April 27, 2004
André Gide was born in 1869, two years before Proust. Like Proust, Gide was born into a wealthy family, never had to earn money, and devoted himself to literature. Many geniuses mature slowly, and seem to remain stuck in childhood, instead of rapidly becoming an adult. Such was the case with Gide, who later wrote of, “the thick darkness that still wrapped my tardy childhood.”1 Like Jung, Gide had a childhood neurosis that kept him out of school for long periods.
Gide was born into a strict Protestant family. He went through phases of piety and asceticism, and he also went through phases of hedonism; he made life experiments, moral experiments, philosophical experiments. He later wrote, “I do not think there is any single way of envisaging the question of religion or morals that at some moment of my life has not been mine.”2 (Tolstoy also tried different philosophies; Tolstoy experimented with Stoicism, Epicureanism, Skepticism, etc.) When Gide was 24, he visited North Africa, a visit that confirmed his choice of a bisexual lifestyle, and his rejection of Protestant asceticism and Victorian convention. The next year, he returned to North Africa, and became friends with Oscar Wilde, who encouraged Gide’s hedonistic tendencies; “it is a duty to make oneself happy,” Gide declared.3
Gide felt that destiny had marked him for literary greatness, and that whatever problems he encountered, whatever mistakes he made, would add to his life experience, and enrich his writings. “The kind of faith I had in my predestination as a poet,” Gide wrote, “made me welcome whatever happened to me.”4 (Joyce had the same attitude, the same confidence in his destiny: “A man of genius makes no mistakes,” wrote Joyce; “his errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”5)
Though Gide abandoned the Protestant faith of his ancestors, he always retained a vague piety. He said, “I am an unbeliever. I shall never be an ungodly man.”6 He had a vague love of Christianity, but rejected established Christianity; “Catholicism is inadmissible,” he said, “Protestantism is intolerable; and I feel profoundly Christian.”7 One might say that Gide was casting about for new approaches to religion; doubtless he would have embraced Zen, if he had been introduced to it.
Like Joyce, Gide wrote short works early in his career, works that are at least as good, if not better, than his later, larger, more ambitious works. Gide’s best short works are based on his own experience, and combine sincerity with elegance. An example is Strait Is The Gate, which deals with Gide’s platonic love for his cousin, whom he later married; Joyce called it, “a little masterpiece.... as fine as a spire on Notre Dame.”8 The Immoralist, another of Gide’s short works, is based on Gide’s experience in North Africa; The Immoralist is the story of a melancholy intellectual who learns to find joy in life. Gide wrote two autobiographical works, If It Die and So Be It. If It Die covers the early part of his life, and is one of his best books, better than So Be It, which covers the latter part of his life. Gide’s journals contain many fine passages, but require drastic abridgment.
Gide was a prolific writer. In addition to writing fiction and autobiography, he wrote dramas, and he translated Shakespeare and Blake. He also translated Whitman, whose homoerotic poetry must have struck a responsive chord in Gide.
If one compares Gide with Kafka, Proust, and Joyce, one finds that Gide had the same serious commitment to literature as they did. One also finds that Gide was more widely read, more learned, than they were; Gide knew several foreign languages. Gide’s commitment to reading reminds one not of an imaginative writer, but of a philosopher like Schopenhauer or Nietzsche. And indeed, much of what Gide wrote wasn’t imaginative literature; Gide was a prominent critic and essayist, and he kept a journal throughout his life. Gide wasn’t a pure artist, and he wasn’t as creative as Kafka, Proust, and Joyce. Gide didn’t create a distinctive type of literature, and he didn’t have a distinctive world view; one can speak of a “Kafka-esque” world, or a “Proust-ian” world, but not of a “Gide-ian” world. Instead of expressing his own world view, Gide sometimes imitated Dostoyevsky, whom he greatly admired; Gide’s chief novels — The Counterfeiters and Lafcadio’s Adventures — have the atmosphere and characters of a Dostoyevsky novel.
When World War II broke out, it seemed that Western civilization, which had been dealt a heavy blow by World War I, was disintegrating completely. This disintegration was especially conspicuous to someone like Gide, who reached maturity before World War I. Gide spoke of, “the atrocities of war... that vast upsetting of all the values that constituted our reasons for living.”9 Western civilization was in retreat, it doubted itself, it lost touch with the past. The modern world was an inhospitable environment for culture; “we are headed faster and faster,” Gide said, “into a world in which [culture] will be denied, neglected and made fun of.”10
Gide became a champion of civilization, of tradition, of humanistic values. One might compare Gide with Bernard Berenson, who was also a humanist, who also came to maturity before World War I, who also lived through both World Wars. Gide’s bookish journals are similar to Berenson’s journals. Gide and Berenson both aspired to self-culture, self-development, Bildung. Gide said that self-culture means exposing yourself to new things, stretching your boundaries: “real culture begins at the point where we approach what we don’t already like.”11
Like Goethe, the chief representative of Bildung, Gide was involved with political affairs. At 27, he became a mayor (the youngest mayor in France). Later he visited French colonies in Africa, and wrote about conditions there. For a time, he was attracted to Communism, and he visited the Soviet Union, but he returned disillusioned. Gide was also actively involved in the French literary world; he helped to found La Nouvelle Revue Française (NRF), one of the chief literary periodicals of its time.
Though Gide’s works aren’t as popular today as the works of Kafka, Proust, and Joyce, they’ll be read for many years to come; they combine elegance of style with depth of learning, and they represent a sincere attempt to answer ethical and aesthetic questions.
A. The highest purpose of literature is spiritual enlightenment, spiritual growth; in other words, the highest purpose of literature is to save the reader’s life. If someone says, “this book isn’t a good read, it’s not fun to read, it’s not entertaining” we should respond, “you’re missing the point, the author isn’t trying to entertain you, he’s trying to save your life. If you’re drowning in the ocean, and someone throws you a float, would you say, ‘I don’t like the color blue, throw me a red float’?”
B. I recommend a Chinese movie, Postmen in the Mountains. It’s about an aging postman on his last trek along his rural route — a scenic trail through the mountains of Hunan. The postman is accompanied by his trusty dog (a German Shepherd), who has made the trip many times before, and by his son, his anointed successor, who is making the trip for the first time. In Chinese, the movie is called The Mountain, The Man, The Dog. The only criticism I would make is that it’s a bit sentimental, but this is an insignificant flaw compared to the movie’s virtues.
C. I’d like to view philosophy from a different standpoint, from the standpoint of what I call “completeness.” By “completeness,” I mean a philosopher’s feeling that his education is complete, that he’s ready to go before the public and announce his truth. In my view, Nietzsche achieved completeness when he was about 30; he felt that he had understood Schopenhauer, and he felt that he had gone beyond Schopenhauer. He felt that he had found flaws in Schopenhauer’s philosophy, and corrected them, and he also felt that his study of cultural anthropology (primitive customs, etc.) enabled him to surpass Schopenhauer.
How can a philosopher in our time achieve completeness? He may begin by encountering Nietzsche, and he may emerge from that encounter feeling that he has achieved completeness. But if he encounters Zen and Jung, he may feel that completeness is difficult to achieve, partly because of tensions between Nietzsche, Zen and Jung, partly because Jung is difficult to fathom. It isn’t easy for a philosopher in our time to achieve completeness; he has more to learn than earlier philosophers had. But perhaps he can harvest more as well.
D. One of Kant’s most interesting ideas is that space, time, and causality are merely categories of the human mind, they don’t exist in the thing-in-itself. This idea is akin to Einstein’s theory of relativity. It’s also akin to Jung’s theory that space and time don’t exist in the unconscious, hence the unconscious can sense future events, and sense distant events. Kant’s idea is also akin to Jung’s theory of synchronicity, which overthrows causality; synchronicity is about acausal relationships.
So much for the implications of Kant’s idea, the descendants (so to speak) of Kant’s idea. What about the ancestors of Kant’s idea? Where did that idea come from? Kant’s doubts about causality were surely influenced by Hume, who is known to have had a great influence on Kant. As for Kant’s doubts about space and time, perhaps they were influenced by Berkeley, who published a book called On Motion (De Motu) in 1721; that book “rejected Sir Isaac Newton’s absolute space, time, and motion... and has recently earned [Berkeley] the title ‘precursor of Mach and Einstein.’”12
E. Our book group recently discussed From the Life and Work of C.G. Jung, by Aniela Jaffé. I read this book about a year ago, and mentioned it in Phlit. I thoroughly enjoyed it, even though the version I read didn’t have an important chapter, “The Creative Phases in Jung’s Life.” This chapter is an excellent summary of Jung’s career.
Next we’re going to discuss Thoreau’s Walden, and then E. M. Forster’s novel, Howards End.
F. Bush often rhapsodizes about freedom, and says that he aims to make every Iraqi free, because everyone has a God-given right to be free. But if the average Iraqi believes that the Koran is Truth, and following the Koran’s teachings is the purpose of life, then what does freedom mean in Iraq? What does individuality mean? What does civilization mean? It’s difficult for Bush, or for any American, to put himself in the shoes of the average Iraqi. A couple weeks ago, when it seemed that Sunnis and Shiites might form a common front against the U.S. and its allies, an Iraqi told a Western journalist, “this is how God wants us to be: merciful toward believers, ruthless toward unbelievers.” How can Americans communicate with such a person?
G. I recently heard that Americans who go to church vote Republican 2 to 1, while those who don’t go to church vote Democratic 2 to 1. A secular, liberal Democrat has trouble understanding a Christian Republican (like Bush), just as the average American has trouble understanding the average Iraqi. The issue of religion divides America, just as it divides America from Iraq. It also divides America from Europe; Europeans are deserting their churches, just as they’re distancing themselves from America.
An article in the New York Times, “Faith Fades Where It Once Burned Strong,” discussed the decline of Christianity in Europe; it began by noting that Christianity is flourishing in the non-Western world:
H. The New York Times, long a bastion of the liberal media, has a new, young, conservative columnist, David Brooks. Brooks wrote a column about conservatives in academia, “Lonely Campus Voices.”14 He says there are few conservatives in academia, and little hope for a young conservative intellectual to get a position in academia. Academia increasingly speaks with one voice, and that voice is a liberal voice.
In an earlier issue, I discussed Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales, by Marie-Louise von Franz, a disciple of Jung. Now I’d like to discuss that book further, though I realize that I can only “scratch the surface,” I can only discuss a few of the innumerable ideas found in that book. Although Shadow and Evil is full of interesting ideas, it’s somewhat difficult to read, as many Jungian works are. Von Franz didn’t actually write the book, it was transcribed from a seminar that she gave. She published many books, most of which are available in English, but she seemed to produce books rapidly rather than carefully. I have a high opinion of her writings; they can teach one much about human nature. As literary works, though, they leave something to be desired.
Shadow and Evil helped me to understand one of Jung’s techniques: active imagination. Active imagination is communicating with the unconscious, drawing out the unconscious, influencing the unconscious. It resembles the age-old practices of magic and exorcism.
Von Franz says that active imagination is “produced entirely from within... one should only do it for one’s own inner sake.”15 It should not involve someone else, it should not be used to harm someone else, like black magic or voodoo. Active imagination should not be a dialogue with someone else, but rather a dialogue with your own feelings about someone else. “If done with living people,” von Franz writes, “the other person is affected, though we cannot explain how it works, but that is why it is dangerous, and we try to keep away from it.... To deal with the outer person is a mistake which has bad results and can act like a boomerang.... If you hate someone very intensely and want to work on that you can personify your hate.... In active imagination the ego must empty itself and be an objective onlooker. The ego should say, ‘Now, let’s look at my affect,’ so the first step is that of disidentification when the ego becomes an objective onlooker. [This reminds one of Zen, which says that meditating is detaching oneself from one’s thoughts, and observing one’s thoughts objectively.] That is what we call an ‘Auseinandersetzung,’ namely to ‘sit apart and have it out with each other,’ and the first thing is to ‘sit apart’.... I sit apart from my hatred, or my great love, and then I discuss with that factor, but I leave out the object because otherwise I am practicing black magic. The object of your hatred or love is something on which your unconscious greed fastens and by that you produce wishful thinking, just the opposite of active imagination.”16 Von Franz also describes wishful thinking as “passive imagination” or “witchcraft imagination.”
I recently attended a “Socrates Café” meeting at a nearby college (Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island). There were about 40 people at the meeting, and it lasted 90 minutes. The topic was, “What is courage? Is courage always admirable? Is a suicide bomber courageous?” The organizers try to choose topics that are relevant to current events. The discussion was lively, but couldn’t reach a definition of courage, couldn’t reach agreement. Whatever definition was suggested, someone could come up with a counter-example, an exception. At times, the discussion degenerated to the level of quibbling over words (for example, trying to distinguish between bravery and courage).
I suggested that when a student shoots his classmates, and then shoots himself (as in the Columbine incident), that’s not courage, that’s evil. Likewise, a suicide bomber is not courageous, he’s evil. Someone asked “what is evil?” I said that one of the chief forms of evil is loving death, embracing death. Someone objected that a samurai who committed ritual suicide (as was their custom) wasn’t evil. Someone else said that when Socrates chose death over flight, that wasn’t evil. I found it as difficult to define evil as others found it to define courage!
I said that the samurai killed himself, whereas the suicide bomber tries to kill others as well as himself. As for the kamikaze pilot, he kills himself and soldiers, whereas the suicide bomber kills himself and innocent civilians, hence the kamikaze pilot is not as evil as the suicide bomber. Several people said that courage and evil are both subjective, and what I call evil might be called courageous by a Palestinian. I insisted that there is absolute evil, universal evil; Columbine is evil in all countries, all historical eras. I argued that a definition of courage should exclude evil, but I was hard put to define evil — especially when speaking extempore, without time to think. Perhaps I should have said that evil embraces death and turns against life, whereas good embraces life, and tries to make the best of life. A suicide bomber is evil because he kills while boiling with anger and hatred, whereas the samurai who commits ritual suicide isn’t filled with anger and hatred; the samurai may love both life and death, like a mystic — like Tagore, for example.
All things considered, the Socrates Café was a stimulating and worthwhile experience, and I recommend participating in such a group, or starting one.
|1.|| If It Die, I, 1 back|
|2.|| ibid, II, 2 back|
|3.|| see the essay “André Gide,” by Vinio Rossi, European Writers, Vol. 8 Pages 495-518, Copyright 1989, Charles Scribner’s Sons, The Scribner Writers Series back|
|4.|| If It Die, I, 10 back|
|5.|| Ulysses, ch. 9 back|
|6.|| The Journals of André Gide: 1889-1949 (edited and abridged by Justin O’Brien), 11/6/27 back|
|7.|| see the article on Gide in Encyclopedia Britannica back|
|8.|| Conversations With Joyce, by Arthur Power, 10 back|
|9.|| So Be It or The Chips are Down (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1959), p. 5 back|
|10.|| Conversations With Gide, by Claude Mauriac, 7/14/39 back|
|11.|| ibid back|
|12.|| see the Encyclopedia Britannica article on Berkeley back|
|13.|| October 13, 2003, “Faith Fades Where It Once Burned Strong”, by Frank Bruni back|
|14.|| September 27, 2003 back|
|15.|| ch. 5 back|