Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

André Gide's Recovery of the Old Adam

Copyright © 1998 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.

Quite unlike Jean Cocteau in Le Livre Blanc, André Gide in L'Immoraliste (1902) refuses to take defeat for granted. Neither does he take triumph for granted, but the total impact of the novel has more in it of salvation than of despair. Cocteau and Gide of course deal with substantively different issues, the former with the problem of how an overt homosexual suffers from the oppression of homophobic culture, the latter with the drama of how a latent homosexual rediscovers his suppressed self.

Neither author had much hope that their works would be understood by, or be of benefit to, the general reading public. Cocteau vainly wishes that society will understand that the homosexual "is not a monster," but that it is the homophobic "vice of society" that is monstrous — but he recognizes that society will tolerate "dangerous experiments" in art while it continues to condemn them in real life. Similarly Gide, in the notes with which he prefaced later editions of the work, admits that he failed as an author in so far as few readers understood the work. Although "I intended to make this book as little an indictment as an apology," most of the readers regarded it as an indictment, while "the few readers who were disposed to interest themselves in Michel's adventure did so only to reprobate him with all the superiority of their kind hearts" — the typical stance of liberal tolerance, the kind of tolerance that similarly angered and wounded Cocteau in the last lines of his own novel.

Gide took offence both at the general reading public who regarded his novel as an exposition of a "problem" — which prompts him to criticize "the ephemeral public" for being "greedy only for sweets and trifles" — and the critical establishment, those "certain distinguished minds" who regarded the novel merely as a case study of "a sufferer from disease." Pseudo-Freudian analysis of both works is still the rule today, and readers and critics still fail to appreciate either works as detailed studies of the homophobic context in which the homosexual finds himself.

Although Michel's homosexuality may remain "latent" throughout the novel — no specific homosexual acts are explicitly delineated in the text — The Immoralist remains a drama of the return of the repressed, and by the end of the novel we are left with the distinct impression that Michel has succeeded at last in recovering his authentic self and is living as an overt homosexual. Gide was no doubt restricted by what was allowable according to the expectations of his prudish and homophobic audience, for although the novel is clearly autobiographical Gide felt it necessary to suppress all of the explicit and overt homosexual content of his own North African adventures that he was recounting. Occasionally there are ellipses in the narrative which indicate that the autobiographical and fictional motives have not been successfully harmonized by the author. But for the most part this suppression has benefited the artist's creative techniques by allowing him — or, rather, requiring him — to exploit the potentials of symbolic allusion.

The common factor of all the elements in this symbolic — and sometimes allegoric — fabric is the psychosexual theme of discovering, uncovering, recovering the old Adam. In Cocteau's novel the homosexual nature of the narrator's personality is a given, and the novel progresses according to the degrees to which he affirms, suppresses, and re-affirms this component when confronting society. In Gide's novel the hero's homosexuality is only gradually discovered, and the drama progresses according to the degrees to which this approaches the surface, and relapses, before complete self-recognition.

Portrait of Andre Gide When Michel marries Marceline at the age of twenty-five, it is simply at the request of his dying father. The courtship begins lovelessly, compounded largely by ignorance, particularly Michel's lack of self-awareness. While on their dutiful honeymoon trip, at Tunis he discovered "dormant facilities" full of "mysterious youth." He attributes this awakening of erotic capacities to his wife, and is therefore delighted with Marceline, little realizing at this stage the large homosexual component in this eroticism. With this awakening to life, he simultaneously falls ill with tuberculosis, and here begin the many equations of repressed homosexuality with disease, blood, original-sin-as-original-grace, the secret instinct, the authentic self. He attempts to hide his sexuality both from himself and from Marceline just as he attempts to hide his bloodied handkerchiefs. The spitting of blood significantly "grew in me like an instinct."

Marceline becomes more of a mother than a wife as she nurses this helpless infant back to life. It would be unfair to find herein the close-binding-intimate mother of the Freudian homosexual paradigm, for Michel's actual childhood was dominated by his father. In so far as he and Marceline were betrothed at his father's deathbed, it would be more plausible to regard Marceline as an extension of the father-figure. It is equally possible that Marceline is the Cybele to Michel's Attis. After Attis encounters Cybele, he castrates himself, and as Cybele weeps over his body, violets begin to sprout from the blood spilled upon the ground, just as Michel begins to recover a new health under the careful eye of Marceline. This very tangential symbolism is supported by reference in this chapter (1.1) to Michel's Essay on Phrygian Cults, of which the cult of Attis/Cybele was the primogeniture.

Be this as it may, while in Biskra recuperating, Michel comes to the realization that he has come very close to physical death, and that this experience has prompted the psychological rebirth of a new self. The first symbolic correlative of this rebirth is the appearance of the young Arab boy Bachir, whom Marceline, ironically, has brought to the sick-chamber for Michel's amusement. Michel glimpses Bachir's nakedness and animal grace under his skimpy clothing — this is the first in a pattern of the "uncover they nakedness" leitmotif — and is fascinated, almost hypnotized, as he watches Bachir use his phallic knife to whittle an equally phallic whistle. Michel reaches down to touch Bachir's delicate shoulder (also phallic, as in the myth of Pelops), and Bachir gives him the completed whistle — this signifies a transfer of virility that will aid in Michel's recovery.

Two days later Bachir returns, and again while whittling he accidentally cuts his thumb, and laughingly sucks the blood from the wound. This symbolic self-castration — as in all castration rituals — signifies rebirth rather than death (as evidenced by "his tongue as pink as a cat's"), and as Bachir sucks his own blood he is engaging in a ceremonial act of regaining health. The next day Bachir brings some marbles, and Michel is strong enough to play a game with him, ending with him breaking out in a "profuse perspiration." This is the sweat following orgasm, however metaphoric. A few hours later he has a haemorrhage. As he spits up clots of blood he thinks of Bachir's "beautiful, brilliant flow of blood. ... And suddenly I was seized with a desire, a craving, something more furious and more imperious than I had ever felt before — to live!" The tubercular blood, like Bachir's blood, is not really a symptom of disease after all, but an omen of the buried self which is rising to the surface, refusing to be ignored, and demanding to be incorporated into the whole personality. The tubercular patient, like the latent homosexual, suffers more from a denial than an acceptance of the facts, and Michel resolves upon a regimen of health to recover — to uncover and discover — complete life.

The homosexual — latent or overt — regularly suffers from a sense of split identity until he integrates his sexuality into the whole fabric of his social life — which necessitates not only self-acceptance, but coming out so as to harmonize the private with the public self. This is the fundamental message not only of modern psychological theories about the fully integrated personality as the key to mental well-being, but of the mythic imagination's insistence that the Apollonian and the Dionysian must be reunited in primordial Eros. Usually the road to this unity lies through a near-abandonment of oneself to that half of the personality which has been suppressed for far too long, as though the scales can achieve equilibrium only by overweighing the lighter side. Michel has been almost entirely a man of the intellect, resulting in a split wherein soul and body no longer recognize one another.

His repressed homosexuality finally rebels and manifests itself as tuberculosis. Weakened by the battle, Michel is no longer able "to keep up a double life," so he resolves to concentrate upon the needs of his body. As Norman O. Brown might say, he enters the body, which in chapter 1.3 is symbolized by a public park filled with plants, trees, a deep stream, and Arab children. This signifies the lost garden of Eden, the pool of Hylas, the Sacred Precinct that figures so prominently in the bulk of homosexual literature: "A curious shudder ran through me when I entered the strange shade."

The "old Adam" is the Adam who lived alone in the garden before the creation of Eve. Michel is disturbed by the presence of Marceline: "however slightly, she was in my way." Like Adam reclaiming his rib in order to become the primordial androgyne before the creation of Eve, Michel the next day leaves Marceline at home, but takes her shawl with him, and gives it to Bachir to carry. Bachir and the shawl could be regarded as the projections of the male and female halves of Michel, but in any case Bachir is clearly substituting for Marceline during Michel's first break away from her.

In the garden Michel meets Bachir's sister, who, like all the other children in the novel, is almost purely symbolic. Her name Rhadra "means `green' in Arabic" — she is the androgynous personification of growth, just as the colour green is the center and turning point in the spectrum of advancing and retreating colours, the most neutral of colours, the colour of growing health almost universally used to paint the walls of hospital rooms. She is a personification of nature, but to view her in sexual terms as Mother Nature would misleadingly succumb to the relatively modern view that nature is predominantly "feminine" rather than androgynous. Michel also meets their mother, a heavy washerwoman with tattoos on her forehead and a basket of linen on her head "like a Greek caryatid," representative of the archaic and the primordial in this pagan temenos. She requires Bachir's help for the rest of the day, but soon the shawl is transferred to a sturdy fourteen-year-old boy named Ashour, who is blind in one eye, symbolic of the one-eyed penis. Ashour serves the archetypal function of the friendly guide in the initiation ritual of descent, and he explains where The Source of the stream is and how it eventually ends in an oasis, the stream obviously signifying The River of Life for whose source Michel is questing.

When Michel returns home he discovers that Marceline has transferred her maternal tenderness to a sickly child, an indication that Michel has been replaced now that he has progressed beyond the limits of Marceline's role in helping him achieve health. The garden now fulfils that function more effectively, and becomes the womb which will give birth to the old Adam: "It was with rapture I passed into its shade. The air was luminous. ... I was excited — dazzled ... Light! Oh, light!" In this orgasmic dawn of a new day he approaches a variation of the burning bush, "whose bark looked of such a curious texture that I felt obliged to go and feel it. My touch was a caress; it gave me rapture. ... Was that the morning that was at last to give me birth?" He is simultaneously mother and father to his new self. What is born within him, through seminal contact with this phallic bush, is partly a rediscovery of his own past childhood, partly a recovery of human innocence in the beginning:

My reawakened senses now remembered a whole ancient history of their own — recomposed for themselves a vanished past. They were alive! Alive! They had never ceased to live; they discovered that even during those early studious years they had been living their own latent, cunning life.

Marceline is not entirely excluded from Michel's quest, but her role in introducing Michel to the garden is not so clearly symbolic as that of Ariadne leading Theseus through the Labyrinth. She is more of a companion than a guide, the useful security-figure who helps Michel first enter the garden — and later to first enter the oasis. But in each case the more significant revelations occur when Michel returns alone, without her. As he recovers health and becomes able to enjoy long walks, he rejoins Marceline and she introduces him to "a marvellous orchard of the oasis" that is clearly a symbol of the archetypal labyrinth: the path which runs along the river "is odd. ... sometimes it winds; sometimes it is broken; a sudden turning as you enter it and you lose your bearings." He walks along this path of inversion "in a sort of ecstasy" until they enter "a breach in the wall" and come upon what amounts to the holy of holies, the centre of the sacred precinct, "a place full of light and shade; tranquil; it seemed beyond the touch of time." But the centre of this labyrinth is occupied by the god Eros rather than the Minotaur: a nearly-naked boy playing a flute, sitting upon the trunk of a fallen palm tree, obvious symbols of phallic creativity.

Marceline's own perceptions of this mythical realm are delimited by her conventional tourist response: "It's no use going any further; these orchards are all alike." The next evening Michel returns — alone — to the same orchard. He converses with the handsome twelve-year-old goatherd, Lassif, and learns about the ingenious system of canals which provides just enough water for the palms without wasting any, an image perhaps of the careful resourcefulness which may contribute to health as well as growth.

Soon he meets Lassif's older and slightly less handsome brother Lachmi (a more "pure" symbolic pair of siblings than Bachir and Rhodra, a coming-closer to the homosexual Dioscuri). As Lachmi climbs a palm, Michel sees "a glowing nudity beneath his floating garment" — another coming-closer, this time to a less obstructed view of the naked body paralleling the increasingly less obstructed view of his own nature. Lachmi brings down a gourd containing sap collected from the severed head of the palm. This parallels Bachir's cutting his thumb, the sap being more clearly an equivalent to semen — only this time Michel tastes the sap, whereas he did not taste Bachir's blood. He does not like its taste, and it will still be a long time before he can acknowledge the taste of his own nature and become an integrated personality.

The children, particularly the boys, with whom Michel becomes intimate on his ever more extensive visits to the orchards, sometimes visit his home, where they meet "the good little boys, the quiet little boys" whom Marceline is bringing home for games and sweetmeats. These distinctly different breeds of boys — the former representing primordial origins, the latter representing conventional childhood — personify the opposite concerns of Michel and Marceline, the former the pursuit of health, and the latter the pursuit of sickness. Michel's boys are robust and free while Marceline's boys are "weakly sickly, and too well behaved." Marceline is the maternal/protective type whose subconscious desire is not so much to aid sickness as to abet it: had Michel remained solely under her care his sickness, like his conventionality, would have been prolonged until his death or total conformity. He wisely sends her boys away, thus achieving a further break away from her. Moktir, the only one of her boys whom Michel likes because he is handsome and different from the others, steals Marceline's scissors. This symbolic act of removing the knife with which she would emasculate Michel endears him to Michel's heart, and soon Moktir is his favorite.

Ashour and Moktir and the rest in due course have nothing more to contribute to Michel's health; he has absorbed the pastoral stage of the quest that they so admirably provided, but this is only the beginning of the journey inward, a stage of gestation (in spite of the birth metaphors previously used). The spring rains come and the oasis is "bursting with the fresh rise of sap [a pleasing contrast to the rise of tubercular blood, but nevertheless parallel to it]; throughout it rang the wild laughter of an exultant spring which found an echo, a double, as it were, in my own heart." Needing a more substantial food than that offered by the children, he turns again to Marceline, feeling that he had unjustly ignored her. He persuades himself that his love for her will grow, but he still does not physically desire her. He rises from their still-chaste bed one night, goes out beneath the silent moon, and wildly protests his desire for life in this courtyard where all is pale and deathly silent. In order to engrave upon his memory this realization of his thirst for something not yet recognized, he picks up a Bible (which for some reason is convenient to hand) and reads "thou shalt stretch forth thy hands." A more appropriate message — though the quest metaphor remains the same — would have been "cast away thy garments," for Michel is seeking that which lay within rather than that which is outside of himself.

He more fully realizes this when he and Marceline arrive in Syracuse, where he reads Theocritus and recognizes that his own shepherds in Biskra were those very same semi-mythic beings. All of his previous sensations and experiences now accumulate, or are re- collected, to the consciousness that he "had only just been born," but that he "could not as yet know what I had been born." He abandons his conventionally erudite interest in temporal history and becomes an archaeologist of the self:

The miscellaneous mass of acquired knowledge of every kind that has overlain the mind gets peeled off in places like a mask of paint, exposing the bare skin — the very flesh of the authentic creature that had lain hidden beneath it. He it was whom I thenceforward set out to discover — that authentic creature, "the old Adam," whom the Gospel had repudiated, whom everything about me — books, masters, parents, and I myself had begun by attempting to suppress. And he was already coming into view, still in the rough and difficult of discovery, thanks to all that overlay him, but so much the more worthy to be discovered, so much the more valorous. Thenceforward I despised the secondary creature, the creature who was due to teaching, whom education had painted on the surface. These overlays had to be shaken off. And I compared myself to a palimpsest; I tasted the scholar's joy when he discovers under more recent writing, and on the same paper, a very ancient and infinitely more precious text.

Michel is glimpsing himself just as he had glimpsed Ashour's golden nudity. When he sees "the beautiful, brown, sun-burned skins which some of the carelessly clad peasants at work in the fields showed beneath their open shirts," later in Ravello he "longs to be like them," strips himself naked in the garden, and bares his body to the flame of the burning sun — in the same way that the narrator of Cocteau's Le Livre Blanc submits to "an old lover, the sun." As his skin acquires a tan through repetitions of this "treatment," he begins to feel that he is "wearing a troublesome and unnecessary amount of clothing." The real self is coming forward and displacing the suppressive garments of convention. He is being transformed into an older version of Ashour, skimpily-clad keeper of the archetypal garden. As in the oasis, the water in the garden of Ravello is "not very abundant," and like the basins hollowed out at the base of each palm tree in the former, in the latter there is "a deeper basin" at the foot of the rocks, which for three days Michel gazes into as did Narcissus, and on the fourth day "plunges straight in." His physical transformation is nearly complete, both in the sense that his body has attained the animal health of Bachir and the Arab boys, and in the sense that he is no longer ashamed of his true self, and can look upon his own — rather than others' — naked limbs with an appreciation for his own sensuousness and beauty.

The moment that he jumped into the pool, he suddenly realizes that his beard (and moustache) is a mask — "it was like a last piece of clothing I could not get rid of." At Amalfi he shaves it off, and lets his hair grow freely instead of cropping it short. Beard and hair are both phallic symbols: his actions symbolize the castration of the false man and the re-erection of the true man. This causes a minor trauma, the sudden fear of being "stripped of all disguises." But though he feels thrust out naked into the world, Marceline "loved me too much to see me as I was," and she notices nothing new about his appearance. Although Michel explicitly acknowledges that Marceline is a creature blinded by convention and incapable of appreciating or even noticing the unconventional, Michel always absorbs some of the conventional when in contact with her. He falsely persuades himself that it is necessary to actively hide his new self from her. His specific rationalization is that by maintaining his old face towards her he is left free to devote his energies to tending to his new self, though such a "double" life increases his sense of the falseness of his past self. Just as various lovers are "strengthened by deceit" in Cocteau's Le Livre Blanc, so Michel persuades himself that "my very dissimulation increased my love" for Marceline in so far as it kept him "incessantly occupied" with her. This is not an entirely correct self-appraisal of the situation, for he is more occupied with the dissimulation itself than with Marceline, and even comes to love that dissimulation for its own sake. What has happened is that the mask no longer controls him, but he controls the mask — and delights therein.

Michel never attains an entirely objective and complete self- realization in the novel — although he steadily moves towards this realization — and his failure to understand his precise relationship to Marceline is well illustrated by Gide's description of the event immediately preceding the first night that Michel copulates with Marceline. On the road from Ravello to Sorrento, the driver of Marceline's carriage viciously whips the horse; the carriage is nearly overturned during the frantic pace; the horse falls down and Marceline escapes unharmed; Michel goes mad with anger and brutally attacks the driver and ties him up. Michel's ability to demonstrate his strength in the protection of his wife leads directly to their wedding night in Sorrento. It is obvious that the desire, though consummated with a woman, was aroused by Michel's physical contact with a man. This event is the situationally homosexual wrestling match, one of the central archetypes in homosexual ritual and experience. The driver of the carriage — a "madman," a "brute," a "horrible creature" — is the Minotaur of the labyrinth, the irrational and Dionysian half that Michel has yet to incorporate into his new self. As the driver "spat, foamed, bled" under Michel's fists, he is the veritable source of his own tubercular blood.

Gide may well have had in mind Plato's myth of the charioteer. Plato's point was that the chariot (in this case carriage) which represents the ego of the integrated personality can only move ahead if the white horse of the Apollonian intellect (superego) can restrain the dark horse of Dionysian passion (id). But the theme of L'Immoraliste is the return of the repressed rather than its re-repression, and the driver (the dark horse) is not so much subdued by Michel (the white horse) as incorporated into Michel as he himself becomes "brutal" during their wrestling. Had this been a novel of sudden discovery rather than gradual recovery, the wrestling match would have concluded with Michel mating with the driver rather than a displacement of his erotic drive towards Marceline that night, just as the wrestling match of primitive initiation rituals typically ends by the victor raping the vanquished. The conventions of heterosexual culture prevent that outcome just as effectively as "the thought of a policeman" prevents Michel from killing the driver. Like Walt Whitman celebrating the body electric, Michel immediately preceding the runaway carriage had been exulting in the "unerring rhythm of the muscles": the erotic rhythm of the muscles begun with the wrestling does not itself err, but is wrongly re-directed toward the socially-approved receptacle, for Michel has not yet attained that unlicensed freedom represented by the driver.

Psychologists and sociologists are probably correct that full mental health (and "happiness") can be achieved only through the integration of the different aspects of one's personality rather than by the dominance of one and the suppression of others, but complete psychic unity becomes largely theoretical when we consider the extreme diametrical opposites along which the personality is polarized, and in particular it is difficult to mount an effective strategy for their reunification.

In order to incorporate the passional aspect of his new self — such as that represented by the insane carriage driver — Michel reactivates his earlier intellectual mode of scholarly research. It is no accident of circumstance that the subject that now interests him in this research — research designed to aid in the return of the repressed — is an ever more extreme manifestation of the force represented by the carriage driver: Athalaric, fifteen-year-old king of the Goths, dying at the age of eighteen after a few years of "violent and unbridled pleasures." Virtually every male character in the novel is introduced as a slightly freer and fuller enlargement of the immediately preceding character, for all the male characters are stages along the continuum reaching back to the old Adam. Athalaric, "as a restive horse shakes off a troublesome harness," and "unbridled," resembles the carriage driver whipping on his horse, and his "violent death" is an extension of what Michel could have done to the carriage driver.

Athalaric, again like virtually every male character in the book, represents a deeper part of Michel's new self: "in revolt against his mother" just as Michel is subconsciously in revolt against Marceline; "rebelling against his Latin education" just as Michel has abandoned most of his scholarly endeavours; "flinging aside his culture" as is Michel; "preferring the society of the untutored Goths" just as Michel preferred his ruder boys to Marceline's well-mannered boys. Michel "recognized in this tragic impulse towards a wilder, more natural state, something of what Marceline used to call my "crisis" — though we never know quite for sure whether or not Michel will ever reach Athalaric's end in "rotten and sodden debauchery."

Michel's journey toward primordial childhood — represented by the myth-like Arab children of North Africa and by King Athalaric — is now supplemented by an attempt to recapture his personal lost childhood. He returns with Marceline to his maternal home, La Morinière, between Lisieux and Pont-L'Evéque, which used to belong to his mother, and where "I had passed several summers with her in my childhood." La Morinière is another of the garden/womb precincts: situated "in the greenest of green Normandy," "in the shadiest, wettest country I know." It has the same "mysterious shade" of the earlier gardens, and is in effect the oasis gone lush: "in every hollow there is water — pond or pool or river; from every side comes the continual murmur of streams." When he arrives at this sacred precinct, "the whole past suddenly rose up, as though it had been lying in wait for my approach to close over and submerge me." Marceline clearly becomes the mother-figure as she sits beside him on the bench where he used to sit with his mother.

This section of the narrative, however, illustrates Michel's first major relapse toward the conventional self (of personal childhood) rather than the authentic self (of primordial childhood). The garden is not a place of free growth as were the others, but an enclosed garden similar to the enclosed garden set-pieces of early seventeenth-century semi- pastoral poetry. It is "raked and weeded," the meadows are mown twice a year, it exhibits throughout an "ordered abundance," a "joyous acceptance of service imposed," a "smiling cultivation," not the unbridled freedom of Athalaric or the inherently unerring rhythm of the muscles, but "a rhythm at once human and natural, in which the teeming fecundity of nature and the wise effort of man to regulate it were combined in such perfect agreement that one no longer knew which was more admirable."

Michel persuades himself to adopt a philosophy of the golden mean, that both "the savagery of these upwelling forces" and "the intelligent effort to bank it, curb it" are worth little individually unless they are brought into harmony. His earlier "rebelliousness vanished" — but his succumbing to the conventional does not last for long. His complacent acceptance of this stagnant phase in his growth is upset by the personification of "man's effort" to control nature, old Bocarge, the archetypal Keeper or figure of Authority and Regulation, who bores and exasperates Michel with his "sententious truisms," his tedious moralisms, his tiresome interferences as the superintendent of the farm, until he desperately feels the old need to "recover my liberty."

The symbol of this liberty — as in all previous cases — is a beautiful boy, Bocarge's seventeen-year-old son Charles: "a fine strong young fellow, so exuberantly healthy, so lissome, so well- made, that not even the frightful town clothes he had put on in our honour could make him look ridiculous." The clothes, ostensibly designed to conceal his nakedness, rather call attention to his rustic youthfulness. Michel and Charles symbolically mate in a variation of the archetypal Wrestling Match, this time combined with the sacred pool: they both remove most of their clothing to enter a pool in order to capture eels, an appropriate enough phallic symbol. They join hands to grip a particularly large eel, and "in the ardour of our sport" Michel soon finds himself addressing Charles as "thou" and "ceased to regret [Marceline's] absence; I felt as though she would have a little spoiled our pleasure."

Unfortunately Charles is in the same mould as his father: when compared side by side with Bocarge, Charles does indeed represent a greater degree of liberty, but he signifies constraint in pleasing guise. He is even more concerned than his father that all the lands be efficiently tilled, and his two basic symbolic actions are to capture eels, and to break in a colt. Under Charles's thoroughly conventional influence, Michel sets about reforming the ways of the estate, thereby increasing the split in his personality instead of recovering the suppressed half:

the more pleasure I took in establishing order about me — the more attracted I felt by the rude ethics of the Goths. With a boldness for which I was afterwards blamed, I took the line throughout my lectures of making the apology and eulogy of nonculture; but, at the same time, in my private life, I was laboriously doing all I could to control — if not to suppress, everything about me and within me that in any way suggested it.

Marceline's health steadily declines as Michel's health increases, partly because the conventional self (Marceline) must decline before the advent of the authentic self (Michel), partly because her conventional self is making a last desperate attempt to maintain a hold over Michel's emerging new personality. Marceline's fragility forces them to move to Paris for the winter, where Michel continues his apostasy by tying himself to "the world" through their expensive apartment, "thinking that by these means I should suppress every vagabond inclination I felt — or feared I might feel — within me." Fortunately his real self has advanced too far for him to become completely apostate: he recognizes that the good people of society "have never managed to be ill" — i.e. to thereby discover their real selves — and he is strained by being "forced to impersonate a false character, by pretending to have the thoughts and tastes with which they credited me." He is unable to renew his friendships with his former acquaintances, for he realizes that "they did not really live, but contented themselves with appearing to live." These are the tedious people who regularly assemble in Marceline's drawing-room, though there is no indication that she herself takes any real delight in them, either.

Partly because of the sense of artificiality caused by the self- enforced pretence of being like the others, during this period Michel experiences the typical homosexual's sense of being an outsider. He reflects upon this feeling of "being different," and is unable to ascribe its cause simply to his desire for a wider range of experience or to his having come close to death. What "separates — distinguishes" him from others is an ambiguous "secret" or "mystery" which he cannot yet comprehend. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say: which Gide declines to name. Gide's beating around the bush, using euphemisms such as "vagabond inclination" when what he really means is "homosexuality," is exasperating for today's reader.

It is significant that Menalque appears at this point in the narrative, an incarnation of the outsider, even more specifically the outcast in so far as he is the victim of a "shameful" and "scandalous" lawsuit that makes respectable society indignant. It is not surprising that Michel feels "attracted by a secret influence" between himself and Menalque and therefore rushes forward to embrace him in spite of the disapproval with which the onlookers view this indiscretion — and upon which they leave the room.

Menalque is a fictional portrait of Oscar Wilde, and Gide's reticence to reveal the facts behind it raises a number of difficulties within the narrative: the homosexual data has been deliberately suppressed and merely hinted at. On the fictional level Menalque symbolizes the Wise Man (albeit his wisdom is "demonic" by conventional standards) who appears as an oracle to save Michel from stifling in the conventional world. Having just come from Biskra, he is the voice of the past, the voice of Michel's authentic self, and he is even a reincarnation of Moktir in so far as he is now in possession of the scissors that Moktir had stolen from Marceline under Michel's comprehending eyes. His philosophy is quite simple, amounting to a single moral imperative: THOU SHALT NOT SUPPRESS. He attempts to lead Michel to a greater awareness of his real — his de-suppressed — nature, and rather openly hints that Michel is homosexual, first when he says "I know now that you are ..." — though unfortunately the words "a pederast" are hidden by an ellipsis — and secondly when he says "you preferred the company of children to that of your wife. ... Don't blush like that." Michel spends "one night" alone with Menalque, virtually a night of vigil, during which they significantly drink the wine of Hafiz, poet of boy-love. We are not told what they talked about during this "night of watching," except that Menalque's words not only "taught me much that was new," but "suddenly laid bare my thoughts — thoughts I had shrouded in so many coverings that I had almost hoped to smother them." And during that very same night while Michel is alone with Menalque, Marceline miscarries and their child dies — a rather blatant symbolic indication that Michel's heterosexual consummation with Marceline was artificial and even sterile, part of his superficial self that is destined to be destroyed by his encounter with Menalque.

The historical reality behind these fictions is that Menalque is Oscar Wilde, that the "shameful lawsuit" was the series of trials following the Marquess of Queensbury calling him a sodomite, and that the night of the "vigil" took place in 1895 in Algiers, when Wilde provided him with a fourteen-year-old Arab flute player with whom he had sex and he came to the complete realization that he was a "paiderast." Such historical facts can certainly enlighten us as to the meaning of the fictional narrative — but it is not absolutely necessary to know these facts to nevertheless understand that Michel's encounter with Menalque indicates beyond doubt that Michel is not a family man!

Marceline of course immediately takes a dislike to Menalque, for he represents all that is foreign to her conventional and heterosexual and feminine nature. As Michel comes into more intimate contact with Menalque, it is symbolically inevitable that the illusion of his love for Marceline, represented by the child conceived after his wrestling with the carriage driver, should be destroyed. Disease now gets a firm grip upon Marceline, and she produces a clot of blood: "it had marked her, stained her. Henceforth she was a thing that had been spoiled."

It is as if no amount of apostasy can effect a rebirth of the unauthentic self, and the death of the stillborn child is the definitive break of Michel's link to the world of conventional heterosexual society. The remainder of the narrative is an inverted retracing of his steps back to Biskra. Each stage of the "return," i.e. the return of the repressed, is marked by the appearance of a young man.

First, Michel and Marceline return to La Morinière in Normandy, where he is fascinated by "the mystery about the existence" of each peasant, and attempts to discover the part of their lives that he believes they "conceal." The "secrets" which he "pertinaciously tried to discover" are significantly contained in "the rudest and roughest among them." Pierre the young farmer who attracts him the most upon their arrival, is of course "fairly good looking" and "wholly guided by instinct." The attraction is almost certainly erotic, though again Gide inserts an annoying ellipsis: "One night I crept furtively down to the barn to see him; he lay sprawling in a heavy, drunken sleep. I stayed looking at him a long time ...." Pierre is correctly described by Bocarge as a "drunkard," a "regular waster," and almost-but-not- quite recognized by Michel as the symbol of his own "vagabond impulses" (another euphemism for homosexual desires). "Blown hither and thither by every passing impulse," Pierre merely disappears one day, partly because he symbolizes the Dionysian wanderer, partly because he is dismissed by Bocarge, partly because he has fulfilled his symbolic function of announcing the re-emergence of Michel's wanderlust.

Bocarge's son Charles no longer interests Michel, partly because Gide is taking too many pains to force upon the story the essentially superficial thematic assertion that Michel continually absorbs experiences and then passes beyond them. But the real reason why Charles no longer interests Michel is that Charles is no longer the boy whose clothing cannot restrict his authenticity, but the young man in his father's image who has succumbed to the ways of the world: he is now "an absurd individual with a bowler hat" and wearing the "whiskers" that Michel had earlier recognized as a mask of the self. On the path toward Paris and socialization, Michel had viewed La Morinière as a garden where energy was controlled by order, symbolized by Bocarge and his sons. On the return toward Biskra and what might be termed his de-socialization, Michel views La Morinière as a garden where order is subverted by disorder.

This theme is symbolized by the woodcutter Heurtevent and his sons. Whereas Bocarge and Charles ruled over well-cultivated meadows, Heurtevent and his sons rule over a wild copse of woods filled with fallen trunks similar to the oasis in the desert. Whereas Bocarge and Charles are of good French stock and belong to the place, Heurtevent and his sons have mixed Spanish blood and are "foreign looking," i.e. they are outcasts as much as is Menalque: "rather looked askance at in the neighbourhood." The fifteen- year-old son — "long-limbed, wiry, hard-featured" — sings an "extraordinary song" which resembles the mysterious song Michel had heard the boy with the flute playing in Africa. This ancient call to the true homosexual self is common in gay literature, as in Richard Amory's Listen, the Loon Sings (1968).

The other son, twenty-year-old Bute, equally handsome in ruggedness, is an incarnation of Altharic: "I lapped up his mysterious secrets with avidity. ... I questioned Bute as I had questioned the uncouth chronicles of the Goths. Fumes of the abyss rose darkly from his stories." Bocarge's third, and even more mysterious son, Alcide, symbolizes the creature completely dominated by the instincts. He is a veritable animal whom Michel can meet only after capturing him in a snare:

I saw him suddenly fall flat, with his ankle caught in the wire. He tried to save himself, fell down again, and began struggling like a trapped rabbit. But I had hold of him in an instant. He was a wicked looking youngster, with green eyes, tow-coloured hair and a ferrety expression. He started kicking; then, as I held him so tight that he was unable to move, he tried to bite.

This is another variation upon the Wrestling Match, its erotic meaning not entirely obscured when he slips his stocking over his boot to show Michel the "slight pink mark" on his ankle — perhaps an echo also of Moktir's cat-like pink tongue.

We need not retrace all the steps by which Michel rejects both society and his wife. Marceline is partly a symbol of society-at-large, and partly the tragic figure of the woman who marries a homosexual man. Readers tend to sympathize with her and to condemn Michel. This may be largely because in the novel as it stands, there are no mitigating circumstances to account for Michel's treatment of Marceline. He simply rejects her; because Gide has omitted all homosexual facts from the narrative, we do not see that Michel rejects her in favor of something or someone else. Ultimately his abandonment of her is reduced to the level of his abandonment of Charles — and there is no emphasis upon a corollary acquisition such as the Arab boy. If a homosexual triangle had been introduced, conventional readers would be even more condemnatory of Michel, and perhaps this is one of the considerations that led to its omission. Sensible readers would react as they react to any triangle: an unfortunate situation engaging our sympathy for all parties.

André Gide's motto was BE SINCERE. This became his veritable philosopher's stone, however naively it may have been pursued by the young writer in the early pages of the Journals. Certainly we are justified in taking up the challenge that Gide lays himself open to when Michel queries in L'Immoraliste, "what can this story be to me, if it ceases to be truthful?" The fact is that much of L'Immoraliste is quite simply untrue. At its core is a very large lie as a result of the surplus suppression with which Gide has burdened Michel and his story.

The historical incidents which suggested the fictional narrative tell a story far different from the one we hear in L'Immoraliste. Gide, like Michel, visited North Africa, in 1893— not in the company of a "wife" but with Paul Laurens, one year his junior. Laurens, son of the painter Jean-Paul Laurens, was graced with exquisitely handsome features, and Gide played the dandy with him. They left for Africa on October 18, 1893, arrived in Tunis, then spent six days in Sousse (or Susa) while Gide recovered from a severe cold, diagnosed as tuberculosis. While in Sousse, on the edge of the desert, Gide had his first sexual experience after twenty-three years of virginity — with the young Arab boy who carried his shawl, named Athman (whose name and porter-duties remain unchanged in the novel). Gide and Laurens subsequently took up lodgings in Biskra, where they shared a mistress named Merièm, though Gide remembered primarily the Arab boy, and Laurens apparently remained unaware of Gide's homosexual activities. Laurens sent for Gide's mother when Gide had a haemorrhage, and when she arrived she dismissed Merièm.

Gide and Laurens left together for Italy in April, settling for a time in Rome, and in May Gide went on alone to Florence, where he met Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, the former in exile after his imprisonment. In June Laurens returned to Paris, and Gide went on to Champel, Switzerland. In August he returned to his mother's estate in Normandy, le chateau de la Roque, the model for La Morinière. After learning from a physician in Geneva that his illness was not serious, he returned to Algiers in January 1895, then to Blidah — where he again met Wilde and Douglas, and Wilde brought him to a brothel where he had a beautiful homosexual experience and felt completely at ease with himself. By February 1895 he was back in Biskra, living with Athman. He wished to bring Athman back to France with him, but forbore to do so after a series of epistolary protests from both his mother and his cousin Madeline Rondeaux. In other words, Gide discovered himself far more quickly and easily than did Michel in the novel.

In October 1895 Gide nevertheless married Madeline, partly at the instigation of a kindly but misguided doctor who urged marriage as a "cure" for his homosexuality. Gide was impotent with Madeline, who for her part had been terrified of sex ever since she had discovered that her mother had been "unfaithful," and their marriage — which lasted more than twenty years — was never consummated. Their honeymoon was spent in North Africa and Biskra — where Gide slept with various Arab boys, without any of the soul-searching implied in the novel.

We need not pursue Gide's biography any further as regards L'Immoralist, but we already have sufficient indication of the various deceits foisted upon the reader of the novel. Although Gide does not conceal the physical attraction that the young Arab boys hold out for Michel — an attraction that is sufficiently homoerotic even without any knowledge of Gide's personal life — the numerous ellipses that Gide inserts into the narrative in the passages where we not unreasonably expect some description of what Michel does when he slips out of the window at night, amount to a lack of artistic sincerity, a stylistic evasion of the writer's responsibility.

For all its beauty, skill, profundity, and relevance to the theme of self-discovery in general and homosexual self-acceptance in particular, L'Immoralist is constructed around three lies.

  • The first lie is the surplus suppression with which Gide invests his narrative, which largely disguises what really occurred, or at least relegates the truth to a place between the lines. The writer's creativity has been neither enhanced nor intensified by repression, but subverted: artistic tools which ought to reveal reality are instead employed to conceal it.
  • The second lie is the implication that self-discovery is a long, laborious, and somehow futile process never achieving completion, when in fact Gide discovered his authentic homosexual self rather quickly and completely and relatively painlessly.
  • The third lie is the apparent theme that Michel's authenticity and sincerity consist in freedom from all love- commitments, whereas in fact Gide was seeking freedom for homosexual love. Gide's deliberate obscuring of the specifically homosexual context seriously distorts the narrative and leads him astray into a philosophy of anti-commitment in general, when what he really felt was lack of commitment to a heterosexually ordered world. The primary reason why Michel feels burdened by his "objectless liberty" is because Gide was unwilling to reveal to the reader that his liberty did in fact have an object: homosexual love.

The tragedy — and creative failure — of L'Immoralist lay in Gide's inability to make the homosexual theme explicit, with the result that there remain two conflicting themes which are never artistically or humanely integrated. On the one hand Gide is demanding the right to be free from culture in order to reclaim the authentic self. On the other hand he is demanding freedom from all restrictions simply for the sake of freedom itself. The former theme has an object of liberty, a freedom for; the latter is objectless, a freedom from. In the former theme the movement is toward something; in the latter the movement is away from something. The result is a disjunction. Michel is forever afflicted with a "confused consciousness" regarding the nature of his liberty. The most he can say, in the last line of the narrative, in response to Marceline's observation that he remains in Biskra for the sake of a boy, is "Perhaps she's right."

To a great extent Gide knew very well that she was absolutely right, and he betrays his readers by not allowing us to see the full view by which we would have arrived at the same understanding. The problem, however, may be that Gide never admitted to himself that he loved boys as well as desired them. He maintained the illusion that his authentic love was somehow reserved for Madeline. For all the honesty with which Gide treated his homosexuality in later life, he committed the most grievous of insults to homosexuals by justifying his pederastic amours by his undying devotion to a woman. He followed the dictates of society by assigning love solely to the spiritual and heterosexual dimension of his life while attempting to relegate the homosexual dimension solely to the level of lust. He may never have realized that the intensity and supposed sincerity of his love for Madeline was due to his overriding need for an excuse and palliative for his homosexual behavior. Madeline, however, recognized the truth that Michel failed to comprehend, that he in fact loved, as well as lusted after, boys.

Gide's cult of sincerity derives from only one facet of the homosexual personality, the revulsion towards the false self imposed upon us by heterosexual convention, i.e. the rejection of heterosexual values and culture. But he failed to develop the corollary facet: the affirmation of homosexual values and culture. This conflict of rejection and affirmation is a theme that runs throughout his novel and his life.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Rictor Norton, "André Gide's Recovery of the Old Adam", Gay History and Literature, updated 9 Jan 2000 <>.

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