Thursday, October 30, 2008

Lessons of The Immoralist

A student wrote me last night about L'Immoraliste by André Gide.   We're using it in our paired course on "Modern French History" and "Riots and Revolutions."  We chose it because it paralleled in a lot of ways turn of the century thought, and after reading Barrès' work and especially Jeunes gens d'aujourd'hui by Henri Massis and Alfred de Tarde, boy were we ever happy with our choice.

Now of course André Gide's politics had nothing in common with the proto-fascist, Catholic renaissance Youth of Today.  Yet, Michel's self-absorption, his movement away from the "sedentary," "intellectual," "unpatriotic," "defeatist," "universalist" generation of 1865 towards a "physical" "action-oriented" new generation overlaps Massis and de Tarde's (primitive and unscientific) poll of the youth born around 1890.

Massis and de Tarde is infinitely more obsessed with patriotism, war and Catholicism compared to Gide.  They write:

L'héroïsme et la guerre.
Et voici qui est plus significatif encore. Des
élèves de rhétorique supérieure à Paris, c'est-à-
dire l'élite la plus cultivée de la jeunesse, déclarent
trouver dans la guerre un idéal esthétique d'énergie
et de force. Ils pensent que « la France a besoin
d'héroïsme pour vivre ». «Telle est la foi, dit encore
M. Tourolle, qui consume la jeunesse moderne. »
Combien de fois, depuis deux ans, n'avons-nous
pas entendu répéter : « Plutôt la guerre que cette
perpétuelle attente ! » Dans ce vœu, nulle amer-
tume, mais un secret espoir. (31)
So the youth of the day (and by that they mean the youth of the Ecole Normale Supérieur and Henri IV--the important youth, the leaders of tomorrow...) say "[Let's have] War rather than this perpetual waiting," or "...the most cultivated elite says it finds in war an aesthetic ideal of energy and force."

On sport and travel, Massis and Tarde relate that

Le sport a exercé, lui aussi, sur l'optimisme
patriotique des jeunes gens une influence qu'on ne
saurait négliger. Le bénéfice moral du sport, j'en-
tends de ces sports collectifs, comme le foot-ball,
si répandu dans nos lycées, c'est qu'il développe
l'esprit de solidarité, ce sentiment d'une action
commune où chaque volonté particulière doit con-
sentir au sacrifice. D'autre part, les sports font
naître l'endurance, le sang-froid, ces vertus mili-
taires, et maintiennent la jeunesse dans une atmo-
sphère belliqueuse (1).
L'habitude des voyages, enfin, loin d'affaiblir
l'idée de patrie, l'a transformée et précisée. Ceux
qui voyagent sentent le mieux l'opposition des
étrangers à eux-mêmes : ils prennent conscience de
leurs différences : «Chaque fois que je me suis
trouvé à l'étranger, nous déclarait un jeune étu-
diant de lettres, j'ai éprouvé en moi la vérité et
la force du sentiment patriotique.»
Sport inspires discipline, "military virtues" and, to their delight, a "bellicose atmosphere." Unlike for Michel, though, travel is not linked to understanding otherness, to a quest for universal ideas, rather it is an opportunity to reaffirm the "truth and the force of patriotic sentiment."  Michel's need for the Other in his path of self discovery, as well as his more nuanced understanding of the world in general (with the exception of the lacunae regarding women and most practical matters), lead him away from the Nativist and Catholicized tract by Massis and de Tarde.  Yet, Michel's narrative abounds in words like "life," "energy," "force," etc.  His growing taste for self-realization and "action and thought" as Massis and de Tarde would say, clearly falls in line with the pre-war generation of the turn of the century.  [On a side note, it is truly incredible how much Young People of Today sounds like the republican party of the last 30 years.]

Thus couched, Michel's self-absorbed reality, though clearly a pathway to figuring out his marginal status, can also be seen as a symptom of larger societal ills and contradictions.

So my student writes:

Another work that I have read that really contrasts with those traditional views of The Odyssey is The Immoralist by Andre Gide. It is basically about a young man who gets married, contracts TB, decides the only way he can get better is to focus completely on himself, gets better, discovers he's attracted to men, creates a doctrine that despises morals as social conventions and stifling to individuality, and ulitmately is responsible for the death of his wife when she contracts TB from him and he drags her around the world wearing her out to satisfy his wander lust. Obviously, this is not a good guy (I could have guessed by the title). One thing that I found particularly infuriating about this book was the main character's (Michel) view on honesty.

"I detest these honest folk. I may have nothing to fear from them, but I have nothing to learn from them either. And they have nothing to say...Oh, these honest Swiss. Where do their good manners get them?...They have no crime, no history, no literature, no art...They are like a sturdy rosebush without thorns or flowers."

Here, Michel equates honesty with good manners, and makes incredibly broad generalizations about a people he honestly has very little contact with. First of all, good manners often leaves little room for honesty, so right away his hypothesis that honesty is a social convention is thrown out the window. If he actually paid attention when he was in society he would realize a lot is left unsaid or twisted, and that honesty is not so much an actual convention of society but just a front used to make people think we are all getting along and being adults. Isn't honesty supposed to be a particularly adult quality? All kids lie about brushing their teeth and how old they are and whether or not they snuck out. Adults are supposed to grow beyond that, yet I feel that most just grow more skillful in their facade. They have the seeming of honesty to allow them to function respectably in society and this is what Michel detests though does not articulate well and causes him to confuse honesty with social convention. After all, his attraction to evil and bad dealings is partly because he believes criminals have more sincerity than those that follow rules, those people he believes are just cookie-cutters from society's mold. However, you can say the same generalizing prejudices against criminals. In a criminal society, lieing, cheating, and stealing become the conventions. And how is one murderer different from another? If it is actions that define the person (like praying in church, stealing a pair of scissors) then aren't we all from one mold or the other? Can we ever be surprised at what someone does? No, especially in this day when we have witnessed countless wars, watched film of the atom bomb dropping, or studied the holocaust. Unlike Michel, I believe that what breaks molds are not actions that can be labeled as anti-social or the anti-citizen, but actually thinking and developping beliefs that do not autimatically reject morals because "everyone" seems to have them. I feel like this is what Michel does: he rejects what is perceived as "moral" because he wants to be an individual. However, the author prefaces the story by saying that "I don't pretend to have invented this "problem"--it existed before my book came along. Whether Michel prevails or not, the "problem" continues to exist, and does not in the author's view terminate in triumph or defeat." (8). Therefore Michel is coming from a mold whether he likes it or not. He is a part of the tradiotn of a "problem" of society and therefore cannot reject society completely or live comfortably outside of it. His philosophy, his doctrine and dogma, are pointless, because by trying to break his idea of the mold he is merely fitting himself to another: that of the marginal character. I think the title of the book says it all: The Immoralist, not Michel. He has become an archetype and is no longer a person, but an example of what is "bad." Is this not like Jesus, the Christian archetype of what is "good"? Marceline's death may be seen as Michel's final effort to kill that "good" inside him.

Okay, so to wrap things up: Michel's modern quest for individuality versus Odysseus's traditional values of goodness. Neither is a relativist. While Odysseus is a part of a large and predominant faith, Michel scorns faith. His quest for individuality is modern, but it is not relativist because he most certainly judges those who do not feel like him. He does not allow other people to have the comfort of their own beliefs but ridicules them for their blindness and "comfortable happiness." In this way, both characters judge, Odysseus with the bow, and Michel with scorn. So, at this late date I can barely remember what my point was, just that I was thinking about Whitney's contemplation of goodness and thought I would throw in my own contemplations. I can honestly say that I mostly despise Michel (I have some pity for him, though it is very little), and I admire Odysseus. However, I also despise the cookie-cutter and molds as Michel does, I just choose to see rebellion in a different light. For me, rebellion does not mean falling in with criminals and despising people for their goodness. Rebellion means adapting those old and powerful traditions to modern times. How can I be hospitable, or pious, or just plain good in 2008? Now I've gotten myself all tangled up because I wrote "For me" which is a very relativist beginning to a sentence! Oh well, I'm done for tonight. I've spent way too long on this and need to get to homework. I will be surprised if anybody reads this through.
 I have to say I was thrilled that she was processing a lot of the various issues surrounding Michel's development.  He is frustrating.  So I replied the following:

This book is indeed infuriating, and I think you strike the right note when you touch on the book's title.  He's not amoral, which would imply someone who is simply contrary to a certain moral framework, a binary framework.  Rather, he chooses "immoral," which is somehow slightly different and perhaps "less moral" because it posits the idea that perhaps there exist no morals at all, only conventions, politeness, social graces--all of which in his eyes become increasingly empty.  Ménalque (and perhaps Moktir, though we can only guess at what his philosophy of life may be), are iconic in the novel, but are they solutions to the problem?  I guess the questions this raises for me are the following: does Michel become Ménalque, or is something stopping him--a wariness perhaps that by trying to break out of the mold, he is, as you point out, "merely fitting himself to another: that of the marginal character"?  Is this why, in spite of his self-centered outlook, he still has a need to at least tell himself that he is dedicated to his wife?  Is this why he is stuck in Biskra and can't leave? I don't know the answer, but, again, I think you are on the right track when you say "he rejects what is perceived as 'moral' because he wants to be an individual."

His problem is a problem of becoming.  To become who he really is he cannot follow the typical pathways offered by society.  He is marginalized by definition, so then, how can he become a full-fledged person when rules and conventions already define and constrain him? (Of course, his striving for a total accomplishment of self is really that of all of us, but it is all the more pronounced given his "extreme" difference from others.)  Sloughing off the shackles of convention does not necessarily mean a total rejection of everything, though, and, on some level it is an immature and childish dream to think that one can accomplish such a feat.   But Michel, so focused on himself, on figuring out who he is, is not unlike a child. 

Can one totally reject language and still communicate?  Can one reject all morals and still be human since humanity is in part defined by the artifices of culture and relationships?  No, this is the price we pay to be social beings.  As a novelist and a homosexual, I think Gide was acutely aware of this.  He knew that "originality" was an impossible pipedream, that original novels like original individuals were, at best, only occasionally so, not intrinsically so.  As the author references the Bible, ancient history, etc., his is entering into a dialectic with them--defining himself, but with seeds planted long ago by others.  I think he recognizes himself as a torch-carrier rather than a "pure" creator.

The other part of the equation, of course, is not whether Michel has a problem, but whether in fact society does.  Are Michel and Marcelline not both victims of an "arbitrary" sickness as they are of "arbitrary" social conventions that put them in this relationship without really knowing why?  (I'm not trying to excuse Michel, but one does have to recognize his difficulty of becoming fully human in a society which defines him as grotesque and therefore, to some degree, forces his hand in pushing him away.)  Here, to me, is where colonialism offers some possible insights.  Outside of France, Michel can just "be" without restraints, but he can't just "be" because he is cut off, seperated, without the social ties that make him fully who he is.  He is caught.  Likewise, these colonial subjects are caught in a power trap as well, as they find themselves marginalized, objectified and imprisoned by a dominant system (culturally, in the French eyes, and militarily).  One can try to avoid the system, to live outside of it, or, more poetically, beyond it, yet it always comes back to define the potential escapee.  The "desert" is mere refuge, a mirage, not a permanent home, and I'm sure you get my reference here.

So it seems that Gide is exposing a problem where all the solutions are imperfect.  On the one hand, these problems are very real and regard the oppression of minorities and the very deep repression that those minorities develop.  On the other is the problem of the social individual, especially the Westerner, the Artist, who is locked in a battle to fulfill his/her true Self, to be unlike any other before.  The latter is futile, vain in both senses of the word, which is why the constant act of becoming and reinventing of the self and the retelling of stories become so important to us, why the process can eventually surpass the product.

Anyway, those are a few of my thoughts.  I really appreciate the time you spent thinking about this difficult novel and I think you have some really important insights....
And so ended my email.  Isn't it exciting when students are engaged!

Anyway, I have now written far too much and must, like my student, "go do my homework."

Recommended reading: The Immoralist and The Counterfeiters (Les Faux-Monnayeurs).