The Immoralist

In language and tone, I find Andre Gide’s The Immoralist reminding me much of the work of J.M. Coetzee, specifically Disgrace. Both authors use a very pared down, austerely beautiful language; in a translator’s note, Richard Howard calls Gide’s voice "raised almost to the tension of the lyre," which seems about as good a description as can be given. Thematically, both books are wrestling with the following idea, quoted from Gide: "The capacity to get free is nothing; the capacity to be free, that is the task."

Like Disgrace, The Immoralist’s protagonist eventually evolves into an amoral state (despite the title, I think he’s more beyond morals than transgressing them):

I reached a point of enjoying in others only the wildest behavior, deploring whatever constraint inhibited any excess. I came close to regarding honesty itself as no more than restriction, convention, timidity.

I imagine The Immoralist, with its strong hints of pedophilia and with its apparent embrace the passionate pursuit of personal desires and the mixing of the classes, was probably a good deal more shocking in its day than it feels now. Howard compares it to Freud and Nietzsche, both of whom certainly have worn with time. But I think this idea that animates the book–how easily we can lose our inhibitions, and how difficult it is to know what to do once we’ve lost them–is something that never grows old.

What I like most about this book, what most struck me the first time through, is the description of how the narrator Michel comes to embrace sensuality. After his marriage ("If I did not love my fiancée, as I say, at least I had never loved any other woman."), Michel and his bride head to Algeria, where he discovers that he has tuberculosis. It is when this disease brings him to the brink of death that Michel realizes the worth of living. Much more interestingly, his battle with tuberculosis forces his mind to reconcile with the body it inhabits, and through the disease Michel becomes sensitive to bodily sensations and, perhaps, stops seeing the mind and body as separate things.

I had forgotten I was alone, forgotten the time, expecting nothing. It seemed to me that until this moment I had felt so little by virtue of thinking so much that I was astonished by a discovery: sensation was becoming as powerful as thoughts.

This seems to be the pivotal moment for the book, as not only does overcoming the disease put Michel in touch with sensuality, it also forces him to hide this new side of himself from his wife, which is the wellspring of his love for transgressions.

I ended by enjoying the dissimulation itself, savoring it as I savored the functioning of my unsuspected faculties. And I advanced every day into a richer, fuller life, toward a more delicious happiness.

Of note here is how Michel comes to his amoral (or immoral) final state. Unlike the characters in, say, Lord of the Flies or Heart of Darkness, Michel reaches his state without leaving society. True, he gets his start in Africa, but it is only in France that he truly discovers and embraces his new ethic. And yet, Gide isn’t willing to let Michel come to love transgression in the presence of proper Frenchmen. Rather, Michel perfects his taste for the immoral while interacting with the uncouth French peasants that manage his estates.

Compare this, then, to Marc Estrin’s recent, excellent Golem Song, where the protagonist come to believe himself beyond morality in the heart of one of the most cultured cities on earth. A comic telling of a contemporary New York City citizen’s path to amorality, Golem Song’s would-be Superman is Alan, an overweight dork who comes to his beliefs not though estrangement in the jungle or association with the lower classes, but through good old urban decay and violence, aided by a generous helping of traditionally American sour race relations (in this case between African-Americans and Jews). It seems now that forces previously thought to reside within exotic and/or pre-modern people now can be found disembodied, haunting our inner cities.

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. Lipsyte on Houellebecq Sam Lipsyte hangs out with Michel Houellebecq. You are there. If you’d rather not waste 20 minutes, I’ll tell you what happens. Sam and Michel...
  2. The Immoralist Our happiness, during this last part of the trip, was so untroubled, so calm, that I have nothing to tell about it. The loveliest creations...

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Uh, oh. I have The Immoralist sitting in a soon to be read pile, but I hated (hated!) Disgrace. Now I wonder if I should even bother.

I liked them both (loved Disgrace, actually). I appreciate your comparison to other novels in which the protagonists reach their amoral states in different milieus. I shall have to check out Golem’s Song, it sounds very good.

Sir—
See also André Gide’s “Journals 1889-1949″ and “Pretexts: Reflections on Literature and Morality,” both translated by Justin O’Brien.

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