Commentary Magazine


Malraux's Fate

If only Chateaubriand had visited Napoleon in exile on St. Helena, what a book would have resulted! Unlike General de Gaulle, the Emperor was unlucky in not having his free and intimate table talk conveyed to posterity by a great artist. André Malraux, thinking on these lines without false modesty—he had decided well before he was sixteen that he wanted to be a great writer—did not intend to miss his opportunity, and in his most recent book, Les Chênes qu’on abat . . . (“Felled Oaks . . .”),1 he gives his own recreated or transfigured version of his last meeting with the General at Colombey. The title comes from a poem by one of his much-mentioned authors, Victor Hugo—Malraux is surely one of the greatest name-droppers ever—about the crashing of oaks cut down for the funeral pyre of the hero Hercules. As in all his books, where the personages, whether actual or fictional, end by sounding like Malraux and are preoccupied with his obsessions, the contemptuous and world-weary ex-President inquires with his hand resting on a page of the memoirs he is engaged in writing, “Seriously, Malraux, between ourselves, is it worthwhile?” and Malraux replies, after an apt quotation from the Bhagavad-Gita, “General, why must life have a meaning?” Readers who do not lap this up as Madame de Gaulle’s cat Grigi laps cream merit the fate McLuhan reserves for them.

Still, all this lofty chit-chat may seem at first quite a long way from the revolutionary commitment and the burning intensity of La Condition humaine (Man’s Fate) and L’Espoir (Man’s Hope). But is it? Action and the futility of action are constantly juxtaposed and debated in Malraux’s work. The quest for meaning and value is desperately pursued in the face of meaninglessness and worthlessness. A recent thesis by Janine Mossuz on Malraux et le Gaullisme painstakingly seeks to establish the enduring connection between the ideas of the Gaullist propagandist and Minister and his pre-war attitudes. This work, together with a useful short study by Pol Gaillard and two new popular biographies, one in English by Robert Payne and the other in French by the journalist Pierre Galante, indicate that public interest in Malraux continues unabated despite the fact that he published his last novel, Les Noyers de l’Altenburg (The Walnut Trees of Altenburg), in 1943, and has declared that he does not intend to write another.

It is not necessarily as novelist, then, that Malraux fascinates today, though his best-known novels are readily available in cheap editions, and he is certainly read. La Condition humaine remains one of the most powerful and impassioned documents for understanding the dreams and temptations of the modern intellectual; while of all the works that came out of the Spanish Civil War (with the possible exception of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia), L’Espoir gives the best idea of what that traumatic experience meant in its early heroic phase. Whatever criticism may be leveled at them, his major novels which once seemed (and indeed were) advanced in their rapid, elliptical, image-flashing, cinematographic technique, have entered history; and one French observer has given him what amounts to the kiss of death for a living author by calling him a great writer of the past.

For Malraux, being a great writer still meant being prophet, seer, and unacknowledged legislator of mankind. It meant shaping one’s life and work into a significant legend. But the new French writers are hardly interested in such grandiose ambitions and pass him by, for if he put the “absurd” on the literary map or obliquely questioned the value of literature for its own sake, he did so in a totally different way, based on different assumptions from theirs. His studies on art and civilization, the work of a man largely self-taught, received short shrift from the experts (as opposed to the literary fraternity), and should doubtless be seen as part of the “uninterrupted meditation” on value, on life and death, that has taken various forms, including novels, essays, and “antimemoirs.” Deliberately anti-Spenglerian, he is nonetheless imbued with a Spenglerian sense of decline in artistic greatness, in which he himself, ironically enough, is involved.

Rather than as novelist, it is as the conspiratorial and committed Byron of the inter-war years and the ministerial Chateaubriand of the postwar period that Malraux engages attention today, emerging as the supreme embodiment of the secret yearnings and dreams of his readers: the intellectual as man of action and man of power. One of Malraux’s characters, the elder Gisors in La Condition humaine, saw the Nietzschean will to power as the mere intellectual justification of the will to godhead: each man dreams of being god, he said, adding that he dreams of being god without losing his personality. If art was to be a way of challenging and improving upon the botched divine design, action meant not only power for others but power over others, a means of reassuring oneself of one’s own existence.

Now that Malraux is in his seventieth year (he was born in November 1901) and has withdrawn from public life, the time has surely arrived to inquire into his motivation as writer and political figure. From that inquiry some idea might be obtained of the driving forces behind his legendary career, and of the connecting link between ostensibly contradictory attitudes. Such an inquiry might help to illuminate some of the equivocations resulting from an attitude based on lofty scorn for liberalism in the widest sense of the word and for parliamentary democracy in general (not merely as practiced under the Third Republic), with their emphasis on the importance of the individual, individualism being a concept that this Nietzschean elitist has paradoxically ravaged throughout his life.

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Koestler has related how, approaching Malraux with some trepidation for the first time at Gallimard’s in 1934, the already celebrated author of Les Conquérants (The Conquerors) startled him with the query, “Yes, yes, my dear fellow, but what’s your opinion of the apocalypse?” The same element of apparently conscious play-acting, the pleasure of being author, spectator, and actor in his own drama, caught the attention of an eyewitness to his Resistance exploits in the Corrèze. But besides this theatrical or self-dramatizing aspect, the question about the apocalypse shows how, as much in life as in his work, Malraux tends to brush aside what does not interest him. Many have enumerated without much difficulty all that is missing from his novels, including the value of woman (reduced at worst to the role of sexual object and at best to that of mourner of dead heroes) as distinct from the value of man. His art specializes in chiaroscuro: the illumination of selected incidents, figures, and discussions, while the remainder stays in inspissated darkness.

Reticent about his personal life and even today evasive about details of his legendary past that he could clear up in two seconds if he so wished, he has constantly betrayed the attitude of one who dislikes his own image. “Shifting image of myself, I have no love for you,” his alter ego, A.D., wrote with incantatory lyricism to his Chinese friend at the end of La Tentation de L’Occident (The Temptation of the West), adding of the self-image, “I have given you everything; and yet I know I shall never love you.” Loathing his childhood, suspicious of introspection, probings into the psyche, and the hunt for “secrets” so beloved of biographers, Malraux often resembled a gambler with something to hide, dissatisfied with the cards of identity dealt him by fate. He preferred to present, not his given self, but his idea of himself as he wanted to be.

From the beginning, 19th-century individualism, which reached its culmination in Barrès’s cult of the ego, seemed to Malraux an exhausted heritage. What he called the bankruptcy of individualism, of all the attitudes and doctrines that exalt the self, is as constant a theme in his writing as existential anxiety inspired by thoughts of death. Yet ironically he set out with this distaste of the private self to create a persona that would be less intolerable to him and that he would impose through an effort of will and energy. It was this element of self-creation that he admired not only in so hollow a hero as Lawrence of Arabia, a model and frequent subject of reflection, but in the charismatic figure of Saint-Just, the archangel of the Terror. Saint-Just’s ruthlessness has haunted his own imagination as well as that of the militant Garine in Les Conquérants. (Malraux even tried to convince General de Gaulle of the somewhat dubious grandeur of so sanguinary a revolutionary, apparently without much success.) As Malraux expressed it, Saint-Just seems to have had no family, and to present a purely man-made destiny. This appears to be Malraux’s ideal—the ideal of an actor who creates a role.

Analyzing the crisis of consciousness of the modern European whom he criticized but could not help resembling, Malraux (through A.D. in La Tentation de l’Occident) saw “action” as the key to Western mentality where “being” is the key to the spirit of the East. He wrote there that it is as if for moderns in the West the opportunity alone were lacking for them to perform in the real world the exploits of their dreams, so that they retain a confused impression, not of having performed these exploits but of being capable of doing so. “Pitiful actors” unwilling to relinquish glorious roles, they are creatures within whom there sleeps the “procession of the possibilities” of their actions and dreams.

Here is revealed the dream of action which Malraux will translate into reality, for he is referring as much to himself as to Western man in general. It is of his own disarray at the breakdown of values and lack of a sense of identity that he speaks in terms that embrace his fellow men in the West in the years after World War I. It is his despair, his lucidity or intelligence, his latent power and obsession with the self-creating and self-sustaining dream, myth, or role that stand out for the first time in this book written between 1921 and 1925. When in Delhi many years later, Nehru remarked upon Malraux’s latest incarnation as Minister, the latter countered with the charming tall-tale of Mallarmé’s cat whom the poet overheard saying to another, “At the moment, I’m pretending to be a cat at Mallarmé’s”: a revealing reply for a man who in his time has played many parts.

His fondness for the cryptic, gnomic, or portentous remark means that it is not always easy to grasp his intention or the overall structure of his books, yet only from the dialectical juxtaposition of conflicting opinions and scenes does a total impression arise, an impression that often contradicts, emotionally, the logical direction and force of what has been said or done. Thus his is a world where rational discourse, apparently dominant, is superseded by the irrational, by feeling, dream, or myth. Assertion and insight, often dazzlingly brilliant and expressed in lapidary epigram or powerfully hypnotic lyrical rhetoric, obscure the fact that the sequence of an argument is frequently lacking.

As for the characters of his novels, they rarely impress by their individuality, but by their condensed reflections and astonishing actions. Considering his lifelong interest in the visual arts, it is surprising how little visual impact they make as individuals. Each one forms part of a total debate, and collectively they appear as “the procession of the possibilities” of his actions and dreams, his potentialities, some of which he transformed into actuality: the adventurer, the historian of art, the leader of men. Through his very desire to reduce the place of the individual, he shapes his characters into living aspects of a metaphysical discussion about the past, present, and future destiny of man.

He projected this conception onto D. H. Lawrence (as indeed he projects his own standpoint onto all the writers and artists he discusses) when he wrote in 1932 that the author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover “thinks it more important for him to be a man than to be an individual. The preference for difference is thus replaced by the preference for a particular sort of intensity: it is a matter of being a man—to the greatest possible degree.” This notion of the precedence of “man” over “individual” stands at the center of his art which contributed its share toward the modern breakdown of the 19th-century novelistic character, and at the center of the varying forms of his political commitment.

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Malraux began his career unattached and apolitical. His early surrealist writings reveal an imagination haunted by blood, violence, torture, and death, but otherwise give little hint of what was to come. As Walter G. Langlois convincingly showed in his book, André Malraux: The Indochina Adventure, it was Malraux’s experience of French colonialism which shaped his political outlook between the wars. The modish young surrealist and speculator was brought up short by his first contact with colonial injustice in Djibouti in French East Africa on his way to Cambodia in 1923. His arrest and trial in Pnom-Penh for the theft of Khmer sculptures from the temple of Banteay Srei seemed to him not only unjust, especially as political capital was made out of it, but unspeakably disproportionate and absurd. In 1925 he returned to Saigon, helped to organize the “Young Annam”2 movement, and with Paul Monin set up a newspaper, L’Indochine (later L’Indochine enchaînée), wherein he flayed with heavy sarcasm and mounting indignation the evils of financial corruption and exploitation in the colony. So far he presents a classic case of the conversion of the non-political man of letters to political involvement.

The theme of his journalism was that the colonial authorities were betraying their trust and, significantly, the principles of the French Revolution, in denying proper dignity and opportunity to the Annamites. He advocated Franco-Annamite cooperation and prophesied what would happen if the colonials were not given the education and the responsibilities they deserved. He saw his words go unheeded as exploitation aroused resistance, followed by repression and hideous torture. He left for home in 1926, avowedly in order to make an appeal, over the heads of the governmental authorities, to the French people (whom he regarded as the true source of authority as distinct from the government of parliamentary parties which, along with British imperialism, capitalism, and fascism were to be his bêtes noires). Nothing much was heard of this appeal afterward: allusions to the situation in Indochina in the ensuing years became rare. There is a resemblance here to another myth-forging adventurer, Lawrence of Arabia, who scarcely mentioned the Arabs and their cause in his later years.

In the light of Malraux’s journalism in Indochina, La Voie Royale (The Royal Way)—thought to be the first of his Eastern novels to be conceived though the second to be published—is not quite what might have been expected. It has as its central figure, Perken, a Danish adventurer of Lawrentian stamp whose ambition it once was to leave a scar on the map, to carve out a kingdom for himself like Brooke of Sarawak or Mayrena the king of the Sedangs. Indeed Perken and the vanished wild-man Grabot whom he is seeking, in many ways look like typical tough colonial adventurers. Expressed through the fate of these two men is the tension in Malraux between the admired assertion of will power and the awareness of the limitations of the human will. Admiration for courage and heroism is countered by a sense of the vanity of vanities.

The same kind of movement and counter-movement can be found in Les Conquérants. Garine, the revolutionary of bourgeois origin, feels no love for the underdogs on whose behalf he struggles, only hatred and disgust for the bourgeoisie. He seeks to escape from an obsessive sense of the sinister and grotesque absurdity and futility of everything into the human (as Malraux was to put it), by the exercise of his will, by ruthless action for a cause that transcends his own ego and his selfish personal interests. Doomed by a consuming sickness, he is contrasted with Mikhail Borodin, the historical figure whom Malraux saw (apparently mistakenly, according to Trotsky) as the professional revolutionary and strict disciplinarian par excellence. Yet in different ways both Garine and Borodin aim to destroy individuality in favor of collective values.

If Trotsky felt that the novel was marred by dilettantism and aestheticism and required a good dose of Marxism, for Malraux (who was never a member of the Communist party) Marxism had to mean the precedence of sublime human values over all other considerations: a means of restoring dignity to the insulted and injured. For him, the revolution was at first a means of escape from the ego into the “virile fraternity,” the “brotherhood of arms,” and the ideal heroic self-sacrifice epitomized in La Condition humaine by Katow giving his cyanide to two comrades and dying a terrible but noble death.

In the late 20’s and 30’s it was the exaltation of collective values as opposed to selfish individualism that Malraux lauded in Communism. “On the metaphysical level, Bolshevism acknowledges that the highest human values are collective values,” he declared in June 1929; while in July 1934 he wrote: “To the bourgeoisie which said: the individual, Communism will reply: man.” What he was beginning to dislike in the Soviet Union in 1934 was not so much the need to dirty one’s hands as the lack of liberty for the artist and the doctrine of socialist realism. But in view of his approval of collective over individual values, it is hardly surprising that he could say, at the height of his belief in Stalin’s contribution to human dignity, that the Moscow Trials did not detract from the dignity of Communism, any more than the Inquisition detracted from that of Christianity. The struggle against fascism, the Spanish Republican cause, came before all else: consequently he advised Gide against publishing his criticism of the Soviet Union and said nothing about the purges. When Trotsky complained, Malraux accused him of being more concerned with his personal fate than with the cause.

Either one was the intellectual and the artist, involved above all with truth and complexity, with doubts and nuances, or one settled for action, which was Manichean. In the latter case, one was not playing games, one was fighting to win. That meant violence and discipline, expediency and knowing when to keep one’s mouth shut. In order to win, in China, it was necessary to employ the ruthless terrorist. In order to win, in Spain, it was necessary to pass beyond the first euphoric stage of lyrical illusion: the Communist Manuel becomes a revolutionary leader through rigid self-discipline and self-denial, growing progressively less human, until he reaches the point where he refuses to listen to cries of mercy. At this stage, when writing L’Espoir, Malraux was torn between the claims of the artist, of “being,” and those of “doing,” of revolutionary and military ruthlessness, just as he had been fascinated by the adventurer’s ruthlessness in Perken or Grabot. During World War II, Father Pierre Bockel was to note Malraux’s delight in the ferocity of his men in the Alsace-Lorraine brigade.

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Up to 1936 Malraux had written about action, though his revolutionary experiences (if any) in China remain obscure; but at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War he emerged into the open as a man of action, buying planes and hiring international mercenaries for an independent air squadron which he organized for the Republican government. He took part in over sixty missions and was wounded twice. As far as is known, his previous experience of flying consisted in accompanying Corniglion-Molinier in an aerial search over Yemen for the lost capital of the Queen of Sheba. Malraux’s Spanish exploits lasted only five months, from August to December 1936. He left Spain, returning later to make the film of L’Espoir. He also traveled and lectured on behalf of the Spanish Republic, appearing as the writer who personified “the conscience of intellectual and fraternal humanity” and hypnotizing his hearers with his fiery eloquence. But already the gap between the reality and the dream of revolutionary action as an escape from the hated self was growing. In the celebrated discussion between Garcia and Scali on the ethics of action in L’Espoir, the former remarks that if a man is counting on the revolution to suppress his tragic sense of life, his thinking is all wrong.

Even more remarkable adventures were to follow. World War II found Malraux not in the air force as might have been anticipated, but in the tanks corps (where his father had been an officer). Taken prisoner, he escaped to the Unoccupied Zone, where he showed no haste to join the Resistance. Various well-known people approached him without success: among them was Sartre, who found him living in lordly style in a villa at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, expecting Russian tanks and American planes to win the war. Suddenly, in the spring of 1943, he appeared as leader of a private army in the Corrèze. Wounded, captured, forced (like Dostoevsky) to undergo mock execution, he was liberated and went on to victorious battle as commander of the Alsace-Lorraine brigade in 1944. Unlike T. E. Lawrence, and unlike the character modeled on him, Vincent Berger, the finally disillusioned adviser and right-hand man of the Turkish leader Enver Pasha in Les Noyers de l’Altenburg, Malraux had at last found his authentic fighting “brotherhood of arms,” his own true cause: he had, as he somewhat embarrassingly expressed it, “married France.” Henceforward he would be General de Gaulle’s man, in turn his propagandist, Minister of Information, and Minister of Culture; and when the General withdrew in 1969, he followed.

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Malraux conveniently interpreted his allegiance to de Gaulle as fidelity to the principles of the Revolution of 1789. For him, Gaullism was the heir of the Revolution and in particular of the First Republic of Robespierre and Saint-Just. Thus Gaullism was not a program but a movement of “public safety.” It inherited the idea of the “one and indivisible nation” and the cry of “the Republic in danger.” In visions of apocalyptic doom he saw the state threatened as it was in 1793 by foreign foes, only this time the enemy was the Communists and the apocalyptic savior was de Gaulle.

Doubtless Communism after the Liberation was not what it had signified for the Annamite resistance, nor what it had meant for Malraux himself when he had accompanied Gide to Berlin to try to obtain the release of the same Dimitrov who was now abusing his power. Doubtless Malraux’s growing belief that Communism represented the arm of victorious Russian nationalism and imperialism and no longer stood for certain essential collective values, together with his disapproval of the role of the French Communists in the Resistance movement, whom he saw aiming to take power rather than to serve France, contributed to his reversal. But the fact that he regarded General de Gaulle as the descendant of the Jacobins meant that Malraux could feel he himself had not changed: unlike the Russians and the French Communists, his position was still “revolutionary,” but in the authentic French sense. He could even tell Claude Mauriac, the son of the Catholic novelist and at that time the General’s private secretary, in 1946, that if only he (Malraux) had met General de Gaulle sooner, the great man would not have had the Left against him. In the same way he could declare that the General could not possibly be a fascist because Malraux, the noted antifascist, supported him. It would seem that he had no idea just how much his own changed position had alienated the non-Communist Left.

However, Malraux’s dislike of parliamentary democracy had not changed. “What is there in this country at the moment?” he inquired in February 1949. “Ourselves, the Communists, and nothing”—“nothing” being the elected representatives and the legal government. The guarantee of political and intellectual freedom as he saw it was a strong state acting for the benefit of all its citizens. Nor did his sense of expediency vary: one still fought to win and that meant violence. For him, the Gaullist movement was an insurrectionary force and he expected it to seize power by violence. When it proved to be just another political party, he lost interest in it. His personal allegiance was to General de Gaulle who preserved France’s honor “like an invincible dream.”

For Malraux the anti-individualist, what was always needed for any great action was a sustaining myth embodied in a heroic figure. The Republic was the supreme value for his idealized hero Saint-Just: Malraux wrote in a prefatory essay of 1954 that the Republic was Saint-Just’s guiding star, in the way that Lenin’s was the proletariat, Gandhi’s was India, and de Gaulle’s was France. Proud, strong-willed, Saint-Just carried through a legendary action, as de Gaulle, the incarnation of the will to be France, had done. “Nobody at the time of the famous appeal [of 1940] believed he was France, least of all himself. He decided to be France.” Thus General de Gaulle, through his will power, embodied the national myth and preserved the dreams that had existed long before him. He divested himself of his individuality (Charles) on becoming de Gaulle, the incarnation of the French myth. This view is clearly an extension of Malraux’s own self-creating process. Where previously Malraux had attributed to Communism the role of suppressing individualism in the name of higher collective values, now he attributed that role to any powerful collective dream or national myth. It shows how important the urge to quash the individual element is for him, at the same time that he exalts the myth-embodying individual hero.

It is impossible not to be impressed by Malraux’s personal bravery and qualities of leadership, but it is more difficult to admire wholeheartedly the high priest of Gaullism. More than once his official status placed him in an awkward position, when loyalty to the government of de Gaulle required his silence. But then he had often made a virtue of discretion in his fellow-traveling days. Besides, though it is no small achievement to have beautified Paris by having its monuments cleaned, one cannot help wondering why the author of La Condition humaine preferred to deliver funeral orations and organize exhibitions (however splendid) rather than to pursue his own novelistic work; and one can only conclude that he thought literature inferior to ministerial activity.

As Minister of Culture, some of his decisions were questionable, particularly the dismissal of Jean-Louis Barrault from directorship of the Odéon theater during the events of May-June 1968. That Malraux should wish to go down to posterity as the founder of maisons de culture or cultural centers in the provinces, while worthy, seems perverse. In all likelihood he did not have any great influence on the shaping of policy. He was a valuable instrument of prestige for the regime, allowed wider scope than Racine and Boileau enjoyed as historiographers of Louis XIV, but fulfilling a similar function nevertheless. Here lies, perhaps, the final irony in this modern intellectual’s passion for action and power.

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The young Chinese of La Tentation de l’Occident expected that his last view of Europe would be of men trying to preserve “Man” in a world progressively more alien to them, because without this curious justificatory concept, they could not live. And A.D. in the same work spoke of two tendencies, one toward justification and the other toward the utter uselessness of justification. Malraux himself was irresistibly drawn to justification: in an essay on Gide in 1935 he had remarked that modern writers who exert a moral influence are “justifiers,” probably envisaging a similar role for himself. The emotional affirmation that Malraux makes in his work—whether he exalts Man, the values of self-sacrifice, courage, dignity, fraternity, the moral victory snatched from defeat, the communication of living and dead through myth and art, in short, all that is contained in the life-affirming symbol of the walnut trees of Altenburg—has no logical foundation and is precariously asserted or implied in the full knowledge of the counter-tendency of the futility of justification. Such defiant affirmation is ultimately a “mystery” in the religious sense of the word.

For in the world of Malraux, what he calls “transcendence,” the sacred, the justifying myth, the context of metaphysics, still count. Though he cannot accept religion, the “higher faith,” nevertheless in his world the absence of religion is still felt, whereas in many later writers it is an absence that goes unnoticed. Much of what passes for art today is a studied denial of meaning, not an anguished pursuit of meaning at all costs. Here is the great gulf between the world of Malraux and that of the present day. Malraux can be seen at the decaying end of the humanist line, desperately trying to shore up the wall of humanism while the tide of anti-humanism washes away his efforts.

All the same, it ought surely to be emphasized that what he is proposing tends to sound finer than it really is. One cannot help feeling suspicious of a kind of humanism that persistently reduces the individual who does not transcend himself in the collective idea or who does not embody some inspiring collective myth. Whether in some cases a collective myth might prove equivocally a force for evil as well as good does not appear to enter into his calculations, an astonishing omission in view of the havoc wrought by myth in our own day. But it is not necessary to have recourse to the familiar accusation of fascism to perceive the precariousness of Malraux’s position, even if for this convinced anti-fascist, fascism and Communism have been a near thing. His progress shows how dangerous it is to place as he has done the ultimate value and dignity of man in the rare elite, in the abstract or the mythical fraternal mass, instead of founding-it more securely upon the needs of each individual human being and the minute particulars of each individual case.

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Footnotes

1 This work has not yet been translated into English.

2 Annam was that part of French Indochina which was later divided into North and South Vietnam.

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