One of the key elements of context is time, just as one of the key elements of time is context. Gaston Bachelard, the great French philosopher of whom few, sadly, have even heard, in speaking about "epistemological obstacles" and "epistemological breaks" (click here for an explanation), showed us that our entire understanding of history has to be re-evaluated and updated every time we make even the smallest of intellectual advances, an extremely tedious and, forgive the pun, time-consuming activity, since in reality it means re-evaluating and updating absolutely everything absolutely all the time (and therefore something that we rarely do, and therefore an explanation of why we never learn the lessons of history, but go on repeating and repeating the same mistakes).
Let me apply Bachelard to another great French writer and thinker, whose birthday was today in 1869. When André Gide was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1947, it was "for his comprehensive and artistically significant writings, in which human problems and conditions have been presented with a fearless love of truth and keen psychological insight".
He was not always quite that beloved. When he published his "Travels In The Congo", for example, after travelling through much of Africa in 1926 and 1927, he was harangued for daring to criticise the behaviour of French business interests in that territory: the concession of whole parts of the colony to French companies whose only interest was the exploitation of all natural resources for French gain; the exploitation, akin to slavery, of indigenous Africans who were obliged to leave their villages for months at a time in order to collect rubber in the forest. Gide was the one-man Greenpeace of his day, whose criticisms inspired reform, whose convictions had a significant influence on anti-colonialism in France and beyond. Gide, the great European intellectual, doyen of liberality and progressive thought.
And yet, re-read those journals today, and it is the account of a man of privilege banqueting his way along the Congo with seventy slaves (his own word for them) in attendance, each bearing on his famine-sapped shoulders up to 50lbs of what turns out to be jam and Paris weeklies! Dribbling with self-satisfaction and oozing smugness through every sweaty pore, he remains ensconced in Eysenckian notions of "the Negro" ("I do not want to make the black out more intelligent than he is, but his stupidity, if it exists, is only natural – like an animal's"), and of "this primitive race", innately inferior to the white man.
Gide wishes only to counter the myths of his day and defend the Africans against "the white man's monstrous stupidity with regards the blacks" – but he gets no further than "noble savagery". His loyal servant Adoum, for example: "Such devotion, such humility of spirit, such a childlike desire to do well, combined with such nobility, so much capacity for love…" - one would almost think he was describing a genuine human being! But he is not, not really.
"His deference was so great that when I gave him his daily reading-lesson, he never sat beside me on a chair… He had the feeling, which I did not attempt to modify, 'that it would not be proper' – and always settled himself with his book on the ground, either sitting or kneeling."Exactly as a good and loyal servant should!
"When I took him by the arm, it was the same as when I picked Dindicki up the other day from the top of the roof."Dindicki was Gide's pet stoat – or some such tropical rodent.
The comparison is quite apposite though, for they are both pets, and also possessions to be dealt with as their owner sees fit. Adoum, for example, is suddenly sent packing, just when the poor boy had got his heart set on accompanying "Monsieur le Gouvernement" to France. Dindicki, on the other hand, is dragged lovingly out of his natural environment, bound for a Paris zoo, but dies excruciatingly for want of the right climate, the right food, a place to sleep: loved to the very grave.
Gide seems to take great delight in killing. We are forever meeting big-game hunters who revel in dead elephants, and "natives" who drag around like Moby-Dick the stinking carcasses of bullet-riddled hippopotami; while Gide himself is forever coming upon creatures of such beauty and fascination that he feels positively compelled to destroy them:
"In the Léré station-house a mason fly began to build its cells in the moulding of the door beside my bed… I was much amazed to see it bring a biggish grey-brown grub… and then proceed to wall it up in a cell. I determined to undo its work and take out the caterpillar in which it had laid its eggs."Follows a detailed description of the craftsgrubship of the mason-mason, and then:
"The earth had hardened. My knife had some difficulty in breaking it."Yes, but you managed it, didn't you, André? You waited till he had finished his work, to gain maximum intellectual pleasure, and then you shoved the little beggar in your poison-bottle, where it died of suffocation en route to being vivisected in one of the natural history laboratories of white man's superior civilisation!
And yet, applying Bachelard, setting time in context and context against time, we would not be able to vilify André Gide today for being who or what he was, had it not been for the remarkable work of André Gide, the extraordinary courage that he had in vilifying his contemporaries and predecessors for being who and what they were, and forcing them to move forward, to accept higher standards, very considerably higher standards indeed, however low they may appear to us today.
We who think of ourselves as "progressives" today need to take heed of this, and be aware that, some day, we too will be regarded as reactionaries, as primitives, even as dangerous to the common good, for precisely these progressive views which stem from our "love of truth", and hopefully come with "keen psychological insight", and with which we are trying to improve our human world.
The illustration, mid-blog, shows the poet W.B. Yeats (left), photographer and film director Marc Allégret (centre) with Gide (right), photographed for her scrapbook by Lady Ottoline Morrell
Mary Anne Evans, the only serious rival to David Herbert Lawrence for the title "England's greatest novelist", born today in 1819 (George Eliot, if you didn't know)
George Gissing, a rather more minor but nonetheless worthy English novelist, born today in 1857
Edward Britten, Benjamin to his musical biographers, born today in 1913
The SOS radio distress signal adopted, today in 1906
John F. Kennedy, 35th US president, killed, murdered or assassinated, depending on which conspiracy theory you favour, at 12:30 pm Central Standard Time, today in 1963. I wonder if the conspiracy theorists have noticed that other extraordinary coincidence, that this was the very next day after his brother's Bobby’s birthday?
Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion's "Man of La Mancha" opened on Broadway, today in 1965. And you are thinking, "but Prashker hates musicals, all musicals, even the ones he directed or performed or played in through his years in schools". Ah yes, but this isn't just any musical. This is Don Quixote. This is Jacques Brel - click here
Concorde began flying to New York from London and Paris, today in 1977
Proof that even modern technology can be beautiful - the trick, I think, is in the nose and eyes, which make it look decidedly, almost sadly human.
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