The Immoralist (Andre Gide)

Posted: August 7, 2014 in fiction
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So once I was showing Casablanca to a group of high school students, and when we reached the relevant moment, I explained to them the 1940s sex scene: two people kiss, the music gets louder, then we fade to a shot of (at least) one of them smoking, fully dressed. One of the students refused to believe that Rick and Ilsa have sex. I reminded her that it was strongly implied, and then Rick half-way apologizes to Laszlo for it when they’re saying goodbye at the plane. But no, she didn’t want to believe it. I guess for some people, love is only romantic if it’s unconsummated.

Similarly, one must not expect too much detail from Gide. The book was originally published in 1902, before gay sex was something people described in print. This way, each reader can decide for himself whom Michel has sex with and whom he doesn’t; I identify with his story so strongly that I don’t want him to do it with all those ten-year-olds, but . . . maybe he does.

The title implies that Michel is a person who reflects on the human experience and draws useful generalizations from it, but his conclusions are immoral. I’m not sure I would characterize them quite that way, but then, I have troubles of my own with the moral/immoral dichotomy. At the time of my life that this book reminds me of, someone described me as being “between gods,” and I think that phrase describes Michel more accurately.

Michel begins the novel as a Puritanical scholar with a fortune and no living family who marries a woman he barely knows. In defense of this decision, Marceline seems pretty awesome. It’s like she has this enormous store of love that she needs to share with someone, so when she marries, it all goes to her husband. He immediately shows signs of tuberculosis, so they head down to Algeria for him to recover in the dry climate. His recovery is slow, but it seems to be complete.

Eleven years ago I was a Puritanical scholar with no fortune and an enormous family who married a woman I barely knew. In defense of this decision, I have no defense. I was lonely and desperately wanted to get married because that was the only way I would allow myself to have sex. I found a beautiful girl in the same situation who had nearly all the same interests as I have, and we did it. I have an odd mix of logic and romance, so logically I understood that there’s not just one soulmate out there for each person and that any two people who are committed to a relationship can make it work; I believed all the best things about her and knew that we were in love, so we were going to be ridiculously happy. We were, after all, dolls from the same set. [Nothing is worse than seeing a Ken look-alike marry a Cabbage Patch Kid. Or, for that matter, Malibu Barbie with Raggedy Andy.] Three weeks after we got together I proposed, six weeks after that we were hitched. She had an allergic reaction to a birth control shot and was taking medicine for a seizure disorder that we later found out she didn’t have, so she was really sick at first. Her recovery was slow, but it seems to have been complete.

During his illness, Michel discovers his body for the first time; he begins to see it as something valuable that needs to be cared for and respected, not just a carrier vessel for his big old brain. He also begins to find value in the bodies of others, particularly the little Arab boys in the neighborhood. He’s so fond of them that he ignores acts of petty thievery or other small crimes. This discovery of the body is what drives him away from his faith and studies – most people I know went through this as teenagers, though I hit it at twenty. I was a missionary, so I didn’t have an opportunity to drift away from my faith, but I did develop a taste for the company of other men. Nothing sexual as yet, but this was the first time in my life I had a number of close male friends, and I rather liked it. After I was married and I started paying attention to my same-sex desire, it also had the effect of driving me away from faith. Traditional Christianity is so inimical to homosexuality that I don’t understand people who do both. [I don’t have to; their lives are their business.]

When Michel is well enough, they move back to France. He gets infatuated with a number of young men, most of whom do not return his affection. His old friend Ménalque, though, is definitely up for anything. Michel has become disgusted by the conformity of ‘good society,’ but he’s not yet ready to give it up. When Ménalque gets frustrated by the inconsistency of the rumours about him, he says:

“Leave all that nonsense to the papers. They seem to be surprised that a man with a certain reputation can still have any virtues at all. They establish distinctions and reserves which I cannot apply to myself, for I exist only as a whole; my only claim is to be natural, and the pleasure I feel in an action, I take as a sign that I ought to do it.”

“That may lead far,” I said.

“Indeed, I hope so.”

I rather like Ménalque, and I’m sad there’s so little of him in the book. I’d like to be more like him; alas, I still care too much what people think of me. I do seek to be natural, though, and following a whim is a good enough reason to do something. Like Ménalque, I hope that this attitude will lead me into a great variety of new experiences.

In one of their conversations, Michel and Ménalque briefly equate the moral sense with the sense of property, and I think that conventional morality is very strongly linked to ownership. Isn’t sexual morality based on the idea that one person belongs to another? Back when Adam and Eve were in the Old Testament garden, they were told to have dominion over and to subdue the earth. There’s this idea in Christianity that the world is ours as stewards, and it’s our duty to God to become financially successful by using our resources to the best of our abilities. Somehow, the glory of God is inextricably tied to the size of Christians’ bank accounts. If you look back at Jesus’ parables, it’s kind of alarming just how many of them focus on being successful in business. They claim those are only symbols that the wealth-obsessed Jews would have understood, but when you read an allegory too many times, the symbols seem more and more literal, and Christianity has been telling these stories for two thousand years.

Once Michel leaves France, as he leaves conventional moral ideas behind, he also gets rid of his property as quickly as he can. I’d like to have fewer things, but I get sentimental about my possessions, especially old letters and my children’s artwork, and I have a weakness for buying books, videos, and clothes. Michel seems to throw money at whatever is in sight. This third part is characterized by frenetic movement; he’s running out every night, through winter in Switzerland and all up and down Italy, then Tunis and Algeria. He says that he feels driven as by a demon, and there is some urge riding him throughout this journey. I assume he’s having a variety of unmentioned sexual experiences, but Gide isn’t writing the gay man’s Fanny Hill. He seems more interested in Michel’s intellectual development than in his sexual development.

And where is Marceline in all this? Michel still pretends to love her, but during the night that he spent with Ménalque, she had a miscarriage and started showing signs of tuberculosis. Her illness keeps pace with his casting off of conventions, so by the time he sleeps with an underage Arab prostitute even though he’s attracted to her brother, Marceline dies. His love for her seems tied to his adherence to society, so you could say that she lives by his love alone, and when that’s gone, so is she. She keeps trying to bring him back to the world of faith and approved society (he seems to spend all his time with farmhands), while he keeps pushing himself away. He’s fascinated by the worst in people, so he keeps drawing it out. While I agree with him that

Every kind of thing goes to the making of man,

I think it’s important to nurture what is good. When I lived with my kids, I became aware of the great potential for violence in my character; I love my kids, so I didn’t act it out. In this case, I agree with Marceline:

Don’t you understand that by looking at any particular trait, we develop and exaggerate it? And that we make a man become what we think him?

Yes, Marceline, yes. This goes back to Sartre’s comment on intersubjectivity: we negotiate our identity with the people around us. Sometimes we agree with what people say of us; sometimes we form an identity in opposition to the messages we get from others. I would have liked to see more detail in this third section because this discussion is all academic. We don’t actually see Michel corrupting people, as in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Who is worse for having known him, except her? And he hardly thinks of her at all. Perhaps his three friends who come to save him in the framing narrative, because their ideas are rocked by his story, and they can’t point to where he began to go wrong. But most of the characters appear briefly, with no past and no future. We don’t see how he changes them.

The end of my marriage was rather different. Yes, as I became aware of and learned to accept my homosexuality, I became less invested in the relationship, as Michel does. But my ex spent that time raising a growing family and becoming stronger in her faith, and as I left Christianity she embraced Catholicism. Since the separation it has been important to her always to seem as if she’s doing emotionally better than I am, so I pretend to believe her. I don’t know how she really is, but taking care of her feelings is no longer my job, so I don’t worry about it too much.

I differ from Michel primarily in what being gay means to me. I don’t think it makes me an enemy of society; I don’t think it makes me evil. It makes me different than most people, but different doesn’t mean wrong or bad. It’s just . . . different. I’ve always been different; I grew up in a place with a significantly different accent than the people around me, and I was the only kid I knew who liked to read. Football, Southern accents, heterosexuality, none of these are right. They’re just more common (in some places). Homosexuality is natural to me; God made nature; therefore, God made me gay, so it can’t be wrong of me to be this way. Besides, according to Psalm 37:4,

Delight thyself also in the Lord; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.

I was busy delighting myself in the Lord, and looked into my heart to see what desires were there, and what did I find? The desire for men. I can’t belong to a community that sees gay sex as evil or wrong because my desire for it came from God. If you believe that God exists and inspired the Bible and all the et ceterae that go along with that. But even if I don’t believe in God or anything else, that’s still no reason to go looking for evil. Bad stuff will come without my searching for it.

I feel as if this book is unfinished. I want Michel to find peace with himself and his sexuality. I want his conflicts to resolve. It’s like he left on a journey and the story ended before he arrived at his destination. He left one god, but hasn’t found the next. Maybe Gide’s point is that this struggle with oneself and with society never ends, but still. I think it can, and even if it can’t, don’t we read and write fiction to imagine new possibilities? To sample experiences that we won’t actually have? To complete what’s left undone, to correct the world’s flaws, to bring hope? As it is, the book ends in about the same place as Women in Love, almost articulating the reality of love between men, but not quite there yet.

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