Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Nietzsche and Malraux

Ronald Batchelor

The Dionysian will to power drives all Malraux’s characters. It accounts for the draconian elimination of all that is not specifically connected with a kind of mad self-fulfilment they all experience. Garine (The Conquerors), Claude (The Royal Way), Tchen (Man’s Fate) are all held permanently in a crucial, inescapable grip of driving ambition. Their sensibility is constantly and expressly heightened and exaggerated by a frantic confrontation with the presence of death, with all the neurotic nakedness this implies. It propels them implacably towards a hypnotic state of frenzy culminating inevitably in death. Probably the most widely known scene of all Malraux’s novels, at the opening of Man’s Fate where the terrorist Tchen murders a businessman to promote the communist cause, may be construed as a perfect novelistic adaptation of Nietzsche’s Dionysian theory of art. Tchen’s taut, intense feeling of anguish which “twisted his stomach”, his mounting introspection in a dark, silent world punctuated by spasmodic flashes of neon lighting, the unbearable imminence of death, together with Malraux’s staccato, elliptical rhythm in each and every sentence, all anticipating the assassination as a sacrificial ritual, invest the first pages with a convulsive shudder, the frantic assertion of the individual fascinated by the death urge, a premonition of Tchen’s suicide later in the novel. Similarly, Perken’s manic advance towards the Cambodian Moï natives in The Royal Way exudes a Dionysian, orgiastic quality as the confrontation is stripped to its most naked details of pain, sexual excitement and, need it be added, death.

Malraux’s fiction emphasises unrelentingly the feeling of a sharpened potency, notably in the erotic sense of the word. Perken refers to the “need to force himself to the end of his nerves”. The closing passages of The Royal Way, particularly in those describing Perken’s defiant, challenging march towards the Moï, erotic similes and metaphors abound: “The struggle with his destruction rose up in him like a sexual fury”; “There was…a world of atrocities beyond this castration he had just discovered”; “Sexually cast upon this freedom of suffering…he plunged towards death itself”. Finally, we note in The Walnut Trees of Altenburg that the soldier’s advance towards the German lines overwhelms him with a feeling “as pressing and acute as sexual desire…”. The repetitive use of the erotic image in Malraux’s writings is clearly of Dionysian origin, suggesting the very idea of fertility, Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence and artistic rejuvenation. Even if Nietzsche does not lie at the origin of Malraux’s erotic theories (The latter saw loss of sexual energy as a form of death), they both ascribe to the Greeks a veneration of sexual symbols. Nietzsche stresses his conviction that the Greeks assured for themselves “real life as the collective prolongation of life through procreation, through the mysteries of sexuality”. Like the Greeks, Nietzsche and Malraux saw sexuality as an integral and highly developed part of the tragic notion of life, and it is precisely the tragic experience that Malraux underlines in his erotic imagery. Sexual orgasm appeals to him as the culminating point in the Dionysian doctrine of frenzy.

The sexual drive is, according to Malraux, a form of masculine constraint, as are all expressions of power. Creative writing, with its concomitant, stylistic features of structure, short, jolting paragraphs, harsh sentence building, and stark imagery illustrates just this very point, and here we see most clearly the relationship between Nietzsche’s theories on art and their expressive implementation by Malraux. No serious reader of Malraux’s novels can fail to be attracted by the one unique quality of his prose. It is the quality of intensity, or compression of thought and emotional response. This intensity provides the linguistic axis upon which all his prose turns. His comments as early as 1926 are revealing of his character portrayal, scene construction, sentence, metaphor and simile. All these stylistic features are keenly geared to the intense expression of Nietzschean frenzy. To the sharpness of the characters’ feelings and consciousness correspond a pungency and acute staccato presentation. Malraux’s style does not constitute a manner of embroidering on facts. Rather, it provides a way of experiencing them. It is a highly imaginative and vivid projection of the truth. We are close to Hemingway’s “The way it was”.

Linked to the thematic and linguistic notion of intensity is the temporal sense of immediacy, the present, the here and now.  Intense experience is stressed by the immediacy of the fact and the event, a preoccupation that has its cinematographic parallels. In his attempts to convey the suddenness and immediacy of the present experience, Malraux probably comes as close as any novelist to the verbal equivalent of the cinema. The real point at issue here is that, just as the cinema communicates in visual terms an awareness of what is happening, even if the events refer to past time, so Malraux captures the essence of the present by certain linguistic devices designed to intensify the reader’s appreciation of the character’s present moment. Shade, the American journalist in Days of Hope, describes events as they take place and as he sees them. The menacing approach of the Fascist shells on Republican positions in the Spanish Civil War causes an acceleration in his dictation, an increase in the staccato rhythm of each paragraph, culminating in a panting effect.

The basic unit of Malraux’s fiction is the scene. It relates an event or events at such breathtaking speed that it covers numerous brief episodes in the space of a few pages. The technique of rapidly succeeding episodes recalls an intoxicating thirst for action, the drive towards a Nietzschean  maximum of consciousness, the ontological expansion of will power that remains unappeased except through the acquisition of further will power. Malraux’s unbridled search for adventure and the war experience (he was a tank commander in de Gaulle’s push towards Germany) is explained by Nietzsche’s insistence that there can be no art without frenzy, since the character of frenzy is the realization of increased strength and power.

This search for more and more strength and power is evoked by a veritable multitude of a series of three nouns, adjectives or verbs, each one of which invests the previous one, by a form of ellipsis, with extra depth or weight. May three examples suffice, one from nouns, one from adjectives, one from verbs:

“…rebellion…which represents…will, tenacity, force.” (The Conquerors)

“Sharp, solid, heavy, the stone…” (The Royal Way)

“To organize. To determine. To constrain. Life is there.” (The Conquerors)

Adverbs and past participles accomplish the same task time and again.

The persistent, throbbing use of punctuation, full stops, commas, (semi-) colons, unfinished sentences, they all play a jarring part in the hero’s compulsive thrust forward.

Style forms part and parcel of Malraux’s interpretation of the Nietzschean Ūbermensch. He sees his creative writings as a kind of noble, bellicose, Olympian art. This inventive impulse represents for both German and French thinkers the very deepest manifestation of quixotic idealism, a kind of madness or frenzy incompatible with the realist vision of life. This is why both Nietzsche and Malraux admired the figure of Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

The only redemptive act for the individual lies in the projection of self upon the world, so that it will be shaped in his own likeness. True art reconstructs the world in the artist’s likeness. By their stringent act of the will to power, Nietzsche and Malraux attempted to transform the world, seeing the work of art, whether literature, painting, sculpture or music, as the loftiest, most virtuous expression of that will.

About The Author

Ronald Batchelor

Dr Ronald Batchelor is the author of A Reference Grammar of French (2011). He taught French and Spanish for forty years in the Department of Modern Languages at the University of N...

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