Strait is the Gate
The Virtuous Resistance to Love
Love is usually the idealistic meeting the practical: we have a notion of what it means in our mind, and then we match it with a reality we find in the world. Very often love leads to marriage - and then frequently to divorce. Sometimes it is the other way round: an arranged marriage leads to love. And of course very often love doesn't even lead to marriage: it is an end in itself, a proper affair of the heart. But of course all we are offering thus far are a few generalisations, when what we wish to seek out is something more singular: to discuss the importance of Andre Gide's novella Strait is the Gate.
In Gide's short book he offers us a first person account of Jerome's love for his cousin Alissa Bucolin, initially unaware that Alissa's sister happens to be in love with him too. During one moment as the cousins are all now reaching adulthood, Jerome speaks to Juliette of his feelings for, and future hopes towards, Alissa. They are walking around by the shrubbery in the lower garden of the Bucolin home when he says: "I am afraid that the immense happiness, which I foresee, may frighten her. One day I asked her whether she wanted to travel. She said she wanted nothing, that it was enough for her to know that foreign countries existed, and that they were beautiful, and that other people were able to go to them." It is a scene where the crisscrossing path of feeling is at its most pronounced - as Jerome lyrically imagines his future with Alissa, so Juliette, we might surmise (and later Jerome realises), is in love with Jerome as he proposes a life with her sister that would very much appeal to her, and then we're informed that Alissa "suddenly appeared from out of the shade. She was so pale that Juliette uttered an exclamation."
What is Alissa thinking at this moment we cannot know, just as we cannot discern exactly Juliette's feelings as Jerome speaks to her. The first person narration meets a character's preoccupation: Jerome is blind to Juliette's emotions because he is so obsessed with Alissa, but later Alissa will sacrifice her love for Jerome to allow for the possible marriage between Jerome and Juliette. Yet Jerome does not love Juliette, so why make the sacrifice? Eventually Juliette will marry a man she doesn't love for the sake of convenience, but it is as though the desire for sacrifice has become paramount: that Alissa would prefer an idealised relationship with Jerome that she can keep in her mind and her heart, than an actual one tempered by the needs of companionship, marriage, children. While Juliette settles for the most pragmatic of options, Alissa seeks out the most idealistic. If we initially mused over love in its most common permutations, then Alissa seeks a love that needs a subject but no ready objective. She needs a figure she can project upon; not to project a future with. Alissa's initial willingness to sacrifice herself for her sister's happiness perhaps leads her to see that there can be pleasure in sacrifice itself. The anxiety of love, as Hegel would define it, gives way to the calm of eschewing the person loved. As Hegel says, in Peter Singer's interpretation: "desire appeared as the expression of the fact that self-consciousness needs an external object and yet finds itself limited by anything that is outside itself". Singer adds "but to desire something is to be unsatisfied, so desire is...an unsatisfactory state for self-consciousness." (Hegel) How does one achieve a satisfactory state for the self: perhaps by sacrifice or eschewal?
These are not the quite the same thing. Initially Alissa is willing to sacrifice herself for her sister's happiness. Later she is willing to eschew a future with Jerome as if finding a more agreeable state keeping a distance between herself and the man she loves. In the journal Jerome comes across after her death, Alissa says in a formulation worthy of the tortuous thinking of Hegel: "Sometimes as I listen to him talking I seem to be watching myself think. He explains me and discovers me to myself. Should I exist without him? I am only when I am with him..." "Sometimes I hesitate as to whether what I feel for him is really what people call love - the picture that is generally drawn of love is so different from that which I should like to draw. I should like nothing to be said about it, and to love him without him knowing that I love him. I should like, above all, to love him without his knowing it." If desire, as Hegel believes, is an unsatisfactory state for self-consciousness, it resides in one becoming dissatisfied and the loved person remaining an object of otherness; or one possesses the other, and they're no longer an external object; they become part of one's possession: the love becomes predictable and unsurprising. When Alissa talks about learning the piano, or reading a book in a foreign language, she says what she likes is the "slight difficulty that lies in the pursuit of their meaning and feeling the unconscious pride of overcoming this difficulty, and of overcoming it more and more successfully, adds to my intellectual pleasure a certain spiritual containment, which it seems to me I cannot do without." Yet her desire for Jerome indicates a very different and much more troublesome pleasure: "I no longer get any joy out of that part of life that has to be lived without him. My virtue is all only to please him."
In both the passage in Singer's book, and in the passage from Gide's, we have the idea of playing on words. "Singer talks of a "typical Hegelian play on words", and Alissa says, "if I were not afraid of playing on words". Are we doing the same when we talk of sacrifice versus eschewal? One suggests the religious and the profound; the other the secular and the casual. It is hyperbole to say that we sacrifice a donut because we want to avoid weight gain; it is enough that we eschew it: that we choose not to eat it. But here we are talking about young Alissa who is willing to eschew her love for Jerome, but without quite the renunciation that comes with sacrifice in, say, the form of accepting that one sister is a better match, or that God is a better master. If we use the word eschewal, it is to try and capture something of Gide's attitude towards Alissa's decision.
The book's title comes from the book of St Matthew: enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in threat. Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth into life, and few there be that find it." The passage is quoted in full by the pastor in the little chapel, during a religious sermon that is offered days after Alissa's beautiful mother has gone off with a brilliant officer. The passage from St Matthew makes a strong impression on Jerome, but perhaps makes an even stronger and contrary one on Alissa. If Jerome sees in it the need to devote himself completely to his cousin, even if they are still not much more than children, for Alissa does it have the opposite effect: that she wants to escape the earthly pleasures? Jerome can see that her mother has taken the broad path and believes his love for Alissa is the narrow one ("because strait is the gate that leadeth unto life" he thinks), but it is as though Alissa sees any earthly experience as somehow too wide a path.
Perhaps many people have a certain agoraphobia of living, a sense that life is too teeming with possibilities; life as an adventure is a bit too close to living on the edge of their own identities. Instead of seeing the world as their oyster, they would prefer to live it as a clam: closed off rather than opened up. When Jerome talks of travel he sees the world as boundless experiences. He might only want the one woman, but he wants to enjoy as much as he can with Alissa. But Alissa sees fear instead of pleasure, risk rather than respite. With Jerome soon to visit her, she writes: "as the day of our meeting comes near, I look forward to it with growing anxiety, almost with apprehension. I seem now to dread your coming that I so longed for; I try not to think of it..." When Kierkegaard says "to dare is to lose one's footing temporarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself", we can think of Alissa as willing to lose herself rather than lose her footing. She would prefer to become a shadow of herself rather than risk becoming Jerome's shadow. As Alissa says, quoting another religious philosopher, Pascal: "we do not feel our bonds as long as we follow willingly him who leads; but as soon as we begin to resist and to draw away, then indeed we suffer."
If the most obvious choices available in loving are the move towards marriage, either chosen or arranged, or the love affair that cannot for whatever reason be sustained, then the least obvious would be the love that accepts it must retain its idealistic aspect to the detriment of impacting on reality. If love is always a thought that is in one's mind, and that happily often coincides with a similar thought on somebody ease's, then its ideal state needn't be its consummation (unrequited love is still very much called love), but its retention as a mental state. Such a position is both absurd and meaningful, contingent and inevitable, purposeful and purposeless. It forces upon existence what we might call a radical perspective absent from the available choices we opened with. Alissa could choose to spend the rest of her life with Jerome, or she can choose to refuse to do so. She doesn't sacrifice herself: Jerome was never going to marry Juliette anyway. This means that all she can do is choose not to marry Jerome either. The apparent weakness of a word like choice might reside in its casual usage, but it was always a word of great resonance for existential thinking. From Pascal to Kierkegaard (who weren't afraid of religious connotations) to Sartre and Camus' more atheistic formulations, choice was the human decision exemplified. As Sartre says in Being and Nothingness, "thus we are perpetually threatened by the annihilation of our actual choice and perpetually threatened with choosing ourselves - and consequently with becoming - other than we are." Or as Gide puts it in Journals: "the thought of death pursues me with a strange insistence. Every time I make a gesture: how many times already? I compute: how many times more? And full of despair I feel the turn of the year rushing towards me."
Aware of our finite being can make us yearn for the sacrifice as cure: we can wish for an afterlife that allows us to escape from the mortality of this one. Or we can confront our daily existence and accept it is full of choices that define who we are and where we are going. Alissa has the wish initially for sacrifice; Jerome for choice. Alissa looks perhaps for an excuse to escape choice and finds it in sacrifice and then eschew. Jerome believes that if we choose well, it can carry the significance of a profound belief without demanding transcendence. When he speaks to his friend Abel, who is in love with Juliette, Abel says: "Then Alissa is sacrificing herself. She had found out her sister's secret, and wanted to give you up to her. Really, old boy, it's not very difficult to understand!" But putting aside the horror of this realisation, maybe it would be hard for Jerome to comprehend because these are two characters, Alissa and Jerome, caught in a different problematic. For all the talk we often hear about couples making compromises, this isn't about having a cat or a dog, a house in the country, or a flat in the city, this is the fundamental question of belief. Alissa is caught in a religious problem of self consistent in places with Pascal and Kierkegaard, both figures fascinated by renunciation.
Jerome would be closer to Camus and Sartre, men of sensuality. As he thinks when he is with Alissa. "And indeed I felt happy with her, so perfectly happy, that the one desire in my mind was that it should differ in nothing from hers, and already I wished for nothing beyond her smile, and to walk with her thus, hand in hand, along a sun-warmed flower-bordered path." He seeks happiness in this world and Gide captures the feeling in prose that shows Jerome's relationship with Alissa is an extension of his relationship with the environment out of which they have both come. He believes in fidelity to Alissa, but is promiscuously at one with the world of nature. "We were now sitting on the edge of an open garden frame through which were sprawling huge stalks of cucumber plants, the last fruits of which had been gathered." "Fear, care, the slightest stir of emotion even, evaporated in her smile, melted away in the delightful intimacy, like the mist in the perfect blueness of the sky." Here is a man who likes the natural and sees Alissa as part of this harmonious universe. It could resemble Camus' remarks in Summer in Algiers: "When I have been away from this country for some time, I imagine its dusks as promises of happiness. On the hills looking down over the town there are paths among the mastic-trees and olive-trees. And it is towards them that my heart then turns. I can see sheaves of black birds rising up against the green horizon. In the sky, suddenly emptied of its sun, something releases its hold. A whole flock of red cloud stretches up until it melts into the air."
In both instances we have the existential as a description of nature. Man does not avoid killing himself because it is a sin against God, he lives because one's purpose is to be a sensual figures in the world. Jerome's choice can still countenance beauty and desire; Alissa sees such properties belonging to the ever after as she struggles to comprehend what love is. "Sometimes I doubt whether there is any virtue other than love...to love a much as possible as continually more and more...But at other times, alas! Virtue appears to me to be nothing but resistance to love." Before the end of the book, Alissa will have left home and, very ill, found refuge in a nursing home where she passes away. The lawyer gives Jerome a sealed package that contains Alissa's journal and here we find a woman disappearing inside herself as the novel gives us a perspective on Alissa that is quite different either from Jerome's perception of her, or her own words in earlier letters so clearly aimed at Jerome. It is in the journal she quotes from Pascal, and in the journals where she says: "I expect nothing more from life - that I must be content now with God, and his love is sweet only if it fills to completion whatever space there is within us..." She writes this from the nursing home, where she has deposited enough money for them to leave her be as she manages to conceal her name and address. Writing there she again quotes Pascal: "whatever is not God cannot satisfy my longing."
Mixing journal content, letters, biblical quotations and philosophical passages, Gide might be famous for the purity of his style, but this can incorporate within it different registers contained by a hint of desperation as much as despair. Whether it is here, or in other novellas The Immoralist, Isabel or Pastoral Symphony, Gide balances the reflective feeling of despair, with the active one of desperation. In The Immoralist the narrator falls under the influence of a man who thinks there is nothing more detestable than people with principles. The tone of the book is reflective as the narrator recalls his story to friends, but active in the way it suggests immediacy and tension in the exchanges. The book is full of exclamation marks: "A fellow who led all our best men into mischief!" "He returned - and how right Menalque was to repudiate all memories!" "But, alas, how pale words become when compared with deeds!" In Pastoral Symphony: "and I cried out, 'Pastor that's not true!'" "O Lord, I sometimes have need of her love in order to love thee!" as the country priest falls for a blind young woman he adopts. Often using a story told to friends, diaries, notebooks or letters, Gide works up a storm but remains in the eye of it; finding calm amidst the tragic.
In Strait is the Gate this rests on searching out philosophies of feeling that makes sense from the given perspectives of the two leading characters. Jerome's can seem much the more explicable as he is both narrator and a figure who believes in love in the world and not a higher existence in the hereafter. Yet maybe it is better to see Gide's book as a little like Kierkegaard's Either/Or in miniature, with Jerome representing the importance of the worldly, and Alissa the other worldly. Where Kierkegaard explores the views of a pastor and a seducer, Gide's is more immediate and obviously fictional. However, as Camus said in reviewing Sartre's Nausea, "a novel is never anything but a philosophy put into images. And in a good novel, the whole of the philosophy has passed into the images." (Selected Essays and Notebooks) The book's purpose is to find images that will explore the possibilities in choosing, and the expectations involved in sacrifice. Even if Alissa's initial decision to retreat from loving Jerome so that she can create the opportunity for Juliette and Jerome to get married, is of course secular, that we would be more inclined to use the word sacrifice here than choice indicates the direction in which Alissa wishes to move. It is as though she doesn't choose to let her sister's affection for Jerome take precedence over her own; she wishes to sacrifice her love for Jerome to the prosaic possibility that Jerome and Juliette will marry. It suggests a certain distinction in existential philosophy we have touched upon between the theological tradition which would start with the 17th century philosopher continuing through to Kierkegaard and more obviously to 20th century figures like Martin Buber and Gabriel Marcel, and the atheistic, sensualist approach represented most clearly by Sartre and Camus. While Jerome wants to live a life predicated on the sensual after hearing the pastor's sermon, Alissa seeks an underpinning sense of God. In her journal Alissa says: "I like this room, the walls need no other decoration than their perfect cleanliness. I was quite astonished to feel almost joyful. The reason that I expect nothing more from life - that I must be content now with God, and His love is sweet only if it fills to completion whatever space there is within us..."
The notion of wanting nothing here is of course used without any broader philosophical meaning, but within the context of the book, and a certain approach to existentialist thinking, she does indeed wish for nothing - by the end of the book for the oblivion of sacrifice and the eschewal of Jerome over the choice of existence. She wants to divorce herself from the world not find herself in it. When Arthur Danto on his book on Sartrediscusses nothingness in the French philosopher's work, he talks about its everydayness. "I find that Pierre is not in the cafe, or that I have no money, or that the letter has not come. And it is these experiences which reveal nothingness to me." One way of warding off that feeling of disappointment is to avoid expectation: we want for nothing and achieve it. When late in the book we have access to Alissa's thoughts after she has passed away in the home, we read: "Still no letter from Jerome...for the last three days I have not been distracted from it for an instant...", this is an exemplification of Sartre's everyday nothingness. It can create the space for the void that one then feels cannot be filled by anything other than God's presence. As she says not long before her death: "I must be content now with God, and His love is sweet only if it fills to completion whatever space there is within us..."
The book, however does not end on Alissa's death, but ten years later when Jerome visits Juliette in her home in the South of France. She lives a full family life living in "an important house in the Avenue de Feucheres." At one moment when Jerome and Juliette are together she says "what a good father you would make and asks him what he is waiting for: shouldn't he get married? He replies that "he is waiting to have forgotten a good many things", and when Juliette asks if he hopes to forget them soon, he insists that he doesn't want to forget them at all. Juliette asks if it is Alisa's memory to which he hopes to remain faithful, and he says that it is "rather, perhaps, to her idea of me. No, don't give me any credit for it. I think I couldn't do otherwise." He tells her that if he were to marry somebody else he would be only pretending, and the scene has something of the emotional nuance and complexity we addressed earlier in the scene where they talk in the garden. Is he rejecting Juliette all over again as he says this, and that leads her to say "then you think that one can keep a hopeless love in one's heart for as long as that?" Here Alissa isn't nearby but dead, yet she remains between these two figures, a haunting presence rather than a possible eavesdropper. As they sit together in a small room as the daylight fades, Jerome notices that at one moment "it was too dark to distinguish her features, so that I did not know whether her eyes were shut or not. I thought her very beautiful." Has he managed somehow to resurrect the dead sister in the living sister, in the half-light that allows his mind to play tricks on him and creates a perverse form of faithful infidelity with the sister? We cannot know, though moment earlier he says, "once more I saw Alissa's room, all the furniture of which Juliette had collected together here." He is simultaneously in the past and in the present. Thinking of one sister and in the presence of the other. He is in family home that could so easily have been his if he had married Juliette: he might even for a moment feel that he is in the best of both worlds as he is liminally caught between two. Perhaps it is the best of all possible worlds for a man who still wants to live in this one, a sensualist who nevertheless lost the woman with whom he wanted union in this world and not the next. Perhaps Juliette is still in love with the man in front of her eyes, as Jerome is with Alissa whom he will not relegate to the back of his mind. A certain type of love is evident in the scene without the possibility of its consummation. We have Jerome saying that he will be faithful to Alissa's idea of him, suggesting that though Alissa is dead she lives in the perception Jerome has of her love for him, and here Juliette is maybe holding in her heart a love no less intense than the one he holds in his for her sister. There are three loves here, but only two people, and of course no sexual encounter, as if Gide has tried to find in this moment a position neither quite existential nor theological, and a love so very different from the options we proposed at the beginning of this piece.
© Tony McKibbin