[In the following excerpt, Michaud discusses Gide as moralist and thinker.]
From his Cahiers d'André Walter (1891), to his drama Oedipe (1932) André Gide's literary career has run uninterrupted for forty years ...
The Cahiers d'André Walter, written at twenty, showed him tortured by contradictions in feeling and thought, between platonic love and the erotic impulse, between mysticism and the critical sense. He called the Bible, Spinoza, poetry and music to his rescue, and he heroically strove to find a new and personal means of expression. The success of the book did not come up to his expectations, but it brought him into touch with the late Parnassians and the Symbolists, with Heredia and Mallarme. It marked the beginning of what may be called his Symbolist period, the period of his lyrical treatises from Le Traite du Narcisse to Les Nourritures Terrestres. Gide had found all the fascination of the visible world and was already bent on brooding much over himself. Like Narcissus he went to look at himself in the water of the springs, but the water flowed, and how could he grasp and hold the following phantoms? And which is true, the water or the images in the water?
Gide was already passionately searching for reality through appearances, and reflection was as dear to him as dreams. He was a poet with a conscience, intent on finding some faith beyond images and words--some faith beyond his books. How pallid, dull and prosaic life was, Gide told half sarcastically, half tragically in Paludes, a smart handbook of disillusion. There Tityre did not find any better solace than to fish for worms in the mud while wishing to leave everybody and everything behind. There, as in his other treatises, Gide longed for something new, something unforeseen and gratuitous. To start on a journey somewhere and to stop nowhere! Urien, in Le Voyage d'Urien, went on an imaginary journey and reached the polar sea only to wish that he had never been there. The plight of this world was ennui and the only duty was evasion. Anything was better than to live in the dark caves and become blind because of not knowing how to open one's eyes. He had found one of his leit-motifs.
Gide himself, however, did not sail for the Arctic, but in 1893 through southern Italy he left for Algeria, where he spent two years, and we owe to this journey Les Nourritures Terrestres. This book is Gide's song of songs, a symphony in two movements, an allegro at the beginning and an andante at the end. This hymn to the joy of life ends as a dirge on the vanity of all things. To escape from his scruples he had then come to a capital decision. He would surrender to instinctive life without any reserve and disregard all he had been told to obey. He bathed in cold springs, courted shepherds, loafed in the oases, sang the roundelay of desires, the lure of the desert, and listened to the cynical teachings of Menalque. He tried, as he declared, to gain his freedom of mind through a thorough exhaustion of all his senses. To cleanse body and soul and be born anew, to find eternity in the bliss of every second, this was the first part of the symphony. Then, alas! came the funeral march and the passionate pilgrim returned empty-handed. Desire was all, provided that it was never fulfilled; traveling was fine if only one stopped nowhere. No thirst could be quenched, no beauty could be grasped, and Gide advised his disciple Nathanael to throw away his song of songs when he had read it. There was nothing to seize and nothing to love; at least one could remain free and ready to start again. Who knows but that wisdom meant giving away all things and above all the desire of possession? Who knows but that self-renunciation was the sum of all wisdom?
Gide dramatized his North African experience in his novel L'Immoraliste .... the meaning of which is clearly indicated by the title. In this book he went searching more and more for what he called "the complete possibilities of man," and, as he declared, for the full disposal and employment of oneself through the painstaking exercise of his mind. Could one be daring enough to "turn the page," renounce morals, and be born anew? A man was the only law unto himself. Let him stretch to the utmost all his energies, good and bad, to reach happiness. Culture has killed life; let us revive it through instinct. The story took us to Normandy and to Algeria. Michel, the hero, was married without love to Marceline, and Marceline was an obstacle in his path. Michel was a scholar, but life had become dearer to him than books, and all the dearer as he was threatened with consumption. He would leave all behind, shed the "old man" and exert himself beyond good and evil. Michel answered the call of the wild and lost his moral sense systematically. Health came back to him in the oases, where he consorted with young Arabs. At the advice of his tempter, Menalque, he shed all his prejudices and his education.
We then see him practicing his new ethics on his Normandy estate, where he went so far as to play the poacher at his own expense. He had discovered the dark side of life and went back to Africa to perfect his experience. What would become of poor and devoted Marceline in the company of such a superman? The question was hardly worth debating at this stage, and he let Marceline die in order to better find himself and be happy. But happiness did not come, and at the end of the book Michel had lost all his enthusiasm. Lonely and empty-handed he sent an S.O.S. to his friends in Paris to help him start on a new journey--to what destination we are not told. Would he start again for the sake of starting, as Gide recommended in his treatise on the prodigal son (Le Retour de l'Enfant prodigue), or would he learn at last the lesson of self-sacrifice and renunciation as taught in Philoctete and Le Roi Candaule? Gide never converted his characters; he left them to their fate and wrote new books.
The leit-motif of renunciation versus self-love was the theme of La Porte etroite, where once more Gide staged the conflict of instincts and Christian morals. The story reads as a plea for spiritual versus natural love, for sanctity against passion, until we come to the end of the book to learn from Alissa's journals that pride had been her real motive in refusing Jerome. She really loved him and would have been his had he been daring enough. Both were victims of their scruples. Their story was the tragedy of timidity and pride parading under the disguise of mysticism and platonic love, the tragedy of hypocrisy. Thus the book shows us Gide already in possession of most of his major themes and already very deft in handling his double-edged tactics. His casuistry could already be summed up in a doctrine of salvation through surrendering to one's instincts. The only true morals taught the integral fulfillment of instinctive desires and the necessity of exploring the worst in man unhampered. No limits nor taboos must be set to personal experience, and only when all his possibilities have been tried can man be put on his road to God.
That Gide insisted on preaching his new morals under the disguise of the gospels shows well what grasp his Puritan education had on him. Even at the time of his most romantic escapades he never parted with his Bible. Long before he wrote his comment on the gospels in Numquid et tu and his book on Dostoievsky he had found in the Scriptures a text on which he became very fond of commenting. "He who will save his soul shall lose it" was already quoted in La Porte etroite as the A B C of Christianity as interpreted by Gide, and it came back in all his books. In Gide's interpretation it teaches the renunciation not of evil but of good, and especially the doing away with self-respect. It holds sin to be a safer way to perfection than so-called virtue, for virtue is always pride. Sin teaches humility, which is the only approach to God. Let us try our worst instincts, were it only to know that they exist; let us revel in all that is dark and sinister in us, so that at the end of our distress we can find true good and clamor for it. Of all sins hypocrisy is the greatest and all the thoughts in us must be confessed. Let us not shun temptation but rather court it.
Temptation, sin, renunciation, confession, humility-- Gide's vocabulary, if not his thoughts, is so far orthodox; and so is the homage he pays to the devil. Evil is no empty word for him; as for Dostoievsky, whom he so much admires, evil is a synonym for the evil one, Satan, in whose existence he confessedly believes and whom he restores to his rights in his last books.
Gide knows well that his moral program runs counter to accepted standards, and this explains the stand he has taken in his later books. Les Caves du Vatican, Les Faux-Monnayeurs, are a denunciation of hypocrisy and deceit in a light or a tragic mood. Public morals are a system of taboos meant to forbid man an access to his dark side, a system of conventions intended to hide and disguise man in his own eyes. It puts a premium on duplicity and makes people live a double life as cheaters and counterfeiters. Society has been prospering on the interdiction of what is most personal and original in the individual man or woman. It has made a law of conformity and encouraged every individual to force upon others a false and ready-made portrait of himself. Most personalities are not natural but manufactured, and, as Gide would have us believe, "we live counterfeited." Nobody dares to be himself and there is no prospect of change and progress in what we are. In a world where everybody cheats, an honest man can only be a mountebank. So let us not be duped.
Against social hypocrisy Gide staged his doctrine of "actes gratuits"--of gratuitous and free actions--and he entrusted the defense of his doctrine to one of his most puzzling characters, young and unconventional Lafcadio. Gratuitous actions are the keystone of his ethics and the consistent conclusion of his plea for individual freedom. They set aside causation and motives in conduct and proclaim the right of every man to invent ex tempore his actions. They are, to his mind, an efficient weapon to break the moral and social structure and evade what is called responsibility. When he saves a girl from fire or throws an old man out of a train Lafcadio can neither be rewarded nor punished, since he acted without intention. There can be a legal sanction to his acts, according as they are beneficial or harmful to society, but he cannot be judged, since there is nothing to judge. Did not the gospels say, "Judge not, that ye be not judged"? (See his Souvenirs de la cour d'Assises, some personal recollections of the criminal courts.) Any act to be pure must be personal, entire and immediate. Forethought and pre-vision forestall innocence. Pride begins when a man reflects too long before he acts and asks himself questions about what he must or can do. Such action is a sin and a challenge to God. If you cannot act, be content with thinking, and maybe somebody will come to translate your thought into a deed, a poor imitation of what could have been an original masterpiece. Act first and think afterward, as does Lafcadio. Your action then cannot be labeled or pigeonholed, and it does not bind you to any laws and standards. Spontaneity is better than ethics. Gide himself, however, qualified his own theory and felt the flaws in his system when he had Lafcadio contradicted by an opponent and left in a quandary in respect to his own acts at the end of the book.
Les Caves du Vatican was called a "sotie" or light farce by the author. Irony ran on a high key from the beginning to the end of the book. Fantastic as it seemed, Gide had not invented the great Vatican swindle, but had found it in the newspapers. Thenceforth he fondly collected the casual news in the papers--what the French call faits divers--especially criminal cases, as a key to the study of human behavior undisguised. He did it especially to write Les Faux-Monnayeurs, the central and final episodes of which were found in the newspaper columns. In that book, according to his own confession, he tried to "demonetize beautiful feelings" and dramatize the way social and moral constraints check and stifle our best possibilities. It is a tragedy of appearances, of what is and of what seems to be. So far Gide had not dared to call his stories novels, but recits. Now at fifty-five he went systematically into fiction writing, and composed what may be considered the great book of the post-war period, pouring into it, as he said, all he knew of life. The title, as translated into English, tells the true meaning of the book. It takes us among counterfeiters, young and old, in a literal and figurative sense. It is a searching investigation of duplicity, a game where cards have been falsified and where every player cheats himself and others. Some do it unwittingly, others deliberately. It is the book of Gide's sympathies and antipathies, a mirror of his life and of that of his times. He took a cruel revenge on his Puritan boyhood, his parents and educators, and made an excruciating study of delinquent youth. What a Mephistophelian epic, what an assault on conformity, what a lie given to the traditionalists, and what a dissection of the human heart!
Gide's most original trick in the book was to give it to us to read just as it was being thought out and written by the author himself, who was present in the story. Reality, Gide told us, interested him only so far as it was turned into a work of art, and so it was, under our very eyes. Edouard's journal in the book (supplemented by Le Journal des Faux-Monnayeurs) was a treatise on the art of fiction written by a novelist eager to conciliate the French tradition and modern and foreign models. Concerning psychology we were told that there were new depths to explore of which French novelists had not been aware, and Edouard's views in this respect were endorsed by a professional psychoanalyst in the novel. Concerning art Edouard took the stand against realism and claimed that fiction must put side by side art and reality. His first duty was to be methodically concrete, but particulars had no value to him unless they were made universal. This was the classical method, than which none was ever more perfect.
This example illustrates very well Gide's favorite method and that inner necessity which forced him always to mix thought with art and fill with comments the margins of his books, an original but not, perhaps, an ideal process. Notes and comments cannot well make up for that perfect fusion of art and life which has been achieved by the great classicists.
Taken all together The Counterfeiters is Gide's great work, a sinister and cynical book for those readers who fear to enter the inferno of life, but nevertheless containing some gleams of hope. The devil roams at large in its pages, but there are some guardian angels, and young Bernard, the hero, is not altogether unsympathetic. Gide took up counterfeiting again in his novelettes, Isabelle, La Symphonie pastorale, L'Ecole des Femmes, and Robert. There, once more, men and women played at blind man's buff and cheated each other more or less knowingly. The blind maid in the Symphony was a transparent symbol of the moral blindness of the minister, her guardian. The School for Wives and Robert drew two contradictory portraits of a man who forged his identity to the woman he loved.
The critical and personal character of Gide's works must not be overemphasized to the detriment of his positive and more general teachings. We may well conclude from his own confessions in and outside his books that his stories are, to a large extent, his own story and an apologia pro vita sua, a record of his evasions. As elusive a personality as his could not be held in a book, but it was there just the same, and critics traced his leit-motifs back to the idiosyncrasies and anomalies which he confessed so candidly in his autobiography. They hinted that perhaps he was a hypocrite himself and used sophistry to hide his abnormalities behind the gospels. Evasion, instability, gratuitous actions and the gospel of sincerity at any cost were the consequence of his personal obsessions and were desperate efforts to cover his morbid propensities.
Yet the value of Gide's books cannot be made to depend only upon his confessions. In the form of exhortations and maxims they are a pathetic plea in favor of a new life. They recommend a free exploration of human resources beyond taboos and barriers. Away with hypocrisy, let us shun happiness and foreclose all our mortgages; let man arise, confess his sins, gird his loins and start on a new journey. Let him live a dangerous life, court risks and adventures and find new gods. Invention is better than imitation and heresy than conformity. Nothing is simple in life; let us like and cultivate our complexities. Who knows but that the impulses we call abnormal, strange and morbid can put us on the way to new discoveries and creations?
"I say that man was made to grow, not to stop," quotes Gide from Browning. Man has not said his last word, and his soul can still expand. Let an author write not to please but to stir and disturb. Let him push his fellow men toward new destinies through the forbidden lands of life.
These formal books, treatises, dramas, farces and novels represent only one phase of Gide's literary activities. They show the point where his secret thoughts came to the surface, but they were fed by many rivulets under ground. He has turned into art only a part of his thoughts. There is a large collection of diaries, letters, notes and essays which must be read to know him fully. Art to him comes only second to thought, and while most writers have put themselves wholly in their books, Gide has kept the best of himself for his marginalia. His influence spread largely through these side issues. It grew slowly at first and unofficially, but little by little he emerged as an intellectual leader.... His real triumph came after the war at the age of fifty, and he presided over the brilliant 1920-1930 decade. Then his early books were reprinted and his position could no longer be challenged. He could go undisguised in public and preach or shock as he liked. He did so by publishing his autobiography, Si le Grain ne meurt, and Corydon, in which he put into practise his doctrine that all thoughts must be confessed.
The young insurgents flocked around his banners and proclaimed him their master. It seemed that he had been twenty-five years in advance of the new generation and that he had drawn its portrait before it was born. Here were the new revoltees with their restlessness, their anarchy and their critical awareness. The Counterfeiters was a true epic of the new times. Gide at fifty was still young for liberty, and he hailed the new revolutions, stretched his hand to Dada and renounced all the past. His hour had come, although he knew many contradictions and fell a prey to bitter attacks (at the hands of MM. Henri Massis and Henri Beraud especially). He was not yet at the end of his journey. He had shown the way toward new standards, toward sincerity, integrity, the joys of life and of self-sacrifice. Midway between Nietzsche and Dostoievsky he had announced the advent of a new man. "Sprung out of the unknown," exclaimed Oedipus, "no more past, no more models. Nothing to lean on. All to be created, fatherland, ancestors to be invented and discovered. Nobody to imitate but myself." Oedipus had slain the Sphinx; there were no more sphinxes; the solution of our problems was within ourselves.
Gide so far had paraded as a rugged individualist. His journey to the Congo in 1925 made a Socialist of him after seeing civilization at work. A man could not be happy alone, and everybody must have his fair share of worldly goods and "nourritures terrestres." He came back from Africa with two books purposely written in a prosaic and matter-of-fact way. He had found men among the savages and savages among the civilized white men.... Men were the same everywhere and there was no exoticism in Gide's eyes. Pierre Loti's nostalgia was not his; he spent most of his time investigating the conditions in that part of France's colonial empire, and his reports were none too pleasant....
As a writer Gide has acted as a disintegrating force in French literature. His literary evolution has followed closely his moral evolution. He renounced one by one all literary adornments to reach a sort of asceticism. He left behind all artistic writing as it was practised in his early days. He flirted with Parnasse and with Symbolism and soon renounced them. Heredia and Mallarme could not be his masters, and as he advanced in life he gave up more and more imagism and lyricism to adhere to the naked truth and the naked style. To music, which was so dear to him, he preferred design. To his mind classicism alone made an art of necessity. Classicism acted, in regard to romanticism, as an instrument of control and sublimation. Romanticism gave the emotions and that inner ardor without which there can be no art, but classicism provided the discipline and the rules....
In regard to his contemporaries none contributed more than he to bringing to a close the nineteenth century tradition and to alienating the new generation from the literary leaders in the first two decades of the new century. This he did through his searching criticism of some of the leaders of the pre-war period, ruining, for instance, Paul Bourget's traditionalism through his attack on family standards, challenging Barres's position in regard to the "uprooted," dismissing Anatole France as a writer without a conscience and Romain Rolland as a sentimentalist. Call no man your master, but if you need models, follow the example of such men as Stendhal, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Dostoievsky or Whitman. Writing must put us on our road to life and to freedom, and it must renew itself as everything else. The World War spared nothing; it destroyed cathedrals and factories and upset standards; why should words and the art of writing be spared? How despair of the future when such artists as Proust and Valéry were alive? No limits, no definitions--this, in the last analysis, is Gide's motto. Let it also be a warning to his readers and critics....