On André Gide’s The Immoralist (1902)

Michael Lucey

University of California, Berkeley

 

There is an oft-cited sentence in André Gide’s journal entry for March 28, 1935, in which he notes: “Belle fonction à assumer : celle d’inquiéteur.”[1] One might translate inquiéteur many ways. Someone who is disturbing, perhaps, a troublemaker. [“A fine function to take on: that of a troublemaker.”] Rereading Gide’s The Immoralist (1902) recently that is indeed how I experienced the text. It is disturbing, upsetting even, to read. Why?

In Homos in 1995, Leo Bersani commented: “The Immoralist, it would not be entirely unfair to say, is the story of a man whose discovery that he is a pederast transforms him from a prematurely dried-up bookworm into a passionate lover of life.”[2] For ”life,” it is tempting to substitute “young men, mostly Arabs.” In 1993, in Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said, discussing The Immoralist, had focused his attention on the fact that a number of events are set in North Africa. Said cites one set of observations made by Gide’s protagonist, Michel:

This land of pleasure satisfies without calming desire; indeed, every satisfaction merely exalts it. A land liberated from works of art. I despise those who can acknowledge beauty only when it’s already transcribed, interpreted. One thing admirable about the Arabs: they live their art, they sing and scatter it from day to day; they don’t cling to it, they don’t embalm it in works. Which is the cause and the effect of the absence of great artists. . . . Just as I was returning to the hotel, I remembered a group of Arabs I had noticed lying in the open air on the mats of a little café. I went and slept among them. I returned covered with vermin.[3]

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For Said The Immoralist instantiates a particular attitude, one “that entitles the European authorial subject to hold on to an overseas territory, derive benefits from it, depend on it, but ultimately refuse it autonomy or independence.”[4] Bersani is, of course, aware of this aspect of the book, as well. He writes: “Michel appropriates the Arab boys’ presence for his own sensualist luxury. It is easy to see The Immoralist as yet another example of the sexual imperialism—both gay and straight—practiced by European travelers to colonized African countries. . . . Gide was certainly not immune to colonizing impulses (as he himself recognized), and yet those very impulses were perhaps the precondition for a potentially revolutionary eroticism.”(122)

The bulk of The Immoralist is taken up with the protagonist Michel recounting to a group of friends his marriage to a young woman named Marceline. During part of the honeymoon spent in North Africa, they discover that he is suffering from tuberculosis. In Biskra, Marceline nurses Michel back to health and his interest in life is rekindled by his fascination with the bodies of the young boys he saw around him there. His health restored, he consummates his marriage with his wife on their way back to France through Italy, but she barely lives through childbirth (with the child stillborn) after an extremely difficult pregnancy, with time spent both at their country-house in Normandy and in Paris. There Michel writes and then delivers a set of lectures on a topic in Roman history. When Marceline too falls ill with tuberculosis after the difficult childbirth, they travel to find a climate that will be conducive to her recovery. Michel grows restless even after she begins to recover in Switzerland, with the result that he drags her through Italy, back to North Africa, as her health slowly fails, until finally she dies in Touggourt. So The Immoralist is also, we might say, the story of a man who kills his wife by insisting that she travel with him while ill for reasons neither of them articulates explicitly.

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What The Immoralist is “about” has been been a problem since it was first published. Gide in his preface insisted on the author’s neutrality toward the events he recounted, and the book’s status as an aesthetic object: “I wanted to write this book neither as an indictment nor as an apology, and I have taken care not to pass judgment. . . . I did not seek to prove anything, but to paint and illuminate my canvas well.” (xiii-xv).  [peindre et éclairer mon tableau] He notes, nonetheless, that the book has a “problem” at its heart: “I make no claim to have invented this ‘problem’; it existed before my book; whether Michel triumphs or succumbs, the ‘problem’ will continue to exist, and the author offers neither triumph nor defeat as the foregone conclusion”(xiv). With the benefit of hindsight and a bit of specialized knowledge, the book’s dedication to Henri Ghéon, “his steadfast comrade,” could be taken as providing further evidence (should we feel we need it) that the issue is same-sex desire. Ghéon was not only one of Gide’s literary comrades, he was a partner on various sexual escapades at home and abroad.[5]

Figure 1  Jacques Emile Blanche, André Gide and his Friends at the café Maure of the 1900 Exhibition (1901) Rouen Musée des beaux arts. Left to Right: Henri Ghéon, Charles Chanvin, Athman Ben Salah, André Gide, Eugène Rouart.

Figure 1  Jacques Emile Blanche, André Gide and his Friends at the café Maure of the 1900 Exhibition (1901) Rouen Musée des beaux arts. Left to Right: Henri Ghéon, Charles Chanvin, Athman Ben Salah, André Gide, Eugène Rouart.

Rachilde wrote a review of The Immoralist for the Mercure de France (which published Gide’s book) in July 1902. It was, for her, a book that contained “some of the most dangerous intellectual traps that one can set for our enfeebled modern understanding.”[6] But for her the problem was not hard to discern, and she found Gide’s way of dealing with it too tentative. Michel, his protagonist, is a “pseudo-poitrinaire,” a pseudo-consumptive, and like other well-known “poitrinaires” he develops “an appetite for every kind of carnal excess.” As a result, since they can be ascribed to his illness, his same-sex longings don’t seem sufficiently his, nor sufficiently well defined: “He sets snares in the woods of Sodom. But as a poacher who only dares follow at night the cruel Eros who hunts for males.”

A bit more than a decade later, Gide would be spending an afternoon with the older novelist, Paul Bourget, who would take the occasion to ask him (if we trust the account Gide provides in his Journal) “Tell me, Monsieur Gide, whether or not your immoralist is a pederast. . . . I mean a practicing pederast?” Gide claims to have replied that “he is probably more likely an unconscious homosexual . . . I believe there are many such.”[7] A case could be made from materials like these that The Immoralist was, for its early readers, a book about the troubled existence of a certain kind of same-sex sexuality among married men, a sexuality that was difficult both to assume and to represent.

Figure 2 Rachilde

Figure 2 Rachilde

Figure 3 Paul Bourget

Figure 3 Paul Bourget

Two interesting questions (the second being an extension of the first) emerge from all this about why it might be interesting to read and teach The Immoralist today. The first concerns the way that elements of the context in which a text emerges do or don’t seem relevant to what the text is perceived to be about. If we imagine Ghéon, Rachilde, Bourget, and others up to Bersani and Said picking up The Immoralist and reading it, it seems fair to say that we should realize that they were not reading the same book. They might have held the same object in their hands, with more or less the same words on the page, but a book that is being read, we know, is more than artifactual. As the text is absorbed, it is recreated, recontextualized differently from the way it would have been in earlier days. If we think about contextualization as a dynamic process, and context as something subject to repeated negotiation, it is easy to understand how aspects of a work that may once have seemed too ordinary to stand out (Michel as an orientalist, Michel as a misogynist, Michel as a citizen of a colonial power, Michel as a sexual tourist) take on new relevance for select readers once it has traveled through space and time and reached their hands.[8]

The second, related, question has to do with thinking about a book such as The Immoralist as a social object. A book is merely a physical object, Pierre Bourdieu points out, until it is read. Then it becomes a social one. How it is understood depends on the outlook of the reader who must be, Bourdieu points out, both “inclined” to read the book and “capable” of doing so. The challenge for trained professionals, Bourdieu suggests, is to distinguish what their training encourages them to read into an object from the way the object would have been read or used in a less scholarly way by different kinds of readers around the time it was produced [9]. To attempt to understand a book as a social object is to attempt to reconstruct the habitus of the reader(s) to whom it might have been (or might still be) addressed. Sexuality, for instance, as imbricated with class, levels of cultivation, literary aspirations, and as shaped by gender relations and geopolitical relations of power, will not be inscribed in the same way in  this or that habitus from historically, geographically, or culturally different locations.

The Immoralist contains the clear suggestion that it was meant to exist within, be active within, be taken up within, be troubling to, a certain French homosocial literary world, an exclusive and exclusionary space specific to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Bersani finds traces of that world in the scene of an evening party at Michel and Marceline’s Paris apartment. Marceline is marginalized during the party given her difficult pregnancy, while Michel wanders through their apartment noting the careless behavior of guests named Antoine, Étienne, Godefroy, Hubert, Louis, Mathias, Léonard, Albert . . . “There is no way of knowing,” Bersani comments, “if these men constitute a gay coterie.”(117). One might, thinking of the homosocial circles in which Gide largely moved, qualify the use of the word “gay,” because Gide’s circle included men with different rapports to same-sex sexuality, depending on how far they accepted such sexuality, how much they participated in it, whether it was a permanent or momentary disposition, an exclusive interest or part of a wider range of sexual practices, practiced only abroad or both at home and abroad, with younger men, men of the same age, or older men, paid for or not, and so on. In any case, the literary world from which The Immoralist emerged was a world of diverse sexualities, where the complexity of sexuality was perfectly well understood, even if often only implicitly so. Perhaps the trouble that The Immoralist engendered came from its implicit sense that the world for which it was written was unstable and would soon disappear. Perhaps it had to do with the narrative’s potential for rendering the implicit features of a culture explicit, even if imperfectly. Is the misogyny so overt that we can hold the text to be self-conscious about it? Likewise is the colonialist attitude toward North Africa and the people who live there so explicit that we can treat it as both aware and critical of it? Is the text asking that the code of implicitness regarding male same-sex sexuality in certain cultural spheres be revised? The text cannot, of course, answer these questions on its own, because it is, from one point of view, only the unstable precipitate of an array of different interactive cultural processes that could only be discernible after further archival inquiry into the many contexts in which it participated(and continues to participate).[10] If The Immoralist can be painful to read today,that is perhaps the sign that, in a certain way, it wasn’t written for us. As Bourdieu would say, it calls for a different habitus, it calls for people differently disposed towards the social world than most of us could presently be. When weread it, was is discomforting is in part our implicit, practical sense of the discrepancies between dispositions we have and the dispositions the book strikes us as calling for–dispositions that might be both historically and culturally distant, and yet also too close for comfort.[11]

André Gide, The Immoralist, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Vintage Books, 1996).

NOTES

  1. André Gide, Journal II: 1926-1950, ed. Martine Sagaert (Paris: Gallimard [Pléiade],1997), 490.
  2. Leo Bersani, Homos (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 114.
  3. André Gide, The Immoralist, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 158-59.
  4. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Knopf, 1993), 193. The passage from The Immoralist is cited on 192-93. See also Jonathan C. Lang, “Some Perversions of Pastoral: Or Tourism in Gide’s L’Immoraliste,” Genders 21 (1995): 83-113.
  5. See Michael Lucey, Never Say I: Sexuality and the First Person in Colette, Gide, and Proust (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 166-68.
  6. Rachilde, “Les Romans. L’Immoraliste d’André Gide,” Mercure de France 53 (July 1902): 182-84.
  7. André Gide, The Journals of André Gide, Volume 2: 1914-1927, trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Knopf, 1948), 110. For more on this passage from Gide’s Journal, and on the reception of The Immoralist, see Lucey, Never Say I, 31-46 and 76-86.
  8. cf. Michael Lucey, “A Literary Object’s Contextual Life,” in Ali Behdad and Dominic Thomas, eds., A Companion to Comparative Literature (Malden, MA:  Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 120-35.
  9. See Pierre Bourdieu, Sociologie générale, volume 1: Cours au Collège de France 1981-1983 (Paris: Seuil, 2015), 231-32.
  10. See the “Introduction: Language-in-Use and Literary Fieldwork” to a forthcoming special issue of Representations  (no. 137, Winter 2017) on “Language-in-Use and the Literary Artifact,” edited by Michael Lucey, Tom McEnaney, and Tristram Wolff.
  11. See Bourdieu, Sociologie générale, volume 1, 259-61.
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