Gide's Polymorphous Perversity, or French Modernism's Arrested Development

By Milne, Anna-Louise | The Romanic Review, January-March 2008 | Go to article overview
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Gide's Polymorphous Perversity, or French Modernism's Arrested Development


Milne, Anna-Louise, The Romanic Review


For a long time, it would seem, Gide's name, when considered from the perspective of America, provoked a sort of jolt of unexpected recognition and a subsequent realisation of how much the structure and principal players in the field of French and European literature had changed since the early 1950s. Admittedly Gide's fortunes in America have improved somewhat in recent years, but that has been largely related to the growth in queer studies, about which I'll say a little bit in due course. Fredric Jameson is one of those scholars to have exclaimed with calculated surprise: "What ever happened to Andre Gide?" He groups him with Thomas Mann as an example of modernist writers who haven't been the focus for postmodern re-interpretations. In 1965, though, twenty-five or so years earlier, Paul de Man had already expressed the same question, and it is his article that I will focus on to begin with here, as it enables us to revisit something of the uncertainty before the immense climatological change in literary studies, casting Gide even further off the barometer, which, in the United States, was partly, even largely, the doing of Paul de Man and which had a determining effect on the way the notion of modernism is received today.

In his article entitled "Whatever happened to Andre Gide?" de Man engages in a somewhat half-hearted attempt to ressucitate the writer whom he qualifies as "without doubt the most public literary figure in France" during the thirties. He does so by trying to measure Gide against some of the key literary references that he was gradually organising into a coherent critical programme. This programme was driven by a critique of American New Criticism and, indirectly, of its origins in Anglo-American modernism, particularly modernist poetry. It would result in the famous essays "Literary History and Literary Modernity" and "Lyric and Modernity," published in Blindness and Insight, in which de Man wrests the characterisation of "modern" from modernism, arguing that distinctions between modernity and romanticism, or classicism and the notion of tradition, are all just "superficial matters of geographical and historical contingency." (1) Considered in its properly radical sense, modernity becomes a paradox, and as such it relates, according to de Man, very particularly to literature, which turns out to have been always "essentially modern." This argument was to produce strong opposition to literary history among a generation of American critics, before the tide turned and, partly because of the "discovery" of de Man's own activities during the Nazi Occupation of Belgium, critical interest swung back to the recent past and its ideological and historical complexities. The revival of interest in modernism as a historically determined event was spurred by studies that teased out the often inconsistent commitments operating in texts, generating an attention to literature that was not so much concerned with the ontological paradox governing literary production, as de Man had been, as with the ideological contradictions that made any monolithic canon of Modernism, such as T.S. Eliot might have wanted, increasingly difficult to establish. The way de Man's work is entangled in this process is emblematic of some sort of return, which is also a transformation: recent critical appraisals have tended to identify him with modernism, thus turning the most influential detractor of Anglo-American formalism into the epitome of (European) modernism. (2)

The crucial benchmark used in de Man's early programme, and in his essay on Gide, is the "inwardness" of a work and its sensitivity to the "deep separation between man's inner consciousness and the totality of what is not himself," as opposed to a commitment to different versions of reconciliation--of man with society, man with God, the writer with tradition. (3) In his 1955 essay "The Inward Generation" he describes a preoccupation with literary form as a "protection that shielded [modernist writers] from their real problems," which he considered to be, at root, the truly modern "ontological question" of man's divisions.

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