Not Not Realism: On André Gide’s “Marshlands”
By Ben LibmanMarch 10, 2021
Marshlands by André Gide
This is meant in all of its senses, though in none of them individually. He is at the same time hard to take seriously and hard to fathom, difficult to trust and impossible not to admire. He is astounding, confounding. This sensation of bundled contradictions on the reader’s part is perhaps best contained, best pinned and labeled and thereby reduced, by projecting upon it the simple fact of Gide’s strange span of existence.
He was born in Paris in 1869 and died there in 1951, which means that he witnessed and lived through a breathtaking period of modern Western political and literary history: on the one hand, the collapse of the Second Empire, the wax and wane of la belle époque, the Dreyfus Affair, World War I, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, the rise and triumph of global decolonization, World War II; on the other, the tail end of Parnassianism and the better part of the career of Symbolism, Proust, the Anglophone modernists, followed by the French ones — Cubists, Dadaists, Surrealists, etc. — phenomenology, Freud, Existentialism, and much else.
His life is a veritable syllabus of the late Industrial Age and of literary modernism, which is why it has always astounded me to find his name listed so infrequently on the syllabi of college literature courses. No matter how suitable the subject, one usually finds that, where Gide might be, there Proust or Joyce or Woolf or Sartre or Genet is. As Dubravka Ugrešić has put it, despite his many accolades (including a Nobel Prize), Gide is somehow not classed among the “more respectable writers” of his time.
Maybe this is because “his time” is so confused, so indeterminate; our historical categories prefer to compute it as three or four times, at minimum two. More likely, it is because Gide himself defies categorization: too modernist for the belle époque scholars, too realist (or too postmodern?) for the modernist ones, too communist for his mid-career contemporaries, not communist enough for his late ones. To paraphrase Ugrešić, who has written the introduction to the new translation of Gide’s 1895 Marshlands, whatever Gide is, he is also more than that.
“Marshlands will never bore anyone as much as it has bored me…” So says the narrator of this slim volume, brilliantly rendered into a modernized American English by Damion Searls, with the typical Gidean cocktail of irony and bathos. The complications of metanarrative and metafiction follow: is Marshlands (the narrator’s book), the same text as Marshlands (the book we are reading)? But Gide is not the forefather of this mode, avant la lettre. Or if he is, this is only incidentally the case, because he was never the kind of writer to dig his heels into a gimmick.
Marshlands, or Paludes, in French, was Gide’s third book — a sotie, as he called it, from the old theatrical tradition of dressing fools up in monk’s clothing and having them dispense wisdom in carnivalesque fashion. The word paludes was a neologism in the French, a rendering of the Latin palus, or marsh. Gide adapted his title from a properly murky story within Virgil’s Eclogues: “There’s a shepherd [named Tityrus] talking to another shepherd,” the narrator tells his friend, Hubert, “and he tells him his field may be stony and swampy but it’s good enough for him, and being satisfied with it makes him very happy.”
This sounds pleasant and banal enough, but its very banality is the problem for the narrator, who aims to explore the Virgilian theme in his own book: “Marshlands, then, is the story of someone who cannot travel. I shall call him Tityrus, after Virgil. Marshlands is the story of a man who, possessing the field of Tityrus, does not strive to leave it, but rather contents himself with it.” This is the narrator’s hand-smoothed koan: those who content themselves with monotony, with the marshland of life, are doomed to live poorly. “We should try to get a little variety into our lives!” he tells his friend, Angela, and anyone else who will listen to him. He is concerned most of all that people should not be like Tityrus, that they should act, and not content themselves with the same-old-same-old as they sink deeper into the muck.
The only problem is that the narrator is quite bad at heeding his own injunctions. His most sincere attempts to inject a sense of agency into his otherwise typically bourgeois Parisian life are weighed down by contradiction:
To keep a daily planner and write down what I need to do during the week, for every day: that is using one’s time wisely. You decide your actions for yourself; […] I draw up from my daily planner the sentiment of duty. […] I go to sleep every night facing a day to come that is unknown and nonetheless predetermined by me.
He is, in other words, unable to lead a life of action, one full of self-made decisions, without submitting that life to a dampening series of self-controls. The result is not duty but the sentiment of duty, not action but the illusion of action.
And what brings the narrator solace in his brief reflections upon the usefulness of his planner brings him dread when he takes up the role of philosopher among his literary friends: “This life is unbearable! Can you bear it, my friend? […] Our every action is so well known that a stand-in could do it, repeating our words from yesterday to make our phrases of tomorrow.” If only he could understand that he acts as his own stand-in, manufacturing his own phrases of tomorrow, he might finally not be able to pronounce on either side of the issue. But he goes on writing Marshlands, even as his friends tell him the idea bores them, because “our roads are those we cannot but travel” and “our works those we cannot but write.” In other words, the narrator’s very diatribe against those who slip like the lotos-eaters into complacency is itself the narcotic of his own predetermined activity, intoxicating and inescapable.
Self-contradiction is, needless now to say, the name of the game in Marshlands, and no moment delivers it more beautifully than that of the book’s culmination: after the narrator convinces Angela to make a break from their habitual lives by going on a trip (actually, importantly, it was her idea), the pair finally leave for a short time, only to hurry back in order not to miss the Sunday church service, the punctum of their weekly routine.
But the echo of Ugrešić returns: Marshlands is more than that. It is more than a delightful sotie, the story of a fool who, thinking he knows what is true and right, cannot help from stumbling over his own feet. Gide has additional fish to fry.
“Hubert did not understand a thing about Marshlands; he cannot accept that an author, writing not to instruct, may still not be writing to entertain. Tityrus bores him.” This is how the narrator justifies his own annoyance with Hubert, who cannot seem to grasp what Marshlands is about, nor why the narrator is writing it. It is a statement that might seem to put the narrator — and Gide along with him — in the camp of what Pierre Bourdieu, in The Rules of Art, calls “pure art.”
In setting out to define a new literary field, Baudelaire and especially Flaubert needed to perform a “double rupture,” per Bourdieu — a position-taking break from both “realism” and “bourgeois moralism,” the dominant literary modes of the time. The result was a new vision of the autonomous artist, hard-working and beholden neither to ethical censure nor political interpellation, and with this new artist a claim to art for art’s sake. For the narrator of Marshlands, the threat of realism (then the dominant mode among salon-going and “political” writers), is most serious: he argues passionately against the general in fiction and toward a tight-focused particularity, one that only hints at a generality, which it is the job of the reader to reconstruct. Thus, against a moralizing literature designed to “instruct,” and a realist literature designed to “entertain,” the narrator of Marshlands, in a weak echo of Flaubert, is trying to do something else.
But what? When the narrator decries the fact that between two cities there is only an expanse of suburbs without countryside, Hubert tells him that he should put his musings in Marshlands: “My poor friend, have you really never understood anything about a poem’s reason for being? Its nature? Where it comes from? A book … A book is sealed, Hubert, full, as smooth as an egg.” And we are assured that no one can influence such an egg with ideas from without: “[E]ggs are born full!” We are therefore thrust into the territory of something like an autonomous art, while at the same time being made to laugh at the absurdity of its articulation: if art is neither bourgeois nor political, Gide tells us, it must be an egg.
This is the quality of Gide’s that seemingly makes him so difficult to pin down and so available for appropriation as the progenitor to this or that aesthetic or formal innovation following in his wake: nothing escapes his pointed finger. The centerpiece of Marshlands, a section called “The Banquet,” is in fact a revolving stage on which the absurdities of literary life in 19th-century Paris are played out and revealed. The scene is a double parody of Mallarmé’s famous “Tuesdays” — his unofficial-official salon at which the French literati gathered to discuss art and philosophy — on the one hand, and Plato’s Symposium on the other (the French title for Plato’s work is Le Banquet).
The chapter opens with a bit of slapstick: the narrator and his friend Martin have arrived outside of Angela’s for the “soirée” she is hosting on the fifth floor. Angela has set up a bench for visitors outside the building, and one up on the fifth-floor landing (just as Mallarmé used to do it, the endnotes tell us). The narrator is trying to formulate the central argument of his Marshlands to Martin, whereas the latter is trying to formulate his rebuttal. Each of them takes a bench (Martin, upstairs; the narrator, out front), and begins writing down his missive. When they finish, the narrator calls up to see if Martin is ready to compare notes. “I am waiting for you,” Martin says. “Bring your bench.” In a moment out of the early days of silent film, the narrator “lugged the bench up the stairs” to meet him.
From there, the comedy of the scene is sharpened against the pomposity of its central characters. We are told that “[w]hen a philosopher answers you, he makes it impossible for you to understand in the slightest what you had asked him.” And we (and the poor partygoers) are treated to enforced readings of the narrator’s juvenile poetry. Later, when the narrator notices a deafening noise emanating from the window, Angela pulls him aside to show him the new fan she had installed, which, though it might cool the room, is so loud she needs to cover it with the curtain. The narrator tries to tell her that the fan is too small, but she was led to believe it was the perfect size: “They told me at the store that this was the model to use for literary gatherings. The next larger size was for political meetings, but then we wouldn’t be able to hear each other.”
By successive turns, each character at the salon is shown to be several times more ridiculous than he or she is insightful (though we should not neglect the insight). Mallarmé himself, after receiving an early copy of the book, wrote to Gide to remark upon and recognize its biting satire, which is not to say that he praised it: “The precious, acidic drops of irony these hundred pages hold: a unique quintessence.”
The use of Plato as a metaphor for “The Banquet” helps to ground the parody by dehistoricizing it. The soirée’s dizzying revolutions are coaxed by a chorus of critics and poets with antique names: Patras, Carolus, Evaristus. As an apologia for the subject matter of his book, the narrator embarks upon an elenchus consisting of a watered-down Allegory of the Cave:
What I need to express is that everyone, despite being cooped up, thinks he is outside. […] Not going out: that is a mistake. In any case, one cannot go out, but that is because one doesn’t. — One doesn’t go out because one thinks one is already outside. If we knew we were cooped up, we would at least want to go out.
There is much more: one cannot help but smile at the perfectly Platonic argument, put forth by a man named Galeas, that “[y]ou cure a sick man not by showing him his sickness, but by presenting him with the spectacle of health. They should paint a normal person above every hospital bed and line the corridors with copies of the Farnese Hercules.”
Recasting the salon as an iteration of the Greek symposium, then, serves just as much to ridicule the latter as it does the former. There is something about self-serious people puffing their pipes over questions of metaphysics that always bothered Gide, or amused him. And yet, diligent student of the Classics that he was, he did not thereby renounce the image wholesale. His 1924 Corydon, a slim and sensational book on the virtues, naturalness, and historical and biological necessity of homosexuality, which Gide considered to be his best work, masquerades unabashedly as a Platonic dialogue.
This open approach to aesthetic form and cultural criticism is typical of Gide, a symptom of his highly original and independent mind. It is what enables him to write that “[t]he truly responsible act is the free act,” throwing Sartre a bone before the latter was even born, while in the same breath negating the very possibility of freedom. It is what enables him, decades before Foucault, to look at society and see the impossibility of escaping the nexus of knowledge and power, of behaving in a truly spontaneous fashion, without being labeled a madman, for “everything outside of us — the law, morality, sidewalks — seems to determine our relapses and lay claim to our monotony.” And it is why the lament of the Great White post-postmodernists of the ’90s and early aughts seem only to be echoing Gide’s hopeless narrator when he says to himself, “My God, could it be that today is the day I will finally be able to be sincere?”
We must, on that note, understand Gide’s oeuvre to be undertaken with the utmost sincerity, no matter where along its shapeshifting course we grab hold of it. If the parodying impulses of our greatest and latest postmodernists led them to despair over the fact that nothing could be taken on its face any longer, that no belief could still sincerely be held, it is Gide they should have looked to. For he knew from the get-go that one must not parody out of cynicism, but out of love, and that therefore the reader and the author should not be set at odds with one another across the chasms of nihilism, but should rather be made to collaborate in laughter over their shared lot as builders — of texts, of worlds.
“I am not the nameless person who says ‘I’ in Marshlands,” Gide writes in the afterword to the “new” edition of Marshlands, appended to the end of this volume. “What I laugh at is Marshlands. I wrote it to laugh at it.” But not he alone: “I was thought to have been making fun of the reader. Who thought this? — A reader! Too bad for him; I only wanted to laugh with him, and at myself.”
There is thus a certain matter-of-factness in Gide’s work to which he would like to lay claim. There is no deviousness here, he seems to say, no coded critique. And here he draws near to the proponents of the Nouveau Roman who looked fondly upon him as a sort of ancestor. It was Alain Robbe-Grillet who, in his Pour un nouveau roman, said that in the New Novel, “gestures and objects will be there before being something.” That is to say that there is no need to go beyond what one is given to find some latent meaning residing just beyond it; no need to assume that the author is laughing behind the scenes.
Gide, in his way, still believed in human depths and might have lovingly embraced Robbe-Grillet, had he met him, and said: You’re too funny, my friend. Nevertheless we see their point of unification in Gide’s frustration with the reception of Marshlands:
[O]f all of the intellectual compulsions in the world, one of the most annoying is the inability of readers to simply accept every sentence as it is given to him. He takes seriously the page on which you are joking, and when you are speaking in earnest he gives a subtle smile and says: “I can see that you are joking!”
This book is the perfect testament to the fact that Gide is trying to get neither underneath nor between things. He is simply telling what he sees, warts, contradictions, and all, without flinching; not like a realist, but then again not not like a realist, as the narrator reveals when he discovers that there is a supreme arrogance in “choice,” and that therefore one must, like Balzac himself, “regard everything with the same insistence.” André Gide, in other words, is to be believed.
Such is the capaciousness of Gide’s art; it should come as no surprise that in this respect he was an admirer of Whitman. And it is through Marshlands that we grasp the delicate gift that has enabled Gide to travel along the cracks within our historical and aesthetic categories for decades: his inviolable pursuit of the dialectic. “I like every book to include its own refutation, but hidden,” he writes in the afterword. “It should not sit atop its idea, afraid to look it in the face. I like to include what denies it, to self-destruct. It should be so entirely self-contained that it is impossible to destroy any of it without destroying the whole, leaving nothing behind, no residue, no ashes, not a scrap.”
Ben Libman is a writer living in Montréal.
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