Ménalque’s Wildean Nietzscheanism

‘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 . . .’
He smiled.

‘I can’t expect others to share my virtues,’ he said. ‘It’s good enough for me if they share my vices.’

‘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]

Culture, which is born of life, ends up killing it.

Referring to the end of Latin civilization, I represented artistic culture as a type of secretion welling up within a people, at first indicating a plethora, an abundance of health, but later congealing, solidifying, forming a hard membrane preventing direct contact between spirit and nature, creating an appearance of vitality which disguises the decline of life within, like a casing in which the spirit languishes, wilts and finally dies. Pushing these thoughts to their natural conclusion, I made the assertion that Culture, which is born of life, ends up killing it.

Historians accused me of overgeneralization. Others criticized my methods. And those who complemented me were the ones who had understood me the least.

— André Gide, The Immoralist

Glimmer of a myriad lost sensations

It was a fine day, I felt well rested, not at all weak. I was happy, or rather in high spirits. The air was calm and warm, but I took my shawl anyway, so that I might ask someone to carry it and thereby strike up a new acquaintance. I have mentioned that the park adjoins our terrace, so I got there in no time. I walked into its shade with a sense of rapture. The air was luminous. The cassias, which flower long before they come into leaf, gave off a sweet scent — or perhaps it emanated from everywhere, that light, unfamiliar smell which seemed to enter into me by all my senses and filled me with a feeling of exaltation. I was breathing more easily, walking with a lighter step. I did have to sit down on the first bench, but I was more intoxicated, more dazzled than tired. I looked around. The shadows were light and fleeting; they didn’t fall on the ground, they barely skimmed it. O light! I listened. What could I hear? Nothing, everything; every sound amused me. I remember a shrub whose bark, from a distance, seemed to have such a strange texture that I had to get up to go over and feel it. My touch was a caress, it filled me with rapture. I remember . . . was this finally the morning when I was to be reborn?

I had forgotten I was alone; I sat there, waiting for nothing, oblivious of the time. Until that day, it seemed to me, I had felt so little and thought so much, and I was astonished to find that my sensations were becoming as strong as my thoughts. I say ‘it seemed to me’, for from the depths of my early childhood the glimmer of a myriad lost sensations was re-emerging. With my new-found awareness of my own senses I was able to recognize them, albeit tentatively. Yes, as my senses awoke, they rediscovered a whole history, reconstructed a whole past life. They were alive! Alive! They had never ceased to live but throughout my years of study had led a secret, latent existence.

I met no one that day, and I was glad of it. I took out of my pocket a small edition of Homer which I hadn’t opened since I had left Marseille, reread three lines of the Odyssey, learned them by heart, then, finding enough to nourish me in their rhythm, savoured them at my leisure. I shut the book and sat there trembling, more alive than I thought possible, my spirit drowsy with happiness . . .

– André Gide, The Immoralist

Alas, I had started to love life

I came back, bent over, found the clot, picked it up with a piece of straw and placed it in my handkerchief. I looked at it. It was a nasty dark colour, almost black, sticky and horrible . . . I thought of Bachir’s beautiful, glistening blood . . . And suddenly I felt a wish, a desire, more pressing and imperious than anything I had ever felt before, to live! I want to live. I want to live. I clenched my teeth, my fists, concentrated my whole being into this wild, desperate drive towards existence.

– André Gide, The Immoralist

Body Over Mind

I am going to talk at some length about my body. I am going to talk about it so much that you will think at first that I am neglecting the mind entirely. The omission is quite intentional; it is how it was. I don’t have the strength the lead a dual life, I said to myself. I’ll think about the life of the mind later, when I’m feeling better.

— André Gide, The Immoralist

I had to fight against everything: my salvation depended on myself

I didn’t believe I had tuberculosis. I preferred to attribute my first haemorrhage to a different cause. To tell the truth, I didn’t attribute it to anything at all, I avoided having to think about it, did not, in fact, think about it much, and considered myself, if not cured, then at least well on the road to recovery . . . I read the letter, I devoured the books and the pamphlets. Suddenly it became frighteningly obvious to me that I had not been looking after myself as I should. Until then I had been drifting along, trusting in the vaguest hopes. Suddenly I saw my life under attack, vilely assaulted at its very heart. An active enemy was living and breeding inside me. I could hear it, observe it, feel it. I wouldn’t beat it without a fight . . . and I added out loud, as if to convince myself more fully: it’s a matter of willpower.

I placed myself on a war footing.

Dusk was falling. I planned my strategy. For the time being, my studies would concentrate solely on my cure, my only duty was to my health. I would identify as good only those things that were salutary to me, forget, reject anything that did not contribute to my cure. By supper-time I had made resolutions concerning breathing, exercise and diet. [. . . .]

I couldn’t sleep that night, so stimulated was I by the thought of my new-found virtues. I think I had a touch of fever. I had a bottle of mineral water by the bed. I drank a glass, then another; on the third occasion, I drank straight from the bottle, emptying it on one go. I went over my new resolve in my head, as if learning a lesson: I honed my hostility, directed it at all and sundry. I had to fight against everything: my salvation depended on myself.

Finally, I saw the sky lighten; the day dawned.

It had been my vigil before the battle.

The next day was Sunday. I must confess that, prior to that, I had taken no interest in Marceline’s religious beliefs. Whether out of indifference or embarrassment, I had thought that it was none of my business; besides, I didn’t attach any importance to the matter. That day Marceline went to mass. I learned when she came back that she had prayed for me. I looked her in the eye, then, as gently as I could, said:

‘There’s no need to pray for me, Marceline.’

‘Why not?’ she asked, a little troubled.

‘I don’t like special favors.’

‘You would reject God’s help?’

‘I would have to be grateful to him. It creates obligations, and I don’t want any.’

Though we made light of it, neither of us was in any doubt about the seriousness of what we said.

‘You won’t get better on your own, my poor darling,’ she sighed.

‘Then so be it . . .’ Then, noticing her sad expression, I added, less abruptly, ‘You will help me.’

— André Gide, The Immoralist

Knowing how to free oneself is nothing; the difficult thing is knowing how to live with that freedom

My dear friends, I knew I could rely on your loyalty. You came running to my call as I would have done to yours. Yet we have not seen each other for three years. I hope that our friendship, which has survived this absence so well, will also survive the tale I am about to tell you. For if my call seemed an urgent one, if I made you travel so far to find me, it was purely so that I might see you, and that you might listen to me. That is all I require: the chance to speak to you. For I have reached a point in my life where I can’t go on. It is not a question of weariness — I no longer understand anything. I need . . . I need to talk, as I say. Knowing how to free oneself is nothing; the difficult thing is knowing how to live with that freedom. Bear with me as I speak about myself; I am going to tell you the story of my life. I will talk plainly, with neither modesty nor pride, more plainly than if I were talking to myself. Listen to what I have to say.

— André Gide, The Immoralist