Letter from Paris: André Gide and His New Antagonist

By Walter Benjamin
Translated from the German by Charles Gelman
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A memorable saying of Renan’s: “To be able to think freely, one must be certain that what one publishes will have no effect.”1 Thus quotes Gide. If what Renan says is true, then the author of the Nouvelles pages de journal2 possesses the freedom of thought just as little as his antagonist, Thierry Maulnier3, does. Both have a clear awareness of the effects of their writing, and both write in order to produce effects. If we grant to each the same attention, that is justified less by the importance of the younger of the two than by the decidedness with which he has taken his position in the face of a Gide and opposite him. As soon as Gide makes the communist cause his own, he has to deal with fascists.

It is not as if others would not already have beset Gide. His path has been attentively followed since 1897, when, in a celebrated article in L’Hermitage, he confronted Barrès, who with his Déracinés even then was rendering services to nationalism.4 Later, the religious evolution of the Protestant Gide was followed in the literary world, and by no one more minutely than his friend, the Catholic critic Charles Du Bos. That Gide’s Corydon—in which pederasty is presented according to its natural-historical conditions and analogies—caused an outcry is not hard to understand. So it came to be that Gide was accustomed to meeting with opposition when, in 1931, in the first volume of his diary, he described his path to communism.

The bourgeois commentariat reacted to that volume with a barrage of glosses and polemics. That the Écho de Paris (which is close to the Croix de Feu), under the pen of François Mauriac, returned three times to this one book may give an idea of the furor that Gide aroused. The debate was too diffuse, and too bitter, to remain at a consistent level. It had its intellectual highpoint in the “Union pour la Vérité,” in which Gide fielded questions from a circle of significant writers5. It had not yet subsided when, this year, there appeared the Nouvelles pages de journal.

To the extent that Gide himself was the subject of the discussion, it revolved in many instances around the question, in what measure he, with his new turn, was remaining true to himself, or else was consummating a rupture with the world of ideas that had been his in his prime. Gide was able to appeal—as he had appealed in the first volume of his diary—to the passion with which, since the beginning, he had made the cause of the individual his own: a cause that, he has acknowledged, today has in communism its appointed advocate. The latest volume of the diaries contains several notes that allow one to recognize a hidden, but not for that reason any less important, continuity in Gide’s evolution. Gide touches on this continuity when he recalls the “defense of neediness” (p. 167) that runs through his entire work. It has found the most diverse expressions and extends from the unforgettable early work Le retour de l’enfant prodigue6 to the most recent, Les nouvelles nourritures7, in which we read: “Every exclusive possession has become repugnant to me; it is in giving that my happiness lies, and there is little that death will pry from my hands. What it will most deprive me of are goods that are scattered, natural, evading capture, and common to all. . . . As for the rest, I prefer a meal at an inn to the best laid table, a public garden to the most beautiful park enclosed by walls, a book that I have no fear of taking with me for a walk to the rarest edition, and, had I to be alone in being able to contemplate a work of art, the more beautiful would it be, and the more would my dejection get the better of my joy” (p. 61).

Gide has found the most varied forms for his defense of neediness. Essentially, they all coincide with the manifestation of that need, to make which undisguisedly visible appeared to the young Marx (the author of The Holy Family) as the task of society: to Gide they all appear as so many varieties of the need that the human being has for the human being. If, in the course of his production, Gide has turned his attention to many forms of weakness, if he places weakness, as “a dissatisfaction of the flesh, an unease, an anomaly,” at the center of his study of Dostoevsky8, which is in certain respects a self-portrait, it is that he has concerned himself time and again with the one weakness that is worthy of the most extreme solicitude: that which consigns the human being to the human being.

Sometimes Gide chooses to exhibit such weakness himself. But it is not weakness that impels him to do so. It is rather expediency. He resorts to this incognito because it might teach him something about the world and about men. And so, in May 19359, he wrote: “Tolstoy’s withdrawal as an artist can be explained by the decline of his creative faculties. Had he still carried within himself some new Anna Karenina, then, there is reason to believe, he would have concerned himself less with the Doukhobors and would not have spoken disparagingly of art. But he sensed that his literary career was finished; his thought no longer swelled with the flux of poetry. . . . If today social questions occupy my mind, that too is because the creative demon is receding from it. Those questions occupy its place only because the other has already ceded it. Why seek to overestimate oneself? Why refuse to recognize in myself what appears to me in Tolstoy: an undeniable decline?” (La Nouvelle Revue Française, May 1935, p. 665.)

Here we have no wish to gainsay the author of these words—to raise the question, do the creative forces know no temporary slumbers, then? (Gide himself says in his Nouvelles pages that they do); is it not possible for them to go about their work in an entirely undemonic way? (Les nouvelles nourritures shows that it is); do they not come up against historical limitations? (Gide’s Faux monnayeurs suggests as much in regard to the novel). We will let Gide make his way in his incognito to an instructive encounter. It is the encounter with Maulnier, who in L’Action française cites the sentences of Gide’s quoted above and continues: “No commentary will be able to add anything to these extraordinary lines. That a creator should grant such a confession is, we believe, without precedent, and the lucidity, humility, and courage in the face of oneself that so pitiless a diagnosis demands deserve, we think, to be considered with respect. But we cannot content ourselves with showing respect. This tragic sincerity is rich in lessons about which we have no right to be silent.”10

With these sentences Maulnier sets off on a comprehensive critique of Gide. It is a critique that casts a great deal of light on the fascist position, and particularly on fascism’s concept of culture. To have betrayed “culture” and abandoned it to communism—that is the accusation that Maulnier levels against Gide’s most recent work.

The development of the concept of culture appears to belong to an early stage of fascism. That was the case in Germany anyway. Unforgivably, prior to 1930, revolutionary criticism in Germany failed to give to the ideologies of a Gottfried Benn or an Arnolt Bronnen the attention that was necessary. As the latter are to be counted among the forerunners of German fascism, so Maulnier, if the “Front Populaire” did not exist, would already today be to be reckoned among the forerunners of a French fascism. It is certain that he will not escape a rapid fall into oblivion. For the stronger fascism becomes, the less use it can make, precisely in Maulnier’s particular domain, of qualified minds. It is to subaltern natures that it opens the widest prospects. It seeks out the stooges of a propaganda minister. That is why Benn and Bronnen were sent packing.

The reaction that Maulnier represents is a specifically fascist one, distinct from the Catholic reaction of a Claudel, from the bourgeois reaction of a Bordeaux, from the genteel reaction of a Morand, and from the provincial reaction of a Bedel. It finds its consociates predominantly among the younger generation11. In the older generation, committed fascists, such as Léon Daudet or Louis Bertrand, are sparse. What makes Maulnier a fascist is the insight that it is only by means of violence that the position of the privileged can still be asserted. To present the summation of their privileges as “culture”: it is in this that he sees his special task. It thus goes without saying that a culture not founded on privileges is something unthinkable for him. And the principal aim of his essays is to prove that the fate of western culture is indissolubly bound up with that of the ruling class.

Maulnier is not a politician. He addresses himself to intellectuals, not to the masses. The customs prevailing among the former forbid (still, in France) calls for brute violence. Maulnier is obliged to take special precaution when he appeals to brute violence. In fact, he is permitted only to prepare this appeal. That he does more or less adeptly when he declares that to force together internal and external reality is a matter of an “active synthesis,” so long as a “dialectical synthesis” remains impossible (p. 19). He makes himself somewhat clearer with the reproach that he levels against capitalist civilization (which of course is always the object of the fascists’ feigned hostility), that, faced with the material and spiritual problems that the age has set before it, it has not mustered the strength “to accept their insolubility” (p. 8).

The necessity of not furnishing any arguments against the privileged today places the writer, and especially the theoretician, before unaccustomed difficulties. Maulnier has the courage to make short shrift of those difficulties. They are, in part, of a moral sort. The advocate of fascism gains much by sweeping moral criteria out of the way. In doing so, he proves not to be very fastidious in his choice of means. It is a dirty job; the Concept cannot slip on gloves before it gets down to it. It goes perfunctorily to work—to wit, in the following terms: “Civilization . . . is the creation and ordering of the artifices and fictions that condition all relations among human beings, the system of salutary conventions, the artful, vitally necessary hierarchy in all of its greatness and all of its indispensability. Civilization is the lie. . . . Whoever is unwilling . . . to recognize in this lie the fundamental condition of all human progress and of all human greatness admits that he is an enemy of civilization. Between civilization and sincerity, one must choose” (p. 210). Thus Maulnier, in the chapter of his book that has Gide for its target. There hangs about this dictum the same tatty luster that has already long distinguished the hackneyed paradoxes of Oscar Wilde, and one could easily trace Maulnier’s words back to the latter’s “Decay of Lying.”12

One would then realize, in the first place, what dissimilar fruits the seeds of one and the same life sometimes bear. The same man whose aestheticism, the most putrescent portion of his production, is well received by fascism, at the moment that he set himself in opposition to the society that he had amused his whole life long, as one who had nothing but disdain for it, provided the young André Gide with a model that would determine the course of his later life.13 One would take account, secondly, of how deeply indebted fascist ideology is to decadence and aestheticism, and of why it is that, in France as much as in Germany or Italy, it finds pioneers among extreme artists.

What purpose can art be expected to have in a civilization built upon lies? It will give expression in its narrower sphere to that civilization’s unresolved—and, so long as the system of private property is perpetuated, irresolvable—contradictions. The contradiction in fascist art, just like that in the fascist economy or that in the fascist state, is a contradiction between theory and practice. The fascist theory of art bears the traits of pure aestheticism: art is only one of the masks behind which there stands, in Maulnier’s words, “nothing other than the animal nature of the human being, the naked and completely denuded human animal of Lucretius” (p. 209). This art is reserved for the knowledgeable, the elite, “the beneficiaries of the entirety of civilization, of which they,” as Maulnier very illuminatingly says, “represent the parasites, the heirs, and the useless flowers” (p. 211). Thus do things appear in theory. Fascist practice presents a different image. Fascist art is an art of propaganda. Its consumers are not the knowledgeable but, on the contrary, the duped. Further, they are at present not the few but the many, or at least they are very numerous. It is evident, then, that the characteristics of this art do not at all coincide with those that a decadent aestheticism would exhibit. Decadence has never granted any interest to monumental art. To combine the decadent theory of art with its monumental practice is a task that has remained reserved for fascism. Nothing is more instructive than this, in itself contradictory, conjunction.

The monumental character of fascist art is related to its mass character. But by no means immediately. Not every mass art is a monumental art: neither Hebel’s stories for the farmer’s almanac nor Lehár’s operettas are of a monumental character. If fascism’s mass art is a monumental art—and it is, up to and including its style in literature—then that must have a particular significance.

Fascist art is propagandistic. Thus, it is executed for the masses. Fascist propaganda, moreover, must permeate social life in its entirety. Hence, fascist art is executed not only for but also by the masses. It might seem, then, that the masses have only to do with themselves in this art, that they come to terms with themselves in it, that they are master of the house: master of their theaters and stadiums, master of their film studios and publishing houses. Everyone knows that that is not the case. Here it is rather “the elite” who are in charge. And it is not any self-understanding on the part of the masses that they want. For if that were the case, then this art would have to be a proletarian class art, in which the reality of wage labor and exploitation would be given its due, that is, would be set on to the path toward its abolition. But the elite, in that case, would come to grief.

  1. [Ernest Renan, Dialogues et fragments philosophiques (Paris: Calmann Lévy, 1876), x. —Tr.]
  2. André Gide, Nouvelles pages de journal, 1932-1935 (Paris, 1936).
  3. Thierry Maulnier, Mythes socialistes (Paris, 1936).
  4. Today, Gide may refer back to that article. In the aforementioned volume of his diary it is said: “Was not Barrès the apologist of a certain opportune sort of justice, which today proves to be that advocated by Hitler? And was it not easy to foresee that those fine theories, as soon as they had been appropriated by someone else, might be turned against us?” [Nouvelles pages, 118. —Tr.]
  5. The debates have been published under the title André Gide et notre temps (Paris, 1935).
  6. Published by Insel in a German translation by Rilke.
  7. André Gide, Les nouvelles nourritures (Paris, 1935).
  8. [André Gide:“Dostoïevsky (VI),” La Revue hebdomodaire 32.7 (1923): 344. Cf. André Gide, Dostoevksy, trans. Arnold Bennett (New York: New Directions, 1961), 152. —Tr.]
  9. [Actually, in July 1932. —Tr.]
  10. [“La sincérité gidienne,” L’Action française, May 23, 1935. —Tr.]
  11. Cf. Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Socialisme fasciste (Paris, 1934).
  12. [See “The Decay of Lying,” in The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, ed. J. B. Foreman (London: Collins, 1966), 970–92. —Tr.]
  13. Gide’s Oscar Wilde: In Memoriam, of 1910, attests to the importance that Wilde had for him.