What’s Immoral About the Immoralist?

I think I can be forgiven hoping to find something lurid in a novel entitled The Immoralist, written by a notorious French pederast. But at first blush there’s not all that much to blush about in André Gide’s book. I closed it a bit underwhelmed, feeling as if I’d finished a competent but frankly somewhat prudish mashup of Oscar Wilde, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Edgar Allen Poe. The story had, however, entered the two-chambered stomach of my mind. I chewed the cud of it for a day, and by the time I’d digested it I realized just how interesting it was.

Michel, the eponymous immoralist, is a bookish and independently wealthy young man. He marries his childhood sweetheart, Marceline. On their honeymoon he almost dies of tuberculosis. Galvanized by his escape, he decides to abandon books in favor of sensual experience: sunbathing naked, hanging out with pretty little boys, roaming about at night poaching rabbits on his own lands, that sort of thing.

Marceline doesn’t much like Michel’s new philosophy, and when she gets pregnant he seriously considers taking back up the burdens of typical bourgeois life. But then Marceline miscarries and gets tuberculosis herself. By way of a cure, Michel foolishly hustles her from place to place. He convinces both of them that carting her around the Middle East is the best way to treat her. They retrace the path of their honeymoon: for him it was a journey of convalescence, but for her, now, it’s a journey of deterioration. In a suitably gothic finale, she dies hemorrhaging, drowning in her own blood, covered in sheets of it, just about where Michel was definitively cured, in a remote desert village beyond the reach of any doctors.

Plenty is disturbing in this story, especially the fate of Marceline. But where’s the immorality? A bookworm almost dies and realizes he needs to live a little. For the most part he doesn’t hurt anybody, except by accident. It is disturbing when the narrator suggests that Michel was unmoved by the death of Marceline. But even there, apart from Michel’s poor medical theories — for which he did, actually, have some basis, since he’d been cured by the same desert that kills Marceline — he does nothing to deserve serious opprobrium, offering Marceline devoted daily care, even though he’s long since ceased to base his happiness on their love. Can you fault someone for being unable to muster an emotion, when he doesn’t allow that inner coldness to interfere with any external duties? Where’s the immorality?

I think questing for that immorality, an almost inevitable readerly task, as Gide surely realized when he chose the title, unfolds a seemingly straightforward and simple story into something more profound and challenging.

Perhaps the key to the book is a conversation that takes place about halfway through. After Michel and Marceline’s honeymoon they end up back in Paris where Michel gives some lectures. He tries to express his new philosophy of sensuality in these lectures, but nobody understands. Nobody except one former acquaintance, Ménalque, a man much further along the same path. Here’s the pertinent exchange:

Ménalque, who was walking up and down the room, absentmindedly lit a cigarette, then threw it away at once. “There is,” he continued, “a ‘sense,’ the others would say, a ‘sense’ you seem to be lacking, my dear Michel.”

“You mean a ‘moral sense,’” I said, trying to smile.

“No, just a sense of property.”

Michel doesn’t lack a moral sense; he lacks a sense of property; yet we find him in a book called L’immoraliste. This isn’t a contradiction because there’s a difference between immorality and amorality. An important difference actually, one all-too-often elided. If two people believe in different accounts of what is good, and therefore judge different actions to be right, each will perceive the other to be immoral. If one of them didn’t believe anything was good, and that there were no right actions, he would be amoral.

Michel does lack something: a sense of property. And this makes him appear immoral to people who possess that sense.

What does it mean that he lacks a sense of property?

In the remark’s immediate context, it quite literally means that he isn’t jealous of his possessions. He lets a child steal from him for the pleasure of witnessing the theft, for instance.

But in a deeper sense that Ménalque teaches him, Michel has no property because he lives entirely in the present. Don’t cling to memory, advises Ménalque. Don’t steer your craft by the north star of principle or any particular constellation of previous felicity, but follow the erratic comet of present inclination. If a friend tires you, drop them; if a former hobby bores you, neglect it; if you want something, buy it. Relinquish both the past and the future.

What becomes of property if there is no past or future? It ceases to make sense as a concept. For something to be “property” to you, you must project your possession of it into the future as a right, on the basis of some supposedly legitimating act of appropriation in the past. Perhaps you bought this banana yesterday, and therefore you consider that only you or your agents may eat or dispose of it tomorrow. (My beloved and I experience the antinomies of banana ownership on a weekly basis, as she considers her act of purchasing the bananas reason enough to deprive me of what I perceive to be my right to dispose of them when they get black and mushy.) The very coherence of the idea of property depends upon time-consciousness, depends upon our not fully inhabiting the present.

But why does Michel’s lack of a sense of property, in either the shallow or the deeper sense, make him immoral? Remember, the immoral is a comparative term, used by those with a different conception of the moral than those whom they consider immoral. We may therefore presume that Michel’s immorality is a feature of how he appears to those who differ from him in the essential way that they possess a sense of property. And indeed this is fully borne out by a second key scene in the book.

One of Michel’s tenants realizes that his landlord is poaching rabbits on his own land. He’s buying copper wire to help the son of his overseer set up illicit snares, and then he’s running around at night setting them up, taking great delight in, essentially, stealing from himself. Michel’s tenant, Charles, delivers a sermon to his landlord:

Charles’s voice grew more and more assured. He sounded almost noble. I noticed that he had shaved off his whiskers. […] “It was Monsieur who taught me last year that property involves certain responsibilities — but Monsieur seems to have forgotten. Either you take those responsibilities seriously and stop dealing with those [poachers] or else you don’t deserve to own anything.”

Michel doesn’t deserve to own anything: but what would make him deserve ownership? Presumably, the missing sense of property. The circularity of this observation delights me. It highlights the arbitrary nature of ownership itself. The will to own is itself the prime justification and qualification for ownership. And in fact isn’t that the disillusioning reality?

I think I’ve found what makes the immoralist immoral. Michel’s immorality is a feature of how he is perceived by a bourgeois who properly understands what Michel has become. What has he become? A sensualist, someone wholly absorbed by the present and therefore unwilling and unable to entertain a sense of property. That’s not so bad, though, I don’t think. In fact it’s… admirable. Not being amoral, Michel is immoral because he has detached himself from the obsession with property that festers at the heart of bourgeois morality. Earlier, before the perfection of his sensuality, he saw just how unhappy this obsession could make him:

Furniture, fabrics, engravings, everything lost all its value for me at the first blemish — things stained, things infected by disease and somehow marked by mortality. I longed to protect everything, to put it all under lock and key for myself alone. How lucky Ménalque is, I thought, owning nothing! It’s because I want to save things that I suffer.

A year ago I was briefly misdiagnosed with a heart problem and spent several weeks convinced I might die at any moment. It was among the best things that ever happened to me. Months later, I wouldn’t trade the memory of that gaze into the abyss for anything. Among its many lingering effects is a strong and existential disgust with possessions. I keep finding ways and reasons to get rid of my things. The Immoralist revealed something to me about this disgust: it’s the obverse of a newfound appreciation for immediacy, for the present. All those things, mementos of the past or collections curated and aimed at a future completion, were bifurcations of the present, so many incursions of death upon life.

The various gothic thrills and horrors of The Immoralist conceal a quietly more interesting idea: the transvaluation of values effected by a clear perception of the precious contingency of existence.