Sunday, April 17, 2011

400. The Immoralist – Andre Gide

History: In 1902, when André Gide's The Immoralist was first published in France in 1902 as L'Immoraliste, it was considered shocking. What some see as a story of dereliction, others see as a tale of introspection and self-discovery. The Immoralist is based on Gide’s personal experience of discovering his homosexuality while traveling as a young man in North Africa. The central theme of The Immoralist is repressed homosexuality. Gide’s narrative further explores themes of life versus death, mind versus body, and the process of self-discovery.
Plot: While traveling to Tunis on honeymoon with his new bride, the Parisian scholar Michel is overcome by tuberculosis. As he recovers, he re-discovers the physical pleasures of living and resolves to forgo his studies of the past in order to experience the present—to let "the layers of acquired knowledge peel away from the mind like a cosmetic and reveal, in patches, the naked flesh beneath, the authentic being hidden there."
This experience inspires him to embark on a journey of self-discovery through which he eventually finds himself leading a double life: he presents a false facade to his wife, while going out on his own to follow his natural inclinations and experience his true inner being. This is not, however, the Michel his colleagues knew—not a Michel that will be readily accepted by traditional society—and he must hide his new values under the patina of what he now reviles. Back home in France, Marceline announces that she is pregnant. Meanwhile, Michel finds himself increasingly drawn to healthy and attractive young men. Bored by Parisian society, he moves to a family farm in Normandy. He is happy there, especially in the company of young Charles, but he must soon return to the city and academe. . Michel remains restless until he gives his first lecture and runs into Ménalque, who has long outraged society, and recognizes in him a reflection of his torment. Becoming ill from tuberculosis, Marceline suffers a miscarriage. Michel, motivated by a strong desire to return to North Africa, pushes her to travel with him, despite her deteriorating health. After she dies, Michel is left to grapple with the meaning of his own life, and to come to terms with his homosexual tendencies.
Review: Written nearly a century ago, The Immoralist describes Michel’s process of selfrealization in subtle, veiled terms. There is no direct reference in the novel to homosexuality.
L’Immoraliste lets us share the consciousness Michel himself has of his being. It is only as we probe into the thematic fabric, the novel's contrasting and similar correlative themes that we discover Michel's true identity underneath his own evaluation of it. In this sense the récit is a palimpsest with the essence of Michel's true nature lying underneath or between the lines. The art of Gide in this kind of work is to keep the narrator himself imperceptive and unaware of the implications of his own narrative while granting the reader all the evidence necessary to understand who Michel is and why.
Gide's preface to L’Immoraliste places Michel's particular problem in the general context of world literature, when he maintains that the public wants the author to take sides either in favor of Alceste or Philinte, of Hamlet or Ophelia, of Faust or Margaret, of Adam or Jehovah. Gide's refusal to pronounce judgment and his claim to authorial neutrality allow him to transcend a didactic stance and places Michel's specific problems among the universal problems of mankind. Gide's use of the word "problem" is twofold. The work of art presents both an aesthetic and a moral problem. The aesthetic aspect of Michel's story, the exposition and clarification of all the necessary elements of Michel's existence must be solved within the coherence of the work itself: "en art, il n'y a pas de problèmes--dont l'oeuvre d'art ne soit la suffisante solution." The moral aspect of Michel's story, however, remains a question for each individual reader. Gide, the artist, does not covet the rôle of the priest and refuses to legislate morals.
L’Immoraliste is divided into three parts which are framed by the letter written from Sidi revealing Michel's present desolation and by the concluding remarks which leave Michel's future unsolved in the hands of the Président du Conseil, and, we the readers, are called upon to judge ourselves without hypocrisy as we, too, are placed before a Grand Inquisitor: "Il en est plus d'un aujourd'hui, je le crains, qui oserait en ce récit se reconnaître," says one of Michel's friends (p. 13). The frame serves the additional purpose of placing Michel in a potential relationship to society, for no matter how hermit-like he wishes to live, he is forced to be part of the larger circle of humanity.
The story of L’Immoraliste revolves around Michel's problem of existence. The first part is devoted to his gradual awakening to the fact that he does in reality exist as a whole human being, as a person apart from others, as an independent entity with individual needs and desires. His exhilaration at being alive culminates in the moment of strength and love in Sorrento from which new hope and the promise of new life emerge. The second and third parts show his fight to control the essence of this existence by his futile attempt to recapture the happiness he felt at the awakening sensation of being alive and his contradictory behavior which leads him to develop and destroy concomitantly the things that give meaning to his life. Thus his whole youth had been devoted to his scholarly pursuits which he rejects on the theory that they cannot give meaning to the here and now. In this way also he first develops the land at "La Morinière" only later to poach on his own property. And in like manner Michel consciously nurtures his love toward Marceline only to let that love be subjugated to his obsession to recapture an irretrievable past where Marceline is relentlessly destroyed.
Opening Line: “Yes you were right: Michel has spoken to us, my dear brother.”
Closing Line: “There may be some truth in what she says…”
Quotes: "I did not understand the forbearance of this African earth, submerged for days at a time and now awakening from winter, drunk with water, bursting with new juices; it laughed in this springtime frenzy whose echo, whose image I perceived within myself."
Rating: Good.

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