(Version with quotes in English)

In an excellent article published in 1948, which deserves closer attention than it has so far received, Nicola Chiaromonte writes that:

André Malraux has pushed to its extreme consequences that modern pragmatic impulse which tends to see in the world of action the only reality, and, what is more, to reject any proposition which cannot be translated into a force, an act or a series of acts.1
The present article seeks to examine some of the implications of this assessment as they apply to Malraux’s third, and perhaps most influential, novel, La Condition Humaine.  It will be argued here that the perspective offered by Chiaromonte's statement goes to the very heart of the world-view embodied in this novel and in particular that it is of key importance to the novel's central character, the revolutionary leader, Kyo Gisors.  The underlying, controlling principle of La Condition Humaine, it will be contended, stems precisely from a "pragmatic impulse" - a tendency to regard action, with its concomitant world of practical, tangible consequences, as the sole reliable source of meaning.  The impulse is one that Chiaromonte quite properly terms "modern", since it constitutes a highly characteristic expression of the prevailing contemporary mood which so frequently displays a deep distrust of abstractions of any kind, and which consents to rest its faith only in what can be seen and touched, here and now - the concrete, "observable" fact.

Critics of La Condition Humaine have seldom failed to comment on the importance of action, particularly where the character of Kyo is concerned.  With the exception of Nicola Chiaromonte, however, the prevailing tendency has been to argue that the fundamental dimension of the novel lies elsewhere, and that the function of action should ultimately be assigned a secondary importance only.  Many critics, for example, contend that each of the major characters is primarily intent on seeking a form of escape - a kind of Pascalian "divertissement" - from a human condition which, generally speaking, they describe as a state of meaninglessness and alienation resulting from the collapse of all credible value systems.  Together with other alternatives such as eroticism, mythomania, and the will to power, action is said to offer a possible escape from this predicament, or a possible means through which the human condition may, in the terminology of some critics, be "transcended".  Viewed in this light, action itself is not the issue of central concern.  Action is merely one among several alternatives that might be adopted in pursuing the ultimate objective, which is the attempt to escape from, or "transcend", the human condition.2

The interpretation of La Condition Humaine offered in the present article involves a major revision of these aspects of critical opinion.  Contrary to the frequent practice of assigning action a secondary or dependent role, the analysis that follows places action squarely at the centre of attention and sees it, unequivocally, as the fundamental value of the novel.  In the present discussion, La Condition Humaine will be approached primarily through two of the main characters, Kyo Gisors and the "baron" de Clappique, but an analysis of these two characters ultimately illustrates the more general point that Malraux's underlying intention throughout this novel is to explore the characteristics of a world portrayed solely in terms of the potentialities and limitations of practical, clear-sighted action.  In Chiaromonte's words, Malraux confronts us with a world in which action is "the only reality" - a world that "rejects any proposition which cannot be translated into a force, an act, or a series of acts."  Far from playing a role of secondary importance, action in this context forms the very mould in which all experience of the world is cast.

In addition to this, the present article takes issue with the widespread critical tendency to stress notions of "divertissement", or escape, to explain the function of action in La Condition Humaine. Such interpretations, which depict action as a form of distraction or release from an oppressive and "absurd" reality, are undoubtedly influenced to some degree by the example of Pascal.  They are perhaps also modeled, even if unconsciously, on the stereotyped image of the soldier of fortune (the French Foreign Legionnaire perhaps?) who plunges headlong into some difficult and dangerous enterprise in order to blot out the painful memories of a world he has left behind.  Fundamentally, action in a context such as this is intended as an antidote to lucidity.  The crucial point to be grasped in La Condition Humaine, however, is that far from serving as a means of avoiding unpalatable truths and escaping from reality, action in this novel affirms a characteristic modern function and constitutes the means by which reality is defined. Action becomes the fountainhead of all reliable knowledge about the real world: it constitutes the very source of all meaning and the principle upon which all truth - palatable or unpalatable - is founded.

How, then, does this principle operate, and what kind of "definition of reality" does it produce?

It is important to stress, first of all, what is not at issue here.  One is not, as some critics appear to be, in search of some form of ethical system founded on action - as if action could somehow serve as a basis for universally applicable, ready-made formulae designed to distinguish good from evil in human affairs.3  Still less, as other critics seem to imply, is it a question of demonstrating that action is in some way a principle superior to others that might be opposed to it, such as contemplation or introspection, for example.4  The question at stake relates rather to a fundamental issue of perception and comprehension.  One is asking: What kind of world does action body forth when it becomes the sole source and determinant of reality?  What would a world be like in which the original, bewildering chaos of things and events is given order and significance - its only order and significance - through the potentialities and limitations of that most ordinary of human experiences, practical action?

One can begin to discern the outlines of this highly pragmatic attitude in the following, very characteristic passage, which occurs early in Part I of La Condition Humaine. At this point in the novel, the revolutionary leader, Kyo Gisors, is considering the state of preparedness of his forces just prior to the uprising in Shanghai.  Organizational duties take Kyo to the city's squalid, poverty-stricken districts from which the revolutionary forces are to draw their major support.  As he walks through these areas, teeming with human misery and degradation, his attitude towards them - and, by implication, towards the revolution - emerges clearly:

"A good district," thought Kyo.  For more than a month now, moving from one committee meeting to another to organise the insurrection, he had stopped seeing the streets: he no longer saw the mud beneath his feet, only a plan of action.  The endless struggle of these millions of living beings for their daily bread was yielding place in his mind to another more vital reality.  The foreign Concessions, the rich districts, with their iron railings at the ends of the streets washed by the rain, no longer existed for him except as threats, as barriers - long, windowless prison walls; these nauseous slums, on the other hand, - which would furnish the bulk of the revolutionary shock troops -, throbbed with the pulse of multitudes on the watch.  He emerged from a lane way and turned abruptly into one of the larger, well-lit streets stretching out before him.  Despite the driving rain, which half obscured its outlines, he could see it clearly in his mind's eye, because this street would have to be attacked in the face of rifles and machine guns firing along its full length.5
This passage merits careful consideration.  It is important to note that the spectacle of these "nauseous slums" does not prompt Kyo to any of the conventional expressions of pity or indignation; nor (despite what many critics have suggested to the contrary) does it urge him to seek explanations for this mass suffering through the categories of any social or economic theory.6   Instead, his reactions are purely pragmatic: he views the situation solely through the eyes of a tactician, thinking only of the practical implications of what he sees and the part these factors will play in the immediate future of the uprising.  The area through which he is walking is the one in which the revolutionary "shock troops" are the most numerous and, therefore, despite its extreme poverty and degradation, it is, for him, "a good district".  The miserable daily struggle for existence of the poor yields place in his consciousness to the role these men and women are to play in the coming events: he thinks only of their place in the plan of action.  His attitude towards the wealthy areas, the areas occupied by the ruling elite, follows the same pattern.  The rich are not seen as the incarnation of some general historical force: they are not "the capitalists," or "the standard-bearers of private property," or the "exploiting classes".  For Kyo, the significance of these "rich districts" derives solely from their immediate, practical importance: here, the revolutionary shock troops will meet resistance and counter-attack.  The wealthy areas are, therefore, simply obstacles or threats: "long, windowless prison walls."  Finally, even the very street into which Kyo turns is perceived solely in terms of its practical significance: he visualizes it clearly, despite the driving rain "because it would have to be attacked in the face of rifles and machine guns firing along its full length."

Right throughout La Condition Humaine, Kyo’s experience of the Shanghai uprising is consistently presented in this way.  At no time does he attempt to explain this vast collective event in terms of any social or economic theory; at no time does this event appear to him as the gradual, inevitable unfolding of historical forces; in short, at no time does he have recourse to any abstraction - to any idea. His grasp on revolutionary events is established and maintained solely through his appreciation of the tangible implications of action currently taking place.  He is the complete pragmatist who, in Chiaromonte’s words, has decided to "reject any proposition which cannot be translated directly into a force, an act, or a series of acts."

There is no suggestion at any point throughout La Condition Humaine that this reliance on action necessarily implies a desire for violence.  The subject of violence has attracted many of Malraux's critics,7 and there is obviously good reason for this.  Where Kyo is concerned, however, it is essential to recognize that, although the exigencies of particular situations may at times demand a violent response, violence is in no sense an intrinsic or indispensable part of his experience of action.  To misunderstand this is to miss the basic point at issue: Kyo perceives the changing world of events through the eyes of the determined pragmatist who, once having espoused a cause of action, bends all his energies to the daily task of ensuring its continued success.  If such a cause is one that involves a mass uprising - as Kyo's is - violence may well be a necessary instrument when circumstances require it.  But violence for its own sake - violence when there is no practical need for it - is quite outside this frame of reference and quite foreign to Kyo's character.  At best, such conduct would be pointless; at worst, when tactically foolish, it might well constitute a recipe for disaster.  Any such a priori bias towards violence must, sooner or later, offend against the basic canon of the pragmatist's creed, which requires that action should be adapted to circumstances - that action should prove effective.


La Condition Humaine (published in English as Man's Estate or Man's Fate) appeared in 1933, winning the Prix Goncourt.  It is generally considered to be one of Malraux's best novels.

This essay focuses on the significance of action in La Condition Humaine, and on the meaning in this novel of the concept of the 'human condition'.

The essay was published in French Forum, Vol. 6, January 1981, No 1. 61-73.

(The translations are my own.)

It is worthwhile noting that this emphasis on the need for effectiveness in action throws light on the motivation for Kyo's adherence to the Communist Party.  This issue has often proved a stumbling block for critics because they have been faced with Malraux's own unequivocal statements made on many occasions throughout his life, that Marxism as a theory of history held little interest for him.  Kyo, however, like Malraux himself, sees something else in Marxism besides the claim to have unveiled the mysteries of historical processes.  Kyo sees what might be described as the Leninist dimension of Marxism - the determination, and the capacity, to create and maintain a viable and effective mass movement.8   It is not the ideology of Marxism that appeals to Kyo: it is the Communist Party itself, which offers him the means of acting, and acting effectively, within the context of a large collective enterprise.  In this respect, Kyo is indistinguishable from Garine, the central character of Malraux's first novel, The Conquerors.  Garine is attracted to the Bolsheviks because "he understood immediately that he was dealing not with … sermonisers but with technicians."  And like Kyo, Garine has a dual attitude towards these "technicians" of revolution:  "Although the Bolsheviks' taste for insurrection and their technical knowledge attracted him, their doctrinal vocabulary, and above all their incessant dogmatism, exasperated him"9  Marxism as the inspiration and vehicle for collective action is seen as an admirable creation, but Marxism as a body of doctrine claiming to represent "scientific socialism" is merely a pointless exercise in mystification.  Kyo himself sums up this attitude succinctly in the course of a disagreement with the doctrinaire Communist leader, Vologuine, at a crucial stage of the Shanghai uprising: "… Marxism has within it both a sense of fatality, and a will to act.  Every time the fatality gets in the way of the will, I am uneasy".10

It should be emphasized, of course, that this indifference - occasionally open hostility - towards what Garine terms "doctrinal trash" is not confined to Marxism alone.  Kyo and Garine are equally unmoved by all other social, economic, or even psychological theories that lay claim to some element of permanence or generality.  Both characters, as representatives of a characteristically modern state of mind, have simply resolved to abandon all sources of meaning that make appeal to any form of the "eternal," no matter how residual.  Instead, they rely entirely on the series of transient and particular truths that are revealed in and through the concrete act itself.  They embody an attitude that Albert Camus has described admirably in The Myth of Sisyphus in his characterization of "the conqueror," a figure who bears a striking resemblance to certain of Malraux’s heroes, and Kyo in particular: "I have no interest in ideas or eternity," explains the conqueror. "The truths that belong to me are those that the outstretched hand can reach.  For me, those truths are all that matter.  That is why you can build nothing on me.  Of the conqueror nothing endures..."11

Camus’ description is a penetrating one not only because it points to the strength of this pragmatic attitude - the fact that it does provide a source of truth - but also because it suggests the existence of limitations that the man of action must accept.  Malraux himself is keenly aware that there are such limitations, and while Kyo and Garine illustrate the strength and lucidity that may be drawn from action, much of Malraux's attention in his early novels is devoted to an exploration of the serious restrictions that this reliance on action also implies.  Not that there is any suggestion that action thereby stands condemned as a viable source of truth.  To delimit the area within which a value may successfully operate is not to condemn it as invalid: it is merely to describe it the more accurately and to recognize its proper character.  Malraux is determined to confront the limitations of action without compromise, with the result that the universe of La Condition Humaine, for example, emerges as one in which truth is certainly possible - but possible only if one is prepared to accept certain conditions, and the sometimes tragic consequences that these conditions imply.

The operation of these principles is well illustrated by the circumstances that lead up to Kyo's arrest and eventual execution at the hands of the Kuomintang.  Not long before his arrest, Kyo is warned by the "baron" de Clappique that his life is now in imminent danger.  Clappique himself has been given just one day to flee Shanghai, and his contact in the Kuomintang hierarchy has made it clear that Kyo's life is now also in jeopardy.  Kyo interprets this information - correctly - as confirmation that the Kuomintang have joined forces with the Western powers and are preparing to attack their former allies, the Communists.  He is under no illusions and, particularly since his discussions with Vologuine in Hankow, fully realizes that these developments pose grave threats to the Communists, whose military position now appears very vulnerable.  Clappique's advice to Kyo is quite simple: abandon the Communist forces to their dangerous predicament, go into hiding, and flee the city within forty-eight hours.  The alternative for Kyo is to remain and organize the Communist defense, running the risk of capture and execution. Clappique himself is attempting to arrange his own escape immediately.

This is clearly a critical moment for Kyo, and one that Malraux is at pains to highlight for the obvious importance it bears. How should Kyo react?  Should he follow Clappique's advice and abandon his fellow Communists, or should he remain and continue to play his part in the perilous struggle at hand?  Most importantly, what significance do these alternatives have for him?  Would the decision to remain represent little more than a meaningless display of barren heroics?  Or, alternatively, would there be good reason for such a course of action, and is it possible that a decision to flee would constitute an abject capitulation, implying perhaps a definitive abandonment of the pursuit of meaning and genuine identity?

Strangely enough, critics of La Condition Humaine have rarely paid serious attention to this crucial moment in Kyo’s experience.  Much has been written, of course, about Kyo's heroism in general and his courage in defense of the cause he has espoused.  But almost invariably, attention has been focused on the fortitude he displays after his arrest by the Kuomintang, particularly as he awaits execution.12  Now, while these closing scenes are highly relevant to the question of Kyo’s heroism, they nonetheless depict a character who is no longer a free agent capable of saving his life if he wishes.  In these final hours, Kyo has become a captive doomed to be executed, without the slightest hope of escape.  His situation has changed drastically since the previous day when Clappique gave him advance warning of the Kuomintang threat and counseled immediate flight.  At this earlier stage, Kyo is master of his own fate, and nothing prevents him from making good his escape and ensuring his own safety if he so wishes.  His decision at this point to remain in Shanghai is, therefore, a momentous one, and it is this decision that merits our primary attention if the full force of his character, and the nature of his reliance on action, are to be properly understood.

Why, then, does he remain?

One critic who has fully recognized the need to understand Kyo's decision at this crucial moment is Nicola Chiaromonte; and in seeking to explain the grounds for Kyo's decision, one can scarcely do better than refer to what Chiaromonte has written: "The first thing to be said," this critic points out,

is that neither Malraux nor his characters accept for a moment the idea that one can withdraw from an action in which one has chosen to be involved.  By withdrawing, one would become a comedian, renouncing the very substance of identity, which requires acceptance of the fact that life is essentially tragic, not a game whose rules the individual can change at will.13
In other words, if an action is abandoned because it is leading to grave consequences - which would have been precisely Kyo's attitude if he had chosen to flee Shanghai - the implication is that the only acceptable kind of action is action that will not produce such results: action could rightfully claim one's commitment only if a guarantee was included that it would never lead to undesirable consequences (such as the Kuomintang attack, for example).

To ask for such a guarantee, however, is clearly to impose an unreal condition - a condition that flies in the face of the simple evidence of common sense.  It implies that the consequences of action are controllable, that nothing can ever result that is not desired.  To adopt Chiaromonte’s words, it implies that "life … is a game whose rules the individual can change at will."  Kyo is able to rely on action as his source of knowledge about the real world only because he accepts the condition that the real world imposes - the possibility that an action may lead to unintended and undesirable consequences.  His decision to remain in Shanghai is, accordingly, the price he pays for his continuing grasp on the world of real events and for preserving what Chiaromonte aptly terms his "identity" - his awareness of the part he plays in those events.  To abandon the Communist forces at this point would be to lose this grasp on reality and enter a world of pretence - an impossible world in which revolutions never founder and where the possibility of a tragic conclusion is ruled out ab initio. His refusal to take this option is a measure of the value he places on a lucid awareness of meaning in things and events: the clear, unequivocal implication is that he values this highly enough to risk death rather than lose it - an attitude that can rightly be termed heroic.

This crucial point has been overlooked by virtually all of Malraux’s critics, and it warrants further emphasis.14  Kyo, we do well to remember, can have recourse to no other source of meaning outside action.  He cannot, for example, appeal to the categories of historical theory, and confer meaning on a possible Communist defeat as (for instance) a "necessary phase in the development of the socialist Revolution."  Kyo's sole source of meaning is action: either he understands revolutionary events through action, or he does not understand them at all.  Accordingly, it is the logic of action that he must rely on, even in the extreme situation posed by the threat of imminent defeat.  And the logic of action is as clear as it is implacable: to desert a cause once espoused is to exchange the plenitude of meaning for the emptiness of pretence - the real for the unreal.  It would be quite incorrect, therefore, to imagine that Kyo's decision to remain in Shanghai results from some arbitrary and unexplained notion of revolutionary loyalty, or from some rash, ill-considered impulse.  Kyo stays in Shanghai because his value - the principle that gives meaning to his life - demands that he stay, or else abandon all hope of meaning.  In a sense he has no choice: action will not permit the option of flight, since to flee is to refuse to comply with the terms upon which it is capable of granting meaning to things and events.  For, to reiterate: the decision to flee implies, quite unequivocally, that the consequences of action are controllable, and this proposition is in flagrant contradiction with the simple evidence of everyday human experience and elementary common sense.  A world modeled on the terms of such a proposition may certainly be conceivable, but it would be nothing more than a world of pure fantasy, a land of inconsequential make-believe, far removed from the real world in which revolutionary events (for example) have their being.

Malraux takes great pains to drive this point home, and, not content with exploring the issue solely through the character of Kyo, he goes on to ask: What would a character be like whose commitment to action was always accompanied by the determination to withdraw at the first sign that undesirable consequences were likely to result?  This question, which implies an attitude towards action exactly the reverse of Kyo’s, is answered in the character of Clappique.  For the refusal to accept all the consequences of action is, in fact, the very basis on which the structure of Clappique’s character is founded, and it is for precisely this reason that he appears consistently as the compulsive buffoon, or the "comedian," to borrow Chiaromonte's apt term.  Clappique turns his back on the possibility of serious commitment to any action and, since he is thereby deprived of the possibility of any real identity, he is forced to rely on a series of comic masks: "comic" because none of his actions must ever lead to serious consequences; "masks" because any identity that action may fleetingly lend him must be able to be produced and discarded at will.

Expressed at the level of ordinary day-to-day contact with others, Clappique's attitude manifests itself in a blend of unrelieved whimsicality and vapid make-believe.  None of his moods or emotions ever genuinely involves him; he adopts them and casts them aside quite arbitrarily.  If, on occasion, he does desire something more closely resembling a distinctive and consistent personality, he appeals to a prefabricated model borrowed from the world of fiction, his choice quite naturally falling on that branch of fiction in which the very shape and form of reality can be changed at will - the realm of fantasy.  Hence, his recurrent imitations of Fantômas and Punch (and his special affection for the Arabian Nights and the Tales of Hoffmann).  None of this, however, is capable of producing what Chiaromonte aptly terms the "substance of identity" and, as Clappique himself confesses, in a characteristically theatrical manner, "Baron de Clappique does not exist."

Critics have interpreted the character of Clappique in a variety of ways, but common to all interpretations has been a tendency to focus on the more readily discernible features of his character without pointing to any firm, underlying principle from which these features may be seen to originate.  Denis Boak, for example, writes that "[Clappique] wishes to escape from himself by actually becoming someone else".15  This evidently refers to Clappique's continual adoption and rejection of a series of artificial roles.  But Boak does not supply a sufficient reason for this behavior.  He describes it as "an attempt at self-transcendence," but this carries the issue little further, since, in Boak’s view, all the major characters of La Condition Humaine are engaged in "the creation of … a set of transcendental values".16  The basis of Clappique's particular form of "transcendence" is not made clear.  In a somewhat similar vein, the critic Joseph Hoffmann describes Clappique as "a man who lives a lie, … a being who lives outside of himself, who tries to escape from his human condition by escaping from himself, by taking refuge in falsehood and buffoonery".17  Yet Hoffmann regards this attempt to "escape from the human condition" as common to all the major characters of La Condition Humaine.18  Why, then, does Clappique's means of "escape" take this particular form?  By what process has he become "a man who lives a lie"?  The issue is far less to know that Clappique distorts and falsifies reality (that much is self-evident) than to know precisely why this is so.  The reason for this - the reason for his role-playing and for his need to take refuge in "the lie" - is that his refusal to become unreservedly involved in action - in any action - necessarily implies a definitive and irreparable breach with the real world.  For, to repeat, action can establish and maintain a grasp on reality only for one (such as Kyo) who, having recognized that the consequences of action are controllable only in a world of fantasy, determines not to relinquish the cause he has espoused, wherever it may lead.  Clappique's endless comic masquerade is the direct expression of the radical loss of contact with the real world that results from the refusal to accept any such serious commitment.  The fundamental reason for Clappique's need to take refuge in "the lie" is, quite simply, that he refuses to accept the only possible terms under which action may serve as a source of truth.

It is not intended here to proceed to a more detailed study of the character of Clappique.  The issue has been introduced simply to underline the importance that attaches to this question of withdrawal from action in La Condition Humaine and to contrast Clappique's attitude with that of Kyo.  Sufficient has perhaps been said of Clappique, however, to indicate that the attitude towards action which he embodies constitutes an attempt to lay claim to a power which is, quite literally, the attribute of a god.  For, by refusing to accept all the consequences of action, and in claiming a right of veto over any decree of fate that he regards as unduly inauspicious, he is seeking to assume the quality of omnipotence - the completely unfettered power to alter the shape of reality to suit his wishes.  Clappique would consent to wholehearted commitment to a course of action only in a world in which he also controlled all the strings of fate that might determine the final outcome.  He would act with resolve, as Kyo does, only in a blissful, submissive world in which the course of events would infallibly adapt itself to suit his desires - a world in which the virtue of resolution would, by definition, be superfluous.  Such is the nature of Clappique's strange, impossible ambition. He seeks to be not just powerful, but all-powerful - not man, but god.

This "will to be god," as Kyo’s father terms it (expressly applying the phrase to Clappique),19 is the temptation that Kyo is able to resist in his decision to remain in Shanghai despite the imminent Kuomintang attack.  At this crucial turning point in the novel, Kyo rejects the pretence of omnipotence and accepts the limitation that a world of human dimensions imposes - the possibility that the fortunes of an action may lead to undesirable (and, in this case, fatal) consequences.  In this way, Kyo retains his grasp on the world of human experience.  He resists "the will to be god" and opts to remain a man, among other men, despite the heavy price that may need to be paid.  In other words, Kyo accepts the "condition" that action imposes if the perspective it grants is to remain "human" - he accepts (just as Clappique refuses to accept) the "human condition."

This final point - Kyo's capacity to accept the human condition - has been the subject of wide misunderstanding by Malraux's critics.  As mentioned earlier in this article, it has frequently been argued that all the characters of La Condition Humaine, including Kyo, are intent on seeking relief from the human condition and escaping from it if possible.  Cecil Jenkins, for example, depicts the human condition as the experience of "a dark and airless world … a world where all men are victims, where all are constantly living their death," and goes on to contend that all the characters are seeking some form of Pascalian "divertissement" from this grim predicament.20  Similarly, Denis Boak describes the human condition as a state of meaningless futility and maintains that "Each one [of the characters] is seeking to escape from the human condition by the creation of his own set of transcendental values".21

Yet, however useful such interpretations may be in other contexts, they are quite inappropriate and misleading when applied to La Condition Humaine.  Far from implying that the escape from the human condition is a desirable goal, Malraux's novel depicts the option of escape as leading to an extreme deterioration in the quality of human experience, while, on the contrary, the highest possible value is placed on the capacity to accept the human condition.  For, as we have seen, Malraux's concept of the human condition has a clear and specific meaning which is quite unlike the interpretations offered by Jenkins and Boak.  Central to Malraux's concept is the idea of a necessary human limitation - a requirement that must be fulfilled if life is to retain those qualities that mark it out as something of value.  In essence, the human condition, as Malraux portrays it, is the limitation, or "condition," imposed by action that must be observed if the world revealed through action is to retain its "human" features.  It is the condition which, if transgressed, leads directly to the inhuman.  As the analysis above has shown, Clappique seeks to escape from this condition through his refusal to renounce the right to withdraw from action, and the consequence is his inhuman pretence of omnipotence - his pitiable capitulation to "the will to be god" and his state of permanent exile to a world of empty fantasy.  Kyo, however, accepts the condition that action imposes: he relinquishes the right to withdraw, and the consequence is that he remains firmly anchored in the world of human experience - the concrete, tangible world of real revolutionary events - and is able to know, even moments before his death, that he is dying "to give a meaning to his life."  Far from representing an ideal objective, the attempt to escape from the human condition is, in the final analysis, an abandonment of human life and its possibilities of meaning.  The willingness to accept the human condition signifies a determination to realize those possibilities, however costly that course of action may be.



Nicola Chiaromonte, "Malraux and the Demons of Action," in R.W.B. Lewis, ed., Malraux: A Collection of Critical Essays, (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1964), 114.

2Cf., for example, J. Hoffmann, L'Humanisme de Malraux (Paris: Klincksieck, 1963), 154-59; D. Boak, André Malraux (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), 63, 64, 66, 67; C. Jenkins, André Malraux (New York: Twayne, 1972), 61-65.  There is some disagreement about the degree of success that greets the attempts of the various characters to escape from the human condition. Contrast Jenkins, 64-65, with the more optimistic assessment of Hoffmann, 199-200.  For further examples of interpretations that accord action a function of somewhat dependent or instrumental importance, see C.D. Blend, André Malraux, Tragic Humanist (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1963), 90-103; D. Wilkinson, Malraux: An Essay in Political Criticism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1967), 44-71; J. Hiddleston, Malraux: La Condition Humaine (London: Edward Arnold, 1973), passim; J.W.Greenlee, Malraux's Heroes and History (DeKaIb, Ill.: Northern Illinois Univ. Press, 1975), 59-85; C.J. Greshoff, An Introduction to the Novels of André Malraux (Cape Town: Balkema, 1975), 94-124.

Cf., for example, Blend, l00-01; Hoffmann, 192-93; Wilkinson, 61-71.

Cf. Blend, 102; Hoffmann, 105-09, 176-81; Wilkinson, 57-61; F. Dorenlot, Malraux ou l'unité de pensée (Paris: Gallimard, 1970), 17-76.

André Malraux, La Condition Humaine, (Paris: Gallimard, 1946), 19.

There is a widespread, if frequently very subtle, tendency for critics to ascribe to Kyo the determination to pursue some form of long-term social or economic goal, implying a belief in some form of historical idea. Cf. Wilkinson, 61, 70-71; Greenlee, 84; Hoffmann, 192-221; Hiddleston, 24.

Cf. Boak, 93-94; Wilkinson, 60-61; Greshoff, 118; T.J. Kline, André Malraux and the Metamorphosis of Death (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1973), 59-83.

After World War II, Malraux's assessment of the contemporary Communist stance, particularly as manifested by the U.S.S.R., led him to quite different, and far less optimistic, conclusions.

André Malraux, Les Conquérants (Paris: Grasset, 1949), 69, 70.

10 André Malraux, La Condition Humaine, 118.

11 Albert Camus, Le Mythe de Sisyphe (Paris: Gallimard, 1942), 121.

12 Cf. Hoffmann, 99-200; Greshoff, 102-10; Boak, 70-72; Wilkinson, 66-71. As indicated below, Nicola Chiaromonte represents an important exception to this general tendency.

13 Nicola Chiaromonte, "Malraux and the Demons of Action," 103-104.

14 In fact, Chiaromonte appears to be the only critic who has discussed this point. It is interesting to note in passing that this critic eventually comes to the conclusion that Kyo's character manifests a serious inconsistency in the final stages of the novel.  Chiaromonte contends that Kyo's belief in the worth of the Communist struggle in Shanghai eventually begins to assume the quality of a blind, unreasoning faith, suggesting a new-found, unexplained reliance on "a suddenly revealed God: the new Allah, the God of History." (See 104-06.)  This interpretation springs from the premise that the meaning accessible through action is transient and cannot endure beyond defeat.  Viewed in this light, Chiaromonte argues, the fact that Kyo continues to derive meaning from the Communist struggle despite the repression in Shanghai leads one to the conclusion that the logic of action has been abandoned and that a new value - an appeal to the "God of History" - has suddenly and inexplicably taken its place.  Chiaromonte's premise is correct, but his conclusion results from a misunderstanding of the factual situation that confronts Kyo in the latter parts of the novel.  In particular, Chiaromonte appears to assume that, from the moment Kyo returns from Hankow, he sees no possibility other than total defeat.  In fact, Kyo is by no means convinced that further struggle is useless.  Secondly, the collective event - the "action" - of which Kyo considers himself a part is not simply the insurrection in Shanghai, as Chiaromonte tends to imply.  It is a movement of vaster proportions - the Chinese Communist Revolution, if one wishes to give it a name - whose progress continues despite, and to some extent because of, the setback in Shanghai.

15 Boak, 66

16 Boak, 81

17 Hoffmann   159-160.

18 156, 157. It is interesting to note also that, although Chiaromonte admirably enunciates the general principle concerning withdrawal from action in La Condition Humaine, he does not go on to link this principle with the character of Clappique.

19 And to other characters, whose "volonté de déité" expresses itself in other ways. See 191, 192.  Significantly, Gisors makes a specific exception in the case of Kyo. Cf. the further discussion of this point below.

20 C. Jenkins, "André Malraux," in J. Cruickshank. ed., The Novelist as Philosopher (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1962), 65.

21 Boak, 61.

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