Commentary Magazine

Anti-Memoirs, by Andre Malraux

Hero Politics

by Andre Malraux.
Translated by Terence Kilmartin. Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 420 pp. $8.95.

In 1934 André Malraux flew to Mareb to photograph what might have been the ancient capital of the Queen of Sheba. Recalling the adventure in Anti-Memoirs, he thinks of Arnaud, the first European to explore the region, and sketches his story. It is the story of a man reaching Mareb in disguise and leaving with rubbings of ancient inscriptions and a hermaphrodite donkey; of his adventures among the Arabs as a disguised freak-showman and a candle salesman; of his return, after ten months of blindness, to France—Arnaud subsequently to be sent on several archaeological missions, the donkey to be exhibited at the Jar-din des Plantes; of a later return to France when Arnaud found a nation so impoverished by the 1848 Revolution that it could not afford to buy his collections; of Arnaud's decline into poverty in Algeria, and of the donkey's starvation in the Jardin des Plantes. “I should like to have known Arnaud,” says Malraux, “with his zouave beard, his solemnity, his candles, his casual heroism, his simple and charming genius for adventure. Perhaps, unwittingly, I went to Sheba to look for his ghost? Or for that of his donkey, which I would have liked too, and which probably died among the polar bears and the penguins, delighted with this donkey paradise promised by Allah, but unable to understand, utterly unable to understand, why it was being held prisoner there and why they had stopped feeding it.”

This anecdote, in its conciseness, wit, and subtlety, is one of the highlights of Anti-Memoirs; it serves to remind us that whatever else he may be, Malraux is also a man of literature, delighting in characterization and irony, knowledgeable about what makes a story. Indeed, much can be said about the purely literary character of Anti-Memoirs. Its formal structure contains a narrative of the present, framed by an official journey to the Far East in 1965, which generates recollections of the past demanding their own narratives; it includes character sketches, recreated dialogues with the great and unknown, scenes reproduced from novels, and even a film scenario read by the Baron de Clappique, a character from Man's Fate, whom Malraux imagines meeting during his Singapore stopover. The whole is bound together by novelistic apparatuses such as narrative-within-a-narrative and shifting points-of-view.


But emphasis on Anti-Memoirs as literature can be misleading. The brief recollection of Arnaud, for instance, which can be considered a kind of innocent recognition of the literary possibilities of a hero, pure and simple, takes on in the context of this book a significance which is not innocent in the least—a significance, that is to say, which is ultimately political. Arnaud is only one of several heroes in Anti-Memoirs who stand somewhere between literature and history, in a region whose defining characteristics seem to have been deliberately obscured. The resulting vagueness works finally to the advantage neither of literature nor of politics—to no one's advantage, in fact, except possibly Malraux's.


Anti-Memoirs is a celebration of the public man; a memoir of a sort, though not a confessional one. It is the public man we are to see; and, the message is clear, that's all we need ask to see. Malraux looks at the other characters in his book as he would have us look at him:

What interests me in any man is the human condition; in a great man, the form and essence of his greatness; in a saint, the character of his saintliness. And in all of them, certain characteristics which express not so much an individual personality as a particular relationship with the world (emphasis added).

Thus, Malraux is not greatly disturbed that he does not know General de Gaulle in any directly private sense. The private de Gaulle “was not at all a man who spoke about his private life, he was simply a man who did not talk about affairs of state.”

The private is the absence of the public. And hence too there is no irony when Malraux observes of de Gaulle: “He thought of the great men of history in terms of their achievements, and of all men, perhaps, in terms of what he judged them capable of achieving.” About Nehru in his villa Malraux writes: “He moved among his temporary furniture like a Siamese cat—but also like the muse of history through the columns of newspapers, for he belonged too much to history not to seem more at home in the Capitol than in his villa.” About Mao Tse-tung: “The Long March portrays him better than any personal trait.”

The public men whom Malraux celebrates, himself included, share certain characteristics. Arnaud, for instance, is a farfelu—a kind of crazy, quixotic adventurer. The type is resurrected several times from Malraux's early fantasy Royaume-Farfelu, appearing later as Marie-David de Mayrena, legendary French adventurer in Indochina (who was evidently a vague prototype for Perken in The Royal Way). Mayrena is also the subject of “Clappique's” film scenario which takes up nearly the whole of the fourth section of Anti-Memoirs. Clappique's fascination is obviously Malraux's, but the question to be asked is: where does the quixotic adventurer end and the Great Man, like de Gaulle, with whom Malraux is equally fascinated, begin? (The question is complicated by the fact that there are figures Malraux is known to admire who may strike us as not exactly de Gaulle-like and not exactly farfelus either: T. E. Lawrence, for example.) There seems in fact to be no firm boundary in Malraux between the Great Man and the farfelu, unless it is at the point where the possibility of comedy ends: it is more difficult to smile over de Gaulle than over Arnaud or Mayrena.


If we were to take a quantitative view of Anti-Memoirs, we would notice that the five major characters, in terms of the amount of space devoted to them, are Malraux, de Gaulle, Nehru, Mao, and Mayrena. What are we to make of this? Is Malraux out to debunk the idea of the Great Man? Or to “humanize” the type by implying a faint quixotic quality? Perhaps so; this book, after all, “is haunted, often in the midst of tragedy, by a presence as elusive and unmistakable as a cat slipping by in the dark: that of the farfelu.” But that is not the entire story.

There is an obvious moral advantage which the man with a cause has over an adventurer like Perken who is motivated only by the desire “to leave his scar on the map,” no matter how dull the quality of commitment may seem when compared with the quality of pure adventure. Malraux the moralist seems to recognize the advantage and Malraux the aesthete the dullness, so that the absence of any firm boundary between his great men and his quixotic adventurers would suggest that for him the hero represents a kind of fusion of the two, the comical transcended and something else added. His admiration for Mao, for example, is less an admiration for what he has achieved than an admiration for the act of achieving itself. “No man will have shaken history so powerfully since Lenin.” The map is scarred, but this time with a cause. As Stanley and Inge Hoffman have noted in Daedalus: “It is easy to see why Malraux should have become fascinated by the General, for the public figure is like the embodiment of Malraux's ideal. He is a character in a novel Malraux never wrote, but that would combine all of Malraux's strivings; he is also the work of art so much admired by Malraux, that which takes off from past masterpieces, expresses a transcendent faith, and conquers time. De Gaulle is that adventurer with a cause. . . .”


So much admiration for de Gaulle, Nehru, Mao. What have they in common beyond leaving their scars on the map? Their causes? Each of them is a nationalist. But one is a sort of republican monarch with technocratic leanings, one a variety of social democrat, one a totalitarian Communist. What we are finally reduced to is Malraux's own relationship to ideology. W. M. Frohock wrote in 1952 that Malraux practiced a “politics of refusal,” making his commitments in terms of what he could not accept. Although this might have been true with respect to the choice of socialism over liberalism and fascism, or of fellow-traveling over Trotskyism at the time of the Spanish Civil War, it is not true in the same way with respect to the choice of Gaullism over any of its alternatives. Rather, Malraux appears to have chosen his present political colors because, being Malraux, there was no place else for him to go.

For Malraux is a man who has rejected ideology entirely. “I married France” is no ideology; it is a vague sentiment. “We have no faith in programs but only in objectives,” he says in one of his Gaullist writings. “Let us define our objectives one after another, reach them as fast as possible, and then go on to what follows.” But what are the objectives? Throughout Anti-Memoirs he talks about methods, apparatuses (“General de Gaulle wanted to create an apparatus that would serve France in peace as a modern army would have served her in war”), but when objectives are mentioned they are always something on the order of “the development of France.” Nor should one confuse Gaullist nationalism itself with ideology. It is not the Nation that most profoundly moves Malraux; there is too much celebration in Anti-Memoirs of Egyptian engravings and Hindu sculpture—and too much intelligence.


At bottom, all of Malraux's talk about the personality of France, about program-less objectives which are to generate other objectives, is of a piece with his admiration for adventurers, whether they are moved by a cause or are causeless; it finally comes down to a premium on movement itself, to a kind of ethic of dynamism that has been his at least from the time of Garine of The Conquerors.

Where is a man with a dynamic non-ideology to go? Ultimately, a man without an ideology, but a man committed through temperament to action on a broad scale (which means politics), is going to have to move either toward technocracy or toward hero politics. Technocratic politics has been a considered alternative for Malraux. He argued for as much in an essay which appeared in the Winter 1954-55 Yale French Studies, “The ‘New Left’ Can Succeed!” (the New Left being, at that time, Gaullism). But it is hard to imagine Malraux putting his faith entirely in some form of managerialism. In Anti-Memoirs he mentions coming several times upon a “French presence” in the Third World. “Soviet Russia has not erased it. In the underdeveloped countries, the machine brings qualified technicians instead of an industrial proletariat. And wherever revolution is called for not by the proletariat but by the nation, the message of the French Revolution, the exaltation of the fight for justice from Saint-Just to Jaurès, by way of Michelet and above all Victor Hugo, has retained a prestige at least as great as that of Marxism.” How easy, and revealing, is the transition from talking about technicians to drawing a romantic association with the French Revolution and a pantheon of assorted Frenchmen. The ultimate choice Malraux has made is hero politics.

Now, hero politics has the distinct advantage, no small one, of seeming incredibly dynamic; it allows and even encourages the confusion between the movement and direction of a nation's politics and destiny (a rather lumbering and awkward thing, locked in a million historical, social, and economic variables) and the hero's self and personality. Its dynamism, in other words, is more symbolic than real, and being so, can lend itself to rather disturbing forms. Ordinary politics, after all, is rather boring; not so the politics—the spectacle, one might say—of the Leader. In his and Hans Rogger's The European Right, Eugen Weber writes of a romantic and potentially fascist notion which should be familiar to anyone with a historical sense that looks back even a few decades. “Where democratic politicians are sordidly un-heroic,” Weber summarizes, “the dictator appears ‘a tragic character’ . . . , painted in Byronic terms.” The reference to fascism aside—in a discussion of Malraux it is surely misleading—Weber's characterization of the leader as tragic figure makes an essential point about the nature of hero politics.


What arises unmistakably throughout Anti-Memoirs is the image of the Great Man as a tragic figure; the cat slipping by in the dark is forgotten. De Gaulle is “the alibi of France,” a man with history on his shoulders, moved by a conception so large and burdensome, though willingly assumed, as to render him without-the-private: Charles must give way to Le Grand Charles, Le Général. Nehru, out of place in a villa, a stranger among the furniture, is the tragic guru of a nation with a destiny as large as its problems. Mao, responsible to the past and future of the Revolution, isolated from a general population which perhaps doesn't fully understand its meaning and a younger generation which never experienced it, alienated by situation and choice from the revisionist camp, says: “‘I am alone,’. . . . And suddenly he laughs: ‘Well, with a few distant friends: please give General de Gaulle my greetings. As for them’ (he means the Russians) ‘the revolution doesn't really interest them, you know.’ ” As Malraux drives away, Mao is silhouetted—like Lord Jim—against the background. “Overhead, an airplane flashes past. With his hand to his forehead in the age-old gesture, the Old Man of the Mountain watches it recede, shading his eyes from the sun.” Or de Gaulle again, at the time of insurrection in Algiers:

He had come out of retreat, for that is what the meditation of the past is, especially for a man whose memories are epic. . . . He had emerged from the deep solitude he always bore within himself for the purpose of negotiations, but also for the sake of France's destiny which had haunted him for so many years. . . . I spoke about the youth of France. “If I can see a new young generation before I die,” he said, “it will be . . .” Perhaps his tone signified “. . . it will be as momentous as the Liberation.” But he left the sentence in midair, like his gesture.

And a few pages later: “I believe that the hope aroused by his decision of June 1940 had always, for him, remained tinged with tragedy.” By now the Great Man has become a kind of tragic scapegoat, redeeming the community through his suffering.


The objection may be raised that Malraux here is merely making an aesthetic observation. But it is a false objection, for it overlooks the fact of Malraux's own participation in the political processes upon which he is commenting. Insofar as Malraux offers us literary criticism, that criticism takes the form of setting forth political priorities. Literature for Malraux is not that “equipment for living” which so aesthetically committed a man as Kenneth Burke would have, not literature as comment on life, nor even literature as enricher of life, but literature instead of life, or perhaps life as literature. The citizens of the nation are to gain some sense of well-being and dignity from observing the hero's suffering, and live vicariously through his peripeties and catastrophes and denouements. This is not harmless armchair romanticism; it is the political style, become substance, of a Minister of France, a confidant of Le Général, a novelist of tremendous and deserved reputation.

When political thought is made to pass for literature, or vice versa, a good deal of cant becomes possible, and a good deal of self-delusion as well. For the reader, the problem becomes one of distinguishing the naked emperor from the clothed, the merely aesthetic from the political, the fanciful from the programmatic. It is a problem which Malraux himself has so far managed to avoid confronting. In a politician, this may perhaps be an understandable lapse, albeit a dangerous one; in an intellectual, it constitutes a betrayal of vocation.

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