The Immoralist, tr. Dorothy Bussy (1930. Original: L’Immoraliste ,1902) is framed as your protagonist’s confession, as he tells the tale of his moral downfall to his best friends, and asks for their verdict. This, however, is a confession with no guilt and no apology, and a verdict without indictment nor judgment: much like his friends, by the end of Michel’s tale, we have no idea how to think.
Michel is a somewhat uptight 24-year-old scholar who has lived a sheltered life in France. To please his dying father, he enters into a mariage de convenance with a childhood friend, Marceline, and the two leave to spend their honeymoon in North Africa. Once there, however, Michel almost dies of tuberculosis – and the experience of having been touched by the wing of death leads him to a form of awakening.
He regards his recovery as a rebirth, and the book follows his sensual emancipation from conventional morality, and his search for pleasure and self-fulfilment. At the expense of his fortune, his marriage, and his reputation, Michel embarks on a quest to fulfil his most hidden fantasies and forbidden desires, leading a self-centred life, and repudiating “all culture, decency and morality”. He sells his estate, starts to waste money on small luxuries, and embarks on a wandering life. He spends his time with criminals, and heartlessly pursues his own desires. Fiercely moving towards the suppressed side of his nature, he becomes increasingly fascinated by any form of transgressive or even aberrant and perverse behaviour.
Running in parallel to Michel’s reckless sensual rebirth, we have Marceline’s decline – as if her health were a representation of her moral instance as something unable to survive Michel’s disruptive turn. Having tasted the forbidden fruit of desire, Michel is left with the constant yearning for more: an unquenchable thirst for self-fulfilment, running around itself, at the heart of an existential void.
To the extent that Michel is an unreliable narrator, we are left in the dark as to how to judge him: is he lying to his friends (and to us), as he tries to justify his behaviour? Or is he lying to himself? Is he blind to the implications of his choices? Or is he taking them into account? Is he confronting his responsibility for the events that happened, or is he trying to exonerate himself? Is he like the serpent in the Genesis? Or is he a fin-de-siècle, decadent Adam?
We never know exactly what kind of relationship he had with the Arab boys (and, later, with his young employees); and we never know for sure to what extent Michel may have consciously contributed to (and wished for) Marceline’s death. He even comes to suggest that his friends (and the readers) might feel the same as he did, and might even act in the same way. We recognise the artificiality and transience of social and moral boundaries, and we recognize ourselves in Michel – and, in particular, in the tension he embodies between social conventions and individual self. “And suddenly I was seized with a desire, a craving, something more furious and more imperious than I had ever felt before—to live! I want to live! I will live. I clenched my teeth, my hands, concentrated my whole being in this wild, grief-stricken endeavour towards existence.”
Much like his friends, at the end of his tale, we are left with a bitter aftertaste: “We did not speak either, for we each of us had a strange feeling of uneasiness. We felt, alas, that by telling us his story, Michel had made his action more legitimate. Our not having known at what point to condemn it in the course of his long explanation seemed almost to make us his accomplices. We felt, as it were, involved.”
By framing his confession as a form of seduction (or as an incantation), Michel manages to convey the artificiality of morality rules – and, by doing so, he makes it difficult for us to judge him: it is impossible to pinpoint, when and how, exactly, Michel has crossed a line, if everything is framed in such a way that all the lines are to be taken as imaginary. “To know how to free oneself is nothing; the arduous thing is to know what to do with one’s freedom.”
You refuse us an easy answer or a fixed perspective – and, in the preface, you even point out that your book is not a condemnation, but rather a way of stating a problem. “These days the public demands an author’s moral at the end of the story. In fact, they even want him to take sides as the drama unfolds, to declare himself explicitly for Alceste or for Philinte, for Hamlet or for Ophelia, for Faust or for Gretchen, for Adam of for Jehovah. It is not that I wish to claim that neutrality (I was going to say indecision) is a sure indicator of superior intelligence, but I believe that many great minds have refused to…draw conclusions – and that posing a problem is not the same as presupposing its resolution.”
Much like Michel, we are left with the burden of an unbearable freedom and a sense of emptiness: it feels as though he were unable to distinguish between right and wrong, or even to account for the existence of such categories. Once Michel abandons the structure by which his life had been formed, he is left with nothing: a void, or the mirage of his true self. “Take me away from here and give me some reason for living. I have none left. I have freed myself. That may be. But what does it signify? This objectless liberty is a burden to me”.
It feels as though, together with Michel’s friends, we were trying to fix random signs drawn in the sand: the moment we try to redraw the moral boundaries applicable to the case, we seem to fall outside of their framework, and it slowly disappears.
“And every day there grows stronger in me a confused consciousness of untouched treasures somewhere lying covered up, hidden, smothered by culture and decency and morality.” – André Gide, The Immoralist