I read a few reviews of this book before buying it, and it appeared to be about a man of shockingly poor morals and his homosexual awakening. But to me the central theme was rather an awakening to the self as it really is, with sexuality as something of a side-note or just one contributory factor.
What made this book great for me was its simplicity. Through an easy to understand narrative and storyline told in just 124 pages, Gide makes the existentialist ideas of Nietzsche plain and accessible.
Without a god to believe in, with only the meaning that we create for ourselves as individuals, what is the place of widely accepted morals of society?
The protagonist (Michel) is somewhat aloof towards, and unknowingly unfulfilled by, the life he has been dealt despite having considerable wealth. He is portrayed as a spectator to his own circumstance, never actively making choices other than to please those close to him. But a change in perspective turns a life-threatening illness into a spiritual rebirth, when he rediscovers the simple pleasure of using his senses. He begins to fully experience the simple things so often missed in favour of everyday demands and drama: colour, texture, sound, temperature and tastes which previously seemed so dull, come to life in his experience of happiness. It is a private, individual happiness that is not at all dependant on rules, status quo or obligation.
Michel comes to understand that his happiness lies in following his own uniqueness even where it leads him outside of societal expectations. ‘The very things that separated me and distinguished me from other people were what mattered; the very things no one else would or could say, these were the things I had to say.’
The problem with this of course, comes in his interactions with others. Is a man following his own path to always put himself before others? Surely this isn’t a smart move to thrive in a communal species. So where would you draw the line, would it be for love? Would it be immoral to pretend to share common values so as not to be alone?
‘Knowing how to free oneself is nothing; the difficult thing is knowing how to live with that freedom.’
This book caused quite a stir when it was first published in 1901 due to its anti-religion theme and homosexual undertones. But I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned from it, and a lot of questions raised to the reader, which are still relevant 115 years later.
I will finish with a longer quote from the book, but one that was a real gem for me. It is Michel talking about an academic lecture he gave on his new found outlook:
‘I represented artistic culture as a type of secretion welling up within people, at first indicating a plethora, an abundance of health, but later congealing, solidifying, forming a hard membrane preventing direct contact between spirit and nature, creating an appearance of vitality which disguises the decline of life within, like a casing in which the spirit languishes, wilts and eventually dies. Pushing these thoughts to their natural conclusion, I made the assertion that culture, which is born of life, ends up killing it. Those who complimented me were the ones who understood me the least.’