Andre Gide: “Pages from a Journal,” Volume 6, No. 2, 1939.


Unknown-4And far from Florida, the next piece in Partisan Review, Vol.6, No. 2, Winter 1939 are a few pages from André Gide’s Journal, which are reflective, analytical, in places lyrical, yet overall, somewhat anodyne. An earlier post on this blog, “But we shall not turn our face from you, O glorious and grieving Russia”, posted on December 17, 2016 gives an overview of Gide’s life, work,and politics, and might serve as an introduction to the present article if you don’t know much about him.

We know that the American critic, Fred Jameson, asked the question, “Why doesn’t anyone read Gide anymore?”, and that in 1965, twenty years before Jameson, so did Paul de Man, in a review of new books on Gide in the New York Review of Books:

It has almost become a commonplace of today’s criticism to state that André Gide’s work had begun to fade away even before the author’s death in 1951. Compared to Proust, to Valéry, to Claudel, and, outside France, to Henry James, Joyce, and Thomas Mann, he seems hardly to be part of the contemporary literary consciousness. An easy contrast can be drawn between the relative indifference that now surrounds his work and the passionate intensity with which the generation of Europeans born before 1920 used to follow his every word, considering his private opinions a matter of general concern. During the Thirties, he was without doubt the most public literary figure in France, much more so than Malraux, Camus, and Sartre, for all their overt political activity, ever were.”  

The same things might be said again in 2018; that Gide, though a prolific writer, a Nobel Prize winner, a man who wrote openly about his sexual life, and a writer who took politics seriously, if not quite coherently, has slipped away from the canon of modernism. One obvious reason for this is that as a life long intellectual he was always in dialogue with the ideas around him, and always reflecting on their interconnections, and therefore chameleon-like in his preferences. The “Pages from a Journal,” published in PR after a summer and autumn of advancing Nazism, anti-Semitism, and, in the Soviet Union, political trials and executions, are a compendium of things Gide was thinking about at that time.

He opens with the reflection that “Early in life I put myself on guard against beliefs I owed to habits encouraged by my parents, to my protestant upbringing,  and even to my country”. He says that it took him a long time to understand that his concerns were born from his position in class society. He sees that his sympathy for the poor and the labouring classes arose only because he was bourgeois: that is, of his ‘critical survey’ of the world around him, “I knew well enough that had I been less privileged I could not have taken it”.  And for that reason, he could see that the revolutionary ideas come from the privileged classes, and are then taken up by the working class and its allies.

Having been compared to Rousseau,  Gide now writes that Rousseau’s idea that “men are naturally good’ is absolutely wrong.  “This utopian view of the past dangerously falsifies every project, every prediction of the future.”  So he counterpoises to it the Marxist concept of  humanity as always being in the process of becoming… there isn’t an a priori, idealist ‘goodness’ in us; rather, everything is made, toiled towards, going on. Natural law may exist and that law may be immutable; but “there is nothing that man creates, there is nothing human which cannot be changed — beginning (or rather, ending) with itself.”

From this Marxist concept, Gide goes on to look at Lenin’s statement, in his unfinished The State and Revolution that “Until now, there has not been a single revolution which, everything considered has not resulted in the strengthening of administrative machinery of the State. And what is the USSR today? The dreaded bureaucracy, the administrative machinery has never been stronger.

Just as Gide pitted himself against the bourgeois mores and concepts of his parents, now he  frees himself from the degenerated Stalinist State, returning to a place not that different from Thomas Mann’s.  Free from his Marxist discipline over three years, Gide learns that his freedom is the richer for those years.

The rest of the pages are romantic, somber, suffused with his sense of aging. He was 70 when this was published and he speaks frankly of his physical frailties. These pages are moving to read, and they offer a reason  why no one reads Gide anymore.  He writes his funerary speech himself. He faces his desire to mix heaven and hell and find a reconciliation, but insists it can’t be done.

images-3To read the full text, copy and paste the address below into your search engine.

Volume 6, No.2 Winter 1939. Elizabeth Bishop, “Florida”

It is something of a shock to move from Harold Rosenberg’s polemical voice in his discussion of Thomas Mann to the poem by Elizabeth Bishop, who we have looked at before in her life as a Vassar Girl and a short fiction writer, and as a poet. I have been immersed in the atmospherics of 1938-39,  when it seems as if everything written the adumbrates the “ancestral voices prophesying WAR.”  And the terrain of Bishop’s “Florida” resonates with that year as well.  I came across a blog that seems to have run aground late in 2015, but the post I read there about “Florida” is a fine example of how the anxieties of the past can pale in the company of our own terrible landscape of the Trumpocracy and the Refusal of the reality of the Anthropecene’s damages to the worlds we live in,  The author, Joyelle McSweeney, names the genre into which Bishop’s poem fits as the ‘necro-pastoral.”
 She writes:

“I first wrote about  the Necropastoral in January of 2011. The Necropastoral is a political-aesthetic zone in which the fact of mankind’s depredations cannot be separated from an experience of “nature” which is poisoned, mutated, aberrant, spectacular, full of ill effects and affects. The Necropastoral is a non-rational zone, anachronistic, it often looks backwards and does not subscribe to Cartesian coordinates or Enlightenment notions of rationality and linearity, cause and effect.  It does not subscribe to humanism but is interested in non-human modalities, like those of bugs, viruses, weeds and mold. Marosa di Giorgio: “Esa loca azucena nos va a asesinar.” The definitive processes of the Necropastoral are decay, vagueness, interembodiment, fluidity, seepage,  inflammation, supersaturation.  The Necropastoral is literally subterannean, Hadean, Arcadian in the sense that Death lives there. The Necropastoral  is not an “alternative” version of reality but it is a place where the farcical and outrageous horrors of Anthopocenic are made visible as Death.”

Of “Florida” she writes: “Florida is also, according to  Elizabeth Bishop, the state with the prettiest name. While prettiness is associated with weakness, it is also a weapon: this is the ambivalence of the necropastoral. For Bishop, the prettiness of Florida is completely toxic, undead, ex-terminus, grown through with mangrove roots like corpse fingernails, flown over by condors and other flesh eaters. Debt, death and extermination flourish in this flowery state, exposing its necropastoral force”

“Florida” – Poem by Elizabeth Bishop

The state with the prettiest name,
the state that floats in brackish water,
held together by mangrave roots
that bear while living oysters in clusters,
and when dead strew white swamps with skeletons,
dotted as if bombarded, with green hummocks
like ancient cannon-balls sprouting grass.
The state full of long S-shaped birds, blue and white,
and unseen hysterical birds who rush up the scale
every time in a tantrum.
Tanagers embarrassed by their flashiness,
and pelicans whose delight it is to clown;
who coast for fun on the strong tidal currents
in and out among the mangrove islands
and stand on the sand-bars drying their damp gold wings
on sun-lit evenings.
Enormous turtles, helpless and mild,
die and leave their barnacled shells on the beaches,
and their large white skulls with round eye-sockets
twice the size of a man’s.
The palm trees clatter in the stiff breeze
like the bills of the pelicans. The tropical rain comes down
to freshen the tide-looped strings of fading shells:
Job’s Tear, the Chinese Alphabet, the scarce Junonia,
parti-colored pectins and Ladies’ Ears,
arranged as on a gray rag of rotted calico,
the buried Indian Princess’s skirt;
with these the monotonous, endless, sagging coast-line
is delicately ornamented.

Thirty or more buzzards are drifting down, down, down,
over something they have spotted in the swamp,
in circles like stirred-up flakes of sediment
sinking through water.
Smoke from woods-fires filters fine blue solvents.
On stumps and dead trees the charring is like black velvet.
The mosquitoes
go hunting to the tune of their ferocious obbligatos.
After dark, the fireflies map the heavens in the marsh
until the moon rises.
Cold white, not bright, the moonlight is coarse-meshed,
and the careless, corrupt state is all black specks
too far apart, and ugly whites; the poorest
post-card of itself.
After dark, the pools seem to have slipped away.
The alligator, who has five distinct calls:
friendliness, love, mating, war, and a warning–
whimpers and speaks in the throat of the Indian Princess.rats

Rosenberg on Thomas Mann, pt 2.

Having established William Troy’s mistake in his discussion of myth in Thomas Mann’s works,   Rosenberg goes on to explain one solution to the split between the living and the inert; a method of making them cooperate through the rationality of analogy:

“A method that would, from the point of view of human experience, the likeness of things far removed from one another seems more important than the colourless and quality-less laws of which science boasts.”  Their reconciliation in a form ‘mythic’ raises the concrete example to the level of a ‘higher unity,’ Rosenberg still retaining the abstraction  of the Hegelian dialectic.

He goes on to imagine how someone like Mann or Spengler would address the conundrum, “Why do Science and Life remain firmly opposed”  and he replies, as if from the men themselves, because in “the actual world, things tend to define themselves as either mechanical or living. The philosophic artist of the analogical method wins at something more than either emotional expression or formal construction, mere data or mere Idea. In theory, his rhetoric combines the transient beauty of organic life with the static perfection of reason  and the formal tradition. In this way, it gives rise to a new beauty and a new truth inexplicable in the old terms.

Music,rhythm, repetition becomes a major element, a metaphysical element, since rhetorical beat must serve as the binder of the antitheses, as the equivalent mysterious pace of change and recurrence in the real world.”

This sounds as if it comes from T.S. Eliot’s idea that poetic experience can be transmitted through the canonised language of the tradition of lyric poetry, to educated readers, while the tentacular roots of beat and repetition are available to everyone as inarticulate emotions.

Rosenberg goes on to describe the work of art as the “aufhebung” — the synthesis — of creative actions, and Thomas Mann elevates the Artist to the highest form of humanity: “Always I have seen in art the pattern of the human; in the life of the Artist, human life raised to its highest power; humanity, as it were, in itself, and in its very essence.”

And so it happens that the novels of Gide, Mann, Joyce, Proust, promote and endorse this version of the human, this portrait of the artist.

The result of this explanation of the process of uniting the rational and irrational is now turned upside down by Rosenberg, with this critique:

rosenberg2Such, in most general outline, is the origin, part literary and part metaphysical, of the specific “world of Art” from which Mann draws his idea of higher measure and value. As a perspective, it shares the shakiness and intermittence of all forms of poetical metaphorical insight, which at times lights up relations and at other times obscures them. Insofar as it sets itself up, however, as a metaphysic of absolutes to replace science, art can function only as a source of mystification, by insisting on a portion of unreason in every idea.”

Now the discussion moves outwards to the general state of fear and emptiness in the world around them all: “Among the most powerfully recurring insights in the past hundred years is that which finds modern society to be in essential respects a vast lifeless mechanism, a fetishistic and inhuman engine of ‘men behaving like things.’ Caught in a vault of iron relations, which contract about him or relax according to laws of their own, the modern individual has been recognised as lost and alienated,  a stranger to the world and to himself. The objective and psychological antithesis between individual and society is a fundamental fact of modern culture.” 

The sense of ‘science’ as life-oppressing and mechanical “is a major platitude of our time. And the analogical technique in elaborating its symbol-language discovers in medicine and physiology a rich warehouse of death masks and infernal stageprops. Cocteau, for example, creates in his Orphee, meticulous vaudeville with arrangements of surgical implements, messengers from the grave, sex, The Artist, and other items of the new-myth paraphernalia. 

Now Rosenberg turns to Marxism, and its dialectical distance from Mann:”The spiritual predicament of modern man is conceived by historical materialist thought as belonging to a definite stage of man’s struggle with nature; from this view science is an indispensable instrument of the human, the weapon of its knowledge and consciousness of the world.”

Thomas Mann, on the contrary, presents the ‘spiritual dilemma’ of present day man as an eternal situation:  “Having fixed the identity of society, discipline, science, and death, Mann’s method creates a perspective of poor absolutes in which all the data of modern man’s existence reproduce themselves in the tableau of an eternal destiny….”

There is more to the Rosenberg argument, which condemns both Troy and Mann. If you are up for reading his detailed discussions of Mann’s works, go to  And then pick up the  thread on page 25/6