We must remember the past to overcome it.

from The Immoralist by André Gide page 134 fiction ~5 min read

"One imagines one possesses and in reality one is possessed," he went on. "Pour yourself out a glass of Shiraz, dear Michel; you won't often taste it; and eat some of those rose-colored sweets which the Persians take with it. I shall drink with you this evening, forget that I am leaving tomorrow, and talk as if the night were long. ... Do you know the reason why poetry and philosophy are nothing but dead-letter nowadays? It is because they have severed themselves from life. In Greece, ideas went hand in hand with life; so that the artist's life itself was already a poetic realization, the philosopher's life a putting into action of his philosophy; in this way, as both philosophy and poetry took part in life, instead of remaining unacquainted with each other, philosophy provided food for poetry, and poetry gave expression to philosophy– and the result was admirably persuasive. Nowadays beauty no longer acts; action no longer desires to be beautiful; and wisdom works in a sphere apart."

"But you live your wisdom," said I; "why do you not write your memoirs? Or simply," I added, seeing him smile, "recollections of your travels?"

"Because I do not want to recollect," he replied. "I should be afraid of preventing the future and of allowing the past to encroach on me. It is out of the utter forgetfulness of yesterday that I create every new hour's freshness. It is never enough for me to have been happy. I do not believe in dead things and cannot distinguish between being no more and never having been."

These words were too far in advance of my thoughts not to end by irritating me; I should have liked to hang back, to stop him; but I tried in vain to contradict, and besides I was more irritated with myself than with Menalque. I remained silent therefore, while he, sometimes pacing up and down like a wild beast in a cage, sometimes stooping over the fire, kept up a long and moody silence, or again broke abruptly into words:

"If only our paltry minds," he said, "were able to embalm our memories! But memories keep badly. The most delicate fade and shrivel; the most voluptuous decay; the most delicious are the most dangerous in the end. The things one repents of were at first delicious."

Again a long silence; and then he went on:

"Regrets, remorse, repentance, are past joys seen from behind. I don't like looking backwards and I leave my past behind me as the bird leaves his shade to fly away. Oh, Michel! every joy is always awaiting us, but it must always be the only one; it insists on finding the bed empty and demands from us a widower's welcome. Oh, Michel! every joy is like the manna of the desert which corrupts from one day to the next; it is like the fountain of Ameles, whose waters, says Plato, could never be kept in any vase. . , . Let every moment carry away with it all that it brought."

Menalque went on speaking for long; I cannot repeat all his words; but many of them were imprinted on my mind the more deeply, the more anxious I was to forget them; not that they taught me much that was new– but they suddenly laid bare my thoughts– thoughts I had shrouded in so many coverings that I had almost hoped to smother them.

And so the night of watching passed.

The next morning, after I had seen Menalque into the train that carried him away, as I was walking home on my way back to Marceline, I felt horribly sad and full of hatred of his cynical joy; I wanted to believe it was a sham; I tried to deny it. I was angry with myself for not having found anything to say to him in reply; for having said words that might make him doubt my happiness, my love. And I clung to my doubtful happiness– my "calm happiness," as Menalque had called it; I could not, it was true, banish uneasiness from it, but I assured myself that uneasiness was the very food of love, I imagined the future and saw my child smiling at me; for his sake I would strengthen my character, I would build it up anew. . . . Yes, I walked with a confident step.

Alas! when I got in that morning, I was struck by a sight of unaccustomed disorder. The nurse met me and told me guardedly that my wife had been seized in the night with bad sickness and pains, though she did not think the term of her confinement was at hand; feeling very ill, she had sent for the doctor; he had arrived post-haste in the night and had not yet left the patient; then, seeing me change color, I suppose, she tried to reassure me, said that things were going much better now, that ... I rushed to Marceline's room.

The room was darkened and at first I could make out nothing but the doctor, who signed to me to be quiet; then I saw a figure in the dark I did not know. Anxiously, noiselessly, I drew near the bed. Marceline's eyes were shut; she was so terribly pale that at first I thought she was dead; but she turned her head towards me, though without opening her eyes. The unknown figure was in a dark corner of the room, arranging, hiding, various objects; I saw shining instruments, cotton wool; I saw, I thought I saw a cloth stained with blood. ... I felt I was tottering. I almost fell into the doctor's arms; he held me up. I understood; I was afraid of understanding...

"The child?" I asked anxiously.

He shrugged his shoulders sadly. I lost all sense of what I was doing and flung myself sobbing against the bed. Oh! how suddenly the future had come upon me! The ground had given way abruptly beneath my feet; there was nothing there but an empty hole into which I stumbled headlong.

My recollections here are lost in dark confusion. Marceline, however, seemed at first to recover fairly quickly.[1]

  1. Marceline is considered the embodiment of ideals the author tries to present, therefore we should note her responses in contrast to the narrator's responses as important and distinct. Why does Marceline recover quickly, whereas the narrator gets "lost in dark confusion"? Note that the preceding paragraphs were about memory and recollection, and the tumult occurs immediately afterwards. ↩︎

—André Gide, The Immoralist, p. 134