Correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t think of a modern equivalent for the directness of the philosophical message of Voltaire’s Candide, though its comedic romp-sensibility, I’m sure, has many parallels through to the present. My short memory syndrome is surely brought on by a nostalgia for the art of fictional polemic, of which this little book is a pithy example. Hey, when a story has ‘a tall Bulgarian’ and an old woman with one buttock as characters, I’m there. The fact that the adventure story pizzazz is the topping on an Enlightenment theory of happiness-cake, well, that’s just the Bart Simpson toy in my packet of Froot Loops.
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Immorality, much more than morality, is subjective. Gide was prolific and famously personal in his writing career. Therefore, one might expect a fiercely argued treatise of a book of this appellation. Nevertheless, The Immoralist does not simply comprise a marginally fictionalised account of Gide’s decidedly ‘immoral’ behaviours. It is in fact remarkably skimpy on details of any events which might today be eagerly recounted in the pages of novels or gossip magazines. Instead, The Immoralist interpellates readers, as moralists or im-, to explicit recognition of codes of morality within individual and social experience.
The Immoralist opens with a special pleading put to the Premier of France arguing the case of Michel, a former academic whose resolution to realise his true nature creates friction between himself and his wife, who is chronically ill; renders him incapable of enjoying aspects of his privileged life; and precipitates the making of hitherto unimaginable relationships with tenant farmers and impoverished African boys. Though appearing to beg employment for Michel, this appeal to the highest ranks of national representatives seeks more: to find out whether it is possible ‘to invent a use for so much intelligence and strength’ despite the owner’s deviation from the principles guiding middle-class citizens.
Michel is, at first, an exemplary repository of most of these principles. Familial commitment, intransigent love of work, ownership of property and an engagement with religion are all present in the earlier incarnation of the man. Change occurs in Michel’s life not as the acknowledgment of new, salient principles, but rather in his side-stepping the old ones on the basis of personal desire and whim.
Despite his joy at undertaking a way of life which caters for his interest in the lives of the lower classes, Michel experiences tension at every turn. The irruption of Michel’s old life into the new shows the intractability of tradition and human relationships and foregrounds the elusiveness of the ‘fresh start’. Yet when most of the trappings of society are successfully shed, the exigencies of life and desire expand to consume and collapse even the enlarged receptacle. Gide refuses to characterise The Immoralist as either ‘arraignment’ or ‘apologia’, rather severing our access to Michel’s story at the point where he is capable of an unsheathed interface with life’s pleasures and benefits but completely vulnerable to vicissitudes of life and the self.