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during the First World War to his brief but full commitment to Communism in the Thirties, ending with a rather withdrawn position of non-participation during the Second World War.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 …
Nihilism June 3, 1965