André Gide – On Nietzsche: Letter to Angèle

By Fergus Cullen

Gide in 1893

Today marks seventy years since the death of André Gide. What follows is a translation—the first into English, it seems—of the twelfth of his “Lettres à Angèle,” published irregularly in L’Hermitage between 1898 and 1900, and collected in Prétextes (Paris: Mercure de France, 1919): see pp. 166–82.

The titular “Angèle” is a salonnière of Gide’s invention who appears in his novel Paludes (1895). When Gide amicably upbraids “certain of your friends” we may take him to be speaking of and to the respectable Parisian intelligentsia of the 1890s.

This text reveals as much about Gide as about Nietzsche. The Protestant Gide finds a kindred spirit in the Lutheran Nietzsche, and makes interesting hints about Protestantism’s part in the “self-overcoming of morality through truthfulness” and the “self-overcoming of the moralist into his opposite” (Ecce Homo, “Fatality,” § 4). Gide’s Nietzsche foreshadows the Parisian Nietzsche of Bataille, Klossowski and Deleuze: here is the same preoccupation with madness and disinterest in “grand politics” and the “ascending type.” He recognises the unity and continuity of Nietzsche’s oeuvre (I would direct those who doubt his assertion that all of Nietzsche can be found “en germe” in The Birth of Tragedy to § 18 of that book), but emphasises Nietzsche’s “No”—to the bourgeois nineteenth century that so stifled Gide—at the expense of his “Yes.”

Paris, 10 December 1898

Dear Angèle,
You should have received two big books of Nietzsche’s by the same post. You will probably not read them; but I want you to have them all the same. They are my little gift for January.
And I would prefer, it is true, to send you dates from the depths of Algeria, as I did so prettily in years past. Alas! Paris keeps me still; and if I dwell too long upon it, the approach of a new year here saddens me.—That I might tell of sand and palms! I am more at home among them than among philosophers… But I am far away, and with Nietzsche, dear friend; if I am sombre, please excuse me.
Thanks be to Mr. Henri Albert who has given us our Nietzsche at last, and in a very good translation. We have long awaited it! Impatience already induced us to riddle out the text;—but one reads foreign languages so poorly!
And maybe it is better that this translation should have been so long in coming: thanks to this cruel tardiness Nietzsche’s influence among us has preceded the appearance of his work; this falls on ready ground; it would otherwise have risked not taking; now it does not so much surprise as confirm; what it teaches above all is its splendid and enthusiastic vigour;—but this was almost no longer necessary: for one might say that Nietzsche’s influence matters more than his work, or even that his work is only to influence.
Still, and in spite of everything, the work matters: for his influence was beginning to be distorted.—To understand Nietzsche well one must fall for him; and only minds prepared for him by a sort of native Protestantism or Jansenism can do so correctly: minds never as horrified as by scepticism, or in whom scepticism, as a new form of belief changing love into hatred, nurtures all the heat of faith.—Which is why wits as ingenious and supple as Mr. Wyzewa fool themselves: few studies on Nietzsche (to speak only of the most remarkable) betray Nietzsche as utterly as his [1]. He would see in him a pessimist: Nietzsche is first and foremost a believer. He can see nothing in his work but demolitions and ruins: they are there; but praise be to those who let us build! They only ruin what discourages and diminishes our belief in life…:
“the ideal of the most world-approving, exuberant and vivacious man, who has not only learnt to compromise and arrange with what was and is, but wishes to have it again as it was and is, for all eternity, insatiably calling out da capo, not only to himself, but to the whole piece and play; and not only the play, but actually to him who requires the play—and makes it necessary; because he always requires himself anew—and makes himself necessary.” [2]
Yes, Nietzsche demolishes; he undermines; yet this by no means despondently, but ferociously; nobly, gloriously, superhumanly, like a young conqueror who violates the old. The fervour that he brings he passes on to others that they might construct. The horror of repose, of comfort, of all that offers life a diminution, a dulling, a dormancy: this is what spurs him to burst walls and vaults: “A man is productive only in so far as he is rich in contrasted instincts,” he says; “he can remain young only on condition that his soul does not begin to take things easy and to yearn for peace” [3]. He undermines exhausted works, and not to make new ones himself;—but he does more: he makes workers. He demolishes to demand more from them; corners them.
What is so admirable is that he fills them at the same time with joyful life, that he laughs with them among the ruins, that he scatters seeds with the strength of his arm. He is never more glowing with health than after ruining sad or morbid things. Every page is therefore saturated with a creative energy; indistinct novelties ferment there; he foresees; he urges; he calls;—and he laughs.—An admirable work? No;—but the preface to admirable works. Does Nietzsche demolish? Come now! He builds:—he builds, I tell you! He builds with fists flying.
I would like to be able better to praise the little book on Nietzsche by Lichtenberger [4]. In the absence of Nietzsche himself, it is this, dear Angèle, which I would advise you to read. I would do so more willingly had a certain timidity of wit not induced the author to treat his subject with an excess of conscience. Yes, to speak properly of Nietzsche takes more passion and less schooling; more passion first and foremost, and therefore less caution. The last chapter, in the form of a conclusion taking the entirety of Nietzsche’s work for its subject, asks in what ways he is good, in what ways he is bad,—etc.;—he weighs, limits, defends. Nietzsche gives rise to things so horrible to his eyes! So if fear does prevail, I would sooner see Nietzsche banned outright than only his comforting parts approved. These are parts of a whole. Moderation suppresses it. And I understand that Nietzsche terrifies; but ideas that do not at first offend will never then be reformatory.
All this would not suffice to make me criticise this little book; I blame it for more specific reasons: certain of your friends,—Christians, it is true,—have been able with its aid to represent Nietzsche as “someone excessively unhappy.” And it really is vexing, you must admit, to seek joy even in madness, and to glorify it through suffering, truly to be a martyr, in the full sense of the word, only to represent to certain eyes “someone excessively unhappy”!—But Christian joy is reluctant to admit any other form of joy to its own: unable to suppress it, it denies it.
“A profoundly unhappy work,” Mr. Wyzewa also says, and still others will say for some time. Assuredly, it is high time that this translation should appear!
These two books make Nietzsche as well understood as the complete works—of an admirable monotony—ever could [5]. Twelve volumes; no novelty from one volume to the next; only the tone changes, growing more lyrical and more biting, more frenzied.
From his first work (The Birth of Tragedy), one of the most beautiful, Nietzsche asserts himself and shows himself as he will be: all his future writings are there in embryo. From then on a fervour inhabits him which will touch every part of him, reducing to cinders or vitrifying anything that cannot bear such heat.
The works of philosophers are fatally monotone; no surprises there; one result applied to itself; no contradiction that is not thus an error.—“Every spirit makes its house,” says Emerson; “but afterwards the house confines the spirit” [6].—A closed system; the solidity of a city wall is its strength; it is never out of sight…or else it is a mirage: we believe ourselves to have left the system; we deceive ourselves.—Deceive ourselves!—How can I deceive myself? “Who is deceived here?”—A philosopher only ever deceives others… It is always the others who are deceived.
And Nietzsche imprisons himself; this enthusiast, this creator struggles in his system which folds in upon him from every side like a net; he knows it, and roars for knowing it, but does not free himself; he is a lion in a squirrel’s cage. What is more tragic than this: that such an anti-rationalist should yearn to prove? His means are different, but what does that matter? An artist, he does not create; he proves; he proves with passion. He denies reason; and he reasons. He denies with a martyr’s fervour.—From beginning to end his work is a polemic: twelve volumes of it; one picks one at random; one reads it matters not what; from one page to the next it is all the same; fervour alone replenishes itself; and sickness nourishes it; no rest; a choler rages ceaselessly, an inflamed passion. Is it here, then, that Protestantism was to culminate?—I believe so;—and that is why I admire him:—for the greatest liberation.
I am all-too-Protestant myself; and therefore I admire Nietzsche too greatly to dare to speak on my own behalf. I would rather let Mr. Fouillée speak. In 1895 he wrote in the Revue des Deux Mondes:
“Protestantism, having been more reactionary than Catholicism itself, thought to counter Catholic immobility with the idea of free inquiry. Once they had discovered this the Protestants had won,—and also lost. They had signed their adversaries’ death-warrant, and also their own. Their adversaries’: for against a religion enchained by itself and stuck to its past like Terminus to his pedestal they set a free, progressive religion capable of everything that free scientific inquiry offered it. Their own: for, there being no limit to free inquiry, they had created an unlimited, therefore undefined religion which would not know, when the day came that free inquiry offered it atheism, whether atheism was a part of it or not; a religion which would not know where to go and where to avoid; a religion destined to peter out in the unending circle of philosophism that it had opened. All free thought being implicit in free inquiry, all free thought, all philosophism, all intellectual anarchy was contained within Protestantism, once it ceased to be Catholicism.” [7]
Certainly this brings no comfort; and nothing is more opposed to comfort. Nothing is more opposed to these phrases (masterful, no question) of Bossuet’s from his Lettres pastorales:
“We have never condemned our predecessors; and we leave the faith of the Churches as we found it […]. God has willed that Truth should be handed down to us from Priest to Priest and from hand to hand without innovation. It is in this that we recognise what has always been believed and what, in consequence, must always be believed. It is, so to speak, in this always that the strength of the Truth and of the Promise appears; and it is lost entirely as soon as it is interrupted in but one place.” [8]
But Nietzsche does not seek to comfort, he who says again: “Nothing has grown more alien to us than that old desire—the ‘peace of the soul,’ which is the aim of Christianity. Nothing could make us less envious than the moral cow and the plump happiness of a clean conscience” [9]. And moreover: “The most beautiful life for the hero is to prepare himself for death in combat” [10].
I hope that these few citations clarify the issue for you a little, help you understand why Nietzsche appears and will continue to appear to some as “someone excessively unhappy.”—I would oblige you too ineptly by saying that it is not “happiness” that he seeks: for it is precisely “what one seeks” that one calls “happiness”;—but it is difficult to continue to call “happiness” what one would not wish upon oneself. Too bad! I will admit it of Nietzsche’s happiness, dear friend.
What things I wish to tell you of him! But time is short; I write almost at random, hastily. Excuse me. I will return to this point.—How could I not? I embarked upon Nietzsche despite myself; I was awaiting him before I knew him,—before I knew him even by name. A sort of charming fatality led me to the places he had travelled, to Switzerland, to Italy;—led me to choose to stay a winter at Sils-Maria in the Upper Engadine, where, I then learnt, he had agonised most gently. And then step by step, reading him, it seemed he provoked my own thoughts.
We owe Nietzsche an overdue gratitude: without him generations might have been busy insinuating timidly what he affirms with hardihood, with mastery, with madness. Oneself, more personally, one risked letting one’s work be burdened by the formless movements of thoughts,—of thoughts now spoken. It is on this basis that one must create, and that the work of art is now possible.—This is what just led me to characterise Nietzsche’s whole work as a preface: as a Preface to Any Future Dramaturgy, one might say.—Nietzsche knows it, shows it unceasingly. It seems, anachronistically, that all his work is implied by that of a Shakespeare, a Beethoven, a Michelangelo. Nietzsche is infused through all of these. It would be still simpler to say that any great creator, any great affirmer of Life is necessarily a Nietzschean.
“Let us at last consider how exceedingly simple it is on our part to say: ‘Man should be thus and thus!’ Reality shows us a marvellous wealth of types, and a luxuriant variety of forms and changes” [11].
Nietzsche, just like a creator of characters, is besotted by the contemplation of human potential; but while other creators escape the madness of their genius by means of the continual purgation that artistic creation becomes, the fiction of their passions, Nietzsche, a prisoner in his philosophic cage, of his Protestant inheritance, goes mad.
I said that one was awaiting Nietzsche before one knew him: it is that Nietzschéisme began well in advance of Nietzsche; Nietzschéisme is at once a manifestation of superabundant life, which had already been expressed by the great artists, and also a tendency which, according to the period, was baptised “Jansenism” or “Protestantism,” and which is now called Nietzschéisme: for Nietzsche dared to follow to its end what was already murmuring latently therein.
Had I more time I would have loved to show you Nietzschéisme before Nietzsche. With citations carefully selected I might have circumnavigated almost its every side; but this would be too much for today; otherwise what I ought first and foremost to have cited are phrases from Beethoven’s final works. I will return to this point. Let me show you, just in passing, this passage from Dostoyevsky. Nobody was of more help to Nietzsche than Dostoyevsky.—I will quote, then go; and if you do not understand, tell me: I will explain by the next post [12].—The following is to be found towards the end of The Possessed.
The speaker (Kirillov) is half-mad. He must commit suicide in a quarter of an hour. The listener is planning to profit off this suicide; it is a matter of saddling Kirillov with a crime that he, the listener, has committed. Kirillov, before killing himself, must sign a document in which he declares himself guilty. Precisely at the moment at which we enter the conversation between these two wanders; Kirillov hesitates, is no longer capable of anything, even of suicide; he threatens to regain his reason; all is lost for Pyotr, the listened, if he cannot put Kirillov back in a position to kill himself. (So true is it that any pathological unconscious state can suggest new actions to an individual which his reason will then strive to admit, to endorse, to systematise.) A whole philosophy, a whole suddenly-improvised morality seems to motivate this action which, reciprocally, motivates this philosophy. This is what Kirillov, spurred on by Pyotr, comes to say, superuomo for an instant,—just an instant, if you please,—only the moment of his suicide:
““So at last you understand!” cried Kirillov rapturously. “So it can be understood if even a fellow like you understands. Do you understand now that the salvation for all consists in proving this idea to every one? [13] Who will prove it? I! I can’t understand how an atheist could know that there is no God and not kill himself on the spot. To recognise that there is no God and not to recognise at the same instant that one is God oneself is an absurdity […]. If you recognise it you become a Tsar, and then you won’t kill yourself but will live in the greatest glory.
“But one, the first, must kill himself, for else who will begin and prove it? So I must certainly kill myself, to begin and prove it. Now I am only a god against my will and I am unhappy, because I am bound to assert my will. All are unhappy because all are afraid to express their will. Man has hitherto been so unhappy and so poor because he has been afraid to assert his will in the highest point and has shown his self-will only in little things, like a schoolboy. I am awfully unhappy, for I’m awfully afraid. Terror is the curse of man… But I will assert my will, I am bound to believe that I don’t believe. I will begin and will make an end of it and open the door, and will save. That’s the only thing that will save mankind and will recreate the next generation physically; for with his present physical nature man can’t get on without his former God, I believe. For three years I’ve been seeking for the attribute of my godhead and I’ve found it; the attribute of my godhead is self-will! That’s all I can do to prove in the highest point my insubordination and my new terrible freedom. For it is very terrible. I am killing myself to prove my independence and my new terrible freedom.”” [14]
Kirillov kills himself; Pyotr “becomes a Tsar.”—Nietzsche, sombre in madness, is currently living his superuomo!
I know very well that Dostoyevsky puts these words in the mouth of a madman; but perhaps a little madness is necessary in order to be able to say certain things for the first time;—perhaps Nietzsche understood this. What matters is that these things be said: for then there is no need to be mad in order to think them.
But now the reasonable come and say, “This is a sickness”; the orthodox, “His ultimate madness condemns his system”;—I say that these are the very same that cried unto Christ on the Cross: “If thou be Christ, save thyself” [15]. Here there is a grave misunderstanding. I do not care to know which was cause and which effect; and I would rather say that Nietzsche made himself mad. And perhaps in order to write such pages he had to consent to sickness [16]: it is a kind of devotion. Lombroso’s books only bother idiots [17].—At his life’s outset Nietzsche’s reason challenges him to a tragic match in which his very reason is at stake. He plays against himself, loses his reason,—but wins the match; he wins because he is mad.
Nietzsche wanted to understand, even to madness; his clairvoyance was more and more fevered, cruel, deliberate. The more clearly he saw the more highly he extolled unconsciousness. Nietzsche wanted joy at any price. With all his reason’s power he spurred himself onwards to madness, as if towards a refuge. That his overwrought genius might find comfort there!—I read last year, in Débats, I think, a brief article in which Nietzsche was discussed. He was shown close to his sister, distracted, carefree, not unhappy.—“He chats with me,” said his sister, “and is interested in everything around him, quite as if he were not mad;—only he no longer knows that he is Nietzsche. Sometimes, looking at him, I cannot restrain my tears; then he says, ‘Why are you crying? Are we not happy?’”
Goodbye, dear friend!—God judges your happiness!
Editorial notes are bracketed. The rest are Gide’s own.
1. [Téodor de Wyzewa, Écrivains étrangers (Paris: Perrin 1896), pp. 3–51.]
2. [Beyond Good and Evil, transl. Helen Zimmern (Edinburgh: Foulis, 1911), § 56. Gide quotes, rather differently: “[…] et non pour tout le spectacle seul, mais au fond pour moi, parce que le spectacle m’est nécessaire—parce qu’il me rend nécessaire—parce que je lui suis nécessaire—et parce que je le rends nécessaire.”]
3. [Twilight of the Idols, transl. Anthony M. Ludovici (Edinburgh: Foulis, 1911), “Morality as the Enemy of Nature,” § 3.]
4. [Henri Lichtenberger, La Philosophie de Nietzsche (Paris : Alcan, 1898).]
5. Beyond Good and Evil; Thus Spake Zarathustra.
6. [The Conduct of Life (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1860), I, “Fate,” p. 6.]
7. [The text cited is not by Alfred Fouillée but rather Émile Faguet, “Auguste Comte,” Revue des Deux Mondes, 130.3 (1 August 1895), pp. 541–2; and Gide’s quotation is rather corrupt. I have therefore translated straight from the Revue.]
8. [Gide paraphrases slightly. See Oeuvres de Messire Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, vol. 5 (Paris: Coignard, 1748), p. 246.]
9. [Twilight, loc. cit.]
10. [Gide quotes: “La plus belle vie, pour le héros, est de mûrir pour la mort, dans le combat.” Similar citations appear in Faguet, En lisant Nietzsche (Paris: Société française d’imprimerie et de librairie, 1904), p. 39, and in Jules Renard’s entry for 26 January 1897 in his Journal, 1893–98; but I have not yet located it. The closest I have found is the following, from “Richard Wagner in Bayreuth,” § 4: “Individuals cannot choose a better life than that of holding themselves ready to sacrifice themselves and to die in their fight for love and justice” (Thoughts out of Season, transl. Ludovici, vol. 1 [New York: Macmillan, 1911]). Note the similarity to Gide’s quotation to Marie Baumgartner’s rendition of the same passage: “Les individus ne peuvent vivre de plus belle vie que celle qui consiste à mûrir pour la mort et à se sacrifier dans la lutte pour la justice et l’amour” (ed. Albert).]
11. [Twilight, loc. cit., § 6.]
12. [This is the last of Gide’s “Letters to Angèle.”]
13. “If God exists, all is His will and from His will I cannot escape. If not, it’s all my will and I am bound to show self-will” [The Possessed, transl. Constance Garnett (New York: Macmillan, 1913), p. 580].
14. [Ibid., pp. 582–3. Slightly amended to conform to the version Gide quotes.]
15. [Luke, 23.39.]
16. “A cure is not my aim; | Else, like to others, I’d be base and tame” [J. W. von Goethe, Faust: Parts One and Two, transl. G. M. Priest (Chicago: Benton–Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952), p. 183.]
17. Cesare Lombroso was a criminal psychologist of hereditarian tendencies.