Flaubert: The Sublime and a Terrifying God

For this blog post, I will choose to analyze the presentation of the relationship between God and St. Anthony in the novel, as it could be argued that this relationship lends itself to a Burkeian interpretation of God. In the philosopher Edmund Burke’s essay, ‘A Philosophical Inquiry in to our Ideas of the Beautiful and Sublime’ (1756), Burke wrote that ‘we have a tendency to shrink away from a power which falls above or beyond humanity’s conceptions.’ This essay is credited with developing the notion that God could be rendered terrifying and mysterious purely through the acceptance that we can only define God by the way in which he is omnipotent and omniscient. Crucially, however, this theory of philosophy differs from the traditional Christian theological interpretation in that God’s relationship to humanity is distant because we can never hope to understand God’s decisions or power, constricted as we are by humanity’s impermanence. Burke wrote that the imagination is stirred to a dangerous mixture of awe and horror by what is ‘dark, mysterious or uncertain’, resulting in the simultaneous dual qualities of fear and attraction on the part of the human that comes into contact with God. In the context of ‘The Temptation of St. Anthony’, then it is clear that this theory of philosophy has a clear effect on the ways in which the story can be interpreted.

For example, many of Anthony’s confrontations with Hilarion only function because the Devil seeks to pray on the fact that, for all his piety and devotion to God, Anthony can only ever serve God, remaining separated from him by the impermanence of humanity. Even Anthony himself wonders whether ‘my sobs, my groans, the sufferings of my flesh… have all these things gone out to a lie’, suggesting that Anthony’s faith is entirely dependent on God existing, and more importantly, rewarding him for his faith. It is idea of a Burkeian distant God which terrifies Anthony, as indicated by the phrase ‘there must be a paradise for the good, as there is a hell for the wicked.’ Here, it is clear that what is the temptation to Anthony is the idea that God could purely be observing the world, rather than participating in its workings.  Anthony must fight off the temptations, not because he wishes to prove his faith to God, but because surviving the temptation is an indication that God exists and is willing to protect his chosen few. What is ‘dark, mysterious and uncertain’ is the feeling that ‘I roll in the immensity of darkness’, and so it could be argued that this novel is an exercise for Anthony in attempting to find proof in his conception of God. Doubt is something that cannot be fathomed in this novel, and this is why so much of Hilarion’s dialogue focuses on challenging the pre-established notions of Christianity and religion. – DF

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Filed under Week 7 reviews: Flaubert, Temptation of Saint Anthony

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