Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Gide, Nietzsche, and the Ghost of Philosophy

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Gide, Nietzsche, and the Ghost of Philosophy

Article excerpt

Gide's novels can be understood not only as bearing the influence of philosophy, but also as supporting a critical and thematic stance toward it. The influence comes into sharp relief in Gide's intellectual connection and debt to Nietzsche. How Gide negotiates this debt, while staking his personal claim to the philosophical voice, is the subject of this essay.

T.S. Eliot wrote that "No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists" (4). The idea of influence has enjoyed great currency in the field of literary studies of late. One way of understanding the widespread seduction of this idea among scholars is to say that it naturally gladdens the heart of any critic to point out that the artist too was after all a reader like him. And perhaps a critic never comes so close to dealing reflectively with her trade as when she studies influence. With its insistence on the intertextual frame that sees any cultural object as a nodal point of subterranean associations (L[acute{e}]vi-Strauss), structuralism contributed a great deal to the theoretical defense of influence. Thus a reading most inspired by structuralism is likely to see influence as an overall, more or less infinite and almost transcendental, system in which any given cultural or artistic work is hel plessly enmeshed. Against this theoretical tendency which drowns the individual artistic subjectivity under the ubiquitous, many-tentacled "text" and "context," critics like Harold Bloom have helped us consider "intertextuality" as the situation which an artist reactively tries to overcome: a writer goes to work precisely in order not to drown, but to defeat or rewrite influence. In this perspective influence is not the end of subjectivity but its prompting.

Reading the French novelist Andr[acute{e}] Gide makes sharply relevant both understandings of influence as, on the one hand, an unavoidably a-priori situation and, on the other, the self-conscious, combative step which an artist takes toward self-definition. In more ways than it will be possible to outline here, Gide's fictions dramatize their author's claim to find and assert his own voice. Characteristically, it is a voice which at once declares its intertextual basis and aims at exorcizing it. Thus, to anyone interested in reading and writing about Gide, the fact of Friedrich Nietzsche's shadow over Gide comes as no startling piece of news. Any reader accustomed with Nietzsche's thought experiences an odd tingle of familiarity when picking up Gide, a fact which was remarked upon even during Gide's lifetime (Drain 178; Sauvage 85-99; Lang 56-70). We furthermore understand Gide to be claiming, not hiding, this influence in titling one of his novels after the very name which Nietzsche so famously and repeate dly chose for himself, "the immoralist." And yet, do we understand (at least to the extent that Gide suggests that we should) who or what the French writer inherits from Nietzsche? Do we know exactly what we mean in speaking of "Nietzsche's influence" on Gide? The purpose of reopening the case of Nietzsche's ghost is not to itemize again the intertextual blurs and overlaps between thinker and writer. My interest here stems from an intellectual duty we might feel toward Gide, i.e., that we make clear just how his self-fashioning as an artistic mind proceeds from or around the Nietzschean influence. The point is to see how Nietzsche is necessary, not so much for the philosophical contents he brings, but as the dynamic whereby Gide devises, not only his access to literature, and more crucially his own claim to speaking philosophically, to reach philosophy. With Gide, influence is not simply a textual or creative matter: it is a demonstration about what doing philosophy is.

In the following discussion, L'Immoraliste provides the backdrop of the Nietzschean drama through which Gide enacts: his intellectual understanding of artistic and historical originality (the theme of Greece); the specifically Gidean staging of the complex entanglement between novice and predecessor (the theme of ghosts); and influence as philosophical resolution of the conversation between the self and others (the theme of romance). …

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