s ability to extract general laws from a series of empirical observations depends on a language each word of which bears the marks of its origin in a particular event.” A new revelation will constitute “the necessary source of a new human order.” Flaubert’s protagonist participates in the spontaneous formation of such a new order.
In Science & Faith, Gans also writes:
“Even in the highest cultural accomplishments of the old hierarchical societies, from the Egyptian ‘novels’ to the Babylonian epic of creation, we breathe the dead air of ideology. The entire cosmos is depicted as having been conceived and created only to lead up to this monarchy and this monarch, whose authority receives from these texts a broader cultural consecration than that which ritual can provide.”
When Anthony first went into the desert, as Flaubert gives it to him to say: “I selected for my abode the tomb of one of the Pharaohs.” He fled when, as he says, “from the depths of the sarcophagi I heard a mournful voice arise, that called me by name – or rather, as it seemed to me, all the fearful pictures on the walls started into hideous life.” [“D’abord, j’ai choisi pour demeure le tombeau d’un Pharaon . . . De fond des sarcophages j’ai entendu s’élever une voix dolente qui m’appelait; ou bien je voyais vivre, tout à coup, les choses abominables peintes sur les murs.”] The tomb and the hieroglyphs that repel Anthony, repel him because they breathe the stale air of an ideology under which a man claims the status of a god, the ultimate blasphemy and yet one that is as necessary in the articulation of the human as it is contingent. When, at the conclusion of La Tentation, Part V, the final “god” announces itself as “Science” – readers may rightfully infer that Flaubert implies a large degree of identity between idolatry on the one hand and ideology on the other.
Hilarion continues his role as master of ceremonies in La Tentation, Part V, which Dunne in his translation subtitles, “All Gods, All Religions,” but it is the gods who come to the fore. The Anthony of La Tentation departs from the Anthony of Athanasius’ Life, among other ways, by having been something of a lifetime student of comparative religion. The holy man in his monologue at the beginning of Part V tells how, as he says: “I recollect having seen hundreds of [gods] at a time, in the Island of Elephantinum, in the reign of Dioclesian. The Emperor had given up to the nomads a large territory, on condition that they should protect the frontiers; and the treaty was concluded in the name of the invisible Powers.” [“Je me rappelle en avoir vu des centaines (des dieux) à la fois, dans l’île d’Éléphantine, du temps du Dioclétien. L’empereur avait cédé aux nomades un grand pays, à la condition qu’ils gardent les frontières; et le traité fut conclu au nom des ‘Puissances invisibles.’”]
Immediately thereafter in the text, Anthony reports how: “When I dwelt in the Temple of Heliopolis, I used often to contemplate all the objects on the walls: vultures carrying scepters, crocodiles playing on lyres, men’s faces joined to serpents’ bodies, women with cows’ heads prostrated before the ithyphallic deities; and their supernatural forms carried me away into other worlds.” [“Quand j’ai habité le temple d’Héliopolis, j’ai souvent considéré tout ce qu’il y a sur les murailles: vautours portant des sceptres, crocodiles pinçant des lyres, figures d’hommes avec des corps de serpent, femmes à tête de vache prosternée devant les dieux ithyphalliques; et leurs formes surnaturelles m’entrainaient vers d’autres mondes.”]
Once again the images drag the viewer in the direction, not of openness to the prospect of human being, unfolding in its potentiality, but backwards, into the sacred and totemistic phases of human development. The images are materialistic. Anthony remarks that “in order that matter should have so much power, it should contain spirit” [“pour que de la matière ait tant de pouvoir, il faut qu’elle contienne un esprit”] – words that suggest the absence, not the presence, of that selfsame “spirit.” Such idols do in fact constitute the center of a scene that gives rise to representation and the mutual awareness of being suddenly in communion with others, but in a way that has gone flat, so to speak. In the cortege of the gods, all the apparitions partake in the same staleness, fascinating though they are.
Buddha, appears first, hovering in space, surrounded by a myriad of gods who themselves seem to be his worshippers. Buddha’s self-explanation reaches its climax in a kind of Armageddon in which Anthony sees the gods “fall into convulsions and vomit forth their existences” [“tombent dans les convulsions, et vomissent leurs existences”]. The primordial Mesopotamian deity, Oannes, comes next, describing himself as: “The first consciousness of chaos” [“le première conscience de Chaos”]. Oannes has “arisen from the abyss to harden matter, to regulate forms” [“j’ai surgi de l’abîme pour durcir la matière, pour régler les formes”]. Oannes, who has “the head of a man and the body of a fish” [“une tête d’homme sur un corps de poisson,”] also recounts how he taught men how to worship the gods and to fish.
Flaubert extends his catalogue until it constitutes something like an encyclopedia of gods and religions. In every case, the divine manifestation entails violence. All of the Olympian gods, for example, commit suicide or sink down into humiliated oblivion. It is a tour de force both of erudition and deadly repetition. The voice of Yahweh, when it comes, is an anticlimax, to be followed by the ravings of a capitalized Science, who declares his domain to be “as wide as the universe” [“de la dimension de l’univers”]; and who says of himself that “my desire has no limits” [“mon désir n’a pas de borne”]. Oannes, the most primitive god, claims to incarnate “consciousness,” in French conscience; but the name (Science) of the self-proclaiming ultimate god offers up a morphological deficiency with an ontological implication. The initial syllable, signifying communal awareness, has gone missing. Science tells Anthony that, “I am always going about enfranchising minds” [“je vais toujours affranchissant l’esprit”]. Science describes himself as “without hate, without fear, without pity, without love and without God” [“sans haine, sans peur, sans pitié, sans amour et sans Dieu”].
Flaubert’s fearsome irony calls attention to itself: The earliest god, Oannes, surpasses the ultimate god, Science, in human qualities. Having taught men how to fish is an ethical act after all. Science defines himself as an entity possessing unlimited desire, but at the same time he boasts of being unencumbered by capacities that would seem to be inextricably related to desire. One suspects that the phrase “enfranchising minds” means subordinating minds to an imperious, a closed, system. In other words, enfranchisement means obliteration – of mind and of any possibility of contingency that might reawaken mind. Anthony, hearing all this, immediately suspects that Science is the Devil in disguise.
In La Tentation, Part VI, Science has morphed into the Devil, but the Devil’s shadow has been present since the moment in Part I where the shadow of the Cross looks for a passing instant like a pair of demonic horns. Anthony says that the Devil’s voice sounds familiar to him: “It appears to him an echo of his thought – a response of his memory” [“elle lui semble un écho de sa pensée – une réponse de sa mémoire”]. Flaubert here alludes by extreme indirection to two Biblical events, the revelation of God to Moses in the form of the burning bush that is not consumed from which issues a bodiless voice, and the revelation of Jesus to Saul, henceforth Paul, on the Road to Damascus in the form of a blinding supernal luminosity and a bodiless voice.
Flaubert’s Devil does not offer revelation; nor does he articulate any symbol of set of symbols. Rather he systematically abolishes the symbols articulated through previous revelations by declaring in effect that nothing whatever exists save for matter and the void. Readers cannot fail to notice the relish with which the Devil “de-reveals” the layers of mythic and philosophic symbols while he conducts Anthony on a planetarium-style tour of the cosmos. As the earth dwindles beneath him, Anthony strains his ears to detect the Music of the Spheres. The Devil says: “You cannot hear them! No longer will you see the antichthon of Plato, the focus of Philolaüs, the spheres of Aristotle, or the seven heavens of the Jews with the great waters above the vault of crystal!” [“Tu ne les entendre pas! Tu ne verra pas, non plus, l’anticthon de Platon, le foyer de Philolaüs, les sphères d’Aristote, nu les sept cieux des Juifs avec les grandes eaux par-dessus la voûte de cristal!”].
As Gans writes in Science & Faith: “The fundamental subject-matter of religious revelation is not the mysteries of nature, with which pre-human being could never have concerned itself, but the mystery of the human community that the scene unites around its center.” Likewise the Satanic falsification of cosmological hypotheses cannot disestablish the anthropological truths of revelation. Thus the Devil’s many syllogisms, in resembling Hilarion’s syllogisms from La Tentation, Part III, mirror their emptiness. They are sophistical in that they aim, not at articulating any truth, but simply at installing the speaker indomitably in the center of the scene.
Anthony, whose intellectual resources, as opposed to his basic intuition, are small in comparison with those of the demonic sophist, experiences simultaneously two types of bedazzlement. First, he reacts positively to the sublimity of what he takes for God’s creation hence also as a proof of God; second, he totters on succumbing to the rhetorical devices of the Devil’s travelogue. The doubt is inseparable from the faith. In addition, the things whose supposed non-existence the Devil supposedly demonstrates never had any empirical existence to begin with, and to interpret them that way is to miss their essentially symbolic function in the philosophical systems from which they come. “Resentment,” as Gans writes in Science & Faith, “is negative revelation.” Flaubert’s Devil may therefore be “read” as the figure of the resentment generated by the theological minimalism of Christian revelation, represented by Anthony’s radically ascetic discipline. To the extent that, “to take a god’s place is always a sacrilege; and such a sacrilege can only be authorized by this or another god” (Science & Faith), this very event has already occurred. The most the Devil can do is to shadow it in the form of an empty imitation.
In La Tentation, Part VII, amidst the zoological and teratological phantasmagoria, which include the apparitions of the Sphinx and the Chimera, the most significant manifestation is that of the Cynocephali: “A forest appears in which huge apes rush along on four paws – they are men with dogs’ heads” [“une foret paraît (dans laquelle) de grands singes y courent à quatre pattes – ce sont des hommes à tête de chien”]. Flaubert has lifted his characterization of the cynocephali from Swift’s Yahoos or their equivalent in French literature. Yet, like everything else in the proliferation of hybrid life-forms, they can speak; they participate in language. They thus reveal themselves, as having crossed the threshold from animal to human status.
This puts them in contrast to the jackals in La Tentation, Part I. The hybrid forms belong, no doubt, to the totemic figures and sacrificial monstrosities of myths and tribal rituals. Anthony himself has gone far beyond such representations, enabled in his transcendence of them by the refinements of the new faith. In his study of Madame Bovary (1989), writing of the final version of La Tentation, Gans interprets Part V as showing that, “Anthony goes beyond the question of grace or damnation to achieve spiritual peace in a pantheistic union with protoplasmic matter.” A close look at the text suggests that Anthony’s achievement might consist in something more specific than that, which nevertheless affirms a Generative Anthropological reading of the text.
The final vision in La Tentation, following the anchorite’s prayer-like wish “to become matter” [“être la matière,”] which seems to enfold Anthony will-he or nill-he as much as he stands apart witnessing it, consists of “the dawn . . . and, like the uplifted curtains of a tabernacle, golden clouds, wreathing themselves into large volutes,” in the middle of which “in the disc of the sun itself, shines the face of Jesus Christ” [“le jour. . . et comme les rideaux d’un tabernacle qu’on relève, des nuages d’or en s’enroulant à larges volutes découvrent le ciel” (au milieu de laquelle) et dans le disque même du soleil rayonne la face de Jésus Christ”]. The phenomenon of luminosity is important – for light is equivalent with consciousness. More important, however, is the final line of Flaubert’s text: “Anthony makes the sign of the cross and resumes his prayer” [“Antoine fait le Signe de la croix et se remet en prières”]. Thus, what begins in Part I in a scene, ends in Part VII with the production of a sign, which is the minimal expression of a new minimal revelation.
Some Further Thoughts about La Tentation
If Three Soldiers by Dos Passos were La Tentation’s progeny then The Life of Saint Anthony by Athanasius would be La Tentation’s progenitor. The Life is itself worthy of consideration. The Life is of interest, for example, for being the first Christian hagiography. Earlier writers had produced hagiographies by other names. The Life of Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus has already been cited; there is a Life (Middle Second Century) of the philosopher Demonax by his student Lucian of Samosata and there is Prophyry’s Life (Late Third Century) of his teacher Plotinus. Where Both Philostratus and Porphyry were Pagan anti-Christians, Lucian seems more neutral in his attitude towards Christianity than Philostratus or Porphyry. Lucian’s subject, Demonax, could quite easily be Christianized with only a few alterations of the text. Athanasius, well educated, was undoubtedly aware of such works, and he had another model in the Acts of the Apostles. In The Life of Apollonius Philostratus created a self-consciously literary work, as did Lucian in writing on Demonax, something which cannot be said of Porphyry on Plotinus. The aim of Athansius in writing The Life of Saint Anthony was not literary refinement but plain documentation of the holy man’s exemplarity, but his text is not lacking in interest.
The relation of La Tentation to The Life is peculiar. The protagonist of the Flaubertian theater-of-the-mind differs from the saint of the Athanasian portrait in any number of ways. For example, Flaubert’s Anthony reads and writes and in the course of the narrative recites passages aloud from his Bible, but according to Athanasius, Anthony “while he was still a boy refused to learn to read and write” (Carolinne White’s translation). On the other hand Flaubert represents Anthony as much less intellectual, than does Athanasius. Flaubert’s Anthony listens to long disquisitions but rarely responds at length; he speaks mostly in short speeches that are remarkably un-rhetorical. The Anthony of The Life although illiterate is a skilled rhetorician among whose achievements is his facility in dialectic. Three times in The Life Anthony disputes with Pagan theologians. On one occasion, when the Pagans mock Anthony’s illiteracy, he responds with a sophistical construction that might make for a problem in Athansius’ text, as a text. “Answer me,” he requests of his disputants: “What comes first, mind or letter? And which is the cause of which?” The disputants can only acquiesce in the thesis that mind is the cause of letters whereupon the saint says: “So if anyone’s mind is sound, he has no need of letters.” According to Athanasius, no one was present “who did not exclaim in astonishment,” and everyone “marveled at such great sagacity.”
On another occasion, Anthony makes a long speech, rehearsing what astute readers will recognize as a version of Plato’s condemnation of the myth-poets in The Polity: “Is it not better to endure the cross or a death of this kind inflicted by wicked men than to bewail the unsettled and dubious travels of Isis in search of Osiris? Are you not embarrassed, I ask, by the plots of Typhon, the flight of Saturn and his most cruel devouring of his children?” It goes on with a wealth of mythic detail which might be known, on the basis of tradition, by a letterless man, but which gives off an aura of literate and even scholarly knowledge in its precision of detail.
Several paragraphs later in the same speech, Anthony critiques what he calls the “distorted logic” of the allegorical interpretations that Alexandrian Late Paganism used to salvage the appearances of myth: “You claim that the obscene and cruel behavior of your gods, their deceptions and their deaths are but myths and so you veil them in allegory… The rape of Libera represents the earth, the half-lame and weak Vulcan represents fire; Juno, the air; Apollo, the sun: Diana, the moon; Neptune, the seas; while Jupiter, the foremost, represents the sky.” A bit later, Anthony does say that he invests nothing in dialectics but is only turning the instruments of “secular wisdom” against the secularists; yet that too is sophistical. In La Tentation, that is the type of rhetorical subversion given by Flaubert to Pseudo-Hilarion.
In I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, in the chapter on “The Horrible Miracle of Apollonius of Tyana,” Girard notes that the Church Father Eusebius (260 – 340), in commenting on the stoning at Ephesus, fails utterly to condemn it. Instead, Girard writes: “Eusebius sets out to show particularly that the miracles of Apollonius are not impressive at all. He never denounces the monstrous stoning . . . he reduces the debate, just like the partisans of the guru, to a mimetic rivalry between miracle workers.” What Girard says of Eusebius applies to the portrayal of Anthony in Athanasius’ Life. Another way in which the prototype of the hagiography differs from the literary adaption of him in La Tentation is that the prototype much more prone than the adaptation of him to entering into rivalry.
Consider the episode of the Alexandrian Inquisitor, Balacius, who undertakes to prosecute Anthony for religious subversion. Balacius is an Arian; Anthony is an adherent of the Nicene Creed. According to Athanasius, Balacius “was persecuting the Church of Christ so violently that in his madness he would have virgins and monks stripped and beaten in public.” Anthony, hearing of these outrages, sends a letter, presumably dictated, to Balacius in which he warns that, “I see God’s anger coming upon you.” Athanasius writes: “The accursed man read the letter and laughed; spitting on it he threw it to the ground.” Organizing a posse, Balacius heads toward the remote desert to see to Anthony personally, but before he can get to his destination, he is attacked by his lieutenant’s horse, which then “ripped his thighs apart and devoured the pieces.” Balacius is transported back to Alexandria but dies of his wounds three days later, having lived long enough to feel the full humiliation and pain of his rebuke. “And so,” Athanasius writes, “everyone realized that Anthony’s threats… had swiftly been fulfilled and that the persecutor had come to a fitting end.”
Elsewhere, in respect of Anthony’s many exorcisms and cures, Athanasius carefully makes the saint the mediator of divine power, not its originator, but those qualifications go entirely absent in the Balacius episode, whose climax has a sparagmatic quality. Whereas Anthony, assailed by the Devil and his minions on the one hand and the Devil’s human allies in the form of the Pagans and heretics on the other, functions as the scapegoat in the hagiography, Balacius functions as the scapegoat of the hagiography. In the Balacius episode, at least, The Life is quite as mythic as the myths that Anthony so eloquently denounces. Anthony’s hatred of the Arians is likewise un-Christ-like; or at least one must say that Athanasius’ narrative is often myth-like in its construction rather than resembling the Gospel: “He loathed the Arians . . . warning everyone not to go near them.”
Sufficiently aroused, Anthony leaves the Thebaïd and goes to Alexandria where he preaches against “the Arians’ madness.” Flaubert’s Anthony sticks to his Nicene faith; he experiences the intoxication of violence representationally, in his vision, not in actuality. As the vision is Anthony’s temptation, he is obliged in actuality to renounce ire. Flaubert makes Anthony over to be much more irenic, a better word than “passive,” than does Athanasius. In this sense, La Tentation might qualify itself as more essentially a Christian text than its Late-Antique source, whatever was Flaubert’s faith or lack thereof.
An impressive figure of Satan as the spirit of resentment appears in The Life that undoubtedly exerted suggestive influence on Flaubert. One night Anthony hears a voice telling him to get up and go outside. Athanasius writes: “Raising his eyes to heaven, he saw something tall and terrifying, his head reaching as far as the clouds; he also saw some winged creatures attempting to fly up to heaven, but the tall being stretched out his arms to prevent them getting through.” Some aspirants make it past, but others the monstrosity catches and dashes back to the ground. Anthony, interpreting what he sees, thinks to himself that, “Those who got the better of [the monster] caused him grief but those who were beaten back gave him the greatest joy.” This image reappears in Flaubert’s text both as the gigantic Pseudo-Hilarion of Part III and the Devil of Part VI, both of whom relentlessly try to discompose the saint’s faith by ferocious dialectical iconoclasm.
The vision of Satan finds its antipode in The Life in an apparition of the Savior. It is early in Anthony’s exodus into the desert. The Devil has sent an army of demons to terrorize Anthony. “The face of each bore a savage expression . . . Anthony, beaten and mauled, experienced . . . atrocious pains in his body but he remained unafraid, his mind alert.” Raising his eyes, Anthony sees the roof of the shack where he has taken refuge vanish whereupon “a ray of light poured in on him.” Anthony identifies the light with Jesus, but utters what might be taken for a complaint: “Where were you, good Jesus?” The response comes in the form of a bodiless voice: “Anthony, I was here, but I was waiting to watch your struggle.” Many years later, drawing on this experience, Anthony preaches a long sermon to the monks of the desert in which he argues that Satan’s demons torture the righteous because they – that is, the demons – “are tortured by their envy of us.”
Athanasius’ hagiography is a peculiar mixture of mythemes and the transcendence of mythemes. Anthony takes preemptive revenge on Balacius around whose gruesome death the early readership of the text would undoubtedly have experienced a sacrificial unanimity at odds with the non-sacrificial epistemology of the Gospels or of Paul’s conversion, on which Athanasius draws in the episode just now related. A passage from Girard is relevant to the mélange of insight and crudity in The Life. In I See Satan Fall, in the chapter entitled “The Victory of the Cross,” Girard writes: “Before Christ and the Bible the satanic accusation was always victorious by virtue of the violent contagion that imprisoned human beings within systems of myth and ritual. The Crucifixion reduces mythology to powerlessness by exposing violent contagion, which is so effective in myths that it prevents communities from ever finding out the truth, namely the innocence, of their victims.”
The events of the Passion needed, however, to pass through the visionary experience of Saint Paul before they could become the foundation of Christianity. In A New Way of Thinking (2011), Gans identifies “the key event of Christian revelation” as the moment when, on the famous Road to Damascus, “Jesus appears to Saul as the one he persecutes.” Gans argues that, “By accepting to make this one human being responsible . . . for transcendence itself, by accepting the divinity of human firstness, Saul freed himself from the burden of resentment.”
As Girard’s observation about Eusebius – in a refutation of Apollonius of Tyana, Eusebius has nothing whatever to say about the malicious stoning – suggests, however, the revelation of the scapegoating mechanism although present in the Passion does not immediately communicate itself. The victimary mechanism continues to function, but now does so in an increasingly ineffective way that, itself, constitutes a crisis and requires more victims. Similarly, while Paul was able to overcome resentment and achieve transcendence through his vision of Christ as the one whose divinity is certified by his persecution and murder, and while a small minority was able to share Paul’s understanding, most people, the vast majority, did not participate in the theophany. They continued to be confined within the immemorial closed horizon of ritual. The progress of the Christian Logos has been all at once immensely slow and yet immensely destabilizing. Flaubert’s insight in La Tentation is that one way in which the progress of the Christian Logos is slowed is by the reduction of symbols to doctrines.
In The Ecumenic Age, in the chapter on “The Pauline Vision of the Resurrection,” Voegelin writes how “in the letters of Paul, the central issue is not a doctrine but the assurance of immortalizing transfiguration through the vision of the Resurrected.” Voegelin adds that “transfiguration is experienced [by Paul] as an ‘historical’ event that has begun with the Passion and Resurrection of Christ.” Voegelin distrusts the Patristic Christianity that emerges through the Church Councils and prefers – as Flaubert seems to also in La Tentation – the pre-doctrinal Christianity. “Paul . . . moved,” as Voegelin writes, “in an open field of theophany.” In Voegelin’s characterization, Paul’s Christ “is presented as a superior divinity in competition with the ‘elemental spirits’ (stoicheia) of the cosmos.” Voegelin fin s evidence for his thesis in Paul’s Letters to the various congregations in which he rebukes them for “backsliding to the cult of stoicheia.” In Voegelin’s argument, “the early Patres . . . found one or another subordinationist construction to be the most suitable symbolism for expressing the relation of the Son to the Father-God.” For Voegelin “the Athanasian victory” at Nicaea in 325 “put an end to this generous openness.” Voegelin indeed finds ditheism preferable to tritheism precisely because in the latter there is a “transition from the open field of theophany to the realm of dogmatic construction.” Voegelin insists that “the ‘Christ’ of Nicaea and Chalcedon is not the reality of theophanic history that confronts us in the Pauline vision of the Resurrected.”
What Girard refers to as the action of the Logos in the events of the Passion would certainly qualify under Voegelin’s notion of a leap in being through a new differentiation in consciousness. Generative Anthropology too is a theory of consciousness wherein, once consciousness, language, and culture make their appearance on the Originary Scene in the grammatical form of the ostensive, they then develop through the grammatical phases of the imperative and the negated imperative to the stage of mature language: And beyond that, by baroque effusion down through the millennia, into every possible form of ritual and myth and the recovery from myth. All three discourses must grapple with historical forms in and through which consciousness has self-articulated across the ages.
While all three discourses trace a path of increasing anthropological self-clarity emerging from signal events, all three also admit the possibility of regression – of a collapse back into less differentiated states. Voegelin and Girard are more wary of Modernity as a likely case of cultural backsliding than is Gans; although latterly, in light of the rise of victimary culture, Gans too has begun to express alarm concerning socio-cultural trends. Whereas Modernity prides itself on its critical stance towards inherited wisdom, Voegelin, Girard, and Gans doubt the veracity of an exclusively modern critique that detaches itself from the cultural continuum while demoting religion, particularly Christianity, to superstition thereby making it disposable. On the contrary, all three are remarkably sensitive to the ethical implications of myth on the one hand and revelation on the other, in which they find echoes of human origin and, in the two Testaments, the bases for a non-arbitrary morality that, epochally, refuses to designate victims.
Modernity, experiencing itself as a new apocalypse that abolishes all others, can make neither heads nor tails of La Tentation. Michel Foucault, in his essay (1967) on the topic, simply assumes that Flaubert must have been concerned with everything except a serious study of comparative religion or anthropology. For Foucault La Tentation consists in no more than its own fiendishly elaborate intertextuality; it is a palimpsest of readerly associations summed up in the title of his essay, “Fantasia of the Library.” Thus Flaubert could have been interested in Jacques Matter’s Histoire critique du gnosticisme et de son influence (1828), as Foucault sees it, only as a resource for furnishing his own text with the mass of references required by a project of bibliographical bricolage without a real meaning. Matter’s treatise will, itself, have been for Foucault no more than another text, now having a certain antiquarian interest because of its relation to Flaubert’s weirdly virtuosic résumé of religious exoticism. Yet Voegelin, writing in Science Politics and Gnosticism (1968) characterizes the Histoire critique as belonging to a body of profound self-knowledge that is now lost – a loss that marks a catastrophic contraction of consciousness currently afflicting the West.
Voegelin admired Flaubert as a master symbolist and singled out La Tentation as a masterful exploration of the symbols by and through which the Western consciousness has articulated itself or by and through which, in “pseudo-philosophical terms,” it has obscured itself. In Dos Passos’ Three Soldiers, John Andrews, whose first name goes back to that of the primordial Mesopotamian god, while recuperating, has been reading La Tentation. He lets the basic spirit of the book penetrate his existence: “His mind was full of intangible floating glow, like the ocean on a warm night, when every wave breaks into pale flame, and mysterious milky lights keep rising to the surface out of the dark waters and gleaming and vanishing. He became absorbed in the strange fluid harmonies that permeated his whole body, as a grey sky at nightfall suddenly becomes filled with endlessly changing patterns of light and color and shadow.” A YMCA man, visiting the wounded in hospital, tries to proselytize Andrews, who, however, replies that “I make no pretensions to Christianity.” That thought would represent Dos Passos’ understanding of La Tentation and perhaps also Flaubert’s: The paradox that Christianity must at last make no pretensions to itself.
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