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André Gide, The immoralist (or, L’immoraliste)

March 31, 2011
André Gide: pencil drawing

Gide, c. 1901, Pencil drawing by Henry Bataille (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia

Reading synchronicities strike again – though on the surface it wouldn’t seem to be so. That is, could there really be synchronicities between Geoff Dyer‘s Jeff in Venice, death in Varanasi and Andre Gide‘s The immoralist? I think there are. Besides some comments on art – its value and meaning – in The immoralist, there is the grappling with what seems to me to be the paradoxes inherent in explorations of how to live our lives. In Dyer, as I wrote in my recent post, the paradoxes are front and centre. You can’t miss them. In Gide, they are there too, but tend to be more subtle.

The immoralist was published in 1902 and was at the time, I believe, seen as a rather shocking tale of dereliction. Over a century later, we are not so easily shocked by the behaviour he describes, but the book still has things to say. Gide writes in his preface:

If certain distinguished persons have refused to see this drama as anything other than the folding of a particular, unusual case, and its hero as anything other than an individual with an illness, they have failed to see that there are important ideas of interest to many to be found in it.

In other words, he claims some level of universality for his tale.

The first thing to note about the novel is that it has three parts – at least, from the second edition on when Gide included his preface. There’s:

  • the preface in which Gide, as I’ve explained above, argues that Michel’s “problem” exists regardless of whether or not he resolves it;
  • the letter in which one of Michel’s friends seeks a job for Michel to, in effect, save him from himself; and
  • Michel’s story, as told to his three friends.

And so what is Michel’s story? Well, it’s about an unworldly young scholar who marries a young woman, Marceline, whom he barely knows, at the request of his dying father. After their marriage, which they do not consummate for some time, he becomes ill with tuberculosis and nearly dies. As he starts to recover in beautiful Biskra to which they have travelled, he starts to see life in a new way – inspired partly by a young Arab boy, Bachir, introduced to him by his wife:

I thought of Bachir’s beautiful, glistening blood … And, suddenly I felt a wish, a desire, more pressing and imperious than anything I have ever felt before, to live. I want to live!

So, gradually, begins his life as an “immoralist”. This does not exactly mean that he lived an “immoral” life, though that he did to some degree, but that he rejected being bound by morality, by society’s rules and restrictions. Gide was influenced by the philosophies of Nietzsche, which in the novel are promulgated, somewhat extremely, by an older friend, Ménalque. For Michel, they mean, for example, learning to “feel” – and to eventually putting sensation (body) totally ahead of thinking (the mind):

The only way I could pay attention to anything was through my five senses …

From this time on, he tries out his new ideas and starts leading a self-centred life, ignoring his friends and his wife more and more to follow a life of freedom to do what he will. He wants to live a life that is individual, not imitative of others. He loses interest in the lessons of the past (which had once been his passion) because, as Ménalque says, the past (particularly through memory) “encroaches” on and thereby spoils the present:

Now I could only derive pleasure from history by imagining it in the present. I was much less inspired by great political events than by the new emotions stirred by the poets or certain men of action…

What he discovers, though, is that freedom does not, in fact, free him (or, make him happy). Paradox, n’est-ce pas?

I’m not going to detail the full story of his “decline”, his forays into low-living, his “repudiation of all culture, decency and morality”, the tragedies he experiences in his personal life, but he eventually arrives at the point where he calls his friends to hear his story, and help him. He says to them at the end of his story:

The thing that scares me, I have to admit, is that I am still quite young. I sometimes feel as if my real life has yet to begin. Take me away from here and give me a reason to live. I no longer have one. Maybe I have liberated myself. But so what? I find this empty liberty painful to bear.

This is a complex little book, and I’m not sure I’ve fully grasped its import. Does it, for example, reject Nietzschean ideas or simply the misapplication of them? Does the Michel at the end still believe in himself as the “perfectible being” he did earlier in the novel? Are we meant to see his as a cautionary tale, and if so, what particular lessons should we draw from it? Anyone?

Andre Gide
The immoralist
(trans. by David Watson)
London: Penguin Books, 2000
124pp
ISBN: 9780141182995

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26 Comments leave one →
  1. March 31, 2011 3:48 am

    I’ve never read Gide and my Nietzsche is not enough to be able to answer your questions, but what an interesting sounding book this is! It has gone on my TBR list. Maybe I will try and read some Nietzsche before I get to it though.

    • March 31, 2011 7:27 am

      It is an interesting book, Stefanice …. Short but not simple, clear and yet obscure. Not sure that you’d have to read Nietzsche first – I didn’t – though it could probably help.

  2. March 31, 2011 5:31 am

    Whispering,

    I was excited to see you had read this one. I quite enjoyed it, though I am not sure I can help you answer the questions. I would hesitate to say it is a cautionary tale about loose living. I think it may only ask the questions and demonstrate that there are no good answers. I take Gide at his word when he writes in the preface: “I wanted to write this book neither as an indictment of Michel nor as an apology, and I have taken care not to pass judgment.”

    A life of mundane duty is nothing worthy of ubermenschen. On the other hand, (and I had not considered the link to Franzen’s Freedom until now) there is an emptiness in absolute liberty as well. I think humans are caught, to some degree, in a maze of dissatisfaction. The game is rigged for unhappiness. This, I think, is the link between Nietzche and the existentialists/absurdists like Sartre and Camus. One of the individual’s central conundrums is inescapable (other than by pretending it does not exist), which is one reason human life is absurd.

    I enjoyed your review and love your provocative questions. I will be revisiting this one again and again in the years ahead.

    • March 31, 2011 7:45 am

      Great response, Kerry – though you did pull me up short when you said you’d hesitate to call it a “cautionary tale about loose living” because that wasn’t quite what I meant. But then I thought, what did I mean, and that perhaps what I meant was really fundamentally that! What I was thinking, though, was something a little more abstract, something more almost – though this sounds a little trite – along the lines of “be careful what you wish for”. Because I agree that while much of what Michel does could be seen as condemnatory, Gide doesn’t really judge or ask us to do so (as you quote from the preface). I guess that’s conveyed to us through his hearers…we are with them, aren’t we, in not quite knowing how to respond. As the letter writer says, “For that matter, what do I think of him myself?”

      ‘Freedom’ did cross my mind as I was writing the review … but I was’t quite sure how to integrate it but you have done it perfectly. Thanks. I also like the way you have raised the issue of ‘happiness’. It’s another concept discussed in the book that I struggled a little with … sometimes it seems too simple a wish (that life is about more than ‘happiness’), but perhaps it’s about how we define ‘happiness’. Something I need to think more on. I have always been drawn to the concept of ‘the absurd’ (through Camus, primarily). I should put more time into this book!

      • April 1, 2011 2:06 am

        You raise a good point about the my “loose living” formulation. That probably was not the best phrasing. There is a more abstract idea in there than just that or even, as you say, being careful what you wish for. The contrast between Michel as tied to duty and history and Michel who cuts all that loose and lives instead for the moment and for pleasure is important. To try one other trite formulation, there is a little of the idea that there is no perfect solution, there are drawbacks to every “way of living”.

        As you say, the question the book asks is more important than any answer it provides. Gide is essentially asking the reader to examine herself and determine what to make of Michel.

        On that score, I have some sympathy for Michel’s frustration with history the pointlessness of simply living out one’s duty and then dying in a hellhole in the desert. Michel’s transformation into something of a hedonist, or at least someone who wants to wring as much pleasure out of life as possible unconstricted by social mores, makes sense to me given he narrowly survived a mortal illness. His life simply brings into sharper focus the sort of decision we all must make. How will we live this life?

        I agree that simply seeking “happiness” is too simple a pursuit. Happiness in the abstract is not much of a goal. It is one of those things, would you trade 75 IQ points (I assume you’d need to lose at least 75 to reach a vegetative level) to happily drool in the corner of some institution (not suggesting all unfortunately low IQ individuals are happy, only that the artificial choice presented is between happy stupidity and intelligence with some more complex emotional state)? I wouldn’t.

        And, yet, we all want satisfactions of some sort. The reason I would not trade intelligence for some oblivious happiness is because I get some sort of satisfaction or fulfillment out of being able to read things like The Immoralist even if it does not always or necessarily make me “happy”.

        I love how a slim book raises more and deeper questions than the bloated Freedom even considered.

        • April 1, 2011 10:51 pm

          Absolutely … it’s one of the reasons, to generalise horribly, that I tend to like novellas as they can often, by their often more elliptical nature, provide great food for thought.

          Thanks for continuing the discussion … I’m almost inclined to write another post on this as I’ve continued to think about it … but time will probably defeat me. The history thing for example – Menalque argues that the past encroaches upon one’s ability to enjoy the present. There are a lot of things to think about in that. One seems to be that the present can’t live up to the
          past (I think Michel feels that the consummation of his marriage brings a happiness that can’t be repeated). The other is that the lessons of the past can dampen/constrict/restrain the present. Is that how you see it?

        • April 2, 2011 2:06 am

          Your points about history are definitely good ones. There is also the problem of living in the past instead of, well, living. The present lives in a way the past never can. I think this is an important part of Menalque’s point as well. For the same reason that history is dead, living without fully engaging all of the sensuous and sensational possibilities can be seen as a truncated, stunted way of life.

          This is related to your point about the present not living up to the past. The only way to prevent that is to keep climbing new sensory peaks which, of course, is impossible. The attempt to stay forever in the present cannot ultimately succeed. At some point, the best meal we’ve ever had must be in the past. And, yet, we can’t eat memories.

          I need to re-read it (again)…..

  3. March 31, 2011 7:29 am

    Stefanie – no need to read Nietszche as preparation. Gide wrote a work of fiction, not a tract – for the argument, please see my last five posts.

    Kerry – why do you take Gide at his word? He’s a novelist, an ironist. Of course he is not “pass[ing] judgment” – he is writing fiction.

    • March 31, 2011 7:55 am

      Interesting point AR … I wondered at times as I read it, how much was irony in it. But, in the end, I wasn’t sure. There are ironies in it but do you think Gide’s tone is, overall, ironic?

      I’m not quite sure though what you mean by the fact that he’s not passing judgement because, I think you’re implying, he’s writing fiction? Fiction and Judgement aren’t mutually exclusive are they? Or, have I missed your point?

      • March 31, 2011 8:10 am

        Overall, ironic – yes. I’ve stolen the snare metaphor from Gide – it’s a novel full of snares for the reader.

        You’re right – fiction and judgment are not mutually exclusive. I’m tempted to say that good fiction and passing judgment are!

        Gide creates a fictional world and moves his little puppets around in it as a way to explore ideas, stances, ethics, whatever, not to demonstrate the outcome of a theorem. To do that, he has to let ambiguities into the novel, to allow multiple possibilities to exist. Gide ain’t Ayn Rand.

        Gide’s warning in the preface is useful – this novel, I declare, condemns homosexuality, or applauds it. “Careful there,” Gide cautions.

        • March 31, 2011 9:19 am

          Oh good … glad to have that clarified. It’s interesting that he wrote the preface for the second edition because people usually are quick to judge, and clearly they did. I liked the fact that Michel is complex, that at the end you are not quite sure which way he will go …

  4. March 31, 2011 10:35 am

    How about “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” ? He’s about lost it all, his profession, his wife, he gives up the farm. Ménalque’s told him that as long as he has these things he has to be responsible for them. So Michel is tied to his things – but after he gets rid of them and is tied to nothing – what does he have? Is he happy? I think not. This is very existential, imo.

    • March 31, 2011 10:36 pm

      LOL Bekah. I think I used that quote on my “Freedom” post. I think you are right…he’s not really happy but I don’t think he’s yet worked out how he wants to live his life. His world view has been shaken up and he is still working through it … will he be strong enough to come back to something more fulfilling? The fact that he’s called on his friends is a good step…

  5. March 31, 2011 12:53 pm

    Beautifully written post today, WG! You’ve coneyed what seem to be some rather complex ideas and aspects of the novels in a very clear way 🙂 I don’t think I can be “for” a desire to be a “perfectible being”. I think I’d rather accept that we all have our limitations and flaws, but our own personal awesomenesses as well 🙂

    • March 31, 2011 10:43 pm

      Ah good point … I was thinking of “perfectible” as being about the “process” of self-improvement rather than about the goal of perfection.

  6. March 31, 2011 6:33 pm

    I read Straight is the Gate some years ago and this seems to be a counterpoint to the Immoralist because its about suppressing your feelings and desires for the sake of a life of greater purity. I know little about Gide other than what I have just read on Wikipedia which says “Gide’s work can be seen as an investigation of freedom and empowerment in the face of moralistic and puritanical constraints”. You have written an excellent review of the Immoralist here which I ‘m sure will be Googled for years to come!

    • March 31, 2011 10:18 pm

      I’ve also read Strait is the Gate – just last year, in fact, and fell in love with Gide’s writing. I’m planning on reading The Immoralist as soon as I can – and this beautifully-written review only makes me wish I could shuffle it a little further up my to-be-read pile. Well done!

      • March 31, 2011 11:09 pm

        Why thanks Michelle. I know what you mean about wanting to shuffle books up the TBR pile. Trouble is you can’t shuffle them all up! And thanks for seconding Straight is the gate … I’m guessing it’s short (well, like the two of his I’ve read)? I clearly must try to read it.

    • March 31, 2011 11:02 pm

      Thanks Tom … I wish it were a better review though. There were so many angles to look at it from and I didn’t want to go on forever but now I think, oh, but there’s that to think about, and that … but, I guess you know how that feels! Straight is the gate sounds like it would interesting to read by comparison…

  7. March 31, 2011 8:20 pm

    Gide is on my To-read list, so I’m going to keep this review to read for later:)

    • March 31, 2011 11:04 pm

      It’s well worth reading. I did read La symphonie pastorale at school, but I was so wowed by Camus’ L’etranger that the Gide, though I remember enjoying it at the time, has whisked right out of my head. I’d like to read it again too.

  8. April 2, 2011 5:42 am

    A tale of dereliction? My speciality and this explains why it’s on my shelf. What’s not explainable is why I haven’t read it yet.

    • April 2, 2011 11:21 pm

      LOL Guy … only you know the answer to that! But maybe it’s that there are too many tales of dereliction out there that you just don’t know which one to read first…

  9. Blackberry Finn permalink
    November 4, 2014 10:58 pm

    L’immoraliste can also be understood in the frame of Gide’s meeting with Wilde and Wilde’s lover Douglas in Algiers in 1895. It was on that occasion that Gide had his second homosexual experience, with a 14-year old Arab boy whom he met through Wilde. (Gide’s first same-sex experience had been with an Arab boy in Tunisia, but “he had not orgasm-ed”) It’s clear that to some extent, Michel’s existential conundrum in the novel reflects Gide’s own, as he attempted to navigate between socially-sanctioned heterosexuality and his inner (“immoral))desire for sex with males. The second encounter is recounted vividly in Gide’s autobiography, Si le grain ne muert” (If It Die). In it, he writes about a “marvelous youth” who played the flute at the doorway of a cafe to Gide’s great delight . Wilde asked Gide if he wanted to sleep with the lad. Gide recalls in his autobiography, “Oh! How dark the alley was! I thought my heart would fail me; and what a dreadful effort of courage it needed to answer: “Yes,” and with what a choking voice!” .He continues: “It was now that I found my normal. There was nothing constrained here, nothing precipitate, nothing doubtful; there is no taste of ashes in the memory I keep.My joy was unbounded, and I cannot imagine it greater, even if love had been added…” He continues later, “Every time since then that I have sought after pleasure, it is the memory of that night that I have pursued..”
    Thus an important (but certainly not the only) reading of l’immoraliste is as the existential plight of a man caught between Puritan social morals (mores) (the domain of “wife and friends”) and free desire (Bachir). Of course, Gide does not wish to pronounce judgment for one side or the other, instead, in narrating the protagonist’s inner struggle, he extrapolates it to the wider question of moral choice and consequences in a philosophical vein.

    • November 5, 2014 9:16 am

      Thanks for this perspective Blackberry Finn … I was aware of Gide’s homosexuality but didn’t know his “story” at all. This fleshes some ideas out very nicely – giving substance to the abstract.

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