excerpt from pp.80-85
ANDRE GIDE A Critical Biography, George D. Painter
Atheneum, New York, 1968
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It is an astonishing fact that Gide had planned his next short novel, Pastoral Symphony, several years before the occurrence in his life of the events that resemble its plot and inspired its actual writing (Note 1). He first mentions the novel in his Journal for 30 May 1910. It is to be called The Blind Girl, and to deal with the opposition of true Christianity to both Catholicism and Protestantism. It was not till January 1916 that Gide seems to have begun, as if living his unwritten novel, a love-affair with Elisabeth, daughter of his old friend Mme Theo van Rysselberghe. A Freudian would not fail to notice that this unconscious choice suggests, like his love for his cousin, the attraction to a sister-image so prevalent in those whole childhood had been dominated by a powerful mother. In December 1916, in the train on the way back from Verhaeren's funeral, he passed her a note to say that he would like to give her a child; but this wish, perhaps merely playful at the time, was to wait for six years for its fulfillment (Note 2). Their attachment had begun, like Paolo and Francesca's in Dante, over the reading together of a book; or rather, since the book was Browning, the similarity is more to Pompilia and Caponsacchi in The Ring and the Book; and when, on 22 July 1922, Gide read aloud to mother and daughter Pompilia's monologue, he exclaimed in his Journal: 'Abnegation can go no farther.' The event contributed, as much as Gheon's conversion, to the spiritual unrest of the year; in June 1916 it perhaps helped to cause the "terrible crisis" in his relations with his wife; and all this was reflected, two years later, in his novel, which he began on 16 February 1918 and finished in the following October.
Pastoral Symphony is the diary of a Swiss Protestant minister. He is called to the bedside of a dying old woman, and there finds a fifteen-year-old girl, blind, verminous, and apparently an idiot. She has never learned to speak, and does not understand the speech of others; her face is a mask of hostility and indifference. Feeling that God has 'placed in his way an obligation that it would be cowardly to avoid', he takes her to his home. She is, he tells his wife, the lost sheep of the Gospels, who is more precious than all the rest of the flock. 'Grant, O Lord,' he prays, 'that my love may lighten her terrible darkness.' By 'love' he means 'charity', and this verbal confusion is the root of the tragedy that follows.
The pastor teaches Gertrude to speak and read, and rejoices in the beauty and joy of the soul he helps her to regain. He takes her to a concert at Neuchatel where Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony is played. 'Is what you see really as beautiful as that?' she asks, and the pastor, troubled, can only reply, 'Those who have eyes do not know their own happiness.' But all is not harmonious in their own symphony. The pastor's wife is unable to approve what seems to her an excess of charity. 'You do for her what you would not have done for any of your own family,' she says. And when the pastor finds his son in love with Gertrude, and informs his wife, saying, 'At that age people do not know their own desires,' she answers strangely, 'The don't always know them even when they are older.' On questioning Gertrude he is relieved by her simple reply: 'You know it is you I love.' Rebuking Jacques for tampering with her innocence, he sends him away, and for double security lodges Gertrude with a friend.
Gertrude's blindness can be cured by an operation. Before she leaves for hospital, she informs the pastor that their love is carnal; willingly, and sharing her absence of guilt, the poor man succumbs. But Gertrude, her sight restored, falls in love with the handsome face of Jacques; too late, for he has become a Catholic, and means to be a priest. And when she sees the aging face of the pastor, lined with his uneasy virtue, she tries to drown herself. 'When I saw Jacques I knew that it was not you that I loved,' she tells him in their last interview; 'he had your face, I mean the face I imagined you had. Let us part - I cannot bear to see you again'; and that night she dies. 'It would not be fitting for me to accuse you, Father,' says Jacques, 'but I have been guided by the example of your errors.' The pastor begs his wife to pray for him: she obliges by reciting the Lord's Prayer as Mme Gide had done on the outbreak of war in 1914. 'I should have liked to weep, but felt my heart more arid than the desert.'
The very place and time of the action are intimately associated with Gide himself: it was at La Brevine in the '90's that he had finished Marshlands and begun Fruits; and his impressions of Switzerland had recently been revived by a visit during August 1917, in circumstances still more blissful than the pastor's. Something like the triangle in the pastor's life had occurred in 1916, as we have seen, in Gide's. There is less, however, in the wife's harshness, of the patient and sensitive Madeleine Gide, than of Gide's sisters-in-law; and the instruction of Gertrude recalls Gide's tutoring of his nephews and nieces, of which their mothers had sometimes shown jealousy (Note 3). Pastoral Symphony is, in part, a satire on the dangers of education, which, if taken to the deep spiritual relationship where it can do most good, corrupts both teacher and pupil. The theological controversy between the pastor and his son, Christ against Paul, uses the same texts and arguments as Gide versus Gheon in Numquid et tu .....? Gide had reached the same conclusion as the pastor, who writes: 'Is it a betrayal of Christ, a diminution or profanation of the Gospel, to see therein primarily a method for attaining a happy life?' It is at the next step that they part company - at the discovery that the Devil (in whom Gide was beginning, if only as an indispensable metaphor, to believe) has for some time back been guiding their thoughts. For the pastor it is spiritual bankruptcy; for Gide it is a realization that the Devil, if one has the intelligence to understand him without being his dupe, can be a valuable instructor in ethics and psychology. This is his chief new theme during the decade 1916-26; and Pastoral Symphony is a first experiment, controlled and isolated, in the methods and successes of the Devil. The pastor is, like Michel, Lafcadio, and others, only a fragment of Gide's personality, set free to do evil and point a moral where Gide could not follow.
Gide was indignant when the critics saw the pastor as a portrait of himself. 'If I use myself as a model,' he ambiguously explains, 'it is because I have first become the very person I wished to portray.' Yet his unhappy hero is very like a projection of one half of his self-characterization in the Journal of 22 June 1907: 'I am a little boy having a good time, combined with a Protestant pastor who bores him.' Perhaps his annoyance would have been less if the pastor had not been taken for a villain and a hypocrite. In fact he is a man whom the Devil tempts, since he has no vices, through his ruling virtue, his charity. There is nothing to show that his love for Gertrude, however possessive, would ever have become physical, if she had not seduced him. Ultimately Gertrude's unconsciousness of evil, of which her blindness is a symbol, is more dangerous spiritually than the pastor's consciousness of virtue. The pastor misapplies to her Christ's word to the Pharisees;'If ye were blind ye should have no sin'; blind she is an Alissa, seeing she is an Isabelle; at last she is revealed as a kind of witch, and her final words to her victim are of an abominable cruelty and egoism. Nor can the pastor's wife be acquitted of a share in the tragedy. Her desiccated, negative virtue ('the only pleasure she would accept from me was abstinence from things that displeased her,' complains the pastor) is Pharisaic rather than Christian, and her silence, where speech might have saved her husband and her rival, is the vengeance she allows her jealousy. The Devil is, in fact, triumphant all along the line; and though outwardly Pastoral Symphony streams with radiance and joy, internally it is the darkest and most terrible of Gide's fictions. Its pessimism is crystallized in the sinister irony of its title. This is the second of Gide's puns from Beethoven. 'Pastoral' is the adjective derived from pastor; and the difference between the two symphonies, Beethoven's and the pastor's, is the difference between innocent blindness and guilty sight.
A still more serious crisis in Gide's marriage than the ominous troubles of 1916 had begun in the year before the commencement of Pastoral Symphony, reached its height when the novel was half written, and ended soon after his work was completed in a terrible punishment which the novel itself might seem to have predicted. In May 1917, as Madeleine immediately guessed, began Gide's joyful and lasting friendship for the fifteen-year-old Marc Allegret, son of his former tutor and best man the Protestant pastor Elie Allegret. This infidelity to his wife, as he well knew, was made only the more heinous by the moral and intellectual nobility of his new love, so entirely different from the innumerable brief sensual liberations which had gone before and were to follow after, and which, as it seemed to him, robbed her of nothing. This love wronged his wife not because it was physical, but because it was spiritual: for the first time, as she felt, he had taken back the inalienable gift of his soul. In June 1918 he eloped with Marc Allegret to spend the summer and autumn in England. 'You are not going away alone, are you?' she asked. 'No', he stammered. 'You are going with Marc?' 'Yes.' 'Don't say anything. Never tell me anything again. I prefer your silence to your dissimulation.' In a desperate effort to explain, which blinded him, like his pastor, to the cruelty of his words, he wrote to her that he must leave because he was 'rotting away' at Cuverville; and she, momentarily more generous than the pastor's wife, wrote in return to release him: 'I have had the best part of your soul, the affection of your boyhood and youth. And I know that, alive or dead, I shall have the soul of your old age.' So it was to be. But when he finished Pastoral Symphony at Cambridge on 18 October the fatal and innocent blind girl had become an expression not only of Elisabeth van Rysselberghe but also of Marc Allegret. And the end of the novel foretold the disaster that awaited him at Cuverville' for the tragedy of Pastoral Symphony is not the death of Gertrude, but the death of the pastor's wife's love for her husband.
Note 1: He had even mentioned its basic subject - the blind girl whose blindness is an innocence that frees her from the conventional morality of people with sight - to Paul Laurens before their departure to North Africa in 1893.
Note 2: Jean Lambert, Gide familier, p.91.
Note 3: It is also modelled on that of Helen Keller, whose autobiography had appeared in French translation in 1916. The original idea had no doubt been suggested in 1893 by the life of the deaf, dumb and blind American girl Laura Bridgeman (1829-89), whom Gide mentions in his novel.