Simeon Stylites, the famous 5th-century hermit who stood on a pillar in the desert most of his life, is an anomalous figure even among the early Christian desert fathers. Despite many contemporary writers such as Theodoret, Zosimus, John Cassian, and others, Simeon’s life is only barely summarized in a couple of paragraphs of Evagrius’ Ecclesiastical History. No sayings are collected or recorded. We must wait until 13th-century hagiographic compilation, The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, for a richer report.
The modern sentiment on eremitism has been best expressed by the historian Edward Gibbon, who sees hermits in general but Simeon in particular as an exemplar of barbarism worthy of the Enlightenment’s scorn and vituperation. Gibbon has no interest in the hagiographical version of Simeon, dismissing his life as a long “aerial penance.”
So it is refreshing to discover Simeon anew through the film lens of the Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel. Despite his reputation as an anticlerical dialectical materialist and atheist (though it was quite the intellectual mode in his heyday), Buñuel is far more judicious than critics and contemporaries wanted him to be. In his film Simon of the Desert (Simón del desierto), the protagonist Simon is a strong-willed and unflinching personality, not merely in moral terms but in character, personality, and in terms of people and circumstances. Simon looks out symbolically over the world from his pillar, from a solitude disengaged from a fallen and irredeemable world. Even among his supposed petitioners, supporters, and fellow Christians, there is vice, envy, lust, cruelty, though he speaks to them, albeit in lofty words. The pillar is a device or extension of what enables Simon to remain steadfast in consciousness and state of mind.
Clearly Buñuel identified with Simon. In an interview (reproduced in a pamphlet accompanying the DVD of the film), Buñuel says:
The character really moves me. I enjoy his sincerity, his lack of interest, his innocence. … [For example,] Simon neither knows nor understands what property is. He is even more innocent than a child because children cling to objects. Simon needs nothing more than air, a little water, and lettuce. He is free and would be free even in a jail cell. By the same token, Robinson Crusoe — and here is the difference between the two — is not free, because he has a desperate need for company.
And Buñuel places Simon in the context of a tradition of solitude and silence.
Solitude can be terrible, but also desirable. I can see this in myself: at times, when I am alone, I want a friend or two to come visit because I get bored looking at the tips of my shoes or watching a buzzing fly. But I also like to be alone with my soul, to daydream, to image the imaginable … and the unimaginable. What sense is there in going out into the street to see nothing but the hoods of cars and to suffer from the noise? Silence is nearly impossible today; it’s something precious that is very difficult to find anywhere. For example, if you went to the North Pole to enjoy the silence, I wouldn’t be surprised if an Eskimo immediately appeared on his sled … with a noisy portable radio. Can you imagine what the silence must have been like in the Middle Ages? Leaving a town or city, within a few steps you could find silence, or natural sounds, which are marvelous: songs of birds, of cicadas, or the murmur of the rain. We have lost this in our time. There is an infernal instrument that really could have been invented by the devil or by an enemy of mankind: the electric guitar. What diabolical times we live in: crowds, smog, promiscuity, radios, etc. I would happily return to the Middle Ages, as long as it was before the Great Plague of the fourteenth century.
Buñuel is always ironic but not a deceiver. Buñuel is not kidding in his admiration for Simon, although Buñuel’s interlocutors goad him towards admitting some salacious purpose or secret joke or ridicule of Simon. Buñuel acknowledges the black humor of some moments in the film, as when the monks confuse various and obscure theological terms, or when a miracle restores a man’s hands only to see him use it to slap his little daughter on the head. But this is just how people are, in every age. The irony is only in the people, not in Simon. Modernist viewers will think that the foibles of the people, the coreligionists, somehow denigrate Simon’s purpose, mock him for absurdity. They do not realize that Simon is not there for them, or for anyone else. As the Marxist critic Robert Sayres has noted, the desert hermits not only fled the world, they also fled the world that was in the Church.
The co-star of the film is, of course, the devil. Here is showcased Buñuel’s originality and genius, for The Golden Legend does not even suggest this intricate relationship, beyond even that of the traditional accounts of hermits beset by demons. And the devil is, not unexpected, a woman, in various disguises of schoolgirl, villager, shepherd boy, temptress. Each time she is foiled by Simon’s steadfastness, until she wearies of the game and announces that she is taking him far away. The film ends in a noisy New York City discotheque, where a shorn, professorial-looking Simon, tugging on a pipe, seated at a table, looks on patiently at the gyrating dancers amid the deafening noise of the rock band. He asks the devil the name of the dance, and she replies “Radioactive Flesh.” “It is the last dance,” she assures him, and Simon merely replies that he wants to go home. And shortly the word “Fin” appears. The story is done. The last dance is over.
Buñuel weakly protests that the abrupt ending was not his intention — the budget fell short, and he had wanted to include other scenes from “The Golden Legend. But it is perfectly apropos. The hell to which Simon has been taken, like the view from the pinnacle of the citadel in the Gospel story, is the world, Buñuel’s contemporary world. Bunuel admits a certain nostalgia. “Culturally, I’m a Christian,” he states. That is bound to have a sensibility for framing his allegory, his symbols, and life’s observations. And when his critics retort that the religious questions Buñuel poses have already been resolved, Buñuel replies that he doesn’t care. “I don’t make thesis films or religious ones or atheist ones.” That no one knows may be his message, but even that message he casts doubts upon.
Simon of the Desert is an exemplary film, an allegory, not merely on the eremitic question but on any universal question one may wish to pose.