[Maurois was a French biographer, essayist, and critic. In the following excerpt from his 1965 memoir of Gide, he discusses the moral doctrine of Les Nourritures Terrestres. ]
Like Thus Spake Zarathustra, Les Nourritures Terrestres is a gospel in the root sense of the word--glad tidings. Tidings about the meaning of life addressed to a dearly loved disciple whom Gide calls Nathanael. The book is composed of Bible verses, hymns, recits, songs, rounds, held together on the one hand by the presence of Nathanael and on the other by the doctrine Gide seems to be teaching him. I say seems because we shall shortly see that Gide would accept neither the idea of teaching nor that of doctrine.
Besides Nathanael and the author, there is a third character in Les Nourritures, one who reappears in L'Immoraliste and who is in Gide's life what Merck was in Goethe's or Mephistopheles in Faust's. This character, whom Gide calls Menalque, has sometimes been identified with Oscar Wilde, but Gide told me it wasn't Wilde at all. Menalque is, indeed, no one unless perhaps one aspect of Gide himself, one of the interlocutors in the dialogue of Gide with Gide that comprises his spiritual life.
The core of the book was a recit by Menalque, one not far different from a recit Gide might have given after his African rebirth....
This recit contains the essence of the "tidings" of Les Nourritures. First a negative doctrine: flee families, rules, stability. Gide himself suffered so much from "snug homes" that he harped on its dangers all his life.
Then a positive doctrine: one must seek adventure, excess, fervor; one should loathe the lukewarm, security, all tempered feelings. "Not affection, Nathanael: love ..." Meaning not a shallow feeling based on nothing perhaps but tastes in common, but a feeling into which one throws oneself wholly and forgets oneself. Love is dangerous, but that is yet another reason for loving, even if it means risking one's happiness, especially if it means losing one's happiness. For happiness makes man less. "Descend to the bottom of the pit if you want to see the stars." Gide insists on this idea that there is no salvation in contented satisfaction with oneself, an idea he shares with both a number of great Christians and with Blake: "Unhappiness exaults, happiness slackens." Gide ends a letter to an amie with this curious formula: "Adieu, dear friend, may God ration your happiness!"
It would be a mistake to view the doctrine of Les Nourritures Terrestres as the product of a sensualist's egoism. On the contrary, it is a doctrine in which the Self (which is essentially continuity, memory of and submission to the past) fades out and disappears in order that the individual may lose himself, dissolve himself into each perfect moment. The Gide of Les Nourritures Terrestres does not renounce the search for the God André Walter was seeking [in Les Cahiers d'André Walter], but he seeks him everywhere, even in Hell: "May my book teach you to take more interest in yourself than in it, and more in everything else than in yourself!"
There are many objections that might be made to this doctrine. First one might object that this immoralist is at bottom a moralist--that he does teach even though he denies it, that he preaches even though he hates preachers, that he is puritanical in his anti-Puritanism, and finally, that the refusal to participate in human society ("snug homes ... Families, I hate you!") is actually another form of confinement--to the outside.
Gide is too intelligent not to have anticipated this kind of objection. He raises it himself in Les Faux-Monnayeurs. In describing Vincent's development, he writes: "For he's a moral creature ... and the Devil will get the best of him only by providing him with reasons for self-approval. Theory of the totality of the moment, of gratuitous joy ... On the basis of which the devil wins the day." A subtle analysis of his own case: the beast has found a new way of playing the angel who plays the beast. If the Immoralist weren't a moral being, he would have no need to revolt.
One might further object that this is the doctrine of a convalescent, not a healthy man.... But again Gide has taken care to raise this point himself in the very intriguing preface he later added to the book, and to point out further that at the time when he, the artist, wrote Les Nourritures Terrestres, he had already, as a man, rejected its message, for he had just got married and, for a time at least, settled down. Moreover, he followed Les Nourritures with Saul, a play which can only be interpreted as a condemnation of seekers after the moment and sensation. Thus, Gide's wavering course between the angelic pole and the diabolic pole is not all broken by Les Nourritures Terrestres.
How should it be when at the end of the book the master himself advises his disciple to leave him....
But why doesn't Gide require of himself the same rejection he so strongly urges on his disciple? And if he has a horror of any and all doctrine, why isn't he horrified by his own? He is much too much Gide to be Gidean. He always protested against people's habit of reducing him to a rulebook when he had attempted, contrarily, to create a rulebook for escape. This is Gide's supreme and perilous leap, the leap that makes him impossible to pin down. What others might find to condemn in him, this Proteus condemns in himself.
This brings up an extremely interesting question. Why is this subtle, Protean doctrine which constantly denies itself, why after thirty years is this powerful and dangerous book, still such a source of joy and enthusiasm to so many young men and women? Read Jacques Riviere's letters to Alain-Fournier; read in Martin du Gard's La Belle Saison the account of the hero's discovery of Les Nourritures Terrestres; listen, finally, to some of the young people about you. Many of them intensely admire this book--with an admiration quite beyond the literary. Here is why.
With the discovery of the harshness of life, the magical and sheltered days of childhood are followed, with nearly every adolescent, by a period of rebellion. This is the first adolescent "stage." The second stage is the discovery-- despite disillusionments and difficulties--of the beauty of life. This discovery ordinarily occurs between eighteen and twenty. It produces most of our young lyric poets.
The special thing about Gide's character, its originality and its force, is that, having been retarded in natural development by reason of the constraints of his upbringing, he went through this second stage when his mind was already relatively mature, the result being that this retardation enabled him to express the discoveries common to all young people in more perfect form. In other words, young people are beholden to a retarded and unregenerate adolescent for having so well expressed what they feel. Thus, the necessity, the universality, and the likelihood of endurance of a book like Les Nourritures Terrestres. A disciple (as in Wilde's fine story) is someone who seeks himself in the eyes of the master. The young look for and find themselves in Gide.
Readers will find this same lesson in immoralism in Le Promethee Mal Enchaine.... Gide calls this book a sotie, a Middle Ages term used to denote an allegorical satire in dialogue form. Prometheus thinks he is chained to the peaks of the Caucasus (just as Gide once was by so many shackles, barriers, battlements, and other scruples). Then he discovers that all that's needed is to want to be free, and he goes off with his eagle to Paris where in the hall of the New Moons he gives a lecture explaining that each of us is devoured by his eagle--vice or virtue, duty or passion. One must feed this eagle on love. "Gentlemen, one must love his eagle, love him so he'll become beautiful." The writer's eagle is his work, and he should sacrifice himself to it.