Nobel Laureate André Gide on the Freedom of Expression and the Vital Role of Art as Both Insurgency and Acceptance
“The sole art that suits me is that which, rising from unrest, tends toward serenity.”
By Maria Popova
“Art,” Jeanette Winterson observed in a terrific conversation about art and the human spirit, “pulls people up short. It says, don’t accept things for their face value; you don’t have to go along with any of this; you can think for yourself.” This function of art as a force of wakefulness — of wokefulness — is particularly vital and vitalizing at times of injustice and oppression, under regimes built on ideologies of mass coercion. But it comes at a price.
The complexities of that price and why it is worth paying are what the great French writer André Gide (November 22, 1869–February 19, 1951) explores throughout The Journals of André Gide (public library) — an abiding trove of wisdom from one of literature’s most luminous minds and the most cherished of young Susan Sontag’s favorite books.
In the summer of 1940, seven years after he received the Nobel Prize and just as the Nazi occupation was taking hold of France, Gide writes:
If tomorrow, as it is to be feared, freedom of thought, or at least of the expression of that thought, is refused us, I shall try to convince myself that art, that thought itself, will lose less thereby than in excessive freedom.
We are entering a period in which liberalism is going to become the most suspect and least practicable of virtues.
That fall, he supplements this sentiment with its counterintuitive conclusion:
The sole art that suits me is that which, rising from unrest, tends toward serenity.
In another entry from that year, which bears particular poignancy today, Gide writes:
To come to terms with one’s enemy of yesterday is not cowardice; it is wisdom, and accepting the inevitable. “Untersuchen was ist, und nicht was behagt” [“To investigate what is and not what pleases”], Goethe says excellently. Whoever balks at fate is caught in the trap. What is the use of bruising oneself against the bars of one’s cage? In order to suffer less from the narrowness of the jail, there is nothing like remaining squarely in the middle.
I feel limitless possibilities of acceptance in me… The much greater risk for the mind is letting itself be dominated by hatred.
Complement The Journals of André Gide with Gide on the paradox of originality, the vital balance of freedom and restraint, death as a mobilizing force for creative work, and what it really means to be yourself.
Published November 22, 2016