Flaubert’s Herodias: A Study of Revelation & Consciousness

Moreau Salome

Gustave Moreau: Salome

Introduction. The action of Flaubert’s Herodias, one of the Trois Contes or Three Tales of 1877, occurs on the birthday of Herod Antipas or Antipater, the Hellenized “Tetrarch” of Judea who is in fact a client-king permitted to rule over his people solely by the political calculation of reigning Roman emperor, Tiberius.  Tensions run high in Judea. The influential preacher John the Baptist, whom the Tetrarch currently holds imprisoned in a dungeon, has denounced Herod for his marriage to the divorced wife, Herodias, of the Tetrarch’s exiled brother, Herod Philip I.  The marriage amounts, says John, to incest.  Apart from the specific charge, the Baptist’s preaching has stirred up religious turmoil in the kingdom, encouraging a general dissidence.  The Pharisees, for example, feel displaced in piety and thus in status as strict interpreters of the law by John’s extravagant Puritanism; they already incline to distrust Herod, largely Greek in education and taste, an obvious puppet of Rome, and in these ways only barely a Jew.  Flaubert writes, “The Jews were tired of [Herod’s] idolatrous ways.”  As readers later learn, Sadducees, Essenes, and Samaritans, and others live grudgingly with one another in Herod’s realm; the reasons for their mutual mistrust seem more or less exaggerated and ritually or tribally driven.  Herod’s factional ties in Rome also complicate his life.

In Rome political jockeying takes place ceaselessly among various power brokers who would gain influence over the monarch for their own corrupt benefit.  Herod thinks to himself, for example, that, “probably Agrippa [one of his rivals] had ruined his credit with the emperor.”  His other brother Philip is meanwhile “secretly arming” behind his borders while Arab warriors in service to an ambitious raider-king have encamped themselves on his southern march.  Herod vacillates between the possibilities of making a pact with the Arabs or making one with the Parthians, Rome’s enemy and counterweight in the East.  Herod is proverbially between a rock and a hard place – or between the abyss and the Resurrection.

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I. The Story. Herodias thus qualifies as a crisis narrative, one whose imbroglio approaches its extremity and threatens to burst forth in violence.  Yet Flaubert, who had traveled in the Holy Land and had seen the remains of the very monument that he describes, opens the tale not with a description of people in agitation or anxiety but rather with something like a visionary tableau, full of Symbolist imagery, of the great hilltop palace-fortress of Herod, called Machaerus:

The citadel of Machaerus rose east of the Dead Sea on a basalt peak shaped like a cone, girdled by four deep valleys; two about its sides, one in front, and the fourth behind.  There were houses piled against its base inside a circling wall which rose and fell with the uneven ground; and a zigzag road gashed in the rock linked the town to the fortress, whose ramparts were a hundred and twenty cubits high with many angles, battlements along the edge, and here and there towers, like diadems in the stone crown hung over the abyss.

The situation in Judea conspicuously lacks balance – things must set off in motion one way or another soon because they cannot remain in status quo – but Flaubert presents readers with purely static imagery of the ancient and changeless desert.  The “basalt peak,” obviously an extinct volcano, stands like the token of aboriginal creation and primeval powers; the site’s isolation behind the four valleys ambiguously protects it from assault by hostile forces while at the same time cutting it off from the outside world.  Indeed, the fortress contains Herod’s palace within, so that the Tetrarch lives doubly immured, a king safely ensconced in his keep and yet also the prisoner of his own requirement for security, beset outwardly by many enemies, both actual and potential.  The fact that Machaerus seems to perch “over the abyss,” to cite Flaubert’s phrase, emphasizes the dangerous political and religious tensions implicit in Herod’s situation.  The word “abyss,” of Semitic origin, refers to the chaos, which, in ancient Near Eastern myth and in Genesis alike, precedes the emergence of an orderly world.  Machaerus and with it Herod’s realm can either dissolve into the pre-creational chaos or be created anew in the crisis.  The word “abyss” also points to the human focus of all the social and political tensions that annoy Herod – the long-haired, wild-eyed preacher being held in the lightless prison-cell down in the foundations.  These mythic connotations thread their way through the story.

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Flaubert is not finished with his visionary introduction to the tale.  He depicts Herod himself coming out on the palace balustrade in the earliest hour of the day to witness the sunrise.  Twenty-four hours later, the story will end with another sunrise.  Dawn comes in the parting of a mist like a bloody portent, “a glow of red,” which “lit up the sands… the hills, the desert, and, still further, the mountains of Judea.”  The first words spoken by any character in the story – it happens to be that they are spoken Herod himself – are “Mannaeï! Mannaeï!”  This is the name of Herod’s executioner (“for forty years he had practiced”), a zealous and excitable man whom the Tetrarch must restrain from the spontaneous, eager exercise of his craft.  At one point, Mannaeï nearly decapitates an Essene, Phanuel, who has appeared in the palace.  Mannaeï, a Samaritan, “hated the Jews,” so much so that he has engaged in vandalism of a Jewish holy place.  Flaubert tells how Mannaeï and three confederates stole into the Temple at Jerusalem “to pollute the altar with dead men’s bones.”  Mannaeï’s fellow burglars, detected in the act and made prisoners, subsequently lost their heads in payment for the outrage.  This is the first mention of punitive decapitation in a story that reaches its climax with the beheading of John the Baptist.  Mannaeï remains fascinated and provoked by the image of the Temple, “the white marble walls and sheets of gold on its roofs… a superhuman object that annihilated everything by its pride and splendour.”

The key concept is annihilation.  The mere existence of the Temple seems to Mannaeï to cancel his own existence.  He hurls a curse at it while striking the air with his clenched fist.  Mannaeï’s obsession with the image of the Temple stems from his knowledge that the Samaritan temple at Gerizim, demolished by Herod’s precursor Hyrcanus, remains in ruins.  It is annihilated.  One thing has been leveled while another has been upraised.  The asymmetry of it strikes some parties as an unendurable injustice, which perhaps it is.  As the story unfolds, another intolerable fascination, Iaokanan’s over everyone, gradually extends its power, as it were, out of the abyss.  In Flaubert’s metaphors, resentment acts like a contaminating effluvium that spreads itself, oleagenously, almost everywhere.  Herod’s kingdom is a kingdom of haters, each one of whom has his righteous cause.  We might even suspect that this is a story about the modern condition, that the ubiquitous angry hysteria of our world is the same as that of Flaubert’s petty Near-Eastern kingdom.

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Herod inquires of Mannaeï about Iaokanan – what mood did he display when Mannaeï last saw him?  Mannaeï replies that Iaokanan struck him as “restless… walking in a dark place” and muttering the phrase, “I must decrease that He may increase.”  Immediately hearing this, Herod, “weary of reflection,” and taking the prophet’s phrase erroneously in relation to himself, suffers a grim transfiguration of his natural vision: “The mountains all around, like great waves petrified in layers, the dark chasms on the sides of the cliffs, the immense blue sky, the violent blaze of light, and the depth of the abysses troubled him.”  Flaubert writes that Herod suddenly “was seized with depression at the look of the desert, and the suggestion of fallen amphitheatres and palaces in its crumbled surface.”  Herod sees the catastrophic decrease of his world, as though Iaokanan could channel and effectuate the “eternal anger” inherent in the accumulating misfortunes of the Tetrarchic reign.  Indeed, a short while later, Herod appears prematurely aged, with “rounded shoulders” and “white hairs in his beard.”  The image of Iaokanan acts on Herod the way the image of the Temple acts on Mannaeï.

As he does in the two other tales of the Three Tales, Flaubert furnishes Herodias with copious detail in every paragraph, so much so that the first-time reader will likely find himself more than a little bewildered by the mass of it.  Flaubert’s technical adroitness leaves the reader in the identical state of bewilderment that afflicts Herod himself, unfitted for “reflection” by the array of simultaneous distractions and “hoping for deliverance,” as Mannaeï has said of Iaokanan, from the chaos of conflicting voices.  Herod having interrogated Mannaeï, Herodias enters, politically much savvier and much more bloodthirsty than her husband.  She bears news, a straw of detail accumulating to break the camel’s back.  One enemy, Agrippa, has disappeared from the political scene into “Tiberius’ dungeons,” where most likely, she thinks, he will perish.  (In historical fact, he survived; and in historical fact, it was Herod who eventually fell afoul of the Romans and found himself exiled to Northern Gaul.)  Agrippa, despite his Roman name, is a Jew with a claim on Herod’s kingdom.  Herodias reveals that, while in Rome, she had schemed actively against him, even to the extent of seducing an informer who could place knowledge in her hands that she could then use against her victim.

It becomes clear during the exchange that of the two, Herod and Herodias, it is Herodias who assumes the active part, albeit behind the scenes, in the kingship.  She shows a proneness to act impetuously, as when she, not Herod, orders the executioner to behead the Essene.  It is on the occasion of the near-beheading that Flaubert gives it to Herodias to say that she regards Herod as a bungler for keeping Iaokanan alive.

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There is another, younger Herodias, the daughter of the elder Herodias by her divorced husband.  This daughter bears the name of Salomé, but Flaubert discloses it only at the end of the tale when she does her famous dance.  The mother originally left the daughter in Rome, but has secretly brought her back to Judea so as to use her in a scheme against her husband, namely to bring about the death of Iaokanan.  Early in the story, Herod glimpses Salomé on a distant roof: “She was dressed like a Roman girl in a curly tunic and a peplum with emerald tassels; blue bands kept back her hair, which no doubt was too heavy for her.”  However, Flaubert does not on this occasion name her.  Herodias has encountered Iaokanan catastrophically.  She tells the story to Herod, how Iaokanan “spat at me all the curses of the prophets… and those insults fell like storm-rain and froze me.”  The result psychologically for Herodias is her conviction that, “while Iaokanan lived she could not live.”  Given the fate of the historical prophets, Herodias is merely betting on custom.  Prophets, unbeloved, tend to die.  Antipas too fears Iaokanan.  He tells Phanuel, the Essene, that the prophet “asked me for an act which I could not perform, and since that time he has rent me to pieces.”  The unperformable act would be for Herod to renounce his marriage to Herodias.  In speaking of the Baptist, Herod appears, in Flaubert’s carefully chosen phrase, “lost in a vision.”  The phrase “rent to pieces” has extraordinary sacrificial connotations: It describes the most violent type of immolation, the orgiastic sparagmos.

The retinue of those who come to the palace to celebrate Herod’s birthday includes Vitellius, the Roman proconsul, and his son, Aulus, an influence-wielding playboy.  There comes also Marcellus, “the proconsul’s lieutenant” and captain of his guards.  Vitellius dislikes Herod, and makes his antipathy known, but Aulus favors him.  On a tour of the palace, Vitellius discovers the entrance to the dungeon where Herod keeps Iaokanan under arrest and he demands to see the captive.  When a subaltern lifts the slab and reveals the prisoner, Iaokanan begins to prophesy.  Flaubert has obviously studied the rhetoric of prophetic admonition.  Thus Iaokanan’s cry echoes from the depths: “Woe unto thee, O People!  Woe to the traitors of Judah and the drunkards of Ephraim, to those who dwell in the fat valley and stagger with the fumes of wine.”  Flaubert’s calculatedly ornate passage – full of “jackals,” the wildernesses, and “signs in the sky” so typical of Late-Hebrew apocalyptic – ends on the declaration that, “thy dominion shall be everlasting, O Son of David,” in which readers will identify an anticipation of the Messiah whose way the prophet has come to make straight.

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The Incestuous Marriage

Iaokanan, who would already at this point in his career have identified Jesus as the Messiah, again denounces Herodias – “thou Jezebel… daughter of Babylon… abomination.”  Iaokanan’s diatribe exerts a mimetic effect.  The Pharisees and Sadducees take up his denunciation in an echoing murmur, which Antipas and Herodias overhear.  Iaokanan’s prophetic outburst qualifies literally as apocalyptic, being framed by the opening and shutting of the stone slab, through which the spectators see Iaokanan and through which the prophet shouts his imprecations of the status quo.  The word apocalypse means in a literal translation, lifting off the lid.  What does the lid cover?  It covers the abyss, the cauldron of creation and recreation.  Flaubert’s is a marvelous narrative brushstroke.  Indeed, by confining Iaokanan, Herod has made him doubly conspicuous, more prophetic than he previously ever was.  He seems to speak from out of the earth, like an oracle, or as though he was the earth itself.

Something should be said about the color-symbolism of Herodias, which Flaubert manages consummately.  Readers will recall the sanguine portent of dawn at the story’s opening.  That redness of that sunrise, which is also the redness of violence and blood, permeates Flaubert’s prose.  When Phanuel, for example, makes an astrological prediction entailing the death of an important person, who might, as Herod believes, be himself, Herod seeks solace in Herodias’ apartments, where he finds “cinnamon… smoking on a porphyry basin.”  Tellingly, during this visit, Herod catches another glimpse of his step-daughter, who will ask for Iaokanan’s head.  Later, at the festal table, the many candelabra cast a “red glow” over the celebration.  Readers will recall again that in Herodias, a crisis-narrative par excellence, everyone maneuvers against everyone else always.  Now as anthropology observes, dire social crisis tends to resolve itself spontaneously in the production of a mediating victim, whose common execration by one and all discharges built-up resentments and re-solidifies the fragmented community.  The exacerbating disputes resolve themselves in the calming refreshment of the victim’s blood.

To what indeed can these instances of ruddiness point except the imminence of sacrifice?  The bloody abyss stands ready to overflow.  But this is only to say what the story itself says, that Iaokanan functions as the structuring figure in the drama, which, beginning in the chaos of desperate rivalries, jealousies, and passions, gradually achieves coherence in the shared demand for his death.  Iaokanan qualifies as the perfect victim: The wild man from the desert; lacking a known community, full of offensive judgments, and increasingly, due to his incarceration, a scandal to civilized company.  Like every victim the Baptist reconciles his enemies, among themselves, by allowing them to deflect their fractious hatreds toward a party external to them all.  The Baptist scandalizes the community.  His independence appears to the community as rivalry, whereas rivalry is their problem, among themselves.

The talk around the table at the dinner party underscores the fact that the crisis involves not only the domestic squabbles in the palace, but the totality of disintegrating influences in the community-at-large stretching beyond the narrow borders of Judea and away to Imperial Rome.  It is not only Iaokanan who, in influence over the people, rivals Herod as leader; a certain Jesus, too, has been preaching and working miracles and attracting a congregation.  His name now and again insinuates its way into the text.  Iaokanan and Jesus become, to the scandalized parties, indistinguishable.  One is the other; both, in the perilous fragility of the situation, appear equally dangerous and yet also equally useful, from the perspective of a sacrificially unifying agenda.



A certain Jacob, a Jew, identifies Iaokanan with the prophet Elias, as reborn; and the “Nazarene,” that is, Jesus, with the Son of David, and as the deliverer announced by the first Elias in his messianic prophecy.  Jacob’s invocation of the name Elias has a peculiar effect: It induces the crowd to a collective vision, in which they see “an old man with ravens flying overhead, an altar set on fire by lightning, and idolatrous priests being thrown into the streams.”  At the beginning of Herodias, Flaubert has inserted the line about the Pharisees being scandalized by Herod’s “idolatrous ways.”  Herod, hearing the description of the vision, fears rightly that only his death can reunify the broken community.  For who is a king in his conspicuousness except a victim whose sentence has been indefinitely deferred?  And what fates have befallen two of Herod’s three brothers?  Soon enough, an actual riot erupts in the dining hall; readers can hardly tell from the text whether the outraged crowd more desires the death of Herod or the death of Iaokanan.  They want a victim now, generally speaking, and it little matters to them who.

At the height of the uproar, suddenly quelling it, the younger Herodias or Salomé makes her appearance.  Obviously the elder Herodias has managed this calculated and stagy entrance.  Like a mistress of ceremonies, Herodias presages her daughter.  The mother, Flaubert writes, “Stood between the two stone monsters, similar to those in the treasure of the Atreids, which rose by the door… look[ing] like a Cybele with her lions at her side.”  As for the daughter, whom the text describes as “a young girl”:

Although her head and breast were hidden in a bluish veil the arch of her eyes, her ears like milky agates, and the whiteness of her skin could be seen through it.  A square of shot silk covered her shoulders, and was fastened to her loins with a jeweled girdle.  Her black drawers were sprigged with mandrakes, and she lazily clattered in a pair of little shoes made from the down of humming birds.

Flaubert’s prose likens Salomé in her dance to “the Nubians of the cataracts” and “the Maenads of Lydia.”  The latter is especially significant, as we shall see in Part II.  Soon the dance becomes lascivious.  “Salomé opened her legs and, keeping her knees rigid,” as Flaubert writes, “bent so low that her chin touched the floor; and the desert-dwellers schooled in abstinence, the Roman soldiers expert in debauchery, the greedy publicans and old priests embittered by disputes all panted greedily, with their nostrils dilated.”  Salomé’s dance so inflames Herod that he impetuously offers her “half [his] kingdom” for her to continue the performance.  Herodias instructs Salomé sotto voce, who, returning to Herod, disdains kingdoms and asks for “the head of Iaokanan.”

When Mannaeï goes to fetch back the head, he sees in a vision “the Great Angel of the Samaritans” barring the way and he cannot fulfill his errand.  Mannaeï’s failure provokes Herodias and the Tetrarch to spitting indignation.  Mannaeï now goes to complete his task in shame and returns with the head, which he displays to the VIPs.  When Herod sees it, “tears flowed down [his] cheeks.”  The guests leave.  Only Phanuel remains, in prayer.  In the brief epilogue, Phanuel and the two followers of Iaokanan leave the palace “towards Galilee,” carrying the head with them like a talisman.

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The Fate of the Prophet

II. The Analysis. Herodias belongs to Flaubert’s Three Tales,his last completed major work.  Only Bouvard and Pécuchet, never completed, came after.  Each of the Three Tales has a religious theme and each ends with a reference of one sort or another to the Holy Spirit, the aspect of the Christian Trinity that advocates on behalf of victims.  Thus at the end of The Legend of Julian the Hospitaller, the repellent leper reveals himself as and transforms himself into an ascending Christ as Julian embraces him.  Thus again in A Simple Heart, Félicité on her death-bed sees a vision of her stuffed parrot transformed into the Holy Spirit itself, whose charity receives her soul.  Finally in Herodias, John the Baptist, the provocative, involuntarily order-generating figure of the story, supervises the ceremony, namely baptism, over which the Holy Spirit presides.  Baptism, being rebirth, functions as a regenerative or re-creative rite, as well as a purifying one.  The idea of baptism communicates with the idea of the abyss, the primal waters out of which orderly creation arises when the Spirit of God bids it so.  He who undergoes baptism returns symbolically to the moment of creation.  The young girl Virginie in A Simple Heart undergoes baptism, with Félicité in attendance.  The legend associates Saint Julian with water, in his role as ferryman on a river.  The river Jordan, where John conducts his baptisms, figures in Herodias.  The three stories therefore share a set of symbols between them, including baptism, although each has its own separate and proper symbols.

The three stories additionally exhibit an obvious chronological order: A Simple Heart belongs to modernity; whereas Saint Julian belongs more or less to the Medieval Period; and Herodias to antiquity.  The reader who takes them in sequence follows a regression through history from the attenuated, early Nineteenth-Century Christianity of A Simple Heart to the Jewish heterodoxy and first-century proto-Christian apocalypse of Herodias, with its many allusions to the New Testament, to the metanoia-prone fervency of the Early Medieval Period.  Flaubert enjoys the reputation as a realistic novelist of modernity, but as his Tentation de Saint Antoine resplendently shows, he was an historical scholar par excellence, whose notion of the contemporary condition subsumed his sense of historical direction.  For Flaubert, modernity dumbly repeats the previous eras while thinking of itself as unique and superlatively original.

The unity of the three tales implies the thesis, among many others, that the historical past decisively shapes and informs the present – indeed that certain decisive historical events have provoked differentiations of consciousness, which enable higher degrees of self-awareness and moral acuity, particularly as these relate to the types of violence.  The reference to consciousness requires a digression.  Flaubert, in writing as he did so frequently and rigorously about bêtise or stupidity, necessarily also wrote about the opposite of that state, for which the word consciousness – taken as the active combination of perceptual acuity and moral self-awareness – well serves.  As for perception, it takes in the natural and the social worlds, the social world being the more important of two because the cognition of what the subject perceives concerning human nature stimulates his development of self-awareness and moral freedom from the crowd.  Cognition progressively informs perception; the thoughtful see more clearly than the thoughtless.

One can speak of consciousness in relation both to the individual and to the community.  Profoundly intuitive individuals impart their self-awareness to the community as teaching and the community, assimilating the lesson, passes it along to each cohort of the young as formal education.  Of course, that is only the ideal.  Insight may be lost as well as gained, and history can provide instances.  It is thus possible to speak, not only of increases, but also of decreases in consciousness.

Flaubert Three Tales

A Simple Heart takes for its setting a provincial village in Normandy in which the general level of education runs quite low and the phenomenon of moral self-awareness appears hardly at all.  The people of Pont-l’Évêque, so many gossips and snobs, act almost entirely on resentment stemming from insubstantial differences related to a paltry hierarchy of social status.  Félicité herself, both an orphan and a jilted fiancée, has grown up in extreme poverty both material and spiritual; she lacks education, is barely articulate, and clings in simplicity to her mistress, Madame Aubain.  Félicité’s intellectually deprived condition ironically protects her, as does her undeveloped self-awareness.  Resentment seems to lie beyond her limited capacity for experience although she is by no means bereft of genuine emotion.  Nevertheless, and despite herself, Félicité constitutes an object of resentment.  Flaubert tells his readers in the first sentence of the story that, “Félicité was the envy of the ladies of Pont-l’Évêque for half a century.”

Other people, who surround Félicité, such as her in-laws, behave crudely out of avarice and jealousy; they filch and steal from Madame Aubain’s ratty household, and “ransack” it after her death, taking advantage of the housemaid’s perpetual distraction and timidity.  Only later in life, and even then quite slowly, does Félicité rise towards and tentatively acquire self-awareness.  She remains, however, self-effacing, a truly saintly person.  The story ascribes the development to the action of the Holy Spirit, an image of which she glimpses in the stained glass of the local church while chaperoning Madame Aubain’s daughter during catechism.  Flaubert represents Félicité’s death, which is her rebirth into full consciousness, as her reception into heaven by the Holy Spirit.  It is a moral paradox of the tale that even Félicité’s epilepsy serves as an instrument of grace.  In all three tales the action of Grace is perpetual, requiring only openness to it in order to be effective.

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The Hill of Macherus

Herod lives in a mountaintop fortress in the Judean desert at the beginning of the First Century.  Julian’s parents, in The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller, also live in a mountaintop castle at the beginning of the First Century.  Flaubert remarks that traders from the Levant, “Amalekites,” once sold weapons of their country to Julian’s father, thereby linking not only one place, but also one story, with another.  Historically, as mentioned previously, Herod was later exiled by the Romans to Northern Gaul.  Flaubert, borrowing from the medieval tale of the holy man, with its many anachronisms (Christianity miraculously exists before it exists, as do the Saracens), invokes in his Legend a world seemingly at peace that actually teeters on the verge of crisis, being liable on the tiniest provocation to burst forth in mayhem.  The wild-eyed gypsy who appears to Julian’s father just before Julian’s birth resembles in mien and speech the formidable Prophet of Herodias.  The haggard man speaks of “blood in plenty” and “fame in plenty” in connection with the imminent parturition.  Julian’s temper indeed runs to annoyance and violence; his very existence destabilizes.

Flaubert’s representation of Julian as obsessed by a mouse that enters the church during the mass suggests psychopathology, as does the staggering toll of prey in Julian’s later hunting expeditions.  The stag’s curse on Julian, at the height of the latter’s demoniac venery, that he shall one day murder his father and mother, amounts to no more than a tautology.  A man who unleashes such violence will finally bring violence down even on those whom he presumes to protect.  Only Julian’s conversion can bring the tempest of bloodletting to a stop, which is to say that only the conversion of individuals can quell or prevent recurrent social crisis, without recourse to sacrifice.  The “blue spaces” into which Julian and the leper arise at the end of the tale correspond to the “azure,” the heavens, at the end of A Simple Heart.

The abrupt insights belong to the characters in the story, but no less to Flaubert, as author, even though he hardly qualifies as a professing Christian or believer of any type.  The insights also belong to humanity, seen in its historical aspect, as snapshots of the World Spirit ascending through the stages of its differentiating consciousness – that is, of what it becomes possible to know or what has been revealed, with the movement of time.  The locus of this development is the story, whether it is myth, Scripture, or fiction.  Naturally then Flaubert’s characters cannot undergo a differentiation of the inner life unless the author himself has already done so, in some way; one might say that Flaubert believes in the differentiation of consciousness, while taking no position on the ontological status of such things as God, grace, or the Holy Spirit.  There is an elegant minimalism in Flaubert’s authorial distance from his subject matter.

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Rene Girard

Conversion is as thematically central to Herodias as it is to A Simple Heart or the companionate Legend of Saint Julian.  Now a convincing “theory of conversion” would obviously be of assistance in understanding Herodias.  A powerfully coherent one is fortunately at hand.  In his monumental study of philosophical anthropology and comparative religion Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (1977; English translation, 1987), the critic and anthropologist René Girard (1923 – 2015) rites the following in respect of religious metanoia in a literary context:

The conversion experience of the truly great writer, however strictly determined as to content, always retains the form of the great religious experiences.  These can be shown to be all alike, whatever religion provides their framework.  The experience can be picked up in the sacrificial network of primitive religious institutions, where it forms what we refer to as initiation.  It is always a question of breaking out of mimetic desire with its perpetual states of crisis, a question of escaping from the violence of doubles and the exasperating illusion of subjective difference in order to reach (through a kind of identification with the deity, particularly with his power of intercession) an ordered world defined in terms of a lesser violence, even if that is a sacrificial violence.

Girard adds that: “Even in the investigation of nature, which does not put the same barriers in the way of developing awareness as humans do, the great minds who have [effectuated] the most decisive intellectual breakthroughs have always apparently passed from one mental universe to another – something that subsequent observers, who cannot understand how and why it happens, regularly describe as ‘mystical.’”  Girard’s theoretical view illuminates the visionary aspect of Flaubert’s Herodias, to which the précis of the text in Section I of the present essay has already drawn attention.  Take, for example, Herod’s distressing vision early in the story of the desert landscape as a vista of ruins.  Herod, contemplating his situation, “was seized,” as Flaubert writes, “With depression at the look of the desert, and the suggestion of fallen amphitheatres and palaces in its crumbled surface.”  Just what is Herod’s situation?  First of all, he is a Tetrarch, one of four kings chosen by the Romans to rule over quarter-shares of what was once a single kingdom.  The four kings were brothers.  One is dead, another in exile; a third is the nominal ruler of an adjacent polity.

Babylon in Ruins

Herod has been in the grip of what Girard calls mimetic desire – and elsewhere mimetic rivalry – since ascending to his kingship, or rather since ascending to his humiliating one-fourth of a kingship.  Herod’s struggle against his brothers has been a struggle to recover the whole kingdom; and this desire to reconstitute and possess the whole undoubtedly finds its reflection in all the frustrations of all the other subject-parties locked in the conflict.  The brother-kings have become rival-doubles in a classic breakdown of differences.  Indeed, one of Herod’s brothers is also named Herod.  Although Flaubert never mentions this, the fact belongs to the historical background of the tale.  An element of Herod’s mind grasps the vanity of the ambition – hence the prophetic vision of a ruined city, reminiscent of similar bleak visions in Isaiah and Jeremiah.  As Jeremiah (51: 37) would have it: “Babylon will be a heap of ruins, a haunt of jackals, an object of horror and scorn, a place where no one lives.”

Herod will ultimately balk at the emerging insight; he will never muster the conviction that would extricate him from the fractious rivalries that beset his reign and guarantee the ruination that he preternaturally foresees.

It is not only the structural impossibility of the Tetrarchy that vexes Herod.  As monarch of his fourth part, he finds himself embroiled in disputes with the priesthood, who have disputes with the laity; religious schism and cultic strife also moreover beset Herod’s realm.  In Iaokanan, who fearlessly denounces the elites, blaming bad times on their corruption, the social crisis has generated a potential rebel-leader whose glamour threatens to eclipse whatever of authority Herod himself retains.  Finally, Herod’s marriage, tricky to begin with, appears broken.  The situation being stereotypical – conforming to the progressive dissolution of differences attested everywhere in myth – points towards its own predictable climax in the designation and immolation of a scapegoat.  It might mitigate somewhat that Herod, otherwise so unsavory a character, hesitates to make a martyr of Iaokanan.  Herod also restrains Mannaeï from killing Phanuel, the Essene, whose serenity contrasts so markedly with everyone else’s angry volatility.

In Herodias, however, Flaubert gives readers a person who not only sees the potential instrumental value in Iaokanan-as-scapegoat, but fixates on it, as though struck by a debilitating scandal.  Herodias plans to settle the many conflicts in the kingdom and insure her own ambitions by concentrating the array of resentments on a single target, the selfsame Iaokanan, whose public execution will (temporarily) reconcile hostile parties and restore (an always temporary) stability in Judea.

Readers must nevertheless not mistake Herodias’ palace-politics-acuity for clarity of consciousness.  Quite to the contrary, even more than Herod, Herodias seems confined to a purely ritualistic conception of social relations.  As much as Herod, she recognizes the peril in the status quo, but she suffers from no ambivalence or hesitation in addressing it.  Having once encountered Iaokanan, she remains completely obsessed by him, locked in a contest whose zero-sum denouement is being-in-itself.  Herodias remembers to Herod how in Iaokanan’s visage “his eyes flamed,” how in execrating her “his voice roared,” and how in the same accusing act “he raised his arms as though to pluck the thunder out of heaven.”  In Herodias’ vision, Iaokanan resembles at once a godlike apparition and a loathsome propagator of deadly contagion.  (Readers will recall the contagious leper in Saint Julian.)  As Herodias says, “the discourses which [Iaokanan] cried aloud to crowds had spread abroad, and were circulating.”

A.D. The Bible Continues


Later in the story, Flaubert associates Herodias with animals – as when he likens her to Cybele flanked by the sacred lions.  Iaokanan plagues Herodias; and she tells Herod in so many words that the prophet is a pestilence in the kingdom, but this is pure bêtise.  It is not at all coincidental that in the image of Herodias as Cybele, Flaubert invokes the lions rampant of “Treasure of the Atreids,” a monument antedating the year Anno Domine 33 by more than a millennium-and-a-half, and which is connected in myth with a cycle of retributive violence that begins in a fraternal rivalry (Atreus versus Thyestes) and ends in the massive destruction of the Trojan War.

Two paragraphs back from this one, the suggestion emerged that, “It might mitigate somewhat that Herod, otherwise so unsavory a character, hesitates to make a martyr of Iaokanan.”  Now if one were to measure by ethical triangulation whether Herod stood closer to Herodias or to Phanuel, the answer would be that, in his moments of hesitation, he stands closer to Phanuel, who says that the prophet is a “son” of “the Most High,” and that if Herod were to “use him cruelly,” God would punish Herod.  Herod responds to Phanuel as though “lost in a vision.”  He tells Phanuel concerning Iaokanan, that “his power is mighty… I love him in spite of myself.”  In light of the transfigurations at the end of A Simple Heart and Saint Julian, where the protagonist achieves moral enlightenment and a general intensification of consciousness in a response to the solicitation of the Holy Spirit, one could say that in his elliptical confession, Herod too has undergone a Paracletic moment, imperfectly.

We recall that the Paraclete stands as advocate for the unjustly accused, proclaiming the victim’s innocence, and that this advocacy quickens the moral conscience in those receptive to its appeal.  Herod’s love of Iaokanan in spite of himself resembles (or anticipates) Julian’s response to the leper, just as the leper, in being outcast and repulsive, resembles Iaokanan.  Herod’s access of conscience, however, although powerful in its moment, will not effectively “take”; the Tetrarch will relapse into the same archaic thought-patterns as his wife.

In Things Hidden Girard writes: “There is an absolute separation between the only true deity and all the deities of violence, who have been radically demystified by the Gospels alone.  But this should not prevent us from recognizing in the religions of violence, which are always in search of peace, anyway, the methods that initially helped humanity to leave the animal state behind and then to elevate itself to unprecedented possibilities, though they are combined with the most extreme stages.”  Moreover, in Girard’s words, “At each of these stages, especially at the more advanced stages like our own, humankind could choose a path different from that of violence and rejection, and could reach the god of non-violence.”  Girard’s insights apply to Flaubert’s Herodias because of the link between the idea of God and the level of consciousness.  The references to idolatry in Herodias establish the level of prevailing consciousness in the setting.  Idols stand for divinities that thirst for blood and take sides in feuds; of course, such divinities do not exist – they are projections of the mentality of those who practice violence and maintain social order ritually through sacrifice.  “The High One,” to whom Phanuel refers, represents by contrast a new conception of deity, one requiring no propitiation, who beckons worshippers to love rather than to kill and to see the irrationality, the automatic character, of the sacred.

In The Scapegoat (1982; English translation, 1986), Girard has commented, not directly on Flaubert’s Herodias, which oddly he dismisses as mere “orientalia,” but rather on the John-the-Baptist narrative in the Gospels, particularly in Mark.  Noting that “rite is the reenactment of mimetic crisis in a spirit of voluntary religious and social collaboration,” Girard goes on to remind his readers that, “even the most weakened ritual institutions are inclined toward sacrifice.”  Thus, “a crowd stuffed with food and drink wants something extraordinary, a spectacle of eroticism or violence, preferably both at the same time.”  This will be especially the case in so a tense a situation as prevails at the birthday affair for Herod in the place-fortress at Machaerus.  In his theological commentary, Girard has made much of Jesus’ utterance from the Cross that the Father should forgive the Son’s persecutors because they, the persecutors, “know not what they do.”  The perpetrators of sacrifice “know not what they do.”  They act, rather, as though under compulsion, which, in a way, is the case.  It is this essential observation about the unconsciousness of ritual activity that enables Girard to equate revelation with consciousness and to see Hebrew prophecy and the Gospel narrative as increases of consciousness or rungs on the ladder of human self-knowledge.


A Composite Monster

A passage toward the end of Herodias suggests how close Flaubert’s view of the story is to Girard’s view.  The apparition of the angel (another case perhaps of abortive conscience) having thwarted Mannaeï’s first attempt in beheading the prisoner, the ensemble of guests and hosts including Herod but excluding Phanuel suddenly becomes a single monster with one voice: “Herodias let loose her fury in a coarse and biting stream of insults… The two carved lions seemed to be gnawing her shoulders and roaring like her.”  Next Antipas despite himself, as Flaubert writes, “followed her lead, as did the priests, Pharisees, and soldiers, one and all demanding their revenge, while the [others] of the company were indignant at having their pleasure postponed.”  Earlier in the story, readers will recall, Flaubert likened Herodias to a Maenad, a term with a collective rather than an individual connotation, linked in myth to the murder and decapitation of Orpheus and Pentheus.  The detail about the two stone lions is especially telling.  The metaphor suggests reversion to lower level of consciousness – what Flaubert calls bêtise, or animal stupidity.  In the moment when Mannaeï had returned with the trophy, as Flaubert writes, Herod instinctively “drew back to avoid seeing the head.”

A moment later, circumstances having forced Herod’s gaze to encompass the gruesome token, “tears flowed down the Tetrarch’s cheeks.”  The tears signify remorse, but they are too tardy by far; the fell deed is accomplished.  The moral law, as in Cain’s murder of Abel, is entirely belated.

 III. The Analysis Continued.  The narrative of Herodias finds its cynosure of meaning in Herod’s abortive rapprochement with the Paraclete – his failure to sustain the breakthrough in consciousness that the Baptist of the Jordan inspires in him temporarily, as he struggles with the tangled crises of his realm.  Flaubert will have expected his readers to know the rest of the story.  Herod plays a role in the Passion, where he shows himself entirely unaffected by the hiccough of moral insight that Flaubert attributes to him in the third of the Three Tales.  He hands over Jesus to Pontius Pilate who then executes the man whom he knows to be innocent.  As Girard has noted, the episode of John the Baptist prefigures the narrative of the Passion.  Not only that; the story of John the Baptist is “identical to the Passion in the mechanisms it employs and in the relationships among the participants.”  Girard puts it this way in a formula: “Although it is not lengthy, this text brings into astonishing focus the mimetic desires, followed by mimetic rivalries, [which] result in the final scapegoat effect.”   Girard’s two terms mimetic desire and mimetic rivalry have an equivalent term in Flaubert’s narrative – the abyss – and an instantiation in the animal-like bellowing of the crowd when Mannaeï at first fails to produce the prophet’s head.  The crowd can only assert its collective bloodthirstiness to the degree that the individuals who constitute it forfeit their individuality, insofar as they previously possessed any.

Just how is the story of John the Baptist the same as the story of the Passion?  In the Passion, Herod once again has an opportunity to spare an innocent victim and set to right those who persecute him; in the Passion, Herod is still at odds with the Romans – the Gospels mention his contretemps with Pontius Pilate.  The Pharisees are again angry at everyone, from Herod to Pilate and especially at Jesus.  Once more in the Passion the crowd carries the day, reconciling all differences in unanimous hostility against the victim, whose death suspends all other enmities so that, for example, in its aftermath, Herod and Pilate could find renewed amity.  Girard writes that, “The fact that mimeticism inevitably becomes unanimous is what interests the Gospels.”  The same could be said of Flaubert’s culturally Christian text.  The roster of Herod’s guests bears on this point.  Among those howling in animal rage for the head of the prophet are the Roman official and his son, no doubt Epicureans; Marcellus, a devotee of Mithras; Ammonius, “a pupil of Philo the Platonist”; “a merchant from Aphaka”; and “a German… from the Scandinavian promontory.”  In other words: The whole world – with its array of convictions from the barbarous to the philosophical.

Flaubert makes exception only for Phanuel and his two Essene companions, who alone resist fusion with the crowd.  The epilogue of Herodias takes place “at the moment when the sun rose,” or twenty-four hours exactly after the sunrise at the beginning of the tale.  The second sunrise fulfills a purpose, however, not merely structural, but also allusive.  Flaubert plausibly alludes to a non-Christian text, Plato’s Symposium, whose protagonist Socrates prefigures Jesus almost as much as John the Baptist does.  Symposium too ends at sunrise when Socrates alone has resisted drunkenness and leaves the debauchery to seek purification in the baths.  As everyone else at Agathon’s drinking party lies comatose in alcoholic stupor, Socrates becomes in the tableau the living embodiment of consciousness.  More importantly, Flaubert’s sunrise alludes by way of anticipation to the Resurrection, reminding readers that they are participating in an account of the roots of Christianity.

One of the Essenes says to Phanuel, referring to the murdered prophet, “He has gone down to the dead to proclaim the Christ.”  The phrase is somewhat ambiguous.  “Gone down to the dead” means to have died; “to proclaim the Christ” means necessarily also to proclaim the Holy Spirit hence again to proclaim the innocence of victims and the nullity, to borrow a phrase from The Scapegoat, of “the false gods of religion, politics, and ideologies.”  Girard also writes, “What the martyrs say has little importance because they are witnesses, not of a determined belief, as is imagined, but of man’s terrible propensity, in a group, to spill innocent blood in order to restore the unity of their community.”  In the moment in the text when the three Essenes, as Flaubert writes, between them “took the head of Iaokanan and went away towards Galilee,” the three of them also began walking into the future – into the displaced medieval world of Saint Julian the Hospitaller, which historically was contemporary with them, and into the early nineteenth-century world of provincial life in Normandy of A Simple Heart.  Herodias comes last in the sequence of Three Tales, but it comes first in the book’s historical chronology.

Without the events in Judea whether narrated or implied by the prose of Herodias, the heightened and differentiated consciousness of later periods would presumably not exist.  There would be no stained-glass image of the Holy Spirit in the village church to excite Félicité out of her illiterate dullness; there would be no spiritual lore to wean Julian from demonic venery to ascetic sainthood; there would be no Golden Legend to inspire Flaubert’s revisitation of the story of the saintly Hospitaller.

The Three Tales are deceptive in their superficial naivety.  Far from being disconnected from one another, the stories on close inspection reveal their intimate unity in the thematic and historical dimensions; they also communicate with other aspects of Flaubert’s creativity, with The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874), for example, and Salammbô (1862).  The latter, set in ancient Carthage during the wars with Rome, includes a sacrificial holocaust of the first-born in order to curry the favor of the civic deity, Moloch, during a time of acute social and military crisis.  The experience of the title-character, a princess of the royal house, who is also a priestess, shows similarity with that of Herod in Herodias.  Salammbô, like Herod, has moral insights concerning ritual sacrifice and victims, but she cannot integrate them.  She remains trapped in the abyss of ritual behavior.  The Three Tales also belong to Flaubert’s sustained critique of non-thinking or bêtise and his concomitant sub-rosa admonition against the original sin, so to speak, of avoiding reflection by submitting to ritual patterns of behavior.  Readers will recall that at the beginning of Herodias, Flaubert writes how Herod was “weary of reflection.”  Whole eras have been “weary of reflection,” not least modernity, afflicted as it has been by “the false gods of religion, politics, and ideologies.”

The Three Tales affirm the central role that literature, including first of all the literature that we call Scripture, has played in the constitution of self-awareness and in the awakening of the human spirit to its own base tendencies.  The action of the literary text, whereby humanity externalizes itself so as to study itself,  is in continuity with the action of the Holy Spirit.

12 thoughts on “Flaubert’s Herodias: A Study of Revelation & Consciousness

  1. Pingback: On Flaubert’s Herodias: A Study of Revelation and Consciousness | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: On Flaubert’s Herodias: A Study of Revelation and Consciousness | Reaction Times

  3. I keep finding myself confronting the same question whether it concerns history, literature, politics, or even sciences. You mention how history and literature play a role in human consciousness. How do we allow literature, culture, and history to inform our consciousness’s​ without letting the nostalgia trap our current perceptions in the past? Is it possible that wanting to reimagine some certain things from the past could be harmful? The purely utopian view of time, upon which nostalgia is based, can trap us in the present.

    • “How do we allow literature, culture, and history to inform our consciousness’s​ without letting the nostalgia trap our current perceptions in the past?”

      Jim, our perceptions are fleetingly present (I suppose), but the ideas by which we sort our perceptions are necessarily rooted in the past because they are necessarily rooted in individual and supra-individual experience. That is how they become ideas. To use the word “trap” is therefore prejudicial. Human beings without memory would hardly be human beings at all; they would be so many automata, parodies of the human form without any personhood. To reject history and traditions — to reject memory and the past — is where entrapment lies.

      “Nostalgia” is a much-misunderstood word, usually employed as a synonym for “sentimentality,” which it is not. The two roots of the word are nostos, Greek for “the return to home,” and algos, Greek for “pain.” Nostalgia is the pain attendant on being alienated from one’s proper home, which is correlate with the longing to return home, and as such is an entirely legitimate emotion. More than that, the ability to experience nostalgia is practically a guarantee that the person is healthy and well-adjusted. An inability to experience nostalgia would surely signify a psychological defect in the subject. (Tom)

      • I agree with you that using word trapped, to describe how we look upon nostalgia, is a poor word choice. The point I was looking to make was how we become lost in he past if we look at it with too much of a utopian feeling. As you pointed out history and traditions, both the good and bad parts of them, do inform our present. If we live in the past too often we may be trapped by it’s legacy (maybe a better choice here).

  4. Jim, we can’t “live” in the present because the present is always-already the past. We can’t live in the future, which doesn’t yet exist — and when it exists, as the present, it will always-already be the past. No, the past is the only place where we can live. My friend Richard is my friend today because he was my friend yesterday, and the day before that, and the week, month, year, and decade before that. Friendship is entirely past-oriented. It could be no other way.

    I’m unsure what you mean by “utopian.” Is it “utopian” to think that Herod should not have acceded to Salome and should not have ordered Mannei to behead John the Baptist? Even Herod apparently thought that it was a bad idea – it was just that he couldn’t resist the pressure to do so. What is “utopian” about a plausible revelation of our human proneness to sin? My sense is that the term “utopian” is as prejudicial as the term “trapped.” Utopias are generally placed in the future (conveniently), precisely the place or the time that does not yet exist. When we examine the practical utopian schemes of the past, they turn out to have been nightmares.

    • Should we constantly look to the past to guide our decisions now and in the future without considering our current circumstances? I don’t mean this question to sound sarcastic or disrespectful. I am trying to reconcile how I should view the past without having it be at the expense of the present. And by my use of the word utopian was meant as a reference to a “golden age” of some kind that tends to white wash the more unsavory parts of an era of culture. Maybe egalitarian might be a better word to use them utopia.

      • Jim — Where else could we look, except to the past? How could we cheat the present, given that the present immediately becomes the past?

        Flaubert does not represent the Age of Herod as a “Golden Age.” He represents it, drawing on Scripture and Medieval legend, as a time of crisis, cultural decadence, and moral corruption. The critic of those privative conditions, John the Baptist, forfeits his life on account of his criticisms. So does the one whom John presages, Jesus Christ. There is nothing utopian in the Gospels, which predict the indefinite prolongation of the crisis brought about by Revelation. (Tom)

        P.S. — So, yes, we should constantly look to the past to guide our judgments of the fleeting present.

      • I see your point and agree with you about the Gospels not being utopian. I guess I have been looking at this post of yours through a non-Christian lens. So how would we approach the problem that I stated at the beginning in a general philosophical sense?

  5. Keep reading important books. Be skeptical of ideological snake-oil salesmen who tell you to ignore the past and to climb aboard the Radiant Future express train.

    • As you can likely tell from my comments and our conversations I do lean to the left, but I am no hard core ideologue since I enjoy talking to others about different ideas. Questioning​ things is something I do very well in a rapid fire more. Unfortunately the idea of important books among many different divides. I know you have given me a few titles. Could you suggest a wider list ranging different subjects such literature to philosophy?

      • Jim, Russell Kirk is a good place to start. Find one of his essay anthologies and begin there.


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