How to Master the Vital Balance of Freedom and Restraint: Young André Gide’s Rules of Conduct
“One should want only one thing and want it constantly. Then one is sure of getting it.”
By Maria Popova
French author André Gide (November 22, 1869–February 19, 1951) is one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century — in no small part, paradoxically, because he adamantly believed that a great writer must always swim against the current of his era. He dedicated his life to the problem of personal freedom and became a staunch champion of the oppressed. His work inspired legal reform in the Congo and helped loosen the grip of colonialism, championed prison reform and more humane conditions for the incarcerated, and laid the philosophical foundation for marriage equality a century before it became a legal reality. The tradeoff for Gide’s devotion to speaking truth to power was that he was systematically snubbed by the literary establishment and deprived of award nominations. It wasn’t until shortly before his death that the Swedish Academy granted him the Nobel Prize in Literature for his “fearless love of truth and keen psychological insight,” and even then 78-year-old Gide proudly declared to a journalist that if the had been asked to recant any of his subversive work in order to qualify for the prestigious accolade, he would have gladly “bade farewell to the Nobel Prize.”
But nowhere does this “fearless love of truth and keen psychological insight” reveal itself with more crystalline precision than in Gide’s six decades as a dedicated diarist with an intense inward gaze exquisitely reflective of the notion that “the more intimate you are willing to be about the details of your own life, the more universal you are”; nowhere does Gide’s deepest personhood and most universal insight on the human experience come more fully and dimensionally alive than in The Journals of André Gide (public library), of which young Susan Sontag found “such perfect intellectual communion” as she wrote in her own journal: “I finished reading this at 2:30 a.m. of the same day I acquired it — I should have read it much more slowly and I must re-read it many times.” Sontag was not alone — it is no more possible to put down Gide’s journal than it is to finish it without feeling wholly transformed.
In one of the earliest entries in the journal, from November of 1890, the 21-year-old author grapples with what would become the defining quest of his life as a thinker and a writer — the pursuit of a moral framework that combines freedom and restraint. Gide itemizes his aspiration toward proper conduct:
I am still clumsy; I should aim to be clumsy only when I wish to be. I must learn to keep silent… I must learn to take myself seriously; and not to hold any smug opinion of myself. To have more mobile eyes and a less mobile face. To keep a straight face when I make a joke. Not to applaud every joke made by others. Not to show the same colorless geniality toward everyone. To disconcert at the right moment by keeping a poker face. Especially never to praise two people in the same way, but rather to keep toward each individual a distinct manner from which I would never deviate without intending to.
Under the heading “RULE OF CONDUCT,” Gide goes on to outline his self-imposed moral mandates:
First point: Necessity for a rule.
2. Morals consist in establishing a hierarchy among things and in using the lesser to obtain the greater. This is the ideal strategy.
3. Never lose sight of the end. Never prefer the means.
4. Look upon oneself as a means; hence never prefer oneself as the chosen end, to the work.
(At this point a blank space in which the question arises as to the choice of the work, and the free choice of that work. To manifest. And yet… Can one choose?)
He adds a further admonition against this focus on the self as a means:
Thinking of one’s salvation: egotism.
The hero must not even think of his salvation. He has voluntarily and fatally consecrated himself, unto damnation, for the sake of others; in order to manifest.
A few months later, in the spring of 1891, he revisits the question of discipline in manifesting the end via the means:
One should want only one thing and want it constantly. Then one is sure of getting it. But I desire everything and consequently get nothing. Each time I discover, and too late, that one thing had come to me while I was running after another:
He then resolves:
No compromise (either ethical or artistic). Perhaps it is very dangerous for me to see other people; I always have too great a desire to please; perhaps I need solitude… (But there should not be any “perhaps” in matters of conduct. There’s no use creating question marks. Answer everything in advance. What a ridiculous undertaking! How rash!)
That he should issue this self-admonition in a parenthetical remark — the ultimate “perhaps” of punctuation — speaks to Gide’s willingness to complicate and contradict his thought, which is the greatest gift of his diary as a timeless trove of psychological insight and creative assurance.
Complement the endlessly rewarding The Journals of André Gide with some of history’s greatest writers, including Gide himself, on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, then revisit these 15 self-refinement aspirations from some of humanity’s greatest minds.
Published January 13, 2015