Monday, November 22, 2010

André Gide: An Appreciation

An open letter to all of my gay (and non-gay) friends on the occasion of the birth anniversary of a great man of letters:

If you can pry yourself away from your most recent narcissistic piece of personal drama long enough to realize that the bigger world not only doesn't care but has seen it all before, try walking for a mile in the shoes of French gay writer and mystic André Gide. Gide made history by being frank about his gay lovers, and his friendship with Oscar Wilde.

Gide was born on November 21, the same birth date as my late mother, and also of two of my best friends. Gide was a radical who wrote both openly and honestly about his own life. He was one of the greatest of French short story writers. I remember reading in the original French, back in high school French class, his short story "The Prodigal Son," a modern retelling of the Biblical parable is profound and moving. I read this story in order to translate it, but it has stayed with me, and opened the door to reading the rest of his writings. (I had great French teachers in junior high and high school. This was also how I was introduced to Saint-Exupéry, who has remained one of my favorite writers throughout my life.)

Throughout his career, Gide's writings give voice to the universal and gentle sides of homosexual love. Without glossing over the hardships of life, and the emotional difficulties of coming out and being who you are, he was always positive and life-affirming. He showcased in Corydon, which is structured as a modern Platonic dialogue, how essential the contributions of gay and lesbian artists, writers, and musicians have been to the history of Western arts and literature. (Corydon is highly readable, with enchanting characters, and not at all didactic in tone while conveying vast amounts of historical knowledge.)

One of Gide's most powerful, oft-repeated messages in his writings was the simple truth (which seems to be lost on so many gay men lately) that: You cannot demand that others treat you with respect, and take you just as you are, if you then turn around and judge them harshly. More bluntly put, as Gide might phrase it, You cannot expect to be treated with respect if you show no respect in turn for others.

I can't tell you how often I've run into this fundamental truth in recent weeks, in conversation and encounters with my LGBT friends. Some of the younger, more militant of them are all up in arms about being respected for being just who they are, while without apparent irony turning right around to voice judgmental sweeping generalizations about others. One other lesson one takes away from the mature writings of Gide is that sweeping generalizations do more harm than good; we are all complex stories, with many individual paths taken that cannot be fit into stereotyped categories.

On December 10, 1947, in Stockholm, Anders Österling, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, spoke to France's ambassador in his award ceremony speech about Gide, "the venerable master of French literature whose genius has so profoundly influenced our time." (Gide was at the time too ill to receive his Nobel Prize for Literature in person.) Österling said as part of his speech:

The seventy-eight-year-old writer who this day is being honoured with the award of the Nobel Prize has always been a controversial figure. From the beginning of his career he put himself in the first rank of the sowers of spiritual anxiety, but this does not keep him today from being counted almost everywhere among the first literary names of France, or from enjoying an influence that has persisted unabatedly through several generations.

The award capped a rollercoaster career that began with the publication of a novella when Gide was twenty-two in 1891, reached successive peaks with The Immoralist (1902), Strait Is the Gate (1909), and Lafcadio's Adventures (1914); plummeted with the publication of Corydon (1920), his nonfiction book in praise of homosexuality; soared again with what some consider his best novel, The Counterfeiters (1925); and immediately shocked certain segments of the public again with his autobiography, If It Die (1926), with his joyful memories of teenage masturbating under the dining room table with the concierge's son, or his lovemaking with an Arab youth on a sand dune in Algeria. While in North Africa, Gide had also befriended Oscar Wilde; Gide wrote of their visit together to a tavern to seek out boys for pleasure.

In 1927 Gide published Travels in the Congo, his hugely influential attack on French colonialism, which turned out to be prophetic in his predictions of how colonialism would fail because of its own success. That trip also marked the end of Gide's eleven year relationship with Marc Allégret, who had eloped with him when he was 16 and Gide was 47. (Allégret's father had been the best man at Gide's never-consummated wedding and wasn't bothered at all by their affair; Gide's wife, however, didn't like being left behind and burned all of his letters in retaliation. Marc Allégret went on to direct more than fifty films.) After spending the war and post-war years in Tunis, Gide returned to Paris where he died in 1951.

In 1952, the Catholic church put all of his works on their Index of Forbidden Books, where they remain. That alone is testimony to his radical thought, his courageous self-revelations, and his courage in speaking out on forbidden topics.

(Hat tip to Band of Thebes.)

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4 Comments:

Blogger Elisabeth said...

The Pope has just endorsed the use of condoms among married couples, Art, as you no doubt would have heard. To me that says it all - too little too late.

That the Catholic Church continues to ban Gide's writing is no surprise. You could say the church is a slow developer or perhaps even a non-developer.

But I must take care not to generalise. As you write: 'sweeping generalizations do more harm than good; we are all complex stories, with many individual paths taken that cannot be fit into stereotyped categories.'

Thanks, Art.

4:08 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I think it's perfectly possible to strongly criticize the institution of the Catholic Church, which is notoriously slow to evolve, on very specific issues, without at all making sweeping generalizations.

The American bishops have often been in trouble with Rome, for example, on the very topic you mention: birth control methods. They wanted to validate birth control methods in the 1970s, already. That's because they're more connected to what people are actually doing, rather than what Rome imagines they're doing.

As for the Church's banned list, Meister Eckhart, who was banned in the 14th century, also still remains on the condemned roles. He was one of the greatest and most beloved of all of the Medieval mystics, all of whom were condemned, and their writings banned, before they were accepted, and some of them were canonized and even made Doctors of the Church. Aquinas, St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila. But not Meister Eckhart.

So those are specific examples of the Church's tendency to be slow, even glacial, in its movements.

9:38 AM  
Blogger Kane said...

Wow Art, you must really like Andre a lot. I will make sure to read his works one day.

I found the trivia about his personal life also quite interesting. Really, 16????

Hahaha.

Reminded me of Christopher Isherwood's life story, too.

Anyway, it's been nice visiting your cave mate. =)

Kane

11:45 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Kane, thanks for stopping by. I think you'll like Gide. It's interesting you would mention Isherwood, and his relationships with a much younger man. That's an interesting parallel example. Thanks for making the connection. :)

12:37 AM  

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