“Death is a recent and as yet incomplete discovery,” Malraux writes in Lazarus, but he was already talking about death long before it became fashionable as a subject. For whatever we may think of him as a writer, we must recognize that he was always ten or twenty years ahead of his contemporaries. As early as 1926, in The Temptation of the West, he had written about the fascination of the religions and drugs of Asia. The rise of China, torture, and partisan warfare form the canvas of his early books, written in the Thirties. But behind these various subjects, linking them all together, stand death and the fascination it had at that time for young people who could sense the imminence of a great tragedy.
In his youth Malraux felt intuitively the intellectual nihilism that recent French culture had arrived at by way of subtle analysis, and he rejected it, building his life and work against it, because “if one can live accepting the absurd, one cannot live in the absurd” (The Conquerors). What is more, “having destroyed everything that stands against man, the European mind finds death” (The Conquerors)—death, not freedom or happiness. Thirty years later, this prophecy was to be fulfilled by the structuralists with the “death of man” proclaimed by Michel Foucault in The Order of Things and the death of cultures celebrated by Claude Lévi-Strauss at the end of The Naked Man.
The young Malraux responded to this interwar nihilism by extolling the life of commitment—the only form of existentialism worthy of the name because it is not just a theory but an active practice, a full and dangerous life. All the extravagant publicity which surrounded Sartre after the Liberation has made people forget the historical fact that the founder of modern existentialism was Malraux, that it was he who outlined its central themes.^1 “The absurd was a question, they have turned it into an answer,” Malraux said to me in 1967. His own answer to the absurd had initially been his revolutionary commitment; this has sometimes been seen as springing from an aesthetic view of the adventurous life, but it was really the way of living provoked by this anguish in the face of death, which is the basis of the absurd.
Malraux’s life and work can only be understood against this background of death, death rejected, avoided, and finally tamed and transcended in the fraternity of revolutionary commitment and the dangers of battle. “All that matters to me is what can stand against the fascination of nothingness.” And later, when the time of fighting was over, “culture” came to represent for him the sum of forces which can resist the appeal of death.
Man’s Fate (La Condition humaine), that magnificent book in which boys of my age read their fate four years before the outbreak of war, contains heroic scenes where death is transformed into communion. For example, the famous moment when Kyo, facing torture, swallows a …