Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

MARY MAGDALEN.

I must own that I know not where the author of the “Critical History of Jesus Christ” found that “St. Mary Magdalen had a criminal intimacy (des complaisances criminelles) with the Saviour of the world.” He says (page 130, line 11 of the note) that this is an assertion of the Albigenses. I have never read this horrible blasphemy either in the history of the Albigenses, or in their profession of faith. It is one of the great many things of which I am ignorant. I know that the Albigenses had the dire misfortune of not being Roman Catholics; but, otherwise, it seems to me, they had the most profound reverence for the person of Jesus.

This author of the “Critical History of Jesus Christ” refers us to the “Christiade,” a sort of poem in prose — granting that there are such things as poems in prose. I have, therefore, been obliged to consult the passage of the “Christiade” in which this accusation is made. It is in the fourth book or canto, page 335, note 1; the poet of the “Christiade” cites no authority. In an epic poem, indeed, citations may be spared; but great authorities are requisite in prose, when so grave an assertion is made — one which makes every Christian’s hair stand erect.

Whether the Albigenses advanced this impiety or not, the only result is that the author of the “Christiade” sports on the brink of criminality. He somewhat imitates the famous sermon of Menot. He introduces us to Mary Magdalen, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, brilliant with all the charms of youth and beauty, burning with every desire, and immersed in every voluptuousness. According to him, she is a lady at court, exalted in birth and in riches; her brother Lazarus was count of Bethany, and herself marchioness of Magdalet. Martha had a splendid portion, but he does not tell us where her estates lay. “She had,” says the man of the “Christiade,” “a hundred servants, and a crowd of lovers; she might have threatened the liberty of the whole world. But riches, dignities, ambitions, grandeur, never were so dear to Magdalen as the seductive error which caused her to be named the sinner. Such was the sovereign beauty of the capital when the young and divine hero arrived there from the extremities of Galilee. Her other passions yielded to the ambition of subduing the hero of whom she had heard.”

The author of the “Christiade” then imitates Virgil. The marchioness of Magdalet conjures her portioned sister to furnish her coquettish designs upon her young hero, as Dido employed her sister Anna to gain the pious Æneas.

She goes to hear Christ’s sermon in the temple, although he never preached there. “Her heart flies before her to the hero she adores; she awaits but one favorable look to triumph over him, to subdue this master of hearts and make him her captive.”

She then goes to him at the house of Simon the Leper, a very rich man, who was giving him a grand supper, although the women were never admitted at these feastings, especially among the Pharisees. She pours a large pot of perfumes upon his legs, wipes them with her beautiful fair hair, and kisses them.

I shall not inquire whether the picture which the author draws of Magdalen’s holy transports is not more worldly than devout; whether the kisses given are not expressed rather too warmly; nor whether this fine hair with which she wipes her hero’s legs, does not remind one too strongly of Trimalcion, who, at dinner, wiped his hands with the hair of a young and beautiful slave. He must himself have felt that his pictures might be fancied too glowing; for he anticipates criticism by giving some pieces from a sermon of Massillon’s on Magdalen. One passage is as follows:

“Magdalen had sacrificed her reputation to the world. Her bashfulness and her birth at first defended her against the emotions of her passion; and it is most likely, that to the first shaft which assailed her, she opposed the barrier of her modesty and her pride; but when she had lent her ear to the serpent, and consulted her own wisdom, her heart was open to all assaults of passion. Magdalen loved the world, and thenceforward all was sacrificed to this love; neither the pride that springs from birth, nor the modesty which is the ornament of her sex, is spared in this sacrifice; nothing can withhold her; neither the railleries of worldlings, nor the infidelities of her infatuated lovers, whom she fain would please, but by whom she cannot make herself esteemed — for virtue only is estimable; nothing can make her ashamed; and like the prostitute in the “Apocalypse,” she bears on her forehead the name of mystery; that is, she was veiled, and was no longer known but in the character of the foolish passion.”

I have sought this passage in Massillon’s sermons, but it certainly is not in the edition which I possess. I will venture to say more — it is not in his style.

The author of the “Christiade” should have informed us where he picked up this rhapsody of Massillon’s, as he should have told us where he read that the Albigenses dared to impute to Jesus Christ an unworthy intercourse with Mary Magdalen.

As for the marchioness, she is not again mentioned in the work. The author spares us her voyage to Marseilles with Lazarus, and the rest of her adventures.

What could induce a man of learning, and sometimes of eloquence, as the author of the “Christiade” appears to be, to compose this pretended poem? It was, as he tells us in his preface, the example of Milton; but we well know how deceitful are examples. Milton, who — be it observed — did not hazard that weakly monstrosity, a poem in prose — Milton, who in his “Paradise Lost,” has, amid the multitude of harsh and obscure lines of which it is full, scattered some very fine blank verse — could not please any but fanatical Whigs, as the Abbé Grécourt says:

En chantant l’univers perdu pour une pomme,

Et Dieu pour le damner créant le premier homme.

 . . . . . . .  . . . . By singing

How God made man on purpose for hell-fire,

And how a stolen apple damned us all.

He might delight the Presbyterians by making Sin cohabit with Death; by firing off twenty-four pounders in heaven; by making dryness fight with damp, and heat with cold; by cleaving angels in two, whose halves immediately joined again; by building a bridge over chaos; by representing the Messiah taking from a chest in heaven a great pair of compasses to describe the circuit of the earth, etc. Virgil and Horace would, perhaps, have thought these ideas rather strange. But if they succeeded in England by the aid of some very happy lines, the author of the “Christiade” was mistaken in expecting his romance to succeed without the assistance of fine verses, which are indeed very difficult to make.

But, says our author, one Jerome Vida, bishop of Alba, once wrote a very powerful Christiade in Latin verse, in which he transcribes many lines from Virgil. Well, my friend, why did you write yours in French prose? Why did not you, too, imitate Virgil?

But the late M. d’Escorbiac, of Toulouse, also wrote a Christiade. Alas! why were you so unfortunate as to become the ape of M. d’Escorbiac?

But Milton, too, wrote his romance of the New Testament, his “Paradise Regained,” in blank verse, frequently resembling the worst prose. Leave it, then, to Milton to set Satan and Jesus constantly at war. Let it be his to cause a drove of swine to be driven along by a legion of devils; that is, by six thousand seven hundred, who take possession of these swine — there being three devils and seven-twentieths per pig — and drown them in a lake. It well becomes Milton to make the devil propose to God that they shall take a good supper together. In Milton, the devil may at his ease cover the table with ortolans, partridges, soles, sturgeons, and make Hebe and Ganymede hand wine to Jesus Christ. In Milton, the devil may take God up a little hill, from the top of which he shows him the capital, the Molucca Islands, and the Indian city; the birthplace of the beauteous Angelica, who turned Orlando’s brain; after which he may offer to God all this, provided that God will adore him. But even Milton labored in vain; people have laughed at him. They have laughed at poor brother Berruyer, the Jesuit. They have laughed at you. Bear it with patience!

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25