André Malraux Essay - Malraux, André

Malraux, André

Malraux, André 1901–

French novelist and critic, best known for his novel, Man's Fate. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

Malraux introduces Existentialist heroes who … suffer intensely from the malady of alienation…. For them God is dead. Alone with themselves, shut up within the cell of their own ego[s], they face a universe that is without a glimmer of ultimate meaning…. It is despair that drives them to revolt and it is despair that defeats them. But though they are dragged under in the end, their revolt grants them a moment of vision that presents a victory, however brief, of the human spirit. This is the nature of the conflict that sustains Malraux's tragic vision…. Though Malraux's heroes are inevitably doomed, they will not surrender the sovereignty of self….

With sensitive insight and compassion Malraux delineates the essential dignity of man, however wretched his condition. And this craving for the assertion of one's dignity as a man manifests itself in a multitude of ways: in love and hate, sacrifice and revenge, life and death.

Malraux's novels represent a distinguished achievement in that they are revolutionary in theme without ever becoming doctrinaire in content….

Malraux creates a fictional universe that reveals life in all its refractory mysteriousness, human nature that is ambivalent, capable of the noblest act of sacrifice and the vilest treachery….

Malraux's fiction adds a tragic dimension to the myth of the absurd. The hero faces a world that is incomprehensible, incommensurate with his live consciousness, and yet he must invest it with the order of meaning. Malraux senses the mystery that is beyond the power of art, revolutionary or Existentialist, to capture; it can only suggest that which lies beyond phenomenal reality….

Malraux's tragic realization affirms the autonomy of art, the created work as the sovereign source of meaning. But the void the writer encounters and wrestles with is never conquered; struggle as he may, he cannot, like his imaginary creations, rise above the phenomenal world that screens the absolute. This is the spiritual dilemma out of which Malraux forges his form of the tragic vision.

Charles I. Glicksberg, "Malraux and the Myth of Violence" (© 1963 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), in his The Tragic Vision in Twentieth-Century Literature, Southern Illinois University Press, 1963, pp. 137-47.

Malraux is not a clear and easy author. His writing spurns the conventional storytelling technique, with its continuous narrative leading to a climax and a denouement and its gradual presentation of characters with the focusing of interest on a few of them. He avoids the description of scenery and seldom deigns to enlighten his reader on the complex historical and political background of his many-sided plots. His style is elliptical and jerky, rich in aphorisms and in imperious utterances on the meaning (or the meaninglessness) of life, some of which will appear to many readers as brilliant non sequiturs. 'All art rests on a system of ellipses,' Malraux once posited as an assertion essential to him. His own elliptical art demands much from the reader and allows no nonchalant dreaming.

Malraux's themes are universal; his tone is one of metaphysical anguish, which has become the new mal du siècle of our neo-romantics; the stress of an intense personal suffering underlies his stories of violence. Malraux is … engaged in the struggle that he depicts. He has, in Pascal's terms, gambled his whole life on the causes for which he successively fought. But he has never failed to do justice to his adversaries, and his novels have the artistic irony that envisages the two opposite sides as impelled by noble and metaphysical motives….

Malraux is hardly a systematic or a logical thinker; his mind works far too swiftly to submit to the shackles of pedestrian rationality. But he does not indulge in vagueness. He can be eloquently sumptuous in his style….

Malraux's criterion for a great work, to which he has himself frantically tried to live up, is Nietzschean: a work is great through its ability incessantly to question the validity of the world, par son aptitude à remettre le monde en question…. Repeatedly, and more than ever in his books on art, Malraux has played striking variations on the theme of fate and paraphrased, never clearly, the significance of the word. The word holds for him an undying fascination. 'It owes its special accent,' he says, 'to the fact that it expresses our dependence, and the mortal lot of all that imposes upon man the consciousness of his nothingness, and first of all of his solitude….'

Malraux's heroes, and all men as he sees and pictures them, are creatures conditioned by the privilege that has been bestowed upon them; man is 'the only animal which knows that it must die.'… His joys are poisoned at the source by the realization that he is not to be immortal. But the awareness of death awaiting him urges man to action. He seeks beauty in a frail world in which his stay will be brief, or creates beauty in order to triumph over death, the ephemeral, and the relative…. But there is hope indeed in his fight against the angel, or against the gods. In one of his most Pascalian sentences, he exclaims in [Les Noyers de l'Altenburg]: 'The greatest mystery is not that we should have been thrown here below at random between the profusion of matter and the profusion of the stars, but that, from our prison, we should draw from our own selves images powerful enough to negate our own nothingness.'

'What is man capable of?' was one of the Nietzschean interrogations, which echoed in Malraux's earlier work. In action and adventure, in eroticism and an anguished but vain quest for identification with his partners in love, in shaking audiences and political parties to the depths through his nervous eloquence, and in courting and vanquishing death, Malraux had attempted to push further the boundaries of man's capabilities and of his self-knowledge….

Malraux's message … is a message of humanism. To have become a man without the help of the gods, such is, to Malraux, man's chief claim to greatness. Such humanism is superficially antireligious. But it voices one of the most eloquent protests against the debasing of man, which has been systematically practiced in our century by internecine wars, ideological hatreds, tyrannies of the mind, and much literary obsession with all that is low. Malraux's fiction answers in the affirmative one of the most tragic questions asked by Nietzsche: Ist Veredlung möglich? Is it possible to ennoble man?

Henri Peyre, "André Malraux" (© 1967 by Oxford University Press, Inc.; reprinted by permission), in his French Novelists of Today, Oxford University Press-Galaxy, 1967, pp. 210-43.

Malraux was the first contemporary novelist to sense that he had been born into an age of political violence…. It now seems fairly obvious that Malraux was concerned not with the political fact of revolution but with a certain mythology of revolution that, largely thanks to Malraux himself, prevailed during the thirties and the early forties. As is already apparent in the titles of his novels, Malraux has seen the shape of man in the revolutionary cause; the inimical factors that control his destiny in the antirevolutionary cause; and in the conflict between the two, man's eternal struggle against his fate.

Politically speaking, this is something of a simplification. Yet, had Malraux taken the theme of revolution as an abstract symbol rather than as the living substance of this drama, he would never have been able to give it so much intensity and power….

The word "lucid," which Malraux sometimes applies to the heroes of his early novels, has frequently been applied to Malraux himself. Nonetheless, when we come to examine the meaning of his text, we find that he is very far from lucid as this word is generally understood in France. All the words that Malraux loves so well, that he uses over and over and over again—fraternity, destiny, fate, eternity, centuries-old, millenary—are just the resonant type of word that sets us dreaming. Whatever precise contents these words may originally have had is soon dissipated by incessant reiteration. Yet there is something in these vague and shapeless words, and in the emotions that are clustered around them, that is essential to Malraux's meaning. Malraux truly believes—and he has become increasingly explicit on this point in his later writings—that the really important, fundamental aspects of human experience are mysteries that cannot be elucidated but only revealed…. And the vague abstractions, progressively depleted of rational content during the unfolding of a Malraux novel, are suddenly brought to life at the end, by the impact of approaching death. Death gives the dimension of the absolute to that which was relative, the depth of eternity to that which was transient. And the emotional illumination is reinforced by the strange nocturnal lighting effects that are characteristic of so many of Malraux's climactic scenes.

It is at this moment that the reader is suddenly confronted with an extremely curious fact: Although Malraux's whole myth of revolution is apparently constructed around man's heroic revolt against his fate, the climactic scenes invariably suggest an act of mystical surrender….

There is a hidden attraction in this idea of "fate," not only for [his characters] but also, apparently, for Malraux himself. The overpowering and inevitable catastrophe toward which they are impelled seems to have the mystical power of translating individual and mortal men into a transcendent unity called Man—at the cost, however, of their individual and mortal lives. It is this veiled emotion, much more than the explicit idea of revolt, that determines the psychology of Malraux's myth of revolution.

The sacred mystery of human sacrifice no doubt lies buried deep in some dark corner of the human mind, but it has generally been disclaimed by the great poets of Western civilization. Malraux, however, has merged this ancient, Oriental rite with the Western concept of tragedy; he has resurrected the barbaric gods and spirits, so avid for human blood and human sacrifice, whom the Greeks purged from their art and literature.

Germaine Brée and Margaret Otis Guiton, "André Malraux: Maker of Myths," in their An Age of Fiction: The French Novel from Gide to Camus, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, N.J.), 1968.

André Malraux has had many rôles in the course of almost half a century of activity, and he relives them in a variety of patterns in this eloquent volume of recollections [Anti-Memoirs]. As Orientalist, archeologist, humanist, revolutionary (in Annam, China, Spain), anti-fascist, anti-imperialist, anti-Communist, novelist, tank officer, colonel in the Resistance, art historian, finally Minister of Culture since 1958 [until his resignation in 1969] and above all as an individualist, he has traveled widely and conversed with the great in many countries. He is one of a handful of men in his generation to have combined so fruitfully the life of the intellect and the life of action, and he understands as few men do this world of societies and individuals in conflict….

He refers to his own reminiscences as anti-memoirs to stress that he is attempting something out of the ordinary—he is concerned with rediscovering the ideas that have governed his own thinking. The "Anti-Memoirs" are neither narrative biography nor confession, but rather a selection of experiences designed to evoke through reconstruction of conversations and retrospective comments certain salient formative experiences.

Cyril E. Black, "Malraux: The Unity of Thought and Action," in Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter, 1969, pp. 148-51.

Action and the futility of action are constantly juxtaposed and debated in Malraux's work. The quest for meaning and value is desperately pursued in the face of meaninglessness and worthlessness….

La Condition humaine [Man's Fate] remains one of the most powerful and impassioned documents for understanding the dreams and temptations of the modern intellectual; while of all the works that came out of the Spanish Civil War (with the possible exception of Orwell's Homage to Catalonia), L'Espoir gives the best idea of what that traumatic experience meant in its early heroic phase. Whatever criticism may be leveled at them, his major novels which once seemed (and indeed were) advanced in their rapid, elliptical, image-flashing, cinematographic technique, have entered history….

For Malraux, being a great writer still meant being prophet, seer, and unacknowledged legislator of mankind. It meant shaping one's life and work into a significant legend. But the new French writers are hardly interested in such grandiose ambitions and pass him by, for if he put the "absurd" on the literary map or obliquely questioned the value of literature for its own sake, he did so in a totally different way, based on different assumptions from theirs. His studies on art and civilization, the work of a man largely self-taught, received short shrift from the experts (as opposed to the literary fraternity), and should doubtless be seen as part of the "uninterrupted meditation" on value, on life and death, that has taken various forms, including novels, essays, and "antimemoirs." Deliberately anti-Spenglerian, he is nonetheless imbued with a Spenglerian sense of decline in artistic greatness, in which he himself, ironically enough, is involved….

Loathing his childhood, suspicious of introspection, probings into the psyche, and the hunt for "secrets" so beloved of biographers, Malraux often resembled a gambler with something to hide, dissatisfied with the cards of identity dealt him by fate. He preferred to present, not his given self, but his idea of himself as he wanted to be….

His fondness for the cryptic, gnomic, or portentous remark means that it is not always easy to grasp his intention or the overall structure of his books, yet only from the dialectical juxtaposition of conflicting opinions and scenes does a total impression arise, an impression that often contradicts, emotionally, the logical direction and force of what has been said or done. Thus his is a world where rational discourse, apparently dominant, is superseded by the irrational, by feeling, dream, or myth. Assertion and insight, often dazzlingly brilliant and expressed in lapidary epigram or powerfully hypnotic lyrical rhetoric, obscure the fact that the sequence of an argument is frequently lacking.

As for the characters of his novels, they rarely impress by their individuality, but by their condensed reflections and astonishing actions. Considering his lifelong interest in the visual arts, it is surprising how little visual impact they make as individuals. Each one forms part of a total debate, and collectively they appear as "the procession of the possibilities" of his actions and dreams, his potentialities, some of which he transformed into actuality: the adventurer, the historian of art, the leader of men. Through his very desire to reduce the place of the individual, he shapes his characters into living aspects of a metaphysical discussion about the past, present, and future destiny of man….

[In] the world of Malraux, what he calls "transcendence," the sacred, the justifying myth, the context of metaphysics, still count. Though he cannot accept religion, the "higher faith," nevertheless in his world the absence of religion is still felt, whereas in many later writers it is an absence that goes unnoticed. Much of what passes for art today is a studied denial of meaning, not an anguished pursuit of meaning at all costs. Here is the great gulf between the world of Malraux and that of the present day. Malraux can be seen at the decaying end of the humanist line, desperately trying to shore up the wall of humanism while the tide of anti-humanism washes away his efforts.

Renee Winegarten, "Malraux's Fate" (reprinted by permission from Commentary; © 1971 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, November, 1971, pp. 69-74.