“Then the stars multiply, scintillate…[Anthony] fills his eyes with their light; he overburthens his mind with calculation of their distances: then, bowing his head, he murmurs:
‘What is the purpose of all that?’”
-Flaubert, The Temptation of St. Anthony, pgs 164-165
In The Temptation of St. Anthony, Flaubert re-imagines the life of the titular saint. Anthony undergoes a series of fantastic hallucinations that try his will, test his fate, and ultimately challenge his conception of existence. The above quotation comes from the scene in which Anthony is tempted by the Devil. After experiencing the immensity of the universe, Anthony questions its purpose: why is there existence? Anthony struggles with this concept throughout the book, which is evident in his continual subversion of the self. This reflects the tension between mysticism and asceticism that we discussed in class—both are attempts to annihilate the self. This is most apparent when he contemplates suicide. Anthony, nevertheless, withstands the temptation.
Despite the fact that he is able to reject the Devil, this does not mean that he understands why his position is correct, nor does it answer his questions about existence. As the Devil remarks during this scene, “Ascend skyward forever and ever—yet thou will not attain the summit” (166). While this superficially describes the universe, it also reveals an almost Sisyphean attitude to existence: we can continually struggle towards, but never achieve, our goals.
This reiterates and underscores Anthony’s main question; what is the point? To this the Devil replies, “There is no purpose! How can God have a purpose?” (165). This is eerily reminiscent of the Decadent tenet of art for art’s sake; life, art, etc. has no prescriptive value beyond its existence. Essentially, it exists to exist.
The conclusion of The Temptation of St. Anthony leaves us left with the same questions. After witnessing a menagerie of phantasmagorical creatures, Anthony remarks upon “the birth of life” and the joyous new day that awaits him (190). He gives no indication as to the metaphysical struggles that besieged him the previous night. This dismissal is deeply unsatisfying—we are left wanting to know what is the purpose of this exercise and what we should learn. “L’art pour l’art” does not begin to explain this, just in the same way the Devil’s response to Anthony, while powerful, is not sufficient. This amorality, however, may be the very point.