Tag Archives: Andre Gide

Life is Poetry

Life, lived on the same plane as poetry and as music, is my distinctive desire and standard. It is the failure to accomplish this which makes me discontented with myself (3).
– 
Lady Ottoline, quoted in Lady Ottoline’s Album.

Lady Ottoline, by Simon Bussy

Lady Ottoline, by Simon Bussy

As I read Selected Letters of André Gide and Dorothy Bussy the name of Lady Ottoline came up with some frequency. By an odd coincidence I happen to have the book, Lady Ottoline’s Album, in my possession (with a postcard of the portrait of Ottoline by Dorothy’s husband, Simon Bussy, laid in). Last year when I worked as a companion to elderly (mostly) women, I had a client who delighted in knowing and discussing what I was reading, which delighted me, naturally. More often than not she had a personal connection: Isak Dinesen? “My husband had lunch with her, she was like a bird! All she ate was fruit and champagne!” I loved that- to quote my youngest son, that’s  “my always dream!” But I digress.

When it was time for me to move on, she told me to take whatever books of hers I wanted to “start my library.” I hadn’t the heart to tell her that I was  in the process of a massive book downsizing to make my move manageable, not to mention the fact that I am actually a full fledged book-accumulating adult, but when one is 104, I guess I would seem a mere girl starting out in life….Anyway, at the very least, on sentimental grounds, I couldn’t resist. And of course, I cherish them now, as they recall her to my mind.

One of the books I choose was Lady Ottoline’s Album, but I had not yet read it. André Gide and Dorothy Bussy had reminded me, but it wasn’t until yesterday, whilst in the midst of a quasi-quarterly cleaning and reorganization spasm that I came upon it.

André Gide

André Gide

It had not, until this moment, occurred to me that Ottoline was a woman who would allow me to make love to her, but gradually, as the evening progressed, the desire to make love to her became more and more insistent. At last it conquered, and I found to my amazement that I loved her deeply, and that she returned my feeling (38) Bertrand Russell, quoted.

Lady Ottoline seems to have been the type of woman who had an exquisite understanding of the excellence of social interactions- conversation, humor, passion, intellect – the poetry of life. Pursuing the myriad photographs in the book one can’t help being fascinated by her face -her countenance is strangely appealing- she should be unattractive, and yet, she is, in fact, quite strikingly beautiful.

The list of guest that she hosted is extraordinary, she had a knack for attracting artists and writers to her home, Gide and Russell, of course, but also Yeats, D. H.  Lawrence, E. M. Forster, T. S. Eliot, Ian Fleming, Hardy, Henry James, Auden, Huxley, Katherine Mansfield, and Virginia Woolf, among others:

“…I remember spending some dark, uneasy, winter days during the first war in the depth of the country with Lytton Strachey. After lunch, as we watched the rain pour down and premature darkness roll up, he said, in his searching, personal way, “Loves apart, whom would you most like to see coming up the drive?’ I hesitated a moment and he supplied the answer: “Virginia of course.” (78) – Clive Bell, quoted.

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

The book is comprised of her and her famous guest’s writings or letters and a huge array of photographs that Ottoline, for the most part, took. An intimate peek into the lives of a wonderfully influential group of people. The photos of these towering figures in casual moments, is fascinating, and extremely endearing…I can’t stop picturing Yeats, described perfectly by Stephen Spender as having “something of the appearance of the overgrown art student” (100).

Despite Lawrence’s rather scathing sketch (presumably of Ottoline) in Women in Love, which would seriously breach their friendship, (and yet seems a plausible description)…she is a mesmerizing woman. Her relationships, by all accounts burned bright; there is a ferocity about her that makes me trust Lawrence….but still, her insistence that life be lived as poetry – reduced to pure feeling and experience, is so appealing. I suppose Lawrence wondered if she ever really achieved her desire.

Nevertheless, She and Lawrence, have philosophical congress. Concentrated in our bodies, for good or bad, life is meant to be felt, loved, and savoured. It is a lovely little book- an erstwhile golden age, elegantly composed by a passionate woman who had, truly, a genius of repose.

*Lady Ottoline’s Album: Snapshots & Portraits of Her Famous Contemporaries (and of Herself) Photographed for the Most Part by Lady Ottoline Morrell from the Collection of her Daughter Julian Vinogradoff. Edited by Carolyn G. Heilbrun, with an Introduction by Lord David Cecil.

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Heartache’s Élan

There is nothing more tiresome, is there, than to answer in cold blood a letter that has been written in emotion, but you know you needn’t (10, 24th Nov. 1918).

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If one thing can be said about Dorothy Bussy, it is that she is a woman of emotion. Selected Letters of  André Gide and Dorothy Bussy recounts the thirty year span of their correspondence, begun over her work as his chief translator into English and which began late in their lives, in their fifties! Their undeniably passionate, mutual yet skewed love, and devotion to their friendship is mesmerizing, heartbreaking, but inspiring too.

Dear Gide,
I always feel in such a fearful panic after I have sent you a letter. I want to go and drown myself. Such intolerable stuff I write you. I can’t imagine how you bear it. Shameless it seems to me after it has gone, and worse than shameless–stupid–often not true. Can you tell what is true and what is false? I suppose you can. I suppose that is why you put up with me and why I always find the courage to begin again. Because in reality I’m not ashamed of the essential part–the part that is true. No. I’m proud of it (52, 16th Aug ’20).

She was in love with him, but alas, one can not feel what they don’t feel, and Gide did not return that sort of feeling. They were both married, and Gide had homesexual lovers and other heterosexual lovers as well (of more particular heartbreak for Bussy) and yet, he writes to her a day after her letter above:

Very Dear Friend,
Your letters send my heart and mind into corkscrews spirals–but delightfully (55, 17th Aug. ’20).

The relationship is rich in its intellectual depth, and wonderously complex regarding what it means to love someone. Where she loves body and soul, Gide can only offer his soul and wonders if that is not superior:

I cannot convince myself that what I feel for you in my heart is not really better than what you are looking for –and stronger, more constant, more serious (121, 9 April ’28).

And yet it is something of a constant torment to them both. The letters are historically, culturally, and intellectually fascinating. But it is Bussy that is truly remarkable. Her love, which she is aware is considered a humiliation, (and she battles those feelings in herself) she also understands to be the most authentic force of her life. She writes again and again about her inability to suppress her feelings. Her inability to be anything but completely nakedly honest with Gide. Why shouldn’t she? Most people don’t allow themselves to love so intensely. On his part, he writes again and again to her, beseeching her to write, to continuing writing her way. Sometimes with nothing to say, he writes only that he must write her. His words are achingly beautiful:

I read your letter of the 8th; that little swallow of pure friendship refreshes the soul (173,  12 Jan ’37)

I devoured this book. I have correspondences of my own, heartbreaks, and vigorous exchanges with people I love, and I am aware that letter writing is not so fashionable in this day and age, but there is something freeing and deeply enrichening to me in the practice, (even in email form, mine more often than not adhere to the long format letter length exchanges of former days..) which is perhaps why I was compelled to read this book.

My only disappointment was the inclusion in the epilogue  of a third party’s take on the letters. Gide’s friend Martin du Gard had certain papers in reference to “Madame Simon Bussy” and he added his own thoughts. He wrote of Bussy’s “delusion” and recalled Gide “avoid[ing] her, flee[ing] from her” noting that Gide’s love was only compassionate – to me, a condescending word in this context. Oh, how my heart burned in indignation at his take on the matter!

This morning you were very near to me, your check on mine, your lips so near to mine. But no, I did not dare. That must be reserved for dreams. They have sometimes come.
Good night my very dear.
Tear this into a thousand pieces & drop it into the sea.
Yr. D (210, 29 April ’42)

Five months later Gide, responding to her accusation that he didn’t read her letters, writes, “It goes without saying that I miscalculated, but you immediately accuse me of not reading your letters carefully…Shame! How mean! I read and reread your letters; there is even one (simply dated ‘Wednesday evening’) that I always carry with me.

The letter to which he refers is the above account of her dreaming about him….

It was no wonder at all to me that he loved her, and I felt deeply sorry that his feelings (that strange chemical reaction) differed from hers. But all the same. I found her a brilliant force of love and feeling. If that is humiliating, then so be it. Should she have humiliated herself by revealing all? Yes. By God Yes. What else is there?

Not a saint–not a boy–just your hopeless and yet not altogether unhappy

Lover
D.B. (74, July ’21)

*edited by Richard Tedeschi, Oxford University Press.

Threads of UPR

“On the way out, confided in Bonnard for the first  time about my love. Sad.”
From the diary of Edouard Vuillard quoted in Vuillard, Master of  the Intimate Interior (52)

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The first Edourad Vuillard painting I ever saw was The Suitor (Interior with Work Table) since that time, I have been smitten. I immediately liked his work, but really only considered it carefully after having a conversation with my daughter about a painting problem she had been trying to resolve concerning her backrounds. I sent her images of his work as an example of someone who painted every aspect and surface with the same attention as one would normally reserve for the figure.  My daughter loves printmaking and one of the fabulous things about these turn of the century artists was their appreciation and respectful co-opting of Chinese and Japanese prints. Vuillard’s aggressive patterns belie his quite themes and the tension is exhilarating. The fact that most of the faces of his figures are monotone abstractions make his backgrounds essential to the mood of the painting and the visages of his models become symbolic universalism.

The Gaugin-like emotionality of his work is wonderful, but the thing that I never tire of thinking about is photography’s influence on artists of this time. Vuillard often used a photographic-like close cropping of his view, not to create a sense of claustrophobia, but rather to enhance the intimacy of the room. His paintings have a feel of a scene, set for the stage, and he was in fact one of the first artist to design sets for the theater. His images bask in a quality of serenity, and yet the bustle and complexity of life are expressed within his signature style of tight floral patterning.

Vuillard was involved in a secret organization called The Nabi (Hebrew for prophet) in which the occult and matters of spirituality were a source of inspiration. A focus on the ideas and connotations of decoration and design particularly interested The Nabi, and in Vuillard’s work there is a mystical quality to his patterning.  Whereas Gaugin’s symbolism created magical scenes of paradisaical “primitive” societies, Vuillard transported the Fauvist magical into the realm of the mundane.

With my new found interest, I was thrilled upon seeing so many of his paintings recently at the Yale Gallery.  I brought my very old client to the gallery. We had walked the entire floor and she was tired by the time we got to the Vuillards. She sat on the bench and we spent some time looking at the paintings. Finally she pointed to The Thread and said to me, “That’s how you look when you are doing my sewing.”

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The design of his compositions, the push and pull between his use of bright colors and muted tones, strong lines and micro details, entropy and order, as well as the general domestic themes of his paintings all work to captivate me. There is a feeling that his work exudes deeply connecting me to all that is good, yet often lonely and sober, in my world of intense domesticity. Vuillard breaks my heart just a little bit.

The relationships between the people of his paintings as well as between the space and activity are imbued with life and within the life of the painting is a profound feeling of what a friend of mine and I like to refer to as UPR: that hilariously overly-fussy psychological term- unconditional positive response. In other words- love.

[Vuillard] is the most personal, the most intimate of storytellers. I know few pictures which bring the observer so directly into conversation with the artist. I think it must be because his brush never breaks free of the motion which guides it; the outer world, for Vuillard, is always a pretext, an adjustable means of expression.” – André Gide quoted in Vuillard, Master of the Intimate Interior by Guy Cogeval

A Pertinacious Azure

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

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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