Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Monks Gone Mad In Literature And The Women They Love: Thaïs Part One

Ascetic hermit monk Paphnuce having one of 
his religious episodes.
It's been awhile since I've covered a book or story that may be mildly related to Atheism and religion in general, but is mostly just because it's loved so dearly by yours truly.  Indulge me.

So today's will be about the Anatole France novel Thaïs which inspired a Jules Massenet opera of the same name.  Perhaps you should listen to one of the most famous pieces in the opera, Meditation.  I highly recommend putting it on while reading this first part of my little essay - especially if you're getting over a migraine like me.

The whole work is poetic, poignant, enlightening and beautiful.

Like so many other reviews I've done on this blog, let's let Wikipedia give us the gist of the story.
Paphnuce, an ascetic hermit of the Egyptian desert, journeys to Alexandria to find Thais, the libertine beauty whom he knew as a youth. Masquerading as a dandy, he is able to speak with her about eternity; surprisingly he succeeds in converting her to Christianity. Yet on their return to the desert he becomes fascinated with her former life. She enters a convent to repent of her sins. He cannot forget the pull of her famous beauty, and becomes confused about the values of life. Later, as she is dying and can only see heaven opening before her, he comes to her side and tells her that her faith is an illusion, and that he loves her.
It's a pretty powerful work.  As with all of France's works, it was written originally in French but you can download a reasonable English translation here.  It's not really that long at all - why not read it?  This post will cover the first part of the story...


The primary character in the story is, of course, mad monk Paphnuce who does all the regular pointlessly crazy things to prove to others and himself he's truly devoted to God.
All lived in temperance and chastity; they wore a hair shirt and a hood, slept on the bare ground after long watching, prayed, sang psalms, and, in short, spent their days in works of penitence. As an atonement for original sin, they refused their body not only all pleasures and satisfactions, but even that care and attention which in this age are deemed indispensable. They believed that the diseases of our members purify our souls, and the flesh could put on no adornment more glorious than wounds and ulcers. Thus, they thought they fulfilled the words of the prophet, "The desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose."
One day, after a long while self-punishing, he thought of Thais - a girl full of life, vivacious, sensual, sexual, human.  Actually she visited him in a dream. I'll admit that thoughts like this would likely visit anyone living a life like Paphnuce.  Anyway, he became convinced that she needed saving. So off he goes to find her.

Characters in the novel mirror different world views. In fact the whole novel is one big smorgasbord character study of different philosophical views on questions of the eternal, salvation and how to live life. They all run against the character Phaphnuce and put holes into his worldview gradually throughout the story.

The first character  he runs into is a sceptic who, like Paphnuces, has given up all the pleasures of life to become an ascetic living in the desert.
Phaphnuce: "Then you are like me, poor, chaste, and solitary. And you are not so—as I am—for the love of God, and with a hope of celestial happiness! That I cannot understand. Why are you virtuous if you do not believe in Jesus Christ? Why deprive yourself of the good things of this world if you do not hope to gain eternal riches in heaven?"
Skeptic Hermit: "Stranger, I deprive myself of nothing which is good, and I flatter myself that I have found a life which is satisfactory enough, though—to speak more precisely—there is no such thing as a good or evil life. Nothing is itself, either virtuous or shameful, just or unjust, pleasant or painful, good or bad. It is our opinion which gives those qualities to things, as salt gives savour to meats."
This hermit does not believe in absolutes and has no evidence they truly exist.  Paphnuce attempts to convert him to which he responds abruptly:
"Refrain, stranger, from showing me your doctrines, and do not imagine that you will persuade me to share your opinions. All discussions are useless. My opinion is to have no opinion. My life is devoid of trouble because I have no preferences. Go thy ways, and strive not to withdraw me from the beneficent apathy in which I am plunged, as though in a delicious bath, after the hardships of my past days."
So our crazy monk moves on to Alexandria to save the woman he lusted for as a teenager.  He arrives at the house of Nicias, an Epicurean, whom he studied philosophy with in a previous life. This is the closest thing to an Atheist you'll find in this book.
You are welcome, my dear Paphnutius, after ten years of absence. You have quitted the desert; you have renounced all Christian superstitions, and now return to your old life. I will mark this day with a white stone."
Nicias instructshis two beautiful servant girls - young and naked - to clean the monk but he refused to even look at them.  He instead recites some of the Bible at our Epicurean friend who responds thusly:
"My dear Paphnutius," replied Nicias, who had now put on a perfumed tunic, "do you expect to astonish me by reciting a lot of words jumbled together without skill, which are no more than a vain murmur? Have you forgotten that I am a bit of a philosopher myself? And do you think to satisfy me with some rags, torn by ignorant men from the purple garment of AEmilius, when AEmilius, Porphyry, and Plato, in all their glory, did not satisfy me! The systems devised by the sages are but tales imagined to amuse the eternal childishness of men. We divert ourselves with them, as we do with the stories of The Ass, The Tub, and The Ephesian Matron, or any other Milesian fable."
Well this is pretty much my opinion of Catholicism!  While studying Platonism and neoplatonism, I recognized Catholicism in it but as a poor echo of these great systems of thought long gone.  And, to boot, I love Lucian too (the Ass)!

Nicias shows the monk his extensive library to which he scoffs and informs him all the books should be  burnt.  A thoroughly unpleasant fellow, who would be avoided at dinner parties. Anyway, he goes on to mention that God became flesh and lived among us. To which Nicias responds:
"You speak well, my dear Paphnutius, when you say that he was made flesh. A God who thinks, acts, speaks, who wanders through nature, like Ulysses of old on the glaucous sea, is altogether a man. How do you expect that we should believe in this new Jupiter, when the urchins of Athens, in the time of Pericles, no longer believed in the old one?
Josephine Baker was called the bronze Venus.
Indeed, indeed.

Then Paphnuce asks Nicias for a tunic so he might disguise himself and get close to Thais (but not too close, of course).

 The good Epicurean gives him a nice cloak with complete generosity and patience.  The monk explains to him he will save Thais and Nicias himself admits having fallen madly in love with the woman in the past.

The monk is horrified by such an honest admission somewhat because it was sinful, but also because he could not deal with the thought of Nicias receiving any affection from Thais.  On leaving, Nicias gives the monk this warning twice.
"Beware of offending Venus; her vengeance is terrible."
The monk runs out of the room and heads for the theatre, where he meets an older gentleman - Dorion.  Paphnuce's eyes rest finally on Thais  - a work of utter beauty - performing on stage and he is possessed for a moment, as if briefly catching a whisper of his own humanity.  He speaks out loud:
"Why, O my God, hast thou given this power to one of Thy creatures?"
He is shocked by the hold she has on him - one that seems to compete with God himself.  To which Dorion responded.
"Certainly the atoms, which have momentarily met together to form this woman, present a combination which is agreeable to the eye. But that is but a freak of nature, and the atoms know not what they do. They will some day separate with the same indifference as they came together. Where are now the atoms which formed Lais or Cleopatra? I must confess that women are sometimes beautiful. But they are liable to grievous afflictions, and disgusting inconveniences. That is patent to all thinking men, though the vulgar pay no attention to it. And women inspire love, though it is absurd and ridiculous to love them."
Yes. The universe is an uncaring, unguided place.  We are all here because of a sequence of events set into motion by some fuzzy beginning and it is up to us to determine what is right and wrong and how to live our lives the best we can. This is a repeating message in the novel.

Throughout, characters try to wake Paphnuce from his unreal vision into the present moment - reality - so that he might live and enjoy his limited time on this rock in space before returning to the void from whence he came.  They all tug at little at his mind and he moves in a steady course into doubt and disbelief.   His mind is affected by these men but his heart and connection to his own humanity is brought slowly and painfully more into focus by Thais herself - a symbol of humanity in the novel.

So ends part one of the book.  The next part, The Papyrus, will be covered in another post.  Go read this story - you'll thank me.

Edit 2013-01-01 11:05am EST: Fixed name of composer from "Claude" to "Jules".

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