three pairs of lovers with space

THE INITIATION OF ANDRÉ GIDE

 

André Gide (1869-1951) was a French author who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1947, according to the official citation, "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." 

Long before attaining such international acclaim, he had been a self-proclaimed “pédéraste”, defending his sexuality as a force for good in Corydon, four Socratic dialogues published in 1924. As such, one may reasonably say he was the most distinguished Frenchman ever to be open about loving boys.

In 1926, he published an autobiography covering his life down to his engagement to his cousin Emmanuèle in 1895, Si le grain ne meurt, Paris, 1926. This was translated into English by Dorothy Bussy as If It Die …, published in London, 1935 in an edition from which all the passages of greatest Greek love interest were excised.  An unexpurgated edition of her translation was finally published in 1977 as a Penguin Modern Classic, from pp. 236-87­ which the following extracts about his sexual initiation have come.

 

If It Die

In October 1893, aged nearly twenty-four, Gide, hitherto a virgin and deeply influenced by a strongly puritanical upbringing, arrived in Tunis for the first of what would be many visits to North Africa.

At the time of which I am speaking, I had everything to discover; I had to invent both the torment and its cure, and I cannot say which of the two I thought the more monstrous. My Puritan education had  taught me to attach so much importance to certain things, that I could not conceive that the questions which agitated me were not of passionate interest to humanity in general and to each individual in particular. I was like my own Prometheus Ill-Bound who could not understand how it was possible to live without an eagle, or without being devoured by it. For that matter, I unconsciously liked my eagle; but I was beginning to come to terms with it. Yes; my problem remained the same, but as I advanced in life, I thought it less terrible, and looked at it from an angle that was less acute. What problem? It would be very difficult to define it in a few words. But to begin with, was it not a great point that a problem existed? Reduced to the simplest possible expression, it was this:  In the name of what God or what ideal do you forbid me to live according to my nature? And where would my nature lead me if I simply followed it? Up to the present, I had accepted Christ’s code of morals, or, at any rate, a kind of Puritanism which I had been taught to consider as Christ’s code of morals. By forcing myself to submit to it I had merely caused a profound disturbance in my whole being. I would not consent to live lawlessly, and I required my mind’s assent to the demands of my body. Even if those demands had been more usual, I doubt whether I should have been less troubled.  For as long as I thought it my duty to deny my desire everything, what I desired did not matter. But I gradually came to wonder whether God really exacted such constraints, whether it was not impious to be in continual rebellion, whether such rebellion was not against Him, and whether, in the struggle that divided me, it was reasonable to consider the opponent always in the wrong. It dawned upon me at last that this discordant duality might possibly be resolved into harmony. And then I saw at once that that harmony must be my supreme object, and the endeavour to acquire it the express reason of my life. When in October ’93 I embarked for Algiers, it was not so much towards a new land that my impulse sped me, as towards that - towards that Golden Fleece. …

Oh, I know a journey to Tunis has nothing very extraordinary about it; no, but the extraordinary thing was our going there. … On the very first day, as soon as we made our appearance in the bazaar, a small guide of about fourteen years old took possession of us and escorted us into the shops (we should have been indignant if anyone had suggested he was given a commission); then, as he talked  French fairly well, and moreover was charming, we made an appointment with him for the next day at our hotel. He was called Ceci and came from the island of Djerba, said to be the isle of the Lotus-eaters. I remember our anxiety when he did not turn up at the appointed hour. And a few days later, when he came into my room (we had left the hotel and taken a little apartment of three rooms in the Rue Al Djezira) carrying the things we had just bought, I remembered my mixed and troubled feelings when he half undressed in order to show me how to drape myself in a haīk. …

 

Gide and his travelling companion Paul Laurens had set out south before the onset of winter ...

                                          Postcard of Sousse

We stayed at Sousse only six days. But on the dreary background of those monotonous days of waiting, there stands out a little episode which was of great importance in my life. And if it is indecent to relate it, it would be still more dishonest to pass it over.

At certain hours of the day, Paul left me to go and paint; but I was not so poorly as to be unable sometimes to go and join him. For that matter, during the whole time of my illness I did not keep my bed, nor even my room, for a single day. I never went out without taking a coat and a rug with me; as soon as I got outside, some boy would appear and offer to carry them. The one who accompanied me on that particular day was a young brown-skinned Arab whom I had already noticed on the previous day among the troop of little rascals who loitered in the neighbourhood of the hotel. He wore a chechia on his head like the others and nothing else but a coat of coarse linen and baggy Tunisian trousers that stopped short at the knee and made his bare legs look even slenderer than they were. He seemed more reserved or more timid than his companions, so that as a rule they were beforehand with him; but that day, I don’t know how it was, I went out without any of them seeing me, and all of a sudden it was he who joined me at the corner of the hotel.

The hotel was situated in a sandy district on the outskirts of the town. It was sad to see the olive-trees, so fine in the surrounding country, half submerged here by the drifting sandhills. A little further on one was astonished to come upon a stream - a meagre water-course, springing out of the sand just in time to reflect a little bit of sky before reaching the sea. A gathering of negresses squatting over their washing beside this trickle of fresh water was the subject Paul had chosen before which to plant his easel. I had promised to meet him there, but when Ali - this was my little guide’s name - led me up among the sandhills, in spite of the fatigue of walking in the sand, I followed him; we soon reached a kind of funnel or crater, the rim of which was just high enough to command the surrounding country and give a view of anyone coming. As soon as we got there, Ali flung the coat and rug down on the sloping sand; he flung himself down too, and stretched on his back, with his arms spread out on each side of him, he looked at me and laughed. I was not such a simpleton as to misunderstand his invitation; but I did not answer it at once. I sat down myself, not very far from him, but yet not very near either, and in my turn looked at him steadily and waited, feeling extremely curious as to what he would do next.

                Tunisian, by Lehnert

I waited! I wonder to-day at my fortitude ... But was it really curiosity that held me back? I am not sure. The secret motive of our acts - I mean of the most decisive ones - escapes us; and not in memory but at the very moment of their occurrence. Was I still hesitating on the threshold of what is called sin? No; my disappointment would have been too great if the adventure had ended with the triumph of my virtue - which I already loathed and despised. No; it was really curiosity that made me wait . . . And I watched his laughter slowly fade away, his lips close down again over his white teeth and an expression of sadness and discomfiture cloud his charming face.

“Good-bye, then,” he said.

Seizing the hand he was holding out I sent him spinning to the ground. At once he began laughing again. He made short shrift of the complicated knots in the lacings that served him as a belt, but pulled a little dagger out of his pocket and slashed through the tangle with a single cut. Down fell his clothes, he threw his vest away and stood up naked as a god. For a moment he stretched his slender arms heavenward, then, still laughing, he fell upon me. His body may well have been burning hot, but to me it felt as refreshing as deep shade. How lovely the sand was! In the glorious splendour of evening what radiance bathed my joy!

In the meantime it was getting late. I had to join Paul. No doubt my countenance bore traces of my rapture and I think he guessed something; but as - out of discretion, perhaps - he did not question me, I said nothing.

 

From Sousse, Gide and Laurens moved on to Biskra in Algeria. It was early 1894.                        

                         Biskra in 1899

Incapable of work, and even of prolonged attention, I dragged miserably through the day, my only distraction, my only joy, being to watch the boys at play on our terraces, or in the public gardens, if the weather allowed of my going out; for the rainy season had now set in. And it was not with any one of them in particular that I fell in love, but with their youth indiscriminately. The sight of their health sustained me and I had no wish for any society but theirs. Perhaps I found in their simple ways and childish talk a mute counsel to trust more confidently to life. Under the combined influence of climate and illness, I felt my austerity beginning to melt and my frowning brows unbend. At last I realized how much pride lay concealed in this resistance of mine to what I had once called temptation, but which I called so no longer, now that I had ceased to fight against it. “More obstinate than faithful,” Signoret had once said to me; I prided myself indeed on being faithful; but henceforth I placed all my obstinacy in clinging to the resolution Paul and I had made to ‘renormalize’ ourselves. Illness did not weaken my determination. And I should like it to be understood how largely resolution entered into what I am about to relate; if I am to be accused of giving way to my inclinations, let it be understood, I repeat, that they were the inclinations of my mind and not of my body. My natural propensity, which I was at last forced to recognize, but which I would not as yet assent to, was increased by resistance; I merely strengthened it by struggling, and in despair of vanquishing it, I thought I might succeed in cheating it. Out of sympathy for Paul, I even went so far as to invent imaginary desires; that is to say, I adopted his, and each of us encouraged the other. A winter resort like Biskra offers particular facilities in this respect; a troop of women live there who make a trade of their persons; the French government treats them, it is true, like the usual prostitutes of vulgar brothels; registration is enforced on them for purposes of supervision (thanks to which Dr D. was able to give us the necessary information about each of them), but their manners and habits are different from those of ordinary licensed prostitutes. By an ancient tradition, the tribe of the Oulad Naīl exports its daughters every year when they are barely nubile, and a few years later they return with a dowry that enables them to purchase a husband, who accepts, without considering it dishonourable, what in our countries would cover him with ridicule or shame. The real Oulad Naīl have a great reputation for beauty; so that all the women who practise the profession in those parts call themselves by that name; not all of them, however, return to their own county, so that there are women of all ages among them, some being extremely young; these, before they are nubile, share the lodging of some elder sister or friend, who protects and initiates the younger; the sacrifice of their virginity is the occasion for rejoicings in which half the town takes part. …

                      Oulad Naīl girls in Biskra

Paul came back one day very much excited: as he was walking home he had met the troop of Oulad going to bathe at Fontaine-Chaude. One of them, whom he described as being particularly charming, had managed to escape from the group at a sign from him; an appointment had been made. And as I was not yet in sufficiently good health to go to her, it was settled she was to come to us. Although these women are confined to their lodgings, which have nothing in common with a brothel, they are obliged to conform to certain rules: there is a fixed hour after which they are not allowed out : they must escape, if they wish to, before it; Paul accordingly went to lurk behind a tree in the public gardens, and lie in wait for Meriem, on her return from the bath ; he was to bring her back to me. We had decorated the room, prepared the meal we meant to take with her, and given Athman [Gide’s 15-year-old boy servant, whom he grew to love chastely] a holiday. But the hour had long since gone by: I waited in a state of inexpressible agitation; Paul came back alone.

The reaction was all the more cruel because there was no real desire at the back of my resolution. I was as disappointed as Cain when he saw the smoke of his offering beaten back to earth: the holocaust was not accepted. We felt we should never again find such another occasion; I felt I should never again be so well prepared. The door which hope had pushed ajar for a moment was too heavy; it had slammed back again; it always would: I was shut out for ever. I must put a good face on it, I said to myself, and the best thing to do, no doubt, is to laugh; and besides we took no little pride in showing our buoyancy under the blows of fate; our humour was apt enough and the meal which had  begun lugubriously ended in merriment.

           André Gide in Biskra, 1894

Suddenly there was a noise like the fluttering of a wing against the window. The outside door opened gently . . .

Of all that evening this is the moment of which I have kept the most thrilling recollection: I can still see Meriem outlined on the dark background of the night; I see her standing there hesitating; then she recognizes Paul and smiles, but before coming in, she steps back, and leaning over the balustrade of the terrace behind her, waves her haik in the dark - a signal to dismiss the maid-servant who had brought her to the foot of our staircase.

Meriem knew a little French; enough to tell us the reason she had not been able to join Paul, and how Athman soon after had shown her where we lived. She was wrapped in a double haik, which she let fall at the door. I cannot remember her dress, for she soon shed it ; but she kept her bracelets on her wrists and ankles. I do not remember either if it was not Paul who began by taking her to his room, a separate little pavilion at the other end of the terrace; yes, I think she did not come to me till dawn; but I can remember Athman’s lowered eyes next morning as he passed in front of the Cardinal’s bed and his amused, prudish, comic “Good morning, Meriem !’

Meriem was amber-skinned, firm-fleshed. Her figure was round but still almost childish, for she was barely sixteen. I can only compare her to a bacchante - the one on the Gaeta vase, for instance - because of her tinkling bracelets too, which she was continually shaking. I remember having seen her dance in one of the cafes of the Holy Street, where Paul had taken me one evening. Her cousin En Barka was dancing there too. They danced in the antique fashion of the Oulad, their heads straight and erect, their busts motionless, their hands agile, their whole bodies shaken by the rhythmic beating of their feet. How much I liked this “Mahommedan music,”[1] with its steady, obstinate, incessant flow; it went to my head, stupefied me like an opiate, drowsily and voluptuously benumbed my thoughts. On a platform beside the clarinet player sat an old Negro, clacking his metal castanets, and little Mohammed, in a lyrical ecstacy, thumping on his tambourine. How beautiful he was! Half naked under his rags, black and slender as a demon, open-mouthed and wild- eyed ... Paul had bent towards me that evening (does he remember it, I wonder ?) and whispered in my ear :

                                               A café in Biskra, 1884

“Do you suppose he doesn’t excite me more than Meriem?”

He had said it in jest, without meaning it, for he was only attracted by women; but what need had he to say it to me of all people? I did not answer; but this avowal had haunted me ever since ; I had taken it as mine ; or rather it was already mine, even before Paul had spoken; and if that night I was valiant with Meriem, it was because I shut my eyes and imagined I was holding Mohammed in my arms.

After that night I experienced an extraordinary sensation of calm and comfort. And I do not only mean the feeling of rest that sometimes follows upon pleasure; it is certain that Meriem had then and there done me more good than all the doctor’s revulsives. I should hardly dare recommend this treatment; but my case was so much a matter of nerves that it is not surprising my lungs were relieved by so radical a diversion, and a kind of equilibrium established. …

 

From Biskra, Gide and Laurens went to Italy, and spent the remainder of the year in Europe.  Gide, now alone, returned for a second stay in North Africa in January 1895, taking a boat to Algiers, but soon staying in nearby resort town of Blidah.

Blidah, which later on in the spring I returned to find all loveliness and perfumes, I now thought dreary and unattractive. I roamed up and down the town looking for a lodging, without finding anything to suit me. I regretted Biskra. I had no taste for anything. My despondency was all the greater because I carried it about with me in a place my imagination had peopled with wonders and delights; but it still lay under the gloomy spell of winter, and I with it. The lowering sky weighed on my spirits; the wind and the rain quenched every spark of fire in my heart; I tried to work, but I felt uninspired; I dragged about in unspeakable boredom. To my disgust with the sky was added disgust with myself; I hated and despised myself; I should have liked to do myself an injury; I should have liked to drive my torpor to desperate lengths.

                                                     Blidah in 1885

Three days passed in this way.

I was on the point of leaving and the omnibus had already gone to the station with my bag and trunk. I can still see myself standing in the hall of the hotel waiting for my bill, when my eye fell by chance on a slate on which the names of the visitors were written, and I began to read them mechanically, My own first, then the names of various strangers; and suddenly my heart gave a leap; the two last names on the list were those of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas.

I have already related elsewhere that, acting on my first impulse, I took the sponge and wiped out my name. Then I paid my bill and started on foot to the station.

I am not quite sure what it was that made me wipe out my name in this way. In my first account, I put it down to a feeling of mauvaise honte. Perhaps, after all, I was merely giving in to an unsociable desire for solitude. During the fits, repudiate myself, and like a hurt dog try to creep out of sight. But on my way to the station I began to reflect, as I walked along, that perhaps Wilde had seen my name, that what I was doing was cowardly, that - in short, I ordered my bag and trunk to be put back into the omnibus, and returned to the hotel.

I had seen a great deal of Wilde in Paris; I had met him at length in Florence; …

Wilde, up till that day, had observed the most absolute discretion as regards me. I knew nothing of his reputation except from hearsay; but in the literary circles we both frequented in Paris people were beginning to talk. To tell the truth, Wilde was not taken very seriously and what was beginning to transpire about his real character seemed one affectation the more. People thought him slightly shocking, but rather a joke, something to be sniggered at. I always wonder at the difficulty French people have (most of them, that is) in believing in the sincerity of feelings they do not share. …

Wilde was extremely changed; not in his appearance, but in his behaviour. He seemed determined to break through his reserve, …

                     Oscar Wilde

It was not sufficient for Wilde to tell the vile procurer who came to pilot us through the town that evening that he wanted to see some young Arabs; he added “as beautiful as bronze statues”, and only saved the phrase from being ridiculous by a kind of poetical playfulness, and by the slight English or Irish accent which he took good care never to lose when speaking French. As for Lord Alfred Douglas, he did not appear, as far as I can remember, till after dinner. Wilde and he dined in their rooms, and I expect Wilde invited me to dine with them, and I expect I refused, for in those days all invitations made me retire into my shell ... I cannot remember and I have vowed not to be tempted into furnishing the vacant rooms of my memory. But I agreed to go out with them after dinner, and one thing I remember very well is that we were no sooner in the street than Lord Alfred took me affectionately by the arm and exclaimed:

“All these guides are idiotic; it’s no good explaining - they will always take you to cafes which are full of women. I hope you are like me. I have a horror of women. I only like boys. As you’re coming with us this evening, I think it’s better to say so at once …”

I hid my stupefaction at the brutality of this outspoken statement as best I could and fell into step without a word. …

The guide introduced us into a cafe which, louche as it was, had nothing to offer of the kind my companions wanted. … I can think of nothing more to say about that evening which was on the whole a rather dismal affair. The next morning I returned to Algiers, where Wilde joined me a few days later.

… But with me, as I have said, Wilde had now thrown aside his mask. It was the man himself I saw at last; for no doubt he had realised there was no further need for pretence and that the very thing that would have made others recoil was precisely what attracted me. Douglas had returned to Algiers with him; but Wilde seemed trying to avoid him. …

The next day or the day after, Douglas returned to Blidah, where he was making arrangements to elope with a young caouadji[2] he wanted to take with him to Biska; … during this time Wilde was more at liberty and able to talk to me more intimately than he had hitherto done.

Another evening, immediately after Douglas had left for Blidah, Wilde asked me to go with him to a Moorish cafe where there was music to be heard. I agreed and called for him after dinner at his hotel. The cafe was not very far off, but as Wilde had some difficulty in walking, we took a carriage which dropped us in Rue Montpensier, at the fourth terrace of the Boulevard Gambetta, where Wilde told the coachman to wait for us. A guide had got up beside the coachman and this man now escorted us through a labyrinth of small streets inaccessible to carriages, until we came to the steep alley in which the cafe was situated. As we walked, Wilde expounded his theory of guides, and how important it was to choose the vilest, who was invariably the cleverest. If the man at Blidah had not succeeded in showing us anything interesting, it was because he wasn’t ugly enough. Ours that evening was a terror.

                                         Algiers in 1895

There was nothing to show it was a café; its door was like all the other doors; it stood ajar, and there was no need to knock. Wilde was an habitué of this place, which I have described in my Amyntas, for I often went back to it afterwards. There were a few old Arabs sitting cross-legged on mats and smoking kief; they made no movement when we took our places among them. And at first I did not see what there was in this cafe to attract Wilde; but after a time made out a young caouadji standing in the shadow near the hearth; he was busy preparing us two cups of ginger over the embers - a drink Wilde preferred to coffee. Lulled by the strange torpor of the place, I was just sinking into a state of semi-somnolence, when in the half-open doorway, suddenly appeared a marvellous youth. He stood there for a time, leaning with his raised elbow against the door-jamb, and outlined on the dark background of the night. He seemed uncertain as to whether he should come in or not, and I was beginning to be afraid he would go, when he smiled at a sign made him by Wilde and came up and sat down opposite us on a stool a little lower than the mat-covered raised floor on which we were sitting, Arab fashion. He took a reed flute out of his Tunisian waistcoat and began to play on it very exquisitely. Wilde told me a little later that he was called Mohammed and that “he was Bosy’s”; if he had hesitated at first as to whether he should come in, it was because he had not seen Lord Alfred. His large black eyes had the languorous look peculiar to hashish smokers; he had an olive complexion; I admired his long fingers on the flute, the slimness of his boyish figure, the slenderness of his bare legs coming from under his full white drawers, one of them bent back and resting on the knee of the other. The caouadji came to sit beside him and accompanied him on a kind of darbouka. The song of the flute flowed on through an extraordinary stillness, like a limpid steady stream of water, and you forgot the time and the place, and who you were and all the troubles of this world. We sat on, without stirring, for what seemed to me infinite ages; but I should have sat on for longer still, if Wilde had not suddenly taken me by the  arm and broken the spell. 

“Come,” said he.

We went out We took a few steps in the alley, followed by the hideous guide, and I was beginning to think our evening was to come to an end there, when at the first turning, Wilde came to a standstill, dropped his huge hand onto my shoulder, and bending down – he was much taller than I – said in a whisper:

“Dear,[3] would you like the little musician?”

“Oh! How dark the alley was! I thought my heart would fail me; and what a dreadful effort of courage it needed to answer: “Yes,” and with what a choking voice!

Wilde immediately turned to the guide, who had come up to us, and whispered a few words in his ear which I did not hear. The man let us and we went on to the place where the carriage was waiting.

We were no sooner seated in it, than Wilde burst out laughing - a resounding laugh, more of triumph than of pleasure, an interminable, uncontrollable, insolent laugh; and the more disconcerted I seemed to be by his laughter, the more he laughed. I should say that if Wilde had begun to discover the secrets of his life to me, he knew nothing as yet of mine; I had taken care to give him no hint of them, either by deed or word. The proposal he had just made me was a bold one; what amused him so much was that it was not rejected; it was the amusement of a child and a devil. The great pleasure of the debauchee is to debauch. No doubt, since my adventure at Sousse, there was not much left for the Adversary to do to complete his victory over me; but Wilde did not know this, nor that I was vanquished beforehand - or, if you will (for is it proper to speak of defeat when one carried one’s head so high?), that I had already triumphed in my imagination and my thoughts over all my scruples. To tell the truth, I did not know it myself; it was only, I think, as I answered “yes,” that I suddenly became aware of it.

Wilde interrupted his laughter from time to time to apologize.

“I beg your pardon for laughing so; but I can’t help it. It’s no good.” And he started off again.

He was still laughing when we stopped in front of a café in the Place opposite the theatre, where we dismissed the carriage.  

“It’s too early yet,” said Wilde. And I did not dare ask him what he had settled with the guide, nor where, nor how, nor when, the little musician would come to me; and I began to doubt whether anything would really come of his proposal, but I was afraid to question him lest I should show the violence of my desire.

We only stayed a moment in this vulgar café, and I supposed that if Wilde did not at once get driven to the little bar of the Hotel de l'Oasis where we went next, it was because he did not want the people of the hotel where he was known to have any inkling of the Moorish café, and that he devised this intervening stage in order to put a little more distance between the above-board and the clandestine.

Wilde made me drink a cocktail and drank several himself. We lingered for about an hour. How long I thought it! Wilde still went on laughing, but not so convulsively, and when from time to time we spoke, it was about any trifle. At last I saw him take out his watch:

“It is time,” said he, getting up.

We took our way towards a more populous quarter of the town, further than the big mosque at the bottom of the hill (I have forgotten its name) which one passes on the way to the Post Office - the ugliest part of the town now, though once it must have been one of the most beautiful. Wilde preceded me into a house with a double entrance, and we had no sooner crossed the threshold, than there appeared in front of us two enormous policemen, who had come in by the other door, and who terrified me out of my wits. Wilde was very much amused at my fright.

“Oh, no, dear, on the contrary; it proves the hotel is a very safe place. They come here to protect foreigners. I know them quite well. They’re excellent fellows and very fond of my cigarettes. They quite understand.”

We let the policemen go up in front of us. They passed the second floor where we stopped. Wilde took a key out of his pocket and showed me into a tiny apartment of two rooms, where we were soon joined by the vile guide. The two youths followed him, each of them wrapped in a burnous that hid his face. Then the guide left us and Wilde sent me into the further room with little Mohammed and shut himself up in the other with the darbouka player.

              An Algerian boy, 1885

Every time since then that I have sought after pleasure, it is the memory of that night I have pursued. After my adventure at Sousse, I had relapsed wretchedly again into vice. If I had now and then snatched a sensual joy in passing, it had been, as it were, furtively; one delicious evening there had been, however, in a boat on the lake of Como, with a young boatman (just before going to La Brévine) when my rapture was encompassed by the shining of the moon, the misty magic of the lake, the moist perfumes breathing from its shores.[4] And after that, nothing; nothing but a frightful desert, full of wild unanswered appeals, aimless efforts, restlessness, struggles, exhausting dreams, false excitement, and abominable depression. At La Roque, the summer before last, I had been afraid of going mad; I spent nearly the whole time I was there shut up in my room, where I ought to have been working, and where I tried to work in vain (I was writing Le Voyage d’Urien), obsessed, haunted, thinking to find  perhaps some escape in excess itself, hoping to come out into the fresh air on the other side, to wear out my demon (I recognize his wile), when it was only myself I wore out, expending myself crazily to the point of utter exhaustion, to the verge of imbecility, of madness.

Ah! what a hell I had been through! And without a friend I could speak to, without a word of advice; because I had believed all compromise impossible, and because I had begun by refusing to surrender, I came near sinking to perdition . . . But what need is there to recall those lugubrious days. Does their memory explain that night’s ecstasy? My attempt with Meriem, my effort after “renormalization”, had not been followed up because it had not been in consonance with my nature; it was now that I found my normal. There was nothing constrained here, nothing precipitate, nothing doubtful ; there is no taste of ashes in the memory I keep. My joy was unbounded, and I cannot imagine it greater, even if love had been added.

How could love have entered into this. How could I have left my heart at the mercy of desire? My pleasure was quite free from ulterior motives and was not to be succeeded by any remorse. But then what name can I give to the transports with which I crushed in my bare arms this perfect little body, wild, burning, sensual and mysterious?

Long after Mohammed had left me I stayed there in a state of quivering jubilation, and although I had reached the summit of pleasure five times with him I revived my ecstasy many more times, and back in my hotel room I relived its echoes until morning.

I realize that a certain numerical precision I am bringing into this may make you smile; it would be easy to omit this or modify it for the sake of plausibility. However, I am not out for plausibility, but truth, and is it not when the truth is most improbable that it most needs telling? Were it not so do you think I should mention it?

As on this occasion I was simply going to the limit of my need and as, moreover, I had just been reading Boccaccio’s Nightingale, I had no idea that there was anything surprising about it and it was Mohammed’s astonishment that gave me the first inkling. It was in what followed that I exceeded this natural inclination, and this is what I find so strange: satiated and exhausted though I was, I found no peace or respite until I had carried my exhaustion further still. Since then I have often found how useless it was to try to be moderate, in spite of the counsels of reason and prudence, for each time I tried to do so I had to end by working solitarily to reach this total satiety without which I could find no peace, and which I could not get for less. For the rest, I cannot hazard any explanation - I know I shall have to depart this life understanding nothing, or very little, about the workings of my body.

At the first light of dawn I got up and ran, yes really ran, in sandals well beyond Mustapha, feeling no fatigue after my night, but on the contrary a joy, a sort of lightness of soul and flesh which remained with me all through the day.

I met Mohammed again two years later. His face had not changed very much. He looked hardly any older, his body had kept its grace, but his eyes no longer had the same softness, I sensed something hard, shifty and mean about them.

“You’ve stopped smoking hashish?” I asked, knowing what his answer would be.

“Yes,” he said. “Now I drink absinthe.”

He was still attractive, in fact more attractive than ever, but now he looked not so much sensual as brazen.

Daniel B. was with me. Mohammed took us to the fourth floor of a dubious hotel. On the ground floor was a bar full of drinking sailors. The landlord asked for our names, and I signed “César Bloch”. Daniel ordered some beer and lemonade “for the look of the thing”, as he put it. It was dark, and the only lighting in the room we went into came from the candlestick we had been given for going up the stairs. A waiter brought bottles and glasses and set them on the table by the candle. There were only two chairs. Daniel and I sat down and Mohammed sat on the table between us. Lifting up the haik he now wore instead of his Tunisian costume, he stretched out his bare legs towards us.

“One for each,” he laughed.

Then, leaving me sitting by the half-empty glasses, Daniel seized Mohammed in his arms and carried him over to the bed at the far end of the room. He laid him on his back across the edge of the bed, and soon all I could see were two thin legs dangling on either side of the panting Daniel, who hadn’t even taken off his cloak. Very tall, standing against the bed, in semi-darkness, seen from the back, his face hidden by his long black curly hair, in this cloak that came down to his feet, Daniel looked gigantic leaning over that little body, which he hid from view - he might have been a huge vampire feeding upon a corpse. I could have screamed in horror.

We always find it hard to understand other people’s love-life, their ways of making love. And even those of the animals (I ought to reserve that “and even” for mankind). One may envy the song of the birds, their flight, and write:

Ach! Wüsstest du wie’s Fischlein ist
So wohlig auf dem Grund!

Even the dog gnawing a bone finds in me a certain complicity on the animal level. But nothing is so disconcerting as the methods, varying so much from species to species, by which each of them finds his pleasure. Whatever M. de Gourmont might say in his attempts to see disquieting analogies in this regard between man and the animal species, I feel that this analogy only exists in the realm of desire, but that, on the contrary, it is perhaps in what M. de Goumiont calls “the physical expression of love” that the differences are most marked, not only between man and the animals, but often between one man and another. So much so that if we were allowed to look at them the practices of our neighbour would seem to us as strange, as ridiculous and, let us admit it, as revolting as the couplings of frogs and toads or insects - and why go so far afield, those of dogs or cats.

And no doubt that is why misunderstandings in this matter are so great and intolerance so ferocious.

As for myself, who can only conceive pleasure face to face, reciprocal and gentle and who, like Whitman, find satisfaction in the most furtive contact, I was horrified both by Daniel’s way of going at it and by the willing cooperation of Mohammed.

 

[1] Allusion to a poem by Verlaine.

[2] The boy who makes and serves the coffee (caoua) in an Arab café.

[3] In English in the text.

[4] Gide had elaborated on the innocent side of this episode in a letter to his mother. After the young oarsman had rowed them out: “We let fall our oars and sat there, motionless, in that marvellous serenity. The boy who was guiding me then came and sat beside me . “Come è bello!” I took his hand and we stayed for a long time like that, without saying a word … It was quite dark when we got back … Such evenings are unforgettable!” Translated by Alan Sheridan in his André Gide: A Life in the Present (Harvard, 1999), p. 103.