The Ecstasy of Reading (Flaubert)

Pieter_Bruegel_(Temptation_of_St_Antony)

If you have ever felt, upon reading some comment or review that complains about too much description in a given book, or too many difficult words, a feeling of disgust—if you have ever suppressed an urge to roll your eyes when someone you know wonders about the point of fiction, or dismisses entire genres out of hand—then you must stop reading this blog post right now and go devour The Temptation of St. Anthony.

Don’t let the book’s religious veneer fool you. This is a story that Gustave Flaubert (an ardent and lifelong atheist, skeptic, and misanthrope) conceived as a child, worked on his entire life, and finally published as an old man, a book that is itself about the struggle to read books and to write them—a book that brings to life all of the distractions that tempt us from the divine act of consuming the written word, and turns them into the most beautiful and eloquent monsters, embodiments of what Steven Pressfield calls “resistance“, which Flaubert himself conquered and destroyed by holing himself up in the country for almost his entire life to write pages, cross them out, rewrite them, and then read them aloud by shouting them at the top of his lungs while pacing his study (his bearskin rug) endlessly back and forth. Though he wrote for his entire life, his oeuvre is relatively small, and The Temptation is a slim volume, clocking in at under two hundred pages, with few paragraphs exceeding three sentences.

It is a grotesque fantasy. It is gorgeous science fiction. At one point the devil grabs St. Anthony, one of the founders of Christian monasticism, and lifts him up above the solar system, and then the galaxy itself, in an attempt to convince him that his religion is false, and that his obsession with words is pointless. (The attempt fails). There is a bizarre cinematic acid trip quality to the text as well, as monsters transform themselves into beautiful women, as the shadowed arms of a cross grow horns, and then, as the darkness deepens—

…suddenly in the air above there appear and disappear successively—first, a stretch of water; then the figure of a prostitute; the corner of a temple; a soldier; a chariot with two white horses, prancing.

These images appear suddenly, as in flashes—outlined against the background of the night, like scarlet paintings executed upon ebony.

This is a novel written as an impossible play, but it’s really a film script, a proto-Borgesian distillation of all of western science, art, and philosophy, into a single very intense shot glass. Flaubert said he read something like a hundred and fifty books in preparation for writing this one; what’s more likely is that this man simply read and then reread everything worth reading, and that, when combined with his remarkable imagination, perhaps the most powerful (certainly the most chimerical) of any writer, the book leaped from his brain fully-armored in its front and back covers.

In a way it’s unfortunate that Flaubert is mostly remembered for Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education, two books he wrote with the purpose of reigning in and controlling his imagination. In St. Anthony (and also in Salammbo) that imagination is completely unbounded, though not out of control; the book has a definite structure, and moves toward the best ending imaginable, a cyclical finale which is almost the same as in Bouvard and Pecuchet as well as Joyce’s unreadable Finnegans Wake. Just as the devil is defeated, just as the greatest speech in defense of art for its own sake is delivered—

O joy! O bliss! I have beheld the birth of life. I have seen the beginning of motion! My pulses throb even to the point of bursting. I long to fly, to swim, to bark, to bellow, to howl. Would that I had wings, a carapace, a shell,—that I could breathe out smoke, wield a trunk,—make my body writhe,—divide myself everywhere,—be in everything,—emanate with all the odours,—develop myself like the plants,—flow like water,—vibrate like sound,—shine like light,—assume all forms—penetrate each atom—descend to the very bottom of matter,—be matter itself!

—Anthony resumes his devotions, and, one may imagine, opens his book just as at the beginning of the story, all while Temptation gathers its strength and prepares to assault him again.

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