The part in each of us that we feel is different from other people is just the part that is rare, the part that makes our special value – and that is the very thing people try to suppress. They go on imitating. And yet they think they love life.
– André Gide, The Immortalist
The back flap of The Immortalist frames the story as one which is about a man’s struggle to live within the polite bounds of society: the “d” words out in force – dereliction, debauchery, debasement. And yet I found it much more subtle than that. I can see that in 1902 it would have stretched the faux-morals of the day, but in this day and age the actions of the protagonist Michel would be almost quaint. What makes it a good read, in fact, is that it is subtle. The more fundamental questions that torture are never so clearly defined as society at large would have us believe. We are immersed in our sea of grey reality wondering where the hell the clear blue is.
‘What! You too Michel! But you didn’t begin by insulting me,’ said he. ‘Leave that nonsense to papers. They seem to be surprised that a man with a certain reputation can still have any virtues at all. They establish distinctions and reserves which I cannot apply to myself for I exist only as a whole; my only claim is to be natural, and the pleasure I feel in action, I take as a sign that I ought to do it.’ (100)
The character Ménalque who makes the above declaration is a man that lives outside of society’s narrow and arbitrary strictures, and is quite comfortable. I kept waiting for Gide to let the “moralizing” begin, but, luckily, he doesn’t quite get there. Yes—there are punishments served up, but they are not real punishments, they are only Michel’s self-flagellating perception.
So it turns out he is anti-bourgeoisie- so what? I am a bit of a failed bourgeoisie myself, (I just don’t care enough for things or social ambition to bother) so perhaps I am not the right person to be shocked by Michel’s histrionic search for justification of tangible pleasures of the non-materialistic type. It is an exercise in depression for me to consider the way that societies encourage open lust for, say, the latest Apple electronic device, yet consider the desire for personal happiness (ye gads, not that!) to be a depraved selfishness or at best a cultural weakness.
I have a horror of rest, possessions encourage one to indulge in it, and there’s nothing like the security for making one fall asleep; I like life well enough to want to live it awake. (95)
Much of the book is wrapped around the corporal experience. Michel suffers from tuberculosis, and the intensity of illness—of being forced into such close appreciation and dependence on one’s body alters his emotional state throughout his convalescence, recovery and subsequent role reversal when he must nurse his angel of a wife Marceline who contracts the dreaded disease as well.
‘I should like an explanation for your silence.’
‘I should like one myself.’ (95)
It’s Michel’s curiosity that propels him. His fear of feeling nothing, of giving into the malaise which society cultivates and needs in order to function smoothly falls away from him by an illness that produces a physical malaise which humiliates whatever put-upon mental inclinations that cling to him. He is fascinated by people that don’t self-inflict what fills his soul with despair. He wants to live, to feel, if only he could run away from the idea that that is somehow wrong and bad- even though some of his studies are on the ignorant depraved side of things…but that’s life—complex.
Nothing is more discouraging to thought than this persistent azure. Enjoyment here follows so closely upon desire that effort is impossible. Here, in the midst of splendor and death, I feel the presence of happiness too close, the yielding to it too uniform. (157)
In the spirit of gross Colonialism (in this case French) they travel to Africa where Michel really discovers and indulges his senses in the…presumed looser morals of the natives. It’s that myopic idea that just because “your” people aren’t watching and scandalized, no one is. Not to mention ascribing ones own warped ideas onto a people in which there is very little true understanding. Never the less, if we substitute what is more true—that inner country of knowing, where the passions of the body and soul can meet—if we’d let them, then the point is well made. That is the persistent azure—and it endures.
‘One must allow people to be right,’ he used to say when he was insulted, ‘it consoles them for not being anything else.’ (91)
*The Immortalist translated from French by Dorothy Bussy