Category Archives: Week 10 Reviews: André Gide, The Immoralist

If Everyone Knew what Michel Found Out

Had Michel been purely immoral, he would not find himself with the lack of direction that he struggles with at the end of his story.  Had he been a true immoralist, he could have created a neat pattern in his life of contradicting accepted morals.  Yet Michel’s actions were not directed by malice or hatred of virtue.  He was selfish, but his intentions were not to hurt those close to him.  Sometimes he behaved in ways that would be deemed “right,” and other times in ways considered “wrong,” and often times the reader and Michel’s listeners were carried away in his story and were unable to distinguish the difference between right and wrong.

Therein lies Michel’s problem.  Certain aspects of morality as defined by society, including hetero-normativity, rang dissonant with Michel.  When he tried to force himself into the morals his society constructed, he was sick and pathetic.  Yet when he began to understand himself his desires better, he grew stronger and healthier.  Yet with this change, Michel did not seem to develop his own sense of morality; rather he sometimes acted in accordance with traditional morality and sometimes against it.  At that point, Michel was happy; he still had a framework of morality through which to understand and direct his life.

Gradually, however, Michel, along with his listeners, lost sight of the clear distinctions between right and wrong.  Michel tried to be a pure immoralist, spending time with criminals and low-lifes.  Yet though he found them interesting and enjoyed spending time with them, he never proclaimed to be the same as them.  He was falling out of the framework of morality – no more able to behave directly against it than he was able to follow it.  With Marceline’s death – Marceline, who upheld morality – the last bits of the framework fell, and Michel was lost.

How terrifying to find that freedom alone, how frightening to realize that there needn’t be a moral point and purpose to our actions, and that the moral constructs humans create are so transient as to be non-existent.  Then, the lack of judgment from his friends and from his readers, indicated that this burdensome freedom is contagious.  His friends felt involved in his immorality-turned-amorality.   They too felt lost, felt the disappearance of the framework.  But then what relief, to realize that moral inconsistencies need not be inconsistencies if there are no standards with which to be consistent!

Perhaps Michel’s friends were too small a group to feel that relief.  Perhaps Michel reached out to his friends, to see if they could accept a world not defined by right and wrong, but rather one composed of a fluid mesh of desires, actions, and beliefs that do not cohere into a set of morals or a comprehensive philosophy.  For if they could accept it, perhaps he could live comfortably with them.  Then one of Michel’s friends, perturbed by Michel’s predicament, reaches out further, to extend the circle enlightened by this troublesome freedom.

Perhaps too, this is Gide reaching out to society, to present this struggle to a wider audience.  For if it is acknowledged by the masses, then the societal constructs would indeed melt away, and perhaps there could be a more reassured acceptance of the fluidity of morality and inconsistencies inherent to living. – YG

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The Anecdote of the Scissors in L’Immoraliste

In André Gide’s L’Immoraliste, I was quite struck by the apparently mundane and trivial anecdote of the scissors. Even though that story may seem quite accidental it might, actually, reveal something important about Michel’s “transformation” and its alleged “immorality.” At the end of the third chapter of the first part of the novel, while Michel is still recovering from his tuberculosis in Algeria, he witnesses through a mirror (oh so symbolical) the little Moktir stealing a small pair of scissors belonging to Marceline, Michel’s wife. Interestingly, Michel does not get angry at all: on the contrary he feels delight (Je ne parvins pas à me prouver que le sentiment qui m’emplit alors fût autre chose que de l’amusement, de la joie). It is probably at that precise moment that Michel acknowledges consciously that he derives pleasure and delight from immorality (see Michel’s fascination for the Heurtevent family in the second part of the book). When the couple is back in Paris, Ménalque wants to talk to Michel after the latter did his largely misunderstood course lesson. Michel, who now seems to embrace his libertine tendencies, kisses him in front of everybody. Ménalque is an ambivalent character; he tells Michel that, basically, at first he was not interested in Michel at all for he thought the latter was just a sad an uninteresting person. However, Ménalque also travelled in Algeria and he stopped by Biskra where Michel and Marceline stayed for a little while. Ménalque knows about Michel’s illness, namely he knows about his tuberculosis and his inclination for the company of children (Michel’s pederasty). He knows also about the anecdote of the pair of scissors for he met Moktir who “told him everything.” I think the symbol of the scissors may be quite important here. Furthermore, one recalls how the stop to the barbershop and Michel’s new haircut are crucial steps in the construction of Michel’s nouvel être (new being) in the beginning of the novel. Of course a very tempting and quite Freudian interpretation would link the scissors with castration (oh so nasty): as long as Michel remains married to Marceline who, however, seems to be the most charming woman, he feels sort of stuck and cannot give free rein to his libertine tendencies. One recalls indeed that Michel, as he says in the beginning, has married Marceline to please his father (Je connaissais très peu ma femme et pensais, sans en trop souffrir, qu’elle ne me connaissait pas advantage. Je l’avais épousée sans amour, beaucoup pour complaire à mon père, qui, mourant, s’inquiétait de me laisser seul). That is probably the reason why Michel let his wife die egoistically and in a very inhuman and immoral manner at the end of the book, even though he genuinely loved her. -R.C.

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“The Immoralist”, re-encountered.

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.

–LH

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. 

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