At the touch of new sensations, certain portions of me awoke. (13)
At the turn of the 20th Century, Michel, the sickly intellectual and landowner who is the protagonist of Andre Gide’s The Immoralist, marries Marceline without being in love to please his dying father. In their honeymoon, Michel’s consumption worsens and Marceline, who is described as strong, nurses him in his weakness. But as soon as Michel recovers his health, he begins to go out alone and gallivant in the company of a long succession of young and handsome boys. He describes one, for example, to be “as beautiful as a line of Theocritus, full of color and odor and savor, like a fruit.” Michel comes to recognize a gradual change in himself.
For that matter, the man Marceline loved, the man she had married, was not my “new self.” So I told myself again and again as an excuse for hiding him. In this way I showed her an image of myself which, by the very fact of its remaining constant and faithful to the past, became every day falser and falser. (50)
Near the end of the novella, it is Marceline’s turn to get ill. But far from returning the care Marceline gave him earlier, Michel had to struggle with his desires. Coming home to Marceline’s deathbed after one of his escapades, she tells him: “Oh you can wait a little longer, can’t you?” I am about to die, you can now have your life, she seemed to say. Two years later, Michel lives with a beautiful prostitute and her younger brother. Michel seems contented: “She laughs and declares that I prefer the boy to her. She makes out that it is he who keeps me here. Perhaps she is not altogether wrong…”
One of the oppositions that The Immoralist is hinged on is that between the prevailing values and social practices sanctioned by the dominant order and Michel’s own yearnings. For Michel, “culture and decency and morality” should be repudiated to become closer to an original state of nature.
He it was whom I thenceforward set out to discover – that authentic creature, “the old Adam,” whom the Gospel had repudiated, whom everything about me – books, masters, parents, and I myself – had begun by attempting to suppress. And he was already coming into view, still in the rough and difficult of discovery, thanks to all that overlay him, but so much the more worthy to be discovered, so much the more valorous. Thenceforward I despised the secondary creature, the creature who was due to teaching, whom education had painted on the surface. These overlays had to be shaken off. (43)
But what Michel deems here as natural is actually not a more authentic state closer to the essence of human beings but still the products of real socio-historical contingencies. What is immoral is simply the sum of behavior and roles that run against those propped up by the status quo. What is hence posited as natural here is the deployment of a different cultural configuration. And it is perhaps in the light of the shift from an old aristocratic landlord mentality to ascendant capitalist social relations that one can find the key to Michel’s Dionysian outlook:
“But,” I said to him at first, “who is it that suffers from this lack of cultivation? Isn’t it only the farmer himself? However much the profits of his farm vary, his rent still remains the same.”
Charles was a little annoyed. “You understand nothing about it,” he ventured to say – and I smiled. You think only of income and won’t consider that the capital is deteriorating. Your land is slowly losing its value by being badly cultivated.” (65-66) ■