Gide, André (1869-1951)

André Gide

At the age of 22, Gide, who first met Wilde (then 37) in Paris on 29 November 1891, and saw him often during the next few weeks, was enormously impressed:

His manner and appearance were triumphant.... All London was soon to rush to see his plays. He was rich, he was great, he was handsome, he was loaded with happiness and honours. Some compared him to an Asiatic Bacchus, others to some Roman Emperor, and others again to Apollo himself - in short, he was resplendent.

On one evening, after they had dined, Wilde told him of his tale of Narcissus, later published as "The Disciple" in "Poems in Prose." In December, Gide's Traité du Narcisse (Treatise of the Narcissus) was privately printed, most of it written before he met Wilde. The attraction of both writers to the myth reveals their own self-absorbed personalities. On 23 December, the novelist and dramatist Jules Rénard (1864-1900) recorded in his journal that Gide was in love with Wilde; citing Gide's letters and journals, Ellmann suggests that Wilde had "spiritually seduced" him.

Gide wrote to Paul Valéry (1871-1945) that Wilde was "religiously contriving to kill" what remained of his soul "because he says that in order to know an essence, one must eliminate it: he wants me to miss my soul. The measure of a thing is the effort made to destroy it. Each thing is made up only of its emptiness ... After Wilde's departure from Paris in late December 1891, Gide stopped writing letters for several days. On 24 December, he revealed to Valéry the aftermath of Wilde's stunning impact on him: "Please forgive my silence: since Wilde, I hardly exist any more". He subsequently destroyed several pages of his journal covering the period spent with Wilde, In unpublished notes, he describes Wilde as "always trying to instil in you a sanction for evil".

On 1 January 1892, Gide recorded in his journal that his association with Wilde had done him “nothing but harm": "In his company I had lost the habit of thinking. I had more varied emotions, but had forgotten how to bring order into them." Wilde's professed abandonment of commonplace Christian morality, with its injunction on mortifying the flesh, had a profound effect on Gide: indeed, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry Wotton's hedonistic view -"Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul" - was to provide Gide, who read the novel in 1895, with a new aesthetic and ethical system - the "new Hellenism" - as Ellmann suggests, "by turning sacred things inside out to make them secular, and secular things inside out to make them sacred".

In May 1894, Gide met Wilde and Douglas by chance in Florence; on 28 May, he wrote to his mother that Wilde "has aged [he was 39] and is ugly, but still an extraordinary storyteller". In his autobiography, Si le grain ne meurt (If It Die), Gide tells the story of his encounter with Wilde in late January 1895 while in Blida, Algiers, where English homosexuals sought willing boys. He discovered that Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas were registered in the same hotel he was just leaving. Gide's first impulse was to avoid their company, for the rumours of Wilde's indiscretions were as well known in Paris as they were in London. Yet his curiosity seemed to draw him to Wilde and his companion.

As Jean Delay suggests, Gide regarded Wilde and Douglas as figures superior to plebeian existence:

The luxury with which the aesthete [Wilde] and Douglas surrounded themselves, their insolence, their extravagance, their provocations, and their pretensions of being patricians above the laws and morals of the plebs seemed, for a time, to the son of the conventional economical Mme. Gide, to be the "higher immorality" toward which he had been aiming but to which he had not yet dared aspire. 

Gide, however, now noted that Wilde's light-hearted manner had changed, for he talked of the Marquees of Queensberry's attacks on him as the prelude to a tragic destiny. As Justin O'Brien remarks: "Gide listened to him with a mingling of amazement, admiration, and fear".

On 28 January 1895, Gide, writing to his mother about his meeting with Wilde, refers to him as "that terrible man, the most dangerous product of modem civilisation" and two days later told her of Wilde's famous remark that Gide repeated in his later works: "I have put my genius into my life; I have put only my talent into my works". Wilde and Gide were now in Algiers, while Douglas (after quarrelling with Wilde) went off with a boy to Biskra. Though Gide maintained secrecy over his own sexual preference, Wilde observed his fascination with an Arab boy playing a flute in a café. When Wilde asked Gide directly whether he wanted the boy, he responded, "in the most choked of voices," that he did. This confession, O'Brien contends, "marked an important step in Gide's moral liberation".

At the time of Wilde's trials, Gide asked his mother to send him "all the press cuttings" that were available to her about "the scandalous case brought against Wilde" by Queensberry, and after Wilde's conviction, Gide read The Picture of Dorian Gray, which the prosecutor had used to discredit Wilde in court. By December 1895, some seven months after Wilde's imprisonment, petitions were circulating in London and Paris to reduce his sentence. Many of the most distinguished writers, including Zola, refused but Gide consented.

After his release from prison in May 1897, Wilde !cad Gide's Les Nourritures terrestres (The Fruits of the Earth), a celebration of the life of sensations, the character named Ménalque depicted as an ironic echo of Wilde (Ménalque reappears in L'Immoraliste, 1902). Wilde wrote to Douglas that Les Nourritures terrestres did not "fascinate" him: "The egoistic note is, of course, and always has been to me, the primal and ultimate note of modem art, but to be an Egoist one must have an Ego.... But I love André personally very deeply, and often thought of him in prison...".

When the "most charming'' Gide visited him in late June at Berneval, Wilde described the ordeal of prison, insisting that the experience had completely changed him and that he had rid himself of bitterness. As Gide was leaving, Wilde praised Les Nourritures terrestres as "very good ... but promise me you will never write a capital I again.... In art, you see, there is no first person".

In December 1898, Gide published his closet drama, Philoctète, on a tragic figure associated with the siege of Troy. Gide depicts the plight of he wounded warrior, whose "foul wound" from a snakebite has resulted in his unjust abandonment on an island - the symbolic analogy, Yvette Louria suggests, of Wilde's similar ordeal involving society's condemnation of his homosexuality (a "foul wound" that repels others), followed by imprisonment and suffering. Just as Philoctète's Nictzschean will enables him to rise above adver sity to achieve virtue, so too, as Gide hoped during his visit to Berneval in 1897, Wilde might regenerate himself.

After Berneval visit, Gide saw Wilde only twice more: once, by chance, at a café, when he gave him some money, and the final time by arrangement. On this latter occasion, Gide expressed his disappointment that Wilde had not written a play since his release, but Wilde replied: "One should not reproach someone who has been struck," When Wilde died on 30 November 1900, Gide, in Biskra, regretted his inability to attend the funeral but later published his tribute, "Oscar Wilde: In Memoriam," in L'Ermitage (June 1902), translated by Stuart Mason in 1905 as Oscar Wilde: A Study, some of which later reappeared in Si le grain ne meurt (1924). In his tribute to Wilde, Gide presents versions (or perhaps, more accurately, echoes) of several of Wilde's poems in prose - "The Disciple, "The Master," "The Doer of Good," and "The House of Judgement" - which had appeared in 1893 and 1894 (see "Poems in Prose").

Contending that "nearly everything [Gide] has written about Oscar Wilde is pure fake", Robert Sherard attacked him in André Gide's Wicked Lies about the Late Oscar Wilde (1933), expanded as Oscar Wilde: Twice Defended (1934). In a letter included in the volume, Alfred Douglas also charged that "André Gide's story about Oscar and myself in Si le grain ne meurt is a mass of lies and misrepresentations". James D. Griffin, who has studied the evidence, concludes that Gide's writings on Wilde (though they imply a closer friendship than is warranted by the facts) reveal "a keen observer [whose] accounts are of inestimable value". Griffin quotes a letter to Gide from Douglas, who wrote after he had read Si le grain ne meurt: "Supposing that what you say about my immoral conduct 35 years ago is true, still what a frightful cad you must be to reveal to the world secrets which were confided to you by a man who was your friend & who never injured you by thought word & deed!" Griffin regards Douglas's letter as "more useful as corroboration than as a refutation of Gide's book. The thrust of the argument is not so much that Gide has lied, as that he has violated Douglas' trust".

For many years, Gide read books on Wilde, often voicing displeasure with their misunderstanding of Wilde's profusion of masks. On 29 June 1913, for example, he writes in his journal that Arthur Ransome's Oscar Wilde: A Critical Study (1912), while generally good, "fails to show to what degree the plays An Ideal Husband and A Woman of No Importance are revelatory - and I was about to say confidential - despite their apparent objectivity" (later in this day's entry, Gide remarks that the "greatest interest" of Wilde's plays "lies between the lines"). Alluding to his own study of Wilde, Gide concedes that he was "not altogether just to [Wilde's] work" and turned up his nose at it "too readily - I mean before having known it sufficiently": "As I think it over I wonder at the good grace with which Wilde listened to me when, in Algiers, I criticised his plays (very impertinently it seems to me today). No impatience in the tone of his reply, and not even a protest ......

When André Maurois published a study of Wilde in his Études anglaises (1927), Gide wrote in his journal on 1 October that he objected to Maurois's view of Wilde's aestheticism, which, Gide wrote, assumes "that Wilde's way of life was a dependence on his aestheticism and that he merely carried over into his habits his love of the artificial":

I believe quite on the contrary that this affected aestheticism was for him merely an ingenious cloak to hide, while half revealing, what he could not let be seen openly; to excuse, provide a pretext, and even apparently motivate; but that very motivation is but a pretence. Here, as almost always, and often even without the artist's knowing it, it is the secret of the depths of his flesh that prompts, inspires, and decides....

Gide also contends that Wilde's plays, "reveal, besides the surface witticisms, sparkling like false jewels, many oddly revelatory sentences of great psychological interest. And it is for them that Wilde wrote the whole play - let there be no doubt about it.... Wilde made up his mind to make of falsehood a work of art."

References: André Gide, Oscar Wilde: A Study, trans. Stuart Mason (1905); If It Die: An Autobiography, trans. Dorothy Bussy (1935); Justin O'Brien, trans. and ed., The Journals of André Gide, 1889-1939, 3 vols. (1947-49); Yvette Louria, "Le Contenu Latent du Philoctète Gidien," French Review (April 1952); Justin O'Brien, Portrait of André Gide (1953); Jules Rénard, Journal, 1887-1910 (1960); Jean Delay, The Youth of André Gide, trans. June Guicharnaud (1963); Robert Mallet, ed., and June Guicharnaud, trans., Self-Portraits: The Gide/Valéry Letters, 1890-1942 (1966); Richard Ellmann, "Corydon and Ménalque," Golden Codgers (1973); James D. Griffin, "The Importance of Being Spurious: Gide's 'Lies,' a Forged Letter, and the Emerging Wilde Biography," Journal of Modern Literature (March 1983); André Gide, Correspondance avec sa mère, 1880-1895, ed. Claude Martin (1988); Patrick Pollard, Andre Gide: Homosexual Moralist (1991); Jonathan Dollimore, "Wilde and Gide in Algeria," Sexual Dissidence (1992); Jonathan Fryer, André and Oscar: Gide, Wilde and the Gay Art of Living (1997).