Jean Paul Sartre, philosopher, critic, novelist and
dramatist, holds a position of singular eminence
in the world of French letters. Among readers and
critics familiar with the whole of Sartre's work, it is
generally recognized that his earliest novel, Nausea
is his finest and most significant. A key novel of the
20th century, it is a landmark in Existentialist fiction.
This essay, "The Living Gide" is taken from
Gide, A Collection of Critical Essays
(Prentice Hall, 1970)
They thought him sacred and embalmed. He dies, and they discover how much he remains alive. Embarrassment and resentment appear through the funeral wreaths which they grudgingly braid for him, to show that he displeases and will continue to displease for a long time to come.
He managed to array against him the union of reactionaries of the Left and the Right, and we can well imagine the joy of a few august mummies as they cried: "Thank you, Lord: Since I live on, it is thus he who was wrong." It suffices to read in L'Humanite--"A corpse has just died"-- to realize how heavily this man of eight-four, who scarcely wrote any more, weighed upon today's writing.
Thought has its own geography. Just as a Frenchman, wherever he goes, cannot take a step without also drawing nearer or farther from France, so also every movement of the mind either carries us nearer or farther from Gide. His clarity, his lucidity, his rationalism, his rejection of pathos, allowed others to hazard thinking in more obscure and uncertain areas. They knew, while on their voyage of discovery, that a luminous intelligence upheld the rights of analysis, of purity, of a certain tradition; should they be shipwrecked, the mind would not founder with them. All of French thought in these past thirty years, willing or not, whatever its coordinates may have been elsewhere---Marx, Hegel, Kierkegaard---must also be defined in relation to Gide.
For my part, I was too infuriated by the mental reservations, the hypocrisy, and not to mince words, the revolting stench of the obituaries devoted to him, for me to dream of emphasizing here the things which separated us from him. It is much better to recall the priceless gifts he bestowed upon us.
I have read from the pen of his contemporaries---whose gall has never surprised me---that "he lived dangerously swathed in three layers of flannel vests." What imbecilic scorn! These timorous creatures have invented a strange defense against the audacity of others. They do not deign to acknowledge it unless manifested in every domain. They would have forgiven Gide for having risked his ideas and reputation if he had also risked his life, or to be specific, if he had braved pneumonia. They affect not to know that there are varieties of courage and that they differ according to people.
Well, yes, Gide was careful, he weighed his words, hesitated before signing his name, and if he was interested in a movement of ideas or opinions, he arranged it so that his adherence was only conditional, so that he could remain on the margin, always prepared to retreat. But the same man dared to publish the profession of faith of a Corydon, the indictment of the Journey to the Congo. He had the courage to ally himself with the Soviet Union when it was dangerous to do so, and greater still, he had the courage to recant publically, when he felt, rightly or wrongly, that he had been mistaken. Perhaps it is this mixture of prudence and daring which makes him exemplary. Generosity is only estimable in those who know the cost of things, and similarly, nothing is more prone to move us than a deliberate temerity. Written by a heedless fool, Corydon would have been reduced to a matter of morals. But when its author is this sly Chinese who weighs everything, the book becomes a manifesto, a testimony whose import goes far beyond the scandal which it provoked. This wary audacity should be a "Guide rule for the mind": withhold judgment until the evidence is presented, and when conviction is acquired, consent to pay for it with your last penny.
Courage and prudence. This well-measured mixture explains the inner tension of his work. Gide's art aims to establish a compromise between risk and rule, in him are balanced Protestant law and the nonconformity of the homosexual, the arrogant individualism of the rich bourgeois, and the puritan taste for social restraint, a certain dryness, a difficulty in communicating, and a humanism which is Christian in origin, a strong sensuality which would like to be innocent; observance of the rule is united in him with the quest for spontaneity. This play of counterbalances is at the roots of the inestimable service which Gide has rendered contemporary literature. It is he who raised it from the worn groove of symbolism. The second generation of symbolists were convinced that the writer could only treat, without loss of dignity, a very small number of subjects, all very lofty, but that within these well-defined subjects, he could express himself any way he liked. Gide liberated us from this naive chosisme: (note 1) he taught or retaught us that everything could be said---this is his audacity---but that it must be said according to specific rules of good expression---that is his prudence.
From this prudent audacity stem his perpetual turnings, his vacillation from one extreme to the other, his passion for objectivity---one should even say his "objectivism," very bourgeois, I admit---which made him even look Right in the enemy's camp, and caused his excessive fascination with the opinion of others. I do not maintain that these characteristic attitudes can be profitable for us today, but they allowed him to make of his life a rigorously conducted experiment, and one which we can assimilate without any preparation. In a word, he lived his ideas, and one, above all---the death of God. I can not believe that a single devout person today was led to Christianity by the arguments of St. Bonaventura or St. Anselm. But neither do I think that a single unbeliever was turned away from faith by arguments to the contrary. The problem of God is a human problem which concerns the rapport between men. It is a total problem to which each man brings a solution by his entire life, and the solution which one brings to it reflects the attitude one has chosen towards other men and towards oneself. What Gide gives us that is most precious is his decision to live to the finish the agony and death of God. He could well have done what others did and gamble on his concepts, decide for faith or atheism at the age of twenty and hold to this for his entire life. Instead, he wanted to put his relationship with religion to the test and the living dialectic which led him to his final atheism is a journey which can be repeated after him, but not settled by concepts and notions. His interminable discussions with Catholics, his religious effusions, his returns to irony, his flirtations, his sudden raptures, his progress, his standstills, his backsliding, the ambiguity of the word "God" in his works, his refusal to abandon Him even when he believed only in man, all this rigorous experiment has done more ultimately to enlighten us than could a hundred proofs. He lived for us a life which we have only to relive by reading. He allows us to avoid the traps into which he has fallen or to climb out of them as he did. The adversaries whom he has discredited in our eyes, if only through publishing his correspondence with them, can no longer seduce us. Every truth, says Hegel, has become so. We forget this too often, we see the final destination, not the itinerary, we take the idea as a finished product, without realizing that it is only its slow maturation, a necessary sequence of errors correcting themselves, of partial views which are completed and enlarged. Gide is an irreplaceable example because he chose, on the contrary, to become his truth. Chosen in the abstract, at twenty, his atheism would have been false. Slowly earned, crowning the quest of half a century, this atheism becomes his concrete truth and our own. Starting from there, men of today are capable of becoming new truths.
(note 1) chosisme: Sartre's own word, designating the rule of the thing (chose) or the tyranny of subject-matter. (Trans.)