Francois Mauriac was french novelist, dramatist,
and essayist. A Catholic writer of great vigor, he
was elected to the French Academy in 1939. He
is best known in English for Therese and
This essay, "The Death of Andre Gide" is taken from
Gide, A Collection of Critical Essays
(Prentice Hall, 1970)
If, as M. Singlin said to Pascal, "the greatest charity we can show towards the dead is to do what they would have wished us to do while they were still alive"---then, we should spare a great writer who has just entered into eternal life the conventional flatteries of a funeral oration. One of his greatest claims to fame is that never, in the whole course of his career, did he once stop trying to be absolutely honest about himself. I shall not daub this dead man's face with paint. Imperfect Christian though I am, it is as a Christian---and it is what he would have wished of me, and expected from me, that I now meditate beside his grave. I do not pretend to have misunderstood the deadly lesson of L'Immoraliste----deadly for him, but also for us, in so far as we hearkened to it. If what Christians believe is true, then Gide knows now what all of us will know before long. What is it that he knows? What is it that he sees? When Lamennais lay dead, his brother wandered round La Chesnaie, sobbing out" "Feli, Feli where art thou?"
For Gide was very different from the picture most people had of him. He was the very reverse of an aesthete, and, as a writer, had nothing in common with the doctrine of art for art's sake. He was a man deeply involved in a specific struggle, a specific fight, who never wrote a line which he did not think was of service to the cause he had at heart.
What was that cause? It was firmly established on two levels. The most obvious, and in the eyes of the world, the most scandalous thing about it was that he had set himself not only to excuse, to legitimize, but even to recommend a certain way of love. But this was not the worst. Gide convinced only those who already shared his tendency. I do not believe that there was ever yet a hunchback who became one by persuasion. But this teaching of his was nothing but the application to his own particular case of a far graver determination, dating from his youth, which was to break with the moral law in its Christian form as taught by the churches.
The extremely important part played by Gide in my own life derived from this choice which he had made, without any attempt at concealment, at one definite moment, a choice no less spectacular, if I may say so, than Pascal's famous "wager". No one can ever have laid a bet against Christianity more calmly, more rationally, in spite of his moments of prudence, of his flashes of repentance, of his brief relapses. Such cases are far less frequent than one might think. Most men choose not to choose. Very few are prepared to take the hazard of deciding that evil is good, and good evil, to venture, as Bossuet says, "to overturn that tribunal of the conscience which has condemned all crimes." But that is precisely what Gide did, with a calmness, serenity and joy which makes the heart quail.
This was why his Catholic friends saw him as the apostle of Lucifer. Was it by mere chance that he lived at the center of a furious spiritual battle? The conversion of Jammes and of Dupouey which led to Henri Gheon's return to God, followed by that of Jean de Menasce, of Jacques Copeau, of Charles Du Bos, the exchange of letters with Claudel...There can be no doubt about it, Gide lived in a whirlpool of Grace accepted, Grace repulsed. There were moments when even he seemed to yield, as when he wrote the ardent pages of Numquid et tu. But it was never long before he pulled himself together, and went off, striding down his own especial road, wrapped in his great cloak, with a terrible look of happiness on his face, valuing his joy above all else, that joy when he soon ceased to distinguish from pleasure.
A constant concern in matters of culture and of outward appearance, a perpetual effort, marvelously rewarded, to ennoble his particular type, his easy, distinguished, aristocratic carriage, preserved him from having to play the role of helot, which he left to other, lesser writers who came after him. We must have been living in a strangely unobservant age, ignorant of, or incurious about, contemporary trends, for the award to Andre Gide of the Nobel Prize not to have provoked a movement of amazement, even of terror throughout the world.
Gide's destiny has always seemed to me to have been shot through with the supernatural ... like that of other men, you will say, but that I deny. For the most part, other men are just sinners, "poor sinners." Gide was not a poor sinner but a strange pilot, towering above a generation dedicated to "curious and gloomy errors," and holding the wheel in a powerful grasp.
What of his work? It is among the most significant of our time. This is not the place to study the influence of his critical thinking, which was embodied in La Nouvelle Revue Francaise, and the establishment of the true values which it set up. For me, Les Nourritures terrestres, L'Immoraliste, Amyntas can never wholly lose the charm with which the fervour of my twentieth year endowed them. But Gide, like Jean-Jacques and Chateaubriand, was one of those writers whose lives are a great deal more interesting than their works. They are at the very opposite pole from Shakespeare and Racine who vanish from sight in the radiance of their created characters. Like Rousseau's Confessions and Chateaubriand's Memories d'outre-tombe, and for the same reason, it seems to me that Gide's Si le grain ne meurt and his Journal will long keep active that ferment in the dough of humanity which it as their mission to provoke....For evil or for good? On that point I will not commit myself: "All is Grace."
It is not for us to judge what God expects of a human being, of a human life. How is it possible to believe that a Nietzsche or a Gide were not intended to be what, in fact, they were? What happens in that moment of the gathering dusk, when the soul, on the very point of parting from the body, ceases to hear or see anything belonging to this world? During his last lucid moments, Gide may, perhaps, have remembered the words he wrote, not so long ago, in that short book which he dedicated to Charles Du Bos: Numquid et tu. "Oh Lord, as a child I come to you, as the child you willed that I should become, the child who gives himself into your hands. I resign all that was my pride, and, in your eyes, will be my shame. I listen, and to you I commend my heart." The man who was inspired to write that prayer, perhaps remembered it in the silence of his final hours.
"His most discriminating literary admirers like to forget that on five or six of the most important points in human thought, he was as positive and as clear-cut as any mind with a reputation for vigour and brutality." Those words were written by Barres about Renan. What a revealing light they cast on Andre Gide!
That mind which wanted to be unbiased, did its best to be so, and believed that it was, about essentials, was nothing if not positive. It was this contrast which gave to it so great a charm. How readily did Gide bow to your arguments! With what feigned detachment did he leave you with the last word! But, left to himself, with his open note-book in front of him, he re-occupied in strength all the positions he seemed to have surrendered, passed over to the offensive, armed himself with all the concessions you had thought it good tactics to make, and turned them, with a sort of blunted fierceness against you, which did not matter, but above all against the truth you thought you had established. The Journal is filled with little else but those solitary and cruel reprisals at the expense of some interlocutor who had been so foolish as to think for a moment that he could get the better of an argument with Andre Gide.
He was charming, supple, sinuous, "kindly and gracious," ever ready to lapse into a softened mood, capable of being demonstrative, ready, on the slightest excuse, to be moved to tears, exquisite in conversation: these characteristics one cannot stress too often, because I can think of no other man with so keen an intelligence, who could combine it with what I can only call a quivering openness and sensitivity. But under all that grace and charm, there was a tautness of will, a clenched jaw, a state of constant alertness to detect and resist any external influence which might threaten his independence. A state of alertness? That is putting it mildly: beneath each word he wrote, he was carrying on sapping operations against the enemy city where a daily fight was going on against natural instincts, where the satisfaction of the passions was given the name of evil, where an especial curse was laid on pleasure, or what Gide regarded as pleasure.
Yet, this enemy city was still his city, the one where Andre Gide, the Calvinist, had been born into slavery, where, from youth up, he had suffered, and, with him, those many million human beings on whom the laws of the Christian City had the same interdict.
There was a Spartacus in Gide. He was the leader of a slave revolt at the very centre of the Roman order. Spartacus was defeated after a short two years of rebellion, but Andre Gide, after half a century of constant victories, flung Corydon in the faced of bourgeois, priests and pastors, boasted in his Journal of a far greater number of exploits than Oscar Wilde had needed to make him acquainted with the dismal glory of hard labour, and, in return for all these provocative activities, got the Nobel Prize into the bargain!
It is by no means certain that, in his heart of hearts, Andre Gide did not look on all this success as in some sort of a curse. He knew that the magnificence of Wilde and Verlaine had been paid for to the uttermost farthing. I have an idea that there were times when he wanted to be a martyr. I remember how, one evening, many years ago, he spoke to me with something like longing about the prison where Gustave Herve had expiated his anti-militarist opinions. That, I think, showed Gide's greatness. It was no senile exhibitionism which led him to make the humiliating confessions which are to be found in his later Journals, but a desire to declare publicly that he had committed those same acts for which other men are still condemned and dishonoured. Never has the relativity of the moral code been so vividly displayed than in predicaments of this kind when the making public of a bad or even horrible act is occasioned by a demand for justice.
Beyond good and evil, this Spartacus led the way into the promised land of a new morality, at his heels those gangs of slaves who thought that they were breaking their chains, though, in fact, it was only Gide who achieved freedom. For him alone did this miraculous reversal operate. The ill-starred race to which he belonged got no benefit from it. To none of his disciples did he bequeath what he had enjoyed: all the gifts of the artist, a high degree of culture, maintained and enriched up to his dying day, an art of living deliciously at odds with a society on the demands and duties of which he had declared open war though without having to give up those comforts which it bestows on its more privileged members. To realize this, we have only to take a look at the younger, and far less distinguished representatives of this monstrous buffoonery of the western world, when they reveal in public the squalid secrets of the bedchamber, and perform indefinitely the hideous and joyless music-hall parody of the married state.
Inimitable Gide! With what feints and passes he always managed to ward off his heavily armed opponents! With what ease did he overthrow them one by one, and leave them sprawling in the clang and clatter of their Maurras breastplates, their Thomist panoply, while he, so nimble, in his Mephistophelian cloak and doublet (or was he not, rather, Faust, disguised in the devil's castoff clothing?) stepped over their prostrate bodies, and hastened to his pleasures or his reading.
Virtuoso of the limited edition, of the book that is hard to come by, carefully cultivating his seeming unsuccess the better to ensure a more solid fame, it was, from the very first, on the fewness of his readers that he staked his money. In France, a land of peasant holdings and small shopkeepers, the gift of literary reputation is in the hands of three thousand discriminating persons. We no longer have a national literature. The Nouvelle Revue Francaise, Gide's own child, was the official organ of this coterie which could dispense rewards at will. Through it, he formed the opinions of us young men between 1910 and 1914. When I think back to those days, it seems to me incredible how many authors of all ages, from Theophile Gautier or Bourget and Henri de Regnier, he made us throw overboard. But how should we not have been fascinated and enthralled? It is a rare occurrence for culture and taste to reach so high a level in one man, who, moreover, was free of all ideological shackles. I have said that Gide, like Jean-Jacques and Chateaubriand, will live on only in those of his books which treat directly of himself: Si le grain ne meurt and the Journal, because it is he who interests us, and not the creatures of his invention. But I was forgetting that he remains the one and only subject of his imaginative books: L'Immoralist is he: La Porte etroite describes the cerebral love on which he built the painful ambiguity of his life. All through Les Faux-Monnayeurs which, taken by and large, is a failure, runs the pulsating vein of Edouard's Journal. His presence in everything he wrote gives us a lasting quality to his work.
Gide, the virtuoso of dialogue: with his friends, with his adversaries, with himself, with Christ. He was the only one of our elders who had this remarkable gift. Barres lived withdrawn behind his defenses, a monster of indifference and inattention to everything that was not himself. Claudel; a Matterhorn at which one looked lovingly from one's window, but one cannot carry on a conversation with the Matterhorn. Jammes, sparkling with intelligence, a marvel of upward-leaping and spontaneous poetry ... but having absolutely no understanding of others. With Gide, on the other hand, how one could talk, or, rather, how one could have talked if the first young man who came along hadn't always, unfortunately, distracted his attention. I never enjoyed anything approaching intimacy with him except during the few days when I had him, so to speak, under lock and key at Malagar, and twice in the course of two ten-day periods at Pontigny. (note1) When Gide formed an attachment he browsed on it at leisure, but it was the very devil to establish the attachment!
The old Ariel has now been dispersed to the elements, and his going was his final gift to us. It administered a faint shock to the small republic which drowsed away the time in the editorial offices of the weekly press. "Ah! What a deal of interest will M. Renan's death arouse!" ---exclaimed the young Barres---a piece of youthful impertinence which conceals the greatest praise which an old writer can be accorded by his juniors. Gide's death has not separated him from us. Of him it cannot be said, as it was said of that same Barres: "Gide has wandered away......"
It sometimes irritated Gide to feel all round him so many Christians on the prowl. At the same time, he enjoyed playing up to them. But he attributed their relentless pursuit to what he held to be, a marked feature in their outlook, namely, a refusal to relax their efforts until they had got the largest possible number of birds into their net. Some of them did, in fact, give him good reason to think that having the last word was all they cared about. I have know several of these specialists in conversion who kept a "gamebook", and wore round their waists the scalps of the penitents who had fallen to their gun.
But, if the Christians who were hot on Gide's heels had been merely obeying the dictates of this infuriating mania, they should, logically, have carried their activities into other fields as well. Yet, I have never heard that Giraudoux, Jules Romains, or any other libertine of letters was ever pestered by the convert-hunters.
There is no getting away from the fact that Gide's case was a very special one. In the first place, it was he who had set the hunt afoot, by which I mean that, having been born a Christian, and a fervent one, at that, he had started an argument with what we could not help feeling was a divided mind: had broken free from all dogma, but not from the Scriptures: had become estranged from his native Calvinism, but had fallen under the influence of the Catholic affirmation, and was hesitating before taking the next step, very much aware of those eddies of grace set moving all about him by the successive conversions of Claudel, Jammes, Dupouey, Gheon, Copeau, Du Bos and many others.
The mystery of these several conversions, following hard on one another among men who were his familiars, was something, whether he liked it or not, which touched him nearly. This he did not deny, and Numquid et tu bears witness to the existence of a passing phase of fervor in this hero of our spiritual drama, from which he never completely withdrew till the day of his death.
Now yielding a point, now breaking off the action, he managed, almost to the end, by employing a high degree of subtlety, to maintain a firm stand against his Christian friends. He himself wrote in Si le grain ne meurt, speaking of the first time he took ship for Africa: "I made my farewell to Christ with so painful a sense of uprooting that I still doubt whether I have ever really left him at all."
This sense of uprooting was, from the Christian point of view, the basic cause of his essential error. Finding it as impossible to renounce Christ as to renounce himself, the only course left for him was to apply to his own case every word spoken by the Lord. It was a game at which he excelled. His Retour de l'Enfant prodigue is a masterpiece of evasion.
The first letter I received from him in April 1912 (dated from Florence) contained a violent protest against something I had written --- I forget in what periodical --- to the effect that Le Retour de l'Enfant prodigue had distorted the meaning of the Gospel parable. So obvious is it that this is so that I remember my astonishment when I realized that my words had deeply pained him. "I am writing," he said, "to protest with all the strength at my command against your use of the word sacrilege in relation to my Enfant prodigue, and against the charge you level at me of having stripped the Gospel parable of its divine meaning. I wrote those pages in a mood of piety and respect (is it possible that you have not really read them, or that having read them you have failed to grasp the emotional seriousness of which they are the expression?)."
The ambiguity here is obvious: as though the very seriousness of Gide's version of The Prodigal Son did not reinforce the distortion!
But the fact that he thought it necessary to protest was a sign that Gide the Christian recognized the gravity of the charge brought against his false parable. From the point of view of faith, nothing could more resemble what we mean when we talk of the "sin against the Holy Ghost." It is that which explains the violence shown by some of his friends, first and foremost by Claudel who had led the attack against him armed with the plumed helmet of hope, the tomahawk of faith, and the double-edged battle-axe of charity.
Gide's case was unique. The majority of Christians never get beyond the letter of the catechism. They have had no knowledge of God. It is a word which, for them, has never had any real content. They deny, yet do not deny. Christ has never been in their lives, as he was in that of Andre Gide, the friend of whom Lacordaire speaks, whom once we met on our road when we were young, who has loved us and been by us beloved. They have not taken the trouble to make him say what he did not say, before turning their backs on him. If we are agreed that only those will be forever lost who have deliberately renounced God, in full knowledge of what they were doing, and as the result of a choice long weighed and considered, then I do not remember ever having come across a more glaring instance than that of Gide.
It goes without saying that in the Christian view only God can judge the reasons which determined Gide's attitude some of which were, beyond all doubt, deserving of respect.
True enough, but this is no place to mince words. The fact of the matter is that Gide's particular form of erotic satisfaction lay at the very centre of his drama. The struggle he waged was about that and about nothing else. For him the point at issue was the legitimization of a special type of desire. This, in itself, is not the attitude of a base or vicious mind. Gide's standard was a high one, in that it implied the need to be in a state of complete and perfect balance, which meant that he was to refuse nothing, to deny nothing of the contradictory aspirations of his nature as its deepest level. But nothing can alter the fact that this demand, made by himself to himself, was bound to result in that reversal of standards for which there is no forgiveness: "evil be thou my good." That was precisely the situation which Gide was busy formulating when he wrote Le Retour de l'Enfant prodigue. The adulteration of the Parable led him to undertake a basic subversion.
Here it is necessary to dwell upon the special nature of Gide's character. Christ in his teaching seems to take no account of personal tastes. It is not his concern to know the bizarre inclinations of this or that individual. His commandment --- and this is true for all of us -- is -- that we be pure, that we renounce our lusts, no matter what their object may be. The world's condemnation of homosexuality operates on the social level and has nothing in common with Christ's condemnation of all defilements, nor with the blessing he has accorded to those who have kept themselves pure: Beati mundo cordi quonian ipsi Deum videbunt. Many pure hearts have strangled in themselves a tendency which Gide not only excused, but approved and glorified. What it comes to is that he was demanding special treatment for one especial vice. Remembering the words put by Pascal in the mouth of Christ: "I love thee more fervently than thou has loved thy filth," (note 2) my conclusion is that Gide loved his filth above all else, but first of all denied that it was filth. And here, for the believer, there intervenes another aspect of Gide's life -- the angelic.
To make it possible for agnostics to understand the interest shot through with pain with Gide's case aroused in his Christian friends, I will quote, without comment, three passages (though I could find many more of the same kind). The first two are from Gide's own writings. One occurs at the beginning of the second part of Si le grain ne meurt, where he says: "Though I have recently come to think that an important actor, the Devil, played a part in the drama, yet I shall relate that drama without, in its early stages, referring to the intervention of one whom I identified only much later." The other is an extract from the Journal des Faux-Monnayeurs: "There are days when I feel in myself so massive an invasion of evil, that it seems as though the Prince of Darkness were already establishing hell within me."
The last I take from Julien Green. Describing, in a recent publication, Gide's behaviour to him, he says: "After my return to France in 1945, I never met Gide without his trying, in one way or another, to attack my faith."
Don't misunderstand me: from the Catholic point of view there is nothing in those passages which should make us despair of the salvation of a friend whose reasons were never base and often dictated by concern about the less obvious points of moral teaching, and when one would least have expected it of him. Thus, for instance, certain admissions in the last volume of his Journal are introduced for the sole purpose of showing that the very same acts committed by him, dishonour other men, and that he had been privileged not to share their fate: he demands his share of disgrace. Never was there a case which called upon us, with such good reason, to remember the precept: "Judge not!" and Saint John's words, when he says that the Lord came among men not to judge but to save. I have tried, here, to do no more than try to cast some light on the reasons for that sort of blundering busy-bodying of which Andre Gide's Catholic friends were guilty during his life. Not that I regard myself as being less of a sinner than he was. Far from it! Gide was never a "poor sinner": he stood erect and triumphant, the very image of defiance.
(note 1) Early in the twentieth century, Professor Paul Desjardins instituted, at his home, the former Abbey of Pontigny, in Burgundy, a ten-day period every year (the "Decades de Pontigny") to which intellectuals from every country came to discuss cultural, religious and other topics. These gatherings were a form of lay retreat. (Trans.)
(note 2) H.F. Stewart's translation.