Tuesday, March 29, 2011

All of which was ridiculous, ridiculous - the trangressive Immoralist

The Immoralist’s life-threatening illness causes him to embrace the physical, sensual side of life.  A different character, in a different book, might engage in a series of sexual adventures, or experiment with narcotics, or, I don’t know, skydive or bungee jump or something.  By 1902, French literature was not exactly lacking transgressive models.  Michel seems to be unaware of them.

If only he had read Gautier or Baudelaire.  Michel’s new found sensuality does lead him to consummate his marriage with his wife – “It was on that night that I possessed Marceline.”  Not all that daring but a start, I guess.  He also shaves his beard, and “[i]n compensation, I let my hair grow.”  I am looking at page 59, irritated that it took me so long to pick up the clues.  Ah, the power of a narrator’s voice.  Michel, as a transgressor, as a wild man, is incompetent.

I can point to the exact moment, the page at least, where my irritation with The Immoralist dissipated, where my idea of the novel Gide was writing flipped.  Michel has returned to his Normandy farm, where he moons about the attractive peasant boys.  He begins to poach game with one of them.  Finally, a crime, something truly transgressive!

With what passion I continued poaching!

The only attention of which I was capable was that of my five senses.

But once night fell – and night, even at this season, fell quickly – that was our time, whose beauty I had never suspected until then; and I stole out of the house the way thieves steal in.

It was the truth: I despised my bed, and would have preferred the barn.  (scraps from 131-133)

The joke, though, and it’s an outstanding one, is that Michel is poaching his own game on his own land!  He’s not committing any sort of crime at all, but is rather playing at crime.  He even, in some sense, legitimizes the poachers.  Perhaps Gide is tweaking a metaphor – is property still theft when you give your property to thieves?

The consequences of mucking around in the business of the petty criminals has a whole series of consequences, each funnier than the next, “[a]ll of which was ridiculous, ridiculous.”  Michel and I agree on that point.

The entire episode is the comic high point of The Immoralist.  When Michel leaves his farm, the novel shifts into another mode, moving towards a climax that is not funny at all.  The ridiculous shifts to the tragic.  Michel finds something genuinely immoral that he can do.

The Immoralist is built out of a series of snares, each trapping the reader in a different but incomplete, even incorrect, interpretation of the novel.  Any reader is free to cheer on Michel’s immoralism.  “Go! Go!” cheers Dean Moriarty, waving his filthy bandaged thumb while listening to bebop.*  That reader is ignoring substantial parts of the novel in his hands, the novel Gide actually wrote.

* I’m referring to On the Road.  I may well completely misremember the scene.

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