The Heart of your Brother; or, Anthony in the Desert, and Other Mirages
The Torment of Saint Anthony, Michelangelo, c.1487–1488
by Ed Simon
Does the boundless solitude of the desert terrify you? In the spirit you may walk always in paradise.
The desert is not remote in southern tropics/The desert is not only around the corner, /The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you, /The desert is in the heart of your brother.
—T.S Eliot, The Rock (1934)
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold… suddenly there was a terrible roar…and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas.
—Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971)
Saint Anthony’s encounters with those fearsome demons in the desert happened more than just once; in fact, they occurred repeatedly.
Once, while on the road back to his cell, he came across two demons in the form of a satyr and a centaur, those refugees of fallen paganism, whose true diabolical origins were revealed after the birth of the Nazarene. Anthony, with his single, rough, illiterate Coptic tongue, was not a learned man, and yet he suffered but eventually won in disputation with the creatures, one of whom he ultimately blessed.
Another time, on caked sands lined with deep fissures the red-fire color of rough pottery, Anthony was assaulted by Satan himself, who resented the Egyptian monk’s calm asceticism, his self-sufficiency, his holiness. The fallen angel kicked and punched and beat the anchorite, until the old man was unconscious, and a group of local villagers who occasionally brought the saint meals of lentils and unleavened bread found him outside of his hovel. And then, most spectacularly, there was Anthony’s conflagration with an entire panoply of devils, who kicked, tore, gouged, punched, spit and bit the masochistic saint, for whom religious ecstasy and the hot terrors of torture were sometimes scarcely indistinguishable.
Almost a millennia after that third-century Egyptian hermit invented the very idea of monasticism in the hot, howling, desert wilderness, and an Italian bishop named Jacobus de Voragine would write in his classic, medieval compendium The Golden Legend (by way of fifteenth-century translation of William Caxton) that the horrific collection of demons came to Anthony’s cave
in form of divers beasts wild and savage, of whom that one howled, another siffled, and another cried, and another brayed and assailed St. Anthony, that one with the horns, the others with their teeth, and the others with their paws and ongles, and disturned, and all to-rent his body that he supposed well to die.
As Jacob would wrestle with an angel, so too would Anthony tussle with one as well, in fact multiple ones, albeit of a more fallen nature. Ultimately, Anthony would be saved by a bright, shining white light–a light beyond light. As if that which appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus was incarnated in this cave, that luminescent glow of the living God who dispelled that assembled pandemonium from the limp, broken body of poor Anthony. But if anyone thinks that decades of living in the dry and unforgiving Egyptian desert of Wadi El Natrun had made the hermit humorless, consider that Caxton has the saint asking the Lord “where hast thou been so long?”
The demons, it should be said, were not always what would have been immediately brought to mind when one thought about Anthony. In early representations, such as that by his biographer St. Athanasius, the devils were not necessarily as central as they ultimately would be in later art, with hagiographers preferring to focus rather on his piety, his humility, or his role in debating the Arians during that unfortunate heretical controversy.
Anthony was always a counter-cultural icon of a sort, taking seriously Christ’s injunction to leave one’s community and possessions for the Kingdom of God, a figure who embraced this radical mystical anarchism which inspired the monk to write in a letter to the Emperor Constantine “The books of God, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, commands us every day, but we do not heed what they tell us, and we turn our backs on them,” shades of the philosopher Diogenes in his filth-covered marketplace pot of ceramic, telling Alexander the Great to stop blocking his light.
But for later audiences, Anthony’s molestation at the hands of dark spirits in the desert became paramount. Whether the growing development of that hoary concept of “interiority,” or from an increased concern with psychological states, the demons really awaited the middle ages and the Renaissance to make their grandest appearance, more often than not in the form of oil on stretched canvas.
The Temptation of Saint Anthony has been a touchstone for western art since the middle ages, an opportunity to depict this abused old man surrounded by the most terrifying beings that the individual creative imagination can envision. Michelangelo, when only a 12 year old boy, painted his earliest surviving picture, a depiction of the temptation. His beasts, holding the saint aloft in the air over his desert home, are a disturbing lot. Over Anthony’s right shoulder there is a pig-nosed, dead-eyed simian with tufted green hair, brandishing a club he’s about to bring down on the saint’s tonsured head while looking nothing so much as the result of a one-night stand between a bat and a baboon. Next to that unfortunate creature there is an elephant trunked fish, floating in air with long arms covered in spindly spikes, accosting Anthony with a flaming shillelagh. A horned, reptilian dog grasps at one pale hand of the monk, and at the ascetic’s left there is a being of unknown provenance and strange distortion, the color of boiled red sausages, who has coal-black shark eyes, androgynous paps hanging from a pot-bellied chest, and upon its posterior two additional eyes above a mouth composed of a gapping, wrinkled anus. The countryside beyond is more bucolic than barren, more pastoral than punishing, with not the baked, earthen cells of the anchorite but rather the towers of Renaissance Italy laying beyond a blue, dusky haze of sfumato.
But the demons didn’t just physically harm the saint, they more importantly psychological tortured him as well, with blasphemies and doubts, temptations and delights. Anthony’s enticements, with their evocation of that most famous desert temptation when upon a Judean hilltop Christ was offered the very world by that Prince of Lies, are evidence of that old antinomian hobby-horse which has it that holiness can only be acquired after one first drags themselves through the muck of sin.
The Romantic poet William Blake would have put it as “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom;” Anthony in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers claimed “’Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.’ He even added, ‘Without Temptations, no-one can be saved.’” Like Siddhartha Gautama under the Bodhi Tree, tempted with visions of entwined, buxom, lascivious women by the dark god Mara, Anthony was continually tested here in the least pleasurable of places with the possibility of pleasure.
The Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis writes that “Only in the desert do we see the birth of these fierce, indomitable souls who … stand before Him fearlessly, their minds in resplendent consubstantiality with the skirts of the Lord.” The Buddha, Christ, Anthony – all renouncing worldly possessions in a place so inhospitable and all enticed with visions of pleasure beyond pleasure – and yet resisting. Desert visions, the established wisdom has it, can play profound tricks on the human mind. A cursed land of hallucinations and images, dreams both horrible and sublime, whether the origin is internal or from a land that humans can’t point towards.
Whether through mirage or miracle, the desert has always been the laboratory for exploring extremes of human consciousness, and for meeting on that dusty road either a demon or your doppelganger. Depending on one’s approach to metaphysics, while considering that the difference may not matter much.
Anthony’s torturers can be understood as either objectively real demons or attributes of whatever roiling Id lived just beneath the conscious surface of his mind, but whether mysticism or psychology the diabolism remains constant. Deserts, with their emptiness, their harshness, their unremitting extremity, their cruelty without intention, provide a model of how we can empty ourselves.
Deserts present the topography of kenosis – a place so barren that we can in turn find what is barren in our souls and hope to fill it with some new substance, where we can hope to fill it with God. So it has ever been, at least in those traditions that religion scholars used to call “Abrahamic,” drawing their inspiration from the example of the ancient Jews who made their home in a harsh desert which was promised to be transformed into a land of milk and honey.
Anthony, it should be said, was not the first monk (even if sometimes spoken of that way), nor was he the first hermit. To retreat to the wilderness and return with wisdom is such a perennial theme that it forces the cultural critic to reach for that embarrassing old term “archetype” (alongside the antacids). Remember aforementioned Christ with his forty days in the Negev, or the Buddha among the wind-scrubbed hills of northern India, and Simeon bar Yochai who less than two centuries before Anthony lived in a Judean cave, generating in ecstasy the turns of phrase that would come to compose the kabbalah, and whom when he finally left his rocky home after decades of contemplation was so intense on fire with mystical adoration that his very presence was able to strike people dead.
Nor was Anthony the last of the desert fathers, or as we could perhaps come to think of all those who drew inspiration from his antisocial example, desert children. Scholar Benedicta Ward writes about the over 10,000 men who performed penance in the Egyptian monasteries around Alexandria at the same time as Anthony, and how they “were living on the boundaries between human and animal, between the cultivated lands and the wilderness, between angels and men, which made them mediators with God for all creation.”
Future hermits and anchorites, penitents and pilgrims, would draw from Anthony’s biography and the example of the desert fathers; hagiographies composed of English, Welsh, and Irish saints bricked up in stone rooms writing of their verdant, green, rain-soaked lands as if they were the hazy, tan deserts of Egypt; English Protestant colonists and advocates for colonialism describing the howling wilderness of America, the poet George Wither claiming that the New World:
more truly a Desert call,
than any of the world’s more civil Pale.
That Middlesex and Massachusetts are not deserts is no accounting, for those who read the Bible, written in such a torrid place, there are deserts to be found everywhere, not least of which is the human mind. The ancient Jews were a desert tribe, as it should be said that the early Christians were a desert sect, as were the earliest Muslims. And as these were a people both familiar with the harsh anger of desert heat and the gentle tenderness of a desert oasis, so too would their myths be ultimately written in the vocabulary of their experience, and our very religious systems defined by the hot sands of wastelands most of us have never seen.
From Anthony’s example then, we may consider certain axioms of what the religious import of the desert actually is. For though faith may supposedly contemplate higher things, it is only in the language of life that any wisdom may flow. And so, from the ancient Jews who authored the Bible the desert remains – alongside the garden – as the most enduring and potent symbol of where ego is stripped away, and where punishment and reward can sometimes seem indistinguishable. Of those Axial Age cultures which gave us conceptions of abstraction and universalism – the Greeks among their honey-scented olive groves, the Indians on the muddy Ganges, or the Chinese prophesizing with lots and turtle shells – the prophetic Jews alone were those whose home was such an unforgiving place.
The desert consumes the life of the western religious imagination, it is no mistake that when we envision hell it is in the imagery of the desert, seeing the place of eternal torment as a subterranean realm of unrelenting scorch. By contrast to God’s chosen people, consider his frozen people, the ancient Nordic pagans: as those religions birthed from the desert feared an eternity of unrelenting heat, so the frigid Scandinavians’ saw the corpse shore of Nastrond in Hel as an ice kingdom of cold veins and blue flesh. Though, it could be observed, that since from an environmental perspective deserts are defined not by temperature but by amount of precipitation, technically speaking both visions of the afterlife constitute deserts of a sort.
The ancient Jews, as with almost all of their Mediterranean cousins, had a murky idea of what the details of the afterlife would look like, with a more fleshed-out cosmology of both reward and punishment awaiting the first century Pharisees and the early Christians. Details would be forthcoming with the analytical rigor of minds tuned towards scholastic categorization and classification, but the overall feeling that the desert represents some sort of extremity approaching ultimate things was already implicit in the profane reality of the brutal environs which defined Bronze Age existence for the Jews.
Consider the Hebrew word sometimes translated as hell: Gehenna. Often used as simply synonymous with the Germanic word “Hell,” Gehenna is a concept that might be more aptly compared to the Christian idea of Purgatory, a place of temporary punishment and cleansing to prepare the sinful souls of men for the rewards of paradise. In most accounts, this place of temporary perdition, is reserved for only a year for each individual, there being a short list of permanent residents composed of only the wicked. But for as abstract as the mythology might be, the noun “Gehenna” draws its name from a real place, where the modern day valleys of Hinnom and Kidron merge towards the western edge of Jerusalem’s Old City.
“The Flight of Moloch”, from On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, by John Milton, illustrated by William Blake, 1803- 1815
Evidence that our myths are only ever supported by the vagaries of actual experience, for the physical Gehenna was a loathsome, fetid, hot valley of ashes, associated with shamefulness and the punishment of sin. The prophet Jeremiah describes the grey crevice in that holy city where those pagans who’d turned from the God of Israel would “burn their sons and daughters in the fire,” rather worshiping bestial gods and goddesses like Moloch and moon-faced Tanit. There, before the iconoclastic purges of cleansing King Josiah, backsliders, reprobates, and blasphemers would immolate their infants to the bull-headed deity, the sickening smell of burnt human flesh wafting over the western edge of the city.
Such a hellish place would be only reserved for filth, even after the cessation of that shameful practice, when Gehenna would be transformed into a trash dump, garbage and refuse burnt there rather than humans, and the entire edge of Jerusalem given over to the sour smell of fiery waste and the ashes of animal bones and rotten dates, bits of burning papyrus thrown up into the atmosphere from the bonfires like fire flies flickering off in the city’s sweet cool of the evening as dusk fell across the land. Even the Romans during their occupation regarded Gehenna as unclean, choosing rather to cremate soldiers from the Tenth Legion in that perennial wasteland.
A place of purging, a place of burning, a place of cleansing. But the awful truth of God in such wastelands, in such deserts, is that they are sanctuaries where only certain types of knowledge can be purchased with the cost of suffering (as Anthony knew so well). What results are thoughts that touch on both infernal and sacred things, and more importantly a tongue commensurate with the expression of those thoughts. Even in the New Testament, Jesus’ brother James, and leader of that most-Jewish Ebionite Church in Jerusalem, could write that the “tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of Gehenna.”
Gehenna, that desert trash-heap, within the very symbol of God’s City which is Jerusalem, only serves to underscore the duel legacy of the desert which we’ve inherited from our forbearers. Deserts, as apocalyptic tableau, are an image of the world laid waste, of a realm where nothing grows, of stultifying monotony that is as wide as the eye’s perspective, of unrelenting punishing extremes of heat during the day and of cold at night. But Jerusalem, the very model of a celestial city that has always stood more as a symbol than an actual place, is in reality literally in that same desert.
Eden, for that matter, on the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris, is simply another setting (albeit more mythological) that also serves as a respite from the totality of the desert which surrounds it. I claimed earlier that the garden stands in contrast to the desert as the two poles of imagined terrain which define western sacred geography, yet they exist in uneasy relationship to each other, as proven by the strange example of Jerusalem as holy city which had the very bowels of smoking hell upon her western valleys. Gardens are planned, orderly, lush, and organic, a dwelling of delight and contemplation; by contrast the desert is disorganized, erratic, punishing, and dead, an abode of isolation and extremity.
To borrow the terminology of the humanist geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, the garden is approached through “topophilia,” a love of place, whereas the desert is more often than not defined through that concept’s antonym of “topophobia.” Though like Jerusalem in the desert the garden can also flourish in that inhospitable environment, for an oasis is but a type of orchard in the wilderness, both concepts reinforcing each other in a reciprocal relationship. And there is another crucial difference: though gardens and deserts can both be associated with illusion, the garden with its comforts and its womb-like circumspection that walls it off from the larger world, where innocence and ignorance are freely intertwined, is also a realm of a certain narcotic trickery.
Gardens, from those manicured, controlled hedges of clueless English and French nobility, to the imagined pleasure-palaces of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Xanadu, and the eleventh-century hashish compounds of Nizari Ismaili’s’ assassins with its brown-eyed maidens and waterfalls, are frequently configured as locations of docility and infantilization. The desert may also be a place of illusions and visions, albeit horrifying ones, but by contrast it isn’t the domain of comfortable ignorance that the garden exemplifies, rather it is where the pilgrim journeys to acquire terrible wisdom. Adam and Eve may have been completely provided for in the garden, but it was upon acquiring that knowledge of good and evil that they were cast out into the deserts west of Eden, in that sweltering place where one encounters themselves and the awful understanding of what existence actually entails.
For vision is the very crux of the desert’s significance, whether it be Anthony with his images of stinking, gnashing demons whose filthy claws pawed through his robe and his fringe of white hair ringing his scalp like the last embers of a setting sun. Or for Simeon bar Yochai, in his Sinai cell intoxicated by visions of sefirot circling in infinity, and Christ upon his hilltop being asked to turn stones to bread and to fly from the top spires of the Temple. That the mind deludes you in the desert is a given of both deep wisdom and practical advice, but the vision itself is what the desert offers, an opportunity to peek beyond the veil of illusion to see tricks that are somehow more real than reality.
Deserts, by virtue of being defined by both nothingness and chaos, are somehow also an incubator for existence. They serve to percolate embers of reality from their very disorganization, like some sort of quantum field of potential spitting forth virtual particles which dwell amongst us for a bit – and so it is with the pictures they present to the mind’s eye. Chaos, that abyss which John Milton described as the “anarch of old,” is a desert swirling and blowing its sandy vortices across human experience, and yet according to the blind poet this realm without beginning or ruler is also the very “womb of nature.” Such an understanding of chaos and how it relates to both the real and imagined (if there is really any difference to parse) endures still. French theorist Jean Baudrillard in his 1981 Simulacra and Simulation infamously noted that “It is not the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours: the desert of the real itself.” Baudrillard seems to suggest that the deserts of old, symbolically roped off and separate as a place where visions could be accessed so as to usher us into some deeper wisdom, have now been abandoned for the simple fact that the wall between the garden and the desert has been abolished. Everything is now a desert, as everything is now a garden, and the Kingdom of Illusion reigns supreme over all. Yet when the vision isn’t limited to those special domains there is no standard by which to compare them to reality, and thus everything is reduced to one relativistic morass of Chaos.
Baudrillard focused his attention on the “desert of the real,” and identified it with garden pleasure palaces such as Disneyworld and a desert oasis like Las Vegas. That last city, that dark American Jerusalem, was perhaps most indicative of the way in which the higher, archetypal Garden and Desert would be unified in one last paradoxical realm, where ultimately visions would no longer serve to guide and to teach but rather to purely trick, where all distinction between value would be abolished. Here, in the Nevada desert not far from where the Spanish conquistador Cabeza de Vaca and the cursed Narvaez Expedition would hallucinate that they were gods and be feted by the locals as shamans of rare learning, or where the modern alchemists of the Manhattan Project would transmute mass into energy and birth the ability to murder the world at Alamogordo in New Mexico, a coterie of mobsters and corrupt politicians would establish their desert Babylon, with towers taller and lights brighter than any dusty old city on the Sumerian steppe. Vegas is the repository of the American Id, our Sinai and our Negev, where Lucifer offers the world to men and women every day, and where unlike the anointed one they gladly assent every time. The mythopoesis of the desert is written through this place, casinos and resorts with names like “Oasis,” “The Mirage,” and “The Sands,” and where at one point tourists would pay for rooms with a view of the nuclear tests to the west, watching for cheap entertainment the energy which fuels the sun and levels cities, before waddling off to the all you can eat buffet in the lobby.
Envision poor Anthony, now no longer assaulted by those ulcerated demons but rather disoriented by the ever present neon pyrotechnics of slot machines, his hut replaced by windowless casinos which seem exempt from the movement of time, and with no respite from his alienation with hiking into Alexandria, for now everything is the desert and isolation so omnipresent that one can be alone in the midst of a crowd. Where one can no longer choose to not be a hermit. Could he resist those temptations here, those appetites, those addictions? And what of that wisdom which he was able to acquire meditating among those baked Egyptian sands, is such a thing still accessible, still possible? Now more than ever we must pray that he would be able to resist and still find such knowledge. For if deserts are a land of visions and nightmares, then Vegas is the oasis which most fully melds the absolute worst of the garden and the desert into a harmonious whole, preserving the intoxicating palliative of ignorant Eden with the monstrousness of Gehenna, here at the western terminus of the desert of the real where history supposedly ends, this burning place of God’s awful wisdom.
About the Author:
Ed Simon is the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. A scholar of early modern religion and literature, he is a frequent contributor at several different sites, including The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, Newsweek, Salon, and The Washington Post. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion will be published by Zero Books in November. He can be followed at his website, or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.