André Gide on Growing Happier as We Grow Older and Using Death as a Mobilizing Force for Creative Work
“Age cannot manage to empty either sensual pleasure of its attractiveness or the whole world of its charm.”
By Maria Popova
“There is, after all, something eternal that lies beyond the hand of fate and of all human delusions,” Albert Einstein wrote in his beautiful letter to the Queen of Belgium, “and such eternals lie closer to an older person than to a younger one oscillating between fear and hope. For us, there remains the privilege of experiencing beauty and truth in their purest forms.” But is it a cruel paradox or a heartening comfort that the closer we inch to death, the fuller of life’s beauty and truth we become?
That’s what the great French writer André Gide (November 22, 1869–February 19, 1951) considers in three particularly piercing entries from the altogether revelatory Journals of André Gide (public library) — the most cherished of young Susan Sontag’s favorite books, and the source of Gide’s enduring wisdom on the paradox of originality, the vital balance of freedom and restraint, and what it really means to be yourself.
In an entry from the fall of 1917, 48-year-old Gide echoes George Eliot’s reflections on aging and the life-cycle of happiness and writes:
Age cannot manage to empty either sensual pleasure of its attractiveness or the whole world of its charm. On the contrary, I was more easily disgusted at twenty, and I was less satisfied with life. I embraced less boldly; I breathed less deeply; and I felt myself to be less loved. Perhaps also I longed to be melancholy; I had not yet understood the superior beauty of happiness.
Two weeks later, Gide examines the passage of time from another angle — one grimmer at first blush but deeply enlivening in its ultimate reorientation:
The thought of death pursues me with a strange insistence. Every time I make a gesture, I calculate: how many times already? I compute: how many times more? and full of despair, I feel the turn of the year rushing toward me. And as I measure how the water is withdrawing around me, my thirst increases and I feel younger in proportion to the little time that remains to me to feel it.
Two days later, Gide revisits his thoughts and considers how the finitude of our existence can become a mobilizing creative force:
The above lines will seem prophetic if I am to die in a short while; but I shall be really ashamed if it is given to me to reread them fifteen years from now. If I could simply not know or forget my age, how little I should be aware of it! I ought never to remind myself of it except to urge myself to work.
As it happens, Gide lived not a mere fifteen years thereafter but more than twice as long. And his psychological ju-jitsu of using the accelerating imminence of death as a motivational catalyst for good work clearly worked — he became one of the most prolific and psychologically perceptive authors in modern history, producing an astonishing array of novels, stories, plays, and autobiographical writings, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1947 “for his comprehensive and artistically significant writings” full of “fearless love of truth and keen psychological insight.”
Complement this particular fragment of the wholly magnificent Journals of André Gide with Grace Paley on the art of growing older, Oliver Sacks on the measure of living, and artist Candy Chang’s Before I Die project, a visual counterpart to the sentiment at the heart of Gide’s reflections.
Published January 28, 2016