An Egyptian hermit becomes obsessed with an Alexandrian courtesan, Thaïs, who he remembers from his youth, and becomes convinced that he has been chosen to convert her to Christianity. He travels to Alexandria, where he succeeds in his mission. Thaïs renounces the world and enters a convent; the monk, however, has developed an unquenchable passion for Thaïs that destroys him. This is one way to describe Anatole France’s Thaïs (1890), and it also applies to the Jules Massenet opera, first performed four years later.
This summary omits everything, absolutely everything, that makes France’s short novel interesting, exasperating, ridiculous, profound, bad, and great. Dead center in the novel is a parody of Plato’s Symposium, which brushes against the Judas heresy before concluding that the secret savior of mankind is a continually reincarnated Helen of Troy. The courtesan Thaïs is an early Christian incarnation of the Helen-spirit, apparently. I would apply all of the words in the above list, except “great,” to this one episode, which has nothing to do with anything resembling a story.
The monk Paphnutius - Massenet’s librettist found the name insufficiently euphonious and switched to Athanaël - encounters a series of figures who represent alternative, non-Christian philosophies, Skeptics and Stoics and Epicureans. I began to fear that the entire book would be a series of such monologues or debates, and that Thaïs herself was simply one more point-of-view.
The monk’s obvious sexual repression was a complicating factor, though. After the conversion of Thaïs, which, in an irony discarded by the opera, has almost nothing to do with any action of the monk, his condition, his spiritual and physical anguish, grows even worse. Here’s where I began to use the word “great,” for the torments of Paphnutius, a twenty page series of increasingly bizarre visions and agonies, of which Massenet contains barely a hint.
In the center of the episode, the saint becomes a stylite. In the sort of irony France would employ repeatedly in Penguin Island (1908), the saint draws pilgrims; the pilgrims draw commerce; commerce creates a prosperous city; a prosperous city is full of vice:
In the inns, the drinkers, reclining upon divans, called for beer or wine. Dancers, with painted eyes and naked breasts, performed before them religious and lascivious scenes. Young men played dice apart, an old men pursued courtesans. Above these moving forms the motionless column stood alone; the horned head looked into the shadow, and above it Paphnutius watched between heaven and earth. Suddenly the moon arose above the Nile, like the naked shoulder of a goddess. The hills streamed with light and azure, and Paphnutius thought he saw the flesh of Thaïs sparkling in the light of the waters among the sapphires of the night.
The episode culminates with the monk’s renunciation of his sainthood when he calls for the assistance of the human Christ. The human Christ is, of course, long dead. The human saint is on his own.
The quotation is on p. 111 of a 1932 edition, published by Walter J. Black, translated by who knows who. It’s different than, but similar to, Gutenberg’s version.