Andre Gide: His Life and Art, pp. 46-56
The Macmillan Company, New York, 1965.
It has been pointed out many times that L'Immoraliste is a story version of Les Nourritures terrestres. Taken together, these two books seem to be the most pagan of all of Gide's writings. And taken separately, they are different in tone and style, and in the effect on the reader. Les Nourritures is a dithyramb. L'Immoraliste has the coolness of an exercise, an astringent exercise, but one that has also considerable delicacy.
The general lines of this carefully constructed story are easy to describe. Michel, a young, wealthy archeologist is nursed back to health from a serious illness, by his young wife Marceline. During his convalescence in Biskra, Michel becomes aware of a part of his nature which is urgent in its demands and which, by comparison with his character as he has known it heretofore, is disreputable. Wherever he goes, from this time on, in search of health, and in family life and professional activity, in Italy, Normandy and Paris, he will feel a growing insistence from this new self, an insistence so acute that he acknowledges it to be the sincere part of himself. On his estate in Normandy, in order to steal from his own steward, he conspires with a young poacher. Even to himself he confesses that he is drawn to some dark power he only half comprehends. Marceline falls ill with what had been her husband's malady, and before she dies, she comments on the new doctrine that has taken hold of Michel. The doctrine cannot take into consideration the weak of the earth.
The entire narrative of L'Immoraliste is told by Michel to a group of friends, and at the end he acknowledges that no happiness has come to him from this experimentation with freedom. Something of the paganism of Nietzsche is in Michel's doctrine, although it is cast in a more aesthetic form. The goal of Michel's experimentation is freedom. He feels that if this freedom is reached, an energy which he has never known will be released in him. But first, he will have to cut himself off from those bonds which have blinded him to the existence of such an energy in him. The bonds are, quite simply, his possessions and inheritances, the usual prejudices of his class, and all personal ties of devotion and loyalty. In keeping with the Manichean heresy, this energy, which is an exaltation of the self, is looked upon as divine. Courage is needed, a godlike courage, to know this energy and to expend it.
At the head of the book, as an epigraph, Gide placed a verse from the Psalms: "I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made." The full irony of this passage is felt at the end of the narrative when Michel pauses for a moment, before giving the final sentences, and the three friends who are listening find it difficult to distinguish, or separate one from the other, the traits of his character which seem to manifest themselves at that moment: pride in the experimentation which has just been narrated, the forcefulness of will which has made the experiment possible, the dryness of spirit which now depresses him, and finally the modesty of his natural instincts which has possibly been violated. These four words in the French text: orgueil, force, secheresse, pudeur, designate the rich complexity of Michel's nature. This is the man who is still young (Michel himself deliberately makes this point at the end), who has made a great effort to understand his humanity by creating for himself an existence beyond the bounds of his normal existence.
In his life story, which runs parallel to the narrative of L'Immoraliste, Andre Gide had felt very deeply the problem involved in the experiment. It was the problem of reconciling what he believed to be true freedom with the suffering he caused in the heart of the woman he loved. Gide knew, and his protagonist Michel knew, that man is not alone in the world. If a man takes it upon himself to devote all his energy to the full realization of himself and to his own pleasure, he will inevitably destroy some one else. As Michel struggles to free himself from the chains of his past and from the social nature which he feels to be false, as he learns to accept the ethics of the present moment, and to worship the fullness of the passing moment, he slowly brings about Marceline's death. Gide compared the writing of L'Immoraliste to a recovery from an illness. (J'ai fait ce livre comme on fait une maladie? )
Somewhat past the midway point of the narrative, when Marceline and Michel are in Switzerland, and Marceline's health seems to be improving under the attentions of her husband, Michel, who has been enjoying sled rides in the snow and has given up all thoughts of resuming his archeological studies, asks the important question: "What is man still able to do?" (Qu'est-ce que l'homme peut encore?) The answer to this question is what Michel felt he had to learn. The search is always described as being something underneath, something hidden and dark (ma fortune tenebreuse). Each day he felt closer to a great fortune, to a treasure that had never been tapped by him and which was still hidden under layers of civilization and conventional living and morality.
L'Immoraliste is one (one of the earliest) of many modern books on the theme of man's revolt against his world. In Gide, the revolt is quite specifically against the sources of the morality that controls today's world. The criticism of this morality will be carried out by many writers of differing persuasions and philosophies: by Huxley, D. H. Lawrence and Graham Greene in England, by Pirandello and Moravia in Italy, by Henry Miller in America, by Bernanos, Julien Green, Camus and Sartre in France. The criticism is leveled not so much against Christian morality as the form which bourgeois society has given to Christian morality.
The tone of L'Immoraliste is completely modern. The situation, the language, the ruminations of Michel belong to this age. And yet, the revolt itself is ancient. The theme of the rebellious hero and the explorer (even if it is an exploration of the self) go far back in history to mythology. There is something of Daedalus in the mathematical devices of Michel, and there is something of Lucifer in the plunge he makes into dark recesses of his own nature and of the world. At times he takes on the traits of the one sacrificed for others, of the scapegoat, of the man punished for his courage because he is the visionary, the unaccepted, the misunderstood leader. Michel's wedding trip is indeed the voyage of a grave apostasy. It set out to be a voyage to the sun, to Africa, as bold as the scheme of Daedalus. It ended by a fall from great heights, a Luciferian fall into the blackness of a prosaic familiar world in a French province. In the immediate narrative of the story, Michel learns that nothing discourages his power to think as much as the persistent blue of the sky and the ever-present sun. And yet Africa was necessary for the awakening of his senses.
In Michel, as well as in the reader who tries to follow his revolt, there is a series of vacillations concerning the meaning of the revolt, or as to the basic impulse guiding the revolt. Does it come from some diabolic source, or is it a courageous quest for one man's personal value? Is the hero amoral or immoral? Is he guided by an ideal of purity or by a diabolic possession? Gide never clarifies the tone of equivocation. Ambiguity is the atmosphere in which he is most at ease. Michel fails in his quest if we accept as definitive the discouragement narrated on the last few pages. His self-styled liberation ended in tragedy, or, at least, defeat, because he was unable to rid himself completely of his love for Marceline. By his turning away from her, by renouncing any active sense of responsibility for her, Michel causes her suffering, and, ultimately, her death. And yet, it is because of Marceline, because of his attachment to her, which is never completely eradicated, that the immoralist fails in his experiment in human conduct.
Manicheism is the major heresy of Christianity, and its role in literature at times seems to be more widespread than manifestations of orthodox theology. In the sense that L'Immoraliste accentuates the reality of evil, its positive value in the moral life of an individual, one may claim that the leading philosophical idea of the work is Manichean. Michel is convinced that if he is able to join the dark forces of his own nature with those of the world, he will succeed in reversing the values of good and evil, and discover the real destiny of his being. When he realizes that the conventional morality of his world no longer seems reasonable or viable for him, he seeks another source for his personal morality, and finds it in his subconscious, in the innermost forgotten part of his being. But the rules of this personal morality are not stable and enduring and codified. They change with the change of days and sea sons, and with the fluctuations of desire. In Michel's new life, each day demands a renewal, a complete renovation of belief and moral behavior. For the man who cannot accept passively the moral code, each day will lead him to a problem of human conduct which he himself will have to solve alone.
Prior to his marriage, Michel believed himself a man completely absorbed in the serious problems of his profession, in his archeological research and his teaching. More over he felt himself adjusted or subjugated to the way of life of his class. During his wedding trip, as he recovers from his illness, he discovers another self, or rather a multiplicity of possible selves. This discovery is an intoxication, a delirious sense of freedom. He believes himself able to become a nonconformist. The social-Christian morality in accordance with which he had heretofore lived, must have obscured the sense of freedom which now fills his being. His wife Marceline is of course associated with his former life, and he will tend to abandon her or turn aside from her, whenever he is tempted to experiment with his newly acquired sense of release. Their marriage was not a marriage of love, but a feeling of love grows in Michel, and quite soon after the wedding. He will feel it intermittently, and, when it diminishes, he replaces the attentiveness of love by gallantry, by the cliche expressions and sentiments of gallantry.
The illness of Michel, diagnosed as tuberculosis, may well have been subconsciously induced as the means of separating himself from Marceline, of relinquishing his responsibility of husband, of preparing the way to a more egotistical life. Whatever the obscure reason for this illness may have been, with his convalescence and recovery, he emerges as a new man eager to experience life and nature that he would never have dreamed of formerly. Michel leaves his past as a man leaves his prison. In Italy, he discovers, for example, the very simple sensual pleasure of sunbathing. As he takes off his clothes, he seems to be performing a rite, and offers his body (which he is surprised to find is almost beautiful) to the fire of the sun.
The sun, first in Italy, and then in Africa, is both the reality and the symbol of Michel's resurrection. Gide's close friend, the Catholic critic Charles Du Bos, has called L'Immoraliste "the masterpiece of high noon." Michel is going to assimilate not only the sensuous warmth of the sun, but its cruelty as well. As he grows in self-knowledge, he grows also in his ability to inflict pain. As he opens himself to all the forces of nature, it is impossible for him to distinguish between the good and the evil forces.
There is so little precise moral preoccupation as such in Michel that his drama would seem to be less one of moral disapproval than one of a more positive nature, of a duty to be performed for himself, of a program of sincerity which will enable him to direct his inner life in accord with its outer manifestations. He is the spirit of unrest and search, whereas Marceline, whose actual words in the novel are very few, and whose participation in actual scenes is very slight, is the opposite spirit of waiting and endurance and immobility. If Michel portrays the classical male principle of change and quest, Marceline reenacts the female principle of duration and conservatism. Every element of change brings with it some degree of destruction, and Michel's drama may in one way be looked upon as heroic, as the heroic sacrifice of what is secure and established in his life. Like Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, he does not fully realize to what degree his involvement with nature has made him into an earth spirit.
With the example of Michel, Gide is emphasizing the theory that each day a man has to invent a new moral system that will be true for that day and then must be discarded for the next day. Forty years later, in the history of French thought, Jean-Paul Sartre in his system of existentialist philosophy, will express a similar conviction. Throughout most of French literature, but especially since Rousseau, the major writer has tended to denounce the corrupting forces of society as they reveal themselves in an individual man. Christian morality, based upon a series of sins which, if they are perpetrated, will offend God, gradually, in Europe, turned into a middle-class morality, where interdictions exist, not in terms of a divine order, but in terms of society itself, in terms of punishment for offending our neighbors. Such philosophers as Rousseau and Nietzsche, and such artists as Stendhal and Andre Gide, see man caught between these two systems, one divine and one strongly adulterated, and, rather than accepting the adulteration, finding in himself his own divinity, his own divinely inherited status, and setting himself up as the one not to be offended by his own deeds and his own thoughts. In this sense, Gide is the immediate forerunner of Sartrian existentialism.
In all the books which preceded L'Immoraliste, Gide the writer, under the various pseudonyms of Andre Walter, Narcisse and Menalque, had appeared as a solitary figure. The introversion of the symbolist hero characterizes the earliest contrafactions of Gide, and Menalque and the "I" of Les Nourritures terrestres are alone in their experimentations with the natural fruits of the earth. A momentous change occurs in L'Immoraliste where, for the first time, there is a second character, who is decidedly not Gide, an antagonist, the young wife Marceline. The ardent conscience of Michel is enriched by the existence beside him of a second conscience, which appears more reserved and more silent, but which in reality is equally ardent. One of the initial themes of the story is Michel's discovery of his wife's totally separate and real existence. It is almost a surprise because he had married Marceline without having fallen in love with her. When, during his convalescence, Michel turns his full attention to himself and his physical needs, he at first instinctively turns away from Marceline, and then, as the new life of the senses begins for him, he conceals from her the various stages of his development. But this act of concealment indicates how fully conscious he is of her presence. She is never absent from the story, although she rarely counts as a character in the full sense. Marceline is more a warning than a woman, more an effulgence than a personage.
At that point in the narrative, when Michel, in love, possesses his wife physically, he has a distinct premonition of what is going to happen. Happiness, like success, is difficult to repeat, because of the memory of happiness. Michel feels that this memory will always hinder a repetition of happiness. Rien n'empeche le bonheur comme le souvenir du bonheur. It is one of Gide's most despairing statements about human love, but it is coherent in terms of his basic assumption and central theory of disponibilite. Before trying to love again, Michel announces his future impotency. Marceline is at his side, and the action of the book becomes Michel's effort to thwart this presence, to rid himself of Marceline's lucidity which, although rarely expressed, is fully felt by the reader, and devastatingly felt by Michel. Unlike the protagonist in Benjamin Constant's Adolphe, Michel is never able to cease caring for Marceline. And intermittently he feels a sentiment for her which can only be called love. His initiation to the new life is so overwhelming that he is incapable of thinking for any length of time of anyone else's existence. Marceline is therefore silent throughout most of the narrative, and yet the reader has no difficulty in imagining her thoughts. The spotlight is fully focused on Michel, but his drama would not be the same if Marceline were not near him in the shadows. Her almost invisible tragedy is more and more deeply felt by the reader, as Michel's more and more histrionic exaltation is watched in the full African sunlight. Michel's triumphant movement of ascent is in direct contrast with Marceline's slow descent into anonymity and death.
This study in contrast, which represents one of the principal qualities of the book, is admirably balanced in the deft, clear precision of Michel's character as it develops swiftly like some biological phenomenon which has been accelerated, and in the subtle restrained effulgence of Marceline whom we do not see in the same way, but who bears the terrifying weight of Michel's rise and is finally crushed by it and sacrificed to it. The autobiographical elements are altered and surpassed in L'Immoraliste which Gide first called a roman and then a recit. He moves far beyond factual evidence in his impulse of a novelist to deepen and understand for himself the moral significance of situations and problems which a man only partially understands as he lives through them. The geo graphical distinction, for example, between the north and the south, which Gide has often referred to in his auto biographical writing, takes on a fuller, more objective meaning in L'Immoraliste. The serenity of the Midi, its denser sensuality, the classical traits of its landscape, revealed in the sunlight, form an integral part of Michel's drama, where the province of Languedoc leads to Italy and to North Africa, where a geographical climate is raised to the intensity of a dramatic force. The southern latitude is a pagan philosophical reality in L'Immoraliste. And likewise, the scenes in Normandy where Michel plays the perverse role of poacher on his own estate, are related to the Christian background of Gide, to the northern climate propitious for religious meditation and austerity. Normandy, which has almost no importance in Les Nourritures terrestres, plays in L'Immoraliste a more significant role, although far less dominant than the sun lands of the south, and plays the leading role in La Porte etroite.
Gide completed L'Immoraliste in October, 1901. In his journal entry of July 12, 1914, he states that the idea of the book had been on his mind for a little less than fifteen years before he wrote it, and that he had carried concurrently in his thoughts the ideas for three books that were to be written at different times and that were to seem, at least on casual reading, very different one from the other: L'Immoraliste, La Porte etroite and Les Caves du Vatican. Gide had been- disturbed by the almost total lack of commercial success of Les Nourritures terrestres and Paludes. He hoped that a more fervent reception would be given to his L'Immoraliste. Yet he asked for a first edition of three hundred copies and confesses in his journal of January 8, 1902, that if there were a lack of sales, the disappointment would be lessened by the very limited printing. Gide's fears were justified. L'Immoraliste had no success whatsoever-for at least ten years. He was so deeply affected by this lack of recognition that he had little inclination to work on his writing for five or six years. Le Retour de l'enfant prodigue of 1907 interrupted this long period of silence.
In letters to Paul Valery of July and September, 1901, Gide speaks of writing L'Immoraliste and of his feeling that the book should have been written earlier, that he was already mentally engaged with other works, and that L'Immoraliste corresponded to his past, to experiences that were over. In Si le grain ne meurt, he lists several clues or sources of various sites in the novel. The apartment at Biskra, for example, is a fairly accurate description of one he had occupied with Madeleine. La Moriniere, where the episode in Normandy takes place, was the ch‰teau de la Roque-Baignard, in the department of Calvados, an estate belonging to the Gide family and one which stood for many childhood memories. The harshest letters of attack on L'Immoraliste came from one of Gide's best friends, the Pyrenees poet he greatly admired, Francis Jammes. Jammes denounced the theme of the book and its lack of morality.
It has been claimed, but without much justification, that Menalque bears traits of Oscar Wilde. Marceline faintly resembles at times Madeleine, and Michel, just as faintly, resembles Gide. But in a letter to Scheffer, Gide explicitly stated that because he was not Michel, he was able to tell his story. (Ce n'est que parce que je ne suis pas Michel que j'ai pu raconter son histoire.) He redefines a basic law of fiction-that if Rene is in Chateaubriand, all of Chateaubriand is not in Rene, and adds two other examples: the character Adolphe in the novel of Benjamin Constant, and Werther in Goethe.
Always sensitive to and hurt by negative criticism, Gide learned early to profit from it. It forced him to more in tense self-examination and to a clear analysis of motives and motifs in his own writings. No book of Gide existed alone for him. L'Immoraliste and the book he called its twin, La Porte etroite, grew in him concurrently, the one offsetting the other, as if the writer did not dare allow one side of his nature to develop at the expense of any other. Biographical explicitness is always difficult to determine in any work of a creative nature. Several years after writing four of the earlier books, Gide acknowledged in his journal (June 16, 1931 ) the dominant forces which account for them. He names his early Christian training and Madeleine as the influences which formed his religious temperament and without which he would not have writ ten: Andre Walter, L'Immoraliste, La Porte etroite and La Symphonie pastorale.
In all the books which preceded L'Immoraliste, there are faint indications of the moral struggle, the moral investigation that will characterize all the future writings of Andre Gide, and which, first, in L'Immoraliste is the central preoccupation. The problem is perhaps the gravest which each man has to solve for himself. He has to decide whether he is answerable morally to himself or to the rules of society. Although Michel's experience ends in bitter unhappiness, there is no explicit indictment of him. Neither is there any explicit defense. The novel remains faintly a parable which the reader will interpret in the absence of the author's interpretation. The next book that Gide will complete is his interpretation of a New Testament parable.