Thursday, 3 January 2013

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

Here's part two of my little essay on the 19th-century French novel Thaïs by Anatole France.   You can find a brief rundown of what this novel is all about back in part one.

In the first part, our crazed monk protagonist Paphnuce left his ascetic desert home to find his high school crush Thais - who has taken to the perverse high-class urban lifestyle in the courts of Alexandria.  She's an enchantingly beautiful actress and has had broken the hearts of many men ... including, perhaps, Paphnuce himself.


This part begins with a recollection of her childhood.  Her parents were idolators (pagans), free but poor inn-keepers. Father was stoic but lazy.  Mother was thin, wretched and was said to sleep with men to win extra money for the family. Their inn was frequented by drunken sailors.   Not a good scene.
She became very clever in extracting, one by one, the oboli from the belt of some drunken sailor, and in amusing the drinkers with artless songs and obscene words, the meaning of which she did not know.
Left to fend for herself, her only comfort is a Nubian slave called Ahmes who tells her great tales of wonder.
Often he would take Thais on his knee, and tell her old tales about underground treasure-houses constructed for avaricious kings, who put to death the masons and architects. There were also tales about clever thieves who married kings' daughters, and courtesans who built pyramids.
Ahmes is also a Christian.  By the looks of it, he mixes his Christianity with all forms of superstition.   He has to attend midnight services in caves and other secret places to avoid persecution from the Emperor of the time, who was hostile to this new faith.  He begins to speak to her about God when she turned seven.
"The good Lord God," he said, "lived in heaven like a Pharaoh, under the tents of His harem, and under the trees of His gardens. He was the Ancient of Ancients, and older than the world; and He had but one Son, the Prince Jesus, whom He loved with all His heart, and who surpassed in beauty the virgins and the angels. And the good Lord God said to Prince Jesus—
And so on.  Pretty wild, non-Biblical stuff.  Ahmes has a very simple yet strong faith.  His gentleness above anything else impresses Thais and she asks him if she might be baptized.  He agrees to instruct her further so that she may be accepted into the underground church.  One year later she was baptized in the secrecy of a crypt by a bishop.  She is later brought to meet Ahmes' family and they all dance wildly singing songs of praise.

Some time later, Ahmes is falsely accused of stealing some food and put to death on a cross.  This happens on Thais' eleventh birthday and it causes a profound change in her outlook on life.
The idea sprang up in her little mind that no one can be good in this world except at the cost of the most terrible sufferings. And she was afraid to be good, for her delicate flesh could not bear pain.
She eventually becomes a courtesan in the city.  It is in this capacity that she meets Nicias, the skeptic I described in the previous post.  He is the closest thing to an Atheist in this novel and Anatole France treats us to how he is perceived through the eyes of Thais, one who has suffered so much and who is so very human.
She did not love him and sometimes his refined irony even irritated her. His perpetual doubts hurt her, for he believed in nothing, and she believed in everything. She believed in divine providence, in the omnipotence of evil spirits, in spells, exorcisms, and eternal justice; she believed in Jesus Christ, and in the goddess of good of the Syrians; she believed also that bitches barked when black Hecate passed through the streets, and that a woman could inspire love by pouring a philtre into a cup wrapped in the bleeding skin of a sheep. She thirsted for the unknown; she called on nameless gods, and lived in perpetual expectation. The future frightened her, and yet she wished to know it. She surrounded herself with priests of Isis, Chaldean magi, pharmacopolists, and professors of the black arts, who invariably deceived her, though she never tired of being deceived. She feared death, and she saw it everywhere. When she yielded to pleasure, it seemed to her that an icy finger would suddenly touch her on the bare shoulder, and she turned pale, and cried with terror, in the arms which embraced her.
When I was Catholic I would have been irritated in a similar way had I met Nicias or people like him - non-believers.  I saw believing itself as being noble in its own right!  When I left Catholicism, I started a long voyage of discovery that started out in the occult - Wicca.  I was always a spooky sort of child who would meditate in dark rooms and try to will myself into levitating!  At this time I may have scolded Nicias for not believing there was any Art in the universe.  I may have accused him of taking all the precious Poetry and Theatre out of life.  This book expresses it much better than I ever could in a blog.

Nicias did not understand her constant fear of the supernatural and of the afterlife.
"What does it matter, O my Thais, whether we descend to eternal night with white locks and hollow cheeks, or, whether this very day, now laughing to the vast sky, shall be our last? Let us enjoy life; we shall have greatly lived if we have greatly loved. There is no knowledge except that of the senses; to love is to understand. That which we do not know does not exist. What good is it to worry ourselves about nothing?"
She replied angrily—
"I despise men like you, who hope for nothing and fear nothing. I wish to know! I wish to know!"
When I was Christian, I believe I probably felt some of this hostility towards Atheists.  I think France captures this very well.  It is a feeling that those who do not believe in the supernatural somehow fail to capture the entirety of reality or belittle the mysteries of the universe.  That they mock reality - that the crush and stifle the poetry.

It's a difficult thing to explain rationally.  It's an idea that there is some wisdom somewhere that is waiting to be found which gives comforting answers to worrying questions about eternity, death, God and life.  It's the sureness that some kind of meaning or words underly the very fabric of everything and hold it together.
In order to understand the secret of life, she set to work to read the books of the philosophers, but she did not understand them. The further the years of her childhood receded from her, the more anxious she was to recall them. She loved to traverse at night, in disguise, the alleys, squares, and places where she had grown up so miserably.
Thais wanders the streets looking for answers - much like I did metaphorically for ten years after I began to question the Catholicism of my youth.  She stumbles upon a Church dedicated to Ahmes, the gentle slave she adored as a child.  They are commemorating his death.  She becomes emotional and returns home to our pseudo-Atheist friend Nicias who attempts to win her love with poetry.
"Do not be sad, my child. We are never happy in this world, except when we forget the world. 
"Come, let us cheat life—it is sure to take its revenge. Come, let us love!"
But she pushed him away.
"We love!" she cried bitterly. "You never loved any one. And I do not love you! No! I do not love you! I hate you! Go! I hate you! I curse and despise all who are happy, and all who are rich! Go! Go! Goodness is only found amongst the unfortunate. When I was a child I knew a black slave who died on the cross. He was good; he was filled with love, and he knew the secret of life. You are not worthy to wash his feet. Go! I never wish to see you again!"
More in the next instalment.

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