return to immoralist index

    Justin O'Brien
    Portrait of Andre Gide, pp. 169-177
    Secker & Warburg Ltd., England, 1953.

    These reflections-which led to the creation of such characters as Menalque, Philoctetes, Candaules, and Saul, to the intense satire of Paludes, the lyricism of the Nourritures, and the powerful symbol of Prometheus-found their most urgent and most personal expression in Gide's first novel. Finished on 25 October 1901, L'Immoraliste (The Immoralist) was published in May 1902 in an edition of 300 copies, the number at which the young author then estimated his potential public. On sending the book to Francis Jammes, he said: "I have lived it for four years and have written it to put it behind me. I suffer a book as one suffers an illness. I now respect only the books that all but kill their authors." The torment of Michel, the protagonist of the novel, is the very torment Gide had been experiencing. Having undergone a physical and spiritual awakening, Michel returns to civilization bearing the secret of a resuscitated Lazarus. After catching a glimpse, during his convalescence, of another and neglected self, he deliberately sets out to discover "the authentic creature, the 'old Adam', that the Gospel cast off." A scholar himself, he compares himself to a palimpsest on which recent writings cover and obscure a very ancient, infinitely more valuable, text. He begins by using his accumulated learning as a means to efface the deposit formed by centuries of learning and get back to the crude original. Eventually enamored of what he finds, he would identify him self with it, rejecting what now seems to him the encrusted veneer of his own culture. Candaules and Gyges personified a dramatic conflict between refined culture and brute instinct; but in Michel culture and instinct are bitterly opposed in one person, as they were in the writer himself.

    Now, on the most elementary plane, the conflict between culture and instinct can be translated into an opposition between mind and body, and the novel treats also of their necessary equilibrium. The young historian who marries Marceline seems pure intellect, but his nearly fatal attack of tuberculosis can be cured solely by an exclusive concern with the physical. Telling his own story, he apologizes thus: "I am going to speak at length of my body. I am going to speak of it so much that it will seem to you at first that I am forgetting the mind's share. [. . .] I did not have enough strength to maintain a double life, as for the mind and the rest, I told myself, I shall think of them later on when I am better." Of the three parts of the novel, the first reveals his transformation, the second de scribes his momentary balance between the intellectual and the physical (while he is preparing his course and governing his estate during the first summer in Normandy), followed by a gradual leaning toward the purely physical, and the third re ports his vertiginous descent to a life of sheer sensation. The germ of this aspect of the novel, like that of so many later developments in Gide's thought, can be found in the Nourritures: "Then I wrote: 'I owed the salvation of my flesh only to the irremediable poisoning of my soul.' Later, I ceased to under stand at all what I had meant by that." Michel's entire evolution is contained in those two sentences.

    In the course of his "palpitating discovery" of life and of himself, Michel concludes, as Menalque of the Nourritures had done before him and as Nathanael had been taught, that his individual value lies in what distinguishes him from others. At the mid-point of the novel, in fact, just where the relation ship between Michel and Marceline is reversed and (as in the device of the backward-flowing stream of the Voyage d'Urien) the action begins to repeat itself in the opposite direction, Michel encounters his former acquaintance Menalque.

    In later years Gide felt that the figure of Menalque was better drawn in L'Immoraliste than in the Nourritures; in any case he serves here the specific purpose of precipitating Michel's evolution. Before the novel was finished, Oscar Wilde had died; and Gide could safely attribute to his creature more of the Irish man's features. In addition to the cosmopolitanism, hedonism, homosexuality, scorn of principles, and love of danger he had revealed in the earlier work, he now has been the victim of "an absurd, a shameful, scandalous trial" resulting in public ostracism. Insolent in his manner, he indulges in frequent Wildian epigrams, such as: "I cannot expect my virtues of everyone; it is remarkable enough if I find in them my vices" and "Regrets, remorse, repentance are but erstwhile joys seen from the back." At some length, he even discourses in a way that momentarily makes him indistinguishable from the Gilbert of "The Critic as Artist." The non-Wildian features-his sobriety, courage, abnegation, piratical appearance, and positive discoveries-are there partly to keep him from seeming a portrait, and even more to enhance the impression he makes on Michel and on the reader.

    Menalque awakens Michel's thought by anticipating it, as the Devil does in his famous dialogue with Ivan Karamazov. Listening to him, Michel would like to, but cannot, contradict; accordingly he becomes more annoyed with himself than with his interlocutor. He admits that Menalque's remarks "did not teach me anything very new, but they suddenly laid bare my thought, a thought that I had been covering with so many veils that I had almost been able to hope it was stifled." Despite Menalque's resemblances to the one whom Gide called "the great hedonist," is it not possible that he is also an alter ego of Michel (as we saw him to be a projection of the author in the Nourritures) and the conversations with him the exteriorization of an inner dialogue? In this sense Menalque would represent a better, more mature, and more successful Michel.

    Now, Menalque, while inveighing against the constraint and imitation by which each man fashions himself a distorted, untrue personality, voices an idea toward which the protagonist is barely groping. He says: "The element of difference one feels in oneself is precisely the single rare possession one has, and it constitutes the value of each. . ." Much later Michel himself extends this thought, asking: "What further possibility lies in man? This is what it was important for me to know. What man has said up to now, is that all he could say? Has he overlooked nothing in himself? Is he condemned merely to repeating himself? . . . And every day there grew in me the vague feeling of untapped resources-covered, hidden, and stifled by cultures, proprieties, and moral codes." In such a reflection Michel transcends himself: he will fulfill his possibilities in an effort to know what man in general can achieve. From one point of view, then, his entire effort might be seen as a Promethean striving to realize progress for mankind.

    Encouraged by Menalque, Michel rapidly becomes a Nietzschean immoralist, defying traditions and moral codes, scorning the weak and exalting the strong, overriding every consideration of duty, decency, and love in order to assert him self and achieve his uniqueness. Like the Gidian Candaules, he admires himself for his daring; the novel's epigraph, from Psalm 139, would not be ironic to him, so closely does it reflect his attitude: "I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made." He starts, to be sure, with an act of will, and in this he differs from the Gidian Saul. But as he progresses, it becomes clear that he too, though less passive, is yielding to his inclination, taking the easy, selfish path while congratulating himself that he is blazing a difficult trail on which few will have the courage to follow. Most subtly Gide suggests the stages of his evolution from his interest in the Arab children as symbols of health to a preference for the unsubmissive and strong ones, and eventually for the bold and lawless Moktir, from his gradual self-identification with the emperor Athalaric, who chose to be a barbarian, to his affinity with the worst elements among the farm-workers and woods men in Normandy, from his neglect of Marceline during her miscarriage to his abandoning of her the night of her death. In case the reader has not foreseen the inevitable culmination of that development, the rapid last part of the novel contains many a clear indication. Pushed by Marceline, who clearly senses all that is implicit in his behavior, Michel is obliged to admit that "in each creature, the worst instinct seemed to me the most sincere." And soon thereafter, recognizing all he is destroying in both their lives, he concludes: "I have sought, I have found what constitutes my value: a sort of obstinate persistence in the worst."

    Although Michel, who narrates his entire story to a group of friends, refers to "my crime, if you wish to call it thus," he dispassionately refrains from any judgment. He has called his friends to his aid; yet he is far from confessing total defeat and admitting, as Saul does, that he is dispossessed by his demons. Characteristically, he speaks rather of all he has sup pressed, which he fears may some day take its revenge. He still cherishes, instead, a Nietzschean ideal of self-surpassing. At the very beginning of his narrative, he tells his faithful friends that he wants no other aid from them but to hear his story, which he feels he must tell. And he adds: "For I have reached such a point in my life that I can no longer go beyond." Strangely, no one has ever pointed out to what an extent that significant remark echoes Wilde's words to Gide before leaving Algiers to stand trial in London, as reported by Gide in December 1901 just after finishing L'Immoraliste: "But how can I be prudent? That would be retracing my steps backward. I must go as far as possible. . . I cannot go further. . . Something must hap pen, something else. . ." Likewise Gide's Oedipus will say after blinding himself: "I had reached that point which I could no longer go beyond except by using myself as a springboard."

    Profiting from the teaching of Nietzsche and the example of Wilde, Michel seeks to define himself by trying to divest his instinctive self of the accretions of culture. In other words, he chooses "the old Adam" as the authentic man and opposes sincerity to morality. Deliberately (though half resisting in the beginning, and then acquiring momentum as he progresses), he lives a dangerous experiment already outlined in the Nourritures terrestres. To a friend in July 1902 Gide admitted that the two books were fundamentally the same, the story of L'Immoraliste being born between the lines of the Nourritures. In the same letter he described the novel as "full of bitter ashes, of dried tears, and of derision." Like the immediately preceding works, this first novel is a study in individuality; and, in so far as it can be summed up in Michel's disabused maxim that "Knowing how to free oneself is nothing; the difficult thing is knowing how to be free," it forms a critique of the doctrine expressed in the dithyrambic work of 1897. In Gide's original self-liberation he had intentionally cast off all restraint; but immediately he had recognized that discipline was inseparable from true freedom.

    It is most important that in the course of writing his novel Andre Gide discovered the individualist anarchism of Max Stirner. Under that name the German Johann Kaspar Schmidt had advocated as early as 1845 the liberation of the individual from all social and moral bonds, total amoralism, and the complete supremacy of the individual. His major work, Der Einzige und sein Eigenthum, appeared in French in 1900 as L'Unique et sa propriete and in English seven years later as The Ego and His Own. Gide's review of the French edition came out in the Ermitage in early 1900 as one of his "Lettres a Angele"; at the end its composition is dated 10 December 1899-that is, ten months before the completion of L'Immoraliste. Hence Stirner may have contributed to the novel quite as much as Zarathustra did, for the review begins thus: "In connection with Stirner rather than with Nietzsche, I wish to speak to you briefly of 'the dangers of individualism.' I fear, Angele, I fear the failures of individualism as much as all other failures. Let us leave failures and the second-rate to established religions; they will be better off; we too. Consequently let us not urge toward individualism what has nothing individual about it; the result would be woeful." And it ends with this exhortation: "For pity's sake, no individualism! For the sake of individuals. Never encourage great men; and as for the others: discourage! discourage! . . ." It is certainly possible to see Michel as an anarchist of the Stirner type, a failure of individualism because he had no individuality worth developing.

    The moment L'Immoraliste appeared, readers criticized Gide either for holding Michel up as an example or for depicting so unattractive a character. Accordingly the author added to the second edition, which came out six months later, a very brief preface defending his right to present a spiritual crisis without judging or taking sides and claiming, as he had felt necessary with other books, that he had aimed solely to create a work of art. But privately he had already judged, and severely judged, his hero in a letter of 8 July 1902 to Arthur Fontaine, the sociologist and economist, stating: "The special plea would have begun if I had decorated my hero with very noble and sumptuous deeds. But no, I do not think him capable of them. Everything he does that is not childish is cruel or lamentably vile, and the exaltation of his thought (or of what gradually takes the place of it) contributes to no real beauty. He is not well; he has become so. He is not free; he is anarchical. [. . .] And what does he do, great gods of Greece? He shaves off his beard; he debauches while debauching himself; he covers himself with vermin; he kills his wife." Nothing could be more categorical or correspond better to the indignation aroused by Michel, for which no one, as Gide said in his preface, was grateful to the author.

    Because the Nourritures had preached, readers sought preaching of the same kind in L'Immoraliste. Because the cynicism and immoralism of the original Menalque had irritated them in that earlier work, they found the same attitudes ex pressed here. But they failed to notice that the new Menalque had achieved equilibrium without sacrificing anyone else to his ends, that he was making a positive contribution to society, and finally that he possessed admirable virtues. But the Menalque of the novel suffered also from the reprobation cast upon Michel. So did the author, for Michel had spoken throughout in the first person; when Si le grain ne meurt . . . became public in 1926, it was clear to everyone how largely Gide had drawn upon the facts of his own life in imagining Michel's. From that point on, few were the critics who could distinguish Gide's biography from that of his character.

    Furthermore, the question of Gide's debt to Nietzsche in all his works published between 1897 and 1903, but particularly in this novel-arose so often and formed the subject of so many studies animated by the desire to pin down precisely what would not admit of precision that Gide came to appear to some as a mere French disciple of the German thinker. To one student of the subject, Henri Drain, whose essay appeared in 1932, Gide wrote of the difference between his novel and Thus Spake Zarathustra as revealingly as he had written thirty years earlier to Arthur Fontaine: "It is easy enough for you to speak of the 'abyss separating them.' Obviously! Zarathustra displays a triumph; L'Immoraliste relates an error, a failure, the very parody of a Nietzschean triumph. One is a book of propaganda; the other is a book of warning. (Like La Porte etroite, moreover. The story of Michel, like the story of Alissa, is merely a plunge into the excessive, a case of the drunken Helot, and proof by the absurd.)" Certainly this clearly defines Gide's intention in writing his novel. But it would be unjust to generalize from such a statement or to conclude, as Albert Thibaudet did in 1928, that, because Gide possesses a Norman sense of realism a la Flaubert and belongs to the noble tradition of French moralistes, "His novels offer much rather a gallery of infra-men (sous-hommes), like L'Education sentimentale, than an apotheosis of the superman (surhomme)." The realist in Gide begins to appear only with L'Immoraliste, for Philoctetes, Candaules, and Prometheus are far from deserving to be classed as infra-men, whatever may be said of Cocles, Damocles, Saul, and Michel. Even among the latter, as we have seen, there is a vast difference in the mere fact that Michel strives to surpass himself.

    That not all readers accepted in the same spirit his failure to do so is evident from an enthusiastic prose-poem published by L'Ermitage in 1903 under the title "To the Immoralist." It had been written in July 1902 in Sweden by Jacques Copeau, then twenty-two years old, the same youth who a year before had thrilled to the voice that spoke to him from the pages of the Nourritures terrestres, and it ended: "O human type! do not let yourself be broken into fragments; do not let yourself be enslaved: we are lovingly awaiting your next crime, your supreme beauty. . ." The wait was a long one, for the next crime did not occur until twelve years later, when Lafcadio Wluiki thrust Amedee Fleurissoire from a moving railway carriage between Rome and Naples.