Sunday, June 17, 2012

Andre Gide, 'The Immoralist' (1902)

I just finished The Immoralist, my first novel by French avant-garde author Andre Gide (1869 - 1951). He's a brilliant writer (I read the Modern Library edition, translated by Richard Howard).  I enjoyed The Immoralist a great deal, and I plan to read more work by this man who's style and subject matter seems to lay the groundwork for later giants such as Sartre and Camus. By the way, the book was published in 1902 just after Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams and the year before Nietszche published The Will to Power.

Aside from his skill as a writer, Gide's life - even in topline overview - is fascinating. A gay man who enjoyed an active romantic life, despite the bigotry of the time, he married a woman in an apparently asexual relationship. He had a brief affair with Oscar Wilde in 1895. After a period of intellectual inactivity, he founded a literary magazine in 1908. In 1916, when Gide was 47 he left his wife for a 15 year old boy. Their relationship lasted for 11 years, and they travelled through Africa before returning to France. Upon his return, Gide wrote of the cruelty of French colonialism in Africa and helped shape the anti-colonialism movement in France. The young man who was his lover, Marc Allegret, grew to become a successful screenwriter and movie director, producing more than 50 films.

In 1923, Gide had what sounds like a one-night stand with Elisabeth van Rysselberghe. His only sexual experience with a woman, it produced a child and Elisabeth left her husband for Gide despite the relationship not being sexual afterwards and there being no marriage. Elisabeth was the daughter of Theo van Rysselberghe, a well-known artist of the time who did this portrait of Gide in 1907. In the 1930s, Gide endorsed communism, apparently responding to its idealism. However, he became an outspoken critic of the system after being invited to and visiting Soviet Russia. He said after the trip: "No one can begin to imagine the tragedy of humanity, of morality, of religion and of freedoms in the land of communism, where man has been debased beyond belief." His vehement position caused a rift with many members of his avant-garde circle, much as his written endorsement of pederasty drew wider public disapproval.

Rather amusingly, the Catholic Church - an institution known all over the world for immorality and child exploitation - placed all of Gide's works on it's 'Index of Forbidden Books' in 1952...five years after Gide was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Morons.

Anyway, I was drawn to Gide because of his influence on writers like Sartre and Camus, but also because he was openly gay (or as openly gay as you could be at the time). Although The Immoralist is necessarily veiled in its sexuality, Gide's protagonist - Michel - is clearly gay and it's impossible to miss the implication he has an active sex life. From what I understand, all Gide's books deal with themes of freedom of self expression versus societal expectations, a tension any gay man can relate to deeply. I loved reading something that truly addresses an issue of such relevance to me, written by a brilliant and successful gay man who must have felt the difficulty of this issue as much - if not more - than I do/did.

The plot of The Immoralist concerns the awakening of a sickly bookworm to the joys and pleasures of life. As he discovers and pursues his own potential as a man, the freedom and self-determination he attains physically alters him. He turns from a doddering weakling of a boy into a robust, sexy, and sexual man. The focus of his career also shifts - symbolically - from burying himself in the study of ruins and ancient civilizations to trying to understand those civilizations within a modern context. The present means more to him than anything that has occurred before. However, the boundaries of this freedom are ambiguous, and the morality of it remains in question. Michel's exploration of his autonomy ultimately leads to both amazing and chilling truths. For example, his pursuit ends up tiring his ill wife so that she weakens and dies. His reaction leads one to questions of what we owe other human beings as we grow and change.

At the end of The Immoralist Michel has achieved a degree of freedom few of us can hope to attain, yet he has no idea what to do with it. This 'what now?' creates an unbearable psychological crisis. "I am at a moment in my life past which I can no longer see my way," he tells several friends he has summoned to his aid at the start of the book. "The capacity to get free is nothing; the capacity to be free, that is the task." He has no intention of going back and does not regret anything, but this does not make moving forward any easier. Perhaps that is the natural state of true freedom, a sense of uncertainly and angst underlying the joy it brings? If so, why do we pursue it? It's obvious how such questions lead to Sartre and Camus.

Somehow, these questions of freedom seem to resonate more loudly with the subtext of the pseudo-'coming out' story that lives within The Immoralist. Gide's portrayal of Michel's journey is clearly advocating such freedom, but it is also unsparing in presenting the potential implications such freedom has beyond the scope of oneself. Big questions with no easy answers. This was a truly thought-provoking book.

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