As it is customary in class to begin with some first impressions, I might do well to take advantage of that approach here, and confess that this book–The Immoralist–really had very little to do with what I expected it to be.
With the crippling naivety born of self-confidence, I opened the book and rifled through the pages, awaiting an abundance of opportunities to smile knowingly, basking in the familiar glow of a lexicon well-understood, an aesthetic oft-encountered. My perusal of the book was mere formality, for surely nothing utterly unexpected could come from such a book, so famously integral to a literary tradition, whose principles can be apprehended easily enough, surely, by means of a merely instinctive approach.
In this way, I am here laid bare to your contempt, and to my own scorn as well. Quite honestly, my initial conception of this book was very soundly trounced, and any vestigial traces of self-satisfaction quickly made themselves scarce, skulking away with faces aflame.
The brief summary of the novel’s plot that was printed on the book jacket lead me to assume many things about Michel, based on my understanding of the decadent literary genre. I imagined that his illness would lead him to engage in a life of debauchery and opulence, that he would fling his young wife aside and prowl the streets of Paris, in a coat of scarlet velvet and gloves of purple kidskin, visiting brothels and corrupting nubile adolescents. Eventually, a lifetime’s fortune squandered and banished by polite society, he has no choice but to retreat to the barren landscape in which he finds himself at the beginning of the novel. In short, I thought that this was a novel that had gained its reputation on nothing more than the author’s ability to tell a hackneyed story with great verve and flair.
Quite obviously, I had no idea what I was talking about.
Above all, I found The Immoralist to be an extremely subtle account, a novel that doesn’t yield easily to straightforward interpretation; to extract any message or conclusion out of it is no simple task. My initial attempt to slot it into a conventional interpretation of decadent works failed flat on its face, so much so that I had to read the novel twice over, just in order to liberate myself from the myopic boundaries set by my thick preconceptions.
The narrator of the novel tells his story fluently, convincingly–but the reader is not allowed to forget that this is an unreliable narrator: no third-person omniscient oversees the narrative, it is the man himself who is telling the story of his life. Granted, the conditions under which he is telling this story are quite special: surrounded by three of his intimate friends (who act as witnesses to Michel’s omphaloskepsis), he recounts each action, each motivation, each aspiration that he has experienced over the past few years and lays them on the scales. Michel’s goal in doing so is to reveal himself to himself, because he is suffering from an inability to understand and come to terms with himself and his past actions–this self-narration is a sort of last resort, a desperate attempt to obtain some sort of redemption or exoneration. Thus, the stakes of this story are high: either he clears his conscience and escapes from his dissolution, or he continues to condemn himself to his current exiled state, a meagre existence that is little more than a prolonged half-life. Imagine having to be the judge of your own life, and having everything in your future hinge on an act of autobiographical retelling! No moral criteria could possibly seem sufficiently flexible for such a trial, and no pre-existing laws of conduct would seem remotely appropriate for our own case–for we are masters at justifying our own actions to ourselves, and finding a sufficient excuse for any action (whether good or bad) that we undertake is necessary to our ability to live day by day. Perhaps this inapplicability of all conventional moralities to the case of Michel’s trial of himself is a clue for why the novel is entitled The Immoralist. That is, the title is not just a simple heading which serves to indicate that within these pages licentiousness and depravity lie; instead, it is a reflection of the fact that Michel has become dislodged from any definite moral schema–he no longer knows how to judge his own actions, and as such his personhood/conception of self are in a state of perpetual abortion, as he cannot form a coherent image of the kind of person he is.
And that is also the reader’s challenge. We, too, are faced with the following questions: What kind of person is Michel? What judgements or conclusions can we form about him? Is he good–bad–sympathetic? Do we think that he is guilty of his wife’s death? But how can we even think that, given that he so assiduously and extravagantly applied himself to her care? And what kind of life do we think that he ought to lead now–should he repent and punish himself for his wife’s death, or does he actually deserve condolence and our warmest sympathies for losing someone dearly beloved, for whom he sacrificed his own career and squandered his fortune?* Do we respect him? Do we despise him?
The difficulty is that all these question can be justifiably answered in the affirmative or in the negative. Or at least, so I think, for Michel’s character is full of ambiguities and irrationalities. In a sense, we can empathize with these aspects of his character, because we, too, act on impulses and irrational motivations that we retroactively justify. Most of us are able to tell a coherent story of ourselves to ourselves, and this continuous process of confabulation and narrativization is how we can be at ease with ourselves (have a clear conscience). But Michel cannot reconcile the various actions that he has performed: he cannot understand why Moktir stole his wife’s sewing scissors, nor why the act endeared the child to him so much. He cannot understand how he can love his wife so fervently and yet feel the need to leave her during the night to meet Moktir. He cannot explain why he was so intrigued by the Heurtevent family, nor why he loved Charles so earnestly one summer and scorned him the next. Truly, he is both the landowner and the poacher. He undermines each action with an opposing one, and he cannot come to terms with himself over which action is more integral to his identity. That, I suppose, is up to Michel’s three friends and us to decide. The verdict, at least it seems to me, would take a long time in the making.
*Note the contrast between Michel and the archetypal dandy: for the dandy would have wasted his money on sumptuous gifts for his mistresses and fripperies for wenches, whereas Michel actually throws away his considerable fortune in an attempt to aid Micheline’s convalescence.