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Malraux and Death

Lazarus

by André Malraux, translated by Terence Kilmartin
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 149 pp., $7.95

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 cyanide pill: “Dying could be an exalted action, the final expression of a life which was so like this death…. He crushed the poison between his teeth as if he had been giving a command.” The giving of death, as when Katov gives up a capsule of poison to two comrades terrified of being tortured, becomes the supreme act of charity. But it can seem easy to die in war or revolution. Death is indeed a gift, rather than something to be endured, when the militant or the soldier (etymologically the same person) knows what he is fighting for.

This is a death akin to sacrifice. What has it in common with accidental death (which was to carry off in turn Malraux’s wife and his two sons) and with ordinary death, death from illness and old age, which was lying in wait for him in the 1970s, when at age seventy (he was born in 1901) his body began to show alarming signs of decay? To distinguish between the two, Malraux, in Lazarus, calls the former le trépas:

L’importance que j’ai donnée au caractère métaphysique de la mort m’a fait croire obsédé par le trépas…. La mort ne se confond pas avec mon trépas…. Le trépas est lié au combat.

The importance I have always attributed to the metaphysical character of death has made people believe that I am obsessed by mortality…. Death is not to be confused with my own demise…. The act of dying is linked with violence.

I am surprised that the translator felt it necessary to render the one word trépas in three different ways; this is particularly unfortunate in the last sentence because it obscures a distinction which was fundamental for Malraux (nor is “violence” the same thing as le combat).

After looking death repeatedly in the face and being wounded five or six times, Malraux now found himself confronting not la Mort as a metaphysical entity, not the trépas of the combatant, but his own death—I am tempted to write: the proximity of his décès (decease). In 1973, suffering from heart attacks and threatened by total paralysis, Malraux was admitted to the neuro-psychiatric ward of a Paris hospital. Another man would have handed himself over to the doctors and thought only of getting better. Not so Malraux: he preferred to make the most of this unique experience—that of living in advance his own death and then his “resurrection” after several comas. He tells of it in his own way, in a series of abrupt questions addressed both to himself and to those around him—Malraux was a man who never tired of asking questions, fiercely and without warning. He was not the person to miss this chance that no other writer has had to my knowledge, that of experiencing his own death and making a book of it.

The book was Lazarus and it came out in November 1974. It is a rushed book, like all those he wrote during his last years, presenting them as so many elements which would take their place in a grand construction called The Mirror of Limbo, the first volume of which is his Anti-Memoirs. There is a first part (about one third of the book) which seems at first to have no connection with the experience of illness. It describes an episode in the Great War: in 1916 the German troops are trying out a poison gas against the Russians; when they reach the enemy trenches, the German soldiers find the Russians suffocating and half-dead in a scene like something in hell; they take them on their backs and carry them to the ambulances.

It is a magnificent opening to Lazarus, developed for its own sake as in the grand style of Eisenstein’s cinema. It has often been remarked that Malraux’s art is visual in character. One might almost say audiovisual, for later in the book we hear a dialogue with a doctor, a dialogue re-created in the style of an author who goes in for a kind of ventriloquy (Malraux’s masterpiece of this kind of writing being the great dialogue with de Gaulle in Felled Oaks).

The second part describes Malraux’s struggle with death in a hospital ward, and prepares for the meditation which occupies the third part. But it should not be thought that this is an “essay” on death: it has no logical structure, and this may perhaps irritate the reader at first. But one needs to read it again—or to see or hear it again, as one does with a film or symphony. Then one becomes aware of its extremely subtle composition.

Images, sounds, and smells recur throughout the book in a concentrated and highly evocative way (“Nighttime in Singapore, smelling of asphalt, pepper, and China”). It could be called “agonistic” because it does in fact concern a fight with death, a fight which Malraux quickly elevates to a metaphysical level: his accounts of his heart attacks, of falling over in his room during the night, and of the gradual return to consciousness are only the starting points for the interrogation of life of which he has never tired. The pursuit of meaning to the edge of the unthinkable, that is what interests him, and not the discussion of philosophical positions. The function of tragic thinking is to confront all that is unknowable and unjustifiable when reason and religion fail us: this is what Malraux does, but this is the first time he has done it directly, in relation to himself rather than to his imaginary characters.

Malraux’s virtuoso association of images, which verges on incoherence and sometimes appears artificial, is here admirably suited to the subject: in one final moment of recollection, where images come jostling and pressing in on him, the dying man recalls the most striking moments of his life. It is no accident that many of these episodes, these metaphors even, are taken from Malraux’s earlier books: they culminate quite naturally in his final hallucination, in which memories of childhood mingle with memories of war and adventure. It is a synopsis of André Malraux’s life, or rather of what he made other people think was his life, and what he ended up by regarding as his life. For several “autobiographical” episodes are just as imaginatively reconstructed as the gassing scene on the Eastern Front. But what does it matter? His real life is rich enough to justify the meaning which his work gives to “Life.” A life and a work intermingling to form a legend—this is what makes André Malraux exceptional in an age bent on destroying mythologies, for his example shows how a myth can finally become truth.

I see nothing regressive or sentimental in these reminiscences. When the time comes to confess, Malraux repeats his distaste for ostentatious soul-baring: “I do not remember my childhood…. My past is an encumbrance to me.” He does not concern himself with what has happened to him, or with what will happen in the world when he has left it. Like some hero of antiquity, he has lived his life. His two sons are dead, the women he loved are dead (they are barely mentioned, and then very discreetly). No deathbed revelations, no last will and testament. But instead of this, like Socrates or Pascal, he tries to give simple, modest, and almost friendly consideration of the ultimate reality which he is approaching and which it would be indecent to treat as an intellectual problem. The form is one of dazzling and disconcerting exuberance, but in the matter there is the absolute rigor of a spiritual conquest.

Malraux is not really interested in his own death; he is interested in death as the limit of life, the barrier that he so often brushed against and that he is now on the point of crossing. “In the end, it is always Death who is the winner,” Stalin told de Gaulle. But what is this victory of death? It is not the victory of God. Malraux “does not stoop to find consolation in religion.” God died for him immediately after his confirmation in the Church, and from the beginning of his adult life he thought with Nietzsche that God is dead for the inhabitants of Europe. He never changed his mind. If Christ appears in Lazarus, it is as a torture victim rather than as the son of God. Indeed Malraux reproaches Christianity with indulging in an “eloquence of death” which conceals the truth of the Crucifixion. He finds in Christianity a baroque masochism which avoids the grandeur of a sacrifice rediscovered by our age in the holocaust of the last war.

At the moment of death, what lies beyond death seems less interesting to him than what struggles against it—a sort of lower self (the “saurian brain” that has persisted in man). And it is this obscure quasi-animal experience which will allow Lazarus to rise up again and re-enter this penumbral zone of beliefs that we call reasons for living.

It is so easy to die when one does not die alone,” said Kyo. But now in Lazarus Malraux has indeed to die alone. To what end then? Science has not taken God’s place. His doctor, who has seen many deaths, confirms this.2 Malraux thinks he knows the reason. “Science can destroy the planet, but it can’t fashion a man.” In a society which denies all values, there can be no model, there is no longer any “mint” (matrice) for what is born or dies. So what, at the moment of dying, can stand against death and bind me to life?

This dramatic question is not examined by Malraux in a logical way. I will attempt to reconstitute a thread of argument, and I must apologize if in the process I exaggerate and schematize Malraux’s position. “One only dies for what does not exist.” This sentence from The Conquerors has always haunted me. But it is equally possible to say: “The only things that exist are the things one dies for,” whether it be God, one’s country, the revolution. For Malraux these two assertions balance each other in the Nietzschean truth of mythology: myth is what is indispensable for the survival of the species; it is myth which prolongs the instinct for survival at the level of conscious existence. To be sure, this truth can be cynically exploited by propagandists and politicians, but it is not canceled out by the lies people extract from it. There are myths that give life and myths that bring death, myths of generosity and myths of cruelty. It is this insight that separates Malraux from fascism, for in some ways they start from similar positions. The decade of the Thirties met under the gaze of Death.

But when death strikes from outside, of what help is myth? It is no longer a question of sacrificing oneself for a cause. And one cannot die for death. This is the moment of truth: death does not exist because no one will die for it (except certain suicides perhaps?—but Malraux’s meditation stops short of suicide). This is why Malraux is justified in writing these words, which in some ways contradict all his prewar work: “Challenging death…belongs to the realm of myth.”

Death is inconsistent and indefinable. It has a face though, the face of the corpse. But the corpse, as Malraux argues, is a false representation of death, because the individual, who believes more or less in reincarnation, sees his living self as a corpse. This is the source of the horror. But if death is to be put in its proper place, it must be dissociated from all images of reincarnation and survival, including that of the corpse. Otherwise it will fascinate the living, becoming “nothingness,” when it is simply nothing; it will become a thought, when it is the unthinkable. There can be no thought of death, there is only the anguish at ceasing to exist and this gives body to the threat of death. One must therefore regard death as unthinkable, as impossible. “The revelation is that nothing can be revealed.”

But this decision cannot be an act of the intelligence. The mythical threat of death cannot be met by another myth; some reality is needed to anchor us to life, some other energy than that of the intelligence, some intense perception or experience that can measure up to the inconceivable, relegating death to the Nothing that is its true place. So we shall be freed from fear. “If only, one day, on every radio and television set, in the presence of men ready to listen at last, the ultimate prophet were to yell at Death: ‘Il n’y a pas de néant.’ “3

Here we see the significance of the opening episode of the gas attack, in which German soldiers try to rescue their Russian enemies—for the only sacred experience that can measure up to death is that of fraternity, the common struggle against everything that “paralyzes” or “rots” man. I do not think, as Malraux’s friend Father Pierre Bockel suggests, that this fraternity is another name for love.4 “To love is to turn away from one another,” says one of the characters in Man’s Fate. Love is an exclusive choice, which in a manner of speaking “injuries life” (Nietzsche) and diminishes the species. Fraternity is “that simple and holy secret” glimpsed by Malraux in a prisoner-of-war camp in 1940; it extends life and expands love into a militant pity: the “we” of the oppressed who recognize one another and refuse to submit. This is what Camus sensed in The Plague and what Solzhenitsyn experienced so powerfully in The Gulag Archipelago. This fraternity, “which destiny cannot destroy,” is as mysterious as the absurd, to which it alone can provide an answer. “Myself, though I do not believe in Redemption, I have come to the conclusion that the enigma of cruelty is no more tantalizing than that of the simplest act of heroism or love. But sacrifice alone can look torture in the face, and the God of Christianity would not be God without the Crucifixion.”

Lazarus rose from the dead then, and died four years later, on November 15, 1976, in the hospital of Créteil in the Paris suburbs. This respite of four years was spent in stubborn work. Had his experience of death enabled Malraux to answer the question that assails us all, the question to which we must all find our own reply?

In the extraordinary unfinished work The Walnut Trees of Altenburg, written in 1942, Malraux wrote: “If the world has a meaning, there must be a place for death in it, as in the world of the Christian. If the destiny of Humanity is History, then death is a part of life, but if not, then life is a part of death. Whether we call it History or something else, we need an intelligible world. Whether we are conscious of it or not, it alone can satisfy our fierce desire for survival.”

Penetrating as the meditation in Lazarus may be, I do not think it avoids the dilemma so admirably formulated in 1942 by Malraux himself. In 1973 he was no longer living in History: the hope of revolution had disappeared by around 1938 and his hope for de Gaulle in 1969. Where in Lazarus is the “intelligible world” which can replace history? And how could it find a place for the unthinkable? And if this world is not intelligible, how can we avoid falling back on a religious explanation? The epiphany of fraternity Malraux describes—though it may be more exalting than Camus’s solidarity—does it withstand death better than the agnostic stoicism that Malraux himself refused? These are questions which he can no longer ask, but they are questions which he forces us to ask ourselves, untiringly, as he himself liked to do.

translated by Peter France

  1. 2

    Doctor Louis Bertagna wrote of Malraux in Hommage à A. Malraux, the special number of La Nouvelle Revue Française, July 1977: “He lived right up to the moment of death.”

  2. 3

    Here again I must criticize the translation—”extinction” is a very approximate rendering of néant.

  3. 4

    P. Bockel, in Hommage a A. Malraux.

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