In La Tentation de Saint Antoine, Gustave Flaubert depicts the doubts and temptations of a hermit who chooses deliberately to seclude from the rest of the world in order to embrace a both contemplative and ascetic way of life. On that account, an interesting parallel could be drawn here with J.-K. Huysmans’ À Rebours wherein des Esseintes also exiled from the decadent and hedonistic Paris, and retired in Fontenay where he very soon starts experiencing visions, hallucinations, and madness. Having meditated for many years in the desert, in the tomb of a Pharaoh, and in a Roman citadel; Anthony has also been experiencing particularly vivid visions triggered probably by privation and mortification.
A vision, or rather, a vivid aesthetic appearance that caught my attention while reading this piece of literature is the Queen of Sheba. More particularly, her last words at the end of chapter II were reminiscent of those of Simon Magnus in the chapter IV. Indeed, the Queen of Sheba tells Antoine: “All the women you ever have met, […] all the forms you have caught a glimpse of, all the imaginings of your desire ask for them! I am not a woman; I am a world. My cloths have but to fall, and you shall discover upon my person a succession of mysteries!” In the chapter IV just before the arrival of Damis and Apollonius of Tyana, Simon Magnus is accompanied by a woman whom he says is no other than Ennoia/Sigê (Silence), namely the feminine counterpart of the primordial unity, Bythos (Depth, Profundity; “the One” in Neo-Platonism, the “Unmoved Mover” in Aristotle’s Metaphysics also called by Plotinus: the “First Hypostasis,” and so on). She has been called Helen of Troy, Lucretia, Delilah, and many other names. In a sort of state of apostasy, she was condemned to come back ad infinitum on Earth to excite desire and lust, and to sow to seeds of discord among men by seducing and deceiving them by various means.
I am very much interested in the idea according to which, in literary aesthetics, characters can be seen as ‘conceptual persons,’ or embodiments of some higher symbolic principles. For instance, a Nietzsche would argue that every tragic hero is a repetition of the Dionysian motive (The Birth of Tragedy). The hero in each play might be wearing a different mask, but really he remains the one who will be torn apart in the end, namely the tragic hero remains Dionysus himself (see Euripides’ The Bacchae). With La Tentation de Saint Antoine one has a different motive, which is that of the femme fatale. Ennoia is a mysterious and seductive woman who might be seen as dangling before men the joys of initiation in her mysteries (see Rachilde’s Monsieur Venus for instance). Finally, Ennoia could be compared to Sibyl Vane of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. As long as the beautiful actress was playing her roles and wearing her various masks on the theater’s stage, Dorian felt love and admiration for her: he saw the sublime through her. When she was wearing her masks and embodying her tragic and dramatic roles, she was transcending her own being, becoming in doing so quasi-divine and speaking out a certain type of ‘Truth’ (“Give her/him a mask and s/he will tell you the truth” – O.W.) Dorian was not in love with Sibyle Vane per se, but rather he loved her beauty and the idea she was embodying figuratively. -R.C.