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The Temptation of St. Antony.  Gustave Flaubert
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He flies under Antony's body, extended like a swimmer; his two great wings, outspread, entirely concealing him, resemble a cloud.

Antony--"Where am I going? Just now I caught a glimpse of the form of the Accursèd One. No! a cloud is carrying me away. Perhaps I am dead, and am mounting up to God? ...

"Ah! how well I breathe! The untainted air inflates my soul. No more heaviness! no more suffering!

"Beneath me, the thunderbolt darts forth, the horizon widens, rivers cross one another. That light spot is the desert; that pool of water the ocean. And other oceans appear--immense regions of which I had no knowledge. There are black lands that smoke like live embers, a belt of snow ever obscured by the mists. I am trying to discover the mountains where each evening the sun goes to sleep."

The Devil--"The sun never goes to sleep!"

Antony is not startled by this voice. It appears to him an echo of his thought--a response of his memory.

Meanwhile, the earth takes the form of a ball, and he perceives it in the midst of the azure turning on its poles while it winds around the sun.

The Devil--"So, then, it is not the centre of the world? Pride of man, humble thyself!"

Antony--"I can scarcely distinguish it now. It is intermingled with the other fires. The firmament is but a tissue of stars."

They continue to ascend.

"No noise! not even the crying of the eagles! Nothing! ... and I bend down to listen to the music of the spheres."

The Devil--"You cannot hear them! No longer will you see the antichthon of Plato, the focus of Philolaüs, the spheres of Aristotle, or the seven heavens of the Jews with the great waters above the vault of crystal!"

Antony--"From below it appeared as solid as a wall. But now, on the contrary, I am penetrating it; I am plunging into it!"

And he arrives in front of the moon--which is like a piece of ice, quite round, filled with a motionless light.

The Devil--"This was formerly the abode of souls. The good Pythagoras had even supplied it with birds and magnificent flowers."

Antony--"I see nothing there save desolate plains, with extinct craters, under a black sky.

"Come towards those stars with a softer radiance, so that we may gaze upon the angels who hold them with the ends of their arms, like torches!"

The Devil carries him into the midst of the stars.

"They attract one another at the same time that they repel one another. The action of each has an effect on the others, and helps to produce their movements--and all this without the medium of an auxiliary, by the force of a law, by the virtue simply of order."

Antony--"Yes ... yes! my intelligence grasps it! It is a joy greater than the sweetness of affection! I pant with stupefaction before the immensity of God!"

The Devil--"Like the firmament, which rises in proportion as you ascend, He will become greater according as your imagination mounts higher; and you will feel your joy increase in proportion to the unfolding of the universe, in this enlargement of the Infinite."

Antony--"Ah! higher! ever higher!"

The stars multiply and shed around their scintillations. The Milky Way at the zenith spreads out like an immense belt, with gaps here and there; in these clefts, amid its brightness, dark tracts reveal themselves. There are showers of stars, trains of golden dust, luminous vapours which float and then dissolve.

Sometimes a comet sweeps by suddenly; then the tranquillity of the countless lights is renewed.

Antony, with open arms, leans on the Devil's two horns, thus occupying the entire space covered by his wings. He recalls with disdain the ignorance of former days, the limitation of his ideas. Here, then, close beside him, were those luminous globes which he used to gaze at from below. He traces the crossing of their paths, the complexity of their directions. He sees them coming from afar, and, suspended like stones in a sling, describing their orbits and pushing forward their parabolas.

He perceives, with a single glance, the Southern Cross and the Great Bear, the Lynx and the Centaur, the nebulæ of the Gold-fish, the six suns in the constellation of Orion, Jupiter with his four satellites, and the triple ring of the monstrous Saturn! all the planets, all the stars which men should, in future days, discover! He fills his eyes with their light; he overloads his mind with a calculation of their distances;--then he lets his head fall once more.

"What is the object of all this?"

The Devil--"There is no object!

"How could God have had an object? What experience could have enlightened Him, what reflection enabled Him to judge? Before the beginning of things, it would not have operated, and now it would be useless."

Antony--"Nevertheless, He created the world, at one period of time, by His mere word!"

The Devil--"But the beings who inhabit the earth came there successively. In the same way, in the sky, new stars arise--different effects from various causes."

Antony--"The variety of causes is the will of God!"

The Devil--"But to admit in God several acts of will is to admit several causes, and thus to destroy His unity!

"His will is not separable from His essence. He cannot have a second will, inasmuch as He cannot have a second essence--and, since He exists eternally, He acts eternally.

"Look at the sun! From its borders escape great flames emitting sparks which scatter themselves to become new worlds; and, further than the last, beyond those depths where only night is visible, other suns whirl round, and behind these others again, and others still, to infinity ..."

Antony--"Enough! enough! I am terrified! I am about to fall into the abyss."

The Devil stops, and gently balancing himself--

"There is no such thing as nothingness! There is no vacuum! Everywhere there are bodies moving over the unchangeable realms of space--and, as if it had any bounds it would not be space but a body, it consequently has no limits!"

Antony, open-mouthed--"No limits!"

The Devil--"Ascend into the sky forever and ever, and you will never reach the top! Descend beneath the earth for millions upon millions of centuries, and you will never get to the bottom--inasmuch as there is no bottom, no top, no end, above or below; and space is, in fact, comprised in God, who is not a part of space, of a magnitude that can be measured, but immensity!"

Antony, slowly--"Matter, in that case, would be part of God?"

The Devil--"Why not? Can you tell where He comes to an end?"

Antony--"On the contrary, I prostrate myself, I efface myself before His power!"

The Devil--"And you pretend to move Him! You speak to Him, you even adorn Him with virtues--goodness, justice, clemency,--in place of recognising the fact that He possesses all perfections!

"To conceive anything beyond is to conceive God outside of God. Being outside of Being. But then He is the only Being, the only Substance.

"If substance could be divided, it would lose its nature--it would not be itself; God would no longer exist. He is, therefore, indivisible as well as infinite, and if He had a body, He would be made up of parts. He would no longer be one; He would no longer be infinite. Therefore, He is not a person!"

Antony--"What? My prayers, my sobs, the sufferings of my flesh, the transports of my zeal, all these things would be no better than a lie ... in space ... uselessly--like a bird's cry, like a whirlwind of dead leaves!"

He weeps.

"Oh! no! There is above everything some One, a Great Spirit, a Lord, a Father, whom my heart adores, and who must love me!"

The Devil--"You desire that God should not be God; for, if He experienced love, anger, or pity, He would pass from His perfection to a greater or less perfection. He cannot descend to a sentiment, or be contained under a form."

Antony--"One day, however, I shall see Him!"

The Devil--"With the Blessèd, is it not? When the finite shall enjoy the Infinite, enclosing the Absolute in a limited space!"

Antony--"No matter! There must be a Paradise for the good, as well as a Hell for the wicked!"

The Devil--"Does the exigency of your reason constitute the law of things? Without doubt, evil is a matter of indifference to God, seeing that the earth is covered with it!

"Is it from impotence that He endures it, or from cruelty that He preserves it?

"Do you think that He can be continually putting the world in order like an imperfect work, and that He watches over all the movements of all beings, from the flight of the butterfly to the thought of man?

"If He created the universe His providence is superfluous. If Providence exists, creation is defective.

"But good and evil only concern you--like day and night, pleasure and pain, death and birth, which have relationship merely to a corner of space, to a special medium, to a particular interest. Inasmuch as what is infinite alone is permanent, the Infinite exists; and that is all!"

The Devil has gradually extended his huge wings, and now they cover space.

Antony can no longer see. He is on the point of fainting:

"A horrible chill freezes me to the bottom of my soul. This exceeds the utmost pitch of pain. It is, as it were, a death more profound than death. I wheel through the immensity of darkness. It enters into me. My consciousness is shivered to atoms under this expansion of nothingness."

The Devil--"But things happen only through the medium of your mind. Like a concave mirror, it distorts objects, and you need every resource in order to verify facts.

"Never shall you understand the universe in its full extent; consequently you cannot form an idea as to its cause, so as to have a just notion of God, or even say that the universe is infinite, for you should first comprehend the Infinite!

"Form is perhaps an error of your senses, substance an illusion of your intellect. Unless it be that the world, being a perpetual flux of things, appearances, by a sort of contradiction, would not be a test of truth, and illusion would be the only reality.

"But are you sure that you see? Are you sure that you live? Perhaps nothing at all exists!"

The Devil has seized Antony, and, holding him by the extremities of his arms, stares at him with open jaws ready to swallow him up.

"Come, adore me! and curse the phantom that you call God!"

Antony raises his eyes with a last movement of lingering hope.

The Devil quits him.