We all remember the great thinkers, the great philosophers and writers; they live on beyond their death, immortalised in the scope of their ideas and beauty of their work. Their stories are told and retold until an essence of the their thoughts and ideas seeps into our culture and change the way we perceive our time on earth. But what of the thinkers who aren’t remembered, whose time is cut short or whose ideas are squashed before they can bloom? Should we let their memory fade? Until they become just one more poor player, who fretted away their time on this stage? Are they destined to wander unobserved through history, lost in the bustling press of time?
The story of Antoine Taine is the story of a man forgotten by history. I hope by telling his story here he may have another chance of living on in our thoughts and that he may finally have his ideas recognised. For Antoine Taine was a playwright who wrote only one play, a philosopher whose reflections were never heard and above all a man who believed in a God who remained hidden from him his entire life. His time was short and almost without meaning and yet he strived all his life to bring meaning to it. He must be remembered at least once, since through his thoughts and writing he tried to make this world a better and more understandable place. History is not only created by great men, but also those who stand in the background making it possible for great men to stand in the spotlight. Oftentimes, though, the ideas and thoughts which motivate these men are lost and consequently humanity as a whole suffers; for their thoughts, however trivial they seem, can enrich our lives more than we believed possible.
Antoine Taine was born in France in 1637. The son of a well-known lawyer and devout mother, his early years were spent relatively comfortably in the bosom of a stable home. However, at the age of ten his father died suddenly and Antoine and his mother retreated into the infamous Jansenist monastery of Port-Royal . There Antoine stayed, among the devout, learning humility, hardship and contempt for the Jesuits from the nuns. These things he was forced to learn and as such they never had a powerful grasp on him . What he loved to learn, and did so at every given opportunity, were the Greek classics. He spent as much time as he could learning about the world of the Greek playwrights, transporting himself back through the stories that they told. He became adept at Latin and read all the classic literature that he could. He loved the tragedies and among these those of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides in particular. At Port-Royal he became a playwright, though he did not yet know it, and his audience was God; an audience of one.
Antoine had few friends, though this did not bother him much. A few of the boys living in the monastery were important enough to him to discuss literature with but beyond that he felt no need for any deeper human contact. The one relationship in his life which he invested with any kind of importance was the relationship between himself and his God. This, however, left him troubled since his God seemed constantly out of his reach,always hidden from his sight. He knew, of course, that God was there but could not find any means of communicating with him. This, he began believing, was because he was had not dedicated himself fully to Him, that he was too much interest in himself and life’s inherent emotional background.
Taine left Port Royal at the age of eighteen but soon found himself to be lost. He had been birthed into an alien world and soon longed to regain the safety of the Port-Royal monastery.He took up lodging with his Uncle in a well-off part of Paris, hoping to find some semblance of of safety and regained comfort in his house. This did not happen. His uncle, almost immediately fed up with his seemingly over-educated nephew, tried to push him out of the house in order for him to make a decent living. Antoine could not, as he had hoped, live off of the success and connections of his Uncle and so cast out to find some way to support himself and find his way in life.
Suddenly Antoine was required to interact with the world rather than shun it in favor of God, as was taught at Port-Royal, the only true home he knew. Even though he had never been successful in his attempts to block out the world it had always been something which he tried to live by. Now, though, he wished that the nuns had taught him, even in rudimentary form, how to navigate the complexities of day to day life. It came as a shock to him how simply and easily the people around him communicated with each other. They shouted and called, insulted and spat, pleaded and whined. There was no seeming dignity in Antoine’s position in life.
All this is background, though, a precursor to when Antoine really became himself. He truly became Antoine Taine, the Antoine Taine who we must recall, when he realised his true calling – to write a play, for God, which would allow his ideas to live on for the generations to come. It was only at this time that he truly realised that he had the power within himself to change humanity, however slightly, and to make it better through his presence on earth.
This great realisation, this pivotal moment in his life, occurred when he first saw live theatre at the Palais-Royal in Paris. His Uncle had allowed him to go, hoping that by granting him this pleasure he might realise that literature and words were only a form of entertainment and that Antoine, in realising this, might finally find a decent way to make a living. This did not transpire.
At Port Royal Antoine had learnt to look down at all forms of common entertainment as a diversion for the masses which distracted them from true knowledge and love of God.The nuns taught him to believe that plays were ungodly forms of hedonism without value or virtue. Yet when Antoine, who felt lost and alone in an unknown world, in a fit of rebellion against his religion, went to see and experience his first play at his Uncle’s suggestion, he was transported to a new world. He found value on that stage and knew, from that moment onwards, that he had to be a part of this artform.
For encapsulated within the reality presented by the artform was a world where the gods conversed with men, where righteousness and truth were self evident, rather than being hidden away behind ephemeral ideas. Here, Antoine knew, was a world created for him which he could help shape and mold. No longer would he have to take it on faith that there was a guiding reason to his existence, he could create that reason by putting pen to paper. On stage he would create a world in which his views of life were not esoteric but a given norm, where God was his God and didn’t remain shrouded in dogma and fear. He would show the world how he saw it and they would accept it, even if only for the space of time that the actors played their part onstage.
As he walked home that night, the night of the play, through the bustling, dirty streets, Antoine thought about how he could create worlds in the same way that he saw a world created for him that night. He knew that what he had seen was flawed in many ways. What he had seen put on by that itinerant theatre group showed potential for beauty rather than beauty itself. The script was badly formed, the speeches tried to force emotion rather than coax it from the situations presented, and above all too much of what he had seen on screen dealt with the worldly, the mundane. Here was finally a medium in which one could converse with God, so why let that chance slip by in order to advance some senseless love story? Yes love was important to Antoine but only as a concept, as an ultimate portrayal of attachment to another thing or human being, a tool to be used in an ultimate search for meaning.
Antoine saw, felt and heard his boots as he strode down the cobbled streets and he knew that that onstage Gods could walk with the same stride, the same cadence. Getting back home he ignored his Uncles questioning of his intentions to progress in the world and retreated into the study to write. He began creating, in that small room, on that rickety desk, a new world where he could finally talk to God and mankind.
He had learnt in the monastery that to find God one must divorce oneself from the world and commune only with Him, yet there, in that room, Antoine found a way to be with God and with the world. He felt a finally able to reconcile himself with the inherently chaotic and unknowing nature of all things. He wrote on.
It is here, then, that Antoine became himself. Only in writing a play which was true to himself and to his belief in God could he really unite the warring factions in his heart. He sat and wrote and the study in which he wrote became the chamber in which his life’s drama played out. He wrote for days on end, editing furiously all the while. A world was creating itself and transferring itself from his mind to his paper. Antoine continued in this way, skipping meals and neglecting his obligations until suddenly three weeks later he realised he was done. He had created something which he knew was worth preserving and through which he would live on long after his death. He had created a work of art which was true to himself and to his understanding of the world. Only once his play had been created did Antoine’s life truly reach it’s crux. Only then were did his unities join and only then did the action of his life begin.
Let us stop for a second then and talk about the play itself. Antoine, like the great writers of his time, decided to adapt his work from the Greek classics. He had grown up learning these stories, poring over them until they were as much a part of himself as his language or religion.They represented for him a baseline from which he could apply all his understanding of the world in general and the fallacies of men in particular. The Greek classics were Antoine’s education; they gave him a step up from which to reach for a higher understanding of mortal life.
This is not to say, however, that Antoine was devoid of imagination, he merely needed a cynosure around which to form his worldview. Writers write what they know. It’s only in doing so that they can represent the depth of emotion necessary for the reader to become devoted to the story and to feel it’s realism. Of course sometimes this practice is taken too far, it’s why so much of today’s literature revolves around protagonists who are semi-decent writers just like their creators. Antoine, though, did not suffer from such self-absorption, he used the format of the classic Greek tragedies as a canvas on which to paint all he knew about the world and it’s mysteries. He used the worlds of great tragedy, presented by the Greeks, to help him refine and develop his understanding of the world. Without such an aid he, like so many others, would have been lost when faced with the magnitude and confusion of human life.
For his first and only play Antoine adapted Sophocles’ Ajax. The world of suffering, confusion and death which had been created in the fifth century B.C. would be stage on which his view of life would be played out. Antoine’s storyline was simple; the great and valiant Ajax, enraged that the hero Achilles armour was awarded to his enemy Odysseus and not to him, sets about wreaking his vengeance on the leaders of the Greek army. However, his madness is stoked and twisted by the Goddess Athena and he mistakenly slaughters and tortures cattle and sheep, believing them to be the leaders of the Greek army who caused him such pain. Upon awakening from the mists of his folly, he realises what he has done and throws himself on his sword, taking his own life and finding redemption through it. It is a simple story, yet complex in it’s issues. It was one that Antoine was able to weave with skill until it portrayed a part of himself which he needed others to see.
Through this storyline Antoine was able to struggle through the issues of his own faith. He wrote first of a God who is manipulative and misleading, the clearly tangible Athena who is steeped in the dogma of the Greeks. Then there is the second hidden God, Antoine’s God, who accepts Ajax finally when he leaves behind the world and all things of it. Antoine was not yet able to deal with his Christian god directly yet through this tragedy of classical antiquity he was able to represent the issues which the teachings of Port-Royal left him to work through. Antoine knew that to be a part of the world was to have God hidden from him, keeping him in a permanent state of theological uncertainty. Through a renunciation of the world, represented in death in his play, the hidden God can finally be seen and communed with.This was the final realisation which Antoine came to as he finished editing his text.
After finishing and putting down the last page Antoine sighed and got up. He paced slowly around the room thinking about what he had done. He felt somehow cleansed as the great welling up of emotion which had struck him as he read through the text slowly disappeared. Antoine had written his first play and having finished it he knew that he had created something worthwhile. A part of himself, a part of his understanding of the world had been written down. His play could be acted and produced and in doing so it could change the lives of those who would see it. However microscopic the change was it would still be a change, a change which would ripple out and inform the views of many more people until his work, his ideas, finally permeated the collective consciousness of human society. By creating a piece of original work, by being the man who had had the experiences he had had and the thoughts he had had and by putting pen to paper Antoine felt that he had in a very real way added to society and helped humanity in it’s progress forward. He knew this to be true and it resonated deep inside him.
He went out for a walk and tried to clear his head. Along the way he stopped off at the lodging of one of the few friends he had made in Port-Royal and, finding that he was out, left a message asking if he would join Antoine for a discussion of his newly finished work. Antoine then strolled leisurely through the crowded streets of Paris savouring the thought that his life had taken a new direction, and that he was now firmly in control of his destiny. He hoped that his friend, Jean, would agree with him on the necessity of his endeavour and the validity of his ideas. He had so much to discuss now and, in a small way, he wanted someone to validate his current feeling of euphoria. He felt that once his play was read by someone other than himself it would cease to exist only in the realm of his imagination and take on a more palpable form.
Antoine soon found himself back at his Uncle’s house. He stood for a while in front of it. It had represented for a long time a refuge from the world. A place where he could hide away. Now, though, it was a starting point. The beginning of a journey which would allow him to be both of the world and also of God. He would stay there a little longer but soon he would have to venture out and make an imprint on the world.
Back in the study there was a fire roaring in the fireplace. Antoine pulled a chair up to it and read through his play once more. He had nearly finished when his friend, Jean, was ushered into the room. Jean was a few years younger than Antoine and vaguely handsome, though he had grown steadily more stout since Antoine had known him. Back at Port-Royal they had shared a love of classic literature, and though Antoine knew that Jean’s intellect far surpassed his own he had enjoyed swapping ideas and notes with the younger boy. Now Jean had left Port-Royal and was about to leave Paris for Uzès where he too, hoped to use his Uncle’s influence to secure a living.
Antoine got up to greet his friend. They both smiled and laughed and after the preliminary conversation Antoine explained to Jean why he had called upon him. He tried to succinctly encapsulate all that he had been working on over the past month and how much it had affected his life and everything he knew. He listened to himself talk but it did not seem to do the emotion which was once more welling up inside him justice. He kept on nonetheless. He reminded Jean of their discussions back at the monastery, how both had toyed with the idea of taking the writings of the pagan Greeks and imparting their own understanding of the world on them.
He continued to talk for some while . He explained how the story was not in defiance of God but rather in adulation of him. That through his play he, Antoine, could finally converse with the God who had been silent their entire lives. He had taken a piece of history, he maintained, and turned it into the future; a future of understanding where a renunciation of the world could take place while this message could be spread to those without the proper knowledge. He tried to impart some small vestige of the play’s significance to Jean who merely watched him with a blank expression.
After a while Jean sat down to read the play. He was seated in the same leather armchair, facing the fire in which Antoine had recently read it with such an overwhelming feeling of pride. Now Antoine paced around the room, anxious to hear what his friend thought of his work. If he could impart even one one hundredth of his excitement to Jean, then he knew Jean would understand the importance of the work; he could find affirmation of his success and could move forward with his new life, his new way of thinking. In life, he had found, there was so much confusion and anarchy that now that he had found something which truly called to him he could finally move forward and be calm in the knowledge that what he was doing was right. Of course for this to be possible Antoine, above all human, needed the recognition of his peers.
Finally Jean looked up. There was an air of puzzlement in his eyes and Antoine wondered what this meant. A sense of dread slowly crept over him. All he knew was that his entire life hung in the balance at that very moment and that whatever Jean said next would colour how he viewed himself and the world around him; it would have untold repercussions on his future. He held his breath.
“I understand what you’re trying to do, Antoine and I must say you’ve done it with remarkable depth and sincerity.” Jean started.
He paused for a moment, looking down at the pages in his hand.
“Frankly I didn’t think that you had it in you, I expected that you would have just taken to writing on a whim, as a diversion, not that you would have created anything real, which is what you obviously have done.”
Antoine felt as though he had been slapped. How could Jean dismiss him so quickly? He was after all older than Jean and therefore deserving of more respect. Yet he steadied himself, knowing that all was not lost. There was some positive in what Jean said at least. While on the one hand he had diminished Antoine himself he had implied that there was some genius in his work. The play was, he reminded himself, what really mattered. He could justify the rest to himself by putting it down to Jean’s jealousy of him.
“Well I’m glad you have some regard for the work at least. Was there anything in particular which you found powerful?”
“Well the core concept of your play”Jean said, disregarding Antoine’s barbed tones.
“How Ajax, and so the audience, is able to find cathartic release through his death. By diminishing the original’s emphasis on the human forgiveness which is seen in Odysseus’s actions after Ajax’s death you correctly transpose the importance of the play onto the forgiveness of the hidden observer; our true Christian God. You have found a way to portray a certain amount of the Jansenist view in this play.” Jean got up slowly.
“Of course it won’t be recognised as such, not within Port- Royal. They will never be accepting of plays as a medium of spreading their message, even if they understand that that is what you are trying to do here.”
“Trying?”Antoine asked, incredulously.
“Yes, well I would be lying if I said that this was a perfect piece of work. It is good but do you know why it is good? You, as the author, must understand what you are doing in order to reach perfection. You have created art, but is it art you understand? For example, what can you tell me about the sacrifices which had to be made by Ajax in leaving this world?”
“Sacrifices? Is it sacrifice if it is an action which has to be taken?”
“Has to be? Nothing ever has to be done. We must strive to bring ourselves closer to God but there are many decisions that must be made along the way. You have shown the sacrifices that Ajax and his family have made in order for him to renounce the world but perhaps you have not emphasized this enough. It has to be shown that suffering is a part of our existence and is necessary if we wish to find God. Human emotions are part of the world and must be renounced no matter how hard it is to do so. That is why Ajax had to leave his slave-wife and son in a world without him, even though he knew that they would suffer without his protection. Human emotions and connections are a part of the world and must be renounced in order to find God.. This is what you have to say with your play, and the knowledge of this is what your play is lacking. The audience must see that it is only when the world is renounced and God is accepted as the sole judge of man that suffering finally erased.”
Again Jean paused. He clearly had more to say, yet restrained himself before speaking further. Instead he walked to the window and looked out on the dirty, busy street. He started again.
“ See all the chaos, all the muck, all the dirt and human failing out there? You can erase all that and impart peace, if only for the time it takes to view the play. You have this power and as such you have the responsibility to make that time that your audience spends watching as the action unfold a time of transcendental beauty. You must make it real, but also perfect. Consider the chorus, you have removed it from your play. But do you know why?”
“ Well the flow of the thing. The play would be impeded if we relied on such arcane tools”
“ Why? You still rely on the unities.They have their place here too. No the reason is the chorus cannot exist in this play is they link the tragic character to the world. Representing a link between them and the antithesis of divinity. The tragic character must be alone in a search for God. It is such things that you need to understand in order to convey the ideas you intend.”
Antoine was hurt but he knew, in some part of him that what Jean was saying was true. He had created, but he had not thought hard on what it was he was creating.It was art, but was it intelligent enough? Yet he made another attempt to salvage some aspect of the euphoria he felt just a few hours before.
“You said yourself that the play had depth and sincerity, that it was real, how could this be if I was not able to comprehend, as you seem to be implying, what it was that I was trying to do?”
Jean paused again, searching his old friend’s face, trying to find the right words.
“A man doesn’t need to know the art he makes. Sometimes he may just pen down an observation from his life which may, with a great deal of luck, reflect something greater, something which infact is true to humanity as a whole. You, Antoine, have stumbled upon a something true and powerful but you do not have the greatness of spirit to bring it to term yourself. Take time, either in this world or out of it, and find the man that you are supposed to be, the man God intended you to be. Your writing does not yet bring the power which you believe it does to the imagination. This needs more, a touch of the divine which I’m afraid you, my friend, lack…I believe that you have talent and insight and as such you must develop these, attempt to share them and better yourself before undertaking such a project again. You yourself must know that adversity which you will face if you come out and try to make this play public. Those we left behind at Port Royal will not understand what it is you are trying to do and as a newcomer you will face the animosity of those already making a living from playwriting. You will be be friendless and alone, you will be beaten down and unless you are enormously strong of spirit and conviction you will be broken. Take my advice, think long on what it is you are trying to do and only then approach it again.”
Jean continued to talk for awhile, but Antoine could no longer hear him. He had made his point and left Antoine devastated. He decided that he was no longer mad at Jean but disappointed that his understanding of the world had been reduced until he was left with nothing but the memory of his belief that he had created something of value.
Once it became clear that nothing more could be said of any benefit with regards to the play the two slipped into lighter, less consequential conversation. It lasted a little while but both realised that this would probably be their last meeting as friends and equals. Soon Jean left, leaving Antoine alone, his action complete, in the ashes of his dreams.
And so Antoine was lost again. The drama of his life had unfolded leaving him with the decision of how to live the rest of his life. Later, in his old age, he found that his life had revolved around that day and that, for better or worse it had forever affected him and his role on earth.
Of course this does not mean that everything changed from that day to the next. Antoine continued to try to create a life for himself in Paris, working for his Uncle, doing what was expected of him. He worked hard, all the while trying to resolve the deep seated angst he felt within himself. His play was left lying in one of the drawers of the desk of his study. Occasionally he would take it out and look at it but it no longer held any answers for him.
After a while Antoine decided he could no longer live exposed, out in the world. He renounced his possessions and retreated back to Port-Royal, sheltering himself from the chaos of a life he could not understand. He turned his back on Paris, on France and on life among men and in doing so hoped to one day find peace and have the will of his God revealed to him. If this ever happened we cannot know. He never wrote again and his ideas, thoughts and aspirations died with him. All that was left was his play, which survived unnoticed, and a short paragraph in the recollections of his friend Jean Racine.
The man himself was a playwright and philosopher who disappeared into the shadows of history. So just for a moment please remember Antoine Taine and all those whose stories have not been told. Their time was short but it still held meaning. It is men such as Antoine who have led humanity forward and as such deserve their time on stage.