It is in the Thebaid, at the summit of a mountain, upon a platform, rounded off into the form of a demilune, and enclosed by huge stones.
The Hermit’s cabin appears in the background. It is built of mud and reeds, it is flat-roofed and doorless. A pitcher and a loaf of black bread can be distinguished within also, in the middle of the apartment a large book resting on a wooden stela; while here and there, fragments of basketwork, two or three mats, a basket, and a knife lie upon the ground.
Some ten paces from the hut, there is a long cross planted in the soil; and, at the other end of the platform, an aged and twisted palmtree leans over the abyss; for the sides of the mountain are perpendicular, and the Nile appears to form a lake at the foot of the cliff.
The view to right and left is broken by the barrier of rocks. But on the desert-side, like a vast succession of sandy beaches, immense undulations of an ashen-blond color extend one behind the other, rising higher as they re- cede; and far in the distance, beyond the sands, the Libyan chain forms a chalk-colored wall, lightly shaded by violet mists. On the opposite side the sun is sinking. In the north the sky is of a pearl-gray tint, while at the zenith purple clouds disposed like the tufts of a gigantic mane, lengthen themselves against the blue vault. These streaks of flame take darker tones; the azure spots turn to a nacreous pallor; the shrubs, the pebbles, the earth, all now seem hard as bronze; and throughout space there floats a golden dust so fine as to become confounded with the vibrations of the light.
Saint Anthony who has a long beard, long hair, and wears a tunic of goatskin, is seated on the ground cross-legged, and is occupied in weaving mats. As soon as the sun disappears, he utters a deep sigh, and, gazing upon the horizon:
Another day! another day gone! Nevertheless formerly I used not to be so wretched. Before the end of the night I commenced my orisons; then I descended to the river to get water, and remounted the rugged pathway with the skin upon my shoulder, singing hymns on the way. Then I would amuse myself by arranging everything in my hut. I would make my tools; I tried to make all my mats exactly equal in size, and all my baskets light; for then my least actions seemed to me duties in nowise difficult or painful of accomplishment.
Then at regular hours I ceased working; and when I prayed with my arms extended, I felt as though a fountain of mercy were pouring from the height of heaven into my heart. That fountain is now dried up. Why? . . .
He walks up and down slowly, within the circuit of the rocks.
All blamed me when I left the house. My mother sank to the ground, dying;1 my sister from afar off made signs to me to return; and the other wept, Ammonaria, the child whom I used to meet every evening at the cistern, when she took the oxen to drink. She ran after me. Her foot rings glittered in the dust; and her tunic, open at the hips, fluttered loosely in the wind. The aged anchorite who was leading me away called her vile names. Our two camels galloped forward without respite; and I have seen none of my people since that day.
At first, I selected for my dwelling place the tomb of a Pharaoh. But an enchantment circulates through all those subterranean palaces, where the darkness seems to have been thickened by the ancient smoke of the aromatics. From the depths of Sarcophagi, I heard doleful voices arise, and call my name; or else, I suddenly beheld the abominable things painted upon the walls live and move; and I fled away to the shore of the Red Sea, and took refuge in a ruined citadel. There my only companions were the scorpions dragging themselves among the stones, and the eagles continually wheeling above my head, in the blue of heaven. At night I was torn by claws, bitten by beaks; soft wings brushed against me; and frightful demons, shrieking in my ears, flung me upon the ground. Once I was even rescued by the people of a caravan going to Alexandria; and they took me away with them.
Then I sought to obtain instruction from the good old man Didymus. Although blind, none equalled him in the knowledge of the Scriptures. When the lesson was finished, he used to ask me to give him my arm to lean upon, that we might walk together. Then I would conduct him to the Paneum, whence may be seen the Pharos and the open sea. Then we would return by way of the port, elbowing men of all nations, even Cimmerians clad in the skins of bears and Gymnosophists of the Ganges anointed with cowdung. But there was always some fighting in the streets—either on account of the Jews refusing to pay taxes, or of seditious people who wished to drive the Romans from the city. Moreover, the city is full of heretics—followers of Manes, Valentinus, Basilides, Arius—all seeking to engross my attention in order to argue with me and to convince me.
Their discourses often come back to my memory. Vainly do I seek to banish them from my mind. They trouble me!
I took refuge at Colzim, and there lived a life of such penance that I ceased to fear God. A few men, desirous of becoming anchorites, gathered about me. I imposed a practical rule of life upon them, hating, as I did, the extravagance of Gnosis and the assertions of the philosophers. Messages were sent to me from all parts, and men came from afar off to visit me.
Meanwhile the people were torturing the confessors; and the thirst of martyrdom drew me to Alexandria. The persecution had ceased three days before I arrived there!
While returning thence, I was stopped by a great crowd assembled before the temple of Serapis. They told me it was a last example which the Governor had resolved to make. In the centre of the portico, under the sunlight, a naked woman was fettered to a column, and two soldiers were flogging her with thongs; at every blow her whole body writhed. She turned round, her mouth open; and over the heads of the crowd, through the long hair half hiding her face, I thought that I could recognize Ammonaria. . . .
Nevertheless . . . this one was taller . . . and beautiful . . . prodigiously beautiful!
He passes his hands over his forehead.
No! no! I must not think of it!
Another time Athanasius summoned me to assist him against the Arians. The contest was limited to invectives and laughter. But since that time he has been calumniated, dispossessed of his see, obliged to fly for safety elsewhere. Where is he now? I do not know! The people give themselves very little trouble to bring me news. All my disciples have abandoned me—Hilarion like the rest!
He was perhaps fifteen years of age when he first came to me and his intelligence was so remarkable that he asked me questions incessantly. Then he used to listen to me with a pensive air, and whatever I needed he brought it to me without a murmur—nimbler than a kid, merry enough to make even the patriarchs laugh. He was a son to me!
The sky is red; the earth completely black. Long drifts of sand follow the course of the gusts of wind, rising like great shrouds and falling again. Suddenly against a bright space in the sky a flock of birds pass, forming a triangular battalion, gleaming like one sheet of metal, of which the edges alone seem to quiver.
Anthony watches them.
Ah, how I should like to follow them!
How often also have I enviously gazed upon those long vessels, whose sails resemble wings—and above all when they were bearing far away those I had received at my hermitage! What pleasant hours we passed!—what out-pourings of feeling! No one ever interested me more than Ammon: he told me of his voyage to Rome, of the Catacombs, the Coliseum, the piety of illustrious women, and a thousand other things!—and it grieved me to part with him! Wherefore my obstinacy in continuing to live such a life as this? I would have done well to remain with the monks of Nitria, inasmuch as they supplicated me to do so. They have cells apart, and nevertheless communicate with each other. On Sundays a trumpet summons them to assemble at the church, where one may see three scourges hanging up, which serve to punish delinquents, robbers, and intruders; for their discipline is severe.
Nevertheless they are not without some enjoyments. The faithful bring them eggs, fruits, and even instruments with which they can extract thorns from their feet. There are vineyards about Pisperi; those dwelling at Pabena have a raft on which they may journey when they go to seek provisions.
But I might have served my brethren better as a simple priest. As a priest one may aid the poor, administer the sacraments, and exercise authority over families.
Furthermore, all laics are not necessarily damned, and it only depended upon my own choice to become—for example—a grammarian, a philosopher. I would then have had in my chamber a sphere of reeds, and tablets always ready at hand, young men around me, and a wreath of laurel suspended above my door, as a sign.
But there is too much pride in triumphs such as those. A soldier’s life would have been preferable. I was robust and bold: bold enough to fasten the cables of the military machines—to traverse dark forests, or to enter, armed and helmeted, into smoking cities! . . . Neither was there anything to have prevented me from purchasing with my money the position of publican at the toll-office of some bridge; and travellers would have told me strange stories, the while showing me many curious objects packed up among their baggage. . . .
The merchants of Alexandria sail upon the river Canopus on holidays, and drink wine in the chalices of lotus-flowers, to a music of tambourines which makes the taverns along the shore tremble! Beyond, trees, made cone-shaped by pruning, protect the quiet farms against the wind of the south. The roof of the lofty house leans upon thin colonettes placed as closely together as the laths of a lattice; and through their interspaces the master, reclining upon his long couch, beholds his plains stretching about him—the hunter among the wheat-fields—the winepress where the vintage is being converted into wine, the oxen treading out the wheat. His children play upon the floor around him; his wife bends down to kiss him.
Against the grey dimness of the twilight, here and there appear pointed muzzles, with straight, pointed ears and bright eyes. Anthony advances toward them. There is a sound of gravel crumbling down; the animals take flight. It was a troop of jackals.
One still remains, rising upon his hinder legs, with his body half arched and head raised in an attitude full of defiance.
How pretty he is! I would like to stroke his back gently.
Anthony whistles to coax him to approach. The jackal disappears.
Ah! he is off to join the others. What solitude! what weariness!
A happy life this indeed!—bending palm-branches in the fire to make shepherds’ crooks, fashioning baskets, stitching mats together—and then exchanging these things with the Nomads for bread which breaks one’s teeth! Ah! woe, woe is me! will this never end? Surely death were preferable! I can endure it no more! Enough! enough!
He stamps his foot upon the ground, and rushes frantically to and fro among the rocks; then pauses, out of breath, bursts into tears, and lies down upon the ground, on his side.
The night is calm; multitudes of stars are palpitating; only the crackling noise made by the tarantulas is audible.
The two arms of the cross make a shadow upon the sand; Anthony, who is weeping, observes it.
Am I, then, so weak, O my God! Courage, let me rise from here!
He enters his hut, turns over a pile of cinders, finds a live ember, lights his torch and fixes it upon the wooden desk, so as to throw a light upon the great book.
Suppose I take . . . the Acts of the Apostles? . . .—yes!—no matter where!
“And he saw the heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending, as it were a great linen sheet let down by the four corners from heaven to the earth—wherein were all manner of four-footed beasts; and creeping things of the earth and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him: Arise, Peter! Kill and eat!”*
Then the Lord desired that his apostle should eat of all things? . . .while I . . .
Anthony remains thoughtful, his chin resting against his breast. The rustling of the pages, agitated by the wind, causes him to lift his head again; and he reads:
“So the Jews made a great slaughter of their enemies with the sword, and killed them, repaying according to what they had prepared to do to them.”*
Then comes the number of people slain by them—seventy-five thousand. They had suffered so much! Moreover, their enemies were the enemies of the true God. And how they must have delighted in avenging themselves thus by the massacre of idolaters! Doubtless the city must have been crammed with the dead! There must have been corpses at the thresholds of the garden gates, upon the stairways, in all the chambers, and piled up so high that the doors could no longer move upon their hinges! . . . But lo! here I am permitting my mind to dwell upon ideas of murder and of blood!
He opens the book at another place.
“Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell on his face, and worshipped Daniel."
Ah! that was just! The Most High exalts his prophets above Kings; yet that monarch spent his life in banqueting, perpetually drunk with pleasure and pride. But God, to punish him, changed him into a beast! He walked upon four feet!
Anthony begins to laugh; and in extending his arms, involuntarily disarranges the leaves of the book with the tips of his fingers. His eyes fall upon this phrase:
“And Ezechias rejoiced at their coming, and he showed them the house of his aromatical spices, and the gold and the silver, and divers precious odours and ointments, and the house of his vessels, and all that he had in his treasures.”‡
Copyright © 2002 by Gustave Flaubert Translated by Lafcadio Hearn; Introduction by Michel Foucault. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.