[Starkie was an English literary critic and an authority on twentieth-century French writers. In the following excerpt, she discusses Gide's complex psychological makeup and comments on his role as a moralist who "had aspirations towards spirituality, asceticism and Puritanism; but also leanings towards sensuality, self-indulgence and sin."]
In spite of its many contradictions there is one striking characteristic which runs through Gide's work in all its many phases, a deep embedded shining seam; his quality as a moralist, passionately interested in the problem of sin, what it is and where it hides itself, especially in the apparently virtuous and complacent. He describes himself as watching people coming out of Church on a Sunday, and he says that their thoughts are freshly washed and ironed by the sermon they have just heard and put away tidily in their minds, as in a cupboard. `I would like to rummage in the bottom-drawer', he declares, `I've got the key'. This bottom-drawer is the hidden part of man's nature. As a young man, when he looked at civilization, he was appalled by the pressure of outworn codes on the individual personality--the Church, society, political theories--, and he considered that, in his attempt to conform, the individual was obliged to develop an outward personality, a counterfeit personality. Discovery of our unacted desires, emancipation from the counterfeit personality, Gide thought, would bring freedom and fulfillment to the individual. It is the inner personality, beneath the counterfeit one, which he always tried to reach; that inner reality where good and evil overlap as in a marriage of Heaven and Hell. In reaching that inner personality he stirs up its troubled depths, drags up from the thick overlaying mud the hidden motives. This is for him the really fertile soil, the one which, in a state of nature, is overrun by exuberant vegetation and which must be cleared before it can be cultivated. He considered that those who had first studied man's nature did so only where it was most easily accessible and that only very gradually did psychologists come to realize all the hidden possibilities in man. All the troubled, tortured and distressed beings are those who interest Gide because he believes that more can be expected from them, when the subterranean forces have been liberated and subdued, than from the complacent. So he studies cases of disconcerting behavior, cases of apparent wrong-doing; he observes all the idiosyncrasies, the nervous tics, as signs which reveal the hidden obsessions; he studies all these unconscious gestures as evidence, just as a detective might look for fingerprints, or analyze grains of dust or tufts of hair. Most of the characters in Gide's writings have some maladjustment, or psychological flaw, which drives them to their doom, and often to the destruction of others as well.
Gide was a man who found his own harmony and movement in a duality of polarization. He needed this perpetual motion to obtain power for creation, just as some writers need to sin to gain the dynamic force of remorse. He had aspirations towards spirituality, asceticism and Puritanism; but also leanings towards sensuality, self-indulgence and sin. It was not the contrast and clash between Spleen and Ideal, which we find in Baudelaire, man's longing for purity and beauty in conflict with his inevitable proclivity towards sin and vice. That was not Gide's problem; his was one of equilibrium and balance. It was necessary for him to find that one point between both poles where he could freely balance, like a see-saw, from one to the other, backwards and forwards, with equal attraction to each, refusing the necessity for blame or remorse when he came down on the side of what is called vice. Yet, at the same time, he desperately needed sanction and approval, and to feel always that he was right. When composing Corydon he was not content with merely gaining freedom and immunity for his own instincts, he needed as well the sanction and support of science and history. In the same way, when he had finally accepted atheism, he claimed confirmation for his lack of faith in the Bible itself. This curious twist of his nature was the cause of the accusation of intellectual dishonesty which has so often, unjustly, been made against him. But it came rather from the deep uncertainty in him which no amount of success, no amount of experience, could cure. He needed intellectual sanction to feel that he was right, and to be right was what he wanted more than anything else. But he would not compromise in order to achieve it, and this led him into the contradictory state of desire for martyrdom, which is, in fact, an inverted way of being right. Unable to believe in himself without assurance, he was forced into that vacillation and twisting which are the most characteristic aspect of the Gidian personality....
Although Gide was particularly interested in his own problem as an individual, he was passionately interested as well in the larger problem of individualism in the world today. This brought him many of his readers in all parts of the world, those who seek a remedy to our present discontents. The problem of our time, as Gide sees it--the real crisis of our age--is how to reconcile the inalienable right of the individual to self-development, and the urgent necessity for the diminution of the misery of the masses. In these days of collectivity and massthinking, when security from the womb to the tomb is the goal, there is the danger that the individual may be strangled in the ever-increasing coils of bureaucratic red tape. For Gide there was no contradiction between belief in the individual and belief in the community--he had hoped to find the reconciliation in Communism--but he would not sacrifice the sanctity of each individual human soul, since he believed that only by being truly himself could man be of service or value to others. He had a horror of the slow ruminating of the herd, pedigree or otherwise, chewing over the same cud of ideas. He preferred to wander and be lost rather than follow the well mapped-out paths. He had the pride of the one lost sheep, safe in the knowledge that the Eternal Shepherd will scour the hillsides to look for him, and that there will be more rejoicing in Heaven at his being brought safely back to the fold, than for the ninety-nine which never strayed.
In his sixty years as a writer there had been a constant evolution in Gide's style of the same order as the transformation which occurred in his thought. At first he was a poet, preoccupied with himself, using language to express personal lyric feelings--there are some who regret the disappearance of this personal artist--and eventually he became a moralist with a style of pure and sober classicism. In his early writings he adopted the musical manner of the Symbolists and favored `la chanson grise', which gave full freedom to his imagination. By the end of the First World War, however, he had banished all extraneous ornamentation from his style. One need only compare La Symphonie Pastorale with the early works to realize the difference. The complete simplicity of the language now matches the dazzling whiteness of the snow. Later his language became still more stripped and bare as he perfected the art of Racine, of expressing most by saying least, a strict form containing and restraining deep emotion.
Although all through his life Gide went out with eager anticipation towards the future, he remained, after he reached maturity, classical and universal in the truest meaning of the expression, and became a repository of the past, to protect it against destruction. European civilization for him, in spite of Christianity, grew from Graeco-Roman roots; and, although he was interested in foreign literatures, reading and absorbing much from such writers as Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Blake and Nietzsche, he nevertheless felt deep down that it was in French classical culture that it had reached its most perfect flowering.
After an examination of sixty years and eighty odd volumes of Gide's writings the impression remains that he is a moralist, psychologist and stylist rather than a pure novelist or dramatist. Each of his novels is an attitude which he adopts for the sake of argument, of speculation--he tells us so himself--and that makes him less of a novelist than a moralist; less of a novelist than an investigator. He does not concern himself with creating complex characters giving the illusion of life; he is less interested in men than in man, in the classical sense. `Man is more interesting than men', he says, `it is he whom God has made in his own image'. He is less anxious to make an amalgam of contradictions than to isolate some special characteristic. He is a chemist who isolates certain substances to obtain their purest essence. Each of his works is a chemical experiment in purifying some particular quality or vice which he pursues to its logical conclusion.
La Porte Etroite is probably Gide's most perfect and moving book, but his Journal is perhaps his most characteristic and original. It is a work unique in French literature--indeed in any literature; a treasure-house of discussion on every artistic and intellectual movement, on every moral problem, of more than sixty years. As a whole it may lack form and unity--indeed how could it be otherwise, with its million words dealing with so many topics and phases of life; but individual passages are amongst his finest writing. He has written few pages of greater beauty, simplicity and poignancy, than his description of the death of the writer Charles-Louis Philippe, and his funeral amongst the simple peasants who were his family....
The tangled skein that is Gide will one day have to be unraveled. There is in everyone, however many the contradictions, one main thread which runs through everything, outlining the individual pattern and making it clear. In Gide it will be found to be a spiritual thread. All through his life, in spite of lapses--even in these lapses--it has been spiritual values that he has always sought, albeit sometimes in the byways. Proust had called his own work, the work of his life-time, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu; Gide might have called his A la Recherche d'une Ame. `All our thoughts which have not God for object', he said, `are of the realm of death'.
Gide's ultimate fate will be to be considered as a moralist in the great French seventeenth-century tradition--the tradition of La Rochefoucauld and Pascal--whose integrity and nobility of thought, whose purity and harmony of style, give him an immortal place amongst the great masters of French literature....