Léon Blum 1897

On André Gide

Source: La Revue Blanche, Volume X11, First Quarter 1897;
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2010.

M. André Gide is an excellent writer. He has the gift and the natural science of language to the highest degree. It’s not enough for me to say that he is the man of his generation who writes best. We owe him pages that no one else could have written in his place and which are perfect. We should re-read in “The Voyage of Urien” the pages on the voluptuous port where the travelers embark, the sailors’ bath, Morgain’s illness cured by spring waters. This is the prose of a poet, beautiful in its purity, rhythms, oscillations, and reflections, which make us think of a Browning or a Shelley they would themselves have translated. He knows how to sustain literary beauty within the exactitude of abstraction. He loves life; he’s curious and tenacious in the observation of a soul and a landscape. But his elevated and religious thought always seems to be turned towards the eternal. And since M. Gide is also a littérateur, since his love for letters is exclusive and profound and he believes in himself and his oeuvre, how can we doubt that he will someday be one of those whose ideas will act on universal thought?

I say this sincerely, seriously, without any illusions about my ideas or confusing what I know of M. Gide and what his books have taught me. I know that “The Voyage of Urien” might seem to be an obscure and cold allegory. Even I have difficulty following the emotional details expressed by the variety of landscapes, and this symbolic representation of love often disconcerted me. A drawn and obscure tone sometimes disturbs the limpidness of “Paludes.” Nevertheless, it doesn’t seem to me that after having read these two works, and being fully aware of their imperfections, we can not think of M. Gide what I have already said. It’s a feeling that is perhaps hard to base on reasons, but which rises up with a spontaneous certainty. For if M. Gide’s gifts and talents are still superior to the works he drew from them, they at least invincibly foretell the other beauties that will one day be born.

I will speak again and again of M. Gide, and I know that all judgments are premature and uncertain about a literary life that has barely begun. Of the latter nothing can be judged with certainty, if not that it will be great and nothing can be usefully said about it except which phase it is in its march and evolution. Even though “The Voyage of Urien” and “Paludes” are in and of themselves two beautiful books, it is above all this lesson that should be sought in them. These are books that are already old and separated by quite a span of time and thought. But the last section of ‘The Voyage of Urien” announces “Paludes,” and what is more, the conclusions of these so varied works are the same. Urien and his allegorical companions, having set off for action and fame finish their disenchanted voyage in the algae of the sea and the frozen deserts of the pole. What did they accomplish? What is their glory? They resisted the temptations of the road: “Your sterile virtue was thus that of abstaining?” Yes, and of having had to make a virtue of abstinence. Through the many episodes and the summary bit players of the novel, what is the idea that the sad hero of “Paludes” submits to and is aggrandized by? It is that our life is monotonous, boring, and limited; that it leads to nothing, that it is nothing, and that we don’t even feel its pallor and lifelessness. It is “this immobile agitation, this localization of happiness, this myopia of windows, this control of pleasure, this interception of the sun...” The hero of “Paludes” is fully aware of this; he repeats it and he pities those who don’t know it as he does. But what more does he do? What does he change of his life? Nothing. Your sterile science is thus that of knowing your unhappiness? Yes, and of having made a science of unhappiness. In summary, two books of morality and negative morality enclosed within mental ironies and poetic allegories.

“Paludes” a gay novel of boredom, a book of richness in monotony, where the uniformity of story and idea is varied by an incredible abundance of observation and psychological imagination, “Paludes” appears to me to be more closed, more complete, richer than “The Voyage of Urien.” What precisely is the author’s attitude in it? As the postface says, did he or didn’t he want to find the greatest amount of gaiety in a semblance of autobiography? Bit isn’t it also part of the perfection of this book that we can draw the most opposed inductions and convictions from M. Gide’s design? “To want to explain my book means precociously restricting its meaning, for if we know what we wanted to say, we don’t know if we said it... And what especially interests me is what I put in it without knowing I did.” For my part I am certain that M. Gide lived “Paludes” but no longer lives it, and yet he is not ungrateful for having lived it. For it is better to see your boredom and laziness than to be blind, and all that was lacking in the hero of “Paludes” was the courage to leave and seek something else. This is a transitional state that in itself is not enough and which we can scoff at, but which one must pass through in order to arrive at a fertile life.

This is why the few pages at the end of the volume which comment on “Paludes” announce another volume, “Les Nourritures Terrestres.” This will be the book of someone who left and arrived elsewhere. And this is why I wanted today to end this inventory of M. Gide and consider his past works as a testamentary balance sheet or a posthumous re-publication. In keeping with the Cartesian method he has made his tabula rasa. But no one knows what his future work will be, not even himself, who I see to be too reflective and too natural to limit himself or be predicted. We will find life there, nature, the free air and the sun. We’ll find the severe love of morality and the abstract taste for thought. Generations change; this one is no longer novelistic and the intimate and difficult tale of “Paludes” might very well have been its “Werther.” Each passing day will see it detach itself from man to go towards nature and the idea. Passionate ideologies and metaphysical landscapes! Here we are returned to a century in the past, to Rousseau, to Goethe, to Chateaubriand.