Monthly Archives: October 2012

#102 “The Temptation of St. Antony” by Gustave Flaubert (#845 on The List)

by Michael Niewodowski

Gustave Flaubert’s The Temptation of St. Antony is a religious hallucination.  St. Antony of Egypt (cir. 251-356) was an ascetic monk that lived in the Libyan Desert; he is said to have experienced supernatural temptations. In Flaubert’s novel, the Seven Deadly Sins, the Greek gods, Lust, Death, demons, heretics, science, the Sphinx, and others tempt him.  Like the many paintings that St. Antony’s story has inspired, Flaubert’s work is surreal, spectacularly visual, and nearly impenetrably dense.

There are some pretty fantastic highlights.  The Greek gods appear in all their glory, with Hercules holding up Mt. Olympus; eventually Hercules is crushed by the weight of the mountain, and all the gods perish.  Later, Antony rides on the horns of the Devil as they fly into space, past stars and galaxies while the Devil argues science and reason.

When I was twelve years old, I went on a religious pilgrimage to the small village of Medugorje in the former Yugoslavia (now Bosnia/Herzegovina), where supposedly the Blessed Virgin Mary has appeared to six children since 1981; this has not been confirmed nor denied by the Catholic Church.  While I was there, many other pilgrims experienced religious hallucinations: one person reported an out of body experience, others said their rosaries turned to gold, and yet others said that the mountainsides were lit up at night by brilliant supernatural lights.  I didn’t see any gold rosaries, and the mountains looked dark to me.  One American family claimed to see the ‘miracle of the sun’ in which the sun dances, splits, and changes colors and shapes.  I was sitting very nearby this family while they were experiencing this hallucination; I looked at the sun, but didn’t see anything.  I prayed and prayed to see what they were seeing, but the sun didn’t change.  I asked my father why I couldn’t see it; he told me, “If you stare long enough into the sun, you’ll see all sorts of strange things.” (Indeed, each member of the family described seeing a different version of the dancing sun.)  I felt like something was wrong with me- that my faith was not strong enough because I did not experience any of these ‘miracles’.  Later, I came to realize that I was a lot like the child that recognized that the Emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes.  One of the things I did notice about all the pilgrims that experienced religious hallucinations- they were all quick to brag about the ‘miracles’ they had experienced, like it was a status symbol of their faith.  My own mother, the most religious person I know, did not experience any religious hallucinations on that trip.

At the end of The Temptation of St. Antony, Antony, having defeated all temptations, sees the face of Jesus Christ in the disc of the sun.  Finally at peace, he makes the sign of the cross and returns to his prayers.

I no longer hold resentment towards the pilgrims that experienced religious hallucinations.  Many members of other religions put themselves into altered states through asceticism like St. Antony to have religious hallucinations.  They seem to experience a great deal of joy from the ‘miracles’.  After all, the people all cheered with joy when they saw the Emperor’s new ‘clothes’.  I just hope that that American family didn’t experience permanent eye damage from staring at the sun for so long.   I choose to keep my health and wits instead of hallucinating to get closer to God.

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#101 “Dead Souls” by Nikolay Gogol (#914 on The List)

by Michael Niewodowski

#101 Dead Souls by Nikolay Gogol (#914 on The List)

Nikolay Gogol went completely mad as he was writing Dead Souls.  After reading the novel, this makes a lot of sense to me.  It starts out as a humorous, biting satire, but spirals off into near incomprehensibleness in the second part.  There are huge chunks of text missing, and the book ends unfinished- literally in mid-sentence.  Gogol died of self-inflicted starvation before he finished the novel.

In Dead Souls, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov travels the Russian countryside purchasing the deeds to dead serfs from rich landowners.  Chichikov has discovered a bureaucratic loophole that can help him to get rich by mortgaging the deeds to the dead serfs before the government realizes that they are dead; the dead souls are more valuable to him than the living serfs.  The satire is that the Russia would place more value on dead serfs than live ones.

Class distinction and inequality is an oft-used theme in literature.  Nowhere is it better satirized than in Dead Souls.  A lot has been said and written in the last few years about this issue: the “Occupy Wall Street” movement has targeted the top 1% of earners in the United States (those making over $500,000 a year).  I grew up in an upper-middle class family, now I am somewhere in the middle-lower-middle class to upper-lower-middle class range; each range has its own advantages and problems.  It is interesting to see how much attention society places on this issue, but apparently it is nothing new: “we have men so wise and adroit that they will speak to a landowner possessing but two hundred serf-souls in a way altogether different from that in which they will to one who possesses three hundred of them; while to him who possesses three hundred of them they will again speak not in the same way as they would with him that has five hundred souls…in brief, even if you were to go up to a million, you would find different shadings for each category.”  (Dead Souls, p. 57).   I think that most Americans in the “99%” would find themselves just as uncomfortable in the bottom 1% (making $2500 or less per year) as the top 1% would be.  Most of the populace in Gogol’s Russia would have fallen into this category of extremely poor.

This will sound base and unconnected, but one of the most enjoyable aspects of reading Russian literature is for the wonderful Russian character names.  Besides Chichikov, there are characters named Athanassii Vassilievich Murazov, Fedor Fedorovich Lenitzin, and Alexander Dmitrievich Betrischev.  Some of the names from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment are even more fun: Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigailov, etc.  If I ever write a novel, I will be sure to have a character with a great Russian name.

I think that the “Occupy Wall Street” people would learn a lot from reading Dead Souls and the information about Gogol; sometimes I worry that if they are too successful we’ll all have our exact income percentage projected on our foreheads.  According to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Gogol’s intention for Dead Souls was to “rekindle the noble yet dormant core of the Russian people, to transform the troubled social and economic landscape of Russia into the gleaming great Empire that was its destiny…he no longer wanted to write about Russia: he wanted to save it” (p. 112).  If we become too obsessed with fixing class inequality, we could, like Gogol, go stark raving mad.

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