Unreal Nature

December 21, 2014

(Not Quite) Ready to Ruin Itself

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… he never entered the labyrinth, since he came out of it, and never met the Minotaur, since it did not devour him.

This is from the essay ‘Gide and the Literature of Experience’ found in The Work of Fire by Maurice Blanchot (1949):

Valéry sees only arbitrariness and conventions in the means and effects of art, and that is because he denies the real value of the form that he asserts and whose demands he observes: he is a perfect writer only because perfection has no truth for him. But Gide is not so impious. Art, in his eyes, means something. To write a work is not a simple exercise; to write well is also to give the greatest chances to truth, to the effort to remain true without ceasing to be utterly daring.

… Sincerity is an admirable principle of questioning. Nothing contents it, neither the natural, which is the lie of the first impulse, nor artifice, which is a satisfied awareness of the lie, nor banality, which is a consent to common bad faith, nor the cult of differences, which wants to save the imposture by considering it — untruthfully — unique. Silence itself is false, for it is only a language that does not know itself and that, moreover, by its renunciation of language makes itself very well understood.

… Art is a trap, Mallarmé has said, and that is why sincerity is such a precious enemy to him; nothing is lacking for it to be the supreme rule, if sincerity itself were not imposture. Hence the uneasiness that accompanies all his judgments; hence, too, the fact that he must succumb to the condemnation that it utters. “The word sincerity is one of those that is becoming the most uneasy for me to understand. … In general every young man of conviction and incapable of criticism believes himself sincere.”

… naturally tempted by elegance and the precautions of language, giving way too willingly to the research of number, to the point of asking the truth and meaning of the measure of sentences, [Gide] would like to refrain from this inclination, to let impropriety rule the choice of words, incorrectness the syntax (Journals, 1914), and especially to write quickly, to write ahead of himself, preceding himself, by a veritable movement of anticipation and discovery. In this, his scruples are not only those of a writer whose taste would become ever more classic and who would learn to prefer cleanness, exactitude, dryness over the music of the sentence. Anxiety with regard to form is an anxiety touching the value of the writing experience.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] If Gide so often repeats to himself the sentence from Armance: “I have spoken much better since I began my sentences without knowing how I would finish them,” it is because it represents to him this mysterious, dangerous movement of the act of writing by which the one who writes, beginning a sentence without knowing where it is leading him, undertaking a work in the ignorance of its end, feels himself tied to the unknown, involved in the mystery of a progress that surpasses him and by means of which he surpasses himself, a progress in which he risks losing himself, losing everything, and also finding more than he seeks.

Gide_by_Laurens
Paul Albert Laurens, André Gide, (1924) [image from Wikipedia]

… The times are such that, during one part of his life, Gide saw himself rejected because of his audacity and, during another part, because of his lack of audacity. That is because the times welcomed this intrepid curiosity of extremes from him, but did not accept either his patience, or his honesty, or his faith in works, or his spirit of prudence and, as he calls it, of parsimony. And in that, his example as a writer who is too much master of himself, who, all the while writing because he “calls everything into question,” writes also to “shelter something from death” (Journals, 1922), who wants very much to be unbelieving but without consenting to impiety, and, as soon as he touches the extremity of experience, is afraid of losing himself completely and hurries to get hold of himself again, to take himself in hand (“Necessity of connecting the frontier to the center. It is time to return”).

Gide’s Theseus, because he knows how to retrace his steps, wonderfully quick at transforming Ariadne’s burning feelings into an attachment of which he remains the master, will always expose himself to these suspicions: that he never entered the labyrinth, since he came out of it, and never met the Minotaur, since it did not devour him. That is an insolvable dilemma. Theseus finds his way because he stays attached to something certain, but, not having broken the thread, he remains one who has never really known the labyrinth. To which he can answer that whoever does not return was even farther away, and that getting lost is possible only for one who preserves the meaning, knowledge, and love of the right way.

Gide is the meeting place of two conceptions of producing masterpieces above everything, and literature as experience, which makes fun of works of art and is ready to ruin itself to attain the inaccessible. Hence his double destiny. As a model of literary honesty, he passes for a long time as the prince of the equivocal and as the demon itself. Then classic immortality discovers him. He becomes the greatest living French writer. And fame lowers him to being no more than a wise man.

-Julie

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