mercredi 16 mai 2012

The Perennial Youth of André Gide, par Justin O'Brien

 The Saturday Review of Litterature
"with a french accent" (31 mars 1951)

Dans une pile de The Saturday Review of Litterature, revue américaine parue entre 1924 et le début des années 80, un numéro « frenchy » attire notre attention : alors qu'on y voit en couverture un vieil homme portant lorgnon, canne et melon se pencher sur les boites des quais, le titre dans l'angle annonce « The Perennial Youth of André Gide », par Justin O'Brien. Ouvrant ce numéro du 31 mars 1951, l'éditeur du Journal en anglais rend hommage à Gide en donnant en avant-première la préface au 4e volume à paraître à l'époque.

In a stack of The Saturday Review of Literature, an American magazine published between 1924 and the early 80s, a "Frenchy" issue attracts our attention : the cover shows an old man with monocle, stick and bowler hat who is looking in the boxes of parisian booksellers. And a title announces "The Perennial Youth of Andre Gide," by Justin O'Brien. Opening this issue of March 31, 1951, the translator and editor of the Journals honors Gide with a preview of his preface to the fourth volume that is about to be published.

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The Perennial Youth of André Gide

Justin O'Brien

« I HEARTILY scorn," André Gide wrote at the age of sixty-one in his "Journal" for January 1931, "that sort of wisdom that is attained only through cooling off or lassitude." We must not then expect to find him even twenty years later, soothing himself or his reader with the maxims of senility. In the fourth volume of his "Journals," written between his seventieth year and his eightieth, his mind had lost neither its incisive vigor nor its vital warmth. We find the same disciplined intelligence freely expressing itself, equally removed from facility and dryness, in a constantly maturing thought which is as far from smugness as it is from feverish restlessness. Ever in contact with life, that intelligence maintained a perpetual ardor—the hard, gemlike jerveur which his "Fruits of the Earth" extolled over fifty years ago. This was doubtless the secret of Gide's perennial youth and of his undiminished favor with the young.

Rich with the lessons of experience, a man in his eighth decade must of necessity take many a backward glance. The Second World War naturally suggested parallels with the First one; voluntary exile from France and loved ones recalled the past and even the dead. Problems encountered in writing and fresh attacks launched by his enemies caused him to review his judgments of earlier works: in 1942, for instance, and again in 1946 he reconsidered the significance, effectiveness, and artistic achievement of his "Corydon" and again returned to that book through an interviewer's indiscreet question at the time of the Nobel Prize Award. Several times he turned back to the period of his flirtation with Communism, the better to define the misunderstanding which led to his position of the early Thirties. And the postwar emphasis, largely among the existentialists, on the necessity of committing oneself and writing a "litterature engagée" led him to re-examine his past commitments and eventually to issue in 1950 under the ironic title of "Litterature engagée" a collection of his tendentious and polemical writings, all of which he considered as extra-literary. Indeed, he had already noted in mid 1940: "The social question! ... If I had encountered that great trap at the beginning of my career I should never have written anything worthwhile."

But, like his own Theseus venturing into the unknown while unwinding his link with the past and tradition in the form of Ariadne's thread, Andre Gide found it more natural to look forward. Even in the early stages of the war he foresaw with remarkable clarity the postwar plight of France; elsewhere he reflected on the literature and art of the future. Despite his extensive travels and those he undertook the moment Tunis was liberated, he deplored the fact that the map was still studded with territories unknown to him. Finally, but without dread or false solemnity, he frequently meditated on death and the possibility of an after-life. Some of the finest pages of this latest "Journal" in fact, reflect a serene contemplation of his own—of everyman's—future.
Nothing was perhaps more characteristic of Andre Gide than this consistently healthy forward-looking attitude. Not altogether lightly he early identified himself with Prometheus, who revolted against the gods and communicated to man "the devouring belief in' progress." That active belief never left him. Recognizing his inaptitude for contemplative stagnation, he could state at seventy-three that "real old age would be giving up hope of progress." Thus it is that, smiling at his impulse to improve himself so late in life, he continued the study of German, exercised his memory by learning hundreds of lines of French verse by heart, and, rediscovering Virgil, devoted three or four hours a day to the arduous and delightful deciphering of Latin. His mind always open and alert, he reread the French classics and Shakespeare and Goethe and Euripides, often revising his impressions with startling results. Leaving the main highway, he explored such diverse writers as Cyril Tourneur, Eichendorflf, Grimmelshausen, James Hogg, Dashiell Hammett, Pearl Buck, Jorge Amado, and Ernst Junger. In his eightieth year we find him discussing the latest volume by Sartre, catching up on the contemporary dramatists, disputing with Koestler and James Burnham. Simultaneously he could become captivated, as in the past, by a new treatise on radioactivity, a study of the metamorphoses of sea animals, a history of Moslem customs, or a revolutionary approach to surgery. A lively curiosity was always one of his dominant characteristics.

SINCE the fourth volume of the "Journals" covers the period of the Second World War the reader might justly expect conflict and the occupation of France to play a large part in Andre Gide's reflections from day to day. In the beginning, however, he deliberately planned to omit events, noting that thought was most valid when it could not be modified by circumstances. In September 1940 he reflected that "the number of stupidities an intelligent person can say in a day is not believable. And I should probably say just as many as others if I were not more often silent." In contrast to the invasion of the timely, to the anguish resulting from current events, there is always the timeless, to be found in the classics of art and literature. In an article dated 1936 he had written: "I have a great need to maintain in myself the feeling of permanence; I mean a need of feeling that there are human products that are invulnerable to insults and degradation, works on which temporal changes have no influence."

But viewed without perspective the timeless often appears to be merely the untimely; to some it may seem shocking that only a month after the French defeat of 1940 Gide could momentarily forget his country's tribulation by reading Goethe in the original. Throughout the "Journals," to be sure, from 1889 to 1949 thoughts out of season abound: Unzeitgemdsse Betrachtungen, to borrow from Nietzsche a title that Gide obviously liked. Almost equally frequent are statements to the effect that the artist is "out of harmony with his time" and that this constitutes his raison d'etre: "He counteracts; he initiates. And this is partly why he is so often understood at first by but a few" (July 6, 1937).

Yet, whether in the south of France for the first two and a half years of the war or in North Africa for the duration, Gide was unable to maintain such an ideal aloofness. Never do his "Journals" come so close to journalism ("I call 'journalism' everything that will be less interesting tomorrow than today," he wrote in 1921) as during the long siege of Tunis in 1942-43. There we have a marginal history of events recorded by an eyewitness whose vision was necessarily limited, a sort of "Journal of the Plague Year" with all the dispassionate, flat reportage of Defoe's document. There is a fascination for us who were on the outside in sharing the intimate feelings of a particularly sensitive person on the inside of the vast concentration camp set up by Hitler. Despite Gide's effort to heighten and enliven that account by a running description of the child Victor, a portable microcosm of all that was distasteful in the world around him, nonetheless this is the part of the "Journals" that will doubtless age least well. Several times in recent years Andre Gide had expressed the desire for simultaneous publication of those pages in French and English, in the naive hope, unshared by his French publisher, that such a delicate attention would somewhat mitigate the sting of his remarks about the American forces in Tunisia. But Americans are hardly so susceptible as not to appreciate such frankness; the men who took part in the North African campaign should be interested in the way they looked to "those they were about to liberate, especially since that view changed so drastically upon contact. During the decade from 1939 to 1949 Andre Gide's creative activity did not slacken, for he wrote (in addition to this volume of the "Journal") the "Imaginary Interviews," a play entitled "Robert ou l'intérêt général," a book on Paul Valery, "Autumn Leaves," and "Theseus", which last should come to be considered as one of his major works. Meanwhile he finished his inspired translation of "Hamlet," compiled an "Anthology of French Poetry," wrote several prefaces including that for the collected edition of Goethe's drama, and with Jean-Louis Barrault adapted to the stage Kafka's "The Trial"—besides working on still unrealized film-scenarios of his novels "Isabelle" and "Les Caves du Vatican." One of the last entries in the latest volume of his "Journal" (June 4, 1949) states: "Some days it seems to me that if I had at hand a good pen, good ink, and good paper I should without difficulty write a masterpiece." An index of Gide's continuing vitality can be found as readily in the attacks directed against him as in his own production. Throughout his long career he had been the object of frequent, often savage, assaults. If they are remembered at all in literary history, some of his accusers — such as Henri Beraud, Jean de Gourmont, Rene Johannet, Camille Mauclair, Eugene Montfort, and Victor Poucel—will receive mention only for the crude shafts they aimed at Gide. Others like Francis Jammes and Henri Massis have sullied their reputations by contributing to the picturesque and fanciful Gide legend.

DESPITE the intention of such critics, they did not bury their enemy very deep. During and after the recent war the weight of his years did not keep him from serving frequently again as whipping-boy. As early as July 1940 an anonymous journalist in Le Temps accused him of exerting a baneful influence on youth and contributing to the forming of a "deliquescent generation." A year later in California Fernand Baldensperger blamed the French defeat on such demoralizers as Gide, Proust, et al. In January 1942 Rene Gillouin echoed in Geneva an unfounded accusation of Gide's having led a susceptible young reader to suicide. Hardly had Paris been liberated than Louis Aragon, the literary spokesman of the French Communist Party, which could not forget Gide's return from Moscow, repeated the charge of anti-patriotism and defeatism made in the Provisional Consultative Assembly in Algiers by a certain Giovoni. Soon thereafter Julien Benda and Edmond Buchet separately accused Gide of anti-intellectualism and Alexandrinism, somewhat as Arthur Koestler was to do in English. Probably the most categoric crushing of Gide was found in an interview with the Catholic poet Paul Claudel, a contemporary and early friend, published in March 1947. "From the artistic point of view, from the intellectual point of view, Gide is worthless," said Claudel. Gide himself was more equitable toward his former friend, for in February 1943 he noted in the "Journal":

There is and always will be in France (except under the urgent threat of a common danger) divisions and parties; in other words, dialogue. Thanks to that, the fine equilibrium of our culture: equilibrium in diversity. Always a Montaigne opposite a Pascal; and, in our time, opposite a Claudel, a Valery. At times one of the two voices prevails in strength and magnificence. But woe to the times when the other is reduced to silence! The free mind has the superiority of not wanting to be alone in enjoying the right to speak.

If there could have been any doubt before, there can surely no longer be any since the publication in 1949 of the correspondence between Claudel and Gide that to the world at large the name of Paul Valery was less appropriate in the above passage than would have been that of Andre Gide.

Another important Catholic writer, François Mauriac, who never ceased to admire and to acknowledge his debt to Gide, seems to have recognized this when, writing in Le Figaro about certain pages detached from the latest "Journal," he finds Gide's thought "serenely aggressive as on his finest days" and regrets that "this elderly Faust, who is so dear to us, should fix himself permanently in the definitive affirmation that man must be put in the place of God."

Coming from the pen of Mauriac the expression "serenely aggressive" is most appropriate. In his eighth decade Andre Gide had achieved a measure of serenity, manifest in his "Theseus" and "Autumn Leaves" as well as in his "Journal." One thinks of the Olympian serenity of Goethe, Gide's lifelong companion, and notes with pleasure that during the ten years covered by this volume Gide reread both the "Conversations with Eckermann" and Boswell's "Life of Samuel Johnson," as if recognizing the company in which he belongs. In fact, the complete "Journals," representing sixty years of a varied life, form one prolonged, intimate conversation, a single, often interrupted dialogue of the author with himself. Such a document precludes the necessity of any other interlocutor; after all, Montaigne had neither Boswell nor Eckermann. The serenity to which Gide attained was that of a dynamic equilibrium between opposing tendencies within him, the classic balance toward which he had tended ever since youth. Yet there was nothing static about this condition; as he noted in the "Journal": "The sole art that suits me is that which, rising from unrest, tends toward serenity."

On the last page of the most recent instalment of his "Journals" Andre Gide had scribbled a note implying that he had forever ceased to keep a journal. Since this was in fact the end of his long and rich self-scrutiny, the final distilation of his reflections on man and the universe, what definitive revelation or ultimate message does it contain for his readers? Those who followed him this far knew him better than to expect such a thing or be surprised by his note of December 15, 1948: "Last words ... I do not see why one should try to pronounce them louder than the others. At least I do not feel the need of doing so."

Justin O'Brien is professor of French at Columbia University. This essay will form the introduction to his edition of the fourth volume of Gide's "Journals" which will be published, by Alfred A. Knopf on April 9.


« Je méprise de tout mon cœur cette sorte de sagesse à laquelle on ne parvient que par refroidissement ou lassitude. »

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