Decadent Masculinity: On Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s “The Fire Within”
By Conor TruaxJanuary 8, 2024
The Fire Within by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle
A writer from the postwar Paris of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle held the belief that modernity was emasculating. He believed that the First World War bred a class of impotent men, and that men’s social roles had been eroded by the surplus that the victors enjoyed. To him, no man had survived the war and its consequences. “Modern man is a frightful decadent,” La Rochelle writes. “He has become scientific because he could no longer be an artist.”
Last month, NYRB released La Rochelle’s 1931 novel The Fire Within in Richard Howard’s English translation for the first time in 60 years. The novel was La Rochelle’s attempt to assert himself alongside Céline and Malraux in the ranks of the postwar French canon, and he took a blunt approach to prodding the modern masculine psyche. In his austere deconstruction of Alain’s suffering, La Rochelle points to the failure of masculine ideals to adapt to changes in the evolving modern world.
La Rochelle’s hero, Alain, is a 30-year-old war veteran who has traded vague literary ambitions for alcohol, women, and heroin. Unlike in traditional treatments of addiction, Alain is less preoccupied with getting high than he is with sleeping with women and living through action. Fittingly, the novel begins with Alain in bed with an American woman, Lydia. She asks him to return to the United States and marry her, but he reasons that she’ll forget him soon. He isn’t virile enough; he’s not good enough in bed. He rationalizes that she doesn’t have enough money to support his needs anyway. It quickly becomes clear that nobody does.
After his evening sojourn, Alain returns to his place at Doctor de la Barbinais’s sanatorium where he is seeking treatment for his addiction. He appears aloof, with a beautiful, inexpressive face and an array of expensive suits. But beneath this facade, Alain is extraordinarily sensitive. When he is thinking “of nothing,” he is really thinking “of everything, […] swept up in a devouring whirlwind in which he heard the rising speed of his fall.”
La Barbinais tells Alain that he has overcome his addiction and encourages him to move on with his life. But Alain has no ambition to be cured; to him, it is society that is sick with a “coprophagic” decadence. The sanatorium, located in a stylish home, is filled with people of similar circumstance and struggle, those among the bourgeoisie with an “exquisite fatigue caused not by life but by watching others live.” Isolated from the well-adjusted, Alain and the other patients are no less atomized among one another, and he persistently feels alone.
“In the absence of people, who disappeared as soon as he left them,” La Rochelle writes, “objects gave him the illusion that he was still able to touch something outside himself.” Alain shows more affection for his most prized object than he does for women—a “hideously vulgar painted plaster statuette of a naked woman” that he takes everywhere with him. It’s clear that his addiction is only an expression of the deeper problems that permeate his life. He expresses no symptoms of withdrawal but fixates instead on his lack of virility. The core tension in the novel isn’t whether Alain will succeed in his recovery from addiction but whether he will be able to integrate with “all the scum of Paris [that] declared itself enchanted by [the] new excess, [the] new impotence” of the postwar period.
La Rochelle calls Alain’s addiction a form of “modern mysticism” that seeks to forgo the “unnecessary labor which fills our cities with its futile commotion,” as if Alain’s addiction was a form of active rebellion and his isolation the solitude of an Übermensch, rather than mere passive resignation. It is no coincidence that La Rochelle uses Alain’s heroin addiction to symbolize how virility comes to be treated as virulent in a postwar society that no longer needs violent men as it formerly did. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the First World War developed severe opium addiction, to the point that it was regarded as the “soldier’s disease.” For La Rochelle, to be a man is to be driven to assertive action, to literal and figurative “combat”—in short, it is to be a soldier. If a man is to live through action, what could be more masculine than dying for his ideals?
Faced with the prospect of returning to a decadent, scatophagic society, Alain decides that he has eaten enough shit. “The most virile men capable of killing themselves do so because of their endowment to action,” he says. And so, Alain charges off to Paris in search of a reason to live, potent with a sense of self-annihilation.
Pierre Drieu La Rochelle was born to a petit bourgeois family in Paris in 1893. His father was a second-rate lawyer and a first-rate womanizer who had squandered the family’s wealth and tarnished their social status by the time Pierre enrolled at the prestigious École libre des sciences politiques. Pierre would leave his studies within the year to fight in the First World War. Like most men of his generation, he was vitalized by the prospect of defending his homeland and felt great pride at having led a bayonet charge at Charleroi in 1914. Much of his later writing—e.g., The Comedy of Charleroi (1934), a collection of short stories—would focus on this event, though he never achieved the same sense of victory again.
After shrapnel, gunshot wounds, and amoebic dysentery put an early end to his fighting career, he returned to Paris impotent and disillusioned. In search of meaning, he fickly associated himself with the communist, surrealist, and Dadaist movements of the time. Like the men in his writing, La Rochelle was conflicted in his beliefs. He possessed an intense anti-nationalism that mingled with nostalgia for the late-19th-century French society that had raised him. With the rise of the Nazi party in the early 1930s, he committed to fascism and antisemitism, ascending to some cultural prominence as a collaborationist publisher of La Nouvelle Revue Française. Then the magazine folded in 1943, and within two years the country was liberated from the Germans.
The suicide of La Rochelle’s close friend, the Dadaist poet Jacques Rigaut, inspired The Fire Within. During the 1920s, Rigaut had grown disenchanted with Dadaism and came to view his suicide as his ultimate occupation. In one poem, Rigaut writes, “Don’t forget that I cannot see myself, that my role is limited to being the one who looks in the mirror.” These feelings of isolation and confinement pervade La Rochelle’s examination of his protagonist’s downward spiral. In Alain’s room, “[t]he door and the window opened onto nothing. The mirror opened only onto himself.”
Arriving in Paris, Alain’s first visit is with Dubourg, a reformed ne’er-do-well now devoted to domestic life and Egyptology. Both men are united in their impotence, and with no war to fight, they find “combat in conversation.” Alain “despises Dubourg for not being strong enough to assert himself,” and Dubourg despises Alain for having “reached the point of expecting charity from others.” Alain desires to live only through action, while Dubourg pushes for a more measured combination of praxis and theory. Challenged to abide by his own principles and save Alain from suicide, he cannot, for “[i]n Alain’s downfall he recognized his own defeat.”
Alain departs with a shopkeeper and a woman named Eva to get high. But when he sees Eva strip naked to smoke opium, apathetic to his presence, he is stopped in his tracks. “Never had he had so exact a sense of his own impotence.” For Alain, it is fatal to be ignored by women. By the time he is mourned, he will have died a million deaths.
La Rochelle’s parched prose reifies Alain’s despair. He writes simply, with an almost childlike wonder and simplicity, and then, as if his words were a sparking fuse, he digresses into existential ruminations that are equal parts poetic and quasi-academic. There is a distance between thinking and feeling in La Rochelle’s writing that concretizes the irrational nature of Alain’s desperation, as his hero tries and fails to use rational thinking to explain irrational feelings. It is the writing of a prodigious student at Sciences Po who failed his final exams and was forced instead to complete his education in the muddy battlefields of Western Europe, a place so overwhelmed with feelings—adrenaline, fear, triumph, deflation—that they numb down to nothingness. Alain’s life is not without light; its intensity just makes it unbearable.
At a later party, Alain’s friend embarrasses him by telling the story of a time when Alain drunkenly slept through a cold night clutching the tomb of the unknown soldier. Nobody laughs, and the guests refuse to look at Alain, much less show him pity. As with Eve, Alain realizes that he isn’t acknowledged by these people, much less capable of pleasing them. “It was over,” he resolves, telling a woman at the party, “I can’t touch you. […] I can’t lift a finger.” Unable to grasp the world he has sought to save, he feels it dissolving before him. All that remains are the objects that keep their shape, like the vulgar statuette of the naked woman, or the cold steel tip of his gun.
Most contemporary readers will be jarred by La Rochelle’s fixation on virility in The Fire Within. Often used today as a synonym for male fertility, it was only in the last century that the term fell out of popular use to describe a man’s very essence. Historically, virility connoted self-restraint and levelheadedness. It makes sense, then, that the decadent society La Rochelle disdained for displaying so little virility would move away from the term and toward the more generic “masculinity.” Today, the colloquial definition of masculinity is so vague that it is used, circularly, to describe the attributes of men.
Due in large part to men’s interminable warring among themselves, virility was mainly associated with the military until the first half of the 20th century. Consequently, military service was perceived as a necessary rite of passage in becoming a man, and La Rochelle’s writing reflects as much. Like Alain, La Rochelle struggled to find a concrete cause to fight for in the peace that followed the Great War. The ideas of the surrealists and Dadaists were too abstract to be lived through action, so he wrote about his victories in the First World War, and then he aligned himself with the militaristic vision of fascist Germany. When France was liberated, La Rochelle was resolute to embrace destruction before defeat. To him, freedom was a zero-sum game; for one group to be freer, another had to be more confined. With nothing left to fight for, he mimicked the decisive action of the protagonist he had written about 14 years earlier, and ended his own life.
While it might seem that La Rochelle’s fetishization of a fading masculinity is an archaic obsession of the interwar era, the frustrated impotence that tortures Alain is not so alien to many men today. Working-class men in particular are growingly addicted to drugs and alcohol, and more generally, men are lonelier and more inclined to suicide than ever. But the abiding relevance of The Fire Within lies in La Rochelle’s capacity to capture the masculine need to be perceived as dominant in a fraught push-and-pull with women, an obsession that makes Alain a forerunner of a newer class of men fixated on being perceived as “vital” and in control: incels.
In her 2018 essay “The Rage of the Incels,” Jia Tolentino writes that, “as women gain the economic and cultural power that allows them to be choosy about their partners, men have generated ideas about self-improvement that are sometimes inextricable from violent rage.” Alain yearns to assert control over women—not just to satisfy his desires but also to degrade them as alternately “de luxe” and defiled. The fact that Alain is sexually active is irrelevant: from antiquity until the dawn of the 20th century, many cultures held that men who too often gave in to the charms of women were actually effeminate in their inability to moderate their desire.
Most importantly, Alain stumbles between objectifying women and worshipping them. His perspective on the world affords no female any degree of dimensionality, and women are described as made of “bloodless plaster,” with skin like “the [worn] leather of a de luxe piece of luggage.” By reducing women to objects like the statuette he carries with him, Alain attempts to constrain their agency and assert control over a shifting reality. Elliot Rodger, who killed six people in Isla Vista, California, in 2014 and whose ideas have become influential in incel communities online, used rhetoric that likened women to objects of status. “I have a BMW,” Rodger wrote, “and never had any hot girl in my passenger seat. Not once. It only made me fume.” Rodger and Alain share a doomed ambition for power and status: both want to “own” women as a way of taking ownership of their own lives. Revealingly, most of Rodger’s final Google searches were preoccupied with Nazis and his incapacity to “have” a female friend.
The incel’s expression of virility is a kind of inversion of La Rochelle’s deficient postwar man of 90 years ago. After violently asserting himself in the war, Alain turns to sex to assert his masculinity. When that fails, he turns the violence upon himself. Conversely, Tolentino describes how, in the present day, many young men turn to sex as validation for their masculinity. When they experience what they perceive as rejection, they turn their violent rage on the world, as a final show of “their endowment to action.”
With the benefit of retrospect, one can draw a through line between some of La Rochelle’s ideals of masculinity and his later fascist politics, particularly in light of the Nazis’ fixation on the notion of virility in developing their nationalist ideals.
In 2014, French ultranationalist Éric Zemmour released The French Suicide, a book that attributes what the author perceives as the social decline of France to the rise of immigration, feminism, and the erosion of traditional masculine values. The book sold over 500,000 copies in France in its first year alone. Notably, Zemmour references the idea of virility more than 20 times in the book to support his indictment of the “epoque de décadence, de déclin français!”
Like Zemmour, La Rochelle spent his later life advocating for a political ideology that pushed for an authoritarian reversion to a social structure that was long gone. Zemmour points to the last decade of the 19th century as France’s golden age, the decade when La Rochelle was born, when his father had not yet squandered the family’s money, when there was still victory ahead of him. These sorts of nostalgic fantasies are not limited to the French, of course; Missouri Senator Josh Hawley has recently written a screed similar to Zemmour’s, entitled Manhood: The Masculine Virtues America Needs (2023), which longs for a restoration of “traditional” gender roles and values. An entire online community has arisen that has been dubbed the “manosphere,” where paeans to heroic masculinity harmonize with expressions of virulent misogyny.
Although the struggles of contemporary men are being discussed more often today, the self-reinforcing association between masculinity and “toxic masculinity” has almost made the former a dirty word. And yet, it is the inability to make space for cultural conversations that mindfully examine the shifting role of men that has allowed politicians like Zemmour and Hawley—not to mention social influencers like Andrew Tate and Jordan Peterson—to flourish. Meanwhile, men continue to struggle, and society suffers the consequences of a reflexive misogyny.
When La Rochelle writes that “[i]ndividual will is the myth of another age; a race exhausted by civilization cannot believe in the will,” he speaks not of the will of all but of the will of men. But to subjugate the will of one sex is to diminish the wills of both. The lesson of La Rochelle’s life and writing, then, is that confronting social change by hitching one’s hopes to a regressive, and perhaps illusory, reality is a recipe for self-delusion and self-destruction. For all its many transformations, society still needs men. What it does not need are those obsessed with the decadence of asserting their masculinity as an end in itself.
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