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

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
ISBN: 9780141182995