I wrote this as a reading journal for my Modernism class last semester and thought it would fit well as a blog post. It might be something I'd like to come back to at some point.
In André Gide’s The Immoralist we encounter a man’s apparent descent into a world of darkness and immorality. The turning point in the framed narrative comes at the end of Michel’s long and painful sickness, after traveling throughout Northern Africa with his dutiful wife, and finally recovering his strength and health in Biskra. As Michel recovers he begins to see himself and the world around him in a different light: “And I compared myself to a palimpsest. I tasted the scholar’s joy when he discovers under more recent writing, and on the same paper, a very ancient and infinitely more precious text. What was this occult text? In order to read it, was it not first of all necessary to efface the more recent one?” (43). A palimpsest is a piece of vellum, parchment, paper, or other writing surface which had been scraped of its original writings and reused. In some cases portions of the original text can still be seen and read below the newer writing, and as Michel states, often the only way to investigate the underlying text is to efface the more recent one. The most troubling aspect about this statement is not that there is a hidden “occult text” that must be revealed, or that what Michel plans to reveal is particularly disturbing, it is instead the violence implicit in Michel’s realization.
At the end of his illness Michel begins to recognize that he is not himself, that his identity is somehow hidden behind layers of socialization: “The miscellaneous mass of acquired knowledge of every kind that has overlain the mind gets peeled off in places like a mask of paint, exposing the bare skin—the very flesh of the authentic creature that had lain hidden beneath it” (43). Hidden behind history, culture, socialization, “progress,” is the authentic self. Michel must scrape and peel the layers of paint from the bare skin of that authentic self, the palimpsest he glimpses while convalescing. For Michel’s personal life, this effacing requires necessary violence and produces what he may see as necessary victims. This violence is disturbing and easily categorized as immoral. The final and most direct victim of his effacement is his wife. After he compromises and then loses his ancestral property and upsets his place as a scholar, he grows “strangely and passionately eager in the pursuit of my dark and mysterious researches which…the searcher must abjure and repudiate culture and decency and morality” (125). After everything else is torn down he drags Marceline in her illness back to the spot where he nearly died and where he began his violent effacement. He finalizes the violence against Marceline with an adulterous relationship and abandonment of her as she dies a bloody death. All of the more recent text on the palimpsest is now torn away and Michel can know his authentic self: “that authentic creatures, ‘the old Adam,’ whom the Gospel had repudiated, whom everything about me—books, masters, parents, and I myself—had begun by attempting to suppress” (43). Michel is finally free, but the price is disturbing.
Drawing our attention away from the plot and looking at Gide’s novel in context of Modernism we also see a violence perpetrated against tradition, against widely accepted and deeply ingrained views of morality, identity, progress, art, and history. The Moderns undermined and upheaved Enlightenment values with a violent force. They began to recognize that the layers of paint, the mass of acquired knowledge, of accepted social and cultural values, were entirely arbitrary and served select groups of people to maintain power over other groups. Modernist movements such as Futurism and Vorticism valorized violence and saw the total upheaval of established culture as entirely necessary in order to realize the authentic self.
Not only does Michel recognize a need for violence to rediscover the original text of the palimpsest, but even coming to the knowledge that there is a palimpsest required a dramatic undermining of values, which occurred during his sickness. “After that touch from the wing of Death, what seemed important is so no longer; other things become so which had at first seemed unimportant, or which one did not even know existed” (43). Before the violence comes the sickness. Before the Moderns could upheave the status quo, the masters of suspicion first had to uncover the illness: the isolation of modernity, the exploitation of a working class, a moral system based on greed and social hierarchy. We might also be able to see the First World War as the hemorrhage of a long sustained illness, and after surviving, the people of Europe are forced to see themselves and the world on different terms. The Moderns then come to tear the remaining walls down, to reveal the bare skin of an authentic self.
But when was violence ever the cure to illness? If effacement is so necessary, why does Gide highlight so clearly its victims, especially the bloody and violent death of Marceline? Furthermore, in the framed narrative Michel’s friends feel as if he had made them complicit in his actions: “We felt, alas, that by telling his story Michel had made his action more legitimate. Our not having known at what point to condemn it in the course of his long explanation seemed almost to make us his accomplices” (145). If Michel made his audience complicit in his violent actions, does Gide also make his reader his accomplice? Michel’s tale is made more legitimate because he tells it, and because his audience does not know at what point to object to his behavior. They too must be questioning the terms of morality, or at least convinced by Michel’s reevaluation of it. But could they not have objected at Michel’s violence towards Marceline? Finally, my question is whether or not Gide is valorizing Michel’s violence and immorality, or, by highlighting the victim’s gruesome death and Michel’s final obliteration of what he calls the despised “secondary creature” created by his society, does Gide condemn him? And in condemning Michel’s violence does Gide condemn the necessary violence of Modernism? In our complicity as readers does Gide condemn us?
I think that the problems these questions raises are precisely what lie at the heart of Gide’s novel. Michel’s quest for the authentic self is noble, but it is not without its violence and victimization. If the masters of suspicion have taught us to question what lies behind the phenomena, then why would we accept and embrace Michel’s immorality, especially in light of its dramatic violence? I don’t think we are meant to, or at least I refuse to. I think that if Gide had wanted us to simply accept that there are costs to the discovery of the authentic self then he would not have made those costs so bloody. If the point is, on the other hand, to question, to continuously re-evaluate what we accept as truth, even the realization, the re-evaluation itself, then that may lend another level to the text which I could recognize as valuable. In any case, the image of the palimpsest in The Immoralist goes beyond the hidden self buried under socialization—it points towards a necessary if highly problematic and violent effacement of the more recent text, the accepted values of modernity.