Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Andre Gide: The Pastoral Symphony



The 1914-1917 period was really a kind of interlude in Gide's development. The real orientation of his work was to reappear with The Counterfeiters. The Pastoral Symphony (1919) was a throwback to the past, though it profited from the preparations for the unfinished Conversations with Nicodemus and used some of the thoughts Gide had elaborated for Numquid et tu . . . Even these two works had their origins in the prewar discussions raised by Strait Is the Gate. At that time, in connection with his projected Pastoral Symphony, then entitled The Blind Girl, Gide had noted:

I shall probably have to write a preface for my Blind Girl . . . .In it I should say: "If to be a Protestant is to be a Christian without being a Catholic, then I am a Protestant." But I cannot recognize any orthodoxy other than the Roman orthodoxy, and if Protestantism, whether Calvinist or Lutheran, tried to impose its orthodoxy upon me, I should immediately turn toward the Roman as the only one. "Protestant orthodoxy" - these words have no meaning for me. I recognize no authority; and if I did recognize one, it would be that of the Church.

But my Christianity springs only from Christ. Between him and me, I consider Calvin and St. Paul as two equally harmful screens.

As early as 1893 Gide had planned to write the story of a blind girl rescued and cared for by a pastor whose charitable devotion is imperceptibly transformed into quite an earthly passion. In the 1919 story, Gertrude, the pastor's blind protege, is the victim of two distortions of the Christian faith: the pastor's inadequate doctrine of pure love and his converted son's doctrinaire reliance on the strict adherence to St. Paul's teaching. So far as Gide himself was concerned, he would seem by 1919 to have dismissed both positions with equal disapproval. Like Strait Is the Gate and The Immoralist, The Pastoral Symphony is a critical, ironic work. Gide wrote it, he said, not because he wanted to, since it was not in line with his current thought, but because it clamored to be written, having slowly developed in his mind since 1893. Unquestionably, what explains its flowering some twenty-five years later was that Gide's initial idea could so beautifully absorb the material he had accumulated more recently in the Green Notebook.

Removed as it may seem from Gide himself with its Alpine setting and its clergyman hero, The Pastoral Symphony rather curiously reproduces aspects of Gide's life. He wrote his story rapidly, between February and October, 1918. It concerns a middle-aged man who "educates" a young girl with whom, like Pygmalion, he falls in love, just as Gide flattered himself that he was "forming" the young man who so fascinated him. The pastor's jealousy of his son's good looks and his strained relations with his wife are a transposition of some of Gide's own difficulties. But The Pastoral Symphony is much less deeply rooted in Gide's life than the two previous recits, Michel and Alissa's, had been.

In this newest work, Gide used a slightly modified form of the first-person narrative. The pastor records his adventure through the fiction of two successive notebooks, reminiscent of Andre Walter's. The first notebook, written between February 26 and March 12, 1891, goes back two and a half years to relate the circumstances which brought Gertrude, the blind girl, into the pastor's home. After a one-month interval, the pastor picks up the thread of the story in the second notebook. But, in the interval, the present has overwhelmed the past. Breathlessly he notes events crowding in from all sides which elude his control, disproving the pious, edifying picture he had so carefully composed, events which precipitate Gertrude, his family and himself into a tragic impasse, where Gide leaves him, alone and emotionally destitute. At the turning point of the story, in the usual central plateau, the pastor's discussion with his son brings out the fallacy in his interpretation of the Scriptures, giving the book its Promethean dimensions.

There is nothing new in the technique Gide employs. The pastor's story is quite simple and straightforward. Called to minister to a dying woman in an isolated part of his parish in the Swiss Alps, he found, crouching by the hearth of the miserable cottage, a blind, misshapen girl covered with vermin unable to speak since her deaf grandmother had never spoken to the child. Out of pure Christian charity he brings the child back with him to his wife, who is already overburdened with housework and the care of their five children. Inspired by the story of Laura Bridgman, the pastor devotes much care and time to Gertrude's education, which makes great strides as she herself grows in goodness and beauty. Around the clergyman and his charge, absorbed in each other and in the idyllic world he is teaching her to se, one senses the growing disapproval of the family, of his wife in particular. Jacques, the clergyman's eldest son, confides to his father his wish to marry Gertrude, a perfect situation, which should ensure Gertrude's happiness, supposedly the pastor's main concern. But the young man's proposition is firmly refused. Irritated and tyrannical, the pastor sends his son away, and Gertrude too, innocently admitting her attachment to the pastor, rejects Jacques.

Here the second notebook starts, and Gide subtly develops the symbolism of sight and blindness suggested in simple fashion in the first part. The pastor who now knows the nature of his feeling for Gertrude, seeks and finds his moral justification. But retribution is on the way: an operation restores Gertrude's vision. She discovers Amelia's weary and anxious expression, the pastor's wrinkles and Jacques youthful, handsome face. When she turns to Jacques, now a priest, he knows only how to teach her the meaning of sin. Gertrude, who personifies love, goes down to the river, like Ophelia, and tries to drown herself, dying of the consequences. ...