The commentary on the back cover of the Vintage International edition of Andre Gide’s The Immoralist uses the term “omnisexual” to describe the unaffiliated sexual content of the book. I wasn’t completely sure what “omnisexual” meant before I had read the book; I deduced a meaning from the definitions of “omni” and “sexual,” but in the context of The Immoralist, summarizing Michel’s acts as “omnisexual” fails to fully illuminate the reader as to the character of Michel. The narrator’s sexual ambiguity (and I’m not even sure that it is “ambiguous”) is not merely suggestive of omnisexual abandon, as pleasing as that theme alone may be; rather, Michel’s omnisexuality extends to other elements of his identity, in transition as it is.
“Omni” is a term that can be used to describe the very nature of The Immoralist, which exists on multiple trajectories of thought and meaning, never really affiliating with any, never really contradicting any, and thereby depicting through Michel a portrait of man as navigating through life in a contrary sphere of existence where he is both weak and strong, good and bad, immoral and moral, and, of course, omnisexual. But even the oppositions do not fully define the philosophy of the text, which is, like thought, identity, sexuality, a work in progress. In some ways, the philosophy, thought, identity, and sexuality of Michel is best understood in terms of what it is not. That is, we understand Michel the way he does: objectively through the periscope of thought to which he currently negates in his actions. Hence, Michel’s claim that since he is “forced to live on expectations, [he] maintained, like Descartes, a provisional mode of action” (59). But does Michel, in the tradition Descartes’ cogito, think and therefore become? Or does he just wish that it worked that way? It seems that Michel is a man of divided spirit who functions both at the mercy of his will and desire, acting and then rationalizing, all the while never really believing in anything for longer than it pleases him. And this, I think, is a realistic portrait of man.
Michel, like Gide’s text, skirts the margins of the puritanical, the bourgeois, the homosexual, and individualism, never fully subscribing to any. Early in Michel’s monologue we are introduced to our narrator as a man transitioning to another man, a man who was not the man that his wife, Marceline, married: “. . .the man Marceline loved, the man she had married, was not ‘[his] new being’” (ibid). On the physical level, this new being manifests when in Amalfi, our narrator has his “beard shaved off,” declaring this his “tormenting need to express outwardly the inmost change of [his] being” (58). But what is he transitioning to? He divides people into categories of weak and strong:
For whether we are weak or strong, we grow accustomed to
Our condition; the self according to its powers takes shape;
But what if these powers should increase. . . .I gave myself
Up, voluptuously, to. . .myself, to things, to existence, which
Seemed to me divine. . .as if to invoke him within myself:
“A new being! “A new being!” (52)
But into which category does Michel belong? Our first impression of him is as a “sickly and studious being” (ibid), diseased with consumption and frail by nature besides. His wife, Marceline, takes vigil, praying for his recovery. And he recovers. Suddenly, the past is empty to him as, “since [his] illness, all abstract and neutral knowledge of the past had seemed futile to [him]” (65). He changes. Or does he?
Gide offers Marceline as a constant to Michel’s equation of being. Michel wonders: “Was I not stronger than she at this moment?” (64). While Michel seems to undergo metamorphosis from weak to strong, in her sickness, Marceline grows weaker. She becomes more of what she is, growing “accustomed to [her] condition.” And Michel finds her more beautiful in this decaying state: “Never had she been, and never had she seemed to me, so lovely. Illness had refined and actually exalted her features” (150). As if Michel found the elimination of her—the weak one–a beautiful thing. As if the elimination of weakness were a beautiful thing:
“I understand your. . . doctrine—for that’s what it is now, a
doctrine. It may be beautiful,” and then she added in a lower tone, wistfully, “but it eliminates the weak.” (ibid)
Left open to interpretation is this precise issue of survival. That is, does Marceline succumb to death because she is weak and does Michel thrive because he is strong? Or is Michel’s convalescence a result of Marceline’s ministrations, which Michel refuses to reciprocate?
If we look at the work in its entirety, there are parallels that would suggest that Marceline is wrong in her declaration that Michel’s doctrine eliminates the weak. It seems that his doctrine eliminates singularity, demonstrating that things and doctrines that possess duality are destined for survival, things like Michel, who is weak and strong, good and bad, who is omnimoral and omnisexual. Who can adapt.
This is perhaps why The Immoralist is difficult to categorize. I am not sure into which tradition I would place this text: symbolism or existentialism or something else? It is blatant that Gide’s use of character and plot to convey philosophical ideas places him in the traditions of symbolism and existentialism; furthermore, I find the style somewhat reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s individualist hero in “Notes from Underground.”
The answer may lie in an examination of the intent of the symbols. Are they there to create meaning (as in symbolism) or to show meaninglessness (as in existentialism)? In the context of the motifs of “omni,” I would bet shots that Gide achieves both.