return to vatican index


Albert Guerard
Andre Gide, pp. 128-138
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1951.




Like most of its predecessors, Les Caves du Vatican (1914) was intended to be a "demoralizing" book. Gide knew that nothing could be more disturbing than to present a problem - the plight of the deracinated individualist - without also presenting a solution. Bourgeois orthodoxy, even the orthodoxy of bourgeois anticlericalism, could be as sterile as the conservative's pragmatist Catholicism. But the alternative of complete relativism might lead to boredom and crime. To ruffle the complacency of relativist and dogmatist alike was no doubt one of Gide's first intentions, though beyond this he hoped to discredit both the accepted literary psychology and the established patterns of realistic fiction. All this he meant seriously enough. But Les Caves du Vatican is also- and this critics are apt to forget-an "entertainment": a riotous blend of the Arabian Nights, Tom Jones, and La Chartreuse de Parme. One reader may find in it the "agony of an era in progress toward dissolution"; 52 another may consider it a vicious anti-Catholic satire. And critic after critic has been forced into a circular debate on the possibility of gratuitous action. Perhaps only the maligned casual reader sees that Les Caves du Vatican is above all a very funny book.

It is hard to say which of the purposes was dominant; we shall find, in any event, that art once again escaped intention. Like L'Immoraliste and La Porte etroite, Les Caves du Vatican germinated over a period of at least fifteen years.53 By 1905 Anthime Armand-Dubois had acquired both his name and his obscene wen, though the latter was to change its position slightly.54 There is perhaps some hint of the novel as it stands in Gide's disapproval of "Gerard" (Paul Gide), and in his professed curiosity concerning the psychology of the vagabond? 55 His first full reference to the book, in 1909, argues that there is no essential difference between the ordinary man and the scoundrel. Lafcadio's history is to be that of an honest man who, having taken one false step, becomes a criminal. "In the path of 'sin,' only the first step is difficult." 56 But by 1910 the desire to experiment with a new form may have been more urgent than the impulse to psychological speculation. Then Gide seemed chiefly impatient with the sober limitations of the impersonal realistic novel, and dreamed of his new book as something entirely different, written in a "merry" style.57 His experiences as a juror on the Rouen Cour d'Assises in 1912 reminded him once again of the inadequacies of orthodox psychology. But the first pages of his novel are those of a writer willing to be seduced into any amusing adventure; and who will allow nothing, least of all "realism," to interfere with his fun. The resources of absurdity have no limit, once one has divided society into the shrewd adventurers and the innocent or complacent dupes. Lafcadio Wluki is the speculative picaro of the tale, but the epic adventures belong to the pious and chaste Amedee Fleurissoire, who sets out from Pau to deliver the Pope-said to be imprisoned in the Castle St. Angelo, with a Freemason reigning in his stead. Amedee (who had promised a friend and disappointed suitor never to sleep with his wife Arnica) is devoured by bedbugs in Marseilles, by fleas in Toulon, by mosquitoes in Genoa. He arrives exhausted in Rome, to make the classical error of taking a bawdy-house for a hotel, and does not feel qualified to continue on his mission until absolved by a bogus cardinal.

The extravagant comedy of Amedee's sufferings is tempered by the more serious satire of his worthy brothers-in law. Anthime Armand-Dubois tries to drive God into an ever-narrowing corner with his experiments on the conditioned reflexes of rats, and expresses his anticlericalism by desecrating a statue of the Virgin; he would not be out of place in Antic Hay. He is converted by a dream, and ruined by the Church's ingratitude; then restored to atheism by rheumatic pains and the rumor that there are two Popes. But if Gide was disturbed by the easy and boastful conversion of so many of his friends, he still felt the genial Catholic pragmatist, the conservative moralist with no real religious conviction, to be the true enemy. (History itself had supplied the grotesque fact: the Catholic party had found it difficult to believe that Leo XIII could ask the faithful to support the Third Republic.) Julius de Baraglioul, who by writing many bad books had reached the threshold of the French Academy, is a lesser Bourget. Intelligent enough to see the feebleness of his Cartesian literary psychology, he adopts Lafcadio's theory of gratuitous action as the basis for his next book. But the spectacle of a real and apparently unmotivated crime (Lafcadio's murder of Amedee) drives him back to orthodoxy in terror. He has all the proper notions about the moral disorder of the age. But when Lafcadio confesses to him, and thus confronts him with the most difficult moral choice of his life, he worries about the breaking of an exquisitely tailored fingernail.

Obviously, Gide had once again "sharpened his beak" on Stendhal. Irony and sentiment mingle inextricably, but neither they nor logic and verisimilitude are allowed to interfere with sheer creative energy. Anything can happen, at any moment; the suspense swiftly built up in one paragraph is as swiftly relieved in the next. Each character stumbles on the traces of the others, and if Lafcadio is always ready for a new audacity, Amedee is always ready to be duped. Action is gratuitous, but so too is literary form. Through the night mare sequence of absurdities, each of the pilgrims clings to his particular illusions, to his logical and coherent assumptions. Only Lafcadio and Anthime, as fanatical in his orthodoxy as in his anticlericalism, can profit at all from experience. That Lafcadio should profit so far from experience as to make us take him seriously raises the chief critical problem of the book. The fact that he gradually becomes a normal human being, and so invades both a familiar moral universe and our sympathies, accounts for much of the uneasiness which the final chapters cause.(footnote 1) Gide was aware that this transformation was taking place in the last months of com position; it greatly complicated his task.58

In the early chapters, the characters move back and forth among shifting planes of reality. Constant change in the degree of stylization was one of the book's most interesting innovations, and one of the grounds for its lasting influence.59 There is nevertheless a general movement from the fantastic to the real which may be more open to question. The sufferings of Anthime and Amedee are too grotesque and too hilarious to arouse sympathy; the reader regrets not Amedee's death but his disappearance from the book. But when Protos sheds the last of his disguises (unless he be the Devil in disguise), we are returned to a harshly real world. Even Carola, strangled so casually, has by then enlisted some sympathy. But the most disturbing change is Lafcadio's. From the beginning he has an amusing stylized reality; he is alive, yet a metaphysical abstraction, exempt from ordinary human vexations. But when he begins to suffer from moral isolation, ennui, and guilt, he loses all abstractness and much of his sprightly interest. He threatens to become a Michel with fewer sexual problems. His difficulties are now those of "his time"; his distance from the reader and author diminishes. Absolutely considered, Gide's failure to preserve his moral impudence and atmosphere of fantasy was a failure of art; it meant return to an already perfected mode. But this very failure also changed the playful toying with a verbal absurdity into a serious human enquiry. So serious, in fact, that the final Lafcadio looks back to Dostoevsky's Kirilov and Raskolnikov, and forward to Camus's Meursault.(footnote 2)

Lafcadio is the true "free man"-so much freer than Julien Sorel, for instance, as to be wholly without ambition. He is a bastard, of uncertain language and nationality, and has been educated by a succession of hedonistic and demoralizing "uncles," each of whom has perhaps contributed to his individualism and reckless charm. But no coherent self has been imposed upon him, which he is obliged to imitate; he has no intellectual or moral heritage. He attended one strict school, but stayed there only long enough to acquire some of Protos's contempt for the average respectable man and to learn that life is a game of chance. This being true, the easiest way to make a decision is to throw a pair of dice.

What would such an education produce? At the beginning of the novel Lafcadio is a charming, intelligent, and unconventional boy of twenty, but proud and unusually secretive. He is normal enough to be moved by the discovery that Juste-Agenor de Baraglioul is his father, and that he will soon be wealthy. But he accepts without protest the fact that he will never be recognized. He detests every form of complacent moralism, and is as contemptuous of Julius' stiff respectability as of his artificial and academic novels. Freed from all but self-restraint, he is not above petty theft as a form of amusement, but dislikes purposeful swindling. He is capable of cruelty, but also of impulsive generosity; he flings himself upon life for the immediate pleasure or adventure it may bring. He is a free man; and, as Julius suggests, is "at the mercy of the first opportunity." He boasts that he is an "inconsecutive creature," but has evolved a punitive ethics of his own. He dislikes yielding to anyone, even to himself, and stabs himself carefully with a knife whenever he has acted conventionally or out of false pride. Curiosity concerning himself and others, delight in chance and risk, a child's love of masquerade and an egotist's love of moral in dependence-these are some of the forces which contribute to his peculiar complexity. He meets an old woman struggling under a load, and thinks himself equally capable of helping or strangling her. And he is capable of throwing Amedee out of the train, though he has never seen him be fore, and has nothing at all to gain from the murder.

The early Lafcadio is thus the independent "strong man" who had long since evoked Gide's mingled admiration and horror:60 the "free man" he had wanted to be himself, the symbolic hero of individualism and Prodigal Son's younger brother. The disturbing thing for the reader, here as in L'lmmoraliste, is less that the hero commits a crime than that he is a spokesman for Gidean ideas. The disturbing thing for Gide, who saw his character escape him, is that Lafcadio is seriously tempted to repent. But it would be wrong to pay too much attention to Lafcadio's belated regrets. Les Caves du Vatican does not repudiate individualism or a relativist ethic. It merely defines Gide's awareness that these problems are not simple ones. Lafcadio is a twentieth-century man who has unknowingly inherited much from a few nineteenth century minds. His arguments are Gide's own:

1. Lafcadio demonstrates the value of deracination and free energy, against the conformist's refusal to live. The pragmatist ethics of Julius are scarcely more productive than Amedee's cloistered impotence. The determinism of family and class have reduced both to automatons; the determinism of an uncritical liberalism has reduced Anthime to a fanatic. In 1913 Gide still believed that human nature could change and "progress." But where was progress to come from, unless from the individualist who questions norms and refuses to be merely a "function"? Possibly it could come only from the energizing force of what society calls "evil." 61

2. Lafcadio asserts the even more significant revolt against the determinism of self. His boast that he is an "inconsecutive creature" echoes Gide's most familiar longing. Can man do no more than imitate an ideal conception of himself, supposedly projected into the future but actually inferred from the most obvious consistencies of his past? The bastard is a break in the continuity of society. Cannot the present act be a break in the continuity of the personality itself? The classical French novel, Gide remarked, denies the possibility of "inconsequences." Against it, Lafcadio and Gide insist that man is not the bounded and logical abstraction of Julius books. He is capable, like the characters of Dostoevsky, of rich antagonisms, of incessant self-contradiction. But until he visualizes the possibility of freedom, he cannot hope to be free.

3. The keystone of the classical arch is the self-interest psychology of La Rochefoucauld. Lafcadio argues, against such a universal determinism, that man can act against his own interest and without an external motive; even, can will his own perdition. Both Lafcadio and Gide persuade us that men can direct sadism inward, and are inhabited by the imp of the perverse. It may seem paradoxical that a man with Lafcadio's horror of choice should risk his skin in order to prove that the will is free. But this is no doubt one of his unacknowledged motives when he throws Amedee out of the train. It is the act of a "free man."

4. And yet, Lafcadio is not really free. He had already felt some of Gide's "horror of liberty," and had taken pleasure both in self-control and in the punitive stabs of his knife. Once the murder is committed, his feelings are drawn steadily back toward those of ordinary and restricted human beings. The first step is a curious "disgust" which prompts him to leave telltale evidence against himself in Julius room. An interview with Protos quickly proves to him that he is not even independent. Protos, who had discovered the crime in his own miraculous way, welcomes him to the company of criminals: a society with its own rigid laws. Lafcadio refuses his command to blackmail Julius, saying he would prefer the police. When Protos is arrested for the murder of both Carola and Amedee, Lafcadio finds impunity just as intolerable as did his Dostoevskian forbears. He too cannot endure the loneliness of an unmoral universe, and longs for his brother's friendship, now that he has irretrievably lost it. He is rescued from suicide by the love of Genevieve, and at the very end is ready to fling himself upon life. Unlike Julien Sorel, he is not beheaded; unlike Raskolnikov, he is not converted and does not give himself up; unlike Kirilov, he does not kill himself to square the metaphysical circle. We are not told exactly how much Lafcadio has learned, nor how effective his restraining knife will be in the future. The problem does not end with the book.

Les Caves du Vatican thus resumes the nineteenth-century debate on the possibility of free action. Is there any escape from the determinism of the eighteenth-century "sensationalists" or the nineteenth-century positivists; from Condillac, Littre, and Taine? Ultimately Lafcadio descends from the ambivalent Byronic hero and from the subtler Julien Sorel. But his gratuitous act derives rather from Baudelaire and Dostoevsky-though the poet who threw the vendor's glass out the window and the philosopher who committed suicide to prove his freedom were more careful to draw a moral. Kirilov seems to have fascinated Gide more than any other character in fiction, as he was later to fascinate Albert Camus.(footnote 3) And indeed indebtedness is inevitable, where the terms of a debate are so few. Even the immediate back ground of the unmotivated act was perhaps suggested by Dostoevsky. Lafcadio recalls a childhood experiment in secrecy immediately before murdering Amedee, just as Raskolnikov and the Stevie of Conrad's Secret Agent dream of cruelly beaten horses before committing their relatively gratuitous crimes. But the gratuitous act is not necessarily an act of violence. There is scarcely a character in The Possessed who is not "possessed," who does not in the everyday conduct of life act absurdly against his own interest. The impulse to self-destruction seemed to break at least the cruder forms of materialist logic. Why does an apparently reasonable man go out of his way to light a cigar near a barrel of gunpowder?

. . . to see, to know, to tempt destiny, to force oneself to give a proof of energy, to gamble, to know the pleasures of anxiety; and for nothing, out of caprice, because one has nothing to do.62

This explanation, which so aptly fits Lafcadio, is actually that of Baudelaire, who called the impulsion "satanic."

The "acte gratuit," though always associated with Les Caves du Vatican, had interested Gide as early as Paludes. Endless somber discussions have been devoted to Lafcadio's crime, and even Jean Hytier has felt obliged to prove that an effect must have a cause. But few critics have tried to explain the gratuitous act in modern terms-as the outward flaring of an unconscious self-destructiveness or as the product of unconscious identification-and neither, it must be admitted, did Gide. He dramatized just such processes in L'Immoraliste and La Porte etroite, and to a certain extent in Les Caves du Vatican. But his theoretical explanations, outside the novels, were often made in general and even nineteenth-century terms. Lafcadio's crime (if we look only at these personal comments and afterthoughts) was intended to prove three things. First, the motive for an act may be so remote, so complex, and so obscure that it cannot be discovered by ordinary deduction. "The sources of our slightest acts are as multiple and remote as those of the Nile." Further, these sources may exist only in the personality of the actor, rather than in provocative external causes. Finally, and for Gide this was the most important point: a disinterested act is not necessarily a "good" act. All this is scarcely abstruse, as Gide himself acknowledged. In 1924 at least he was willing to admit that there is no act, "however absurd or prejudicial, which is not the result of converging causes, conjunctions, concomitances." 63 By 1927 he was thoroughly weary of the futile debate and explained himself clearly:

I merely meant that the disinterested act could well not always be charitable; but once this is said, you are free, with La Rochefoucauld, not to believe in disinterestedness at all. Perhaps I don't believe in it either, but I claim that the individual's potentialities and his inner meteorology remain a bit more complicated than you ordinarily make them, and that what you call the bad potentialities are not all egocentric.64

As intuitive and literary psychologist, dramatizing the role of the unconscious and preconscious, Gide still seems very modern. But his intention in Les Caves du Vatican was far more general: to shatter the vulgar conception of man as a creature divided into tidy compartments-passion, will, reason, self-interest, and the like. He was determined as well to shatter the accepted conventions of the realistic well-made novel. Les Caves du Vatican is a "sotie" because it treats serious problems lightly, but also because it deliberately violates every rule of plausible, impersonal fiction. "Lafcadio, my friend, you are verging on the commonplace. If you are going to fall in love, do not count on my pen to paint the disturbance of your heart." Few important novelists since the eighteenth century had intruded themselves so willfully, or with such an apparent disregard for illusion.

In Les Faux-Monnayeurs we have both an impertinent roving narrator and an "auteur" who intrudes at length to comment on the progress of the book; neither should be exactly identified with Andre Gide. Here as in other respects Les Faux-Monnayeurs carries the innovations of Les Caves du Vatican a little further, and hence we may as profit ably postpone technical analysis to the later novel (footnote 4). Les Caves du Vatican anticipates especially the lively opening chapters of Les Faux-Monnayeurs. The careful building of atmosphere, the dramatic possibilities of the extended scene, the opportunity to suggest motive and the traditional analysis of character are all abandoned at the first beck and call of adventure. The novel virtually begins again with each chapter, sacrificing all acquired momentum (and resisting all reader involvement); each incident is the result of coincidence. The timing of the novel and Lafcadio's quick ness of thinking resist every effort on the reader's part to identify himself with the characters or otherwise settle down (footnote 5). Julius de Baraglioul had been commissioned to interview Lafcadio without revealing his purpose. But in nine teen casual lines Lafcadio has time to discover that Juste Agenor de Baraglioul is his father, to buy one of Julius' books, and to form an opinion on its dullness. The abused body of Amedee Fleurissoire shuttles back and forth between Rome and Naples as swiftly, both before and after his death. All the demands of realism (and most of all "foreshadowing" and plausible transition) are sacrificed to narrative speed, surprise, entertainment.

The pace slows only when Gide pauses to satirize the realistic or analytic novel directly. Then, in the section on the childhood of Amedee and Blafaphas, the useless details accumulate. We are even told why Albert Levy (who has no part in the story) changed his name and place of business, and why "Roman Plastic Plaster" is superior to "Marblette." The challenge to the conventional realist of the period was unmistakable; as impertinent as the challenge to a complacent society. Less surrealist than Le Promethee mal enchaine or than parts of Le Voyage d'Urien (since most of the dream like coincidences have here an explanation), Les Caves du Vatican yet suggested that logic and imposed form have no place in the modern work of art. The book was slow to reach the general public, but was read eagerly in 1918 and 1919 by young writers. Inevitably they saw Lafcadio's independence but not his self-discipline; or saw Gide's recklessness of technique but not his extreme economy. Instead they read into the book everything they themselves were waiting to say.

Notes:

52. Dust-jacket description, Knopf's Alblabook edition (New York, 1943).
53. Journal, July 12, 1914. The Journal entry for January 5, 1902, suggests an area of speculation which would lead to the conception of Lafcadio's crime.
54. Journal, April or May 1905, OEUVRES COMPLETES, IV, 510. Pleiade edition, p. 153, will locate this indefinitely dated entry.
55. Journal, March 28, 1906; Oeuvres Completes October 15, 1906.
56. Journal, December 3, 1909.
57. Journal, April 24, 1910: ". . . d'un style tout gaillard, tres different."
58. Journal, May 7, 1912.
59. See Claude-Edmonde Magny, Histoire, pp. 238-239.
60. "Lettres ˆ Angele," OEUVRES COMPLETES, III, 226-227.
61. See for instance Journal, November 4, 1929.
62. "Petits Poemes en prose," IX (tr. AJG).
63. "Journal des Faux-Monnayeurs," May 27, 1924, OEUVRES COMPLETES, XIII, 55.
64. Journal, May 1, 1927.



Footnotes

1. The revised stage version, which had its premiere at the Comedie Francaise in December 1950, takes Lafcadio fairly seriously from the start. Amedee is pitiful as well as ridiculous. The great problem must have been to put Lafcadio's crime on the stage without destroying all sympathy for the murderer. This was done by insisting from the first on his youthful charm and rigorous sincerity. (The interior monologues-Lafcadio's speculations before he commits the crime, for instance-are conveyed by a deep metallic off-stage voice.) But if the play takes Lafcadio seriously throughout, it also exploits as fully as possible the farcical elements of the early chapters. The first act is worthy of Moliere. The speculative second act seems very slow by comparison, perhaps because the discussion of the gratuitous act is both familiar and dated. Dramatic critics insisted on the transformation from "sotie" to "farce." But the play's greatest weakness is its attempt to dramatize nearly all of the novel's important ideas and scenes.

2. In L'Etranger, Meursault's feelings are even more gratuitous than his actions; he comes as close as possible to having no preferences at all. His crime, rather more plausible than Lafcadio's, has even less apparent motivation. There are certain important differences between the two books, though one may well have led to the other. Whereas Lafcadio becomes increasingly human, Meursault becomes increasingly abstract; in the end he is symbolic of man faced by a hostile and incomprehensible destiny.

3. See especially "Lettres ˆ Angele," OEUVRES COMPLETES, III 238-240, and "Dosto•evsky," OEUVRES COMPLETES, XI, 294-304. "Le suicide de Kirilov est un acte absolument gratuit, je veux dire que sa motivation n'est point exterieure. Tout ce que l'on peut faire entrer d'absurde dans ce monde, ˆ la faveur et ˆ l'abri d'un 'acte gratuit,' c'est ce que nous allons voir" (OEUVRES COMPLETES, XI, 295). Camus's essay on Kirilov appears in Le Mythe de Sisyphe (Paris, 1942), pp. 142-152.

4. Some of these innovations were predicted in Jacques Riviere's essay. "Le Roman d'aventure" (1913), See below, Chapter 5.

5. For all its multiplicity of scenes, the stage version inevitably fails to capture this pace. Thus a few lines of the novel may require five minutes on the stage. Even a far more anti-realistic play could hardly hope to keep an audience at a distance, or to vary so subtly the distances between author, subject, and audience.