The Immoralist – Andre Gide

TISome of us were a little apprehensive before reading this book. However, everyone in our group agreed that it was worthwhile. One said that it all ‘came together in the last thirty pages.’ We all agreed that is was well-written.

His description of places is good – you know that he’s been there. I particularly liked the descriptions of Carthage and El Djem (with their magnificent amphitheatres) and note that, one hundred years later, the only train from Sousse still arrives 1.00 a.m. so you risk not finding an hotel for the night. The return train is more convenient though ours had stones thrown at it and none of the doors closed. You are better off using a louage (shared taxi)

Both he and his father had tuberculosis which is why description of coughing up blood is so vivid. His war on tuberculosis begins with the awakening of his senses to a total receptivity to life-giving elements. The taste of good food, the tingling sensation of cold water on hot skin, the feel and touch of a palm tree, the sun on his naked body by day, and the invigorating desert air by night become the new objects of his worship. His rejection of all other claims on his life–except those which make for the indulgence of his newly-discovered self–excludes Marceline whose presence he begins to find oppressive.

The Immoralist is based on Gide’s personal experience of discovering his homosexuality while travelling as a young man in North Africa.

It was conventional to get married back then but noteworthy that he first sex with his wife two months after their wedding. That something wasn’t quite right didn’t stop him having an extra-marital affair with another woman.

The character of Menalque in The Immoralist is based on Oscar Wilde. Ménalque’s philosophy on personal property relates possessiveness to stagnation and false security and calls it the primary concern of an establishment which fears change.

Undoubtedly Gide was deeply disturbed by Wilde, and not surpris­ingly since the remarks of Gide in his letters of that time suggest that Wilde was intent on undermining the younger man’s self-identity, rooted as it was in a Protestant ethic and high bourgeois moral rigour and repression which generated a kind of conformity which Wilde scorned. Wilde wanted to encourage Gide to transgress.

Richard Ellmann suggests that ‘in effect, Wilde spiritually seduced Gide’. For Ellmann, the most important document about the ‘psychic possession of Gide by Wilde’ is those missing pages from Gide’s journal….. He is taken by Wilde to a cafe: ‘in the half-open doorway, there suddenly appeared a marvellous youth. He stood there for a time, leaning with his raised elbow against the door-jamb, and outlined on the dark background of the night’. The youth joins them; his name is Mohammed; he is a musician, a flute player. Listening to that music ‘you forgot the time, and place, and who you were’. This is not the first time Gide has experienced this sensation of forgetting. Africa increasingly attracts him in this respect; there he feels (liberated and the burden of an oppressive sense of self is dissolved: ‘I aid aside anxieties, constraints, solicitudes, and as my will evaporated, felt myself becoming porous as a beehive’ Now, as they leave the cafe, Wilde turns to Gide and asks him if he desires the musician.) Gide writes: ‘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!’ ……earlier courage was needed for self-discipline—now it is the strength to transgress). Wilde arranges something with their guide, rejoins Gide and then begins laughing: ‘a resounding laugh, more of triumph than of pleasure, an interminable, uncontrollable, insolent laugh . . . it was the amusement of a child and a devil’ .Gide spends the night with Mohammed: ‘my joy was unbounded, and I cannot imagine it greater, even if love had been added’. Though not his first homosexual experi­ence (probably his second), it confirmed Gide’s sexual `nature’—what, he says, was ‘normal’ for him: ‘There was nothing constrained here, nothing precipitate, nothing doubtful; there is no taste of ashes in the memory I keep.’ Even more defiantly Gide declares that, although he had achieved ‘the summit of pleasure five times’ with Mohammed, ‘I revived my ecstasy many more times, and back in my hotel room I relived its echoes until morning’ (this passage was one of those omitted from early English editions).

Michel’s puritan disdain for any signs of weakness which caused him to hide the seriousness of his condition from Marceline

He becomes indignant that he should be at the brink of death while others take life and health for granted. For the first time life becomes a precious possession whose value is only recognized when its essence is about to be snatched away. In a flash of emotional intensity Michel experiences the mystery of life and his passivity changes into an active and zealous will to live. So he breaks away from his former routine. Eager to cultivate his own immediate desires he becomes alert to those in others which are as yet unrestrained by the shackles of society’s rules. Hence Motkir’s theft of Marceline’s scissors stimulates more than idle curiosity in Michel, and is the first of many incidents where aberrant behaviour is the object of his intense fascination.

The biblical warning of Christ’s words to Peter (that young people have freedom whereas elderly people depend on others for their mobility) sound the first alarm as Michel becomes vaguely aware that absolute freedom of action is an illusion, that he is subject to the ravages of time.

Possessions become the bars of his cell in his deliberate attempt to imprison his latent restlessness and rebellion against conformity. In this context Gide inserts an observation on farm life which, on the surface, has nothing to do with Michel, but which becomes an image of Michel’s imprisonment and his attempt to foil his natural longings. At “La Morinière” Bocage, the bailiff, has enclosed the ducks at the onset of autumn winds. Human intervention and constraint frustrate natural instinct, and the ducks must comply with their northern cage. Gradually, Michel himself will grow restive in the self-made prison of his Paris apartment, and the lure of the south will become stronger.

Among the symbols of Michel’s feeling of stagnation verses spontaneity are the description of the irrigation system in Biskra and in the taming of the wild colt at “La Morinière.” The beautiful animal had been declared useless and unmanageable by his servants. Michel calls on Charles for help, and Charles tames him through quiet and gentle authority, wise restraint, and a deep respect for the animal. The once wild and useless colt becomes tame and docile:

The process of emptying the pond is another symbol: for the pond to remain useful its old contents had to be brought to the surface, its murky waters drained, and the leak repaired. Michel’s mind, like the pond, is blocked by old repressions and obstacles to his future productivity. To arrive at the bottom of his consciousness he has to bring everything to the surface and thereby heal the slow seepage which deprives him of the inner resources he needs to cope with life. Michel is so preoccupied with his liberation from restrictions outside himself that he fails to recognize the inhibiting forces within him.

Michel’s provisional moral code is comparable to the land he lets lie in disuse at “La Morinière.” He fails to recognize that his entire property is slowly deteriorating. The land and the mind which lie fallow are soon invaded by thistles and weeds and gradually lose their value. That Michel takes these neglected fields away from the farmers in order to cultivate them would indicate the possibility of regeneration, but Michel’s plans do not materialize, and his failure in meeting his responsibilities toward his land foreshadows his failure in meeting his responsibilities toward Marceline and ultimately toward himself. The gift of life cannot be wasted. Michel’s dream of absolute leisure is based on his reaction against the bondage of poverty:

Gide compared his book to the fruit of the colocynths which grow in the desert and are not without beauty, though they present only greater thirst to the one who seeks to drink their juice. The experience of life creates the desire for more life, and an unquenchable thirst is the essence of yearning. Michel’s dwelling stands in a garden which is girded by a wall. Within the enclosure stand three stunted pomegranate trees. The pomegranate, like the colocynth, does not appease thirst but creates a fiercer, deeper craving for its fruit. The fact that these trees are retarded in their growth and most likely barren illustrates symbolically that Michel’s adventure ends in sterility. Begun when he first tasted the forbidden fruit of consciousness in the gardens of Biskra, his quest has exhausted itself in the pitiful garden at Sidi–which is not the paradise he had thought to regain.

One of our members asked whether his wife might also be a symbol of Gide, of a split psyche between respectability and immorality, between the imprisoned and the free.

He no longer fancies Charles when he grows whiskers and wears a bowler hat. This confirms the difference between a pederast and a homosexual: I do not recognize the children, but the children recognize me. They have heard of my arrival and come running to meet me. Can it really be they? What a shock! What has happened? They have grown out of all knowledge — hideously. In barely two years ! It seems impossible … What fatigues, what vices, what sloth have put their ugly mark on faces that were once so bright with youth? What vile labours can so soon have stunted those beautiful young limbs? What a bankruptcy of hope! … I ask a few questions. Bachir is scullion in a café; Ashour is laboriously earning a few pennies by breaking stones on the roads; Ham­matar has lost an eye. And who would believe it? Sadek has settled down! He helps an elder brother sell loaves in the market; he looks idiotic. Agib has set up as a butcher with his father; he is getting fat; he is ugly; he is rich; he refuses to speak to his low-class compan­ions … How stupid honourable careers make people! What! Am I going to find here the same things I hated so at home? Boubakir? Married. He is not fifteen yet. It is grotesque. Not altogether though. When I see him that evening he explains that his marriage is a mere farce. He is, I expect, an utter waster; he has taken to drink and lost his looks . .. So that is all that remains, is it? That is what life has made of them? My intolerable depression makes me feel it was largely to see them that I came here. Menalque was right. Memory is an accursed invention. And Moktir? Ah Moktir has just come out of prison. He is lying low. The others will have nothing to do with him. I want to see him. He used to be the handsomest of them all. Is he to be a disappointment too? … Someone finds him out and brings him to me. No; Moktir has not failed. Even my memory had not painted him as superb as he now is. His strength, his beauty are flawless …

One can’t help but agree to: ‘I have a horror of honest folk. I may have nothing to fear from them, but I have nothing to learn either. And besides, they have nothing to say . . . Honest Swiss nation! What does their health do for them? They have neither crimes, nor history, not literature, nor arts … a hardy rose-tree, without thorns or flowers.’

I had to look up ‘Caryatid’ p. 36 = a sculpted female figure serving as an architectural support taking the place of a column or a pillar supporting an entablature on her head.

There’s an irritating, unnecessary apostrophe ion ‘Thursday’s’ p. 97

During World War I, Gide worked for the Red Cross, then in a convalescent home for wounded soldiers, and later offered shelter to war refugees. During the 1920s, he became an advocate for the oppressed peoples of colonized regions, as well as for women’s rights and the humane treatment of criminals. In 1947 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Gide died in Paris on 19 February 1951, at the age of eighty-one. Six years later, his entire works were entered in the Roman Catholic Index of Forbidden Books.

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