Introduction to “Some Later Prose Castaways”
These later prose castaways have been taken from a variety of sources, mainly notebooks and pieces of scrap paper dating from the 1980s and 1990s, and reproduced with minor alterations and fresh titles unless otherwise indicated. They are intended to provide a reader with some kind of insight into their author’s psyche prior to his becoming a born again Christian in 1993, although they are little more than mere juvenilia.
“On Constant’s Adolphe and the Romantic Mal du Siècle”was based on an essay I wrote around 1983 for my former mentor at university, Dr Margaret Mein, who sadly died in 2008, and who features as Dr Elizabeth Lang in various memoirs and romans à clef of mine. It concerns the protagonist of Benjamin Constant’s famous 1816 novel “Adolphe”, made into a movie in 2002, with Stanislas Mehar as the titular anti-hero, and Isabelle Adjani as Ellénore, the married woman he takes as his mistress.
Constant’s novel is in the classic proto-Romantic tradition of Goethe’s “The Sorrows of the Young Werther (1774), and Chateaubriand’s “René” (1802), in so far as the protagonist is a sufferer from what has been termed Mal du Siècle, a condition producing melancholy, fragility and self-destructiveness among other nihilistic qualities.
It was a condition that was to find special favour among the Romantics, and one of its foremost antecedents was the aforesaid “Werther”, which emerged from the German literary vanguard known as Sturm und Drang, itself an offshoot of Weimar Classicism.
Through the great Romantic movement in the arts, “Werther” exerted an almost immeasurable influence on the evolution of the Western Mind, although it was far from alone in this respect. Chateaubriand has already been mentioned, but Rousseau was if anything even more influential, and much has been made of the Swiss polymath’s impact on the French Revolution, which so inspired the Romantics.
As to its aftermath the infamous Directory, it produced such sartorial monstrosities as the Incroyables, young aristocrats freshly returned from exile. Their affected attitudes and outlandish fopperies could be said to have provided a foretaste of the entire Romantic decadence, which began in the Paris of the 1830s, and to some extent perhaps it lingers to this day in the shape of such shadowy subcultures as the Goths and Steampunks.
With such figures as Werther, René and Adolphe as its inspiration, Romanticism openly exalted melancholy as the natural state of sensitive and creative youth. Such a development was hardly novel, for after all, the Bible clearly states that there is nothing new under the sun, but it was surely unprecedented in its intensity, and I’d have no hesitation in labelling it tragic as a result. In terms of my own pre-Christian self, it was almost overwhelmingly powerful; and so since becoming a Christian, I’ve felt convicted to repeatedly expose it as not only erroneous but potentially lethal.
Who knows what harm it did me; to say nothing of the millions of young people it’s affected through such scions of Romanticism as the Decadent and Symbolist Movements, German Expressionism, Dadaism and Surrealism, the Beat Generation and the Rock and Roll phenomenon.
To mercifully cut a long rant short…God never intended for the young to be full of sorrow, which is not to downplay genuine major depression. As a possible sufferer myself, I’d never do that. However, while old age is all too often a source of deep remorse for follies past, youth sweet precious youth provides a person with almost unlimited opportunities for the elimination of regret, which is one of the saddest conditions known to Man.
In time though, those opportunities end…so to any young person reading this, I can only urge them to turn to the God of Isaac, Jacob and Israel, who in His Holy Word urged His people to seek ”life in all its abundance, in all its fullness…”
“The Bitter-Sweet Fruits of Andre Gide” was based on an essay, probably written in my final year at Westfield College, University of London, where I studied the works of Andre Gide with the aforementioned Dr Mein. It was photocopied so badly I was barely able to decipher what I’d originally typed, its original having vanished; yet, as is my wont, I’ve made minor grammatical adjustments and heavily edited it, a necessary process given the darkness of the work involved, the ecstatic prose poem, “Les Nourritures Terrestres”, or “The Fruits of the Earth”.
While dating from 1896, at the height of the Franco-British literary decadence, it was evidently rediscovered in the 1920s, an era very similar to the Yellow Nineties in so many respects, and to some extent also, the Swinging Sixties.
It’s clear from the tone of the essay, although not so much from the sanitised version it has to be said, that I at least partly approved of the work’s subversion of traditional Judaeo-Christian morality, while the same could by no means be said of Gide, the product of a deeply pious Huguenot Protestant upbringing.
And the “Fruits” stood in marked contrast to his first published work, “The Notebooks of André Walter”, for both the latter and the later “Straight is the Gate” are anatomisations of Christian self-abnegation, specifically with respect to his troubled love for his devout Christian cousin Madeleine, who went on to become his wife, and perhaps the one and only true love of his life.
The character of Ménalque, who acts as a mentor to the protagonist Nathanael in “The Fruits” was allegedly based on Oscar Wilde, whom Gide first met, in the company of his companion the poet Lord Alfred Douglas, in Paris in 1891. And while he is relatively sympathetic in the earlier work, when he reappears in “The Immoralist” in 1902, he is infinitely less so. This is significant given that the latter was written by Gide as a warning against the excesses extolled in “The Fruits”.
“The World of Subjectivity” consists of a series of unconnected fragment ssalvaged from a teeming nightmare of “diary entries” I made in a school notebook throughout 1986. While more or less verbatim, some very minor corrections may have been made.
Both “A Letter to Misty from Me” and “The Mind of Francis Phoenix are remnants of a novel I wrote in about 1987 but subsequently all but extinguished.
The former, composed with a former very dear friend of mine in mind, whose name incidentally is not Misty, nor ever has been, once served as part of its introduction, although it’s been very heavily edited for inclusion here, while the latter was something of a psychological analysis of the eponymous anti-hero, partially based on myself, or rather the CRH of those long lost days.
On Constant’s Adolphe and the Romantic Mal du Siècle
Adolphe is an egotist in that he is preoccupied with himself, his thoughts and his feelings in the classic manner of the contemplative, melancholy, faintly yearning, hypersensitive, isolated, perceptive and confused Romantic hero, but he is by no means selfish or arrogant, as so many egotists are.
Perhaps he is more of an egoist, that is, somebody who believes that self-interest is the foundation of all morality, but then, he denies this when he announces:
“While I was only interested in myself, I was but feebly interested for all that.”
Plausibly, egotism is only a weak driving force in Adolphe’s life and by the time of his love for Ellénore, it has all but faded. There is much genuine goodness in Adolphe, but much of it is subconscious, surfacing only at the sight of obvious grief.
The cause of this inability to feel or think spontaneously is very probably the result of the complex interaction between a hypersensitive nature and a brilliant if indecisive mind. By reflecting on his surroundings to an exaggerated degree, Adolphe feels a sort of numbness, a premature world-weariness…lucid thoughts and intense emotions irrevocably confused.
One of Adolphe’s weaknesses, masquerading as a virtue, is his misguided and in many respects ruthless tendency towards self-sacrifice. By being consistently swayed by the superficial manifestations of grief, he steels himself to other, quieter, but no less desperate plights.
Ellénore, in her Karenina-like behaviour towards her protector and children is no less guilty of preternatural selfishness than her lover, but the final burden of guilt must rest with Adolphe for an act which he admittedly spends a good many years atoning for: that of, as a fatalistic and irresponsible young man, playing with the lives of mature people who had struggled to achieve a state of moderate stability and respectability and gratuitously tempting the passions of an extremely passionate woman.
We know little of the physical appearance of Adolphe, but in all probability he possesses the youthfully seductive charm of other Romantic heroes, ie., Werther, René and Julien Sorel.
Ellénore, like Karenina, initially resists Adolphe’s advances but after a great deal of persuasion which amounted to emotional blackmail, agrees to see him on a regular basis, and soon afterwards, falls in love. Her excessively romantic and passionate nature is her principal failing.
Adolphe’s weaknesses are more serious: he consistently shows an alarming lack of foresight. He convinces himself of his love for Ellénore without envisaging the consequences that soon come tumbling down upon him, leaving him full of doubt and fear. He deceives himself into believing that to remain with Ellénore can atone for his destruction of her without realising the harm caused by a morose, taciturn and patently loveless presence.
Adolphe shows hardly any need to conform socially whereas Ellénore is conservative in feeling and unconventional in action: she has definite standards of morality that, while living openly with a man and his children, she cannot possibly conform to herself.
Adolphe remains a sympathetic character, only too aware of the tragic plight of one who is loved, but who cannot love. After all, can one blame a man for the consequences of youthful irresponsibility and excessive sensitivity for the rest of his life? Adolphe is a weak but attractive character who despite having been created a hundred and fifty years ago is as real to today’s restless Fin de Siècle youth as he was to countless heroes of the Nineteenth Century.
The Bitter-Sweet Fruits of Andre Gide
The keynote to Andre Gide’s “The Fruits of the Earth” is the unfettered cultivation of the ego, related to the Nietzschian doctrine of the Will to Power, in contradistinction to the self-abnegation of his Protestant upbringing.
This gospel of pagan energy has always contained within it a distinctly sadistic element, conscious in Ménalque, unconscious in the Gidean protagonist who carried it to its disastrous extreme, Michel in “The Immoralist”, specifically written in order to warn against the dangers of excessive “disponibilité”.
However, there is no direct evidence of such criticism in “The Fruits”, which makes it all the more intriguing to the reader, who can interpret the work according to his own nature.
With the inspired ecstasy of a fasting prophet, he embarked upon a work of such sensuous intensity that the very pages suggest the North African villages, parched by the blinding sun. Evil lurks in every corner of every page, where no noble, lasting values are left intact and one after the other, selfishness, infidelity, duplicity and fornication are extolled. By the end of the volume, the narrator’s senses have been worn to the bone. For his final message, he stresses the importance of other people. The reason for this is ambiguous, and it is up to the reader to interpret this altruism as he chooses.
The World of Subjectivity
a.) As a writer, people are my vocation. As for humanity, men, women and other abstractions, their interests constitute little more than my hobby. I can only deal in people. As soon as I start dealing in sects and sections, I am either an insider or an outsider, and I feel lost as either…and as soon as I feel lost, I make no attempt to find myself, but simply retrace my steps and return to the people. You can call me detached if you like, but you see, the only way I can remain sane as a person with such an all-consuming instinct for attachment, is to be detached…
b.) The world of subjectivity holds no sway over me, because it is paradoxically impersonal, being affiliated to partisanship, sentimental causes and other such abstractions.
c.) I couldn’t possibly belong to a school of orthodox thought that accepted me as a member. I don’t believe in myself other than as a crystal clear container for the freshest cream of human individualism.
d.) When I was younger, I ached to be famous for the sake of it, but now it occurs to me that anyone can be famous provided they are sufficiently audacious and thick-skinned, and I desire fame not so much for the vain satisfaction of being seen and known and heard, but in order to guide others towards a happier way of being, the only precept for celebrity, indeed for being in general, as far as I can see.
e.) Adversity seems to be my fate, as well as fortune.
f.) The meek ones gravitate to me.
g.) I’m the prince of the hurt ones, the damaged ones.
h.) I resent all success and authority.
i.) I’m so affectionate one moment, so icy and evasive the next.
j.) I’m in love with many people at present.
k.) I over accentuate my individuality, because sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and I say: “Who’s that pathetic wreck?”
l.) The more complex you are, the less you like yourself, because you frighten yourself. The more I find myself liking someone, the more I doubt us both. Liking someone negates them for me.
A Letter from Misty to Me
I seldom indulge in letter writing because I consider it to be a cold and illusory means of communication. I will only send someone a letter if I’m certain it’s going to serve a definite functional purpose, such as that which I’m scrupulously concocting at present indisputably does.
It’s not that I incline towards excessive premeditation; it’s rather that I have to subject my thoughts and emotions to quasi-military discipline, as pandemonium is the sole alternative. I’m the compensatory man par excellence.
Deliberation, in my case, is a means to an end, but scarcely by any means, an end in itself. This letter possesses not one, but two, designs. On one hand, its aim is edification. Besides that, I plan to include it in the literary project upon which I’m presently engaged, with your permission of course.
Contrary to what you have suspected in the past, I never intend to trivialise intimacy by distilling it into art. On the contrary, I seek to apotheosise the same. You see…I lack the necessary emotional vitality to do justice to people and events that are precious to me; I am forced, therefore, to at a later date call on emotive reserves contained within my unconscious in order to transform the aforesaid into literary monuments.
You once said that my feelings had been interred under six feet of lifeless abstractions; as true as this might be, the abstractions in question come from without rather than within me: my youthful spontaneity many mistrustfully identified with self-satisfied inconsiderateness (a standard case of fallacious reasoning), and I was consequently the frequent victim of somewhat draconic cerebrations. I tremble now in the face of hyperconsciousness. I’ve manufactured a mentality, riddled with deliberation, cankerous with irony; still, in its fragility, not to say, artificiality, it can, with supreme facility, be wrenched aside to expose the touch-paper tenderness within.
With characteristic extremism, I’ve taken ratiocination to its very limits, but I’ve acquainted myself with, nay, embraced my antagonist only in order to more effectively throttle him. Being a survivor of the protracted passage through the morass of nihilism, found deep within “the hell of the inner being”, I am more than qualified to say this: “There is no way out or round or through” the prison of ceaseless sophistry.
There many things I have left to say, but I shall only have begun to exist in earnest when these are far behind me, in fact, so far as to be all but imperceptible. I long for the time when I shall have compensated to my satisfaction. I never desired intellectuality; it was thrust upon me. Everything I ever dreaded being, I’ve become…everything I ever desired to be, I’ve become. I’m the sum total of a lifetime’s fears and fantasies, both wish-fulfilment and dread-consummation incarnate.
The Mind of Francis Phoenix
No amount of thought could negate suffering in the mind of Francis Phoenix. That much he had always believed, that humanity is a sad, lost and suffering race. Sometimes he felt it so strongly that the worship of a Saviour seemed to be the only sane act on earth, and then it passed…
It was not increasing callousness, but an increase in the number of moments he felt quite intoxicated with compassion that had soured Frank’s outlook.
During those moments, he wept for all those he’d ever been cruel to. He could be so hard on people, so terribly hard.
To whom could he ask forgiveness? It was his sensitivity that bred those moments of Christ like love, when he cared so little for himself, for his body, even for his soul…when it was the soul of his father, the soul of his mother, the souls of his friends and relatives and everyone he’d ever known that he cared about. That was truth, that was reality, that was the purpose of all human life, that love, that benevolence, that absolute forgiveness.
Otherworldly love is painful, but it is the only true freedom known to Man. Too much thought eventually produces the conviction that nothing is worth doing. Thought is a destructive disease of the soul.
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