Thursday, May 1, 2014

Revolt of the Angels by Anatole France

Title: The Revolt of the Angels
Author: Anatole France
Original Publication Date: 1914
Pages: 282

I read this book as part of my Nobel Prize for Literature Awardees reading list. As it turned out it is one the longest list I will ever try to finish. Sometimes I too wonder where I found the audacity to attempt to foray in this kind of reading list.

The Revolt of the Angels is my initial foray into Anatole France's works, which definitely is not my last one. It was not his first, as France was apparently a poet and a journalist too, but is considered to be his most profound novel. I was a sucker for riveting titles and killer first lines, so I picked this book and read. And read I did.

Anatole France, born 16 April 1844 and died 12 October 1924 was a French poet, journalist, and novelist. His was a lifetime of books. The family business was a bookstore, one which, arguably, could be the best environment to raise a future Nobel Prize awardee. He was schooled in a private Catholic institution which lends credulity to the fact that Anatole France was one hell of a radical as exacerbated by his writings. The rest, as one would say, is history. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1921. Shortly, in 1922, as a response by the institution we all know as the Roman Catholic Church, all his works were banned through the Prohibited Books Index, a list which has been abolished since 1966 and contained the likes of Sartre, Rousseau, Voltaire, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Galileo to name a few. Oh what a delight that list was.

The book itself was written in 1914, a time when France was besieged by the incoming Germanic invasion brought around by the First World War and was troubled at home by the numerous Socialist objections. What dominated this part of French history however was the power struggle between the Church and the State, one that is contained in this exceptional book and which probably served as the backbone for this exceptional work. Overly simplifying this dialectical issue, the struggle existed because the Church is seen to be representing the archaic system of institution embodied by the Monarchy against the desire of the Republicans who utterly detested political and class affiliations that are perpetuated by these monarchies. So from here, Anatole France wrote.

I obtained my FREE e-book copy through Project Gutenberg and was translated from the original French by Frederic Chapman. Apparently, licenses on century old books do not exist. As expected of a work in the early 1900s, a lot old English words and words derived from both Latin and French were used like architrave, frieze, verbena, narcissi, demiurge, though let that not deter you from missing on this work. The prose is beautiful as expected from an Nobel Awardee.

Revolt of the Angels tells us of the story of Arcade, a Guardian Angel, the lowest caste of the nine-tiered order of these heavenly beings. It narrates his pursuit of knowledge and how such knowledge led to become the foundation with which he challenge GOD, or as he called it, the DEMIURGE – the creator of the material world – or Ialdabaoth. Yes, this is the same GOD most Christian churches would profess belief to.  The book further tells us how he conspired with other ‘fallen’ guardian angels and plotted the overthrow of Ialdabaoth. Intertwined with Arcade’s story is Maurice’s plight of losing his guardian angel, his dishonor and fornication (to which a certain extent Anatole France himself engaged in).  The novel’s theme perhaps lies in the age-old philosophical conundrum of knowledge (or science) pitted against religion. Perhaps this conundrum is epitomized by Arcade’s statement:

“When the angels possess some notions of physics, chemistry, astronomy, and physiology; when the study of matter shows them worlds in an atom, and an atom in the myriads of planets; when they see themselves lost between these two infinities; when they weigh and measure the stars, analyse their composition, and calculate their orbits, they will recognize that these monsters work in obedience to forces which no intelligence can define, or that each star has its particular divinity, or indigenous god; and they will realize that the gods of Aldebaran, Betelgeuse, and Sirius are greater than Ialdabaoth.” (39)

What comes across to me however is that we human individuals are like Arcade, like these Angels in revolt. We seek the truth behind things. We learn, and learn and still crave for knowledge. But to where does this knowledge lead us? To me too at the same time we are Maurice. Just like him we all seem to have fallen into a trap. We love life itself so much that we fear losing it, that in any semblance of hope or continuity, we have sometimes turned to belief in numerous institutions, uncritical and naïve. That instead of uplifting the human soul, we have formed for ourselves unbreakable shackles that continue to limit our perception of the world.

"I sought out the laws which govern nature, solid or ethereal, and after much pondering I perceived that the Universe had not been formed as its pretended Creator would have us believe; I knew that all that exists, exists of itself and not by the caprice of Iahveh; that the world is itself its own creator and the spirit its own God. Henceforth I despised Iahveh for his imposture, and I hated him because he showed himself to be opposed to all that I found desirable and good: liberty, curiosity, doubt.” (139)

But what does exactly limit our perception? Is it really a religion, a church, a system of belief? Is it not fear and ignorance that severely limits human understanding and compassion, so much so that in the first place, no actual conflict exists between these forces? Is knowledge really the answer? What does this knowledge refer to?

In the closing part of the book, when the Army has been assembled and Arcade went to ask Satan to lead the army on their march, Satan said this in response:

“As to ourselves, celestial spirits, sublime demons, we have destroyed Ialdabaoth, our Tyrant, if in ourselves we have destroyed Ignorance and Fear." “…We were conquered because we failed to understand that Victory is a Spirit, and that it is in ourselves and in ourselves alone that we must attack and destroy Ialdabaoth.” (292)

The beauty of this statement lies in its verisimilitude.  Our demons are given birth by ignorance. It is nurtured by fear and is encouraged by blind obedience. These demons have always been personal in nature. Yet the discrepancy in societal response has become fundamental in nature.  We have raised countless institutions that are impersonal and by being so, wholly unresponsive. And more vital to all of this, we fail to recognize “that it is in ourselves and in ourselves alone that we must attack and destroy Ialdabaoth (292).” 

I have left the institutional church long ago, embarking on a more personal attempt in understanding things. In a sense, I have aspired to be spiritual without being religious, and have met a great many debates and contest on this aspect. Since then however, I have struggled to conquer my own demons. I have sought to eradicate cynicism and suspicion in receiving and responding to others, and have tried to look for that piece of kindness in everybody. The first step is always recognizing that perhaps the fault lies in ourselves, for this too is the hardest step to make.

This here is a good book. It may literally challenge fundamental beliefs of the religious institution, but what it truly offers is a much needed case of retrospection and examination which doesn't hurt to engage in once in a while.  I would recommend it to everyone except that one should still take caution choosing whom you recommend it too. Perhaps if you enjoyed this book like me, a similar theme albeit carried in another plot was written by Jose Saramago, yet another Nobel Prize awardee, entitled The Gospel According to Jesus Christ(3 STARS).
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