Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1972

André Gide’s Journals, which he kept over a period of sixty years from 1889 to 1949, are the personal expression of a writer whose intention was to reveal himself explicitly in his works. In the informal Journal the reader may apprehend in its complexity Gide’s protean personality, which he controlled and utilized in his novels, plays, and essays in accordance with his rigorous ideals of the formal, factitious nature of art. Gide said, however, that he was afraid that his journals would give a false impression of him since he kept them most faithfully during periods of depression when he used them as a sort of discipline, and not during periods of health and happiness when he was absorbed in his work. Be that as it may, the Journals touch on numerous aspects of Gide’s work, personality and thought; there are explications and elaborations of the great Gidian ideas and themes; records of Gide’s reading and sometimes comments upon the authors he read in which one may see something of Gide’s relationship to other thinkers; anecdotes about the artistic people of the time who were his friends, and often opinions about their work; observations on his travels, his gardening, his piano practice, his daily life, often written with the humor and perspicacity which Gide employed so fruitfully in his other works. As Jean-Paul Sartre said of Gide’s work in general, the Journals give the reader a sense of the authentic experience of a man in their original multiplicity, the many directions of a mind which both expressed and represented the temper of their time.

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Gide’s expression of his ideas in the Journals reveals how a sensitive mind responded to the ideas that were current during his time and how the artist effected a synthesis of them through his personality. Gide’s life—his background, his culture, his actions, his dilemmas—were in many ways so representative of his society that he has become, as Albert Guerard has observed, a symbolic figure of the modern crisis of individualism.

The Journals are a priceless document for the study of the development and expression of Gide’s individualism. Gide said that his life was dominated by the ideal of being, according to the Gospels, a man “in whom is no guile,” to express himself sincerely in his actions, and to reveal himself with the greatest limpidity in his writings. The famous Gidian sincerity ultimately produced the infamous Gidian “immoralism.” The account records the progress toward immoralism of an ascetic young Huguenot brought up in the strictest Protestant tradition, a development revealed in his trips to North Africa, a country which came to represent for Gide, in contrast to the austerity of France, a sort of province of la volupte, and in his friendship with Oscar Wilde. The Journals also reveal the ways in which Gide’s native Protestant bourgeois ethic continued to influence his life and thought. To express the most radical inclinations of his self, Gide often chose the language of religion. In the Journal of 1893, he prays to the Lord to give him the strength to break the confining ethic in which he lived, and he says that he had to impel himself toward pleasure. Gide’s individualism and immoralism required not only the open acknowledgment of his pederasty, but the cultivation of the sensual faculties in an effort to induce a state of “receptivity” or “availability” to experience. He made an effort, Gide says in the Journal of 1923, to discover beneath the factitious self formed by society an unspoiled, more “natural” self. But in the same passage he adds that such an effort to achieve the greatest personal sincerity required all the power of his will, and he concludes that he was never more moral than when he had decided to be immoral. As Ramon Fernandez said of Gide’s “receptivity,” will and reflection themselves make possible, in a cultivated person, an un-willed and un-reflective existence. What in many thinkers would be paradoxbecomes in Gide, because of the autonomy he attributed to personality, resolution.

The Journals, in statement and in style, often reveal Gide’s capacity for entertaining seemingly contradictory forces. Just at the time of his marriage to his cousin, Gide wrote in all sincerity a eulogy of what he called “nomadism,” a theory close to the existentialist concept of freedom. Despite his expressed belief that a man should disassociate himself from family, country and personal possessions, Gide said that many of his books were written under the pious influence of his wife. He says also in the Journal of 1923 that he never left Cuverville, his estate in Normandy, without a feeling of heartbreak.

In like manner, Gide never completely repudiated the religion of his childhood, but reinterpreted the Gospels according to his own personal lights. In his journals Gide records his unorthodox views and his dialogue with his Catholic friends, of whom Paul Claudel is the most famous, who feared Gide’s peculiar antinomian Christianity. Sin, Gide says in NUMQUID ET TU . . ., part of the Journal written between 1916 and 1919, is what is not done freely. Gide often reveals a Manichean conception of evil, and in the Journal of 1916 he postulates the heretical idea that God is not original, that He is molded through man and will be the end of evolution; but he later modified this concept and said that God is both the creator and the end of creation. In the Journal of 1923, Gide records an interview with Jacques Maritain which succinctly illustrates Gide’s opposition to the suppressive authority of orthodox Christianity; in reply to Jacques Maritain’s plea that he not publish one of his books on the grounds that the truth it manifested was dangerous, Gide replied that the falsehood that covers the truth is, in a Christian society, even more dangerous. Gide affirmed his Protestantism in this interview when he said that the Protestant perhaps confuses truth with God instead of believing that truth is but one of the attributes of God. Gide recorded in his journals two instances when he was tempted to take refuge in Catholicism, once in 1906 and again in 1916. But Gide reasserted his individualism on both occasions and maintained this characteristic attitude until the end of his life. Ramon Fernandez attributes to Gide the “scientific spirit” and says that in the choice between security and truth which a man is obliged to make, Gide chose truth and refused to assuage his anguish in the arms of the Church. In the Journal of 1949, in one of the last entries written before his death, Gide still attributed to the body the importance he had given it in his youth; he said tht in the identification of the soul and the body he had found harmony and that he could not attempt to subject one to the other as the Christian ideal proposes to do.

Gide, in defining his skepticism, said that his sympathies were neither materialist, cynic, nor epicurean, but rather individualist and particularist in the tradition of Montaigne. Gide, in fact, identified himself with Montaigne to the point of saying that it seemed to him that Montaigne was indeed himself; and Gide’s journals are as much a fundamental expression of his personality as the ESSAIS were of Montaigne’s, both of them attempting in their daily observations to describe the multiple facets of their minds and to discover “l’estre veritable.” But Gide thought of himself as an artist rather than a philosopher, and by the time he was twenty-five he had formulated his position on this point; what for the philosopher, he said, is skepticism, is for the man of letters a “state of dialogue,” a disinterested sympathy, a deep insight into the beliefs and ethics of others. In the Journal of 1923, Gide said that while the state of dialogue is intolerable to many minds because it prevents action, it had given him equilibrium and harmony since it led him to the work of art.

The Journals accurately record the religious spirit Gide brought to the concept of art, and one can see in the work to what extent Gide’s conception of classical style is related to the conservative elements of his personality. Jean Delay says of Gide that the more the man advocated a romantic individualism, the more the artist advocated formal classicism. Art, Gide says in the Journal of 1922, equals prudence, and he criticizes those authors who are said to be fertile merely because they do not know how to suppress. In the most extreme moments of self-abandon, Gide kept one eye open, the eye of the artist. He admitted, in the Journal of 1913, that he expressed his thought in his work in an ironic manner, and that perhaps his belief in art, the “cult” he had made of the work of art, prevented the pure sincerity which he demanded of himself. Of what interest to him, he asked, is any lucidity which is not an aspect of style? But Gide wanted his craft to be so discreet, so mysterious, that it could not be considered as a thing in itself; he wanted no manner but that which his subject required.

The Journals reveal the development of the personal skepticism in the interests of art that Gide maintained throughout his life in his encounters with the supporters of partisan thought, both of the right and of the left. Although Gide rejected his youthful affiliation with the Symbolist group around Mallarme, he says that he adhered throughout his life to Mallarme’s belief that art partook of the eternal and degraded itself by serving even noble causes. For some time, however, Gide was attracted to Communism, and the Journals provide a record of the development of these sympathies. Gide said in the Journal of 1932 that he had come to wish for the upset of capitalism and of the injustices and lies it entailed, but that Communism should favor the individual. He refused, however, to join the Party and said that art and literature are not concerned with social questions and must not serve utilitarian ends. In the Journal of 1933, he said that “conversion” to Communism, like conversion to Catholicism, entails a renunciation of free enquiry, and that he suspected all ortces his desire abelieved that the artist should put his own works in order, and not the world around him.

Although Gide held the position of intellectual distinction in his own time that Jean-Paul Sartre has held since World War II, Gide always refused to be a “directeur de conscience.” In the Journal of 1946 he answered a young man who had addressed him as “maitre” by telling him not to seek masters, that submission and intellectual security will contribute to the defeat of the spirit, and that only the unsubmissive, who are the “salt of the earth,” can preserve civilization. Such a passage reflects the contours of Gide’s mind and personality which are revealed in such detail throughout the Journal: the lack of nihilism in Gide’s thought, the essential quality of ideals that were never revolutionary, his intention, as Germaine Bree has said, to revitalize traditions, and his use of culture to interpret personality rather than to support dogma. Gide’s refusal to commit himself and the supremacy he attributed to art occasioned, upon his death, an outburst of criticism from the far right and the far left. Gide has been dismissed as a decadent aesthete or criticized, as by Jean-Paul Sartre, for having the ethic of the “writer-consumer.” The Journals give the reader the opportunity of judging Gide’s capacity to hold his own against his critics.

Written in Gide’s elegant and impeccable style, the Journals should be read for their intrinsic literary value and interest as well as for their clear expression of Gide’s thought and personality.

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