(There is a version of this essay with quotes in English here)

Much has been written about the ideologies of political terrorism and their manifestations in recent history.  Somewhat less abundant, however, are studies not of the theories of terrorism but of the psychology of the terrorist - studies in which the individual terrorist emerges as a recognisable human personality, however desperate and forbidding he or she may appear.

The political terrorist, Tchen-Ta-Eul, in André Malraux's novel La Condition Humaine is an outstanding exception to this observation.  Tchen is one of the central figures of this major work and by common critical consent he is one of Malraux's most powerfully drawn characters.  Moreover, Tchen is no mere theoretician of the assassin's credo, content to confine himself to the rhetoric of his beliefs.  Ideals, he insists, must be expressed through action.  In the words of Gisors, the aging intellectual in the novel who takes a close interest in this intelligent and well-educated young revolutionary, "[Tchen] ne pouvait vivre d'une idéologie qui ne transformât pas immédiatement en actes."1

The evidence for such an opinion is plain enough, for Tchen's involvement in terrorism is extremely eventful and violent.  Prior to the outbreak of the Shanghai uprising, which is the central event in the novel, he gains entry to the hotel room of a Chinese businessman and murders him to gain possession of a document concerning a shipload of arms.  Some time later, following signs of a repression of the Communist forces by the Kuomintang, he resolves to assassinate the Kuomintang leader, Chiang Kai-Shek.  Failing in a first attempt, he concludes that the only plan likely to succeed requires the sacrifice of his own life: he will hurl himself on to Chiang Kai-Shek's car grasping a bomb in his hand.  Mutilated but still conscious after the explosion, he manages to administer his own coup de grâce, brutally assisted by a policeman standing nearby.  The total duration of this terrorist career, from its violent beginnings to its even more violent conclusion, is barely three weeks.

Critics of La Condition Humaine have not always been in complete accord about the character of Tchen.  Comments have ranged from suggestions that he is the willing victim of an inhuman obsession with violence and death, to assertions that he is not to be any less admired than Kyo Gisors, the revolutionary leader who is generally regarded as the exemplary, heroic figure of the novel.2  One critic, for instance, argues that Tchen's commitment to terrorism arises from "a sickness, and ... a submersion in sickness"3 while another contends that his temperament is illustrative of an "unrestrained celebration of [a] drive to heroic, and thus individual, action."4  Joseph Hoffmann, the author of a lengthy and detailed study of Malraux's novels, writes approvingly of Tchen that,

Ce personnage est l'un des plus attachants peut-être du roman: sa jeunesse, la brièveté de sa vie, sa fin tragique, sa solitude, la pureté de ses convictions, tout cela nous le rend très proche - plus proche que les autres révolutionnaires à qui les exigences d'une action organisée font perdre parfois quelque chose de leur humanité ...5 What precisely are the mainsprings of Tchen's character?  Should he be viewed essentially as the embodiment of humane and high-minded aspirations?  Or is he the victim of a sterile obsession with violence and death?  What is the genesis of his passionate commitment to terrorism, and what is its ultimate significance?  Is he hero or fanatic?

The development of a satisfactory answer to these questions must begin with an examination of a principle that lies at the core of all the central characters in La Condition Huinaine and which is illustrated most directly in the character of Kyo Gisors.  This principle concerns, in broad terms, the capacity to understand the world solely through the visible and tangible changes wrought by practical human effort - in other words, the determination to regard action as the individual's only reliable source of meaning.

Contemporary critics (and not only critics of Malraux) have frequently tended to contrast action with the capacity for reflection, and to suggest that a heavy and continuous involvement in action, particularly action involving violence, is usually accompanied by a sharply decreased emphasis on the powers of lucid, analytical thought.  Not surprisingly then, critical discussion often appears to imply that one of the major by-products of action, if not its very objective, is a devaluation of the capacity for full awareness, and an avoidance of the experience of complete lucidity.6  Interpretations of this kind may of course have some validity when applied to the "soldier of fortune" figure who typically plunges headlong into a maelstrom of action in a feverish attempt to blot out the painful memories of a world he has left behind.  Action in this context is intended principally a means of "escape from reality".  This, however, is only one possibility, and action may well perform a quite different function.  It may in fact define reality: it may itself be the means through which the world is understood.  This is precisely the point which Albert Camus stresses in Le Mythe de Sisyphe in the monologue spoken by his representative "man of action", whom he terms "le conquérant":

"Non, dit le conquérant, ne croyez pas que pour aimer l'action il m'ait fallu désapprendre à penser.  Je puis parfaitement au contraire définir ce que je crois.  Car je le crois avec force et je le vois d'une vue certaine et claire ..." 7 The fundamental significance of action in La Condition Humaine should also be understood in this light.  Far from promoting a flight from lucidity, action in this novel constitutes the very foundation on which lucidity is built.  In Kyo's eyes (and Kyo is selected here simply as the most obvious example) the irreducible, primary Chaos of human experience - the confused and confusing kaleidoscope of men, things and events - assumes order and significance solely in terms of the practical demands of the action (the revolution in Shanghai) that he has chosen to espouse.  He avoids reliance on any idea to resolve his pursuit of meaning: at no time does he seek to "go behind" the phenomena of experience in search of a possible unifying principle.  Action occurring now with its specific set of visible and tangible implications, is his sole resource and guide.

It is precisely as if Kyo were arguing in the following way: Men have created a vast array of ideals, doctrines and ideologies which might possibly be chosen as a guide to an understanding of life.  Yet all of these have their weaknesses and all are open to the gravest doubts.  History - especially recent history - is littered with the wreckage left by grand abstractions and high ideals.  Yet a possible alternative remains.  Ideals and abstractions may be doubted, but who can doubt the simple practical facts encountered in the moment of action?  On the eve of an insurrection, for example, when confronted with a well-equipped and powerful enemy, who can doubt the value of seizing a shipload of arms and ammunition?  Faced with the imminent likelihood of a brutal repression at the hands of former allies, who can doubt the grave risks involved in an order to lay down arms?  These are irrefutable, practical truths which only the hopelesly unrealistic dreamer would deny.  Certainly they are truths whose validity is wholly transient, and whose importance fades completely with the particular moments of action that call them forth.  But action moves on.  New circumstances are encountered, new responses are required, and new truths emerge.  As long as action lasts, it provides an intelligible, albeit continually changing, image of the world which it affects.

It is a relatively simple matter to observe this principle at work in the character of Kyo Gisors.  Throughout La Condition Humaine Kyo evinces a ready capacity for lucid analysis of the collective event that surrounds him.  Yet at no time does he show the smallest degree of interest in historical theory or political doctrine.  (His one specific reference to Marxism, for example, implies a firm rejection of any pretentions it might have to unveil the mysteries of historical processes.8)  Instead, his perception of revolutionary events relies solely on the optic of action, and at any given moment in the progress of the Shanghai uprising this pragmatic scale of values can be discerned.  In the early stages of the novel his attention is concentrated on the immediate, practical problems - such as the need for more arms - which are posed by the imminent outbreak of hostilities.  His focus of interest then shifts to the tactical issues thrown up by the combat itself.  Following the seizure of power, his overriding concern is the threat posed by the possibility of a Kuomintang-led repression.  And finally, in the closing stages of the novel, his attention focuses exclusively on the organisation of the defence of the Communist forces.  Kyo consistently perceives the Shanghai uprising in this way.  It presents itself to him as a series of concrete, immediate problems which must be met and overcome as they arise to ensure that the revolutionary movement continues to triumph and grow in strength.  At no point does he claim to possess a conceptual framework that might link these events together and disclose some underlying "historical pattern".  His interest lies not in theoretical abstractions but in tangible issues discernible now, and his consistently lucid perception of revolutionary events takes shape solely in terms of this intensely pragmatic perspective.9

This is an attitude towards life that cannot be lightly dismissed.  The crucial point to observe is that it does in fact provide a basis for meaning in experience - it transforms chaos and bewilderment into clarity and significance.  Moreover, it accomplishes this in a way that responds extremely well to the twentieth century mood of disillusioned scepticism: it avoids all reference to the discredited realms of lofty ideals and inflexible ideologies, and relies solely on the domain of the concrete, practical fact, observable here and now.

However, the issue is not quite as straightforward as it may seem.  There is one important caveat to be entered.  As we have seen, this attitude of intense pragmatism carries with it a certain unavoidable limitation: the meaning that action provides is irredeemably transient.  Unlike an idea, which might well encompass past or future, action necessarily speaks only of the present moment: it can constitute a source of only "passing" truth.  The judgements it rendered in the context of yesterday's position of tactical superiority are no longer of use in the face of today's unexpected counter-attack: today's world of "practical considerations" has changed radically.  And who knows what tomorrow may bring?  Thus, there is no possibility of meaning that might endure - of truth that might begin to assume qualities of the "eternal".  The point is expressed admirably once again by Camus in Le Mythe de Sisyphe where "le conquérant", the man who has chosen action as his source of meaning, explains:

" ... je n'ai rien à faire des idées ou de l'éternel.  Les vérités qui sont à ma mesure la main peut les toucher.  Je ne puis me séparer d'elles.  Voilà pourquoi vous ne pouvez rien fonder sur moi: rien ne dure du conquérant ..."9 Given that this limitation exists, what then would be the consequences of a decision to defy it?  What would be the implications of choosing action as a source of meaning but refusing to accept this ineradicable element of transience?  What would be the consequences of compelling action to provide meaning that would endure?

It is precisely this question that Malraux seeks to answer in the character of the terrorist, Tchen.  As the following analysis will reveal, Tchen is the determined pragmatist who yearns for far more than pragmatism can ever provide.  Victim of an inner contradiction whose consequences ultimately prove to be fatal, Tchen places his trust solely in the infinitely various world of the "practical fact", yet still reaches out for a universe constructed of fixed and immutable principles.  Wholly dependent on what can be understood "here and now", he longs for the deeper solace of universal and eternal truth.



This essay analyses the character of the terrorist Tchen in André Malraux's La Condition Humaine and also discusses the  concept of 'the human condition' as it emerges in this novel.

The essay was published in Nottingham French Studies, Vol. 21, No. 1, May 1982.  It was reprinted in André Malraux's Man's Fate (Modern Critical Interpretations), ed. Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.

Malraux 1935


 An appropriate place to begin an analysis of Tchen is the powerful opening scene of La Condition Humaine during which he commits his first murder.  The scene merits careful attention since, as most critics agree, this experience produces a deep and lasting impression on him and in effect constitutes his initiation into the world of terrorism.

The circumstances in which the murder takes place are of crucial importance.  The hour is after midnight.  Tchen is standing alone in a darkened hotel room beside the sleeping form of the man he has come to kill.  The atmosphere is one of almost complete calm, bearing no resemblance at all to the collective activity of revolutionary struggle.  At the commencement of this scene these circumstances have already begun to affect Tchen profoundly.  Separated from his fellow-revolutionaries, and removed from the ambiance of militant struggle, his awareness of the well-defined, tactical reason for this murder has dissipated, and his attention has become restricted exclusively to the sheer act of killing itself.  In addition, the complete inertness and neutrality of this recumbent human form seem to deprive this act, viewed thus in isolation, of any other, more immediate, practical purpose.  What need is there to defend oneself against a man who is asleep?  (And to prevent him from calling out it is imperative that he not be wakened.)  Since, like Kyo, Tchen relies solely on the practical justification of his actions to give them meaning, this situation plunges him into a state of extreme confusion and anxiety.  He has come to kill a man - to commit murder for the first time in his life - and there now seems to be nothing that would justify such a deed.  Momentary relief is granted when the noise of several car horns gives him the impression that he has been discovered and that an alarm has been raised.  Such circumstances would at least call for combat, and action would once more have an objective: "Combattre," he exclaims eagerly to himself, on hearing the noise in the street, "Combattre des ennemis qui se défendent, des ennemis éveillés!"11  But he soon realizes that it is simply a traffic jam, and his previous state of bewilderment and indecision quickly resumes its grip.

Eventually, provoked by a slight movement, Tchen stabs and kills the man.  But even as he continues to grasp the knife still embedded in his victim, he remains acutely aware of the atmosphere of stillness and isolation in the room, which is quite unlike the world of revolutionary combat:

Respirant à peine, il continuait à ... maintenir [cet homme] sur le côté, dans la lumière immobile et trouble, dans la solitude de la chambre.  Rien n'y indiquait le combat, pas même la déchirure de la mousseline qui semblait séparé en deux pans ...12

In this moment of extreme psychological distress, a transformation of far-reaching significance begins to take place within Tchen.  Unable to confer meaning on his action as one practical achievement in a broader and continuing collective struggle, and unable even to discover an element of struggle in the physical attack itself, he seeks to fill the resultant void of meaning by resorting, in desperation, to his one remaining alternative: he begins to regard this murder as its own justification.  He begins to find meaning in it irrespective of its consequences.  He begins to persuade himself that an act such as this is something privileged and unique, requiring nothing beyond itself to guarantee its value and significance.  He begins to believe that the justification for this murder is, quite simply, that it represents the only form of action worthy of serious attention and wholehearted commitment.  In this way Tchen manages to master the sense of anguish and confusion that had overwhelmed him.  In the process however something fundamental has changed.  For the clear implication of this altered attitude is that action has become divorced from its essential element of transience.  The meaning it provides no longer proceeds from the changing circumstances of different practical situations, but from the nature of one specific act seen in isolation - in Tchen's case, from the act of political murder.

The implications of this static experience of action are not difficult to discern.  It is as if the passage of time had been suddenly arrested.  For once, action seems to be speaking in a definitive fashion, providing truth that is impervious to change - truth that is "eternal".  In Tchen's eyes therefore, this experience of murder is no mere passing reality.  On the contrary, it constitutes the only valid form that reality can assume: it embodies the permanent and universal characteristics of the world.  All action that adapts itself to changing circumstances now seems vain.  The only act of any importance is a terrorist killing, and this world is therefore composed simply of those who kill and those who do not - the initiated and the uninitiated.  As he moves away from his motionless victim and gazes out into the night, all this suddenly becomes clear to him.  The relevant passage deserves to be quoted in full:

... au rythme de sa respiration de moins en moins haletante [Ia nuit] s’immobilisa et, dans le déchirure des nuages, des étoiles s'établirent dans leur mouvement éternel qui l'envahit avec l'air plus frais du dehors.  Une sirène s'éleva, puis se perdit dans cette poignante sérénité.  Au-dessous, tout en bas, les lumières de minuit reflétées à travers une brume jaune par le macadam mouillé, par les raies pales des rails, palpitaient de la vie des hommes qui ne tuent pas.  C'étaient là des millions de vies, et toutes maintenant rejetaient la sienne; mais qu'était leur condamnation misérable à côte de la mort qui se retirait de lui, qui semblait couler hors de son corps à longs traits, comme le sang de l'autre.  Toute cette ombre immobile ou scintillante était la vie, comme le fleuve, comme la mer invisible au loin - la mer ... Respirant enfin jusqu'au plus profond de sa poitrine, il lui sembla rejoindre cette vie avec une reconnaissance sans fond.13 All of this is very far removed from the changing scenes and varying objectives of day-to-day revolutionary action.  Tchen's attention is focused solely on those things to which time and place are of negligible importance: the "eternal movement" of the stars, the nocturnal stillness, the river flowing silently below, and the sea far away in the distance.  This sense of permanence and universality, and not the changing perspectives of collective action, is the "life" which he now embraces "avec une reconnaissance sans fond".  He believes he has discovered a fundamental reality whose categories encompass all men - a reality defined solely in terms of terrorism and murder: in the city below, shrouded in darkness and mist, are "millions of lives", and all of them now seem to have cast him out; but this is merely the contemptible judgement of the uninitiated - the ignorant judgement of "[les] hommes qui ne tuent pas" - for the world now consists solely of those who have understood the significance of terrorism and those who have not.  In a context such as this, action has ceased to be a source of merely transient meaning.  It now claims to provide knowledge of a more profound and enduring kind, and in Tchen's eyes the key to this knowledge is terrorism and murder.

As mentioned earlier, critics of La Condition Humaine have frequently drawn attention to the important formative effect of Tchen's initial experience of murder.  However, the usefulness of this critical comment has been vitiated by a general reluctance to explore the specific nature of the processes at work.  Denis Boak, for example, the author of a major study of Malraux, agrees that Tchen is profoundly affected by his initial act of killing, yet in explanation of the cause of this transformation this critic essentially confines himself to the suggestion that, "murder and terrorism become [Tchen's] means of self-transcendence."14  Francoise Dorenlot, who offers a somewhat more detailed analysis of the character of Tchen, considers that his obsession with murder proceeds from "une soif de l'absolu" and that

En tuant pour la première fois, Tchen est entré dans un monde délivré de la présence des hommes (monde "sacré"), où lui, par contre, a trouvé sa place, comme si cet univers et lui n'avait fait qu'un de tout temps.  Cette sensation de familiarité, de bien-être, lui procure une certitude absolue, irréfutable, impossible à atteindre par d'autres moyens.  Dans ce monde dévouvert règne une paix hors du temps...15 Dorenlot's analysis clearly recognises that this first murder provokes a profound psychological transformation within Tchen.  Yet the analysis provides no satisfactory explanation of why this occurs.  Why exactly does this act introduce Tchen into a "timeless" world?  Why does it lead to a sense of "certitude absolue"?  Without further explanation, one seems obliged to infer that there is some self-evident factor inherent in the experience of murder that inevitably leads to such consequences.  Yet there is no indication of what this factor might be.

This dilemma is quickly resolved once Tchen's experience is viewed through the perspective presented above.  Like all the major characters of La Condition Humaine, Tchen regards action as his only source of meaning.  Beyond action there is merely void and chaos.  However, the circumstances in which the murder of this Chinese businessman occurs give rise, as we have seen, to a radical transformation of the nature of Tchen's reliance on action.  Utterly defeated in his attempts to relate the experience to a world of changing, practical objectives, yet desperate - particularly on an occasion such as this - to understand what he is doing and why, Tchen ultimately resorts to an expedient that succeeds only at the expense of causing a fundamental distortion of the source of meaning on which he relies.  Refusing henceforth to recognise any significance at all in the varied demands of changing situations, he resolves that meaning shall emerge from one act, and one act alone: a terrorist killing will always be justified and nothing else will be of the slightest importance.  Thus, any suggestion of contingency or impermanence is eradicated.  Ceasing to refer simply to the "here and now", action begins to speak of all places and all times.  This is the underlying reason for the sense of "certitude absolue" and timelessness that Dorenlot identifies.  The explanation does not lie merely in the fact that this is Tchen's first experience of murder.  It lies in his decision to impose drastic limitations on the world of action by confining the possibility of meaning to the act of murder alone.

This psychological development reaches a climax in Tchen's suicidal attempt to assassinate Chiang Kai-Shek.  This episode has been the subject of considerable misunderstanding by Malraux's critics and merits careful attention.  The first point to be made is that, despite suggestions to the contrary by a number of critics,16 Tchen does not regard the attempt to assassinate Chiang Kai-Shek merely as a convenient pretext for suicide.  His first plan to kill the Kuomintang leader involved considerable risk but it did not involve suicide.  Tchen and his fellow terrorists, Souen and Pei, intended to throw their bombs at Chiang's car and make good their escape.  The plan failed and it was only through desperately casting about for an effective alternative that Tchen reached his fatal conclusion:

Tant que nous essaierons de lancer la bombe, ca ira mal.  Trop de chances d'échec.  Et il faut en finir aujourd'hui ... il ne faut pas lancer la bombe; il faut se jeter sous l'auto avec elle.17 From this point on, Tchen regards his own death as an indispensable factor in the act of terrorism he is seeking to commit.  Chiang Kai-Shek must die, and in Tchen's eyes the only way of ensuring this occurs is to lose his own life in bringing it about.

The crucial question, however, that critics have failed so far to answer adequately, is why Tchen is prepared to accept this sentence of death on himself.  The question is thrown into stark relief in the novel by the reactions of Souen and Pei, who are both unwilling to take part in Tchen's suicidal plan.  Neither of them lacks courage, as their participation in the first attempt on Chiang's life amply testifies, but the prospect of an action involving absolutely certain death is a completely different matter. "J'aime mieux tenter de réussir," explains Souen, in a simple yet forceful statement of this position," - de réussir - plusieurs attentats que de décider que je n'en tenterai qu'un parce qu'après je serai mort!"18  The reasoning is easily understandable yet it is entirely without effect on Tchen. How is this to be explained?

The answer lies in Tchen's determination to compel action once more to serve as a source of permanent and universal truth.  It is important to notice in approaching this issue that all action - and especially collective action in the context of a revolution - includes death among its possible consequences.  (Indeed, as Kyo is to recognise later in the novel, following his arrest by the Kuomintang, death is transformed into a final act of dignity and triumph when it is encountered in the service of an action to which one has made a full and determined commitment.)  It is one thing however to accept death realistically as one of action's possible outcomes; it is quite another to resolve that it shall be the only possible outcome.  For such a resolution carries the implication that a certain, pre-determined period of action, and the meaning it provides, encompass everything of value that life has to offer.  It implies that all other possibilities lying in the future are "well lost" for the blaze of truth emerging from certain specific acts that will terminate in death; so that beyond a particular moment in time - the moment of death - the meaning accessible through action can safely be regarded as of no importance.  Clearly, such an assumption flies in the face of action's essential element of change.  It seeks to impose finite limits on a source of meaning that depends vitally on the possibility of endless modification in the world of men, things and events.  It attempts to define a point of rest for a principle to which the least suggestion of stasis is anathema.

In Tchen's eyes, however, as one might expect, these implications appear in a radically different light.  For he is now intent on re-entering that world of permanent and universal truth that he discovered on the occasion of his first murder, and, as we have seen earlier, this encounter with "the eternal" depends precisely on the possibility of purging action of all its associations with passing realities.  What therefore does it matter to Tchen if the future is discarded as a thing of no possible interest?  If all truth -the Alpha and Omega of existence - is contained in one specific action - the action of murder - what more is one to look for in some useless realm termed the future?  His fellow terrorist, Souen, hesitates to confine himself to this one assassination "parce qu'après je serai mort".  For Tchen, however, the very notion of "afterwards" loses all meaning when confronted with the conviction that the world and all it contains of value is embraced within the dimensions of one specific action.

Moreover, to sacrifice one's life in that action is to hold nothing back and to devote oneself to it completely.  In this sense, Tchen's first terrorist killing was an experience not fully consummated.  Certainly, it permitted him a glimpse into a world of eternal truth; but Tchen himself did not pass beyond the threshold of that world.  He risked his life in committing the murder, but he did no more than that.  Where his own life was concerned, there still remained the perspective of an open future and the prospect of other actions at other times.  The world of murder did not absorb him completely.  Since that time, however, Tchen has taken part in the fierce street-battles of the Shanghai insurrection and he has become even more acutely aware that, no matter how intense the experience, the world of collective struggle - the world of changing practical realities - is no longer sufficient for him.19  He knows now, with even more certainty than before, that the form of truth to which he aspires does not refer merely to this tactical situation, or that moment of combat, but encompasses all places and all times.  And now that his first murder has allowed him to glimpse the path to universal and eternal truth, simple logic demands that he adopt that path entirely and devote his life to it completely.  The suicidal attempt to assassinate Chiang Kai-Shek therefore marks Tchen's total and unconditional surrender to his conception of "the Truth".  It is his moment of salvation: a terrorist's equivalent of a guarantee of Eternal Life.  This, however, is an "eternal life" on earth, and by a strange and fatal paradox, Tchen (like Kirilov in Dostoyevsky's The Possessed) can only come to know it fully at the expense of leaving it definitively.

Once the issue is explained in these terms, there is little difficulty in understanding the frequently quoted exchange between Tchen and Souen, following Tchen's solemn announcement of his suicidal plan:

... Soudain, [Tchen] comprit. Souen aussi comprenait:
"Tu veux faire du terrorisme une espèce de religion?"
Les mots étaient creux, absurdes, trop faibles pour exprimer ce que Tchen voulait d'eux.
"Pas une religion. Le sens de la vie. La ..."
Il faisait de la main le geste convulsif de pétrir, et sa pensée semblait haleter comme une respiration.
" ... La possession complète de soi-même."20
Souen's reference to religion is not altogether misplaced since Tchen is certainly in pursuit of an eternal truth. Yet the word religion has a "hollow and absurd" ring because this, after all, is a "religion" without a God (unless, as we shall see below, that God is Tchen himself.)  Without doubt, however, what is at stake is "le sens de la vie - with the appropriate emphasis on the connotations of universality contained in that phrase.  Finally, as the above analysis has also shown, Tchen is finished with half-measures.  In a quite literal sense, his whole life is committed to this action, thus permitting him what he describes as "la possession complete de soi-même".

The subsequent development of Tchen's character is scarcely surprising.  Once he has resolved to carry out his suicidal attack, his belief in the unique significance of terrorist action becomes even more explicit and fervent.  The progress of the insurrection is forgotten and his thoughts focus exclusively on the value of political murder:

... tout plongeait dans le passé, meme Souen, puisqu'iI ne voulait pas le suivre.  Pourtant, la seule volonté que sa pensée présente ne transformât pas en néant, c'était de créer ces Juges condamnés, cette race de vengeurs.21
Later the same evening as he stands, bomb in hand, waiting for Chiang Kai-Shek's car, Tchen's final, fevered meditation is once again devoted to this same theme.  The reason is clear enough.  If everything of value in life is to be experienced in one single action (and now it must be so, since on this account Tchen has foresaken all the possibilities that the future might hold) then life must possess no other dimension than the one revealed by that action.  Terrorism - the violent extermination of one's political enemies - must be the sole purpose in life.  The vengeance of a race of "Juges condamnés", who would model themselves on Tchen, must be all that matters.  The contrary belief would imply that other experiences may have meaning, that the face of life may wear more than this one fixed expression, that other actions at other times may really be more than mere futile gesturings.  And for Tchen even to admit such a possibility would be to confess to being fatally duped and to be giving his life for a lie...

Much of this has been seriously misunderstood by Malraux's critics.  To begin with, insufficient emphasis has been placed on the particular circumstances of Tchen's death - the fact that he decides to sacrifice his life at an appointed time, in a pre-determined way, and then proceeds without faltering to put this plan into effect.  It is essential to realize, however, than even within the world of La Condition Humaine, where death by violence is a common enough event, Tchen's death stands out as something quite exceptional.  Kyo and some of his companions take their own lives as they lie awaiting execution at the hands of the Kuomintang, but this is to diminish the physical pain of death: a cyanide tablet is preferable to being burnt alive in the furnace of a locomotive.  Nowhere in La Condition Humaine, except with Tchen, does one encounter this total, and even welcoming, acceptance of certain death when (as the examples of Souen and Pei amply illustrate) to go on living and carrying out one's chosen function would have been perfectly possible.  The issue clamours for separate treatment and careful analysis, and Malraux's critics have not as yet responded adequately to this need.

Where there has been some attempt to do so, critics have usually argued that the motivation for Tchen's suicide is a more or less conscious death-wish.  Joseph Hoffmann, for example, writes of Tchen that,

La mort l'attire et Gisors devine que Tchen est en train de devenir autre chose et plus qu'un terroriste ... De sa mort, à laquelle il se prépare avec une sorte de farouche résolution, [Tchen] attend qu'elle l'arrache à lui-même et à ses obsessions, qu'elle lui accorde une parfaite possession de lui même dans l'intensité fulgurante d'un acte librement choisi et chargé de signification.22 In a similar vein but with a stronger stress on the subconscious, W. M. Frohock argues that, Beneath [Tchen's] disposition to murder lies the predisposition, the twist of the urge to destruction, Thanatos, gradually dominating the personality and condemning it at last.  If from one angle, Tchen's suffering seems metaphysical in nature ... it is also something buried in his subconscious.23

These interpretations, which are fairly representative of much that has been written about Tchen's death, raise two immediate problems.  The first is that this emphasis on a "dominating" urge to self-destruction tends to negate any essential link between Tchen's suicide and the attempt to kill Chiang Kai-Shek.  Why in fact wait for such an occasion, if the urge to suicide is so strong?  Merely to have a plausible pretext?  Then why delay the matter until the second assassination attempt?  Clearly there is something missing in this explanation.  The crucial point to observe, as mentioned above, is that Tchen's thoughts begin to turn to an attack involving suicide only after his initial assassination attempt is frustrated.  In other words, suicide in itself holds no special attraction for him.  But suicide as a means of murdering a political enemy is something quite different.  Such an act, as we have seen, appears to Tchen as a kind of apotheosis, a privileged moment of total communion with ultimate truth - a terrorist's grim equivalent of an entry into paradise.

The second problem is that although critics such as Hoffmann and Frohock usually recognise that Tchen's act is (in Hoffman's words) "chargé de signification" and that his death "lui accorde une parfaite possession de lui-même," there is no evident reason on the basis of their interpretations why this should be the case.  Why, after all, should a longing for death, which ends in suicide, produce such results?  Might it not equally plausibly - perhaps more plausibly - be a sign of progressive disillusionment with life, and final despair?  There is a troublesome non sequitur here that no amount of insistence on notions such as "Thanatos" or "l'intensité fulgurante d'un acte librement choisi" will ever manage to completely overcome.  It is only when Tchen's suicide is viewed within the context of a world in which action is the only source of meaning that its full significance may be properly understood.  For then it becomes clear that this act is in fact a supreme gesture of defiance against the iron law of change inseparable from such a world - in essence, Tchen's solemn declaration, made in the face of death itself, that all change is mere falsehood and delusion, that there is only one form of action that leads men to the truth, and that this action is terrorism and the assassination of one's political enemies.  It is from this strange, momentary "eternity" of the isolated action - and not, as many critics would have it, simply from the prospect of death itself - that Tchen derives his firm conviction that the meaning of life has been revealed and that "[une] possession complète de soi-même" has been attained.

Such, at least, is Tchen's belief.  Yet what precisely are the ultimate implications of this view of life?  Not surprisingly, they are as desolating as they are inescapable.  For in demanding that one single action should provide final and definitive knowledge of the world, Tchen is adopting an attitude towards life whose consequences are unmistakably and profoundly inhuman.  The reason for this conclusion is straightforward enough, and has already been implied in much that has been said above.  Tchen insists that one isolated action should furnish truth that is reliable now and always.  Yet such a demand could clearly be satisfied only in a world which, in a quite concrete and practical sense, was always utterly the same.  If Tchen were reliant upon an idea - upon some general concept that could successfully hold itself aloof from too close an adherence to the specific facts of particular situations - then his complete denial of change could perhaps be maintained legitimately.  An idea, after all, might plausibly claim to describe a timeless reality beneath the "illusion" of the transitory, factual situation.  For Tchen, however, (as for all the major characters of La Condition Humaine) there are no such comfortable alternatives, and beyond the evidence of the "practical fact" there is no further appeal.  In demanding therefore that the truth accessible through action should not be subject to change, he is necessarily ushering in a world of complete factual sameness and predictability, a world in which the future could be nothing more than a constant repetition of the past, a world in which all trace of the unexpected has been totally eliminated.

Hence the charge of inhumanity.  For there is only one possible vantage-point from which the course of human events is totally foreseeable: the vantage-point of divine omniscience.  In a Christian context, this power of infallible foresight is one attribute of Providence.  In the world of La Condition Humaine, where religion no longer plays a part, it simply bears the name of Fate or Destiny.  Tchen's entry into the "eternal world" of terrorism implies nothing less than an impossible claim to stand on equal terms with Destiny.  It is an arrogation of a god-like power, an expression of what Gisors aptly terms "la volonté de déité'" - and thus an essentially inhuman gesture.

These are the most profound implications of Tchen's attitude towards life and, appropriately enough, they emerge into full consciousness only in the final moments before his death as he calls upon his deepest reserves of strength and resolution.  Silently waiting for Chiang Kai-Shek's car, grasping a bomb in his hand, he observes the passers-by in the street, and suddenly it seems to him that these are no longer individual human beings intent on their different purposes, and engaged in their various activities.  Rather, they seem to be nothing more than the visible evidence of one all-powerful force directing the course of human affairs - the irresistible force of Destiny. The relevant passage deserves to be quoted at some length:

La brume, nourrie par la fumée des navires, détruisait peu à peu au fond de l'avenue les trottoirs pas encore vides: des passants affairés y marchaient l'un derrière l'autre, se dépassant rarement, comme si la guerre eût imposé à la ville un ordre tout-puissant.  Le silence général de leur marche rendait leur agitation presque fantastique.  Ils ne portaient pas de paquets, d'éventaires, ne poussaient pas de petites voitures; cette nuit, il semblait que leur activité n' eût aucun but.  Tchen regardait toutes ces ombres qui coulaient sans bruit vers le fleuve, d'un mouvement inexplicable et constant; n'était-ce pas le Destin même, cette force qui les poussait vers le fond de l'avenue où l'arc allumé d'enseignes à peine visibles devant les ténèbres du fleuve semblait les portes mêmes de la mort?24 An essentially unremarkable street scene has thus assumed the forlorn and oppressive accents of Tchen's deepest conviction.  Viewing human life from the vantage-point of Destiny, he empties it of all significance.  Men and women are merely "shadows".  Their activity has no purpose of its own but is merely a passive reaction to an all-powerful force.  Compared with this force, human life is utterly without importance, and just as these shadows move "noiselessly" towards the river, so Destiny carries individual human beings submissively to the "gates of death".  The fundamental inhumanity of Tchen's attitude towards life could scarcely be more plainly stated. His discovery of the "eternal world" of terrorism ultimately depends on a total negation of the value of human life.


In the opinion of Kyo's father, Gisors, Tchen's obsession with murder is the means he employs "pour s'affranchir de sa condition d'homme."25   Considerable critical misunderstanding has surrounded this notion of escape from the human condition, and the foregoing analysis now clears the way for a reappraisal of the question.  In doing so, it will help to recall to mind certain essential points that have now been made.  It was emphasised in the earlier stages of this essay that within the context of La Condition Humaine it is misleading to regard action as an escape from lucidity.  The function of action in this novel is precisely the reverse: action is the one reliable means of understanding the world, the sole dependable source of meaning.  Yet as the example of Kyo illustrated, action is, by its very nature, a source of transient meaning.  The truth it reveals is that which the "practical man" recognises - truth that applies in the moment of action but which must alter when that moment is passed.  Not that this in any sense invalidates action's capacity to serve as a source of meaning.  It merely indicates a limitation - a condition that must be observed: the meaning that action provides is subject to continual change.

Tchen's single-minded devotion to the cause of terrorism springs, as we have seen, from a refusal to accept the irredeemably transient nature of the meaning that action provides.  He is determined to regard action as a source of "eternal" truth - truth not subject to an endless process of continual change.  In other words he seeks to avoid - to escape from - the mandatory "condition" that action imposes.  However, the consequence of his pursuit of eternal truth through action is, as the above analysis has shown, that he is driven to adopt a fundamentally inhuman attitude: he views human life from the standpoint of divine omniscience and is so doing robs it of all intrinsic significance.  Thus, the condition from which Tchen seeks to escape is in fact the condition that action imposes if the perspective on life which it grants is to remain "human".  In short, as Gisors observes, Tchen's obsession with terrorism constitutes an attempt to escape from the "human condition".

Critics of La Condition Humaine have frequently misconstrued the concept embodied in the novel's title.  Too readily influenced perhaps by Pascal's celebrated "image de la condition des hommes", critics have tended to interpret Malraux's concept as signifying a state of total meaninglessness and alienation.  As a consequence, it has often been argued that the only desirable objective in the context of Malraux's novel is to escape from the human condition, or at least to achieve some form of Pascalian divertissement.  Cecil Jenkins, for example, writes that the human condition as Malraux depicts it is a world in which

all men are victims, where all are constantly living their death, where all are watching and waiting.  And each, in a pathetic effort to cheat this waiting, has his useless elected idiom, his Pascalian divertissement - Kyo his revolutionary heroism ... Tchen his erotico-religious killing.26 Denis Boak, whose interpretation of Malraux's concept is closely related to this, contends that Each one [of the novel's characters] is seeking to escape the human condition by the creation of his own set of transcendental values.27 And in a similar vein, Joseph Hoffmann suggests that the fundamental weakness in Tchen's character is his inability to escape completely from the human condition, while Kyo's stature as a revolutionary hero springs ultimately from his success in effecting this escape.28

This prevailing critical approach stands in need of major revision.  Far from representing a worthwhile or admirable objective, the possibility of escape from the human condition, in Malraux's novel, constitutes an alternative to be resolutely avoided, a temptation to be steadfastly resisted.  As the example of Tchen vividly illustrates, the path of escape is the path to a barren and abject conception of the significance of human life - the path to the inhuman.  Stating the issue in general terms, Malraux's concept of the human condition (in La Condition Humaine at least) rests on the recognition that as long as certain ineradicable limitations are observed - as long as the terms of an overriding "condition" are not breached - action is capable of conferring meaning on the world of human experience.29 But that condition is crucial.  Any transgression of it, any attempt to escape from it - such as Tchen's pursuit of eternal truth - destroys the meaning that action provides and in doing so gives rise to an inhuman world.  Thus, the supreme challenge in the context of this novel is not to escape from the human condition, but to accept it.  The supreme achievement (as a more detailed analysis of the character of Kyo would serve only to confirm) is the capacity to give full effect to action's potentialities as a source of meaning yet at the same time to accept the inevitable limitations which that objective implies.

This stress on the notion of acceptance is of vital importance because it points to the fact, largely overlooked by critics, that at its most fundamental level La Condition Humaine embodies an ethic of moderation and restraint - an ethic based on a lucid awareness of the limits of human capacities.  Action, Malraux is suggesting, may certainly confer meaning on human life, but only on certain terms and within certain limitations.  If this meaning is to emerge unimpaired, the excesses to which action may lead must be steadfastly avoided.  A decisive victory must be won which ultimately lies not on any field of collective combat but within man himself.  There must be a victory over the lure of the inhuman, a determination to resist "la volonté de déité", the strength and resolution to accept the human condition.  The grave and inevitably fatal defect in Tchen's character is his failure to achieve this - his inability to resist one of the powerful, yet totally negative and destructive temptations which lie in the path of the committed ''man of action''.  In yielding to this temptation, Tchen seeks to escape from the human condition: he steps beyond the bounds of human capacity and steps into an inhuman world.

Once the issue is understood inthese terms, the profound interest and relevance of Tchen to contemporary experience can scarcely be doubted.  At the very heart of his character (as of all the central characters in La Condition Humaine) lies the immediately recognisable twentieth century mood of intense pragmatism - the loss of faith in the realm of the idea, and the conviction that the world that can be seen, and touched, and visibly changed is the only reliable reality.  Nothing in Tchen's character invalidates this view of life, but everything in him points to one of its vital limitations: the man of action may build order out of chaos, but he will never discover the pre-existent meaning of things; he may experience the world in all its variety but he will never comprehend it as indissoluble unity; his life may be charged with meaning, but he will never discover the immanent meaning of life.  Desperate to break the bonds of these constraints, Tchen imposes a spurious unity on the world by resolutely decreeing that the contingent shall pass for the essential, the particular for the general.  The result is an extremely violent form of fanaticism - a fanaticism not of the single idea but of the single action.  The implacable logic of this belief is that complete fulfilment can be found only in the moment of self-annihilation.  Tchen's strongest call to life can only be made in the language of death.



1. Malraux, A., La Condition Humaine in Romans, Paris, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1947. p.226.  All quotations from La Condition Humaine are taken from this edition.

2. The critic Rima D. Reck, for example, states quite unequivocally that ''Kyo is not be admired any more than Tchen". See, Reck, R. D., Literature and Responsibility, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1969, p.291.  For the contrasting point of view see, e.g.: Hiddleston, J., Malraux: La Condition Humaine, London, Edward Arnold, 1973, pp.13-33;  Greshoff, C., An introduction to the novels of André Malraux, Cape Town, Balkema, 1975, pp.97-104.  The notion of an obsession with violence is developed at some length in, Festa-McCormick, D., "Tchen and the Temptation of the Flesh,'' in Twentieth Century Literature, Volume 24, No. 3, 1978, pp.314-323.

3. Wilkinson, D., Malraux, An Essay in Political Criticism, Cambridge Massachusetts, Harvard, 1967, p.51.

4. Krieger, M., The Tragic Vision, New York, Hold, Rinehard and Winston, 1960, p.52.

5. Hoffmann, J., L'humanisme de Malraux, Paris, Klincksieck, 1963, p.181.

6. This is the clear implication, for example, of much of Roger Stéphane's study of T.E. Lawrence, Malraux and Von Salomon, entitled Portrait de l'Aventurier, Paris, Grasset, 1965.  There are echoes of this same approach in Sartre's preface to Stéphane's book. Cf. also, Righter, W., The Rhetorical Hero, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964, pp.8-10.

7. Camus, A., Le Mythe de Sisyphe in Essais, Paris, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1965, p.164.  Camus' use of the term "le conquérant" recalls the title of Malraux's first novel.  Malraux's Les Conquérants, La Voie Royale and La Condition Humaine were an important influence on this chapter of Le Mythe de Sisyphe. Cf. Ibid., p.1445.

8. Kyo says: "... il y a dans le marxisme le sens d'une fatalité, et l'exaltation d'une volonté.  Chaque fois que la fatalité passe avant la volonté, je me méfie."  The remark is made during the course of a disagreement with the Komintern delegate, Vologuine, who argues that history must be allowed to take its inevitable course in Shanghai. (La Condition Humaine, p.281)

9. Critics of La Condition Humaine have generally tended to accord action a less crucial role than that described here.  An important exception is Nicola Chiaromonte whose view of the function of action in this novel broadly agrees with the present analysis.  See Chiaromonte, N., "Malraux and the Demons of Action," in Malraux, A Collection of Critical Essays, Lewis, R. W. B. (ed.), Prentice Hall, 1964, pp.96-116.

10. Le Mythe de Sisyphe, p.167.

11. La Condition Humaine, p.181.

12. Ibid, p.183.

13. Ibid, p.184.

14. Boak, D., André Malraux, Oxford, Clarendon, 1968, pp.76,77.

15.Dorenlot, F., Malraux, ou l'unité de pensée, Paris, Gallimard, 1970, p.108.  A similar interpretation is given by Roch Smith in his study, Le Meurtrier et la Vision Tragique, Essai sur les Romans d'André Malraux, Paris, Didier, 1975.  Smith's analysis relies heavily on the notion of an "interdit" which Tchen is alleged to have breached in killing a defenceless, sleeping human being.  The explanation seems unsatisfactory however since the precise nature and origin of this "interdit" is not made clear. (See esp. pp.58-60).

16. See, for example: Smith, R., op.cit., p.74; Hébert, F., Triptyque de la Mort, Les presses de l'Université de Montréal, 1978, p.46; Greshoff, C. 3., op.cit., p.102.

17. La Condition Humaine, p.314.

18. Ibid., p.315.

19. Ibid., pp.245-256.  Space does not permit a detailed analysis of this extremely impressive scene.  Tchen's inability to become re-integrated into the world of collective action is a central element.

20. Ibid, pp.315, 316.

21. Ibid, p.316.

22. Hoffman, J., op. cit., p.188.

23. Frohock, W. M., André' Malraux and the Tragic Imagination, Stanford University Press, 1952, p.69.

24. La Condition Humaine, p.353.

25. Ibid, p.349.

26. Jenkins, C., "André Malraux," in The Novelist as Philosopher, Cruickshank, J. (ed.), London, Oxford University Press, 1962, p.65.

27. Boak, D., op. cit., p.66.

28. Hoffmann, J., op. cit., pp. 191, 199, 200.  Hoffmann in fact seems somewhat unsure whether or not Tchen's attempt to escape from the human condition is a total failure.  It is quite clear, however, that this critic views escape as the desirable objective.

29. As this statement suggests, there are other limitations - other aspects of the human condition - in addition to the one illustrated by Tchen.  Malraux explores a number of such aspects in other central characters of the novel such as Clappique, Katow, May and Gisors.