lundi 16 août 2010

The Male Prison, de James Baldwin (Madeleine, 3)

Toutes les sources se touchent”, parfois, en effet... Tout comme Mauriac réagissait à la parution d'Et nunc manet in te et du Madeleine et André Gide de Jean Schlumberger, James Baldwin écrivit son célèbre Gide as husband and homosexual suite à la sortie aux Etats-Unis de Madeleine, la traduction d'Et nunc... Cet essai est paru le 13 décembre 1954 dans la revue New Leader et repris sous le titre The Male Prison dans le recueil de textes Nobody Knows My Name en 1961.

“The Male Prison

THERE IS SOMETHING IMMENSELY humbling in this last document from the hand of a writer whose elaborately graceful fiction very often impressed me as simply cold, solemn and irritatingly pious, and whose precise memoirs made me accuse him of the most exasperating egocentricity. He does not, to be sure, emerge in Madeleine as being less egocentric; but one is compelled to see this egocentricity as one of the conditions of his life and one of the elements of his pain. Nor can I claim that reading Madeleine has caused me to re-evaluate his fiction (though I care more now for The Immoralist than I did when I read it several years ago); it has only made me feel that such a re-evaluation must be made. For, whatever Gide's shortcomings may have been, few writers of our time can equal his devotion to a very high ideal.
It seems to me now that the two things which contributed most heavily to my dislike of Gide – or, rather, to the discomfort he caused me to feel – were his Protestantism and his homosexuality. It was clear to me that he had not got over his Protestantism and that he had not come to terms with his nature. (For I believed at one time – rather oddly, considering the examples by which I was surrounded, to say nothing of the spectacle I myself presented – that people did "get over" their earliest impressions and that "coming to terms" with oneself simply demanded a slightly more protracted stiffening of the will.) It was his Protestantism, I felt, which made him so pious, which invested all of his work with the air of an endless winter, and which made it so difficult for me to care what happened to any of his people.
And his homosexuality, I felt, was his own affair which he ought to have kept hidden from us, or, if he needed to be so explicit, he ought at least to have managed to be a little more scientific – whatever, in the domain of morals, that word may mean – less illogical, less romantic. He ought to have leaned less heavily on the examples of dead, great men, of vanished cultures, and he ought certainly to have known that the examples provided by natural history do not go far toward illuminating the physical, psychological and moral complexities faced by men. If he were going to talk about homosexuality at all, he ought, in a word, to have sounded a little less disturbed.
This is not the place and I am certainly not the man to assess the work of André Gide. Moreover, I confess that a great deal of what I felt concerning his work I still feel. And that argument, for example, as to whether or not homosexuality is natural seems to me completely pointless – pointless because I really do not see what difference the answer makes. It seems clear, in any case, at least in the world we know, that no matter what encyclopedias of physiological and scientific knowledge are brought to bear the answer never can be Yes. And one of the reasons for this is that it would rob the normal – who are simply the many – of their very necessary sense of security and order, of their sense, perhaps, that the race is and should be devoted to outwitting oblivion – and will surely manage to do so.
But there are a great many ways of outwitting oblivion, and to ask whether or not homosexuality is natural is really like asking whether or not it was natural for Socrates to swallow hemlock, whether or not it was natural for St. Paul to suffer for the Gospel, whether or not it was natural for the Germans to send upwards of six million people to an extremely twentieth-century death. It does not seem to me that nature helps us very much when we need illumination in human affairs. I am certainly convinced that it is one of the greatest impulses of mankind to arrive at something higher than a natural state. How to be natural does not seem to me to be a problem – quite the contrary. The great problem is how to be – in the best sense of that kaleidoscopic word – a man.

This problem was at the heart of all Gide's anguish, and it proved itself, like most real problems, to be insoluble. He died, as it were, with the teeth of this problem still buried in his throat. What one learns from Madeleine is what it cost him, in terms of unceasing agony, to live with this problem at all. Of what it cost her, his wife, it is scarcely possible to conjecture. But she was not so much a victim of Gide's sexual nature – homosexuals do not choose women for their victims, nor is the difficulty of becoming a victim so great for a woman that she is compelled to turn to homosexuals for this – as she was a victim of his overwhelming guilt, which connected, it would seem, and most unluckily, with her own guilt and shame.
If this meant, as Gide says, that "the spiritual force of my love [for Madeleine] inhibited all carnal desire," it also meant that some corresponding inhibition in her prevented her from seeking carnal satisfaction elsewhere. And if there is scarcely any suggestion through out this appalling letter that Gide ever really understood that he had married a woman or that he had any apprehension of what a woman was, neither is there any suggestion that she ever, in any way, insisted on or was able to believe in her womanhood and its right to flower.
Her most definite and also most desperate act is the burning of his letters – and the anguish this cost her, and the fact that in this burning she expressed what surely must have seemed to her life's monumental failure and waste, Gide characteristically (indeed, one may say, necessarily) cannot enter into and cannot understand. "They were my most precious belongings," she tells him, and perhaps he cannot be blamed for protecting himself against the knife of this dreadful conjugal confession. But: "It is the best of me that disappears," he tells us, "and it will no longer counterbalance the worst." (Italics mine.) He had entrusted, as it were, to her his purity, that part of him that was not carnal; and it is quite clear that, though he suspected it, he could not face the fact that it was only when her purity ended that her life could begin, that the key to her liberation was in his hands.
But if he had ever turned that key madness and despair would have followed for him, his world would have turned completely dark, the string connecting him to heaven would have been cut. And this is because then he could no longer have loved Madeleine as an ideal, as Emanuele, God-with-us, but would have been compelled to love her as a woman, which he could not have done except physically. And then he would have had to hate her, and at that moment those gates which, as it seemed to him, held him back from utter corruption would have been opened. He loved her as a woman, indeed, only in the sense that no man could have held the place in Gide's dark sky which was held by Madeleine. She was his Heaven who would forgive him for his Hell and help him to endure it. As indeed she was and, in the strangest way possible, did – by allowing him to feel guilty about her instead of the boys on the Piazza d'Espagne – with the result that, in Gide's work, both his Heaven and his Hell suffer from a certain lack of urgency.
Gide's relations with Madeleine place his relations with men in rather a bleak light. Since he clearly could not forgive himself for his anomaly, he must certainly have despised them – which almost certainly explains the fascination felt by Gide and so many of his heroes for countries like North Africa. It is not necessary to despise people who are one's inferiors – whose inferiority, by the way, is amply demonstrated by the fact that they appear to relish, without guilt, their sensuality.
It is possible, as it were, to have one's pleasure without paying for it. But to have one's pleasure without paying for it is precisely the way to find oneself reduced to a search for pleasure which grows steadily more desperate and more grotesque. It does not take long, after all, to discover that sex is only sex, that there are few things on earth more futile or more deadening than a meaningless round of conquests. The really horrible thing about the phenomenon of present-day homosexuality, the horrible thing which lies curled like a worm at the heart of Gide's trouble and his work and the reason that he so clung to Madeleine, is that today's unlucky deviate can only save himself by the most tremendous exertion of all his forces from falling into an underworld in which he never meets either men or women, where it is impossible to have either a lover or a friend, where the possibility of genuine human involvement has altogether ceased. When this possibility has ceased, so has the possibility of growth.
And, again: It is one of the facts of life that there are two sexes, which fact has given the world most of its beauty, cost it not a little of its anguish, and contains the hope and glory of the world. And it is with this fact, which might better perhaps be called a mystery, that every human being born must find some way to live. For, no matter what demons drive them, men cannot live without women and women cannot live without men. And this is what is most clearly conveyed in the agony of Gide's last journal. However little he was able to understand it, or, more important perhaps, take upon himself the responsibility for it, Madeleine kept open for him a kind of door of hope, of possibility, the possibility of entering into communion with another sex. This door, which is the door to life and air and freedom from the tyranny of one's own personality, must be kept open, and none feel this more keenly than those on whom the door is perpetually threatening or has already seemed to close.
Gide's dilemma, his wrestling, his peculiar, notable and extremely valuable failure testify – which should not seem odd – to a powerful masculinity and also to the fact that he found no way to escape the prison of that masculinity. And the fact that he endured this prison with such dignity is precisely what ought to humble us all, living as we do in a time and country where communion between the sexes has become so sorely threatened that we depend more and more on the strident exploitation of externals, as, for example, the breasts of Hollywood glamour girls and the mindless grunting and swaggering of Hollywood he-men.
It is important to remember that the prison in which Gide struggled is not really so unique as it would certainly comfort us to believe, is not very different from the prison inhabited by, say, the heroes of Mickey Spillane. Neither can they get through to women, which is the only reason their muscles, their fists and their tommy guns have acquired such fantastic importance. It is worth observing, too, that when men can no longer love women they also cease to love or respect or trust each other, which makes their isolation complete. Nothing is more dangerous than this isolation, for men will commit any crimes whatever rather than endure it. We ought, for our own sakes, to be humbled by Gide's confession as he was humbled by his pain and make the generous effort to understand that his sorrow was not different from the sorrow of all men born. For, if we do not learn this humility, we may very well be strangled by a most petulant and unmasculine pride.”

Nobody Knows My Name, More Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin, 
Vintage Books, Random House, New York, 1993, pp.155-162

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