Malraux’s Heroes and History
Hôtes de Passage
La Tête d’obsidienne
It was difficult to be very young in the European summer of 1938 and not feel about André Malraux as Henry James felt about James Russell Lowell: that he was “the poet of pluck and purpose and action” who “commemorated all manly pieties and affections.” Malraux at that time radiated a high-souled masculinity. Where others talked, he acted. Where others thought of writing, he wrote. He was the nonpareil of the decade, the admired of all admirers; it was difficult to carry a new-minted copy of his L’Espoir from one end of a Parisian street to the other without making a friend on the way. That book moved a generation as perhaps no novel has moved one since; and those who were nineteen and in Paris at the time still find it hard to think ill of André Malraux.
But all that was a long time ago, and there is no denying that when the seventy-fifth birthday of André Malraux comes around on November 3 of this year the taste will have soured. Just about everyone now has it in for Malraux, for one reason or another. Malraux may feel with his friend Charles de Gaulle that “whenever I was right, I had everyone against me”; but the fact remains that he is contested as a novelist, contested as an explorer and a man of adventure, contested as an aesthetician, contested as a hero of the Spanish Civil War and the French resistance, contested as a master of language, and contested as a cabinet minister who refused to present himself to the electorate. Some there are who still see him as François Mauriac saw him in 1969: as the greatest living writer in the French language. But there is a counter-opinion: that he is at best an eccentric with no sense of reality and at worst a magniloquent fraud who is one step short of the madhouse.
On the one hand we have the sumptuous pictorial biography with which the French publishing industry hopes to put him in the Pantheon for ever. On the other, we have the opinion of Richard Cobb, who knows France better than most of us know our own front door. Reviewing Jean Lacouture’s biography of Malraux for the London Sunday Times, Professor Cobb spoke of “inescapable evidence of repeated and deliberate distortion, mythmaking and posturing.” As for the Great Thoughts with which Malraux likes to stun his interlocutors, this straightforward Anglo-Saxon will have none of them. “If, in the original, they seem merely obscure,” he says, “in English they look like plain rot.”
Well, yes. Malraux throughout his life has mixed truth with untruth the way painters mix oil colors with turpentine. And when dealing with ideas of an exalted, all-circumscribing sort, he may well often remind us of an automobile which has sixteen cylinders and no steering wheel.
But then again, no. “I do tell lies,” Malraux said to Clara Goldschmidt not long after their marriage in 1921, “but my lies turn into truths.” What we are dealing with in this peculiar case is the lie as a source of vital energy: as an indispensable part, in other words, of the persona that drives a writer to write. There are precedents in French literature for Malraux’s persistence in suggesting (to quote two instances only) that in Saigon in 1923 he was in prison with Ho Chi Minh and that in 1927 he spent six months in Canton. Chateaubriand in his Mémoires d’outre-tombe describes a meeting with George Washington which could not have taken place. Stendhal let it be known that he had been present at the battle of Wagram when in fact he had spent that particular day on a sofa in Vienna.
Malraux is not in the class of Stendhal as a novelist, and we may doubt that he was in the class of Chateaubriand when it came to diplomatic realities; but the claims which he makes for himself are in many cases so dotty as hardly to call for rebuttal. Pending a final judgment on the career which they seem to have helped to make possible, we can most profitably regard them as a kind of pneumatic make-believe with which Malraux has felt the need to support himself. (It would also, by the way, be a mistake to assume that because some of his claims are untrue all of his claims are untrue. No man who gets the Croix de Guerre four times over, between 1944 and 1946, can be altogether a fraud.)
The matter of Malraux’s Great Thoughts is likewise one on which judgment can be passed too hastily. One problem is that Malraux is a lifelong allusionist. In private conversation his allusionism confers upon the listener a sense of privileged euphoria. It is as if we were plugged into a central telephone exchange and were eavesdropping, without regard for place, period, or plausibility, on 200 conversations at the same time. The builder of the Great Pyramid is on the line to Cézanne, Socrates has a long-distance hookup with Robespierre, Nehru swaps epigrams with Monte-zuma. Two hours later we reel out of the house with cerebral cramp and cannot remember a word.
In print, we miss the often described but inimitable snorting delivery, just as we miss the seignorial good manners with which our own halting contributions are received. We may even suspect that the allusionism is a device for never staying long enough in any one place to be able to tell sense from nonsense. It may or may not be true, as Malraux said already in 1922, that “we shall understand more about the Greek genius by comparing a Greek statue with an Egyptian or an Asiatic statue than by getting to know any number of other Greek statues.” What is true beyond a doubt is that this belief absolves us from the discipline that is required if we want to discuss one Greek statue in relation to another Greek statue. This nonchalant aerial purview has got Malraux in trouble with art historians. “There is no evidence,” E.H. Gombrich wrote in 1954, “that Malraux has done a day’s consecutive reading in a library or that he has even tried to hunt up a new fact.”
But when that has been said it remains true that along with much that is gaseous and impenetrable in Malraux’s writings on art, as on everything else, there are surprising observations that come not from “a day’s consecutive reading in a library” but from the first-hand experience of one of the oddest men of this century. Malraux writes like a man who wants to write what he once called “the first complete history of mankind” and believes from time to time that he almost has it within his grasp. Whence the giddy, all-risking character of the adventure which he proposes to us, and the difficulty—and, in some cases, the resentment and the exasperation—with which we debrief ourselves at the end of it.
There is some reason to suppose that he himself may have been startled from time to time by his own legend. Was it not strange, he said to Charles de Gaulle in December 1969, that some characters in history achieve the status of legend, whereas others, no less remarkable, do not? Julius Caesar, for instance. He won battles, but they were not the battles that really counted. He ran a first-rate administration, but then so did other Roman emperors. Yet it was Julius Caesar who was singled out first by Plutarch and later by Shakespeare.
De Gaulle may also have had himself in mind. “Caesar hooked them,” de Gaulle said. “Pompey didn’t. Even Augustus didn’t. But Caesar did.” Warming to his theme, the miles Christianus who had never fought a major battle, let alone won one, went on to say that “victories are not as important as people think. Maurice de Saxe won every battle he fought, but no one would mention him in the same breath as Napoleon, who ended his career as a beaten man. Victories which are only victories don’t get anyone very far. Other considerations come into play—the future of the nation (think of Joan of Arc), the future of the world, the confused and symbolical status of those who make History—well, you know what I mean….”
Malraux did know what de Gaulle meant. He himself has not yet found his Shakespeare, and maybe he never will, but his Plutarchs stretch all around the block. He has had a “confused and symbolical status” ever since the summer of 1924, when almost every writer of consequence in France signed a protest against the sentence of three years’ imprisonment which had been passed upon Malraux by the French colonial authorities in Saigon after he had been caught filching statues from a deserted temple. To deconfuse his status is the first task of his biographers, and it is not an easy one.
The aspiring Plutarch has to master Malraux’s already voluminous and still rapidly growing oeuvre. He has to distinguish in this work truth from untruth, insight from platitude, successful action from evasion and near catastrophe; and he must be able to deal with Trotsky, Valéry, Eisenstein and Oppenheimer, Genet and de Gaulle. He must make the reader understand, too, what it was like to be in the cabinet room at the Elysée, and in a French prison with the Gestapo near by, and in an officers’ mess in Djibouti in 1934, and in the presidential residence in Dakar during the week in which Léopold Senghor took over the destiny of his country. He needs to know a great deal about old and new art, about French symbolist literature, as well as about those whose ideas were opposed to Malraux’s: e.g., the 121 writers, artists, and moviemakers (among them Malraux’s own daughter) who in September 1960 banded against the government of which Malraux was a member. He must also penetrate the lifelong discretion (somewhat breached of late) with which Malraux has surrounded his origins, his private life, and his personal thoughts and feelings.
Meanwhile the legend of Malraux—if that is what it is—is remarkably tenacious. Biographies abound. Articles, even more so. And, just to thicken the plot, he himself is in full eruption. After ten years (1957-1967) in which he was too busy to publish anything, a slew of new titles has come into being. This is thanks in part to skillful merchandising by the Editions Gallimard, who clearly do not want to issue the rest of the autobiography in one fat book when there is material in it for quite a few thinner ones; but it is fair to say that those shorter books have added substantially to our knowledge of him and have clarified certain concepts—among them that of la fra-ternité virile, which his Plutarchs need to get straight once and for all. Malraux has also published a further monumental volume, L’Irréel, in his series on art.
All this might be bad luck for Jean Lacouture, whose biography was first published in French in 1973 and has recently appeared in an abridged form in English. But in fact this lean, pungent, and fair-minded book is still valid in its approach to those aspects of Malraux in which M. Lacouture feels most at home. Like his predecessors Robert Payne and Pierre Galante, M. Lacouture has a professional inclination toward political history and the newspaper library. The biographer of Ho Chi Minh, Nasser, and de Gaulle, M. Lacouture is good on power, and on war, and on the ups and downs of faraway peoples. He knows Indochina at first hand.
Lacouture is also very good on certain aspects of Malraux’s career which came to nothing but are none the less fundamental to his ardent, wholehearted, and flamboyantly un-realistic nature. An instance of this is the expedition which Malraux planned with great care in the year 1929 but did not get to carry out. Its object was to rescue Trotsky, who at that time was sequestered in Alma-Ata. It could not possibly have succeeded, any more than in 1971 Malraux could possibly have taken an active part in the liberation of Bangladesh. But Malraux thinks nothing of improbability, and it is one of M. Lacouture’s good points that he does not fall into an easy derision when confronted with this trait. To be afraid of being ridiculous is the mark of a small nature, and M. Lacouture knows this, even if he is also quite free with the evidence of Malraux’s oddities and inconsistencies in his ministerial years. On the private life of his subject he is less intrusive than M. Galante, who had the advantage of knowing Louise de Vilmorin, with whom Malraux lived during the last years of her life. But if there is a certain personal blankness at the center of his portrait, that is the way Malraux has always wanted it.
It is very curious, that blankness. Malraux is quite specific about it in Hôtes de Passage, a book which is made up primarily of a long and fascinating exchange between himself and Léopold Senghor, the poet-president of Senegal. “I am more interested in other people’s secrets than in my own,” he writes. “Gide was always amazed at this. ‘But surely,’ he would say, ‘you must sometimes feel that you are not like everyone else?’ But I don’t, really. To be a Chinaman would be different. To be a woman would be different. But to be an individual? No. That’s not how I see myself. But then I’ve never liked to pass judgment on others, either, and I daresay that the two things go together.”
Now it is true that the European exaltation of the individual is something that Malraux has been decrying ever since he published La Tentation de l’Occident in 1926. Whence, perhaps, the expansionism—the compulsion to race backward and forward in time and space—which is fundamental to his ideas on the evolution of art. It has always seemed to him a letdown that art, which for so long concerned itself with the gods, should be thrown back on the individual European. But there is something more to his revulsion than the power of an idea. Malraux can’t bear to be shut up in his own culture, his own century, or his own skin.
Relevant, here, are the intensity, the pent-up narrowness of his own origins: “Our family,” his father once said, “has lived between Calais and Dun-kerque since the eighteenth century, and every one of us has been a proletarian.” To get out of that situation decisively, it was not enough for Malraux to be a rare and curious person; he had to develop an intimacy with other times, other places, and other civilizations which would distract us from the identity of A.M., its transmitter. (Malraux once told me that when he first saw a whirling dervish it seemed to him that here was a new level of intensity in human communication, and one in which individual identity was abolished in the interests of the purity and directness of the message to be conveyed.)
The image of the dervish turns, as do so many of Malraux’s images, on the insufficiency of Europe. European individualism in its modern form has always seemed to him divisive, impotent, disoxygenated. It was this (among other things) that got him in bad odor with virtually every intellectual in France during his years as minister of culture. On official visits to India, China, the United States, and Africa he fared better, because his ideas could soar aloft without the chance that he would be called upon to carry them out.
Exactly what came of those meetings with heads of state is as murky as much else in Malraux’s past. But, contrary to rumor, he is a very good listener when there is something to listen to; and in Senghor he found the ideal interlocutor, someone who believes, as Malraux does or once did, that the world can still take a turning for the better. “For thirty years now,” Senghor said, “I have been singing the praises of intermarrying civilizations. We should work together to create a great new intermarrying culture, such as the Egyptians had, and the Indians, and the Greeks. The universal civilization toward which we are tending will not deserve the name until it draws upon the dormant energies of Africa, and even of Asia. An Afro-Latin civilization will bring about a union of complementaries. The Occident mutilated humanity….”
Malraux in these matters has a divided loyalty: or, to be more exact, a twofold aspiration. On the one hand he is, as he has often said, someone who “married France” or “had a contract with France.” On the other, he knows that the world is growing up—not without all the difficulties which that phrase implies—and he takes a long view of the incidental adjustments which have to be made. Talking with Senghor, he remarked that although the Romans cut off the hands of 40,000 Frenchmen at Uxello-dunum, France went on to be the greatest of the Roman provinces, and the proudest. There is nothing narrow about his allegiances, and in the end it may well be the notion of “one world, one civilization” which is closest to him. But he is also a shrewd observer of the world as it actually is. “For all your talk of negritude,” he said to Senghor, “it is for Senegal that you live. The notion of nationhood was born here, now, and today. Nietzsche has got the better of Marx.”
Malraux did nothing for the theater when he was minister of culture, but in his own writings he is a great stage director. Hôtes de Passage includes one of his finest short historical romances: the story of how he looked into the suggestion that a piece of textile which had been offered to the Louvre was stained with the blood of Alexander the Great. The narrative skill, the heightened sense of the past, the headlong commitment to what might have been—all these may make us regret that Malraux has for so much of the last thirty years been more a public figure than a writer.
This feeling will be enhanced if we turn to Lazare, a book prompted in the first place by a disagreeable few days in the Salpetrière hospital. Malraux was rushed there with symptoms which until quite recently would have proved fatal. But he survived, after adventures which he describes with a characteristic detachment, and in the first part of the book he re-presents a famous but now almost irrecoverable episode from Les Noyers de l’Alten-burg, the novel or part of a novel which he wrote during World War II and published in Switzerland in 1943.
This book, along with all of Malraux’s other novels, is analyzed in depth in Malraux’s Heroes and History by James W. Greenlee. Dr. Greenlee has done his research with an exemplary thoroughness, and by dint of turning page after page and sifting and resifting view after view he raises point after point which is fundamental to Malraux’s evolution. But there is (as there is also in Malraux’s own works) an absence of the first person singular. Nothing is quite pushed home in a personal way in Dr. Greenlee’s book, any more than the taboo word “I” turns up more than very occasionally in Malraux, for all the rampant subjectivity of so much of what he has to say. Dr. Greenlee gives us the facts on which a decisive judgment can be based, but he doesn’t make that judgment himself.
Les Noyers d’Altenburg is so important for Malraux that we should have welcomed a thorough discussion of (for example) the Germanic element in Malraux’s evolution. It has to be significant that the most extended of Malraux’s flights of the imagination should take place within the setting of the German army, and that the symposium which is so important to the book should have been transposed from the secularized Abbaye de Pon-tigny, where Malraux learned to distinguish between knowledge and wisdom, to an imaginary abbey in Germany. Readers of Clara Malraux’s memoirs will not have forgotten that the very formula of Malraux’s books on art was given to him more than fifty years ago by a curator from Cologne. This is the kind of thing which the definitive study of Malraux will have to deal with.
The episode rewritten for Lazare concerns an imaginary incident on the eastern front during World War I. The Germans have decided to use poison gas for the first time. The inventor of the gas is on hand, the German soldiers are forewarned and have their masks at the ready, the Russians know nothing of what is to befall them. The gas does all that can be asked of it; but so far from pushing home their advantage, the German soldiers set to work to rescue their Russian victims. Brotherhood has proved stronger than national policy.
This passage reminds us that Malraux was one of the first consequential writers to be influenced by the cinema. In Lazare there is an image of a runaway horse that is as vivid in its way as the image of the dead white horse which slides down the bridge in Octo-ber. Malraux uses the quick cut, the close-up, the long shot, the slow pan much as Pudovkin and Eisenstein used them in the films that he saw in his early twenties. But the long passage has also a moral power which can be called “Tolstoyan” without exaggeration; Malraux convinces us that this was the moment at which something went irreversibly wrong with mankind.
Not everything in the new books is of this quality. Reading Hôtes de Passage, we may for instance find something obnoxious in the insouciance with which in May 1968 Malraux goes on talking of old times in Spain with a fellow-survivor of the period while civil servants come in and out with bulletins of the fighting in the streets. “Four Hundred and Fifty Wounded,” one message reads. “Nobody killed yet. Rather interesting, isn’t it?” and the two old gentlemen go on with their chat. It is as if Malraux for ten years had been so dazzled by the lights around his lectern that he never once looked at the actual French men and women who turned out to hear him. When Charles Bohlen arrived in Paris as United States ambassador he felt it no more than polite to congratulate him on the success of the referendum which had recently been held by the Gaullist administration. Malraux’s reply took him somewhat aback. “If you take a bunch of zombies who might as well have dropped from the moon and ask them their opinion, they’re so delighted to be asked that they’d say Yes to anything.”
Yet that is the same Malraux who in Lazare discourses so tellingly on the lost ideal of fraternity. “People think they understand fraternity,” he says, “because they confuse it with human warmth. But in point of fact it is something much deeper, and it was belatedly, and almost apologetically, that it was added to the blazon of the Republic, whose flag at first bore only the words Liberty and Equality…. The word Liberty has still the same ring to it, but Fraternity now stands only for a comical utopia in which nobody would ever have a bad character. Men believe that Fraternity was just tacked on, one Sunday, to feelings like Justice and Liberty. But it is not something that can be tacked on at will. It is something sacred, and it will elude us if we rob it of the irrational element that lies hidden within it. It is as mysterious as love; and, like love, it has nothing to do with duty, or with ‘right thinking.’ Like love, and unlike liberty, it is a provisional sentiment, a state of grace.”
Whether this is what Richard Cobb calls “plain tripe,” or whether it is a good stab at the definition of something which the world would be poorer without is a good question. For Malraux, certain beliefs are indispensable to a full human life. If those beliefs are not defined, they cannot be acted upon and will die. The difficulty with this particular belief is that it has been so often perverted. (One of Jean Lacouture’s most telling references concerns the memoirs of one of Malraux’s bodyguards, who saw fraternity as an excuse for brutalization.) But that is no reason to discard it. Fraternity of the kind that Malraux had in mind finds an unmatched beauty of expression in Verdi’s operas, for instance. When tenor and baritone are united we sense immediately that something of incalculable importance is being set before us by a man whose basic instincts are entirely good. Fraternity as it has been systematized in our century is almost always a curse: so much so that we shrink from the word. But there are concepts which should be formulated against all the odds, and this is one of them.
Malraux has never been odder, more eloquent, more completely himself, than in these late works. Anyone who has ever managed to get beyond the first pages of The Psychology of Art will treasure, for instance, the long passage in Tête d’obsidienne in which Malraux discusses the concept of the “museum without walls” with Picasso. Malraux had not yet gone into print on the subject, but Picasso knew that what he had in mind was “not a Museum of Preferences, but a museum in which the works of art choose us more than we choose them.” No one could have been more sensitive to that idea than Picasso. “Why did Derain collect Scythian plaques, while I didn’t?” he asked. “Those plaques have more to do with me than with him. And why did Matisse buy fetishes before we did? What did they have to do with him?” And Picasso went on to say that in his case the imaginary museum was not so much something to enjoy as something to paint against. It was a matter of hand-to-hand combat and not of detached aesthetic pleasure. “I don’t choose to like the things I like. I am obliged to like them.” Malraux did some good talking, and some good listening, that day; there is much to be learned from Picasso’s laconic, elliptic, unstudied replies. And when he suddenly compares a kachina doll to the gigantic figures of the Managers which Picasso designed for Parade we remember that Malraux, who usually has to be caught midway between the west door of Chartres and the memory of Angkor, has also been familiar with twentieth-century art since he was first taken to see D.H. Kahnweiler almost sixty years ago.
Yet, once again, we have to admit that this prehensile cross-referencer can blank out in relation to particular works of art just as decisively as he blanks out in relation to particular human beings. It amused him that he was able to send the Mona Lisa to Washington against the advice of every curator and conservationist in the French museum profession. And what did he remember about it all when he got back from seeing it on the wall in the United States? Mostly that a young man had tried to smuggle his dog into the gallery in order that it could be pointed out to his friends as “the only dog in the world that has seen the Mona Lisa.”
There is about this story an irredeemable triviality, a terminal silliness which makes us wince for the man who told it. (It went down very well with the de Gaulles, by the way.) Can this really be the Malraux who was once thought of as the conscience of Europe? It is the distinction of Malraux that at the height of the colonial era he had post-colonial intimations; that he foresaw the shrinkage of European power and authority, and did his best to see it in terms that were other than defeatist; that at a time when orthodox aesthetic experience was still hierarchical and compartment-ed he opened it out to the unlimited photographic information that was about to become available; that he dreaded the arrival of a shiftless, fragmented, self-destructive, and belief-less society in which there would be “Frenchmen, but no France”; and that all his life he went out for the exalted and the universal as against the petty and the contingent.
Sometimes he talked like an over-wound encyclopedia. Sometimes, as Simone de Beauvoir once pointed out, he could not tell the difference between an idea and a formula. He had a great sense of the dignity of action as it was upheld by others, but it cannot be said that his own actions were always such as would make the Grand Condé roll over in envy. But there are people who should be given the benefit of any reasonable doubt, and he is one of them.