by André Gide
"The capacity to get free is nothing; the capacity to be free, that is the task."
—from the first paragraph of The Immoralist (1902), by Andre Gide, who died on this day in 1951; the sentence became well known in the first half of the twentieth century, singled out not just by reviewers of the novel but by Camus and other European existentialists
I read this book when I was in high school and did not appreciate it. Fortunately, I returned to it and have read it several times since then. While I think The Counterfeiters is a better novel I still hold this novella in great esteem. Gide's approach to the erotic continues to amaze me. The similarity of his demonstration of Eros here with Thomas Mann's approach in his novella, Death in Venice, is striking. Both are imbued with the influence of Nietzsche, but Mann takes a more classical philosophical approach with references to the ideal nature of love (see Plato's Phaedrus). Gide, on the other hand, has entered Freudian territory, not to mention his more existential approach, in his interpretation of the inner erotic man.
For Gide there is the search as embodied in the protagonist, Michel, who is trying to separate himself from his past. In North Africa, during a stay in Biskra, he watches in a mirror as a young boy, Moktir steals a pair of scissors. The scene does not disgust Michel. "Quite the contrary, I could not manage to convince myself that the feeling which filled me at that moment was anything but amusement, but delight."(p 44) His sensations build a sense of complicity between himself and Moktir and correspondingly enhances his separation from his past, from the European social milieu he desires to escape. Coming near the end of his stay in North Africa this episode is part of the culmination of his journey. It is a journey signified by reference to Homer's Odyssey (p 37), but more importantly one that is filled with a new freedom from his illness and his weakness, all engendered by a new ability to feel internal sensations.
"I had forgotten my exhaustion and my discomfort. I walked on in a kind of ecstasy, a silent happiness, an exaltation of the senses and the flesh."(p 39)
Michel's suppression of his homosexuality is more sensual and physical than the brittle death rattle of Gustave in Death in Venice. Yet at the same time he expresses this aspect himself by choosing favorites among the boys in North Africa. The search for the nature of one's self and a life of freedom has seldom been explored with such complexity as Gide does it here. There is an ambiguity throughout this novel that overpowered me on my first reading and continues to intrigue me and bring me back to The Immoralist again and again. I experienced a similar feeling upon encountering Edouard when reading The Counterfeiters.
The Immoralist by Andre Gide. Trans. by Richard Howard. Modern Library, 1983 (1902)