A lot of my favorite writing comes from the twenty-five years on either side of the turn of the twentieth century. Even so, it’s a bit of an abyss to make sense of – i.e. easier for me to understand what was ‘going on’ during other periods. But it was a time of acutely high tumult, with the zenith of the machine age, at least from the perspective of the all of the hope for humanity it represented, which then turned to bitterness and remorse when WWI saw us turn all of this wonderful technology into killing machines.
But so much was stirring in visual art and literature during this period that there are thousands of points in which to delve, even among the better known ones. Anatole France was the pseudonym for a French journalist/novelist/critic who perfectly overlapped that period (1844-1924). A very healthy skeptic, he was a successful novelist and was awarded the Nobel prize in 1921. Here is a little bit of part I ofThaïs (1890),The Lotus, translated by Robert B. Douglas.
Now that Anthony, who was more than a hundred years old, had retired
to Mount Colzin with his well-beloved disciples, Macarius and Amathas,
there was no monk in the Thebaid more renowned for good works than
Paphnutius, the Abbot of Antinoe. Ephrem and Serapion had a greater
number of followers, and in the spiritual and temporal management of
their monasteries surpassed him. But Paphnutius observed the most
rigorous fasts, and often went for three entire days without taking
food. He wore a very rough hair shirt, he flogged himself night and
morning, and lay for hours with his face to the earth.
His twenty-four disciples had built their huts near his, and imitated
his austerities. He loved them all dearly in Jesus Christ, and
unceasingly exhorted them to good works. Amongst his spiritual
children were men who had been robbers for many years, and had been
persuaded by the exhortations of the holy abbot to embrace the
monastic life, and who now edified their companions by the purity of
their lives. One, who had been cook to the Queen of Abyssinia, and was
converted by the Abbot of Antinoe, never ceased to weep. There was
also Flavian, the deacon, who knew the Scriptures, and spoke well; but
the disciple of Paphnutius who surpassed all the others in holiness
was a young peasant named Paul, and surnamed the Fool, because of his
extreme simplicity. Men laughed at his childishness, but God favoured
him with visions, and by bestowing upon him the gift of prophecy.
Paphnutius passed his life in teaching his disciples, and in ascetic
practices. Often did he meditate upon the Holy Scriptures in order to
find allegories in them. Therefore he abounded in good works, though
still young. The devils, who so rudely assailed the good hermits, did
not dare to approach him. At night, seven little jackals sat in the
moonlight in front of his cell, silent and motionless, and with their
ears pricked up. It was believed that they were seven devils, who,
owing to his sanctity, could not cross his threshold.
Paphnutius was born at Alexandria of noble parents, who had instructed
him in all profane learning. He had even been allured by the
falsehoods of the poets, and in his early youth had been misguided
enough to believe that the human race had all been drowned by a deluge
in the days of Deucalion, and had argued with his fellow-scholars
concerning the nature, the attributes, and even the existence of God.
He then led a life of dissipation, after the manner of the Gentiles,
and he recalled the memory of those days with shame and horror.
“At that time,” he used to say to the brethren, “I seethed in the
cauldron of false delights.”
He meant by that that he had eaten food properly dressed, and
frequented the public baths. In fact, until his twentieth year he had
continued to lead the ordinary existence of those times, which now
seemed to him rather death than life; but, owing to the lessons of the
priest Macrinus, he then became a new man.
The truth penetrated him through and through, and–as he used to say–
entered his soul like a sword. He embraced the faith of Calvary, and
worshipped Christ crucified. After his baptism he remained yet a year
amongst the Gentiles, unable to cast off the bonds of old habits. But
one day he entered a church, and heard a deacon read from the Bible,
the verse, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and
give to the poor.” Thereupon he sold all that he had, gave away the
money in alms, and embraced the monastic life.
During the ten years that he had lived remote from men, he no longer
seethed in the cauldron of false delights, but more profitably
macerated his flesh in the balms of penitence.
One day when, according to his pious custom, he was recalling to mind
the hours he had lived apart from God, and examining his sins one by
one, that he might the better ponder on their enormity, he remembered
that he had seen at the theatre at Alexandria a very beautiful actress
named Thais. This woman showed herself in the public games, and did
not scruple to perform dances, the movements of which, arranged only
too cleverly, brought to mind the most horrible passions. Sometimes
she imitated the horrible deeds which the Pagan fables ascribe to
Venus, Leda, or Pasiphae. Thus she fired all the spectators with lust,
and when handsome young men, or rich old ones, came, inspired with
love, to hang wreaths of flowers round her door, she welcomed them,
and gave herself up to them. So that, whilst she lost her own soul,
she also ruined the souls of many others.
She had almost led Paphnutius himself into the sins of the flesh. She
had awakened desire in him, and he had once approached the house of
Thais. But he stopped on the threshold of the courtesan’s house,
partly restrained by the natural timidity of extreme youth–he was
then but fifteen years old–and partly by the fear of being refused on
account of his want of money, for his parents took care that he should
commit no great extravagances.
God, in His mercy, had used these two means to prevent him from
committing a great sin. But Paphnutius had not been grateful to Him
for that, because at that time he was blind to his own interests, and
did not know that he was lusting after false delights. Now, kneeling
in his cell, before the image of that holy cross on which hung, as in
a balance, the ransom of the world, Paphnutius began to think of
Thais, because Thais was a sin to him, and he meditated long,
according to ascetic rules, on the fearful hideousness of the carnal
delights with which this woman had inspired him in the days of his sin
and ignorance. After some hours of meditation the image of Thais
appeared to him clearly and distinctly. He saw her again, as he had
seen her when she tempted him, in all the beauty of the flesh. At
first she showed herself like a Leda, softly lying upon a bed of
hyacinths, her head bowed, her eyes humid and filled with a strange
light, her nostrils quivering, her mouth half open, her breasts like
two flowers, and her arms smooth and fresh as two brooks. At this
sight Paphnutius struck his breast and said–
“I call Thee to witness, my God, that I have considered how heinous
has been my sin.”
Gradually the face of the image changed its expression. Little by
little the lips of Thais, by lowering at the corners of the mouth,
expressed a mysterious suffering. Her large eyes were filled with
tears and lights; her breast heaved with sighs, like the sighing of a
wind that precedes a tempest. At this sight Paphnutius was troubled to
the bottom of his soul. Prostrating himself on the floor, he uttered
“Thou who hast put pity in our hearts, like the morning dew upon the
fields, O just and merciful God, be Thou blessed! Praise! praise be
unto Thee! Put away from Thy servant that false tenderness which
tempts to concupiscence, and grant that I may only love Thy creatures
in Thee, for they pass away, but Thou endurest for ever. If I care for
this woman, it is only because she is Thy handiwork. The angels
themselves feel pity for her. Is she not, O Lord, the breath of Thy
mouth? Let her not continue to sin with many citizens and strangers.
There is great pity for her in my heart. Her wickednesses are
abominable, and but to think of them makes my flesh creep. But the
more wicked she is, the more do I lament for her. I weep when I think
that the devils will torment her to all eternity.”
As he was meditating in this way, he saw a little jackal lying at his
feet. He felt much surprised, for the door of his cell had been closed
since the morning. The animal seemed to read the Abbot’s thoughts, and
wagged its tail like a dog. Paphnutius made the sign of the cross and
the beast vanished. He knew then that, for the first time, the devil
had entered his cell, and he uttered a short prayer; then he thought
again about Thais.
“With God’s help,” he said to himself, “I must save her.” And he
The next morning, when he had said his prayers, he went to see the
sainted Palemon, a holy hermit who lived some distance away. He found
him smiling quietly as he dug the ground, as was his custom. Palemon
was an old man, and cultivated a little garden; the wild beasts came
and licked his hands, and the devils never tormented him.
“May God be praised, brother Paphnutius,” he said, as he leaned upon
“God be praised!” replied Paphnutius. “And peace be unto my brother.”
“The like peace be unto thee, brother Paphnutius,” said Palemon; and
he wiped the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve.
“Brother Palemon, all our discourse ought to be solely the praise of
Him who has promised to be wheresoever two or three are gathered
together in His Name. That is why I come to you concerning a design I
have formed to glorify the Lord.”
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