excerpt from pp.139-144
Andre Gide, Albert J. Guerard
Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass., 1951
return to pastoral symphony index
return to critical studies index
Gide's Caves Du Vatican thus had no small part in the Dadaist and other rebellions which broke out toward the end of the First World War. It was a promise of freedom, of willful irresponsibility both in ethics and art. The example of an eminent middle-aged writer conferred the respectability which even revolutionaries cherish. La Symphonie Pastorale (1919) therefore came as a disappointment and shock, though it placated the readers of Bourget. The Dadaists felt themselves betrayed by this orderly and thoroughly classical "recit," much as the symbolists had felt betrayed by Les Nourritures terrestres. At least one young writer complained directly to the author, who saw fit to make public his reply.
La Symphonie Pastorale was written, he explained, to liquidate a debt contracted toward himself long since. All of his books had been conceived before his thirtieth year (we know from Si le grain ne meurt that this one was germinating as early as 1894), and thus none of them reflected his most recent state of mind. This short novel completed payment of the debt, and he was quite willing to acknowledge the pains it had cost him to return to an outworn manner. He admitted that his correspondent was right in assuming he had written the book with distaste, "that all the time I was writing it I fretted against the 'petit point' work which the nature of the problem demanded; against these half-tones, these nuances ...." Later he expressed annoyance that this and Si le grain ne meurt, the least original of his books, should have enjoyed the greatest immediate success, and that La Symphonie Pastorale had given comfort even to a Catholic priest.
Gide's retrospective comments on his own books are often abstract to a point of unreality, or seem designed to fit in with some theory concerning his "career". His explanation of La Symphonie Pastorale certainly needs to be qualified. We must also recall his life-long tendency to react sharply, both against the book he has just written and against any aspect of his art which threatened to become fashionable. He insisted that he wanted to escape his admirers, and feared the orthodoxy of the avant-garde as much as any other. Moreover, the undeniable personal overtones of La Symphonie Pastorale seem closely related to the religious crisis of 1916. The debt contracted long since was also a moral debt. He too, like the frustrated and casuistical pastor, had interpreted Scripture in such a way as to flatter "passionate inclination" and justify its satisfaction. He too had neglected the epistles of St. Paul to find in Christ's words release and not restriction. La Symphonie Pastorale is nearly as subjective in theme as L'Immoraliste, yet as impersonal in judgment as Isabelle. It is a lucid demonstration of the evils of romantic sensibility and self-delusion, of the Rousseauistic confusion of "conscience" and "instinct". So methodical a demonstration, in fact, as to bring it perilously close to such a "roman-a-these" as Robert.
The story is told once again by a self-deluded man. A few irritated comments in his diary are enough to convey his boredom and isolation: the monotony of a small mountain community and the slow wearing-away of all romance by years of poverty and household care. To adopt impulsively a blind orphaned girl of perhaps fifteen seemed an act of pure charity. She had been reduced by neglect to a "soulless lump of flesh" and had nowhere to go. The pastor justifies this added burden on his frayed wife, and the fact that he had never given the same attention to his own children, by the parable of the lost sheep. At first Gertrude merely brings a new interest into the vacancy of his days. He longs to penetrate the "wall of darkness" behind which she lives and is excited by his success in teaching her words, concepts, and even the principles of music. But he carefully skirts, in her religious education, any mention of sadness, sin, and death. Even when he sees that his son Jacques loves Gertrude, he does not understand the reason for his own dissatisfaction. He knows only that he must protect the girl's "purity." He arranges for her to board at a friend's house and imposes on himself the "duty" of visiting her every day.
By the time the pastor begins his second notebook, however, he is fully aware of his own love for Gertrude. His problem thereafter is to justify himself by a careful reading of Scripture. "I search the Gospels, I search in vain for commands, threats, prohibitions.....All these come from St. Paul." He resents the cold restraint preached by his son; true Christianity speaks from the heart. To be sure, he continues to pretend that his love is spiritual and paternal, but the girl herself cuts through this verbiage. She is already vaguely aware that their companionship distresses his wife, and begins to wonder whether the visible world is really as carefree as Beethoven's symphony would suggest. The pastor reminds her that love cannot be wrong unless we feel it in our hearts to be so.
This still unconsummated love is threatened by an operation which may restore the girl's sight. What will she feel when she see him as he is, middle-aged and tired? He steals up to her room the night before she leaves for the hospital; she does not resist him. But when she returns with her sight restored, it is to understand at once their sin, and the anguish of Amelie. Jacques, horrified by the complacency of his father's liberal Protestantism, has decided to enter the priesthood; Gertrude, also converted, realizes too late she had loved the son, not the father. She throws herself into a river, takes a chill, and lives only long enough to define the full horror of the tragedy, and to repeat St. Paul's words: "For I was alive without the law once, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died."
Gide's honesty (which should not be confused with the detailed frankness of his confessions) consists in his willingness to dramatize the dangerous consequences of his ideas, if held by weak or self-deluded men. Or perhaps this is merely one of his strongest creative impulses: to separate himself symbolically from an earlier or a doubtful attitude and condemn himself by proxy. It would be difficult to say to what extent La Symphonie Pastorale condemns "Gidean Christianity," as well as its very obvious abuse. But it would also be hard to imagine book more accessible to French conservative moralists, or to the American neo-humanists who at about this time took alarm. Atmosphere, dialogue, and plot are subordinated to an extreme concentration on the moral problem. Even Conrad never insisted so strongly on the latent egoism or pity, or on the cruel consequences of sentimental optimism and indiscriminate benevolence.
The device of the imperceptive narrator once again permitted Gide to use the congenial diary form. It may have further seemed, in the abstract, the best way to convey such extremes of self-delusion. The sentimental pastor is, like all sentimentalists, isolated by his vanity and optimism. He is long incapable of seeing the drab suffering of his family or anything so gross as a sexual impulse in himself. His children wander into the story only as casual annoyances, and it is left to the reader to construct the background suffering, the tragedies of Gertrude, Jacques, and Amelie. The obtuse point of view does save the first part of the story from extreme sentimentality; it screens or filters a melodrama and pathos which only very slow realism could have absorbed. Otherwise, the technique operates clumsily. The unconscious irony is too obvious, the self-betrayal to complete and too succinct. "I know that Claude is teething (at least that is what his mother declares every time he sets up a howl) but does it not encourage him to howl, for her or Sarah to run and pick him up and be forever petting him? I am convinced he would not howl so often if he were left to howl once or twice to his heart's content when I am not there." Gide rarely moves his pastor as transparently or as crudely as this. These sentences nevertheless show how unconvincing a misdirected economy can be in such a story of self-betrayal.
In L'Immoraliste too, every sentence was made to count. The great difference is that La Symphonie Pastorale is, for all the sudden flaring of the pastor's sexuality, a drama of intelligence. The pastor's physical passion is simply a donnee of the problem; it is stated, not lived, imagine, dramatized. Only his ingenious interpretations of Scripture seem to have enlisted Gide's creative energies, and these wholly intellectual energies; the pastor is as unreal as the lecturing Menalque. Perhaps Voltaire could have told a story of extreme rationalization in the first person and with such extreme economy. Normally, a narrative of imperfect intelligence invites the more diffuse technique of Benito Cereno and of James -- the observing or narrating of "fool" to betray himself not in every other sentence but in one out of ten or twenty. However, Gide's difficulty probably goes deeper than this, for he would show the same clumsiness in the slightly less economical "recit" Robert. He was apparently incapable of dramatizing intellectual failure from the inside, once he had taken the exact measure of that failure. He could vivify a remembered sexual conflict, but not remembered mental error. The truth may be that such a psycho-sexual conflict as Michel's never ends; or at least, that the author can come to understand it only by writing his book. But Gide understood his pastor before he wrote the first page of his novel. There was no Devil's share of creative exploration, no chance for "collaboration with the demon." Thus the objectivity of La Symphonie Pastorale -- the completeness of the author's dissociation from his hero -- suggests that Gide's earlier subjectivity may have saved his art, whatever limitations it imposed.
The recent film drawn from the novel shows the advantages of a dense texture and slower movement for such a story of weak intelligence. It also suggests the advantages of a leisurely realism--of careful transition and casual everyday dialogue, of landscape even-- where the plot is frankly melodramatic. Certainly the film underlines, by its excisions as by its slowness, the indecent haste of Gide's last pages. The crime against Gertrude, her operation, her conversion at the hospital as a result of Jacques's revelation of St. Paul, his decision to enter the priesthood, Gertrude's return and her discovery that it was Jacques she really loved, her attempted suicide and her death -- all this is hurried over in a dozen very short pages. The determination to have done is even more marked than in Isabelle. No doubt Gide's telescoped endings are due in part to the fact that while writing one book he thought actively of the next one. And in 1918 and 1919 he was eager to start Les Faux-Monnayeurs, the "first novel" he had postponed so long.