Wednesday, August 12, 2015

"La Symphonie Pastorale": A Review

As kids we are taught that at some point in the early 20th century, our society fixed all the remaining problems in the Victorian moral code (and in everything else for that matter); so when we grow up, we tend to be rather surprised that life still turns out so often to be a painful struggle between our desires and the consideration we owe to other people. We resolve this tension by politely pretending that none of us ever desires anything that might be bad for anyone else -- which is of course how the Victorians resolved it too (except of course, for the Victorian villain, who, much like the modern "creep," never refers to the reader), so we are really back where we started.

Because of this, when we look back on those stories that represented a first shuddering against the fortress of Victorianism -- André Gide's La Symphonie Pastorale, my present subject, is a classic example -- we tend to piously recollect them as recording the heroic protests of the "individual" against the bugbear of "social convention" (something that we moderns ostensibly no longer have). This sort of reduction is easy to do with books that are more often remembered than read. When we actually look into them, however, we discover that the moral dilemmas they describe may not be so different from ours after all. We find that the claims of the "individual" protagonist may not actually be the ones with which we most readily sympathize, and that the voices of social convention in the novel may actually have a point.

In Harold Frederic's Damnation of Theron Ware, the Methodist minister at the heart of the novel is motivated to cast off the "shackles" of his previous life and faith as much by his flirtation with a Dionysian Irish Catholic neighbor as by his intellectual scruples. He rambles off a list of grievances against his Methodist wife and in favor of the more free spirited woman down the street that pretty much precisely mirrors the points raised by the narrator of La Symphonie Pastorale against his own partner: she is too absorbed in "worldly" and "material" concerns, she is insufficiently intellectual, in short she is just plain limiting the infinite upward development of the world-embracing creative soul we all know our male protagonist to possess.

The modern reader with an ounce of feminist meat on her bones may find herself unexpectedly thrust into the company of the Victorians at this point, rather than taking the side of our male Zarathustras astride their phallic mountaintops. Someone had to rinse out Zarathustra's rice bowl every night, presumably. We can bet that not only did she have to do this, she was also subsequently blamed for being too concerned with such "mundane" affairs as rice bowls. Xanthippe not only had to keep the whole household running and turn a blind eye to Alcibiades, she also had to go down in history as a shrew for doing it.

Nor do the authors of these novels deliver the straightforward lesson we have all assumed they do-- Harold Frederic wisely makes a fool of Theron Ware by the end of the book -- the Dionysian neighbor sours on him very quickly and drops him as a lover, which is one of the dangers one runs with Dionysianism -- and Ware beats a retreat to his wife, who ends up being far more generous to him than he was to her. The whole story is played for laughs, which is a far better choice than Gide's decision to end his brief novella by piling melodrama on melodrama ("I don't actually love you, I love you're son," "I converted to Catholicism while you were away," "I tried to kill myself," "I'm dying" -- these revelations are all poured forth in the space of two or three pages.) But Gide too ends in the same ambiguous place as Frederic -- both novels are protests against the constraints of morality and the pains and self-denials they impose, but they also recognize that at least some of these constraints serve to prevent people from hurting one another; they suggest that making the fulfillment of our desires the sole end of life in fact is a recipe for misery and anyways leads to intolerable contradictions, when our desires conflict with those of other people; that we may be made even more unhappy by ascending to what Philip Larkin calls "fulfillment's desolate attic" than by staying on the ground floor.

The narrator of La Symphonie Pastorale insists in one passage that "the only sin is that which hurts the happiness of others or endangers our own" (Bussy translation throughout)-- which is the sort of thing that is often taken to be a great refutation of Victorian morality. But what kinds of things hurt the happiness of others? What endangers our own? It turns out that we still have a hard time answering those questions even after we've ditched Victorianism -- much harder than any of us like to admit.


La Symphonie Pastorale relates the story of a Calvinist minister in France who takes a blind orphan into his home and later develops an obsession with her, the sexual and romantic nature of which he manages to repress even from his own consciousness for much of the story, but which eventually forces itself into the open. Knowing this much about the plot, we can ready the type for the back cover write-up declaring this to be a tale of true love doomed by "Victorian morality." In fact, however, the main objection the Victorians would have raised to this union is the fact that the minister was already married at the time, whereas we moderns -- for all that our ethical code is alternately praised and deprecated as so lax -- would probably agree with the Victorian so far and have many other very sound points to raise against it as well.

Gide shows himself aware of all these grounds, but then, again, he is interested in exploring the dialectic between desire and obligation, not in depicting the clean and easy triumph of one over the other. I suspect that this tendency in him -- indeed, the suggestion that there might be a conflict at all between the two -- is about as shocking to modern readers as it would have been to the readers of Gide's day.

The novel's protagonist is essentially a good person, and he is described by Gide in a way that gives no hint of any bigotry against his profession or his confession (Gide was himself the victim of a Calvinist upbringing that he could never fully escape and wrote about it with understanding). The narrator is fatally cursed, however, by a lack of self-awareness as to his own motives and desires. He persuades himself for most of the story that his interest in Gertrude, his charge, is purely charitable in nature. Their storyline begins with the minister slowly teaching her to read and speak (he has rescued her from a life of near total sensory deprivation), but if this part of the story reminds one of the light-hearted L'Enfant Sauvage, it quickly darkens into Vredens Dag. The reader sees the writing on the wall as soon as the minister's son, Jacques, asks to take up some of his father's pastoral duties with regard to Gertrude. As he too develops an infatuation in turn, the narrator becomes convinced that his son has designs upon Gertrude's "innocence" (as opposed to his own motives which are of course pure as the snows of Jura.)

The story is a good one for dramatic irony, and even the minister's wife realizes far before he does the true nature of the feelings he is developing -- as well as the hopelessness of the fact that he wouldn't recognize them in himself even if he were told they were there. ("It's not always easy to warn people," she notes with sadness.) By the time the narrator finally admits that he had foolishly "made a moral obligation [...] of what was really a passionate inclination," the reader has long since known it-- has known it from the opening pages.

Suddenly it seems that the moral dilemmas of Gide's day are not so unrecognizable from those of our own, for all the arrogance of posterity. In div school they always warned us that the true danger of a minister's committing sexual misconduct with an adult congregant usually lies not in physical attraction -- a feeling most of us can recognize and control -- but in mistaking one's own motives in much the way Gide's protagonist does. A minister may cultivate an emotional dependency-- even a mutual one-- because he or she feels validated by it. Any physical sex that results is only an extreme outgrowth of another emotional manipulation and violation that occurred much earlier on-- much of it done unconsciously and without malice. So too, the narrator of Gide's story is ruined (and is empowered to ruin Gertrude) by his ability to rationalize and moralize what are in fact quite destructive desires. "If I did not already love her, it would be my duty to love her for pity's sake; to cease to love her would be to betray her; she needs my love," etc., he tells himself.

Out of his jealousy of his son, the minister forbids the young man to see Gertrude again, and leans heavily on the scriptural injunction to obey one's parents in the process. One of the more convincing ironies of the book, however (though it is not entirely clear that Gide perceives it, in his general sympathy for the narrator) is that the minister is all the time engaged in a theological dispute with his son in which he plays the part of the antinomian and his son that of the upholder of the commandments. Sauce for the goose is evidently not sauce for the gander.

The narrator is willing to let all of Paul hang, and insists that if it weren't for these Epistles weighing down the New Testament, there would be no "commands, threats, [and] prohibitions" in Christianity. This is appealing, but wrong. I don't know what version our minister's got hold of, but in mine all the imprecations and warnings about Gehenna are uttered by Jesus, whereas Paul's eschatology is comparatively merciful (no mention of hell there). The type of antinomianism that Luther found in the Bible, and which is latent in all Protestantism, even when it takes such ruthlessly puritanical forms, mostly comes out of Romans, rather than the Gospels.

Regardless of where he found it, though, the minister has caught hold of something real in the New Testament that is utterly at odds with all Victorian, conventional, and prudential moralities: the fact that Jesus' affinities so often lie with the sinner and the outcast, rather than with the "good" man or woman. The fact that this thread in the Bible is impossible to reconcile with those other passages in which Christ warns of damnation and apocalypse is too difficult a problem to be solved by just chalking the latter up to Paul somehow and saying they have nothing to do with the "true Jesus;" but it is certainly true that the Jesus who dines with the tax collectors and who rejoices far more over the one "lost sheep" than the ninety-nine who remained behind (a parable much quoted by Gide's narrator) is also present in the Gospels. As Blake says, another great antinomian: "There is not one Moral Virtue that Jesus Inculcated but Pilate & Cicero did Inculcate before him[--] what then did Christ Inculcate[?] Forgiveness of Sins. This alone is the Gospel[.]"

For Blake as for our narrator, if the forgiveness of sins is to mean anything, it must mean that the law has been abolished, apart from the law of love. The morality of compulsion must have been replaced at Christ's death by the morality of that which is freely given and freely desired.

All of that makes for some excellent poetry, but it tells us nothing at all about what is to be done in the case of Jacques and the narrator, in which both men "freely desire" the same thing. (We never really know what Gertrude freely desires, meanwhile -- her whole life is a series of compulsions and coercions at the hands of the protagonist.) The narrator has no shame about imposing an obligation of obedience on his son while he denies all similar moral restrictions upon himself. He even criticizes his son for having made the mistake of thinking that just because he is under a yoke (one of his father's own imposition in this case), everyone else ought to be as well. The reader might be inclined to fire back, on the son's behalf, that such a conclusion is at any rate far preferable to thinking that moral obligations belong only to people who get in the way of one's own desires, and never to oneself.

But fear not: it eventually turns out that the son is a prig and a pedant in his own right, and like all such people, his ethical code is never really something he meant himself to submit to, but only something meant to get other people to submit to him, and if he has followed it so far, it is only because it has so far perfectly accommodated what he would want to do anyways. He therefore ends up getting what he wants and leaving his father behind, and even though he is probably in the right all the time, Gide has succeeded in making us all antinomian enough by the end of the story to resent it.

In the end, Gertrude is destroyed by the protagonist. The narrator's wife is likewise ruined by him. Their family is torn apart. Is this all merely Gide's concession to conventional morality-- the trite comeuppance that even the more radical authors of the day had to provide in order to make it into print? Or maybe even our "free desires," even those feelings we call "love," are in fact capable of hurting people, just as the novel's conclusion suggests. Maybe each of us, if left wholly to our own inclinations, won't automatically bestow joy and goodness and generosity upon all the people around us.

 Such a conclusion is not especially Blakean, but neither is it Victorian; the Victorians after all, never liked to look too closely at their own motives, and assumed that it was only the "vicious" in whom destructive impulses were bred. Our own American society, which is a wonder at combining the world's largest prison system with a belief that we are astonishingly "open-minded" compared to the people of the past, may be no better. Perhaps we'd all benefit from having a little more of a Gospel of Forgiveness of Sins, along with a little awareness of the fact that there must exist sins in this world if they are to need forgiving.


  1. You describe this dialectic between individual desire and conventional obligations as something we've inherited from the Victorians throughout your oeuvre, but it seems to me (and I assume you would agree) that some version of this is a fairly persistent theme in all of human literature and philosophy. Is there something distinctive about the version of it that emerged in Victorian culture that's especially illuminating of or connected to our present circumstances?

  2. Hi Ajay—I am flattered to be described as having an oeuvre, but I was not deliberately trying to make the point you suggest -- my apologies if that’s what was communicated. To the contrary, this post was meant to be an argument against the Romantic and/or antinomian view that somehow our “true,” uncorrupted desires are never harmful, and that it is only artificial constraints that lead us astray. I was trying to say that the occasional tension between what we want and what we ought to do for the sake of others is pretty much an inescapable feature of life, even if it is one many modern ideologies do not prepare us to accept—definitely not something invented by the Victorians. I don’t think you’d find anything particularly controversial in that, so far.

    What the Victorians did introduce, it seems to me, compared to the eras before and after them, was this particularly glaring cluelessness as to their own motives (and I was trying to say here that we today might have inherited this problem to some extent). In fact, I’d argue that’s it’s the Victorians who tried to get round the tension between desire and obligation, not the Victorians who created this tension – and they did so by representing their own impulses in literature as uniformly pure and wholesome, and never leading to damaging consequences (if we’re talking about the Victorian hero rather than the Victorian villain, that is – the latter of whom never reflects upon the author or the intended reader). The Victorians therefore got some of the worst of the Romantic spirit, along with the worst of the prudery that contrasts to it.

    This gives the Victorians the curiously infantile emotional sense that I think a lot of people find in their work. If we take examples close to hand on this blog, we can contrast an episode in the Victorian Felix Holt with one in the post-Victorian Symphonie Pastorale, both of which describe a minister taking a younger woman into his home out of charity and later falling in love with her. Since it is a “good” man who does this in Felix Holt, it is never implied that anything bad could come of these actions – the pair are perfectly happy and good for each other, until the inevitable tragic consumptive death of the wife. No suggestion is ever made that destructive impulses can disguise themselves within moralistic forms. Gide, however, as a modern, gives us a morally ambiguous character, divided internally about his own motives, who may understand himself for some time to be doing a good and compassionate thing but who in fact ends up behaving in such a way as to destroy the people around him. Within himself, he understood as "moral" a desire that was in fact deeply harmful. My point in this post is that many of us probably find this about as uncomfortable a notion as the Victorians would.

  3. Thanks - I found this very illuminating. Just to clarify, I didn't meant to suggest that you were denying that the tension between individual desire and moral obligation is persistent throughout human culture but was rather just curious about what you saw as distinctively interesting or important about the Victorian approach to it given your awareness of that point, which I think I understand now.