Andre Gide: His Life and Art
Marshlands and Prometheus Misbound
It has almost become a commonplace of today’s criticism to state that André Gide’s work had begun to fade away even before the author’s death in 1951. Compared to Proust, to Valéry, to Claudel, and, outside France, to Henry James, Joyce, and Thomas Mann, he seems hardly to be part of the contemporary literary consciousness. An easy contrast can be drawn between the relative indifference that now surrounds his work and the passionate intensity with which the generation of Europeans born before 1920 used to follow his every word, considering his private opinions a matter of general concern. During the Thirties, he was without doubt the most public literary figure in France, much more so than Malraux, Camus, and Sartre, for all their overt political activity, ever were. Yet his political attitudes were highly inconsistent: they ranged from his adhesion to the ultra right-wing Action Française during the First World War to his brief but full commitment to Communism in the Thirties, ending with a rather withdrawn position of non-participation during the Second World War. None of these changes was ever justified objectively: his Return from the USSR (a book that sold well over 100,000 copies at the time) certainly failed to show any striking insight into political realities. Gide’s authority rested entirely on the power of his personality as it was revealed in a literary work almost exclusively concerned with psychological and aesthetic matters. Why then was the extra-literary, political influence of so socially irresponsible a figure so strong?
Mr. Fowlie’s sympathetic and delicate general study of Gide does not give us much assistance in confronting this question. It is written with a slightly defensive affection for its subject that is not typical of the feeling towards Gide prevalent today. The surprising mildness in Mr. Fowlie’s bland essay is characteristic of several books in which some of the most unsettling figures of the recent literary past—such as Nietzsche, or Yeats, or Stefar George—have been reduced to a reassuring common denominator. In this view, Gide is interpreted as “the mar who won out over guilt and neurosis through the discipline of art.” And the historical scheme suggested by Mr. Fowlie also recurs frequently in interpreters of the same temper: Gide was strongly influenced, in his early years, by the more extreme forms of fin-desiècle nihilism—in his case, by Mallarmé, Wilde, and Nietzsche—but he triumphed over the negative forces of his predecessors by a gradual humanization of his aestheticism. He retained his absolute commitment to art but overcame the violence inherent in an extreme aesthetic position by restoring to it the human dimensions lacking in his masters. The resulting picture may be a comforting one, but it bears little relation to the realities of twentieth century thought and its antecedents.
Jean-Paul Sartre showed a much shrewder understanding of Gide’s role when, on the occasion of his death, he spoke of the general relief that greeted the departure from this earth of someone who had managed to remain a constant irritant. Sartre’s remark was made in praise of Gide and goes a long way towards explaining the relative neglect in which he has fallen. The lives of certain writers become mythologized because they can be easily turned into examples behind which we hide our own shortcomings. Rimbaud’s decision to stop writing, for example, provides a fine pretext to those who were never able even to begin; Mallarmé’s heroic renunciation of a certain form of personal happiness excuses those unable to achieve it; Proust’s introspective refinement provides an incentive for self-indulgent alienation, the introverted Byronism of the twentieth century. But Gide offers little opportunity for such self-deceptions. Whenever he was tempted to make uncritical assertions, he pulled the rug out from under them. On the one occasion, in Corydon, where he rationalizes his personal aberrations into self-justifying generalities, his bad faith is so blatant that he can hardly be taken seriously. Most of the time, his irony and self-criticism remain fully operative. The constant self-analysis that underlies the autobiographical works, the Journal, and most of the novels, is always aimed at dispelling false constructs of the self that would allow him to strike seductive but artificial poses. It is perhaps not a very good sign for our own time that he now receives so little attention. To a period presumably so concerned with authenticity, so eager to root out what it considers false in its nineteenth-century, idealistic heritage, it would seem that Gide’s work could be particularly valuable. Difficult and diffuse it certainly is, for it is not easy to group the diverse elements of his literary production into a coherent structure. It is also, for all its diversity, a curiously narrow work. Yet within the limited area it stakes out for itself, it is genuinely revealing.
Mr. Fowlie may be guilty, albeit with the best of intentions, of taking the sting out of Gide’s subversiveness. Nevertheless, especially towards the end of the book, he shows a fine understanding of his subject. The following statement, for instance, is extremely perceptive about the main characteristic of Gide’s personality. Speaking of the Journal that Gide kept throughout his lifetime, Mr. Fowlie writes:
The Journal is not a mirror. Gide was not Narcissus as he wrote it. He looks at himself in order to be seen by others…The motivation of Gide’s writing is to make a place for himself in the society of mankind.
One could not put it more accurately or more succinctly. Mr. Fowlie’s book proves how difficult it is to keep literary and social concerns apart in this case; in a study primarily aimed at the work, he has had to include chapters that deal with Gide’s attitudes toward his family, institutionalized religion, and politics. Indeed, perhaps the most enlightening study of André Gide is not a literary study at all, but an account of Gide’s involvements with his father, his mother, and his wife during the first part of his life; the author, Jean Delay1 , is a clinical psychologist. Gide elicits this kind of approach because of his natural bent towards other human beings and society.
In the long tradition of introverted, self-reflective meditation that is so prevalent in romantic and post-romantic writing, the withdrawal into the self has always been a moment in which the writer moves away from others, towards a contemplation of his own consciousness as it confronts entities that are precisely not other human beings: the activity of the mind in relation to nature (sensation), in relation to time (memory), and to space (imagination). Even in realistic writers such as Flaubert, or Proust, or Thomas Mann, the deepening and generalizing power of the novels is always founded on the inwardness, the self-contemplation of the character; hence the importance of “poetic,” i.e., metaphorical and symbolical modes of language more or less harmoniously combined with realistic detail. With few exceptions (the early Nourritures terrestres being the most striking one) nothing similar happens in Gide. He is not concerned with the moment of complete inner self-realization, but rather with the moment at which he reaches out for other people, in a gesture prompted by a combination of curiosity and interest. Drama in his life as well as in his work originates in conflicts between the incompatible responses awakened by his involvements with other people. He has himself interpreted his entire destiny as determined by his relationship with his wife, not however in the sense that an authentic relationship would have determined his outlook, but in the very different sense that this relationship, by its very inadequacy, always drew him outside of himself, oriented him forever towards other people and society and made his entire experience an interpersonal one.
From the point of view of the writer, this all-consuming curiosity directed towards other human beings is by no means a weakness. It stands the novelist in good stead by giving him the kind of energy that propels him through a variety of social worlds without getting mired down in the heavy boredom that tormented Flaubert—a boredom reflecting his boredom at having to concern himself with human beings so much less rewarding than his own inner self. Some of Stendhal’s gaiety is certainly present in The Counterfeiters and Lafcadio’s Adventures, the sheer buoyancy with which the novelist discovers the unpredictable variety of human personality. Moreover, this same inclination endows the writer with a particularly acute moral sense. Moral problems are best dramatized by conflicts between people. Gide’s writings illustrate this very clearly: from Strait is the Gate and The Pastoral Symphony to Thésée they always describe the turmoils created in a society by a certain moral stance or moral crisis. Gide has often been classified with the traditional French moralists; his ancestors are La Bruyère, La Rouchefoucauld, and Chamfort, critics of man in society, rather than Montaigne, whose self-examination was not primarily a moral one, precisely because his interest lay in his subjective self rather than in the self in relation to others.
It is in these terms that one should understand Gide’s political impact; although his novels, unlike Stendhal’s, are acted out upon a very narrow social stage, they nevertheless are, in a very real sense, politically oriented, concerned as they are with individuals grouped according to their relations with others. It matters little how sizeable or representative the group happens to be; it can be a family as in the Pastoral Symphony or even a couple as in The Immoralist: so long as the relationship is governed by the desire “to make a place for oneself in the society of mankind” it potentially has a political significance. Sociological details, matters of money, property, or class-distinction, are always as carefully documented in Gide’s novels as they are in Henry James’s, though less obtrusively. Gide did not have to contradict any fundamental part of himself when he moved into the political sphere, a move for which his particular bent of mind predestined him. Already in his earliest letters to his mother, we find him instinctively explaining his behavior in terms of social morality.
Neither did he have to betray his aesthetic commitments when transposing them into social attitudes. The early satire of aestheticism, Marshlands, of which the English translation has just been reissued, illustrates this in a rewarding way, for the book is more amusing and cuts deeper than some of Gide’s later satires. The hero, who bears the Virgilian name of Tityre, is a totally committed aesthete whose only purpose in life is the writing of a rather unpromising but rarefied literary text entitled “Marshlands.” The work is to express his very determination to pursue his artistic calling in all its barren rigor. The project itself is never undermined or ridiculed from the inside; the passages from the book in progress that are being quoted are not in themselves ludierous or inept. The satire is carried out in a different way, by showing how Tityre behaves in his natural social milieu. We see him being outdone by a more virile rival, watch him getting entangled in the amenities of literary parties and week-end escapades. The portrait that emerges resembles Monsieur Hulot rather than Mallarmé. Transposed into a social setting, the aesthete reveals a ludicrous aspect that remains hidden as long as he remains confined to his own self. Here again, Gide transfers an inward experience to a social level and thus allows us to judge from a moral (and potentially political) point of view. For the early Gide—and this remained true throughout his career—no real conflict exists between an aesthetic and a moral commitment. Both are united by the same overriding attraction towards other people or society. In one of his earliest works, the Treatise of Narcissus dedicated to Paul Valéry, he writes:
The rules of morality and of aesthetics are the same: works that do not express themselves are useless and, by the same token, bad. Men who do not express themselves are useless and evil…All things must be made manifest, be brought into the open, even the most harmful…
In this text, as always in Gide, “to make manifest” means: to bring into the open “in order,” to use again Mr. Fowlie’s words, “to be seen by others.”
Such a unified treatment of art, society, and morality would be an admirable achievement, even if it had to occur at the expense of a certain poetic inwardness. But unfortunately things are not that simple. In trying to expose a certain form of bad faith, one frequently gets trapped into an even more insidious duplicity; the path of “sincerity” is full of pitfalls. Gide’s moral attack on aestheticism is most effective: Tityre is worthy of taking his place next to Valéry’s Monsieur Teste, Mann’s Aschenbach, and Stefan George’s Algabal, among the more sinister embodiments of aestheticism. But, after this, Gide’s evolution was much less clear: his later heroes, the Ménalque of The Immoralist, the Edouard of The Counterfeiters, the Thésée that appears in his last book, are a great deal more ambiguous.
The ambiguity stems from a hidden confusion, in Gide’s mind, between the other human being considered as a conscious, moral person and as an object for erotic gratification. A predominantly erotic theme runs throughout the work, but the treatment of this theme is double-faced, certainly not because Gide is secretive about his own sexuality, but for much more fundamental reasons. The duplicity is best revealed in what remains Gide’s most important work: Les Nourritures terrestres.
Les Nourritures sounds at first like a book of social revolt, a rejection of the authority vested in families and institutions. Written as a pseudo-journal, with a very planned absence of plan, in a lyrical and fervent language reminiscent of Zarathustra’s quieter moods, Les Nourritures terrestres seeks to liberate the self from all confinements, including those of society. “Families, I hate you…”; this Rimbaud-like battle cry sends the writer out on voyages, some actual, some imaginary, recorded in moments of inner fulfilment. The theme of liberating rebellion, the exaltation of restlessness—“the only rest I long for is that of sleep or of death”—the choice of the moment over duration, of ever-reawakening desire over wisdom, all this clearly ranks Les Nourritures terrestres with other manifestations of a similar revolt, like André Breton’s surrealist manifestoes. As such, the book contains a potentially explosive political power. For this rebellion was, of course, a historically dated rebellion against a historically dated society and it constituted a threat against this society. For the young bourgeois at the beginning of the century, Gide’s call often sounded like a call to political subversion; it is no surprise to find that the heroes of the novels written by Gide’s close friend Roger Martin du Gard carry in their pockets Les Nourritures terrestres next to leaflets exhorting soldiers of the First World War to fraternize with the enemy.
But Gide’s Nourritures also has another dimension. Within a well-established tradition, his appeal to a liberation of the self from society is stated in erotic language; Montaigne and Diderot had used sexuality in the same manner as a socially subversive symbol. Sexuality can well be experienced as a bridge towards another, as a way to reenter the social world from which one has retreated in moral indignation. But this is not what happens in Les Nourritures terrestres. Sexuality is present on every page, to the point of making the book a treatise on paneroticism. Gide constantly lets his language linger over sensations that are a mixture of ardor and satiation, of oasis and desert, containing the very pattern of sexual desire. The descriptions of landscapes, of places, of impressions that make up this poeticized journal always fall in an erotic rhythm. The sexuality, however, is never oriented towards other human beings. It is a return towards the inwardness of the self, a way of using the outside world—including others—to explore and refine the awareness Gide has of his own self-hood.
Gide’s auto-eroticsim thus reintroduces, somewhat surreptitiously, the anti-social, inhumane element present in aestheticism, the negative side of a coin whose positive side is Mallarmé’s self-reflection. Under the guise of rebellion, Gide in fact urges us to rediscover our authentic inner self in an erotic fervor even more intensely inward than Mallarmé’s concentration on the poetic resources of language. “Be faithful only to what you feel to be present in yourself and nowhere else…”; in this exhortation, one hears the sound of the eternal voice calling man back to his personal center, to the inner world of his private thoughts and sensations. Bourgeois society is being rejected here not because it is morally wrong, but because it is restrictively moral. The rebellious forces of the absolute self triumph in the myth of Eros, the same forces in fact that had helped shape the aestheticism of which the Gide of the Nourritures terrestres was showing himself to be a late disciple after all.
Les Nourritures terrestres is not, however, altogether typical of Gide’s work, although one cannot begin to understand him without it. In Gide’s insistence, in the concluding section, that the reader should throw the book away, there is a revealing sense of discomfort, just as there is a strong element of disavowal in the later preface to the second edition (1927). Just as Marshlands transferred the early aestheticism to a social setting, Gide’s subsequent work becomes a transposition of the values expressed in Les Nourritures terrestres to the setting of moral conflict of The Immoralist, Strait is the Gate, and the later work. Faithful to Gide’s all-determining need to make himself “manifest” to others, he reintroduces moral and potentially political elements. But whereas, in the case of Marshlands, the result was a rejection of aestheticism, no such criticism of the Nourritures is implied in the later work. Except for the ambiguous reservations just alluded to, the protagonist of the Nourritures remains an exemplary figure.
The result is very powerfully and dangerously subversive, in a much more insidious way than the straight-forward rebellion of Fruits of the Earth. In tone and texture, the work seems to possess all the attributes of moral and social responsibility, yet it is founded on the asserted priority of the self as Eros, which amounts in fact to a radical rejection of others as a moral anti-self. One could very well conceive of a literary work that would remain faithful to such a priority of the self as Eros: Rilke or, in an ironic mode, Valéry, are examples of such an attitude. But they remain removed from concrete social concerns and return to moral issues only at the end of long explorations that have to do with the nature of poetic language rather than with interpersonal relations. Or one could conceive of works that are frankly non-poetic in their emphasis on political morality, as in the novels of Malraux and Sartre. Gide’s combination of both attitudes, however, is not a synthesis but a disguise: a political statement in literary clothing, or, perhaps more accurately, a somewhat hesitant poetic message that tries to gain a good conscience by becoming socially oriented. Before condemning Gide for this, one should remember how characteristic this ambivalence is for our time: the attempts to reconcile Marx and Freud are most significant in this respect. Gide’s work remains so important for us just because it reveals some of the difficulties involved in thus trying to reconcile the needs of the self with those of society.
Jean Delay, La Jeunesse d'André Gide, Gallimard, 1957. Two volumes exist in an abridged English edition.↩
Nihilism June 3, 1965
Jean Delay, La Jeunesse d’André Gide, Gallimard, 1957. Two volumes exist in an abridged English edition.↩