“I am neither sad nor gay; the air here fills you with a vague exhalation, induces a state which seems as remote from gaiety as it is from suffering; perhaps that is happiness.”
“Our happiness, during this last part of the trip, was so untroubled, so calm, that I have nothing to tell about it. What would be the description of happiness? Nothing, except what prepares and then what destroys it, can be told.”
“The capacity to get free is nothing; the capacity to be free, that is the task.”
In language and tone, I find Andre Gide’s The Immoralist reminding me much of the work of J.M. Coetzee, specifically Disgrace. Both authors use a very pared down, austerely beautiful language; in a translator’s note, Richard Howard calls Gide’s voice “raised almost to the tension of the lyre,” which seems about as good a description as can be given. Thematically, both books are wrestling with the following idea, quoted from Gide: “The capacity to get free is nothing; the capacity to be free, that is the task.”
Like Disgrace, The Immoralist’s protagonist eventually evolves into an amoral state (despite the title, I think he’s more beyond morals than transgressing them):
I reached a point of enjoying in others only the wildest behavior, deploring whatever constraint inhibited any excess. I came close to regarding honesty itself as no more than restriction, convention, timidity.
I imagine The Immoralist, with its strong hints of pedophilia and with its apparent embrace the passionate pursuit of personal desires and the mixing of the classes, was probably a good deal more shocking in its day than it feels now. Howard compares it to Freud and Nietzsche, both of whom certainly have worn with time. But I think the idea that animates the book–how easily we can lose our inhibitions, and how difficult it is to know what to do once we’ve lost them–is something that never grows old.
What I like most about this book, what most struck me the first time through, is the description of how the narrator Michel comes to embrace sensuality. After his marriage (“If I did not love my fiancée, as I say, at least I had never loved any other woman.”), Michel and his bride head to Algeria, where he discovers that he has tuberculosis. It is when this disease brings him to the brink of death that Michel realizes the worth of living. Much more interestingly, his battle with tuberculosis forces his mind to reconcile with the body it inhabits, and through the disease Michel becomes sensitive to bodily sensations and, perhaps, stops seeing the mind and body as separate things.
I had forgotten I was alone, forgotten the time, expecting nothing. It seemed to me that until this moment I had felt so little by virtue of thinking so much that I was astonished by a discovery: sensation was becoming as powerful as thoughts.
This seems to be the pivotal moment for the book, as not only does overcoming the disease put Michel in touch with sensuality, it also forces him to hide this new side of himself from his wife, which is the wellspring of his love for transgressions.
I ended by enjoying the dissimulation itself, savoring it as I savored the functioning of my unsuspected faculties. And I advanced every day into a richer, fuller life, toward a more delicious happiness.
Of note here is how Michel comes to his amoral (or immoral) final state. Unlike the characters in, say, Lord of the Flies or Heart of Darkness, Michel reaches his state without leaving society. True, he gets his start in Africa, but it is only in France that he truly discovers and embraces his new ethic. And yet, Gide isn’t willing to let Michel come to love transgression in the presence of proper Frenchmen. Rather, Michel perfects his taste for the immoral while interacting with the uncouth French peasants that manage his estates.
Compare this, then, to Marc Estrin’s recent, excellent Golem Song, where the protagonist come to believe himself beyond morality in the heart of one of the most cultured cities on earth. A comic telling of a contemporary New York City citizen’s path to amorality, Golem Song’s would-be Superman is Alan, an overweight dork who comes to his beliefs not though estrangement in the jungle or association with the lower classes, but through good old urban decay and violence, aided by a generous helping of traditionally American sour race relations (in this case between African-Americans and Jews). It seems now that forces previously thought to reside within exotic and/or pre-modern people now can be found disembodied, haunting our inner cities.
Once in France, Michel meets frustrations. He works up a series of public lectures based on his new philosophy, but they’re ill-received. Likewise, Michel’s old friends don’t understand the new him. “I soon realized, unfortunately, the impossibility of making myself understood. From our very first conversations, I was more of less obliged by them to act a part–either to resemble the man they thought I still was, or else appear to be pretending . . . you cannot be sincere and at the same time seem so.” It is after this that Michel takes up with the company that eventually turn him amoral: he revels late at night with the course peasants that work his land, and finds a soul-brother in for form of Ménalque, another French aristocrat. Again there are hints of homosexuality:
After the irritating criticisms and the inept compliments, his few words about my lecture were a relief. “You’re burning what you once worshipped,” he said. “Which is a good thing. You’re catching fire late, but that means there’s all the more to feed the flames with. I’m not yes sure I understand you completely; you interest me. . . . Have dinner with me tonight.”
“Dear Ménalque,” I answered, “you seem to forget I’m a married man.”
“Yes, that’s right,” he continued. “The friendly way you came up to me just now made me forget you aren’t free.”
True to Ménalque’s words, Michel feeds the flames with everything he’s got. Eventually his estates are ruined, his wife’s pregnancy a miscarriage and her life gone. Michel ends up alone in dark Africa leading a debauched life.
What’s impressive about this book, besides its exceedingly tight construction and prose, is how much it anticipates. Take this passage from Ménalque:
People dare not–they dare not turn the page. The laws of mimicry–I call them the laws of fear. People are afraid to find themselves alone, and don’t find themselves at all. I hate all this moral agoraphobia–it’s the worst kind of cowardice. You can’t create something without being alone. But who’s trying to create here? What seems different in yourself: that’s the one rare thing you possess, the one thing which gives each of us his worth; and that’s just what we try to suppress. We imitate. And we claim to love life.
It’s not too far a leap from this to the ’50s and ’60s when the Beats, Abstract Expressionists, and filmmaker John Cassavetes tried to find ways to penetrate self-imposed societal masks. Not much further beyond are anti-corporate, transgressive authors like Chuck Palahiuk, Bret Easton Ellis, and, more eloquently, David Foster Wallace. But for the erudition, do Ménalque’s words really sound that much different from Tyler Durden’s?
What proves to be the key difference is that whereas Gide ends his book in Michel’s pit of infamy (presumably this is not only the end of the book, but of Michel as well), an author like Palahiuk or Foster Wallace would regard this more as a necessary step on the path to self-renewal. Durden would call what Michel has done “hitting rock bottom,” but for him it is not an end in itself. Rather, it’s a necessary precondition for finding the self that has been hidden under layers of societal and corporate programming. Gide seems to think, at least in Michel’s case, that the true self is the amoral hedonist. Even if he isn’t saying that this is always what happens (Ménalque seems to end up all right), Gide is at least professing a much darker, more fraught view of hitting rock bottom than more recent authors.
Not many books as old as the Immoralist continue to be as relevant as Gide’s has. Although some of it has inevitably aged, his examination of how Michel “becomes free” and whether or not he has “the capacity to be free” remains a worthwhile voice in this age of authors preoccupied with getting free from societal influences. Beyond that it’s simply an elegant character study–well-written, tightly built, continually interesting and surprising.
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