Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The large rug

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A few days ago, I was browsing through The Journals of André Gide, 1914-1927 in search of a quotation when my eye was caught by the following passage:

What a wonderful subject for a novel: X. indulges in a tremendous effort of ingenuity, scheming, and duplicity to succeed in an undertaking that he knows to be reprehensible. He is urged on by his temperament, which has its exigences, then by the rule of conduct he has built in order to satisfy them. It takes an extreme and hourly application; he expends more resolve, energy, and patience in this than would be needed to succeed in the best. And when eventually the event is prepared to such a point that he has only to let it take its course, the letdown he experiences allows him to reflect; he then realizes that he has ceased to desire greatly that felicity on which he had counted too much. But it is too late now to back out; he is caught in the mechanism he has built and set in motion and, willy-nilly, he must now follow its impetus to its conclusion.

Reading this over, I naturally thought of Donald Trump, who seems less happy to be in the White House than any other president in recent memory. Before I reveal how the story ends, however, I need to talk about Gide himself, a man of letters who was awarded the Nobel Prize later in life in honor of a career of extraordinary range and productivity. The plot that he outlines here sounds at first like a crime novel, but he may well have had a political context in mind—he wrote this journal entry on May 9, 1918, adding a few days later of the war: “The victory will be due to an invention, to something surprising or other; and not so much to the army as to the scientist and the engineer.”

But there’s also an uncomfortable truth about Gide that we need to confront. In 1999, Anthony Lane of The New Yorker wrote an appreciation of Gide’s work, saying that his “sincerity” was “alarmingly apposite to our own era, when a few insincere words to the press corps are almost enough to unseat a president.” This reads now as merely quaint. But a few pages later, Lane writes: “Gide was true to his inconstancy; he would never relinquish his sweet tooth for young Arabs, or for teenagers of every race.” In the book André and Oscar, Jonathan Fryer, a sympathetic biographer, describes a trip to North Africa that Gide took in his early twenties:

André’s illness did not prevent his going out to sit with [the painter] Paul Laurens, as his friend painted local scenes, or persuaded local children to pose for him. The children fascinated André. Groups of boys would gather outside the hotel where the two friends were staying, out of curiosity or a wish to earn a few coins through some trivial service. André’s attention had been particularly caught by one brown-skinned lad called Ali, who one day suggested that he should carry André’s overcoat and invalid’s rug to the dunes, where André could enjoy some of the weak autumn sun…As soon as they got into the crater, the boy threw his coat and rug to the ground, then flung himself down, stretched out on his back, his arms spread out, all the while laughing. André sat down primly at a distance, well aware of what was on offer, but not quite ready to accept. Ali’s face clouded; his smile disappeared. “Goodbye then,” he said, rising to his feet. But André seized the hand that the boy held out and pulled him to the ground.

I’ll skip over Frye’s description of what happened next on that “invalid’s rug,” but I’m compelled to note that he concludes of what he calls “this restorative treatment”: “André had indeed found himself.”

What are we supposed to think about this? Many of Gide’s admirers have done their best not to think about it at all. Lane, writing two decades ago, mentions it only in passing. (His article, incidentally, is titled “The Man in the Mirror,” a pop culture reference that I sincerely hope wasn’t intentional.) Fryer does what he can in the line of extenuation, in terms that have an uncomfortably familiar ring: “Most of André’s and Paul’s little visitors were on the wrong side of puberty, as moralists these days would view it. Not that André’s pedophilia seems to have taken on any physical dimension. Many of his future sexual partners would range between the ages of fourteen to seventeen, with the initiative coming from the adolescent himself.” This wouldn’t fly today, and even if we try to ignore Gide’s interest in very young children—Fryer compares him to Lewis Carroll—there’s no getting around those teenagers. In André Gide: A Life in the Present, the biographer Alan Sheridan shares the following story, which took place when Gide was in his thirties:

The train journey to Weimar was not without its “petite aventure.” No doubt as the result of his usual systematic inspection of the entire train, Gide found himself in a compartment with two German boys, brothers aged sixteen and fourteen. After falling asleep, Gide woke up to find the younger boy standing near him looking out of the window. Gide got up and stood beside him. Wandering fingers were met with encouragement—the elder brother was still asleep. Under a large rug, matters proceeded, further helped when the train entered a long tunnel.

This wasn’t an isolated incident. And Sheridan’s “matters proceeded,” like Fryer’s “restorative treatment,” feels like another large rug flung over our ability to honestly talk about it.

I’m not an expert on Gide, so I really can’t do anything more at this stage than flag this and move on. But it seems clear that we’re at the early stages of a reckoning that is only now beginning to turn to the figures of the past. Much of the pain of recent revelations comes from the realization that men we admired and saw as intellectual or artistic role models have repeatedly betrayed that trust, and the fact that the person in question is no longer alive shouldn’t exempt him from scrutiny. If anything, it’s only going to get harder from here, since we’re talking in many cases about literary giants whose behavior has been a matter of public record for decades. (Just last week, Orhan Pamuk, another Nobel laureate, mentioned Gide in the New York Times in an essay on the rise of nationalism in the West, but omitted any discussion of his personal life—and if you think that this isn’t relevant, try to imagine doing it now with a consideration of the ideas of, say, Israel Horovitz or Leon Wieseltier.) Here’s the conclusion of Gide’s “wonderful subject for a novel” that I quoted above:

The event that [X.] no longer dominates carries him along and it is almost passively that he witnesses his perdition. Unless he suddenly gets out of it by a sort of cowardice; for there are some who lack the courage to pursue their acts to their conclusion, without moreover being any more virtuous for this reason. On the contrary they come out diminished and with less self-esteem. This is why, everything considered, X. will persevere, but without any further desire, without joy and rather through fidelity. This is the reason why there is often so little happiness in crime—and what is called “repentance” is frequently only the exploitation of this.

This still seems to shed light on Trump and his enablers—but also on Harvey Weinstein and so many others. And it can’t just be swept under the rug.

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