HISTORY AND THE INDIVIDUAL IN
LES CONQUÉRANTS AND LA CONDITION HUMAINE
Version with quotes in English
A striking feature of André Malraux's novels Les Conquérants (The Conquerors) and La Condition Humaine (Man's Estate) is the importance that the central characters, Pierre Garine and Kyo Gisors, place on participation in revolutionary struggle. Garine and Kyo hold key organisational posts in the collective movements they espouse and both apply themselves vigorously to the tasks they have undertaken. The vital role that participation in revolutionary events plays in their lives is well summed up in a remark of Garine's towards the conclusion of Les Conquérants when deteriorating health threatens to terminate his involvement in the struggle in Canton: "Listen," he confides to the narrator, "when my involvement in action ceases, when I begin to be separated from it, it's like losing my lifeblood".1 The comment is equally applicable to Kyo. Both characters seem deeply and organically united with the vast collective struggles to which they are committed. A useful comparison can be drawn with the more traditional "historical novel" in which the march of collective events frequently appears to proceed independently of the lives of the central characters and to function largely as a context or "setting". Garine and Kyo, by contrast, seem unimaginable in isolation from the revolutionary struggles in which they participate. History, in their case, seems to be part of the very fabric of daily existence.
Once the matter is viewed in this light however, an intriguing, if neglected, problem emerges. The credit for highlighting this problem goes to the Italian critic, Nicola Chiaromonte, who drew attention to it in an essay of lasting importance on Malraux published in Partisan Review in 1948. Malraux's novels prompt Chiaromonte to reflect on the individual's relationship with the historical event, and in particular on certain illuminating episodes in the nineteenth century novel - Fabrizio's experiences on the battlefield at Waterloo, in La Chartreuse de Parme, and scenes of a somewhat similar nature in Tolstoy's War and Peace. "When he describes Fabrizio searching for the battle of Waterloo and not being able to find it", Chiaromonte writes,
Stendhal was expressing, in his own nimble way, one of the great insights of nineteenth century sensibility. It was a flash of pure wonder at the utterly paradoxical relation between an individual destiny and whatever general significance might be attached to a "historical event". In fact, it was the splendid illustration of a myth which no historical venture, and no amount of sophistry, has thereafter been able to obliterate from our consciousness. The "epic" moments of War and Peace: Prince André lying on the battlefield of Austerlitz; Alapatych at Smolensk; Pierre among the prisoners, comprise a most vigorous apprehension of the same meaning, and of the same myth. The myth is about man and history: the more naively, and genuinely, man experiences a historical event, the more the event disappears and something else takes its place: the starry sky, the other man, or the utterly ironical detail. That is, the unhistorical: Karataiev and his footgear appear infinitely more significant than Napoleon or Mother Russia.2The point Chiaromonte is making might be restated in the following way: In whatever form it may assume, historical or political thought relates always, and inevitably, to the world of collective experience. History as a conceptual possibility cannot be confined within the perspectives of the individual life. As a matter of principle, it demands the broader reaches of a quite different realm which it presumes to exist "among" men and women when they begin to act upon one another. It rests on an intellectual schema which is inconceivable without the initial resolve to transcend the individual and his "private" world of joys and sorrows, in order to posit the existence of a "collective" world in which the individual per se is irrelevant. To state the matter in a somewhat paradoxical form, history concerns everyone, and for that very reason, it concerns no-one. This is not to imply that history affects no-one. Such a proposition would merely be contrary to common sense. The point is simply that the categories of historical explanation - the concepts that claim to impose intelligibility on the formless multiplicity of a major collective event - are, by their very nature, designed to illuminate something quite different from the world as perceived and experienced by the single individual. Thus, Fabrizio is unable to find the battle of Waterloo, which is in fact raging all around him; and Tolstoy's characters focus on some seeming irrelevancy while a page of what we, and they, would quite reasonably call "history" is being written before their very eyes. There is an apparently unbridgeable gulf - an "irretrievable disproportion" as Chiaromonte terms it in another passage3 - between the forms of thought that confer a general meaning on the "historical event" and the categories that shape the individual's own experience. In Chiaromonte's words, "the more naively, and genuinely, man experiences a historical event, the more the event disappears..."
Herein lies a dilemma for the critic of Les Conquérants and La Condition Humaine. For on the face of it, the principle just enunciated seems to be flatly contradicted by these two novels. Garine and Kyo, as we have seen, appear to be firmly united with the historical events in which they are involved, and in fact seem inconceivable in isolation from them. For them, the revolution is not a picturesque backdrop to life, but the central fact of daily experience. Both characters seem genuinely able to "live" history: the collective world of revolutionary struggle and the perspectives of their own lives have somehow become one and the same. Malraux, in other words, seems to have reconciled the irreconcilable: Fabrizio has "found" the battle of Waterloo; the "irretrievable disproportion" of which Chiaromonte speaks has been overcome. The problem for the critic is to explain how this has come about.
Chiaromonte aside, critics have generally been silent on this issue. Attention has often been focussed on Garine and Kyo as individuals, and much has also been written about various political ideals ascribed to them. The dilemma highlighted here however - which concerns the relationship between the individual and the historical event - has not been the subject of significant critical debate. This continues to be the case in recent discussions of Les Conquérants and La Condition Humaine where the dominant preoccupations tend to exclude this issue from the critical agenda.4 In raising the problem and in searching for a solution, one is therefore entering relatively uncharted waters where previous criticism offers few points of reference.
The solution offered in the present essay depends on two basic propositions whose general nature it may be useful to indicate at the outset. The first is that Garine and Kyo regard human action as their only reliable source of meaning. Action, that is, has a quite fundamental role in their lives - a "metaphysical" role if one interprets that somewhat elusive term as denoting the realm of ultimate meaning. Action, for both characters, constitutes the one reliable means of imposing order and significance on the phenomena of experience - the only way of comprehending a world which would otherwise be senseless and chaotic.5
The second proposition is that Garine and Kyo consistently subordinate their action to collective goals and by so doing ensure that the meaning action generates is not theirs alone, but is always a shared meaning - a meaning held "in common" with others. The operation of these two principles within the context of a significant historical event, it will be argued, allows both characters to forge a link between the realm of individual experience and the historical event in which they are involved. In this way (and not through adherence to any general theory of history or any fixed social ideal) Garine and Kyo overcome - or at least circumvent - the "irretrievable disproportion" between the individual and history which has been discussed above. These ideas will now be developed in greater detail.
One might choose a variety of passages in Les Conquérants or La Condition Humaine to illustrate the claim that action serves as a source of meaning for Garine and Kyo. The example selected here concerns Garine, and occurs early in Les Conquérants during the opening scenes of the revolutionary activity that the novel describes. As indicated earlier, Garine holds a key organisational position in the revolutionary movement in Canton, and plays a major role in influencing tactics. In the episode in question, his attention is focussed on threats to the revolution posed by two related factors - the imminent attack by the forces of General Tang, a local warlord backed by the British, and the economic stranglehold being exerted by British commercial interests in Hong Kong.
An examination of Malraux's treatment of this episode reveals that Garine's perception of events is strictly practical, and his response to them equally so. The defence of Canton against General Tang requires rapid deployment of the revolutionary militia, and Garine is soon taking the necessary steps to ensure that this is done. The threat posed by the British calls for a different tactic. The massive strikes that have paralysed commercial activity in Canton and Hong Kong are no longer proving sufficiently effective and now need to be supplemented by measures to obstruct shipping movements. This in turn demands a further change in policy. The influential Tcheng-Dai, until now a valuable ally, opposes a shipping blockade. Tcheng-Dai must be persuaded to change his stance or be treated as an adversary of the revolution. Garine tries the former alternative without success. The alliance is then brought to an end.
The fundamental point of interest in all this is not the events themselves, but the use Malraux makes of them to delineate the features of his central character, Pierre Garine. The key point to observe is Garine's relentless pragmatism. The decisive question for him - the question that shapes his priorities and his view of the world in which he must think and act - is always: What are the tangible obstacles now confronting the revolutionary movement? And what must be done, in practical terms, to preserve the momentum of the struggle? In other words, what is the nature of the revolutionary situation as revealed through an optic of action? There is no attempt to go beyond this by seeking to locate events within the longer-term perspectives offered by political or historical theory. At no time does Garine attempt to explain the struggles with Tang or Tcheng-Dai as (for example) the consequences of "latent historical forces", or as "predictable phases" in a march towards the realization of some future political ideal. His sole scale of reference in this episode, and consistently throughout the novel, is the world of immediate, practical fact. Action - what can, or cannot, be done - is his sole source of meaning. Action alone rescues experience from a state of senseless disorder, and transforms it into something comprehensible and real.
This essay discusses the gap between individual experience and history, and how this gap is bridged by the central characters in Malraux's first and third novels (Les Conquérants and La Condition Humaine).
The essay was published in the Australian Journal of French Studies, Vol. XXVII, No 2. 1990. 173-181.
The translations are my own.
is in accord with that given by Malraux himself shortly after the
of Les Conquérants. Speaking at a
and intellectuals in 1929, Malraux was at pains to emphasise that
Garine is a revolutionary leader, he does not perceive revolutionary
in terms of any long-term view of political or historical
His perspective, Malraux explains, is purely pragmatic and is confined
to the immediate present. "Garine", he comments,
does not commit himself to an image of the Revolution but to a real revolutionary movement ... He knows nothing about the long-term future of the Revolution, but he does know what are the likely immediate consequences of this or that decision. He hasn't the slightest interest in an earthly Paradise. I can't stress enough that his concern is not what I've called the mythology of the long term goal. Garine is not interested in defining the Revolution, but in building one.6This statement is unequivocal. Garine rejects the various doctrines and ideologies that claim to reveal the ultimate objective of historical processes: he has rejected the "mythology of the long term goal". The revolution he perceives is the revolutionary movement itself as it exists and struggles here and now - a revolution whose shape and form is determined at all times by the tangible ramifications of action currently taking place. The "Revolution" - as political ideal and long-term perspective - is of no interest to him; his more modest scale of reference is "what are the likely immediate consequences of this or that decision". He is the total pragmatist, the man without faith in the world of ideas, who believes only in what he can see and touch and change. To borrow some well-chosen words of Nicola Chiaromonte, Garine has resolved "to reject any proposition which cannot be directly translated into a force, an act, or a series of acts".7
An identical analysis applies to Kyo in La Condition Humaine. Like Garine, Kyo relies exclusively on action for his grasp on events, and his perception of the Shanghai uprising is shaped entirely by this pragmatic perspective. The most obvious evidence of this is the way in which revolutionary events are depicted in the novel, which parallels the way this is done in Les Conquérants. In Kyo's eyes, the revolution is a series of tangible challenges to be met: how to ensure at the commencement of the uprising that the insurrectionary forces can be used to maximum effect; how to obtain an adequate supply of arms (which leads to the further practical question of how to seize a cargo of munitions from a vessel then in port); how to guard against the emerging threat of a repression at the hands of the Kuomintang once the insurrection has succeeded; and finally how to organise a defence once the repression has begun. Kyo's perception of these events is strictly pragmatic and he makes no attempt to offer general, "ideological" explanations. At no point, for example, does he claim to discern "historical forces" underlying revolutionary events or to perceive a long-term perspective into which they might fit. Like Pierre Garine, Kyo is, one might say, ideologically agnostic. Malraux's comment on Garine is equally applicable to Kyo: "He knows nothing about the future of the Revolution, but he does know what are the likely immediate consequences of this or that decision."8 Reality is defined by what action alone reveals.
To describe Garine and Kyo as ideologically agnostic is not of course to suggest that either is ideologically illiterate. When, from time to time, they encounter opposition from followers of political orthodoxies, both are perfectly capable of engaging in debate and defending their own positions. Garine's clashes with Tcheng-Dai are a typical case in point, while another obvious instance is Kyo's dispute with the Comintern representative, Vologuine, in Hankow. The essential point to observe, however, is that in all such cases both characters consistently reject the doctrinal solutions they are urged to adopt. Neither is any stranger to the language of historical theory - on the contrary, both are obviously quite familiar with it - but their own perspective remains determinedly pragmatic. Their attitude in all such debates is to distrust any analysis of the revolutionary situation which leads them onto the terrain of history as idea. History, in their eyes, is mere empty speculation if it exists on any time continuum stretching beyond the present moment of action.
This analysis has concentrated so far on the first of the two propositions outlined earlier - the contention that Garine and Kyo rely solely on action to confer meaning on things and events. This constitutes the first step in an explanation of how Malraux is able to bridge the gap between the world of individual experience and the domain of the historical event. There is, however, a further step to be taken which concerns the harnessing of action to collective ends. This issue will now be examined.
It is important to observe, firstly, that action could readily serve as a source of meaning in contexts quite unlike major collective events such as revolutionary struggles. Action might well perform this function, for instance, for a person engaged in a purely individual enterprise - a solitary journey of exploration for example. In such a case, the dimensions of the world on which meaning was conferred would naturally be greatly reduced, but the principle involved would remain the same: the world as the individual encountered it would be comprehended purely in terms of its immediate, practical ramifications. Action would continue to confer meaning on experience even though that meaning would be perceived by the individual alone.
The experience of Garine and Kyo, however, contrasts sharply with this. Both have chosen, as a matter of principle, not to act alone. They have opted, quite deliberately, to commit themselves to enterprises - revolutionary movements in their case - in which others are also involved, and they have resolved to regard the continued success and growth of those collective enterprises as the sole, guiding principle for their actions. In such circumstances, it necessarily follows that the meaning that action reveals will be a shared meaning, since it will always be a meaning held "in common" with all those who, like them, are engaged in meeting the practical challenges which the continued success of the revolution demands.
It may be objected that many of those involved in the revolutionary movement may have joined it for ideological or even personal reasons that Garine or Kyo would regard with indifference, if not antipathy. Garine, for example, does not share the faith in "scientific socialism" of Borodine and his followers. Can he seriously believe then that the meaning that he finds in revolutionary events is really "shared" by those who adhere to beliefs such as these? Would they not interpret events in a manner he would regard as mistaken or irrelevant? If so, wherein lies the basis for meaning that is shared?
This objection misunderstands the point at issue. Garine (like Kyo) is fully aware that the commitment of many of his co-revolutionaries may spring from political convictions that he does not hold. Yet as long as they continue to be allies of the revolutionary movement in practice, this is irrelevant. For as Garine points out, "We have our struggle in common..."9 As long as others remain intent, here and now, on achieving the same concrete objectives that circumstances manifestly demand (the defeat of Tang's attacking army, for example) then, whatever else they may believe, the pursuit of these objectives will inevitably mean the same to them, in practical terms, as it does to Garine. The series of advances and setbacks encountered will be precisely that - advances or setbacks - in the eyes of all those actively engaged in the struggle. Hope engendered by signs of possible victory will be a shared hope; fear aroused by a sudden reversal will be a shared fear; and joy at a successful outcome will be a shared joy. As long as all energies continue to be directed towards achieving the same practical goals, things cannot be otherwise: the meaning that action reveals will be a meaning held in common by all who participate in the struggle - just as it will be a meaning inaccessible to all those who are indifferent to the outcome, or to those who oppose it.
Malraux's own comments on Les Conquérants support this interpretation. Certain early critics had seen Garine as a strongly individualistic character who had little interest in the possibility of shared experience.10 In his comments on the novel in the speech referred to above, however, Malraux expressly rejects this view and contends that "Garine places what individualism he has in the service of an anti-individualism". Garine's link with his fellow revolutionaries, he explains, is established through the experience of "the fraternity of arms".11 This phrase neatly sums up the analysis presented above. The term "fraternity", with its connotations of a family bond, suggests that the revolution is something Garine holds "in common" with his co-revolutionaries: it highlights the shared, "anti-individualist" nature of his revolutionary experience. The reference to "arms" indicates that his participation in this shared reality is made possible not through shared doctrinal allegiances (assuming that such an outcome could even be achieved in that way) but through the medium of active struggle.
applies to Kyo. Like Garine, Kyo is committed to collective
action. Just as Garine chooses to act exclusively in
the exigencies of the struggle in Canton, so Kyo responds to the
not of some individual endeavour, but of the revolutionary uprising in
Shanghai. The major events in which he participates - the
organisation of the uprising, the attacks on the government
the battle with the armoured train, the negotiations with the Comintern
representatives in Hankow, and the final, vain attempt to resist the
repression - are all actions which arise out of challenges faced by the
revolutionary movement as a whole. In each case, therefore,
are actions whose meaning - for good or ill - is shared by all who
those objectives. For Kyo, as for Garine, the revolution is a
reality based on "the fraternity of arms". For both
of arms" is the nature and being of revolutionary struggle - the means
through which history as lifeless abstraction is replaced by history as
This, then, is Malraux's solution to the dilemma described earlier in this essay - a solution elemental in its simplicity. Garine and Kyo have chosen action as their source of meaning - as their sole means of understanding the world through which they move. By consistently subordinating action to collective ends, they ensure that the meaning thus revealed is collective in nature. The collective movement espoused by both characters is a major revolutionary struggle. Thus, from the moment revolutionary action begins (but only then) Garine and Kyo are able to transcend their own individuality and enter a world in which their hopes and fears are no longer distinctively theirs but are always hopes and fears shared by others. The individual "self" of each character merges with a collective consciousness common to all who are actively engaged in the same struggle - a collective consciousness which is necessarily co-extensive with the limits of the revolutionary movement itself. The revolution, in short, becomes a vehicle for genuine human experience.
A bridge to the domain of history has thereby come into being. Those vast, collective upheavals termed "historical events" cease to be impervious to the categories of individual experience despite the "irretrievable disproportion" between the individual and history of which Chiaromonte speaks. The bewilderment of Fabrizio del Dongo on the field of Waterloo, and the feeling of unreality experienced by Prince André at the Battle of Austerlitz, are replaced with a sense of "belonging" to the historical event, coupled with a clear perception of its meaning. The otherwise alien and impenetrable world of history becomes accessible to the individual as a tangible, living reality.
This is not of
course the "history" of the
or the political theorist. History as dependent on the world
remains, as ever, nothing more than a lifeless abstraction.
consciousness to which Garine and Kyo belong is not constructed of
- such as a "struggle for democratic socialism" or an "overthrow of the
forces of capitalism" or a pursuit of the "classless
revolution of which they are a part is constituted by the shared
of collective action - by "fraternity of arms". It is the
not as idea (or "image", to borrow Malraux's own terminology12)
but as tangible and visible collective effort. History as
by the historian or the political theorist remains as inaccessible to
characters as it was in the episodes in Stendhal and Tolstoy to which
refers. In this sense, the irretrievable disproportion
and human experience remains. History as collective act - as
practical achievement - is, however, a world which Garine and Kyo have
entered and made their own.13
2 Chiaromonte, N., "Malraux and the Demons of Action", in Lewis, R., (ed.), Malraux, A Collection of Critical Essays, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall, 1964, pp.98,99. Chiaromonte later included substantial portions of this essay in his book TheParadox of History, London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1970. The Paradox of History was reissued in 1985 by the University of Pennyslvania Press with a foreword by Joseph Frank and a postface by Mary McCarthy.
4 Two examples of this are the collections: Langlois, W. (ed.), André Malraux 5, Malraux et l'Histoire, Paris, Minard, 1982; and Moatti, C. (ed.), André Malraux 6, Les Conquérants, Paris, Minard, 1985. Discussion of the issue is also absent in earlier studies such as: Marissel, A., La Pensée Créatrice d'André Malraux, Toulouse, Privat, 1979; Greenlee, J. Malraux's Heroes and History, De Kalb, Northern Illinois University Press, 1975; Jenkins, C., André Malraux, New York, Twayne, 1972; Dorenlot, F., Malraux ou l'Unité de Pensée, Paris, Gallimard, 1970; Boak, D., André Malraux, Oxford, Clarendon, 1968; Wilkinson, D., Malraux, An Essay in Political Criticism, Cambridge Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1967; Hoffmann, J., L'Humanisme de Malraux, Paris, Klincksieck, 1963. It is interesting to note the same omission in Susan Suleiman's Authoritarian Fictions, (New York, Columbia University Press, 1983) which concerns "the ideological novel as literary genre" and which includes a section on Malraux's L'Espoir.
5 Discussions of Garine and Kyo sometimes suggest that action is the outcome or expression of some other, more basic value. In Garine's case, action is often seen as the expression of a will to power, or a desire for self-affirmation. See for example: Wilkinson, D., op. cit., pp. 36-40; Greenlee, J., op. cit., pp.45,57; Cadwallader, B., Crisis of the European Mind, A Study of André Malraux and Drieu La Rochelle, Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1981, p.226,227. In Kyo's case action is frequently portrayed as a necessary instrument in the pursuit of a political ideal of social justice or human dignity. See for example: Wilkinson, D., op. cit., pp 66-71; Hiddleston, J. Malraux: La Condition Humaine, London, Edward Arnold, 1973, pp.22-24; Marissel, A., op. cit., p.52. These interpretations contrast with the proposition advanced in the present essay which assigns a fundamental role to action.
8 See above. I have provided a fuller discussion of Kyo's reliance on action in two previous articles: "André Malraux: The Commitment to Action in La Condition Humaine", in French Forum, Vol. 6, No. 1, January 1981, pp.61-73; and "The Psychology of a Terrorist: Tchen in La Condition Humaine", in Nottingham French Studies, Vol. 21, No. 1, May 1982, pp.48-66.
10 This emphasis has tended to recur quite frequently in commentaries on Les Conquérants. See for example: Stephane, R., Portrait de l'Aventurier, Paris, Grasset, 1965, pp.61-64; Boak, D., op. cit.. p.48.; Fortier, P., "L'action et l'absurde: l'expression mythique dans Les Conquérants", in Moatti C., (ed.), op. cit. p.138.
11 Malraux, A., "La Question des Conquérants", pp. 432,436. On other occasions, Malraux sometimes uses "la fraternité virile" or "la camaraderie d'armes" as alternatives to the phrase "la fraternité d'armes". These terms also suggest shared experience generated through action.
13 The arguments
this article inevitably give rise to a number of other questions. For
given the analysis of the function of action which has been offered,
might ask: why do Garine and Kyo choose to commit themselves to a
revolutionary movement, rather than to some other cause? Is the choice
purely arbitrary? An adequate answer to this question requires a more
analysis of the implications of action than can be accommodated in the
present article. (I have discussed the matter briefly in the article in
Forum referred to in Note 8