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Flaubert’s Tentation de Saint-Antoine: Three Approaches (Part I)

Introduction: A Nameless Genre

Gustave Flaubert’s Tentation de Saint-Antoine ou la révélation de l’âme (first version 1848; final version 1874), its sui generis character notwithstanding, belongs in a recognizable, yet largely unrecognized, genre of mid- and late-Nineteenth Century literature that includes, among other items, Charles Kingsley’s Hypatia (1850), Henrik Ibsen’s Kejser og Galileer (1871), Richard Wagner’s incomplete Jesus von Nazareth (1849) and his libretto for Parsifal (1882), Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean (1885), General Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur (1880), Anatole France’s Thaïs (1890), and Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis (1895).  The genre has no name; it is a hybrid in that it assimilates drama, epic, the novel, the essay, and perhaps even lyric, without distinction and therefore quite promiscuously and un-generically.

The nameless, promiscuous, un-generic genre nevertheless succeeds in constituting itself through its specific fascination with the breakdown of Classical Civilization and the growth of the successor-civilization that articulated itself through the codification of Christian orthodoxy and the establishment of a new central institution, the Church, with its precepts and rites.  The writers who contribute to this nameless strand of often bizarre literary creativity necessarily also take interest in the relation of the Imperial centuries down through the period of Late Antiquity to modernity, which seems to them likewise imperial, fugacious, and overripe.  The literary representation of Christianity’s founding events or of the emergent Christian order’s formative travails thus frequently furnishes the writer with the opportunity to conduct a critique, by indirection, of modernity, a tendency that joins the purely literary endeavor to the speculative endeavor of historio-philosophy.

In this way, La Tentation or Kejser og Galileer or Marius communicates with a related, non-fiction genre that takes up the discussion of Christianity either as apologetics or skeptical polemics, as in François-René de Chateaubriand’s Genie du Christianisme (1801) and Søren Kierkegaard’s Practice in Christianity (1850), on the one hand, or in Ludwig Feuerbach’s Wesen des Christentums (1841) and Ernest Renan’s Vie de Jésus (1863), on the other.  The nameless genre tends to be partial although not uncritical with respect to Christianity while refraining from any blanket rejection of Paganism.  Sometimes it seeks a dialectical reconciliation of the two.

This nameless but recognizable, yet largely unrecognized, genre, in which La Tentation figures both as typical and outstanding, identifies itself again through its erudition: Flaubert worked on La Tentation for more than twenty-five years, during which time he read through a sizeable library of primary and secondary works on Christianity, Philosophical Paganism, and the history of Late Antiquity.  It was only by similar arduous preparation that Ibsen fitted himself to write his Verdens-Historisk Skuespill (“World-Historic Drama”) about Julian the Apostate and Wagner the libretto for his Bühnenweihfestspiel (“Festive Stage-Consecration Play”) about the Sodality of the Holy Grail, to cite but two of the other examples that have already been given.  It goes beyond erudition.

In La Tentation especially, with its form of an immense soliloquy between sunset and sunrise, Flaubert gives the impression of having immersed himself in the antique monastic exercise, the goal of that immersion being nothing less than to relive not only the crucial moment in the saintly life – to re-experience the Temptation – but also to grasp, in a kind of mystic vision, the total historical situation in which that life has its context and from which it takes its meaning.  That the vision must be anthropological, a “revelation of the soul,” as well as theological nearly goes without saying.  That the vision arises in a milieu of ideological strife and raw violence also nearly goes without saying, whether one is speaking of the Fourth Century or the Nineteenth Century.  In a border-situation of social dissolution, it becomes necessary to recapitulate an inaugural or originary event.  Indeed, Flaubert’s juxtaposition of sectarian warfare with its insistent rhetorical justification, and his intense empathy with the spiritual fugue that these controversies provoke, lends to La Tentation a powerful anticipatory relevance to the Twentieth Century, whose cohorts have experienced their time as a passage through ideologically driven catastrophe.

Take, for example, John Dos Passos’ Three Soldiers (1921), an autobiographical novelization of the author’s experience in the First World War in whose pages readers would perhaps little expect to find overt allusions to Flaubert’s weird text.  Even so, such allusions insistently appear.  They are even central to the story.  Dos Passos’ protagonist, the cynosure personality among the three titular conscripts, is John Andrews, a young musician who hopes to become a composer.  Andrews harbors the ambition, no less, to set La Tentation as an opera.  Wounded by shrapnel while on the march to the front and invalided to a military hospital, Andrews suffers afflicting dreams while fighting to recover through pain and narcosis.  Awakening suddenly to his first clarity, he thinks to himself, “Funny that the Queen of Sheba had come to his head.”  The thought connects itself to a girl standing beneath a tree at a crossroads, one of the last things he remembers seeing before the shell struck.  Andrews repeats to himself, “La reine de Saba, la reine de Saba.”

Once more in a fog, he mistakes the night-nurse for his obsession: “The Queen of Sheba carried a parasol with little vermilion bells all round it that gave out a cool tinkle as she walked towards him. She wore her hair in a high headdress thickly powdered with blue iris powder, and on her long train, that a monkey held up at the end, were embroidered in gaudy colors the signs of the zodiac.”  That is practically a verbatim lift from La Tentation.  In M. Walter Dunne’s English of 1904, the line reads: “As she comes forward, she swings a green parasol with an ivory handle surrounded by vermilion bells; and twelve curly Negro boys carry the long train of her robe, the end of which is held by an ape, who raises it every now and then.”

Other details of Three Soldiers also originate in Flaubert.  They relate directly to La Tentation.  Regaining strength, Andrews requests Applebaum, a visiting fellow soldier, to “buy me a book . . . a special book . . . a French book.”  Applebaum’s response when Andrews writes the title on a slip of paper is: “Who’s Antoine?”  He adds quickly, “Gee whiz, I bet that’s hot stuff”; and, “I wish I could read French.”

Before being wounded, Andrews, while barracked in a village, becomes acquainted with a girl of easy virtue by the name of Antoinette, whom the soldier tends, in his fantasies, to identify with the Queen of Sheba.  When Andrews brings his friend Chrisfield to the place of business, a run-down wine shop, Antoinette appears as “a girl in a faded frock of some purplish material that showed the strong curves of her shoulders and breasts,” who “smiled when she saw the two soldiers, drawing her thin lips away from her ugly yellow teeth.”  Once more, she “showed her bad teeth in a smile,” after which her visage “became impassive and beautiful again.”

As one might ask: Qu’est-ce qu’une tentation?  The image of Antoinette vacillates between an ideal, which can hardly be anything else than an illusion, and the carious actuality, which eyes Chrisfield “admiringly,” but walks away with another customer whose billfold is presumably bigger.  Andrews tells Chrisfield, “There’s always the Queen of Sheba,” making the ideal a substitute for the reality, a consolation that is lost on Chrisfield.  Later, in his hospital bed, Andrews stirs himself “to think about the music [that] he [had] intended to write about the Queen of Sheba.”  That was before his conscription, before the basic training “stripped his life off” and “made a soldier of him.”  As the likelihood increases that he will recover fully, but will return to the battlefield, Andrews becomes increasingly fixated on Flaubert’s text although it remains unclear how fully he has grasped its meaning.  He imagines himself “in the dark desert of despair.”

In a long Flaubertian descriptive sequence, Dos Passos gives it to Andrews to imagine the “Sheba” episode of La Tentation, with himself standing in for the saint: “Through the flare of torchlight, the Queen, of Sheba would advance towards him, covered with emeralds and dull-gold ornaments, with a monkey hopping behind holding up the end of her long train.  She would put her hand with its slim fantastic nails on his shoulder; and, looking into her eyes, he would suddenly feel within reach all the fiery imaginings of his desire.”  Andrews reflects in a mood of ennui, “Oh, if only he could be free to work,” a sentiment not foreign to the saint’s monologue in Flaubert’s version of his story.

The original Anthony had forsaken home and family when still young to work on his soul in the solitude of the desert, but to fulfill that work he must refuse desire, and not facilitate its completion.  Sheba’s allure threatens the destruction of Anthony’s opus, his Imitatio Christi. As for Andrews, “After he had eaten, he picked up the ‘Tentation de Saint Antoine,’ that lay on the cot beside his immovable legs, and buried himself in it, reading the gorgeously modulated sentences voraciously, as if the book were a drug in which he could drink deep forgetfulness of himself.”  In the mood of forgetfulness, Andrews blends a bit with Anthony in that Anthony’s radical askesis entails systematic suppression of the ego.

Andrews awaits inspiration, which omits to descend: “When he tried to seize hold of his thoughts, to give them definite musical expression in his mind, he found himself suddenly empty, the way a sandy inlet on the beach that has been full of shoals of silver fishes, becomes suddenly empty when a shadow crosses the water, and the man who is watching sees wanly his own reflection instead of the flickering of thousands of tiny silver bodies.”  Here again Dos Passos is not merely alluding to La Tentation; he is imitating Flaubert’s style in homage to the master.  La Tentation is replete with such lapidary constructions; so is Three Soldiers.

Andrews resembles Flaubert’s Anthony in one way, perhaps, more than another.  Famously, in Anthony’s Dark Night of the Soul, the Devil in his legion assailed the hermit, tempting him to self-betrayal.  Athanasius in his Life of Saint Anthony, on which Flaubert drew, describes the action vividly, noting that it prolonged itself for twenty years and remarking how the imps and demons physically battered the saint in their attempt to wring from him a denial of his faith.  Demonic forces assail Andrews, too, in the form of the omnipresent Military Policemen or M.P.’s.  “The M.P.’s sure won’t get us tonight,” a character named Henslowe says, hopefully.   When, during an absence-without-leave in Paris, “Two M.P.’s [pass] outside the window,” Andrews senses himself to be “joyfully secure from them.”  Later the paranoid certainty grows on Andrews that “the M.P.’s would get him.”

The M.P.’s are the agents of the regime that strips the life from people; that herds and regiments them, as nations have done since Napoleon.  Indeed, the M.P.’s get Andrews, leaving the unfinished sketch of his Tentation-opera on a table in a garret to scatter its leaves on the wind.  This ignominy only happens, however, after one last arch-foregrounding of Flaubert’s masterpiece.  Andrews the deserter has made the acquaintance of Genevieve Rod, whom his friend Aubrey describes as belonging to a family “very advanced,” au courant that is, and correct, holding all the properly vetted opinions.  Aubrey tells Andrews that Mademoiselle Rod wishes to learn about American music.  Andrews’ usual intuition, when Sheba is present, fails; nor does he suspect until it is too late that Genevieve is, in her way, an M.P.

The Rods have invited Andrews to tea.  He plays piano while engaging in causerie with Genevieve.  Dos Passos writes, “As he played without looking at her, he felt that her eyes were fixed on him.”  Suddenly “her hand touched his shoulder,” a gesture that recalls the earlier phantasmagoria of Sheba, in which the fabled queen “would put her hand with its slim fantastic nails on his shoulder.”  The familiarity arrests his performance.  Genevieve apologizes for distracting Andrews and asks what he was playing.  He demurs to say but she guesses that he was experimenting with his own composition.  What was it, she wants to know?  He asks her, “Have you ever read La Tentation de Saint Antoine?”  She replies, not affirming that she has read it, that, “It’s not [Flaubert’s] best work” despite being “a very interesting failure though.”

Andrews, rising, throttling his temper, says, “They seem to teach everybody to say that.”  After those words, although he sticks with Genevieve, Andrews experiences growing alienation that can lead only to a full break.  Andrews has made statements to Genevieve, which indicate to her approval, his espousal of socialism.  In his last conversation with her, however, he contradicts her assumption.  He has had a vision of pervasive evil, of history as an inescapable cycle of suffering and purgation.  “It seems to me,” he says, “that human society has been always that, and perhaps will be always that: organizations growing and stifling individuals, and individuals revolting hopelessly against them, and at last forming new societies to crush the old societies and becoming slaves again in their turn…”  Dos Passos’ ellipsis suggests Andrews’ conviction of a world without end and without transcendence.

Three Soldiers, in absorbing La Tentation into itself, situates itself somewhat oddly in the recent evolution, or devolution, of Western consciousness, with its attendant variations, or deformations, of anthropology and esthetics.  That Dos Passos saw himself continuing an esthetic tradition with a French origin going back to Symbolism is made clear from the insistent self-conscious stylism, as it might be called, of his prose.  (Just after the war Dos Passos became a student at the Sorbonne.)  The passage representing the incident of Andrews’ casualty furnishes an example.  Andrews has broken from his march to bathe his feet in a pond whose cool green waters a chorus of frogs comically enlivens.  “Absently,” Dos Passos writes, “as if he had no connection with all that went on about him, he heard the twang of bursting shrapnel down the road.”  He finds himself “sinking into the puddle” while “a feeling of relief came over him.”  He half-notices that “the frogs had gone, but from somewhere a little stream of red was creeping out slowly into the putty-colored water.”  Reality befalls Andrews “as if he were . . . in a box of a theater watching some dreary monotonous play.”

Whereas in the usual classification of American writers the academic critics categorize Dos Passos as a high modernist – which, in his full phase he perhaps really is – nevertheless in Three Soldiers he works in an earlier ethos that defies the expectation of absolute realism associated with the war-narratives of Henri Barbusse, Rainer Maria Remarque, and Ernest Hemingway.  Writing of the realist school in Originary Thinking (1993), Eric Gans argues that: “Just as l’art pour l’art is the radical extension of ‘right’ romanticism after 1848, realism is that of the ‘left.’  The former attacks bourgeois utility in the name of art; [but] the latter attacks bourgeois complacency in the name of truth.”  Gans adds that, “Realism insists on representing the ugly sides of life that art has traditionally passed over as un-ideal.”  Dos Passos spares his readers no ugliness in Three Soldiers, but in conflating bourgeois complacency and socialism, as he does, and in attaching his own text to Flaubert’s anomalous and reactionary religious extravaganza, he takes a position at right angles to any historical scheme.

If, as Gans plausibly argues, realism should be defined as the literary phase in which “constraints are chosen by the artist and imposed on the audience,” and if this imposition indeed prefigured “modern art’s terroristic attitude to its audience,” then it would become possible to argue that Dos Passos sees in the anti-transcendent, proto-politically correct esthetic the articulation of a corresponding social prescription or code.  It is an M.P.-enforced code and, abrogating freedom, it is dehumanizing.  To oppose the code means to defend what it condemns or excludes, including a pre-modern view of the human, mediated by Late Romanticism and Symbolism, in which the word soul still makes sense.  When the M.P.’s take Andrews away, finally, they do so in sight of the spires of Notre Dame de Chartres.  Dos Passos’ juxtaposition is not accidental.

The name Andrews is itself indicative of Dos Passos’ position: It means “The Son of Man,” with a strong Christological implication.  Three Soldiers is unimaginable without La Tentation; and La Tentation is the least “realistic” of Flaubert’s major works.  In Dos Passos’ story La Tentation indeed becomes an object of bourgeois snobbery, in a social context where the bourgeoisie has embraced realism as its settled esthetics, to the point of regarding anything else as hopelessly passéThree Soldiers is a novel of extraordinary paradoxicality, but so is La Tentation – supposing that it is a novel, by no means a foregone conclusion.  In being about Flaubert’s probable masterpiece, Three Soldiers adopts the anomalous status of its chosen precursor-text, but the oddity of La Tentation far exceeds that of its textual progeny.  In Originary Thinking, Gans writes that “the modernist solution to the discovery of guilty violence at the origin of culture was to posit the guiltless violence of a pre-cultural, prelinguistic human desire.”  In case of Three Soldiers and even more so in that of La Tentation, the pronouncement requires a slight modification: In the nameless genre invoked in the commencement of the present discussion, the writers discover the founding mendacity of the modernist dispensation – which is that its violence is guiltless – that it is not a sacrificial scene founded on the principle of radical exclusion.

It is the purpose of what follows – in three sections and an epilogue – to revisit La Tentation in light, not only of Gans’ Generative Anthropology, another formulation almost entirely anomalous to its time and place, but also of the late René Girard’s Fundamental Anthropology, useful in conjunction with a Gansian exploration of the text because in distinction to Generative Anthropology it operates as a type of apologetics; and finally of Eric Voegelin’s historical phenomenology of the Western Consciousness, his “noetology,” as he worked that out in the five volumes of Order and History (1956 – 1985).  Girard and Voegelin, like Gans, are anomalous presences on the self-denominating post-modern scene.

Girard, like Gans, has written about Flaubert.  Voegelin not only wrote about Flaubert, but he often wrote about or took critical inspiration from literature and indeed his readings of the touchstone texts of the Western Continuum in Order and History are remarkable instances of literary exegesis.  Given Voegelin’s thesis of modernity as a resurgence of Late-Antique heresies, the application of his view to Flaubert’s achievement in La Tentation promises rich results.  It has long been the opinion of the present writer that Voegelin is closely intellectually affined to Girard and Gans and that the threesome of them potentially completes certain incomplete aspects in the discourse of each.  As all three are, moreover, radically eccentric, Flaubert’s radically eccentric Tentation is likely to shed light on them, too, and not just vice-versa.

Because La Tentation is historically and literarily erudite, and because the events and discourses that inform it belong to the terminal crisis of the great Ecumenic Age, in the dissolute twilight of Antiquity, it would seem most appropriate to begin by undertaking an exploration of Flaubert’s odd book from a Voegelinian perspective.  The argument will be cumulative, of course, carrying over the results of one view into the next.

La Tentation from a Voegelinian Perspective

The previous section has gone into detail concerning a book, Dos Passos’ Three Soldiers, which declares its genealogical relation to La Tentation de Saint-Antoine, but it has not properly characterized Flaubert’s text except to call attention repeatedly to its oddity and to its relation to other equally odd books for which the contemporary literary seminar has no place. In its final form of 1874, La Tentation is a vast oneiric monologue in seven parts given to an historical personage, Saint Anthony of the Desert (251 – 356), the subject of the first Christian Hagiography, The Life of Saint Anthony by Athanasius (296 – 373; also later beatified), who, paradoxically, by fleeing Alexandria to seek absolute solitude in the Egyptian desert, became the founder of the first community of Christian eremites or monks. Anthony famously battled with Satan himself, who strove to draw the holy man away from his faith, so as to prevent him from becoming a model for others.

Flaubert’s monologue extrapolates itself in numerous colloquies, inquisitions, operatic choral scenes; imaginary choreographic set-pieces, episodes of gross-out violence and pornography, and “special effects” sequences that anticipate the requirements of cinema.  Flaubert’s subtitle, as already mentioned, is La révélation de l’âme – “The Revelation of the Soul.”  But what is it?  Is it a play, a kind of Theater of the Mind?  Is it a novel, but disguised as a mono-drama?  Is it a lyric effusion – a colossal riff on Hamlet’s soliloquy – in prose?  Or is it an allegory of Orthodoxy and Heresy?  Making the work even more difficult to place generically, the subtitle implies that La Tentation belongs to the tradition of Apocalypse.

Dunne’s translation gives helpful section-titles to the seven parts: “A Holy Saint”; “The Temptation of Love and Power”; “The Disciple, Hilarion”; “The Fiery Trial”; “All Gods, All Religions”; “The Mystery of Space”; “The Chimera and the Sphinx.”  The topical indicators suggest the range of Flaubert’s exploration, beginning with his descent from his present to Anthony’s Third and Fourth Centuries, and continuing from there into the remotest archeological strata of religion and religious experience.

Flaubert has composed his text to heighten its scenic character.  The action of the seven sections being revelatory, hallucinatory, or in some way psychological, it confines itself, in the presumptive reality of the narrative, to Anthony’s domicile and its immediate environment: “It is in the Thebaïd, on the heights of a mountain, where a platform, shaped like a crescent, is surrounded by huge stones.”  [“C’est dans le Thébaïde, au haut d’une montagne, sur une plate-forme arrondie en demi-lune, et qu’enferment de grosses pierres.”]  The mountainous altitude already boasts mythic and religious connotations; the “huge stones” that surround Anthony’s mud-and-reed cell suggest the prehistoric monuments of the British Isles and France, with their implications of ritual activity, including sacrifice, but also telling of the cosmological orientation of their builder-societies.  Anthony has fled to this remote spot, not exactly from some improbable antique modernity, but from its equivalent in the urban contemporaneity of the proto-Byzantine world – the heady ferment, mystical and philosophical, ascetic and orgiastic, of Late Hellenism.  As Flaubert’s scene-setting puts it:

“Some ten paces or so from the cell a tall cross is planted in the ground; and, at the other end of the platform, a gnarled old palm-tree leans over the abyss, for the side of the mountain is scarped; and at the bottom of the cliff the Nile swells, as it were, into a lake.”  [“A dix pas de la cabane, il y a une longue croix plantée dans le sol; et, à l’autre bout de la plate-forme, un vieux palmier tordu se penche sur l’abîme, car la montagne est taillée à pic, et le Nil semble faire un lac au bas de la falaise.”]

The Cross stands empty, but the Crucified Christ has displaced himself metaphorically into the twisted palm.  Anthony’s work being the Imitatio Christi, the tortured character of the palm also stands for the agony in his soul and for the spiritual triumph of the martyrs.  Like the palm, Anthony is poised in his itinerary over the abyss.  The twistings of the Nile below will eventually transform themselves into the image of a serpent, one of the guises of Satan.

In the distance, importantly as it will prove, “Bushes, the pebbles, the earth, now wear the hard colour of bronze; and through space floats a golden dust so fine that it is scarcely distinguishable from the vibrations of light.”  [“Les buissons, les cailloux, la terre, tout maintenant paraît dur comme du bronze; et dans l’espace flotte une poudre d’or tellement menue qu’elle se confonde avec la vibration de la lumière.”]  Flaubert, the master of symbols, is symbolizing.  Readers stand before a moment of radical transformation in consciousness, or what Eric Voegelin liked to call a leap in being.  Indeed, Voegelin has addressed Flaubert generally, and even La Tentation de Saint-Antoine, specifically.  It is only a mention in passing, but the context is highly suggestive, an essay on Henry James’ novelette The Turn of the Screw (1898) that began as Voegelin’s personal letter to James scholar Robert B. Heilman and later appeared in The Southern Review in 1971 with an elaborate afterword.

Voegelin interprets The Turn as a study in the puritanical deformation of the Platonic-Christian soul, which succumbs to the Gnostic temptation of total Godlike self-sufficiency through the prideful refusal of grace, which is also a refusal of what Voegelin denominates as openness to being or a willingness to cooperate in the process of reality.  Concerning The Turn of the Screw, in an observation that applies quite relevantly to La Tentation, Voegelin writes that James’ Governess symbolizes “the demonically closed soul . . . which is possessed by the pride of handling the problem of good and evil by its own means.”  The “closed soul” aims at “self-mastery and control of spiritual forces.”  Such a soul runs the risk of becoming “rigid in its blindness to the supernatural.”  This spiritual deformation, reaching beyond the individual, can afflict a whole society. In Voegelin’s judgment, Western society has, in the modern period, undergone just such “a fateful shift . . . from existence in openness toward the cosmos to existence in the mode of closure against, and denial of, its reality.”  In the afterword, Voegelin moderately qualifies his earlier enthusiasm for The Turn of the Screw by criticizing James for his deliberate obscuration of his own symbols.  “James,” he writes, “never used symbols with the intellectual mastery of a Flaubert in his Tentation de Saint-Antoine.

Another of Voegelin’s essays from around the same time as the study of James, his “Equivalences of Experience and Symbolization in History” (1970), also speaks relevantly to La Tentation.  In “Equivalences,” Voegelin neatly resumes the analysis of consciousness that he had already elaborated in the first four volumes of Order and History. Voegelin insists that consciousness is historically cumulative: “If today a philosopher turns reflectively toward the area of reality called human existence, he does not discover it as a terra incognita, but moves among symbols concerning the truth of existence which represent the experiences of his predecessors.”  The question whether or not the philosopher will “find his bearings” nevertheless insists on itself.  What answer the question produces will depend, Voegelin writes, on “the manner in which [the investigator’s] own existence has been formed.”

Such a formation proceeds in one of two modes, either as “intellectual discipline in openness toward reality” or as “deformed by . . . uncritical acceptance of beliefs which obscure the reality of immediate experience.”  A typical deformation demotes the arduously created symbol, which it fails to grasp, to the level of a doctrine, consisting of propositions, which one may learn by rote.  Any symbol, like any sacred object, provokes resentment; no one in the audience can claim authorship.  The thing resists appropriation.  Likewise paradox provokes anxiety. The “fateful shift” at the cusp of modernity that Voegelin invokes in the essay on James undertook resentfully and anxiously the systematic demotion of symbols into doctrines with the result that, beginning in the Nineteenth Century the West had become a “spectacle of dogmatomachy – with its frustration, anxiety, alienation, ferocious vituperation, and violence.”

A milieu of dogmatomachy is exemplarily “closed.”  But to what is it closed?  As Voegelin puts it: “Man participates in the process of reality”; and man remains “conscious . . . of himself as being part of reality, and of his consciousness as a mode of participation in its reality.”  Expanding these basic intuitions, Voegelin writes: “Man is able to engender symbols which express his experience of reality”; and, “man knows the symbols . . . to be part of the reality that they symbolize.”  Finally, “Reality is not a given that could be observed from a vantage point outside itself but embraces the consciousness in which it becomes luminous.”  The terms luminous and luminosity stand centrally in Voegelin’s discourse.

The same terms have an important role in Flaubert’s symbolism in La Tentation, as in the “golden dust so fine that it is scarcely distinguishable from the vibrations of light” that suffuses the atmosphere just before the saint’s epic visionary experience, the projected form of his internally experienced Temptation, commences.  In the framework of Voegelin’s “noetology,” the first major allurement, that of the Queen of Sheba, is not significant.  Its appeal is gross; it least challenges the saint’s fortitude.  With the appearance of Hilarion, Anthony’s former disciple, in Section III, however, the fiendish inveiglement acquires a new subtle power.  Flaubert has produced in Hilarion the monstrous outgrowth of “the demonically closed soul” whose field of contestation is dogma and whose dogmata are the ethical and intellectual equivalents of idols.  This is the soul that attempts to extinguish “the bright morning star” [“claire étoile du matin”] in favor of nocturnal obscurity on the premise that “the moon affords us sufficient light” [“La lune nous éclaire suffisamment”].  There are other madmen in the cortege of figures in La Tentation, not least Valentine and Apollonius, but Hilarion prefigures them all in his refusal of openness to being.

Hilarion would require that Anthony renounce the Imitatio Christi to declare his total self-sufficiency, but the saint insists stubbornly on his humble status: “Would that I were one of those whose souls are always intrepid and their minds firm – like the great Athanasius.”  [“Que ne suis-je un de ceux dont l’âme est toujours intrépide et l’esprit firme – comme le grand Athanase, par exemple.]  Athansius, who earned the nickname “Pillar of the Church” for his defense of Orthodoxy, would become Anthony’s hagiographer after the holy man’s death at an advanced age.

Revealing himself to be the visible form of the satanic principle of slander Hilarion calumniates Athanasius: “He was unlawfully ordained by seven bishops”; he is “haughty, a cruel man, always mixed up in intrigues,” who “tried to corrupt Eustatius”; and “he acknowledges that he knows nothing of the Word.”  [“Il a été ordonné illégalement par sept évêques”; “un homme orgueilleux, cruel, toujours dans les intrigues,” qui “ait voulu corrompre Eustates”; “il avoue ne rien comprendre à la nature du Verbe.”]  Refining his doctrinal subtlety, Hilarion reports that, “At the Council of Nicæa, he said, speaking of Jesus, ‘The man of the Lord.’”  [“Au concile de Nicée, Il a dit en parlant de Jésus: ‘Homme de Seigneur.’”]  Hilarion appears in the last-quoted utterance as a veritable military policeman of grammar and diction, prepared on the basis of a single jot to issue an indictment and make an arrest.

Flaubert’s pseudo-Hilarion corresponds to Voegelin’s formulation in the “Experience and Symbolization” essay of “the philosopher who has made deformed existence his own,” whose “existential faith [has] dried up to doctrinal belief,” the result being a “scotosis of truth.”  Flaubert, in this single utterance, anticipates the Twentieth-Century dystopias, not to mention the Twenty-First Century actuality, in which slips of the tongue and false attributions occasion elaborate rituals of denunciation and public chastisement.

When Hilarion fails in his appeal to Anthony to betray his loyalty to Athanasius, he bursts out in a bilious accusation against his interlocutor: Hilarion calls Anthony a hypocrite; he flytes him for fantasizing about whores, feasts, and riches; and he scorns him for lacking in faith and for not possessing truth.  Hilarion arrives at the last by a devious pseudo-syllogism: Whereas Anthony is inveterately lugubrious, truth stimulates happiness; therefore Anthony must be in default of truth.  Hilarion says: “The possession of the truth gives joy.”  [“La possession de la vérité donne la joie.”]  Flaubert’s possession is related to Voegelin’s closure.

In Voegelin’s reading, Christianity is the most tentative of revelations, even more tentative in its symbolism than Plato’s philosophical vision because the Christian advances the quest for truth to a new level of differentiation.  Voegelin’s assertion partakes of a paradox, but not so much as to be irresolvable.  The Gospel, according to Voegelin, absorbs the Platonic insight that the luminosity of consciousness illuminates an “in-between” (Plato’s metaxy) where the questing subject invariably finds himself: Between ignorance and knowledge and therefore having to distinguish between truth and falsehood; between birth and death and therefore between mortality and immortality; and above all, always in motion, never coming to a stop.  That condition of never coming to a stop, an equivalent of perpetual tentativeness, produces tension in the soul, which some subjects cannot bear.  From this resistance arises the demand to bring all processes to a stop. In the closing-down of experiential movement, the plastic symbols become rigid doctrines which a subject may possess.  In The New Science of Politics (1952), Voegelin ascribed the emergence of the Idealist systems to a desperate craving, precisely in a failure of faith, for “massively possessive experience.”

Faith, as Flaubert’s Anthony senses, is other than a “massively possessive experience.”  Flaubert has placed Anthony’s hut between the Cross and the twisted palm hanging over the abyss and has reduced his material possessions to the absolute minimum.  In Section I, Anthony complains of his poverty, but he endures it all the same.  Hilarion’s new tactic consists in his trying to lure Anthony into accepting the empirically valid as the substitute for faith.  Once more, Hilarion’s style is pseudo-syllogistic.  In a discussion of the relation of miracle to faith, Hilarion poses, “What, then, is a miracle,” to which he gives his own answer: “An occurrence which seems to us outside the limits of Nature.”  [“Qu’est-ce que donc qu’un miracle . . . (il est) une événement qui nous semble en dehors de la nature.”]  Hilarion plays verbal tricks.  He reduces the cosmos, or reality, to nature; that is, exclusively to the material aspect of the whole.  Simultaneously, he sneaks in the false premise that faith requires, and may perfectly satisfy itself with, the equivalent merely of a banal empirical demonstration.

Yet that is not all.  The real aim shows itself in the follow-up: “But do we know all Nature’s powers?  And, from the mere fact that a thing ordinarily does not astonish us, does it follow that we comprehend it?”  [“Mais connaissons-nous toute sa puissance? Et de ce qu’une chose ordinairement ne nous étonne pas, s’ensuit-il que nous la comprenions?”]  Hilarion invokes an anti-principle of epistemological nihilism: The only real knowledge is naturally based and empirically verifiable; but really, we understand almost nothing; therefore in their ignorance people need a doctrine – a thing in whose possession their ceaseless and fruitless inquiries may find rest.  It is a version of the Grand-Inquisitor argument.

Voegelin argues in The New Science no less a thesis than that, “uncertainty is the very essence of Christianity.”  The gospel has banished the gods, leaving an unprecedented “de-divinized” world.  “The life of the soul in openness toward God, the waiting, the periods of aridity and dullness, guilt and despondency, contrition and repentance, forsakenness and hope against hope the silent stirrings of love and grace, trembling on the verge of a certainty that if gained is lost – the very lightness of this fabric may prove too heavy a burden for men who lust for massively possessive experience.”  Hilarion’s requirement for demonstrable doctrine suggests that Flaubert had arrived at a similar conclusion already, seventy-five years before Voegelin.  For Hilarion (who is, of course, the apparition in Anthony’s dream, not the historical Hilarion), Scripture may be reduced to a textual problem, as though it was the stenographic record of testimony in a legal proceeding: “And yet the Angel of the Annunciation, in Matthew, appears to Joseph, whilst in Luke it is to Mary.  The anointing of Jesus by a woman comes to pass, according to the First Gospel, at the beginning of his public life, but according to the three others, a few days before his death.”  An ellipsis at the end of Hilarion’s four-sentence speech (truncated in the quotation) signifies that, as Flaubert sees it, the catalogue of discrepancies could continue indefinitely – and irrelevantly.

To obsess about factitious details in a revelatory text is to miss the symbolic point entirely.  Additionally, no one cares about such discrepancies in the Theogony of Hesiod or the Dionysiaca of Nonnos, but only in the Lives of Christ of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Flaubert finds his personae, ideas, and events in a remote and exotic century, but insofar as La Tentation constitutes a critique, it takes its object in the modern Europe of the author’s day, proudly divesting itself of the superstition of faith.  Voegelin’s insight thus bears appositely on La Tentation when, in The New Science, he writes that “the more people are drawn or pressured into the Christian orbit, the greater will be the number among them who do not have the spiritual stamina for the heroic adventure of the soul that is Christianity.”  Authorization to go pedantically deconstructing among the symbols seems to be what Hilarion means when he tells Anthony that, among the free intellects, “entire liberty of research is permitted us” [“toute liberté de recherché nous est permise”].

It is a way of pushing back against the articulation of truths in a new leap in being.  The project to deconstruct those truths would then be a sign of spiritual anxiety.  In place of what the pedants deconstruct, Hilarion’s program for filling the spiritual void offers only a few pathetic magical operations.  Hilarion questions Anthony, “Do you wish to become acquainted with the hierarchy of Angels, the virtue of Numbers, the explanation of germs and metamorphoses?”  [“Désire-tu connaître la hiérarchie des Anges, la vertu des Nombres, la raison des germes et des métamorphoses?”] Esoterica such as those correspond to what Voegelin invokes when he writes how “the attempt at immanentizing the meaning of existence is fundamentally an attempt at bringing our knowledge of transcendence into a firmer grip than the cognitio fidei . . . will afford.”  The esoterica, whose operation Hilarion invites Anthony to learn, constitute the Gnosticism that, in Voegelin’s assessment, has “accompanied Christianity from its very beginnings.”

The vulgar interpretation of saintly agony, whether it is Anthony’s or some other holy man’s, is that the subject grapples with an underpowered will to believe.  Flaubert offers a different thesis, which Voegelin’s “noetology” greatly clarifies.  Whereas Pagan faith was maximal, acquiring by the late Imperial centuries elaborate doctrines and rituals, the new faith is minimal; whereas a Mithraic baptism indeed left its participant in proprietorship of a massively possessive experience, the new faith is, by itself, so tenuous that its espouser, expecting a sensible metamorphosis but registering only the minimum of finding himself in motion in the “in-between,” doubts whether he is in possession of anything at all.  That doubt is inexorably constitutive of the belief.  Now everything that occurs to Anthony in Flaubert’s generically ambiguous text happens to him, of course, in his mind.  His struggle, his temptation, unfolds on the internal scene of his symbolic imagination, the interlocutory figures being projections of that imagination.  These observations lead to another comment by Voegelin that has relevance in respect of La Tentation.  In the essay on James, Voegelin calls attention to the “afflicted… public figures” that dominate the contemporary, super-mediated commons.  Not even the truly “critical” man can “escape from the scene that they dominate.”  Nevertheless, the “critical” man “is not obliged to pretend that disease is health, or that men who suffer in public do not bore him à dormir debout.”

Flaubert’s Anthony – reflecting probably the historical Anthony – resolutely refused to suffer in public.  He never became a martyr, for example, although his influence on the formation of the emerging Christian society was likely as great as or greater than any martyr’s.  On the other hand, in Flaubert’s treatment, Anthony restores the notion of martyrdom to its etymological minimum of witnessing in a cause: “Here, for more than thirty years, have I been constantly groaning in the desert! I have carried on my loins eighty pounds of bronze, like Eusebius; I have exposed my body to the stings of insects, like Macarius; I have remained fifty-three nights without closing an eye, like Pachomius; and those who are decapitated, torn with pincers, or burnt, possess less virtue, perhaps, inasmuch as my life is a continual martyrdom!” [“Voila plus de trente ans que je suis dans le désert à gémir toujours!  J’ai porté sur mes reins quatre-vingts livres de bronze comme Eusèbe, j’ai exposé mon corps à la piqûre des insectes comme Macaire, je suis resté cinquante-trois nuits sans fermer l’œil comme Pacôme; et ceux qu’on décapite, qu’on tenaille ou qu’on brûle ont moins de vertu, puisque ma vie est un continuel martyre!”]



Early Christian Lives. Translated by Carolinne White. Penguin. 1998. [Life of Saint Anthony, 1 – 70]

John Dos Passos. Three Soldiers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949 [1921]. Available online at Hathi Trust,

Gustave Flaubert. La Tentation de Saint Antoine. édition établie par Jacques Suffel. Flammarion. 1967.

___. The Temptation of Saint Antony. [Translated by] M. Walter Dunne. London, 1904. Available online at Hathi Trust,

Eric Gans. A New Way of Thinking: Generative Anthropology in Religion, Philosophy, Art. Aurora, Colo.: The Davies Group, 2011.

___. The End of Culture: Toward a Generative Anthropology. University of California Press, 1985.

___. Madame Bovary: The End of Romance. Boston: G. K. Hall (Twayne’s Masterwork Studies), 1989.

___. Originary Thinking: Elements of Generative Anthropology. Stanford University Press, 1993.

___. Science and Faith: The Anthropology of Revelation. Savage, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1990.

René Girard. Deceit, Desire and the Novel. Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure. Tr. Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966.

___. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Orbis. 2001.

___. The One by Whom Scandal Comes. Michigan State University Press. 2014.

Eric Voegelin. Collected Works Volume 5. Edited and with an introduction by Manfred Henningsen. University of Missouri press. 200. [New Science of Politics, 79 – 248]

___. Collected Works Volume 12. Published Essays 1966 – 1985. Edited and with an introduction by Ellis Sandoz. Missouri University Press. 1990. [“On Henry James’ Turn of the Screw,“134 – 171] [“Equivalences of Experience and Symbolization in History, 115 – 33]


This is the first of two parts with part two available here. It was published with the same title at Anthropoetics 21.2 (Spring 2016).

Thomas BertonneauThomas Bertonneau

Thomas Bertonneau

Thomas F. Bertonneau is an intellectual and professor and has been a member of the English Faculty at SUNY Oswego since 2001. His articles and essays have appeared in a diverse array of scholarly journals, including William Carlos Williams Review, Wallace Stevens Journal, Studies in American Jewish Literature, North Dakota Quarterly, Michigan Academician, Paroles Gelées: UCLA French Studies, and Profils Americains.

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