One of the particularities of Anatole France in his day, in comparison with Loti, Maupassant or Lemaître, as well as the Romantic and Parnassian generations, was quite clearly the fact that he was practically not an Orientalist writer at all. This blockage may have helped in his success, before it contributed to his fall from grace.
Considered as the embodiment of French literary taste, France was neither a travel writer, nor a conveyer of foreign literature. This neo-classic lover of Antiquity and the Italian Renaissance, of Prud’hon more than Delacroix, experienced little of the temptation of the Levant. His anti-colonialism, which was rare at the time, as well as the perfect rigour of his humanism, can doubtlessly be seen as the attractive side of this marked indifference.
Notwithstanding this silence, a few great texts in the oriental mode emerge among his prolific work.
Thaïs (1890), the novel that inspired Jules Massenet with his famous opera (1894), which is a long “philosophical tale” in the form of an ironic hagiography in the school of Flaubert, may well remain limited to the Hellenic world, in its Hellenestic form, but its version of Alexandria is a perfect symbol of the delicate conjunction between the Pagan and Christian worlds, and thus raises questions about the Orientalization of a classic culture by Judaeo-Christianity. Of course, the exoticism of the ancient Orient was heavily represented. His Alexandria, a city of cruel contrasts, with its “paupers crouching in the shadow” of the Gate of the Sun, and its lubricious shows, are part of a tried and tested topos. In this case, France became a landscape painter, describing the desert, the Nile and the Sphinxes. As a distant disciple of Francis of Assisi, he also took delight in the exotic fauna: concise depictions of ibises on the river, which was the “father of Egypt”, echo ironic appearances by wily jackals around the figure of the hermit Paphnuce, as pre-Freudian manifestations of his erotic subconscious desire, coveting the scandalous actress Thaïs. This exotic dimension also feeds into the characters. Thaïs when a child was converted and baptised by a black slave, Ahmès (alias Théodore), described in the cultural terms of the era: “[he] crouched on his heels, his legs bent, chest out, in the hereditary pose of his entire race”. France even played on the dissonance between this character and the initiatory ceremony of baptism, given to the girl after a wild dance, during which “they rolled their big eyes and showed they sparkling teeth as they smiled”. “So it was that Thaïs received holy baptism,” he concludes devilishly. Only passing mention is ever made of Arabs, and of course Islam is totally absent from this 4th-century Orient, as it is from his two other works devoted to the Levant.
Already in Balthasar (1889), it was the history of Christianity that led France towards the Orient. Opening with the same evocative phrase as Thaïs, which was so dear to this writer (“At that time…”), this narrative – which gave its name to a composite collection of short stories in which oriental inspiration is far from being central – interweaves with scripture the love affair of Balthasar and Balkis, the Queen of Sheba, as an imaginary preface to the journey of the Mage to the Holy Land. As in a tale in the Thousand and One Nights, the two lovers wander incognito, because Balkis wants to experience fear. A repentant Balthasar, now wiser after studying astronomy, is chosen by the heavens to follow the star announcing the birth of the Saviour. This fin de siècle illustration of the myth of the necessarily Oriental femme fatale is thus attached to a necessarily sardonic rewriting of the Gospels.
Anatole France, as the self-acknowledged heir of the conceptions of his master Renan and the comparative history of the time, was thus particularly interested in the moment when, under the effect of young Christianity, the West tipped towards the East. Even though it is set in the Greece of its title, his dramatic poem Les Noces corinthiennes (1876) tells the same story of the “God of the Galileans” who had come to overshadow classic Hellenic culture. France, who was secular, atheist, antireligious, anti-Christian, and even with neo-Pagan tendencies coming from his political liberalism, did not escape from a form of anti-Oriental mistrust which was common at the time and which, before his Dreyfusard commitment, and then despite himself more than anything else, can also explain his favourable reception by the nationalist and rationalist Action Française.
The author’s most famous tale, Le Procurateur de Judée (1892, in l’Étui de nacre), unanimously praised by writers from Barrès to Sciascia, is once again a fragment of an apocryphal gospel, this time written from the point of view of Pontius Pilate himself. France was fascinated by the yawning gulf that separates the conception of the world in the Roman Empire and that of the Christian faith. Here, he emphasised, as he did later in his classical sequence Sur la Pierre blanche (1905), the oriental origins of Christianity, with Mary Magdalene as its female essence and sensual incarnation. On this point, as for many others, his vision can be placed alongside the theses of his contemporary Friedrich Nietzsche. It is remarkable that, with France, this historicist anti-Judaism never led to its usual counterpoint of anti-Semitism, which he always denounced with the greatest vigour, showing that for him this was a matter of rereading the history of Christianity from an emancipatory point of view, in the tradition of the Voltairian Enlightenment. In the same way, when France defended the cause of the Armenians, when persecuted in 1897 and then 1915, he was careful not to turn this humanitarian struggle into a religious or civilizational cause involving Islam, which was certainly seen to be a fringe religion at the time and thus not a target for unflinching secular criticism, of which this bastion of the Separation Act (1905) was a pugnacious champion.
Image caption : Anatole France. Estampe par A. Zorn. 1906