André Gide, Evangelist

ANDRE GIDE: A Life in the Present, by Alan Sheridan.
Harvard University Press.  $35.00

Reading Alan Sheridan’s compendious new biography of André Gide can be rather like spending a few days in Paris.  Or maybe it just seems that way to me, because shortly after reading André Gide: A Life in the Present I did, in fact, spend a few days in Paris, where every part of town brought to mind a different aspect of Gide’s life.

        So it was that, strolling past the pricey emporia on the Rue Saint Honoré, I thought of Gide the privileged young man, who, during his European and African travels, grew accustomed to having a piano delivered to him wherever he was staying; walking through the elegant neighborhoods of Beaubourg and St-Germain-des-Près, I contemplated Gide the respectable upper-class householder; wandering around parts of Montmartre and Batignolles where the streets were jammed with Arab immigrants, I was reminded of Gide’s affection for north Africa and its inhabitants (or, at least, the more comely and cooperative of its underage male inhabitants).  The sight of imposing churches such as Notre Dame and Sacré Coeur recalled Gide’s lifelong attempt to define a Christianity consistent with his own sense of morality and at odds with that of the influential entre deux guerres Action Française movement, whose leaders’ ardent traditionalist Catholicism eventually led them to become zealous Nazi collaborators; the spectacle of the Place de la Concorde, the Champs de Mars, the Invalides, and other overblown public spaces that boast of French power and glory caused me to dwell on Gide’s high-profile involvement in national politics and his intimacy with the likes of Léon Blum and Charles de Gaulle.  In the narrow streets of the Left Bank, I remembered Gide the counterculture author; sipping drinks at gay bars on the Rue de Sainte Croix de la Bretonnerie, I pondered Gide the trailblazing supporter of homosexual rights.

       And then there were the street names.  In every corner of Paris, I came across them: thoroughfares, big and small, named after literary men (no women) who had figured in Gide’s life, some as faithful friends, others as devoted enemies.  Near the Arc de Triomphe was the Rue Paul Valéry, named after the poet whom Gide met when he was twenty-one and Valéry a law student two years his junior (and about whom he later wrote a critical study); alongside the Champs Elysees was the Allee Marcel Proust, named for the writer whom Gide viewed (in Sheridan’s words) as “a social-climbing snob” and whose masterpiece Gide, to his later regret, rejected for possible excerpting in the Nouvelle Revue Française; and on my way out of the city, I passed the Rue Jean Cocteau, named for the colleague and rival whom Gide considered a flashy, untrustworthy phony and on whom he modeled a character in The Counterfeiters.  (There’s also a Rue André Gide – it’s in Montparnasse – but I didn’t happen to make it to that part of town.)  

     Seeing Gide, as it were, all over Paris underscored for me – as if one could ever forget – how supremely French was the life that Alan Sheridan recounts in this highly intelligent, comprehensive, and fluently written seven-hundred-page tome.  For better or worse, other countries just don’t produce authors like Gide – or, more accurately, don’t have cultures in which a life and career and reputation like Gide’s can happen.  It’s probably fair to say that France itself doesn’t have such a culture anymore, either.  Which is one reason, I think, why Sheridan’s book is valuable: it offers a richly detailed look at a world that no longer exists, one in which a wealthy and well-connected young man who spurned the successful career that he might well have claimed in law or business or politics in favor of a life dedicated to the good, the true, and the beautiful (as he saw them) ended up enjoying a fame and influence that any politician or businessman would envy and that no serious writer today – certainly no serious American writer – could imagine possessing.

     And what a supporting cast!  By the end of Sheridan’s book almost everyone who was anyone in European letters during Gide’s lifetime seems to have put in an appearance – from Stephane Mallarmé to Joseph Conrad, from Henry James to Aldous Huxley.  Then there’s Cocteau, who, in Sheridan’s telling, weaves in and out of Gide’s life like a snake.  Gide considered Cocteau morally dangerous, and the contrast in The Counterfeiters between the popular, flamboyant, and superficial writer Count de Passavant and the more serious, moral, and unflashy writer Edouard, both of whom are attracted to a handsome and gifted youth named Olivier, was influenced by Gide’s own struggle (at a distance) with Cocteau for the discipleship of Marc Allégret.  Allégret, who became Gide’s lover when he was sixteen and Gide was forty-eight, thereafter fell briefly under the spell of Cocteau, who Gide feared would “corrupt” Marc.  Writes Sheridan: “For Gide, with his cult of sincerity, Cocteau represented cultivated insincerity, outward show, showing-off, parade….It was not to be confused with the kind of ‘immoralism’ that he had himself entertained (without entirely adopting): such a post-Protestant, Nietzschean ‘immoralism’ was, effectively, a ‘higher’ morality, one that must be preached with all the ardour of the Protestant missionary.”  

     Indeed, as Sheridan convincingly argues, Gide never stopped being, in his own way, a Protestant missionary.  Certainly he never disavowed Christianity, which he saw, in Sheridan’s words, “as a humane, loving creed that had been perverted, in similar and different ways, by both Protestantism and Catholicism.”   As Gide himself wrote in 1912: “Catholicism is unacceptable. Protestantism is intolerable.  And I feel profoundly Christian.”  He continued throughout his life to consider himself a Christian – by which he meant not that he believed in certain dogmas about God and Christ but that the person and ministry of Jesus held great significance for him.  This, in his view, was not inconsistent with the kind of “immorality” he professed; on the contrary, it obliged one to question and challenge conventional morality in the name of a more truly Christian – which is to say, a more loving, generous, and honest – approach to life, even if that meant being widely branded as immoral.  The running theme in his fiction is the conflict between the inhuman strictures imposed by traditional Christian culture and the deeply human longing for a life unfettered by pointless self-denial and hypocrisy, and, especially, for the uninhibited physical expression of love.  In the 1909 novella Strait Is the Gate, a young woman’s inability to break free of religious strictures causes her to reject the love that has flowered between her and her cousin; in Symphonie Pastorale (1919) a married pastor’s world is turned upside down when he develops a romantic attachment to a blind orphan girl whom he has taken into his home.

     There is much to be said for these and most of Gide’s other major works of fiction: they are seriously conceived and very well-made, with classical contours and an exemplary purity of language and consistency of tone.  Yet they are also too obviously designed as critical commentaries on the social climate and religious morality of Gide’s time – and, as such, can seem as quaint to contemporary readers as they once seemed revolutionary.  Even to admirers of well-made fiction, moreover, much of Gide’s fiction can seem lapidary to the point of lifelessness. Too often the observed characters come off like stiff actors reciting lines and following script cues. As for the narrators, they are unbelievable except, it sometimes seems, to the degree that they are recognizable versions of Gide himself; in fact one has the impression that the only times these stories do come alive is when Gide is more or less transcribing his own experiences.  Also problematic is his use of awkward structural devices, such as the placement of the main story within a framing narrative that is attributed to a different narrator.  Sheridan, who generally takes a highly sensible view of almost every question relating to Gide’s life and work, is rather more enthusiastic than I am about the structural devices in Gide and about his narrators’ frequent references to the narration as such.  Sheridan (who has written books about Derrida and Foucault) admires Gide’s use of such techniques because they call attention to the artificiality of narrative conventions; I dislike it for the same reason.  The fact is that Gide’s perfect little fictions already feel artificial enough.

     The major exception to these generalizations about Gide’s fiction is The Counterfeiters (1926).  Gide considered it his only novel, and it is true that while several of his other works, though perhaps long enough to be called novels, read more like short stories, The Counterfeiters alone has a novelistic heft, complexity, and messiness.  Indeed, it is every bit as meandering as Gide’s other major fiction is overly tidy – which is hardly surprising, given that one of his purposes in writing this book was to break free of the structural rigidity of his shorter, more “perfect” works and to let himself be directed less by his themes than by his characters.  Unfortunately, the result is a scattered, highly uneven narrative that wanders hither and yon, now following the fortunes of an engaging character (such as the gifted Olivier, a new lycée graduate taking his first steps into the Parisian literary scene), and now attending at length to a character who does not even rise off the page.  Gide’s rambling structure reflects his desire not just to portray a single individual but to take the reader on a tour of certain segments of Parisian society at a certain historical moment (with an emphasis on their various sexual hypocrisies).  He is, to a considerable extent, successful; but to compare this, arguably Gide’s chef d’oeuvre, with other, similarly motivated books of the same era such as A la recherche du temps perdu or Ulysses is to be forced to recognize Gide’s relative limitations as a novelist.  

     On the one hand Gide is unable, in The Counterfeiters, to disguise the fact that the characters here who most strongly interest him tend to be boys and the men who are attracted to them; on the other hand, his disinclination to be identified too strongly with those characters, and his desire to paint a broader social portrait, would seem to be among the reasons why he gives short shrift to the characters that most truly engage his imagination, continually dropping them in order to see what his other, less interesting creations are up to.  One can only wish that Gide had been able, thematically, to fully follow his obsessions, and, structurally, to fin some happy middle ground between The Counterfeiters‘ unsatisfying lack of shape and focus and the deadening facticity and overdetermination of his shorter fiction.  But he never did.  Though he was considered the pre-eminent French author of his time, to read Gide’s major fictional works is to conclude that his gifts and vocation were essentially those not of a fiction writer but of a pamphleteer against conventional sexual morality.  Which is, of course, just another way of acknowledging that he was, indeed, an evangelist.

     Gide did not become an evangelist overnight.  Born in 1869 and left fatherless at the age of ten, he grew after his father’s death extremely close to his mother, whose stern, straitlaced Protestantism caused Gide – who recognized early on that he was homosexual – to spend much of his young manhood battling a profound internalized sexual moralism.  In his early twenties he wrote in his journal (in a self-dramatizing tone consistent with much of the poetry of the day), “O God, let this over-narrow morality burst and let me live, oh, fully; and give me the strength to do so, oh without fear, and without always thinking that I am about to sin!…I have to strive after pleasure.  I find it painful to be happy.”  He owed his liberation from “this over-narrow morality” at least partly to his friendship with Oscar Wilde, then in his heyday, whose example of flamboyant and unapologetic homosexuality, Sheridan notes, helped “to accelerate an intellectual and emotional movement away from the Christian puritanism of his youth,” and about whom he would later publish a full-length critical study – a brave act at a time (1910) when Wilde was still a figure of disgrace.  

     Not too many months after writing the above journal entry, Gide finally experienced both homosexual and heterosexual sex.  Though his English-language publishers omitted from his published account of an 1893 African trip a paragraph describing the former event – a paragraph which, Sheridan notes, “is quite central to Gide’s account of his emancipation from his puritan upbringing” – Gide wrote of the latter encounter in the following vein:

I felt that was beginning to live again; it even seemed as if I were living for the first time; I had left the valley of the shadow of death and was awakening to real life.  Yes, I was entering upon a new existence where every joy would be welcome and none resisted…I heard, I saw, I breathed as I had never done before; and as the profusion of sounds, scents and colours flooded my empty heart, I felt it melt in gratitude.

     “Take me, take me body and soul,” I cried, sobbing out my worship to some unknown Apollo.  “I am thine, obedient, submissive.  Let all within me be light!  Light and air!  My struggle against thee has been in vain.  But now I know thee.  Thy will be done!  I am in thy hands.  Take me!”

As this overheated, self-dramatizing passage might suggest, Gide, like many former prisoners of fundamentalism, did not exactly throw off the yoke of fanatical faith and become a rationalist, but rather redirected his religious passions, exchanging one object of extreme, irrational devotion for another.  In his case, in short, the Calvinist god of sexual deprivation gave way to a pagan god of sexual satisfaction.  From that time onward, Gide pursued carnal pleasures with well-nigh religious zeal.  Utterly incapable of denying himself physical gratification, he seems to have been blind to the quite obvious ways in which his self-indulgence hurt others.

     Leading the list of those whom he hurt was his wife, Madeleine, his marriage to whom remains perhaps the single most perplexing fact of Gide’s biography.  Madeleine was his first cousin, and their marriage, which endured for forty-three years, was never consummated.  Engaged to him seventeen days after his mother’s death, when he was twenty-five, Madeleine seems to have been less of a wife to Gide than a mother substitute.  Three months after their wedding, Gide confided to his journal: “How often when Madeleine is in the next room, I forget that she is not my mother!” As Sheridan comments, this confusion “lasted all their lives.”  Certainly Gide and Madeleine could hardly have been more different.  If he was a footloose adventurer with an enthusiasm for the company of friends, an animus toward the institutional church, and a passion for boys, she was a shy, private homebody for whom sex itself – let alone “boy-love” – was an embarrassing, unmentionable topic; throughout their marriage she avoided reading those works by her husband which she knew would reveal to her more about his life apart from her than she wished to know. And there was plenty not to know: from the beginning of their marriage, Gide lived largely apart from her, traveling around Europe and Africa for months at a time with Allégret and other friends, having sex with countless strangers along the way and dropping in on Madeleine occasionally in much the way that an adult man would drop in on – yes – his mother.  

     Why did Gide marry Madeleine?  Plainly he cherished his freedom – yet he also apparently wanted a wife who would hold down the fort, representing the domestic virtues and conventional piety, while he was off gallivanting.  Insensitive?  Yes.  Cruel?  Undoubtedly.  Yet Gide seems not to have realized he was being cruel.  It was as if in some sense Madeleine wasn’t real to him, as if he had a blind spot where she was concerned, as if her chief purpose, in his eyes, was to enable him to deny to himself, on some level, the reality of his life and to reassure himself that he was in some sense still a “normal,” respectable, loving husband.

     If questions about Gide’s marriage to Madeleine seem to be of primary relevance to any inquiry into his understanding of human affairs, the central event of that marriage was undoubtedly Madeleine’s burning, in 1918, of all of Gide’s letters to her.  She destroyed them alone and without drama, not informing Gide about it until he asked one day to inspect her epistolary trove.  Gide, who later described the letters as “the treasure of my life, the best of me,” claimed he had wept for a week, “from morning till evening,” on learning of their destruction.  His sorrow, however, seems less that of a wounded lover than that of a typically vain writer.  Madeleine’s burning of the letters – about which she said “I was suffering too much…I had to do something…they were the most precious thing I had” – was plainly a pathetic act, at once sadistic and masochistic, by a desperate and helpless woman with very little self-regard, absolutely no sense of her own power to change her life, and only one means (as she apparently saw it) of hurting someone who had hurt her more than she could otherwise bring herself to acknowledge.  

     Yet even this act apparently failed to awaken Gide to the nature and dimensions of his crime against Madeleine.  As Sheridan writes, “She had burnt twenty years of letters, but had he not reduced to ashes twenty years of love?”  Yet Gide was incapable of seeing things that way.  He told his friend the writer Roger Martin du Gard that because he was homosexual he was able to give Madeleine a “total love” that was “divested of all physical desire” and marked by “limitless purity”; in their marriage, he claimed, he had built “the very temple of love.”  As Sheridan comments, “This is not an intelligent man of 1998 speaking, but it doesn’t sound like an intelligent man of 1919 either.”  What it does sound like is a man who never resolved his inner tensions – and who never entirely shook off a puritanical abhorrence of sex.  (Can it be, one wonders, that in focusing his affection on children Gide was not demonstrating his emancipation from Calvinistic strictures but was rather making a puritan’s flight into innocence from adult “sinfulness”?)

     Gide characteristically sought to understand himself in terms of warring dualities, one of them being a conflict between Catholicism (his father’s religion) and Protestantism (his mother’s); but Sheridan, observing perceptively that this very tendency to think dualistically is more Protestant than Catholic, sees Gide as very much a product of French Calvinism.  About his 1924 book Corydon, a then-scandalous defense of homosexuality, which Gide was brave to write and even braver to publish, Sheridan suggests that “perversely, we owe [its] publication to what remained in Gide, and was always to remain in him, of the ‘Protestant conscience’: he felt compelled to ‘bear witness’ to the truth as he saw it, a truth, moreover, that concerned him at the very centre of his being.”  For Gide, Sheridan says, “sincerity was all.”  To read Sheridan’s biography is to believe that this was so – that Gide truly considered himself to be devoted above all to sincerity.  Yet at the same time it is to observe that Gide’s marriage was, at heart, a lie.  Not only did he betray Madeleine with countless boys; he also fathered a daughter, Catherine (born in 1923), by his friend Elisabeth van Rysselberghe, and kept that fact a secret from Madeleine until her death.  Then there was his long-term liaison with the aforementioned Marc Allégret, whose father, a Protestant pastor and an old family friend of Gide’s, trusted him implicitly and apparently never suspected that the famous writer was anything more than a devoted friend and mentor to his son.  Yet Marc Allégret had no complaints: Gide, writes Sheridan, “was the most important, most influential person” in Allégret’s life; even after Marc grew up, married, and became a famous film director, they remained bound until Gide’s death “by an unbreakable bond of mutual love and respect.”

     Gide’s betrayal of his wife and of Pastor Allégret’s trust, even as he considered himself to be consecrated to the cause of truth, was not the only important and troubling contradiction in his life. On the one hand he was throughout his career a professed liberal and, for most of the 1930s, was one of the most vocal and visible supporters of Soviet Communism, with its supposed devotion to the interests of the working class.  Yet at the same time he was a rich man who, for decades, used his wealth to procure the sexual favors of poor boys.  To be sure, none of the boys or their families ever complained about their treatment at Gide’s hands; yet to read Sheridan on Gide’s encounters with them – which he writes about responsibly and unsensationally, without a hint of either condemnation or celebration – is to get the impression that, for Gide, having a boy sent up to one’s room was really not all that different from having a piano delivered.  

     The irreconcilabiity of Gide’s apparently guiltless exploitation of lower-class youth and his professed sympathy for the so-called worker’s revolution is one thing; his self-delusion about that revolution is another.  To be sure, his relationship with the Moscow regime was, even at its height, complicated by a laudable reluctance to compromise his own art or beliefs.  Unlike his fellow writer Louis Aragon, Gide was never a paid Party mouthpiece, though, in his eagerness to believe that Russia was showing the way to the New Jerusalem, he did for a time soft-pedal his criticisms of Stalin and dismiss evidence of Soviet lies and crimes.  To read Sheridan’s account of the Party’s aggressive courtship of Gide, of Aragon’s tireless efforts to make him toe the party line, and of Gide’s quixotic attempt to maintain personal integrity and speak the truth while still serving as an apologist for a brutal monster of a dictator is to be reminded yet again of how actively Moscow sought to recruit and control influential figures in the West – and of how frighteningly successful that campaign was.  

     Gide’s relationship with the Party reached its climax in 1936, when he stood beside Stalin on a Red Square platform at the funeral of Maxim Gorky; it ended later that same year, when, having finally been compelled by his experiences in Russia to admit his own doubts about Communism, Gide published his book Retour de l’URSS.  Though it is, as Sheridan says, “a mass of unresolved contradictions…written and published in haste by a confused man whose mind was not yet made up,” the book’s honest expression of disillusionment incensed the government in Moscow, at whose orders the Soviet stooges among the French literati and intelligentsia – of whom there were many – obediently denounced Gide as a liar and a traitor.  Thus did Gide find himself hated by colleagues on both the Catholic and fascist right and the Communist left.  In the long run, however, he emerged victorious: after the liberation, while other French writers were being imprisoned or executed for having cozied up to the German occupiers, the de Gaulle regime treated Gide almost as a hero (even though the Nouvelle Revue Française, on which he had played a key editorial role, was dissolved by the government for having collaborated with the Nazis).  It is, then, all the more striking to read about how Gide, after Hitler’s invasion of France and the establishment of the puppet Vichy regime in the South, continued on with his life almost as if nothing had happened.  Though he did go to some effort to help Jewish friends and acquaintances, it is nonetheless astonishing that Gide – who spent the war years in the south of France and northern Africa – managed to follow his usual work (and play) schedule while the Gestapo, too, was hard at work nearby, rounding up Jews.  To an American or British reader, such apparent complacency may seem incomprehensible.

     If admirers of Gide are obliged to disentangle his problematic political posture during the 1930s and 40s from the liberalism that characterized his politics before and afterwards, they also have to separate his habitual sexual exploitation of poor children from his pioneering commitment to homosexual rights.  The Immoralist (1902) and Corydon (1924) were two of the first “gay” books I ever read, and when I found my way to them in the 1970s they seemed to me every bit as urgent and relevant as they must have seemed to their first readers.  In The Immoralist, a young married man very much like Gide travels abroad with his new wife and recognizes his homosexuality (which is elliptically but unambiguously conveyed); in Corydon, the narrator addresses a group of friends whom he has called together in order to announce, and defend, his homosexuality.  If one book attempts to begin to move homosexuality out of the realm of immorality by recounting a sympathetic character’s gradual discovery of his same-sex attraction, the other seeks to accomplish the same end by argumentative means.  Both books are commendable in their goals, but The Immoralist now seems to me unbearably slow-moving and portentous, while Corydon feels considerably more dated than it did a couple of decades ago, when I was a young man beginning to come to terms with my sexual orientation.  Yet easy as it might be to mock the herculean lengths to which Gide goes in the latter book to explain and defend something that for many educated people nowadays needs no defense, it must be remembered that Corydon itself helped bring about this change of thinking.  Besides, in most of the world today, Corydon would still be seen not as old hat but as incendiary.  Indeed, it is poignant to read both of these books knowing that when Gide wrote them he believed that Western civilization was on the verge of a more enlightened age when homosexuality would be universally accepted, and that all it would take to reach that point was a few good books.  But then, such is the optimism that drives all evangelists.