For man himself is a mystery,
and all humanity rests upon
reverence before the mystery
that is man.--
A first reading of L’Immoraliste lets us share the consciousness Michel himself has of his being. It is only as we probe into the thematic fabric, the novel's contrasting and similar correlative themes that we discover Michel's true identity underneath his own evaluation of it. In this sense the récit is a palimpsest with the essence of Michel's true nature lying underneath or between the lines. The art of Gide in this kind of work is to keep the narrator himself imperceptive and unaware of the implications of his own narrative while granting the reader all the evidence necessary to understand who Michel is and why.
Gide's preface to L’Immoraliste places Michel's particular problem in the general context of world literature, when he maintains that the public wants the author to take sides either in favor of Alceste or Philinte, of Hamlet or Ophelia, of Faust or Margaret, of Adam or Jehovah. Gide's refusal to pronounce judgment and his claim to authorial neutrality allow him to transcend a didactic stance and places Michel's specific problems among the universal problems of mankind. Gide's use of the word "problem" is twofold. The work of art presents both an aesthetic and a moral problem. The aesthetic aspect of Michel's story, the exposition and clarification of all the necessary elements of Michel's existence must be solved within the coherence of the work itself: "en art, il n'y a pas de problèmes--dont l'oeuvre d'art ne soit la suffisante solution." The moral aspect of Michel's story, however, remains a question for each individual reader. Gide, the artist, does not covet the rôle of the priest and refuses to legislate morals.
L’Immoraliste is divided into three parts which are framed by the letter written from Sidi revealing Michel's present desolation and by the concluding remarks which leave Michel's future unsolved in the hands of the Président du Conseil, and, we the readers, are called upon to judge ourselves without hypocrisy as we, too, are placed before a Grand Inquisitor: "Il en est plus d'un aujourd'hui, je le crains, qui oserait en ce récit se reconnaître," says one of Michel's friends (p. 13). The frame serves the additional purpose of placing Michel in a potential relationship to society, for no matter how hermit-like he wishes to live, he is forced to be part of the larger circle of humanity.
The story of L’Immoraliste revolves around Michel's problem of existence. The first part is devoted to his gradual awakening to the fact that he does in reality exist as a whole human being, as a person apart from others, as an independent entity with individual needs and desires. His exhilaration at being alive culminates in the moment of strength and love in Sorrento from which new hope and the promise of new life emerge. The second and third parts show his fight to control the essence of this existence by his futile attempt to recapture the happiness he felt at the awakening sensation of being alive and his contradictory behavior which leads him to develop and destroy concomitantly the things that give meaning to his life. Thus his whole youth had been devoted to his scholarly pursuits which he rejects on the theory that they cannot give meaning to the here and now. In this way also he first develops the land at "La Morinière" only later to poach on his own property. And in like manner Michel consciously nurtures his love toward Marceline only to let that love be subjugated to his obsession to recapture an irretrievable past where Marceline is relentlessly destroyed.
THE ROAD TO SELF-DESTRUCTION:
THE THEMES OF THE STORY
--Freedom of choice will
idée fixe, till at last you will be
like the rich man who imagines that
he is poor, and will die of want; you
sigh that you have lost your freedom
of choice--and your fault is only
that you do not grieve deeply enough
or you would find it again.--
In the course of events Michel changes from the naïve and studious intellectual, whose absence of experience and self-awareness allow him to maintain a life of superficial order without conviction, to a man whose spectacular awakening to life has led him to an assertion of individualism which ends in self-destruction. The successive stages of his transformation are complex and sometimes so subtle that Michel himself is largely unaware of the sources and consequences of his actions. One of the main themes of L’Immoraliste is the constant struggle between conscious and subconscious being, the conflict between a projected self-image and the repressed self, the real reasons and the
rationalizations for actions. A detailed analysis of Michel's transformation will point out the complexities and subtleties behind his progression to self-destruction.
Before Michel's sudden brush with death gives him an overwhelming desire to live his meek acquiescence to his father's will in matters of profession and marriage reveal the embryonic aspect of his personality. Unlike his spiritual descendant, Meursault, the death of a parent elicits his endeavors to conform to the emotions of those around him. At the simple wedding ceremony which followed he was moved because he noticed others were: "Il me semblait que l'on était ému, et cela m'émouvait moi-même. (p. 18)." Very much like Meursault, however, he is as yet unaware of the reasons for these emotions and his passive acquiescence is a sign of ignorance. Lacking the experience of life and of love, Michel commits himself to Marceline without knowing what that commitment means: "j'engageai ma vie sans savoir ce que pouvait être la vie (p. 18)." His tender affection marked by an element of pity seemed to be a sufficient foundation on which to base a marriage. More affected by the abstracted idea of emotions than by the particularized concrete situations which elicit them he cherishes friendship more than friends, and nurtures the idea of love more than love itself. His total absence of self-knowledge accounts for the dramatic transformation which takes place as Michel is literally born to a new consciousness of life, which, though largely determined by his physical condition, is mental and spiritual as well. The first signs of his awakening begin before his illness manifests itself and is effectively emphasized by Gide's repeated use of linking phrases which carry the theme of his incipient awareness.
On his honeymoon the forced leisure of the boat trip grants him his first experiences of independent thought:
Le loisir obligé du bord me permettait enfin de réfléchir.
C'était, me semblait-il, pour la première fois.
Pour la première fois aussi, je consentais d'être privé
longtemps de man travail...(p. 21; my italacs)
External circumstances force him to rely on inner resources. For the first time he begins to think and then to notice his surroundings and finally to look at Marceline:
Puis, brusquement, je songeai que je délaissais un peu
Marceline. Elle était assise à l'avant; je m'approchai, et, pour
la première fois vraiment, la regardai. Marceline était très jolie. Vous le savez; vous l'avez vue. Je me reprochai de ne m'en être pas d'abord aperçu. Je la connaissais trop pour la voir avec nouveauté; nos familles de tout temps étaient liées; je l'avais vue grandir; j'étais habitué à sa grâce... Pour la première fois je m'étonnai, tant cette grâce me parut grande. (p.22; my italics)
Marceline notices his sudden attention:
Marceline sentit-elle à cet instant que je la regardais pour la première fois d'une manière différente? A son tour, elle me regarda fixement; puis, très tendrement, me sourit. Sans parler, je m'assis près d'elle. J'avais vécu pour moi ou du moins selon moi jusqu'alors; je m'étais marié sans imaginer en ma femme autre chose qu'un camarade, sans songer bien précisément que, de notre union, ma vie pourrait être changée. Je venais de comprendre enfin que là cessait le monologue. (p. 23; my italics)
For the first time reflection, perception, and a vague understanding of his new relationship with Marceline breaks through the protective shell of his essentialistic being and thrusts him into a growing consciousness of existence. This mental activity preceded his more violent physical awakening to life which occurs in his battle with tuberculosis. His growing insight, however, is short-lived, for soon the accumulated fatigue of his twenty-five years of emotional dormancy overwhelms him. He spits blood and arrives in Sousse more dead than alive.
Michel's puritan disdain for any signs of weakness --which causes him to hide the seriousness of his condition from Marceline-- is soon superseded by his general apathy and a stupor beyond feeling. Only the hideous aspect of their accommodations arouses a vague rebellion against death, and Marceline's absolute devotion sustains him in his complete self-abandonment, as they continue their journey to Biskra. There Marceline's constant care, the view of the swaying palms at the edge of the Algerian desert, the glow of health in the little Arab boy Bachir mingle in Michel's consciousness and arouse his disgust at his own debility. When he expectorates blood for the second time his reaction changes from apathy to anger, from a fatal indifference to a righteous indignation that he should be at the brink of death while others take life and health for granted. For the first time life becomes a precious possession whose value is only recognized when its essence is about to be snatched away. In a flash of emotional intensity Michel experiences the mystery of life and his passivity changes into an active and zealous will to live: "Je veux vivre. Je serrai les dents, les poings, me concentrai tout entier éperdument, désolément, dans cet effort vers l'existence." (p. 36)
The first consequence of his newly found will to live is the elevation of his bodily needs to an absolute goal. All other considerations become subordinated to the driving necessity of regaining his health: "...il fallait juger bon, nommer Bien, tout ce qui m'était salutaire..." (p. 37) In the light of the imminent danger to life his decision seems justifiable, and a new moral code whose only concern lies in deeming good that which is capable of furthering his progress on the road to health begins to govern his life. Out of his legitimate will to live a new moral doctrine is born which elevates the individual concern above the common good held sacred in most ethical systems. The concepts of good and evil are torn down from absolute standards and made relative to the situation of the individual. In the face of a threat to life itself that which is good, that which is moral, becomes that which saves, regardless of method and concomitant circumstances.
The danger of this private morality lies in the high potential for its abuse. In the face of an emergency actions may be required which overlook long-range effects in favor of immediate results. Michel obtains those immediate results, but in the light of the final incidents of the story Michel's adoption of such a moral code fails, not only because he crystallizes his interim ethics into a permanent system, but also because his new doctrine presupposes an almost absolute freedom of action as well as a profound self-knowledge, neither of which Michel has. In order to deem that good which is beneficial to his own well-being he must first be able to recognize what is conducive to his welfare.
His war on tuberculosis begins with the awakening of his senses to a total receptivity to life-giving elements. The taste of good food, the tingling sensation of cold water on hot skin, the feel and touch of a palm tree, the sun on his naked body by day, and the invigorating desert air by night become the new objects of his worship. His rejection of all other claims on his life--except those which make for the indulgence of his newly-discovered self--excludes Marceline whose presence he begins to find oppressive. Having subordinated all other considerations to that which is expedient for his health, his first act after his resolve is to blame Marceline when the food does not meet his new standards. In his defiant struggle toward recovery Michel believes he can rely only on himself, that it is a matter of his personal will against death. He therefore rejects Marceline's solicitude and begs her not to pray for him lest his victory over death be diminished in value because not solely obtained by his own efforts.
Michel's discovery of sensual pleasure is in reality a rediscovery of latent impulses that had been repressed by the exigencies of his ascetic life as a scholar. Awakened to their immediate demands he finds a novel excitement in indulging the whims of his instinctual desires, in cherishing within him all forms of impulsiveness which would the most radically break away from his former routine. Eager to cultivate his own immediate desires he becomes alert to those in others which are as yet unrestrained by the shackles of society's rules. Hence Motkir's theft of Marceline's scissors stimulates more than idle curiosity in Michel, and is the first of many incidents where aberrant behavior is the object of his intense fascination. The same admiration for a luxurious indifference to rules and restrictions will form the basis of his friendship with Ménalque, and later becomes an obsession in his relationship with Alcide.
The violent awakening of the African spring parallels Michel's own resurgent life. Not until their last night in Biskra does Michel realize that the ecstasy of his experience cannot remain on its inebriating pinnacle, that he has only escaped immediate death to return to a life where old age and death lie at the end of the journey. The deathly stillness of the desert night brings home the truth that life is ephemeral, that his present freedom will not last, that life will not stand still in a vacuum of timelessness. The biblical warning of Christ's words to Peter sound the first alarm as Michel becomes vaguely aware that absolute freedom of action is an illusion, that he is subject to the ravages of time. The precipitous events at the end demonstrate that he did not heed the warning, and his very next actions make mockery of his foreboding as he plunges into a systematic repression of his former being as though he were absolutely free to begin life over again. What had been an instinctive element of his desire to live becomes a conscious application of his will to experience the fullness of the moment. His former reticence turns into a lusty need for the instant gratification of desires.
Full of his newly found strength he possesses Marceline for the first time and drinks deep from the brimming cup of life. He rejects theoretical knowledge of the past and does not even visit the sites of the Doric monuments, but instead conceives a passionate interest in the Goths in whose vigorous deeds he sees a parallel to his own. As representatives of a surging, untamed culture and conquerors of a moribund civilization, they become his kindred souls in the victory of vitality over decadence and decay.
The first section of the story ends with the problem of a fruitful future for Michel. Influenced by Marceline he accepts the ties of a regular position in Paris and commits himself to the responsibilities of landownership. The outlets for his voluptuous expression of being alive become fewer, and almost imperceptibly Michel is coerced back into a mold from which he had thought to be free. The second and third parts of his narrative show his desperate struggle to hold onto the essence of life which, however, runs like sand through his fingers. The Michel who had once repressed the sensuous side of his being and then turned around and repressed his orderly and intellectual inclinations is torn to pieces over the abyss of his irreconcilable extremes. The repressed element inevitably returns to the surface and thwarts his attempts to live according to his system. Ménalque's encouragement, his avid interest in barbaric cultures, the poaching on his own property, his infidelity to Marceline, his preoccupation with the immoral and the lowest dregs of humanity...none of these can destroy his inculcated sense of the conventional concepts of right and wrong.
The best example of his internal struggle lies in his ambivalent attitude toward possessions which we can trace through the entire novel. Only at the beginning does he show a complete indifference toward possessions which is illustrated by his ignorance of the fact that he was rich. When indifference becomes intentional it is no longer indifference, and the theft of Marceline's scissors shows more than mere unconcern about property, it shows an unbalanced willingness to lose it. In direct contrast to this attitude is his concern for the improvement of "La Morinière" which he undertakes under Charles' guidance after his return to France. During this brief period of domestic bliss Michel seems to have forgotten his hedonist cult, but the tranquil conformity is only apparent:
...tandis que ma vie s'ordonnait, se réglait et que je me plaisais autour de moi à régler et à ordonner toutes choses, je m'éprenais de plus en plus de l'éthique fruste des Goths, et tandis qu'au long de mon cours je m'occupais, avec une hardiesse que l'on me reprocha suffisamment dans la suite, d'exalter l'inculture et d'en dresser l'apologie, je m'ingénais laborieusement à dominer sinon à supprimer tout ce qui la pouvait rappeler autour de moi comme en moi-même. Cette sagesse, ou bien cette folie, jusqu'où ne la poussai-je pas? (p. 93)
In Paris for the winter Michel begins his extravagant expenditures in a desperate attempt to squelch any wanderlust by tying himself down with possessions. Possessions become the bars of his cell in his deliberate attempt to imprison his latent restlessness and rebellion against conformity. In this context Gide inserts an observation on farm life which, on the surface, has nothing to do with Michel, but which becomes an image of Michel's imprisonment and his attempt to foil his natural longings. At "La Morinière" Bocage, the bailiff, has enclosed the ducks at the onset of autumn winds:
Les canards, sur l'eau des douves, battaient de l'aile; ils s'agitaient sauvagement; on les voyait parfois se soulever, faire de grand cris, dans un vol tapageur, tout le tour de La Morinière. Un matin nous ne les vîmes plus; Bocage les avait enfermés. Charles me dit qu'on les enferme ainsi chaque automne, à l'épogue de la migration. (p. 97)
Human intervention and constraint frustrate natural instinct, and the ducks must comply with their northern cage. Gradually, Michel himself will grow restive in the self-made prison of his Paris apartment, and the lure of the south will become stronger. The niche he enters in Parisian society becomes a straightjacket which inhibits his personality, and each additional tie adds weight to the chains which bind him to an identity he no longer feels as his own. Ménalque's example of non-conformity, his luxurious indifference to public opinion and mores, arouse envy in Michel, and it is Ménalque who points out the blatant contradiction in Michel's behavior. On the one hand Michel willingly lets a little Arab kleptomaniac steal from him, and on the other hand he fences himself in with one possession after another.
Ménalque's philosophy on personal property relates possessiveness to stagnation and false security and calls it the primary concern of an establishment which fears change. As a culture establishes itself mainly through laws governing possessions, it becomes possessive itself, and the dread of revolution is largely due to the fear on the part of the establishment of a redistribution of property.
How much Michel indeed has become a slave to his possessions becomes evident as he tries to be a proper host in Parisian society. He becomes so irritated at his guests' disregard for his art collection, his rug, sofa, and tables that he conceives an almost uncontrollable urge to seize his friends by the shoulders and push them out the door:
J'aurais voulu tout protéger, mettre tout sous clef pour moi seul. Que Ménalque est heureux, pensai-je qui n'a rien! Moi, c'est parce que je veux conserver que je souffre. (p. 113)
Ménalque's subtle reasoning begins to affect him, for Michel rebels against his own solicitude toward his possessions and begins to attribute his feeling of dependence to them.
Returning home from Ménalque's in the early morning to find his hopes for the future dashed by his wife's miscarriage he begins to understand Ménalque's arguments. The fragility of life and hope renders all possessions precarious. Happiness, he thinks, lies in total freedom, in the absence of the responsibilities which tie man down to things and other people. In the face of his lies and Marceline's ensuing illness, from which she will never recover, Michel begins to rebel against all ties and gradually his resentment of Marceline's illness turns into a resentment of Marceline herself. He begins to treat her as a tainted object, a possession which has become contaminated.
La maladie était entrée en Marceline, l'habitait désormais, la marquait, la tachait. C'était une chose abîmée. (p. 127)
The gravity of his neurotic aversion to defiled and soiled objects is surpassed only by his unconscious use of the word "chose" to describe his wife. He both loves and resents her more than he knows, and his ambivalence toward her is evidence of the constant struggle within him.
After his last encounter with Ménalque Michel's influence on everything he possesses eventually leads to destruction and death. Like Motkir who stole the scissors only to abuse them, Michel possesses Marceline only to lead her to her death. After their return to "La Morinière" Michel turns against his responsibilities as landowner and clandestinely poaches on his own land. Michel fails to heed the warning in Ménalque's comment: "On croit posséder et l'on est possédé" (p. 121), for Michel becomes obsessed by the very idea of freedom from possessions, a malady all the more serious because it purports to be a cure for the disease it causes. In their precipitous journey south Michel spends his fortune lavishly, totally indifferent to all consequences. He strives for a state of complete independence. At the very last, when his narrative is over, he is still possessed by the idea that total freedom from all possessions would help him begin anew:
Je voudrais recommencer à neuf. Je voudrais me débarrasser de ce qui reste de ma fortune; voyez ces murs en sont encore couverts. (p. 179)
Even in retrospect, Michel fails to recognize that his attitude toward possessions was at fault not the possessions themselves.
Michel limits the concept of the inhibiting aspect of possessions to material objects, without realizing that the possessions which deprive him most of his desired independence are his own thoughts and emotions. Contrary to his declared
doctrine of disponsibilité he is haunted by memories of the past and deluded by hopes for the future. After the experience of awakening to the joy of life and love he unconsciously chases after a phantom of happiness and thereby misses the experience of the present moment which alone can offer renewal. He constantly sets the stage for a repetition of the past--the very same room in Sorrento, the same journey south to Biskra where he was healed--but he does not realize that he and Marceline are no longer the same, that, in fact, their positions are exactly reversed. Each moment brings a new actor on the stage of life, and even if the setting remains the same our position in time has changed. Michel is doomed to his final isolation and lethargy, because he has unconsciously attempted to hold onto the fleeting moment of human happiness.
The memory of past happiness becomes a hindrance to present happiness as he can never muster enough faith in his own inner resources to find a happiness which would be independent of external circumstances. Though he has consciously rejected all restrictions which might impede his spontaneous reaction to life, he is unconsciously driven by an obsession with the past:
Mais je crois qu'il est un point de l'amour, unique et que l'âme plus tard, ah! cherche en vain à dépasser; que l'effort qu'elle fait pour ressuciter son bonheur, l'use; que rien n'empêche le bonheur comme le souvenir du bonheur. (p. 73)
Memories of the past, hopes for the future--such illusory "possessions"--keep Michel from living in the present reality of an immediate response to life.
Michel's story ends when he himself feels it should be just beginning. Michel has not conquered life; life has conquered him. Michel is neither free nor happy, but vegetates in a phlegmatic indolence where the tragedy behind Michel's plea for a raison d'être lies in the fact that for all his meticulous self-scrutiny he still does not know who he is. He still harbors the illusion that he can wipe what has gone before off of the slate of life and begin anew.
We cannot create a tabula rasa where life can spring up spontaneously purged from all former experiences. We are always, in some way, affected by the sum total of our experiences, and until Michel faces up to the rôle of his repressed self in all his actions he cannot return to a meaningful life. Michel should have learned from his experience with tuberculosis that renewal can come only from within. The only cure for Michel's ambivalence lies in the recognition and acceptance of it as part of his inherent nature. He is doomed, because he feels he should be made of one piece which results in his repression of part of his being in favor of a monistic singleness of purpose which ultimately leads to aimlessness.
Michel's failure does not lie in the fact that he is a monomaniac, but in the fact that he attempts to be one without realizing that human beings are a maze of complexities and irrational contradictions. Michel's adventure is the tragedy of an excessive will to find absolutes in a relativistic universe. In the ever-changing spatio-temporal dimensions of experience the desire to hold onto life leads to the loss of life, the pursuit happiness ends in a futile search for Nirvana, and the quest for absolute freedom becomes a subtle bondage which enslaves in the name of liberty.
THE THEMES OF THE PLOT
--In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what
one wants, and the other is getting it.--
The evaluation of the successive stages of Michel's progression to self-destruction leaves many unanswered questions as to the reasons for Michel's behavior. They can only be elucidated by a closer look at Michel's character and motivations.
We have seen that Michel's final desolate state is the result of his belief that he can will the outcome of his actions through a conscious effort and a singleness of purpose while disregarding the unconscious motivations which invariably distort his intentions. He professes happiness, freedom, and life to be his conscious goals, all values which of themselves are good and noble, but which he makes contingent on external circumstances of existence. The concrete dimensions of existence influence the experience of life, happiness, and freedom, but are factors which he can only partially control. He cannot will Marceline back to health; he cannot alter the fact that their child is dead; he cannot change the reality that death is the inevitable outcome of all life, that therefore life and its possible freedoms and potential happiness are transitory and fleeting. He lacks the ability to accept our human limitations based on our precarious situation in the universe. He seeks but does not gain the insight that happiness and freedom depend on inner qualities and not on external conditions.
In evaluating Michel's plight we have seen that the suppression of one facet of his nature in deference to another is detrimental to life. At the very end Michel recognizes: "Parfois j'ai peur que ce que j'ai supprimé ne se venge." (p. 179) What he does not recognize is that the vengeance he fears has already occurred. He never realizes that the conflict within him rages the more violently because he tried to suppress it. Michel himself uses an image to describe the duality of his nature, the image of the palimpsest on which a later culture has written a message that conceals an older, more precious inscription which he endeavors to uncover:
Et je me comparais aux palimpsestes; je goûtais la joie du savant, qui, sous les écritures plus récentes, découvre sur un même papier un texte très ancien infiniment plus précieux. Quel était-il, ce texte occulte? Pour le lire ne fallait-il pas tout d'abord effacer les textes récents? (p. 62)
To the recuperating Michel the writing underneath is the authentic nature that the layers of education, religion, and parental authority have covered up. It is as impossible to completely erase the overlying text of a palimpsest as to completely hide the underlying inscription. A palimpsest, by definition, carries both texts concurrently. Michel rebels against the blocked emotional development of his youth in a conscious endeavor to throw off all the shackles of his puritan background:
Mon seul effort, effort constant alors, était donc de systématiquement honnir ou supprimer tout ce que je croyais ne devoir qu'à mon instruction passée et à ma première morale. (p. 63)
We can trace Michel's ambivalent attitude toward life and death, toward Marceline, toward himself, and toward his possessions back to this very obsession which drives him to the abyss. Each repression costs Michel part of his personal integrity. Torn between the conflicting exigencies of his being, Michel is seldom a whole person, in harmony with himself.
The obsession to repress an essential part of his being explains his ambivalence, his drive to individualism, and his ultimate downfall, but does not explain the particular character traits which make Michel susceptible to these obsessions. Behavioristically orientated psychologists would claim that Michel's behavior determines his character. But the discrepancy between his assumed purpose and his subconscious shows that the very contradictions within him are not due to his actions, but to inner conflicts of character.
Michel recognizes that his being has two texts like a palimpsest; the reader recognizes that he presents us with the rare phenomenon of the double palimpsest--the parchment which has two texts underlying an obliterating third. The original inscription presents us with the basic predispositions and attitudes which make Michel vulnerable. The difference between the simple and the double palimpsest is that while Michel is aware of the most recent underlying text he is not yet aware of his deeper propensities which thwart his conscious efforts. Underneath his conscious drives and motivations lie the anxieties that have become characteristic of the anguish of the twentieth century.
Michel becomes a symbolic representative of our modern malaise. At the end of the nineteenth century, and at the beginning of the twentieth, Michel sits Janus-like, looking backward to evaporated aspirations and forward to the modern Waste Land.
In the twentieth century we have torn off the shackles of absolutistic authority and turned from theocentric to anthropocentric concerns. We express these positively in the individuals prerogative of creating his or her own values and in the quest for self-realization where fulfillment of subjective potentialities is the goal. This new challenge to creativity has thrown us back on ourselves and our inner resources and exposed us as isolated creatures who no longer have the security of a well-defined identity in a stable society. In our solitude we recognize the need for human relationships and at the same time shrink from involvements that entail commitments. Our freedom has become a burden rather than the gateway to self-realization, and instead of fully accepting the challenge of individuality we revert back to a search for externals to define the self and lose both freedom and self-esteem. In view of the optimistic appraisal of our high potential our failure adds insult to injury and renders us all the more frustrated, frightened, and forlorn.
These characteristic anxieties which beleaguer modern society beset Michel and undermine his ambitious endeavors. His individualism reverts to egocentrism; his assertion of strength is born of weakness. Insecurity, anxiety, and the fear of death obsess him. His selfishness is a very subtle form of self-hatred. He feels vaguely guilty in both his need and rejection of human relationships and lacks the courage of a true immoralist.
Indeed, Michel lacks the generosity, the self-forgetfulness, which would allow him to abandon himself completely to life. His spontaneity is a conscious effort of the will and thereby ceases to be spontaneous. His idealistic approach to a full experience of life is unprincipled, aggressive, and egocentric. It sacrifices others to his personal goal, destroys the weak, including himself, and frustrates any mature and productive attitude toward life. Before and after his fight with tuberculosis Michel's underlying character traits remain the same. His early egocentrism may be unconscious but it is nevertheless there. He lacks the sensitivity, altruism, and imagination to become aware of Marceline without a conscious effort of the will which makes his attention perfunctory rather than genuine. Later his egocentrism becomes a conscious doctrine, and his thirst for life an obsession.
His aggressive attitude toward life is not born of strength, but of weakness. It was his endangered health, his very weakness, which caused him to become aggressive in his quest for health, and this same weakness later causes him to seek his independence by storm. He is haunted by fears, plagued by insecurity, and beset with anxieties. He is afraid when Marceline brings back anemic and weak Arab boys to his sickroom:
“Ceux que Marceline choyait étalent faibles, chétifs, et trop sages; je m'irritais contre elle et contre eux et finalement les repoussal. A vrai dire, ils me faisaient peur. (p. 53) “
During his last night at Biskra Michel looks out upon the deathly stillness of the desert, and the fear of death overwhelms him, a fear which is reinforced by the biblical passage which warns him of his future impotence. Because of this he is horrified by weakness and by all visible signs of decay. His admiration for strength, his emphasis on the strong man is, as in the case of Nietzsche, a reaction against his own debility. He is afraid to trust Marceline's love to be strong enough to accept his new self-image and begins to dissimulate in front of her. When he is afraid of losing Marceline's love he is really insecure in his own love for her.
Later when he is afraid of losing Ménalque's approval he becomes obsequious with him and dares not trust his own resources which he quickly claims to be the sole basis for his actions. His fear of the temporary is transformed into his obsession to tie himself down with possessions. The fact that he later rejects those possessions does not show that he is indifferent to material security, but that he fears responsibility more. His precipitous decision to sell "La Morinière" is motivated by his insecurity about his assumption of responsibility and his feeling of being trapped like a dumb animal by Charles and Bocage. His anxiousness to assert his individuality is in reality a fear of being swallowed up in the anonymity of the crowd. Strong individuals are different; they do not have to make a conscious effort to be so.
Once his hedonistic preoccupation with himself has served to regain his health his selfishness and frantic search for self-respect become motivated by his loss of self-esteem. His inability to love others arises from his basic inability to love himself, for he really does not think very highly of himself. He finds his body revolting and is gratified by his efforts to transform it. His aversion to physical weakness and all forms of defilement and contamination is the reoriented resentment of his own. When his appearance finally meets with his approval he is able to give himself to Marceline in Sorrento. For a brief interlude his unconscious motivations coincide with his conscious purposes. The ensuing harmony and productivity of his new-found bliss are soon interrupted by his sense of insufficiency and frustration in Parisian society. He is aggravated by his own awkwardness, by the fact that his lectures are misunderstood, and by the general absence of meaning in the social activities of everyday life. The emptiness of his everyday life stems from the fact that Michel cannot endow his daily activities with meaning, but instead expects the activities themselves to give life meaning.
His feelings toward others become hostile and resentful. He does not realize that his attitude toward others is in general conjunctive with his attitude toward himself. As Marceline weakens, the aversion to weakness and contamination he had felt toward himself is transferred to her. We would expect Michel to be able to sympathize with Marceline because of his own experience with tuberculosis, but having had no sympathy for himself, he has none for her. Typically, what he most hates in himself, he cannot suffer in others. His very strong denunciation of the "honest Swiss" is motivated by the loathing he feels toward his own puritan, Calvinistic upbringing which taught the doctrine of self-hatred. The resulting ennui becomes a rage that drives him to flee Switzerland where Marceline is recuperating. In the light of the fact that Marceline was slowly recovering in Switzerland, and that Michel obstinately refuses to stay among reminders of his rejected morality, the responsibility for her death weighs far heavier on him than he wishes to acknowledge. Each stage in his headlong journey south adds weight to his own loss of self-esteem. This in turn makes him all the more solicitous of Marceline: "A mesure que je me respectais moins, je la vénérais davantage..." (p. 161) In retrospect he wonders at the demon which possessed him. Self-
deception makes him claim that he was driven by some force outside himself, a demon, which is in reality a feeble plea not to be held responsible for his acts.
The fact that Michel is in a very real sense responsible for Marceline's death would seem to contradict his statements about his love for her. Michel's love for her is genuine insofar as he is capable of love. For love to be possible he must be able to both accept and forget himself. Their blissful moments at Sorrento are framed by two statements which show both his acceptance of himself and his ability to shed his self-centered nature: "Je me regardais longuement, sans plus de honte aucune, avec joie. Je me trouvais, non pas robuste encore, mais pouvant l'être, harmonieux, sensuel, presque beau." (p. 67) After their real marriage has begun Michel says: "J'êtais près de Marceline sans cesse; m'occupant moins de moi; je m'occupais plus d'elle et trouvais à causer avec elle la joie que je prenais les jours précédents à me taire." (p. 75)
Unfortunately, this time of genuine love is soon followed by his gradual loss of self-respect, the death of their child, and Marceline's illness. His feelings change from love to solicitude and become a conscious effort exaggerated by practices which stem from an absence of faith in the authenticity of his feelings: "Comme d'autres exaspèrent leur foi en exagérant les pratiques, ainsi développai-je mon amour." (p. 151) His very gallantry is a mask which seeks to hide his inability to love. As Marceline becomes weaker Michel finds it more difficult to play the rôle of an attentive husband. When the inner resources of his love fail him he commits the fatal error of making his love for Marceline dependent on external circumstances:
Oh! Marceline! Marceline partons d'ici. Ailleurs je t'aimerai comme je t'aimais à Sorrente. Tu m'as cru changé, nest-ce pas? Mais ailleurs, tu sentiras bien que rien na changé notre amour. (p. 150)
In the course of their frenzied journey south Michel is obsessed by his desire to get to Biskra, ostensibly because it was there that he recovered. His disappointment in the Arab boys on his arrival, however, makes him realize how eager he had been to see them again. The greatest obstacle Michel encounters in his love for Marceline is the fact that he is a homosexual without knowing it.
We can trace Michel's latent homosexuality throughout the novel as specific incidents betray his secret yearnings and set off a chain of consistent reactions that can only be explained by his pederast tendencies. From his first encounter with the Arab boy, Bachir, to his almost-recognized infatuation with Ali at the end, Michel's reactions can be clarified by his sexual preferences. He is infatuated with Arab boys and feels Marceline's presence to be cumbersome when he is with them. His violent hostility toward religion is not only a rejection of his moral upbringing, but also an unconscious expression of hostility toward Marceline. Both stand in the way of his hidden longings. Michel prefers the immoral Alcide to the responsible Charles for the same reason. The Arab boys, the coachman in Taorsina whom he kisses, the beggars whose company he seeks out in Naples and Syracuse recognize his longings better than he does. There are even indications that Marceline knew:
Marceline ne se méprenait pas sur ma pensée; quand je revenais du vieux port, je ne lui cachais pas quels tristes gens m'y entouraient. Tout est dans lhomme. Marceline entrevoyait bien ce que je m’archarnais à découvrir... (p. 167)
It is possible that his obsession to drive the dying Marceline away from the places where a cure seemed possible was in part motivated by his subconscious desire to get rid of her. As cruel as this might seem it was neither conscious nor deliberate. There are also indications which show that, while Michel was sensitive enough to Marceline's reactions to be able to record them later, he did not really understand his own cruelty as much as she did.
The following passages show her insight and his own inability to fathom the depths of his being. Marceline has had a relapse after her miscarriage and Michel is irritated that she did not protect herself:
Elle me regarde, essaye de sourire. Ah! peut-être une journée si mal commencée me dispose-t-elle à l'angoisse; elle m'aurait dit à haute voix: "Tiens-tu donc tant à ce que je vive?" je ne l'aurais pas mieux entendue. (p. 149)
Later in Italy:
Bien qu'elle se reposât sur moi de tous les soins, ces déplacements précipités la fatiguaient; mais ce qui la fatiguait davantage, j'ose bien à présent me l'avouer, c'était la peur de ma pensée.
--Je vois bien, me dit-elle un jour, --je comprends bien votre doctrine--car c'est une doctrine à présent. Elle est belle, peut-être, --puis elle ajouta plus bas, tristement; --Mais elle supprime les faibles.
--C'est ce qu'il faut, répondis-je aussitôt malgré moi.
Alors il me parut sentir, sous l'effroi de ma brutale parole, cet être délicat se replier et frissonner. (p. 160)
It is important to remember that Michel never engages in a homosexual act. The drive, like so many other forces within him, remains hidden under the weight of all the taboos he has been taught since early childhood.
Another aspect of Michel's repressions and underlying insecurity is underscored by the parasitic nature of his actions. He constantly seeks out the lowest riffraff of humanity to vicariously participate in their unbridled energy. He sees in the guttersnipe and the churl the spontaneity he lacks and wants to suck them dry. He lies down beside the bum, becomes infested with his vermin, lasciviously pursues the mysteries of the incestuous Heurtevent family, and eagerly poaches with Alcide. He cannot muster enough originality to be bad among the honest Swiss and longs for the urchins of Naples and Syracuse where he can experience uninhibited vitality vicariously.
It is significant that all these actions have immoral overtones, but do not directly incriminate him. It is highly unlikely that he would be prosecuted for poaching on his own property. He takes great precautions in his spontaneous, demonic outings not to become technically liable to prosecution. He merely wants to savor the excitement of the furtive thief in the night, the acceleration of the pulse which springs from committing an act which he considers from his upbringing to be immoral, the perverse pleasure of doing the forbidden--provided he will not suffer any consequences.
The nature of his deeds are on the level of the child who runs away from home, but is not allowed to cross the street. If his nature were truly criminal he would not be so concerned about what Charles and Bocage might think. When Bocage is too dense to understand the implications of Bute's story, Michel heaves a sigh of relief: "Allons! je suis sauvé."(p. 147) Like so many pseudo-revolutionaries who demand amnesty Michel does not want to bear the responsibility for his acts. This is not the reaction of the hardened immoralist, but characteristic of a man who has such an ingrained sense of right and wrong that he cannot face the consequences of a public, or for that matter, of a private scandal. He is not only not indifferent but afraid of what others think.
In this connection we must ask ourselves why Michel calls his friends out to hear his narrative if he fears to be exposed or held accountable for his actions. His friends themselves recognize the strange farrago of contradictory emotions within Michel: "Je ne distingue pas en lui, même à présent, la part d'orgueil, de force, de sécheresse ou de pudeur." (p. 178) At the same time they feel uncomfortable, because his very story which is neither apology nor self-incrimination seems to have granted his actions a measure of legitimacy: "Il nous semblait, hélas! qu'à nous la raconter, Michel avait rendu son action plus légitime." (p. 178) The récit itself becomes a subtle form of self-justification, a rationalization process which does not penetrate reality, but is a post-factum attempt to reconcile his own illusions with the facts. The need to tell his story arises from his basic sense of insecurity.
Any form of self-scrutiny which ultimately aims at self-justification reveals an underlying sense of guilt even if that guilt is never fully expressed. Michel's unwillingness to tell the Swiss doctor that he was the source for Marceline's physical infection is a veiled recognition of his guilt: ..."il me déplaisait de dire que moi-même j'avais été presque condamné pour cela et qu'avant de m'avoir soigné, Marceline n'avait jamais été malade." (p. 152) He was not only the source of her physical infection, but of her spiritual despair as well, and undoubtedly the most tragic moment in the book is when Marceline defiantly rejects her once-fondled rosary. Though Michel's final desolation is tragic, it is solely his own doing, whereas Marceline not only dies destroyed by his obsession, but also deprived of the very faith which had once sustained her. At the end, however, Michel's almost total impassivity would seem to deny any sense of guilt on his part. His voice never trembles, he does not cry out in anguish while recounting the dire details of Marceline's death. Not a word of remorse, regret, or repentance escapes his lips. This callous attitude frightens his friends and seems to render his blindness to his responsibility the more reprehensible.
Having told his story it would seem that Michel should begin to understand the repressed forces within him. But Michel's final words wipe out any hope for recovery as all the inadequacies of his nature are still there. Michel is still haunted by fear (J'ai peur que ce que j'ai supprimé ne se venge). Still unwilling to see his responsibility he reiterates his desire for some measure of self-justification (Je dois me prouver à moi-même que je n'ai pas outrepassé mon droit). He still tries to blame externals for his own lack of courage (J'avais, quand vous m'avez connu d'abord, une grande fixité de pensée, et je sais que c'est là ce qui fait les vrais hommes; je ne l'ai plus. Mais ce climat, je crois, en est cause). He still fails to recognize his homosexual desires and merely admits that the Arab girl's assumption that he prefers her brother could be true (Peut-être a-t-elle un peu raison). No extraneous, moralistic force but the sum of all the factors of Michel's inherent nature condemns him.
Michel's deeply ingrained anxieties, fears, and weaknesses have prevented him from becoming the immoralist he envisions. His professed concept of conduct to live without the fixity of any pre-established moral code for the sake of a spontaneous response to life fails to take into account that his reactions, in the meantime, are triggered precisely by the latent motivations which he consciously rejects, which take over his being, and lead him "whither he would not go." If Michel is no longer master of his acts the question arises whether we can be condemned for actions whose courses erupt from the subconscious and for which we cannot be held totally responsible. Responsibility assumes awareness and only to the extent that we can be said to be master of our own destiny can we be held accountable. In this respect Michel is not only the offender, but also the offended. The aggressor, but also the victim.
He is the victim of what Freud called the psychological blow to modern man's self-love, of the fact that are not masters of our own house. We harbor the illusion of freedom and self-determination and are slaves of our psychological and moral heritage.
Michel's inner conflict is illustrated by Charles' condemning rebuke: "Vous ne pouvez protéger à la fois le garde et le braconnier." (p. 148) Apart from the specific incident Charles refers to this remark illustrates perceptually the psychological dilemma. We assume that the domain of our minds is our property, our estate, and that we can do with it what we will. But we cannot protect both the guard and the thief, the conscious intentions and the subconscious forces, without falling victim to an untenable conflict which leads to destruction.
The chain of causal relationships in the structure of the plot has led to the conclusion that the best intentions are undermined by the forces of the subconscious that exert a profound influence on all our actions. Inasmuch as these forces dominate Michel’s actions without emerging into consciousness, he falls victim to himself, and his will breaks down because it extends no further than his knowledge.
THE UNQUENCHABLE THIRST:
THE GENERIC COHERENCE OF THEMES
-- The nature of finite things as such is to have the seed of passing away
as their essential being: the hour of their birth is the hour of their death.
The most striking compositional feature of L’Immoraliste is its structural symmetry. The central theme of obsessive and destructive individualism which shows Michel's inner chaos stands in direct contrast to the manner in which the novel was composed.
The perfect balance between elements is a remarkable demonstration of Gide's conscious art and classical restraint, and the structural equilibrium between correlative themes renders the novel a study in contrasts. Correlative by contrast are Michel's birth to existence at the beginning of the book and Marceline's actual death at the end. Striking contrasts and similarities are to be found in the roads the once passive now active, dominant Michel takes to health and to Biskra and the roads that lead the once active now passive, suffering Marceline to illness and death in Biskra and Touggourt.
Each segment of the novel leads our hero to a poignant realization that the seeds of death are born of life. Out of the fullest expression of his life and love in Sorrento there results a promise of new life, which, however, is the seed of death, concretely illustrated by Marceline's miscarriage and the death of their baby. Out of the fullest exploitation of his philological and archaeological research comes the realization that every culture which is born and flourishes carries the seed of its own destruction within it.
Beyond these striking examples of the balance between incidents L’Immoraliste demonstrates an inner equilibrium which transcends the level of particular motifs and expresses itself in the way its universal themes form a body of reciprocal relationships. We have seen to what extent Michel shares his problems with contemporary humanity, and his example leads us to recognize the inherent danger of his situation and, by implication, leads us to some conclusions about the nature of individualism and freedom. It has become evident that an inevitable conflict exists between conscious quests and subconscious anxieties. Absolute happiness and freedom do not exist.
The very presence of life implies the inevitability of death.
The passage that illustrates Michel's consciousness of life and the reality of death most vividly is the description of Michel's last night in Biskra after his recovery from tuberculosis:
Il était tard déjà; pas un bruit; pas un souffle; l'air même paraissait endormi. A peine, au loin, entendait-on les chiens arabes, qui, comme des chacals, glapissent tout le long de la nuit. Devant moi, la petite cour; la muraille, en face de moi, y portait un pan d'ombre oblique; les palmiers réguliers, sans plus de couleur ni de vie, semblaient immobilisés pour toujours... Mais on retrouve dans le sommeil encore une palpitation de vie, --ici rien ne semblait dormir; tout semblait mort. Je m'épouvantai de ce calme; et brusquement m'envahit de nouveau, comme pour protester, s'affirmer, se désoler dans le silence, le sentiment tragique de ma vie, si violent, douloureux presque, et si impétueux que j'en aurais crié, si j'avais pu crier comme les bêtes. Je pris ma main droite; je voulus la porter à ma tête et le fis. Pourquoi? pour m'affirmer que je vivais et trouver cela admirable. Je touchai mon front, mes paupières. Un frisson me saisit. Un jour viendra, pensai-je, un jour viendra où, même pour porter à mes lèvres, même l'eau dont j'aurai le plus soif, je n'aural plus assez de forces... Je rentrai, mais ne me recouchai pas encore; je voulais fixer cette nuit, en imposer le souvenir à ma pensée, la retenir; indécis de ce que je ferais, je pris un livre sur ma table, --la Bible, --le laissai s'ouvrir au hasard; penché dans la clarté de la lune, je pouvais lire; je lus ces mots du Christ à Pierre, ces mots, hélas! que je ne devais plus oublier: Maintenant tu te ceins toi-même et tu vas où tu veux aller; mais quand tu seras vieux, tu étendras les mains...tu étendras les mains... (pp. 57-58)
The motifs of shadow, night, sleep, and silence support the theme of his consciousness of death and at the same time illustrate his rebellion against the fact of non-existence, for death is the very opposite of life and extraneous to the experience of living. The motifs of shadow, night, sleep, and silence are merely ominous approximations to the state of non-existence the mind can neither grasp nor visualize and therefore violently rejects. But the mind cannot fully grasp the reality of life either, as shown in Michel's need to feel and touch himself. Yet, paradoxically, he can more fully sense the reality of life in those moments when he can simultaneously face the fact of death.
The linking phrase "l'aile de la sort m'a touché" is used in this context to show that a confrontation with the reality of death brings about a recognition of the value of life:
L'important, c'était que la mort m'eût touché, comme l'on dit, de son aile. L'important, c'est qu'il devint pour moi très étonnant que je vécusse, c'est que le jour devînt pour moi d'une lumière inespérée. Avant, pensais-je, je ne comprenais pas que je vivais. Je devais faire de la vie la palpitante découverte. (p. 31; my italics)
The realization that life is fleeting brings about a change in values:
Pour celui que l'aile de la mort a touché, ce qui paraissait important ne l'est plus; d'autres choses le sont, qui ne paraissaient pas importantes, ou qu'on ne savait même pas exister. (p. 61; my italics)
His heightened awareness and rediscovery of the senses are underscored by contrasting motifs of sunlight, day, heat, and sound:
L'ombre était mobile et légère; elle ne tombait pas sur le sol, et semblait à peine y poser. O lumière! --J'écoutai. Qu'entendis-je? Rien; tout; je m'amusais de chaque bruit. --Je me souviens d'un arbuste, dont l'ècorce, de loin, me parut de consistence si bizarre que je dus me lever pour aller la palper. Je la touchai comme on caresse; j'y trouvais un ravissement. Je me souviens... Etait-ce enfin ce matin-là que j'allais naître? (pp. 46-47)
Marceline était près de moi; je m'étendis, posai sur ses genoux ma tête. Le chant de flûte coulait encore, cessait par instants, reprenait; le bruit de l'eau... Par instants une chèvre bêlait. Je fermai les yeux; je sentis se poser sur mon front la main fraîche de Marceline; je sentais le soleil ardent doucement tamisé par les palmes; je ne pensais à rien; qu'importait la pensée? je sentais extraordinairement. (p. 50)
In Ravello the quest for sun and warmth becomes a quest for health and life itself:
L'air était presque vif, mais le soleil ardent. J'offris tout mon corps à sa flamme. Je m'assis, me couchai, me tournai. Je sentais sous moi le sol dur; l'agitation des herbes foiles me frôlait. Bien qu'à l'abri du vent, je frémissais et palpitais à chaque souffle. Bientôt m'enveloppa une cuisson délicieuse; tout mon être affluait vers ma peau. (p. 66)
The attraction and fascination of the south and the desert lie partly in the vivid contrasts, the brisk changes from strong sunlight to deep shadow, from hot to cold, and the physical sensation of the change. What had been a physical weakness becomes a pleasurable sensation:
J'avais toujours ou trop chaud ou trop froid;. Je gardai cette sensibilité, la garde encore, mais aujourd'hui, c'est pour voluptueusement en jouir. Toute sensibilité très vive peut, suivant que l'organisme est robuste ou débile, devenir, je le crois, cause de délice ou de gêne. Tout ce qui me troublait naguère m'est devenue délicieux. (p. 41)
In his new-found health Michel cultivates the extremes of sensation purposely in order the more fully to experience his exuberance at being alive. His ice cold shower in Ravello is a physical experience on the order of his mental awareness brought about by the immobility of the dark shadows in Biskra. His vision of death was like a cold shower which sent icy fingers down his spine. Increased awareness has created a dichotomy within him, and the very conflict between life and death provide Michel a momentary insight into the mystery of existence.
Having once gained this insight the habitual motions of everyday life seem trivial and inconsequential by contrast. The more we shrink from the reality of death, the more life takes on the semblance of death. A slavish routine of inane activism is designed to cover up the fact that death is the inevitable outcome of life. Michel is therefore frustrated among his friends and acquaintances in Paris, because of his feeling of meaninglessness as life falls into a similar benumbing routine:
Tout d'abord je pus espérer trouver une compréhension un peu plus directe de la vie chez quelques romanciers et chez quelques poètes; mais s'ils l'avaient, cette compréhension, il faut avouer qu'ils ne la montraient guère; il me parut que la plupart ne vivaient point, se contentaient de paraître vivre et, pour un peu, eussent considéré la vie comme un fâcheux empêchement d'écrire. (p. 101)
Aucun n'a su être malade. Ils vivent, ont l'air de vivre et de ne pas savoir qu'ils vivent. D'ailleurs, moi-même, depuis que je suis auprès d'eux, je ne vis plus. (p. 102)
After the vivid sensations in Italy and Algeria Parisian society and the fertile hillsides in Normandy seem tame indeed. The preponderance of dark imagery, of mellowed contrasts, dampness, chilliness, fog, and night points to a gradual, subdued activity which has a natural, peaceful charm of its own, but which can no longer satisfy the life-thirsty Michel. In his frenzied desire to rediscover his lost sensation of vitality he seeks out the situations which offer the experience of the contrasts of extremes. He yearns for the stark contrasts of the south, for the experience of permissiveness and liberation remembered from his first awakening to sensualism, and overwhelms Marceline with his own exaggerated quest for life. She cannot tolerate the explosion of flowers with which he adorns their rooms in Rome, nor the extremes of heat and cold in the Algerian desert. In his quest for the exuberance of life he seeks out the experience of the consciousness of death, and the desert becomes preferable to the oasis, because it presents the most striking contrast to his own vitality, a challenge to his apparent strength and endurance, but also an insurmountable barrier to Marceline's recovery:
Chegga; Kefeldorh'; M'reyer...mornes étapes sur la route plus morne encore, interminable. J'aurais cru pourtant, je l'avoue, plus riantes ces oasis. Mais plus rien que la pierre et le sable; puis quelques buissons nains, bizarrement fleuris; parfois quelque essai de palmiers qu'alimente une source cachée... A l'oasis je préfère à présent le désert -- ce pays de mortelle gloire et d' intolérable splendeur. L'effort de l'homme y paraît laid et misérable. Maintenant toute autre terre m'ennuie. (p. 173)
In the course of this yearning for the pinnacle of life he has recognized the necessity of facing the reality of death, but has gone to an opposite extreme in the process. His confrontation with death becomes an obsession born of fear and is no longer an affirmation of life, as the opposite extremes are no longer held in a vital equilibrium. A vital tension, a balance between life and death, idealism and realism, work and play is a human necessity. In the end his leisure has become a burden without the invigorating tension of work. The persistence of the cloudless sky oppresses him by its absence of contrast. In a stupor of indolence, similar to, and yet so different from his insensitivity at the beginning of his adventure, Michel resorts to the childish game of alternating cool stones in his hands to absorb their soothing freshness:
Rien ne décourage autant la pensée que cette persistance de l'azur. Ici toute recherche est impossible, tant la volupté suit de près le désir. Entouré de splendeur et de mort, je sens le bonheur trop présent et l'abandon à lui trop uniforme. Je me couche au milieu du jour pour tromper la longueur morne des journées et leur insupportable loisir. J'ai là, voyez, des caillous blancs que je laisse tremper à lombre, puis que je tiens longtemps dans le creux de ma main, jusqu'à ce qu'en soit épuisé la calmante fraîcheur acquise. Alors je recommence, alternant les cailloux, remettant à tremper ceux dont la fraîcheur est tarie. Du temps s'y passe, et vient le soir...Arrachez-moi d'ici; je ne puis le faire moi-même. (p. 179)
A continuous state is insufferable and must be broken by some vital rhythm even if it is only the change from wakefulness to sleep, or from a sensation of coolness to increasing warmth. Without an objective, he continues to go through the motions of existence and ends up at the point from which most Beckettian heroes start out.
The fact that life is a succession of moments subject to the passage of time makes a duration of a continuous state impossible. Neither freedom nor happiness can be pressed between the pages of life and preserved like a dried flower. Hence Michel's recognition: "Savoir se libérer n'est rien; l'ardu, c'est savoir être libre." (p. 17) Later in his story Michel comments: "Que serait le récit du bonheur? Rien, que ce qui le prépare, puis ce qui le détruit, ne se raconte." (p. 78) In the dynamic process of life we are in a constant flux of development or deterioration.
Stasis means death.
While the developing movement is in process, a positive goal is envisioned, and life seems to lead somewhere, and hence is meaningful. The process is meaningful, not the result, as a lasting impression of the result cannot endure as life goes forward. Once a goal is reached it must be looked upon as merely an intermediary step in the continued progression of the individual. When Michel achieves his immediate goal of recovered health, he must substitute another for life to go on. This goal is the full self-realization he can achieve only in isolated moments such as in Sorrento. Thereafter the new challenges of his lectures, landownership, and the expected child give meaning to his strivings. When all these expectations are disappointed he has a definite feeling of falling, of regression, as he seeks in vain to recapture the meaning their lives had achieved in their former pursuits.
Despite his theoretical adoption of Ménalque's doctrine of disponibilité Michel seeks desperately to halt the flow of time. The theme of an open approach to all life's experiences which he consciously strives to achieve stands in direct contrast to his subconscious obsession to hold onto life and happiness. The latter theme is associated with the motif of the grasping hands and carries the theme of the futility of his attempt to recapture the essence of his past vitality and happiness. On the night of his awakening to life in Biskra he holds his own hand in order to concretely feel the reality of his corporeal existence. At the same time the biblical passage warns him of a time when his hands will grope for life in darkness and will find emptiness.
Happiness, like life, is transitory and must be conquered each day anew. Michel tries in vain to make it into a constant state as they anticipate the joy of the birth of their child:
Ah! si c'était encore le bonheur, je sais que j'ai voulu dès lors le retenir, comme on veut retenir dans ses mains rapprochées, en vain, une eau fuyante. (pp. 96-97)
Ménalque describes the futility of trying to hold onto happiness:
Michel, toute joie nous attend toujours, mais veut trouver la couche vide, être la seule, et qu'on arrive à elle comme un veuf. Ah! Michel, toute joie est pareille à l'autre; elle est pareille à l'eau de la source Amélès qui, raconte Platon, ne se pouvait garder dans aucun vase. Que chaque instant emporte tout ce qu'il avait apporté. (pp. 122-23)
As our hands try in vain to retain the fleeing waters of life our minds cannot preserve the memory of past ecstasy either, for they are likewise unreliable receptacles:
Si encore nos médiocres cerveaux savaient bien embaumer les souvenirs! Mais ceux-ci se conservent mal. Les plus délicats se dépouillent; les plus voluptueux pourrissent; les plus délicieux sont les plus dangereux dans la suite. (p. 122)
Michel accepts Ménalque's philosophy but fails to practice it. After the miscarriage Michel desperately clings to false hopes and faded memories.
Décidément tout se défait autour de moi; de tout ce que ma main saisit, ma main ne sait rien retenir. (pp. 149-50)
Je tâchal donc, et encore une fois, de refermer ma main sur mon amour. (p. 151)
In the end the hollow of his hand holds onto little pebbles which cannot flow through his fingers, but are merely lifeless playthings, substitutes for life.
The continuous flow of life is illustrated by several images two of which appeared in the passages quoted above--the flowing water which cannot be contained and the manna of the desert which spoils if preserved. Two other images are associated with both life and death and carry the theme of the essentiality of life's progression without stagnation. They are the images of blood and sap, the life-fluid of both human and plant life. Blood and sap are the very essence of life, and the fact that their vital functions operate only when their circulation is not impaired associates them in equal measure with death.
Michel's first warning of his impending death is the blood which he finds on his handkerchief. The next time he spits blood the blood has become a black and hideous clot, no longer the vital life-fluid that he had seen in Bachir:
Je revins en arrière, me courbai, retrouvai mon crachat, pris une paille et, soulevant le caillot, le déposai sur mon mouchoir. Je regardai. C'était un vilain sang presque noir, quelque chose de gluant, d'epouvantable. Je songeai au beau sang rutilant de Bachir. Et soudain me prit un désir, une envie, quelque chose de plus furieux, de plus impérieux que tout ce que j'avais ressenti jusqu'alors: vivre! (p. 35)
His aversion to the sight of his own blood stirs his dormant faculties into life, and he begins to rebel against this foreboding of death. Later, by contrast, blood will become an image of renewed vitality:
Il y avait ici plus qu'une convalescence; il y avait une augmentation, une recrudescence de vie, l'afflux d'un sang plus riche et plus chaud qui devait toucher mes pensées, les toucher une à une, pénétrer tout, émouvoir, colorer les plus lointaines, délicates et secrètes fibres de mon être. (p. 62)
Michel's radical rebellion succeeds in throwing off the threat of death, but Marceline succumbs to the weakness which results from her miscarriage. What is left of his high hopes for the future, which had been symbolized by the child, is now a mere bandage covered with blood:
Dans un coin sombre de la pièce, la figure inconnue rangeait, cachait divers objets; je vis des instruments luisants, de l'ouate; je vis, je crus voir, un linge taché de sang... Je sentis que je chancelais. Je tombai presque vers le docteur; il me soutint. Je comprenais; j'avais peur de comprendre. (p. 124)
And Marceline's tuberculosis was started by a blood clot in her lungs:
Cependant l'embolie avait amené des désordres assez graves; l'affreux caillot de sang, que le coeur avait rejeté, fatiguait et congestionnait les poumons, obstruait la respiration, la faisait difficile et sifflante. La maladie était entrée en Marceline, l'habitait désormais, la marquant, la tachait. C'était une chose abîmée. (pp. 126-27)
The ultimate cause of her death is the obstruction of the blood-flow. Stagnation means death.
It is out of the recognition that stagnation means death that Michel rejects his former pedantic study of the past:
L'histoire du passé prenait maintenant à mes yeux cette immobilité, cette fixité terrifiante des ombres nocturnes dans la petite cour de Biskra, l'immobilité de la mort. Avant je me plaisais à cette fixité même qui permettait la précision de mon esprit; tous les faits de l'histoire m'apparaissaient comme des pièces d'un musée, ou mieux les plantes d'un herbier, dont la sécheresse définitive m'aidât à oublier qu'un jour, riches de sève, alles avaient vécu sous le soleil. (p. 60)
Michel's rejection of death and stagnation results in his novel insight into the historical process:
Mon cours commença tôt après; le sujet m'y portant je gonflai ma première leçon de toute ma passion nouvelle. A propos de l'extrême civilisation latine, je peignais la culture artistique, montant à fleur de peuple, à la manière d'une sécrétion, qui d'abord indique pléthore, surabondance de santé, puis aussitôt se fige, durcit, s'oppose à tout parfait contact de l'esprit avec la nature, cache sous l'apparence persistante de la vie la diminution de la vie, forme gaine où l'esprit gêné languit et bientôt s'étiole, puis meurt. Enfin, poussant à bout ma pensée, je disais la Culture, née de la vie, tuant la vie. (p. 104)
In the midst of an abundance of life ossification and stagnation set in and undermine the surface vitality until it collapses upon itself. This is what happens to the individual, to Michel in particular, and what happens to culture, religion, and art. Life begins with a spark, a seed, in an embryonic stage and progresses from there to its full flourishing vitality. But precisely because life is dynamic, once it has reaches a pinnacle of expression no amount of tradition, dogma, or theory can keep it in a static suspension which in itself would be a denial of life. Instead, it recedes, diminishes, and falls off only, we would hope, to be able to rise again with new force. Life is a dynamic rhythm of progression and regression, of awakening surges and abating reposes, of the ceaseless ebb and flow of the changing seasons and ages. The temptation to stop the flow of life at its highest point of expression is not only futile but fatal. A spark can be fanned into full flame, but a full flame cannot be intensified; the fire becomes destructive and recedes consuming itself.
Every culture which seeks to repeat itself, every artistic inspiration which strives for expression in concrete terms falls short of its initial conception. Civilization becomes the destiny of culture in the Spenglerian sense, as doctrine becomes the destiny of religion. In the process of development patterns, rules, traditions, and dogmas are adopted which, by virtue of having been expressive of life at their inception, become ossified into immutable systems. The individual born into the system is asked to conform, to submit to its rules, to become a part of it, in short, to become an essentialist. Michel rejects such compliance as he reaches an overwhelming insight into the mystery of the inevitable decay of all vitality, but even this insight itself becomes elevated to a doctrine, a theory which is merely an abstraction about life:
Sentir ma première leçon mal comprise avait éperonné mon désir d'éclairer différemment et plus puissamment les suivantes; je fus par la porte à poser en doctrine ce que je n’avais fait d’abord que hasarder à titre d’ingénieuse hypothèse. (p. 113)
If the desire to hold onto life leads to the loss of life the question arises whether Ménalque's contrasting doctrine is the answer to man's legitimate yearning for the fullness of life. Whereas Michel succumbs to the attraction of memories of past bliss Ménalque advocates complete disponibilité: "C'est du parfait oubil d'hier que je crée la nouvelleté de chaque heure." (p. 122) Ménalque's doctrine implies that ignorance of the past would set him free to do as he pleases, but his affirmation contains a fallacy. He cannot do away with memory for it undergirds his conscious basis for existence.
Memory, in fact, gives Ménalque continuity as an individual even when he expresses that continuity by his desire to begin each day anew unhampered by pre-established rules of behavior. His complete detachment is illusory, and Michel's observation of Ménalque behavior would confirm that he is not the free man he pretends to be: "Lui, tantôt allant et venant à la façon d'un fauve en cage, tantôt se penchant vers le feu, tantôt se taisant longuesment..." (p. 122; my italics) Ménalque confesses: "La nuit qui précède un départ est pour moi chaque fois une nuit d'angoisses affreuses." (p. 117) His anguish attests to the fact that his superior indifference to society's moral code is bought at a great price. His supposed freedom is restrictive.
The dilemma for culture, art, and society as a whole is basically the same as for the individual. The key to personal awareness and the key to a culture's expression is the consciousness they each have of their own existence which, as we have seen, is a consciousness which must include the reality of death. In contrast to the novelists Michel encounters in Paris and in contrast to his findings about the inevitability of ossification in a flourishing culture, Michel remarks on the Arabs' spontaneous response to life:
Le peuple arabe a ceci d'admirable que, son art, il le vit, il le chante et le dissipe au jour le jour; il ne le fixe point et ne l'embaume en aucune oeuvre. (p. 168)
A radical cure for the inevitability of obsolescence is the refusal to create at all which is a denial of culture, a continuous existential state without history and without promise. An absence of expression, an absence of the concrete manifestations of culture, does not really provide for a spontaneous response to life as Michel expects, but for a reflex action that is unconscious and involuntary and allows nature rather than intellect to take over. Human beings are then mere playthings of nature not much different from animals. Animal-like spontaneity, led by instinctual needs and appetites, may have the ephemeral beauty of a flower, but like a flower wilts and fades away. What has happened to the charming, little Arab boys is indicative of the fleeting beauty of such an impulsive reaction to life:
Je ne reconnais pas les enfants, mais les enfants me reconnaissent. Prévenus de mon arrivée, tous accourent. Est-il possible que ce soient eux? Quelle déconvenue! Que s'est-il donc passé? Ils ont affreusement grandi... En à peine un peu plus de deux ans--cela n’est pas possible...quelles fatigues, quels vices, quelles paresses, ont déjà mis tant de laideur sur ces visages, où tant de jeunesse éclatait? Quels travaux vils ont déjeté si tôt ces beaux corps? Il y a là comme une banqueroute... (pp. 169-70)
The absence of expression, the absence of concrete manifestations of art, ritual, and social patterns may indeed lead to a spontaneous response to life, but its momentum is soon lost, the lack of self-consciousness loses its beauty as it loses its youth and innocence, and there are no monuments left behind to attest to its past glory. Like footprints in the desert sand all signs of its existence are swept away by the next wind. Michel sees the Arabs as a people who exist continuously in the present.
In between the unconscious life that is neither creative nor productive and the conscious life which as it progresses eventually leads away from vitality and degenerates into empty repetition and bourgeois conformity which in turn becomes unconscious, there lie the moments when an alternative to these life-negating extremes exists. This alternative lies in an intentional harmony between practice and theory, realism and idealism, concreteness and abstraction. When Ménalque bemoans the loss of modern creative power, he reminds Michel of the integration of life and theory in ancient Greece:
Savez-vous ce qui fait de la poésie d'aujourd'hui et de la philosophie surtout, lettres mortes? C'est qu'elles se sont séparées de la vie. La Grèce, elle, idéalisait à même la vie; de sorte que la vie de l'artiste était elle-même déjà une réalisation poétique; la vie du philosophe, une mise en action de la philosophie; de sorte aussi que, mêlees à la vie, au lieu de s'ignorer, la philosophie alimentait la poésie, la poésie exprimant la philosophie, cela était d'une persuasion admirable. Aujourd'hui la beauté n'agit plus; l'action ne s'inquiète plus d'être belle; et la sagesse opère à part. (p. 121)
We have seen that Michel is only an integrated personality during a brief period which is framed by his first visit to Sorrento and the beginning of his lectures at the Collège de France. What characterizes this interlude of happiness is an equilibrium between his creative work and pleasure, between a free response to nature and a restrained, intelligent domination of natural impulses. Nature by herself leads to destructiveness; human collaboration with nature's forces leads to productivity:
Nul doute, pensais-je que l'exemple de cette terre, où tout s'apprête au fruit, à l'utile moisson, ne doive avoir sur moi la meilleure influence. J'admirais quel tranquille avenir promettaient ces robustes boeufs, ces vaches pleines dans des opulentes prairies. Les pommiers en ordre plantés aux favorables penchants des collines annonçaient cet été des récoltes superbes; je rêvais sous quelle riche charge de fruits allaient bientôt ployer leurs branches. De cette abondance ordonnée, de cet asservissement joyeux, de ces souriantes cultures, une harmonie s'établissait, non plus fortuite, mais dictée, un rythme, une beauté tout à la fois humaine et naturelle, où l'on ne savait plus ce que l'on admirait, tant étaient confondus en une très parfaite entente l'éclatement fécond de la libre nature, l'effort savant de l'homme pour la régler. Que serait cet effort, pensais-je, sans la puissante sauvagerie qu'il domine? Que serait le sauvage élan de cette sève débordante sans l'intelligent effort qui l'endigue et l'amène en riant luxe? --Et je me laissais rêver à telles terres où toutes forces fussent si bien réglées, toutes dépenses si compensées, tous échanges si stricts, que le moindre déchet devînt sensible; puis, appliquant mon rêve à la vie, je me construisais une éthique qui devenait une science de la parfaite utilisation de soi par une intelligente constrainte. (pp. 81-82)
Harmony, rhythm, beauty, and productivity are the key concepts of his new ethic which depends for its results on a measure of intelligent self-awareness. Unfortunately, Michel's perceptiveness does not last, for just a short while later he negates his earlier insight:
J'en venais à ne goûter plus en autrui que les manifestations les plus sauvages, à déplorer qu'une contrainte quelconque les réprimât. (p. 156)
All signs of culture, decency, and morality become false layers of civilization to him as he frantically searches for a true expression of vitality in his southward journey to Algeria. There the final disillusionment occurs. Moral restraints are tossed aside, and he finds life a mere existence from one day to the next. There his harmony is replaced by obsession, rhythm by stagnation, beauty by ugliness, and productivity by emptiness:
L'ancienne beauté paraissait simple, parfaite, souriante--abandonnée. L'art s'en va de moi, je le sens. C'est pour faire place à quoi d'autre? Ce n'est plus, comme avant, une souriante harmonie... Je ne sais plus à présent, le dieu ténébreux que je sers. (p. 172)
Gide inserts several images into the narrative that provide an answer to Michel's and our dilemma. Faced by the futility of holding onto life and happiness, we can achieve within the short span of our existence a lasting satisfaction that need not degenerate into meaninglessness. The redemption of life from meaninglessness is accomplished by the productive control of nature. The images which illustrate this truth are contained in Michel's description of the irrigation system in Biskra and in the taming of the wild colt at "La Morinière." The goat-boy describes the irrigation system:
Il me dit le nom de ses chèvres, me dit que les canaux s'appellent séghias; toutes ne coulent pas tous les jours, m'apprit-il; l'eau, sagement et parcimonieusement répartie, satisfait à la soif des plantes, puis leur est aussitôt retirée. Au pied de chacun des palmiers, un étroit bassin est creusé qui tient l'eau pour abreuver l'arbre; un ingénieux système d'ecluses que l'enfant, en les faisant jouer, m'expliqua, maîtrise l'eau, l'améne où la soif est trop grande. (pp. 50-51)
Within the inherent laws of nature an excess of life-giving forces leads to destruction and at the same time deprives other trees of their existence. Hence the productive utilization of nature's gifts is accompanied by a sense of responsibility. The incident with the wild colt illustrates the same truth. The beautiful animal had been declared useless and unmanageable by his servants. Michel calls on Charles for help, and Charles tames him through quiet and gentle authority, wise restraint, and a deep respect for the animal. The once wild and useless colt becomes tame and docile:
...je le vis à cheval, sûr de lui, se maintenant à peine à sa crinière, riant, penché, prolongeant sa caresse. A peine le poulain avait-il un instant regimbé; à présent il reprenait son trot égal, si beau, si souple, que j'enviais Charles et le lui dis.
-- Encore quelques jours de dressage et la selle ne le chatouillera plus; dans deux semaines, Madame elle-même osera le monter: il sera doux comme une agnelle. (p. 91)
This image is enhanced by its use in a contrasting situation where precisely the absence of a restraining harness leads to devastation and corruption:
Mais, l'avouerai-je, la figure du jeune roi Athalaric était ce qui m'y attirait le plus. J'imaginais cet enfant de quinze ans, sourdement excité par les Goths, se révolter contre sa mère Amalasonthe, regimber contre son éducation latine, rejeter la culture comme un cheval entier fait un harnais gênant, et préférant la société des Goths impolicés à celle du trop sage et vieux Cassiodore, goûter, quelques années, avec de rudes favoris de son âge, une vie violente, voluptueuse et débridée, pour mourir à dix-huit ans, tout gâté, soûlé de débauches. Je retrouvais dans ce tragique élan vers un état plus sauvage et intact quelque chose de ce que Marceline appelait en souriant "ma crise." Je cherchais un contentement à y appliquer au moins mon esprit, puisque je n'y occupais plus mon corps; et, dans la mort affreuse d'Athalaric, je me persuadais de mon mieux qu'il fallait lire une leçon. (pp. 76-77)
His recognition that there was a lesson to be learned in Athalaric's example is sadly ironic. In the case of the irrigation system in Biskra human intervention assists nature in order to make it productive. In the case of the wild colt human skill and restraint tame the excesses of nature in order to make it productive. In between excessive energy which cannot be utilized and destroys itself and deficient energy which cannot bear fruit and withers away stands wise control and mastery—produtive restraint.
In her weakness Marceline, like the palm trees, needed life-giving forces in moderation. She could not tolerate the explosion of energy around her. Michel, by contrast, lets his excessive energy run wild and degenerate into destructiveness and savagery. A complete renunciation of individualism and a complete assertion of individualism are equally destructive.
We have noted that Michel is a slave of his own repressed subconscious and therefore not totally responsible for his actions. The liberation from such bondage comes only with self-knowledge, through a penetrating probe into the subconscious. Conscious, harmonious, and productive collaboration with nature is the objective when Michel meets Charles and together they clean out a pond at "La Morinière:"
Il s'agissait de réparer une mare. Cette mare, grande comme un étang, fuyait; on connaissait le lieu de cette fuite et l'on devait le cimenter. Il fallait pour cela commencer par vider la mare, ce que l'on n'avait pas fait depuis quinze ans. Carpes et tanches y abondaient, quelques-unes très grosses, qui ne quittaient plus les bas-fonds. (p. 84)
The process of emptying the pond is an image on the order of the palimpsest. In order for the pond to remain useful its old contents had to be brought to the surface, its murky waters drained, and the leak repaired. Michel's mind, like the pond, is blocked by old repressions and obstacles to his future productivity. To arrive at the bottom of his consciousness he has to bring everything to the surface and thereby heal the slow seepage which deprives him of the inner resources he needs to cope with life. Michel is so preoccupied with his liberation from restrictions outside himself that he fails to recognize the inhibiting forces within him.
The necessity of a harmonious relationship with nature is further illustrated by a linking phrase which shows the consequences of unharnessed and unutilized energy. When Michel sets out to assert his absolute individualism he rejects all behavioral guidelines, deeming them to be obstacles to his freedom:
...une fatalité heureuse me guidait. Je craignais qu'un regard trop hâtif ne vînt à déranger le mystère de ma lente transformation. ...Laissant donc mon cerveau, non pas à l'abandon, mais en jachère, je me livrai voluptueusement à moi-même, aux choses, au tout, que me parut divin. (p. 62)
Michel's provisional moral code is comparable to the land he lets lie in disuse at "La Morinière." He fails to recognize that his entire proprety is slowly deteriorating:
...Charles ne me dissimula point l'irritation que lui causait la vue de certains champs mal cultivés, d'espaces encombrées de gêts, de chardons, d'herbes sures; il sut me faire partager cette haine pour la jachère et rêver avec lui de cultures mieux ordonnées.
--Mais, lui disais-je, d'abord, de ce médiocre entretien qui en souffre? Le fermier tout seul n'est-ce pas? Le rapport de sa ferme, s'il varie, ne fait pas varier le prix d'affermage.
Et Charles s'irritait un peu: --Vous connaissez rien, se permettait-il de répondre --et je souriais aussitôt. --Ne considérant que le revenu, vous ne voulez pas remarquer que le capital se détériore.
Vos terres, à être imparfaitement cultivées, perdent lentement leur valeur. (p. 87)
The land and the mind which lie fallow are soon invaded by thistles and weeds and gradually lose their value. The fact that Michel takes these neglected fields away from the farmers in order to cultivate them would indicate the possibility of regeneration, but Michel's plans do not materialize, and his failure in meeting his responsibilities toward his land foreshadows his failure in meeting his responsibilities toward Marceline and ultimately toward himself. The gift of life cannot be wasted. Michel's dream of absolute leisure is based on his reaction against the bondage of poverty:
La pauvreté de l'homme est esclave; pour manger, elle accepte un travail sans plaisir; ...Je rêvais pour chacun ce loisir sans lequel ne peut s'épanouir aucune nouveauté, aucun vice, aucun art. (p. 166)
The insight that his concept of absolute freedom is erroneous comes too late:
Rien ne décourage autant la pensée que cette persistence de l'azur. Ici toute recherche est impossible, tant la volupté suit de près le désir. Entouré de splendeur et de mort, je sens le bonheur trop uniforme. Je me couche au milieu du jour pour tromper la longueur morne des journées et leur insupportable loisir. (p. 179)
When no effort is needed, he loses his creative faculties and stagnates in desuetude. Absolute leisure is nefarious and inconducive to creative accomplishments. The very necessity of striving and sacrifice grants achievements their value and meaning. True freedom is therefore not the absence of external pressure but the presence of inner drives which overcome conflicts in a productive collaboration with nature. When satisfaction follows on the heels of desire, humanity is deprived of the very element that is its most priceless blessing--the unquenchable thirst that drives us onward in new pursuits and new endeavors.
We have found that Michel cannot be held accountable for the consequences of actions of which he was not fully aware. These grounds for absolution are valid for all, for total awareness does not exist. In between blissful ignorance and contented omniscience we seek but do not find, seize but do not hold, grope but do not see. Michel's immorality does not lie in his blindness which to a certain degree he shares with all humanity, but in his final renunciation of the insatiable longings that are characteristic of our universal aspirations. On a level far more fundamental than non-conformity to an ethical system lies the fact that he has squandered the gift of life. His doom is sealed when he gives up the search, relaxes his grasp, and closes his eyes in defeat. Michel's pursuit has strained his will beyond the breaking point. The vital tension has snapped.
The result is deadly lethargy.
Gide compared his book to the fruit of the colocynths which grow in the desert and are not without beauty, though they present only greater thirst to the one who seeks to drink their juice. The experience of life creates the desire for more life, and an unquenchable thirst is the essence of yearning. Michel has reached a state beyond desire where the persistence of the cloudless sky imprisons him in a sterile Nirvana. His final renunciation of his voracious quest for life, his obsession to recapture yesterday's satisfactions, is a betrayal of life.
Michel's dwelling stands in a garden which is girded by a wall. Within the enclosure stand three stunted pomegranate trees. The pomegranate, like the colocynth, does not appease thirst but creates a fiercer, deeper craving for its fruit. The fact that these trees are retarded in their growth and most likely barren illustrates symbolically that Michel's adventure ends in sterility. Begun when he first tasted the forbidden fruit of consciousness in the gardens of Biskra, his quest has exhausted itself in the pitiful garden at Sidi--which is not the paradise he had thought to regain.