Friday, July 25, 2008

Five reasons to love (or hate) Andre Gide

This not a critique. I have never studied literature in a (hm mm!) serious academic environment. If you are looking for a professional essay about Andre Gide, this is not the one.
So why, you might wonder, out of nowhere this boring long post about Andre Gide.
One reason: his works are re-edited, many quote him and still he seems to had disappeared into oblivion in the United States. It looks like he’s rather known for his quotable remarks than his persona or writings. Unfortunately, to see him quoted on Christian motivational sites can only make me smile at the thought of poor Pope Pius XII turning in his grave. (i)
Another reason: while I liked many writers and poets, he is one of the few with whom I fell in love.

1. For his taste (Aesthetics)

If many of my US fellow literature lovers are familiar with Camus and Sartre, few of them even heard of Andre Gide. However, there will be no Camus and Sartre without Gide. His taste and aesthetic choices influenced quite a few important writers of the second half of the XXth century.
Among them life-long friends such as Sartre and Mauriac, the ones that disliked him deeply like James Baldwin and the ones that had criticized him, like Nabokov, but are indebted to his aesthetic choices.
In a discussion with Roger Martin du Gard, he exemplifies this new aesthetic perspective by drawing a semi-circle on a piece of paper and placing a flash-light in the centre:” Il y a une science subtile des eclairages; les varier a l'infini, c'est tout un art”(“there is a subtle science about the rays of light; to vary them infinitely is an art”). The story is not longer constructed but grows with its characters as an infinite variation of their points of view.
His only novel “ The Counterfeiters” explores the technique of writing a story within the main story, technique reused by Nabokov in his “Dar”(The Gift”).[for more on this topic here: ]
You will find that some of his critics consider him to be more “un home de letters” than a writer, one whose influence over his époque was mainly due to his taste than to his writings. They do not deny his writing skills, the elegance of his style the clarity and quality of the language, but they deplore his characters’ lack of life (as the direct effect of an ego-centric writer?). For others his works have intrinsic value. For me his work reflects as much as Dostoevsky’s the passions of people damned to this restless move back and forth between the sensual and the spiritual.

2.For his wit:

His unique sense of humor and self-irony is omnipresent in his works and life. It is quite easy to take him (or his characters) seriously and if you do I could not guarantee that you will not be disappointed. Without this subtle irony that outlines the absurdity of “great deeds” (Michel’s sensuality, Alyssa’s self-sacrifice, Lafcadio’s acte gratuit) his writing and his life would easily fall into the pathetic laments of a gay puritan.
In his remembrance of Andre Gide, Maurois gives us a few examples of his humor:
“A rooster is striding impatiently up and down the waiting-room of a maternity home, cigarette in beak, wing tips clasped behind his back like Napoleon. The floor is littered with cigarette ends. The door opens and a hen in nurse's uniform pops her head in. She leans forward and whispers confidentially, "It's an egg."”
[more here: ]

3.For being (not so) openly gay

I had read yet many opinions about Gide’s view on homosexuality. The enthusiasts speculate that he did not even believe in heterosexual marriage, a belief that I would be leery to attribute to one that tried so hard to marry a woman and father a child. Baldwin depicts him as a hypocrite because he wrote “ Et nunc manent in te…” as an apology for being gay(or was it an apology for convincing her to marry him, for believing that his “pure” love for her, for he did love her, was above the love of the husband that desires his wife). Others see him swinging between acceptance and guilt, and they are probably right since Gide’s homosexual choice has no simple explanation
In short, Gide was raised in a typical bourgeois family of the XIXth century. From what we know his parents had a happy marriage. It was his father that encouraged him to explore the world and develop his own taste. But his father died when he was still very young and his puritan perfectionist mother was left alone to raise him. His own poor health held him back form attending an institutionalized form of education offering him the unexpected freedom of growing up in the countryside and being thought by original tutors. His mother, thought, was very cautious; she supervised his readings and she raised him according to his strong puritan believes. His cousin Madeleine was another role model: staying strong while suffering so much for her mother’s adultery, so faithful to her father, to family. This is the virtue he married and it is my belief that he never supported marriage other than in its most acceptable social and religious form that is heterosexual marriage.
But there is the sensual Gide who grew up wild among flowers, on country roads. And this Gide is attracted to young boys, his desire so strong that pushes him to madness as he once confessed (Et nunc…). What I love about this Gide his courage to embrace his relationship with Marc Allegret instead of keeping this guilty attraction satisfied by unnamed boys in North Africa where nobody judged him. His courage to love Marc – the relationship lasted for twelve years until the later discovered that he likes women better. Was his relationship with Marc selfish, cruel towards his wife and his best friend –Marc’s father? Definitely. Human? Yes.
I also love Gide for being open about his sexuality, his relationships (Coryndon, If it Die..).This white, rich, handsome, tres burgeois French man, apparently happily married. Now, I know, that might not seem exceptional today – but when he did it in 1911(1924), it did cost him the loss of some of his friends and many of his social relationships . He said it, openly, in spite of the social stigma. He spoke in spite of his guilt towards his wife, or maybe just because of this guilt.

4. For being open minded

Claude Mauriac, in his remembrance of Gide: “And as he recited this poem I could not understand, fervent attention in his warm and tender voice, I admired him ... No, he has not given up cultivating himself, this old man with a young man's heart always and a young man's face still ....”.[ Gide was reciting a poem by Keats in English, more here: ].
His discretion, his cautious approach to ideologies, is a result of a lesson well learned, maybe from his readings on Plato, on how to keep his critical sense awake.
Baldwin resented him for his colonialist attitude, since he assumed that the lack of sexual inhibition of the young African was a result of their primitive (“inferior”) culture. While I will not deny that this position might characterize young Gide, I noted that his works from his trips to Chad and Congo had started the ant-colonialist movement. It seems to me that through his on-going contact with Africa and its culture, Gide came to believe that this “primitive “ culture is something that might be worth to be preserved rather than conquered.

5.For being Andre Gide:

“It is better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for something you are not.”- such cocky self confidence.

(i)Pius XII is the one that condemned publicly Gide ( almost the equivalent of an excomunication, I think, if Gide would of ever been Catholic in the first place).
I am indebted to this web site : for learning more about Gide and reading some insightful comments of people that had known him.

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