First Loves: Andre Gide
I had a hard time emotionally as a teenager. I would take my emotions and my bicycle and ride all over the countryside, self-absorbed and gloomy, until the ride finished or something emotionally shifted.
I felt as if I didn't fit in, and I felt frightened by my desires and orientation. When I compared myself to others, I knew I was different from them in so many profound ways. Growing up in a country town I felt everyone lacked substance and vigor, and that everyone was hypocritically Protestant - they had lost the ability to protest! - and didn't respect the body and emotions wisely. I felt as if I was a lone and guttering spark of vitality, searching for a fellow lamp to re-ignite my enthusiasms.
I embodied the typical European symbolism of the scorpio archetype - one senses the fragility and uniqueness of one's life, and so strives to bolster, harness, and protect the libido, the life-urge, by any means possible. It is the opposite archetype from the lush and fertile pastoralism of my home town, with an all-provident superabundance of earthly things to numb the mind and steal the heart away of an evening.
So in this context and at this time of life I discovered Andre Gide. Gide guided me, as his name promises, back to a clarity and a sense of vitality and confidence in myself. I had recently read Walt Whitman but he seemed adolescent and inadequate to the need I had for clarity. Papa Walt didn't give a shit if things were clear or muddy, and was equally happy with both, it seemed. Andre Gide was an entirely different kind of beast.
To my astonishment, the front cover read:
"The Andre Gide Reader; the complete texts of The Immoralist and the Pastoral Symphony, with chronologically arranged selections from most of Gide's other words including the Counterfeiters/If It Die.../the Journal/Lafcadio's Adventures/Strait is the Gate/Travels in the Congo/Return from the USSR/ and Imaginary Interviews; editing with an introduction, sectional preludes, and notes, by David Littlejohn."
Talk about confidence! They didn't even need to put a picture on the front cover! And when I turned to the back of the enormous tome, I saw Gide's photograph.
Sitting on the stairs in his home in the north of france (I was about to say Combray and then remembered that was Proust), Gide sits on the steps of his library, wearing wool and linen, reading and smoking, looking like a monk with his skull cap and delicate long feminine face.
There was a powerful sense of recognition, appropriateness, and fulfillment whilst holding that book. I remember it clearly as a kind of instant identification: "I am that" my heart said happily.
So I opened and read...
Looking back, now, 16 years to the young man who read Gide, I feel sad about him. Did Gide mislead? Did he decieve? Was he self-indulgent or intoxicated too often, and did he corrupt the youth who read him? I cannot answer these questions, but to say that at the time it was as intoxicating a love affair as I have ever experienced.
At first I loved Gide for his vitality and sinuous and tenacious words; he wrote like a lover, lean and hungry to discover the truth. He wrote from the belly, yes, but from the sensual surface of the belly, inducing ripples of pleasure in the curves of the stomach muscles but no gut-wrenching truths.
Later I came to love him for his exquisite taste in words, and for introducing me to the French literature of his time, and for his travels, and for his invitations to dance with various other writers. I came to love him for the peripatetic voice of the Journals, which I read complete one sweltering summer fortnight, having borrowed the two chest-sized ancient volumes of the Jouranls via interlibrary loan from a Melbourne university. I came to love him for being more Protestant than anyone I ever met in my Protestant home town - damn, he was still protesting, hundreds of years after the event!
It was bewildering to me to see my own traditional western European roots still with some vigor in them, and I suppose in the end he came to represent in abstract the promise of a larger world outside the broad confines of my home town, and thereby drove me out into the world.