‘One has to allow people to be in the right,’ he replied to all the insults. ‘It’s some consolation for the fact that they don’t have anything else.’
‘Everything you once held in such high esteem you’ve thrown on the bonfire,’ he said. ‘A little late in the day, perhaps, but the flame burns all the more brightly for that.’
‘. . . If you had come to dinner I should have offered you some Shiraz, the wine that Hafiz sang about, but it’s too late now. It must be drunk on an empty stomach. Would you accept liqueur instead?’
I accepted, thinking that he would join me, but I was surprised when they brought only one glass.
‘Excuse me,’ he said, ‘but I rarely drink.’
‘Are you afraid of getting drunk?’
‘Oh no,’ he replied. ‘Quite the opposite. It’s just that I find sobriety a more powerful form of intoxication, one where I retain my lucidity.’
‘And you offer drinks to others . . .’
‘You smoke, at least?’
‘Not any more. It’s an impersonal, negative sort of intoxication which is achieved too easily. I seek to heighten life, not diminish it, through intoxication.’
‘. . . I hate resting. Possessions encourage this; when one feels secure one falls asleep. I love life enough to prefer to live it awake. So within all this wealth I preserve a sense of precariousness with which I aggravate, or at least intensify, my life. I can’t claim that I love danger, but I do like life to be risky. I like it to make demands on my courage, my happiness, my health at every moment . . .’
‘I care little for the approval or disapproval of others, so I am not likely to sit in judgement myself. These terms are meaningless to me.’
But how pale are mere words compared to actions! Wasn’t Ménalque’s life, his smallest action, a thousand times more eloquent than my lectures? Now I understood that the moral lessons of the great philosophers of Antiquity were given as much by example as by words, if not more so.
‘. . . Leave all that nonsense to the newspapers. They seem surprised to discover that someone with a questionable reputation can also have virtues. I cannot recognize such distinctions and reservations, for I exist as a single whole. My only claim is to be natural; if something gives me pleasure, I take that as a sign that I should do it.’
‘That can have consequences,’ I said.
‘I certainly hope so,’ Ménalque replied. ‘If only these people here could see the sense of that. But most of them believe the only good comes from restraint; their pleasure is counterfeit. People don’t want to be like themselves. They all choose a model to imitate, or if they don’t choose a model themselves, they accept one ready-made. Yet I believe there are other things to be read in a man. No one dares. No one dares turn the page. The law of imitation — I call it the law of fear. They fear finding themselves alone, so they don’t find themselves at all. I detest this moral agoraphobia, it is the worst form of cowardice. He who invents must do so alone. But who here is trying to invent? The things one feels are different about oneself are the things that are rare, that give each person his value — and these are the things they try to repress. They imitate, and they make out they love life!’
‘. . . I hate all people of principle.’
‘There is nothing more contemptible,’ Ménalque replied, laughing. ‘They don’t possess an ounce of sincerity, for they only ever do what their principles decree or, failing that, see what they do as wrong.’
As if speaking his thoughts aloud, he murmured, ‘One has to choose. The main thing is to know what one wants . . .’
‘. . . There are thousands of ways of life and each of us can know only one. It’s madness to envy other people’s happiness. Happiness doesn’t come off the peg, it has to be made to measure. I leave tomorrow. I know — I have tried to tailor this happiness to fit me . . .’
‘Do you know why poetry and especially philosophy are so lifeless these days? It is because they are detached from life. The Greeks created their ideals directly from life. The life of the artist was itself an act of poetic creation, the life of the philosopher an enactment of his philosophy. Both were bound up with life: instead of ignoring each other, philosophy fed poetry and poetry expressed philosophy, with admirably persuasive results. Nowadays beauty no longer appears in action, action no longer aspires to be beautiful, and wisdom exists in a separate sphere.’
‘But you live your wisdom,’ I said. ‘Why don’t you write your memoirs? Or simply,’ I went on, seeing him smile, ‘your recollections of your travels?’
‘Because I don’t wish to remember,’ he replied. ‘It would be like forestalling the future and allowing the past to encroach upon me. I create each hour anew only by completely forgetting the past. I am never content simply to have been happy. I don’t believe in dead things. For me, being no more is the same as never having been.’
‘If only our mediocre brains were able to embalm our memories! But they aren’t easy to preserve. The most delicate ones shrivel away, the more voluptuous ones rot. The most delicious ones are the most dangerous in the long run. The things one repents are the things that were delicious when they happened.’
There was another long silence, then he continued, ‘Regrets, remorse, repentance: past joy, seen in retrospect. I don’t like to look back, I leave my past behind as a bird leaves its shade when it takes flight. Oh Michael, joy is out there waiting for us, but it always wants to find the bed empty, to be the one and only; it requires us to come to it free of attachments. Oh, Michael, joy is like manna in the desert, which goes stale after a day. It is like the water from the fountain of Ameles, which, as Plato tells us, no vase can contain . . . Every moment should take away with it everything it brings.’
[From André Gide’s The Immoralist]
“To the poet, to the philosopher, to the saint, all things are friendly and sacred, all events profitable, all days holy, all men divine.” Emerson cited by Nietzsche on the title page of the Gay Science.