Anatole France’s Thaïs

Back in the mists of time, around a decade ago, there was a plan for an ever-expanding online collection of short critical essays on key works of the fantastic. The plan fizzled and died, but not before I wrote nine pieces for it (which I just found). This is another of them.

5869549609_55f2afb282First published: 1890
Edition used: Thaïs (London: John Lane, 1920) translated by Robert B Douglas

Some time during the late Roman Empire, Paphnutius, the Abbot of Antinoë, an ascetic hermit living on the banks of the Nile, while recalling his sinful life before his conversion, remembers Thaïs, a beautiful and promiscuous actress who had once

almost led [him] into the sins of the flesh. (10)

dfda453a37d468531b3e72219b93bd4bHe takes it upon himself to save her. He traces her to Alexandria, converts her from her life of sin and takes her to live in a religious sisterhood. On returning home, he begins to be haunted by visions of Thaïs and by demonic little jackals. Seeking respite, he sets out on a pilgrimage, finds a pillar in the desert and takes up residence atop it. Pilgrims flock to see him, miracles are performed, and the city of Stylopolis grows up around the pillar. Paphnutius believes he is on a holy mission to take on the sins and sufferings of others – until he realises that Satan has tempted him into pride. He flees, is haunted by demons and falls into the sins of lust and Arian heresy. Hearing that Thaïs is dying, he rushes to her side. She dies a saint, but his sins and torments have altered him so much that when the chorus of chanting virgins see his face, they run away, terrified, crying:

‘A vampire! A vampire!’
He had become so repulsive, that passing his hand over his face, he felt his own hideousness. (234)

Although it does take particular pleasure in its anticlericalism, Thaïs is a remarkable attack not just on Christian asceticism but also upon the self-sustaining systems we develop to explain the world and our place in it. Like Voltaire’s Candide, it holds up to ridicule Leibniz’s Principle of Sufficient Reason, when Nicias argues from observing two baskets of olives that

‘For man, who only sees a part of things, evil is evil; for God who understands all things, evil is good’

to which Eucrites responds

‘The world is a tragedy by an excellent poet. God, who composed it, has intended each of us to play a part in it. If he wills that you shall be a beggar, a prince, or a cripple, make the best of the part assigned you’. (129)

But this is just one of many targets.

Others include those who appeal to textual authority or unduly venerate antiquity: Hermodorus argues that

there is no such thing as a good form of government, and that we shall never discover one, because the Greeks, who had so many excellent ideas, were never able to find one. … all hope of ultimate success is taken from us. Unmistakable signs show that the world is about to fall into ignorance and barbarism. (124)

And when Thaïs claims that Paphnutius

knows the truth

Nicias replies,

‘I know the truths. He knows but one, I know them all. I am superior to him in that respect, but to tell the truth, it doesn’t make me any prouder nor any happier’. (160)

The radical scepticism of the stranger Paphnutius encounters en route to Alexandria, who argues that

‘there is no such thing as a good or evil life. Nothing is itself either virtuous or shameful, just or unjust, pleasant or painful, good or bad. It is our opinion which gives those qualities to things, as salt gives savour to meat’ (23)

is echoed by Nicias, who informs Paphnutius that

‘Good and evil exist only in the opinion. The wise man has only custom and usage to guide him in his acts. I conform with all the prejudices which prevail at Alexandria. That is why I pass for an honest man’. (39-40)

When she was just 11 years old, Thaïs realised that

no one can be good in this world except at cost of the most terrible suffering

and became

afraid to be good, for her delicate flesh could not bear pain. (76)

FrankPape_Thais_05_100As an adult, she greets the world without scepticism, believing in everything (84) – a position every bit as subversive as believing in nothing.

Between these epistemological poles, Paphnutius’s moral certainty is consistently undermined. Travelling through the desert, he spies a plover caught in a hunter’s net; her mate tears an opening in the net for her to escape:

The holy man watched this incident, and as, by virtue of his holiness, he easily comprehended the mystic sense of all occurrences, he knew that the captive bird was no other than Thaïs, caught in the snares of sin, and that – like the plover that cut the hempen threads with its beak – he could, by pronouncing the word of power, break the invisible bonds by which Thaïs was held in sin. Therefore, he praised God, and was confirmed in his first resolution. But then seeing the plover caught by the feet, and hampered by the net it had broken, he fell into uncertainty again. (16-7)

Paphnutius’s judgement is repeatedly called into question, as when he joins in Dorion’s misogyny, blaming women for the arousing sexual feelings in men (50); and his unconscious and self-deceiving motivations become increasingly clear to the reader as, observing Thaïs’s suffering as he leads her through the desert, he does not feel

any of the pity which softens the hearts of the profane [but rejoice[s] at these propitiatory sufferings of the flesh which had so sinned. So infuriated was he with holy zeal that he would have liked to cut with rods the body that had preserved its beauty as a shining witness to its infamy. (164)

This psychosexual dimension is wittily reiterated and simultaneously problematised as an explanatory framework when Lucius Aurelius Cotta enquires of the stylitic Paphnutius,

‘Has this column any phallic signification in your mind?’ (198)

The willingness to believe, and the influence of certain ideological determinants or conceptual systems on what one is prepared to believe, are foregrounded when Palemon tells of a monastery whose inhabitants are divided into groups by letters of the alphabet, where

a certain analogy is observed between the character of the monks and the shape of the letter by which they are designated, and that, for example, those who are placed under Z have a tortuous character, whilst those under I have an upright mind. (181)

Likewise, when the story of Cotta’s attempt to question Paphnutius is recounted:

The story of this meeting was embroidered with wonderful details, which those who invented were the first to believe. … And, the miracle being public and notorious, the deacons of the principal churches of Libya recorded it amongst the authentic facts. (200)

imagesDespite the seeming clarity of these quoted passages, Thaïs remains a rather ambiguous text, a careful balancing out of different voices, none of which can be taken to coincide with its author, teetering on the brink of meaning. But lest any belated postmodernists lurk nearby, waiting to rush in to claim France as a precursor, it is worth remembering a lesson that Nicias offers Thaïs. Throwing down a ‘treatise on morals’ composed by ‘the gravest of stoics’ (88) he had been reading while awaiting her return, he takes her in his arms, explaining:

Yes, when I had before my eyes the line in which it is written, ‘Nothing should deter you from improving your mind,’ I read, ‘The kisses of Thaïs are warmer than fire, and sweeter than honey.’ That is how a philosopher reads the books of other philosophers … It is true that, as long as we are what we are, we shall never find anything but our own thoughts in the thoughts of others, and that all of us are somewhat inclined to read books as I have read this one. (89)

The other eight entries I wrote were:
Voltaire, Candide
Godwin, Caleb Williams
de Maistre, Voyage Around My Chamber
London, The Iron Heel 
Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+
Smith, The Skylark of Space
Schuyler, Black No More
Sturgeon, Venus Plus X

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