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The Temptation of Saint Anthony (Modern Library Classics) Paperback – January 8, 2002
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“[The Temptation of Saint Anthony] calls up not only the great problems of knowledge, but the real riddles of life . . . and it confirms the awareness of our perplexity in the mysteriousness that reigns everywhere.”
Text: English (translation)
Original Language: French
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The fruit of Flaubert's early romantic obsession and, even more clearly, his masochistic side, I don't see how any English reader could take this seriously as literature, though as a self-revealing document it's interesting.
I wonder why Penguin decided to publish this translation by a woman with a Russian name (don't have the text in front of me, her first name is Kitty) instead of at least assigning the job to Baldick, Tannock, Kreilewhatshisname, their regular cadre of French translators. I expect they thought it wasn't worth the cost when Kitty had already done the job and the book would only appeal to Flaubert completists.
While there are those that would have us believe that experiences like Saint Anthony's are mythical and hence not "real", there is no man or woman alive or dead today that hasn't had to fight an analogous battle. We simply do not recognize it as such because we see everything in the here and now. But get beyond the first round of temptations in your city or town, your school or workplace, Hollywood, the media, advertising and your own past, and you will discover band after band of increasing sophistication and antiquity. The first sign will be dream content with no direct relationship to your life: people you have never met, places you have never visited, epochs and cultures that you are entirely unfamiliar with. You are now in "Double Jeopardy."
Given the moment-by-moment onslaught of the adversary and the weakness of the flesh, it is understandable that we should fail to live up to the high standard that Christ and the Saints have set. According to Saint Paul, the only safe place for a man or woman of God who lusts after the flesh is in a Christian marriage:
"Now for the matters you wrote about: 'It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.' But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. I say this as a concession, not as command." (NIV: 1 Cor. 1-6)
Even in marriage, the struggle to resist temptations of various kinds is never over. It's just that married we stand a better chance.
For those who take Saint Anthony's experience as testimony to guide them in their own struggles to resist temptation, there are three things to be mindful of. One is that the field of battle stretches into the past and may include the stuff of antiquity. Any cessation of activity is no indication that the war is over. There is another battle forming and the armaments and the tactics will be different this time.
The second thing has its good side. And that is that all of us are living in an eternal present where past and future are much more than prologue and postscript. There is no soul anywhere that has ever been (properly speaking, there is no death) that does not affect its agency somewhere in the cosmos at this very moment even if it happens to be in Hell. Satan lives but so does Christ.
The final thing to remember is that if we "put on the armor of the Lord" and live our lives according to the precepts handed down by Moses and given elucidation and development by the perfect example of Jesus Christ, victory is assured. All we have to do is keep the faith.
The great tragedy is that most people will continue to regard Flaubert's "The Temptation of Saint Anthony" as a work of fiction and not a guide book. Because the only major difference between us and Saint Anthony is that Saint Anthony was able to hold out until the very end and bring the entire war into full consciousness. Most of us will succumb in one of the early skirmishes and spend the rest of our lives steadfastly denying there was ever a battle to begin with.
For more on the "eternal present", see Thomas Merton's "When Israel came out of Egypt." Bread In The Wilderness. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press / Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986. 108-120.