Books / How to Be Gay

So Many Ways to Be Gay: Nihilism and André Gide


Young Gide

One of my projects right here at Filthy Dreams is to explore genealogies of aesthetic discourses and how they provide ways for people to “be” gay. I have been turning back time (with subtle reference to that leather daddy queen herself, Cher) for a while now by going all the way back to the 19th century with the emergence of Aestheticism and Decadence as foundations for much of what we now consider to be ways of being gay. In academic circles, this work is hardly new: Richard Kaye, David Halperin, Leo Bersani, Lee Edelman, and Ellis Hanson, among many others, have developed a library of research on this particular subject. For many academics in the field, those utilizing Queers of Color or Trans critique find this work to be, in fact, merely that of a white gay male strand of queer subjectivity. No arguments against that here: everyone from Lord Byron to Dennis Cooper are very much white, gay, and male. What becomes more problematic is that many of these white gay male authors have been appropriated for the anti relational turn in queer theory, which is in and of itself a recent polemic position on the contemporary Gay Rights Movement and ideas about assimilation (ie., Gay Marriage) vs. alternative forms of sociability–in this case, the anti-relational turn. For someone like André Gide whose character Michel shreds every inch of sociability on his way to becoming a free individual, it’s tempting to say that Gide is emblematic of Edelman and his anti-relational clan. But there’s no Death Drive at work here; rather, there’s a search for virility. Here, I offer another reading: while Michel takes a kind of anti-relational turn in The Immoralist, he does so because there aren’t readily other discourses for him to choose (besides the Wildean Dandy) to express his queer desires. The path he takes is a discourse on “nothingness”; in other words, to become queer, Michel must become “nothing.” Does this mean that Gide celebrates this very negative way of being queer? Hardly. On the contrary, Michel becomes stuck in this discourse and drifts away into nothingness. In other words, in this novel, Michel wouldn’t be found dancing with the boys at 3 AM to Depeche Mode. I don’t think that’s what Edelman and his boys would have wanted.

The Immoralist

“One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”
― Gide


Byronic cover of The Immoralist

There is an intimate connection between nihilism and queer sexuality in André Gide’s novella The Immoralist. As the main character, Michel, becomes more aware and invested into his queer sexuality, he descends into nihilism. Because of the taboo on homosexuality in early 20th century France, Michel has to go beyond the good and evil of morality to explore his queer desires; however, he becomes stuck within the nihilism that exists for him outside of morality. In other words, homosexuality is “nothing.” This descent is due not only to his movement beyond morality—as it was practiced in French society at that time—it is also due to the practice of queer sexuality, which could only happen outside of morality and which, as a result, becomes the catalyst by which Michel is unable to reenter society. Therefore, within the intimate intertwining of nihilism and sexuality, Michel has entered a spatial and temporal realm of decadence and annihilation.

In his attempt to explore his queer sexuality outside of morality, Michel attaches himself to the discourses of literary Decadence and Nietzschean nihilism: this attachment is in response to otherwise non-existent discourses available for queer sexualities, particularly homosexuality—apart from its discourse of immoralism as evident in Oscar Wilde’s scandal. Rather than seeing queer sexuality as limited to scandal, though, Michel explores its potentiality for becoming vis-à-vis Nietzschean philosophy. However, Michel is only able to realize Nietzsche all the way until the stage of nihilism. Once he has stepped out, he cannot reenter society as both queer and immoral. This inability to return to society leads one to wonder whether Nietzsche’s philosophy can be fully realized. According to Nietzsche, nihilism is overcome the moment you affirm everything—but he never explained how to mediate this with any existing society. Becoming as it relates to sexuality and the will-to-life has limits: Michel-as-immoral must remain outside France, temporally and spatially.

Damned under clear blue skies.

Sexuality and Decadence; Sexuality and Nietzsche

During the second half of the 19th century in Europe, various discourses created implicit links between deviant sexualities and the Decadent literary movement. The rise of psychology and sexology as medical discourses about sexuality in Germany during the late 19th century investigated homosexuality and other non-reproductive sexualities as forms of deviant sexualities. Richard Kraft von Ebbing’s influential psychological study Psychopathia Sexualis described any non-reproductive sexuality as perverse. Meanwhile, early homosexual rights movements led by Karl Ulrichs and Magnus Hirschfeld described homosexuality as a “third sex” that is an intermediary between male and female. Over in England, laws were put into place to criminalize homosexual behavior. The “Labouchère Amendment” punished any act of “gross indecency,” whether public or private, between two males as subject to one year of imprisonment with or without hard labor. This law was invoked for the infamous trials that condemned Wilde for homosexuality. Occurring simultaneously with this legal discourse were medical discourses that categorized homosexuals as a specific class of individuals that would respond more to medical treatment than to criminal punishment. Finally, in academic circles in England and in France, aesthetic movements became discourses through which poets and artists could channel their homosexual desires, such as the French l’art pour l’art movement, and literary Decadence.


Ivan Albright, “Picture of Dorian Gray” (1943-1944)

Decadence was attractive to homosexuals because of its affiliation with immorality, social decay, and degeneracy, all terms that have been associated with homosexuals by medical and legal discourses. The Decadent movement allowed homosexuals to see the world as artificial, which then provided them with the aesthetic freedom to create lifestyles that were not bound to the morality of the artificial worlds from which they departed. Although its roots can be found in various literary genres like Romanticism and Gothicism and in authors like Montesquieu and the Marquis de Sade, the Decadent movement began concurrently with Aestheticism, and in particular, with Walter Pater’s writings on Aestheticism in The Renaissance. Pater describes life as in a Hericlitean flux, never remaining static, and so he argues that life’s aim ought not to adhere to abstract reasoning, suggested (ie., scandalized) as codes of morality, but to extract beauty and to prolong it for as long as possible: “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life” (Pater). There is a Decadent gay sensibility to Pater’s writings, as they not only pointed to the artificiality of the world and of morality but also art’s autonomy from morality. Additionally, Pater himself was rumored to be homosexual, and his association with Oscar Wilde, who was Pater’s student at Oxford, made the connections all the more visible. If anyone connected Decadence with homosexuality, though, it was Wilde. A dandy as well as an aesthete, Wilde connected homosexuality to Decadence with the homoerotic figure of eternal youth and beauty, as well as with the narcissism and decay of Dorian Gray. Gide was especially struck by Wilde. Meeting Wilde changed Gide’s worldview. Alan Sheridan describes Wilde’s impact on Gide: “For three weeks, they met every day…he was…shaken to his very foundations, his belief in Christian morality under threat and a new, terribly attractive world opened up to view” (Gide vii). The character of Ménalque in The Immoralist is a virtual carbon copy of Wilde, mimicking his contempt for morality, his love of pleasure vice, his use of the epigram, and his implicit homosexuality. Gide was drawn to Decadence in his Michel’s exploration of his queer sexuality through his disavowal of morality, his pursuit of pleasure, and of the decay of his social connections to the point in which his sexual desires withered to bodies and contact.

Much of what was attractive about Decadence for Gide was also to be found in Nietzsche, and vice versa. Like the Decadents, Nietzsche pointed out the artificiality of morality and argued for an aesthetic reading of the world as metaphor. Nietzsche was not as prone to the pursuit of aesthetic pleasure as were the Decadents, nor was he as interested in the pleasure that comes about through social decay, but he insisted on going beyond the good and evil of morality for the individual to reach the height of his becoming. Nietzsche himself could be described as a decadent, and he does so in Ecce Homo, pointing to his nervous condition and to the inheritance of his degeneracy from his father:

Nietzsche3-Young Man

Young Nietzsche looked very much the Dandy

“I have a subtler sense for signs of ascent and decline than any man has ever had I am the teacher par excellence I this matter—I know both, I am both. –My father died at the age of 36: he was delicate, loveable and morbid… A doctor who treated me for some time as a nervous case said at last: ‘No! There is nothing wrong with your nerves, it is only I who am nervous.’ … –Convalescence means with me a long, all too long succession of years—it also unfortunately means relapse, deterioration, periods of decadence. Do I need to say that in questions of decadence I am experienced? I have spelled it out forwards and backwards.” (Ecce Homo, 38-39; qtd. Sedgwick 169-170)

Not only does Nietzsche present himself as in line with the Decadents but his writings also offer homoerotic undertones, and they would have been picked up by Wilde, Gide, and other homosexual Decadents. In fact, Richard Wagner claimed that Nietzsche was a pederast, which led to their infamous breakup. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick analyzes the homoerotic aspects of Nietzsche’s writings in her study of him and Wilde in The Epistemology of the Closet, and she argues that embedded in his work are signifiers of homosexuality that would be picked up by Wilde and other homosexual writers like Gide. They offered a “Whitmanlike seductiveness” that were “directed towards other men and toward the male body” (Sedgwick 133). Such signifiers were themselves gendered as masculine as Nietzsche rejected effeminacy in his construction of the homoerotic bond between men: “But far from explicitly making male same-sex desire coextensive with that effeminacy, Nietzsche instead associates instance after instance of homoerotic desire, though never named as such, with the precious virility of Dionysiac initiates or of ancient warrior classes” (Sedgwick 134). Though these bonds do not contain any actual scenes of homosexual acts, such acts may be implied by Nietzsche’s emphasis on the virility, or the health, of these men, and through the passing on of the health from one man to another. Gide picks up on the homoerotic aspects of male virility and of the will-to-life in The Immoralist as Michel recovers from his fight against illness through the health of the young Arab boys that he keeps by his side. Michel’s emphasis on health becomes the catalyst for his abandonment of his dying wife Marceline to seek health within the virility of Moktir and of the sensual pleasures he gained through Moktir’s mistress. Thus, in Nietzsche, we not only see associations with the Decadent literary movement, we also see the homoerotic undertones of his writing that are picked up by the Decadents–most especially with Gide.

Gide’s Michel 

Gide, 1893

Gide, 1893

Born in 1869 in Paris, Gide was exposed to His father Paul was of a modest background while his mother Juliette was of a bourgeois and wealthy background. His father died in 1880, when Gide was 10, and afterwards he was surrounded almost exclusively by women who instilled within him a sense of strict Protestant morality, modesty, obedience, social conformity, and sense of duty—values against which Gide struggled and revolted his entire life. Perhaps because of his strict upbringing, which he found his to be unsettling and confusing, Gide suffered from physical ailments like headaches, insomnia, and fits, and also from feelings of insecurity. Gide felt the need to revolt against the social order of his day. We get a strong glimpse of this spirit of revolt in The Immoralist.

Writing served as a means for Gide to achieve stabilization and to put his life’s experiences in order. According to Vivian Kogan, Gide’s concern was with “the problematization of the self and its tenuous relation to objective reality” (Kogan 537). Gide strove for contradictions, in both a Wildean and a Nietzschean sense, in his being rather than unity. In describing himself, Gide said “I am never, I become,” which meant that Gide did not believe in any pre-existing self; furthermore, “his narratives are often marked by an ambivalent or dual positionality, a posture both assumed and often subverted. His purpose was never to reassure but to discontent, to challenge the limits of any assertion in order to uncover what is hidden from view” (Kogan 537). He began as a Symbolist but moved away from it after reading Goethe and Nietzsche, and after meeting Wilde, as he developed confidence in freely expressing his struggles without having to cloak them. Many of his works reflected his own experiences in life—struggles against social and religious morals, homosexuality, and his friendships and travels.  The Immoralist, which Alan Sheridan in the introduction describes as a romans à clef, contains multiple aspects of Gide’s life: his travels to North Africa, where he discovered his homosexual desires through encounters with Arab youths, meeting Oscar Wilde, a marriage to a woman whom Gide ignores sexually but treats as sacred—he thought that consummation of his marriage would tarnish the purity of his love for her—and his struggles to break free from social and religious morals and duties. Thus, throughout The Immoralist, Michel’s growing awareness of his queer sexuality coincides with his tearing away of morality, religion, and culture. Likewise, as Gide grew more comfortable with his homosexuality, his writings became more frank in their depiction of it and in their defense of it, culminating with his defense of it in Corydon and in his autobiography Si le grain ne meurt written late in his life.

Gide’s Michel cannot easily be labeled as a homosexual—or a pederast. While Michel is attracted to young Arab boys, to Charles and Alcide at La Morinière, and to Ménalque, his only sexual relations are with his wife Marceline and with Moktir’s mistress. Only at the end of the novel does Michel provide an articulation for his sexuality, and this articulation is quite underwhelming and coy at best: “…but now every time I bump into her she laughs and teases me that I prefer the boy [Ali] to her. She makes out he is the reason I stay here. Perhaps she is not altogether wrong…” (Gide 124). What sorts of inferences can we draw from this vague declaration? Are we supposed to assume that the story will continue after the end of The Immoralist with Michel having sexual escapades with young Ali?  Should we reread Michel’s overnight vigil with Ménalque as having contained a sexual episode, unstated but inferred by Ménalque’s request: “Prove to me that you are not a man of principle: can I count on you to spend this last night with me?” (Gide 82)? We may read Michel’s declaration as indicative of his growing awareness of homosexual desires; however this reading becomes slippery when taking into account Michel’s concurrent affair with Ali’s sister along with his expressed sexual interest in Ali (Gide 123-24). How, then can we describe Michel’s sexuality as anything but queer (with “queer” in this usage meaning “strange” and resistant to categorization)?

Michel’s exploration of his sexuality coincides with his descent into nihilism, and, since both Michel’s sexuality and his nihilism intertwine throughout his movement out of the West to North Africa, one cannot understand Michel’s queer sexuality without appreciating its connections with his descent into nihilism. In his analysis of Michel as a “gay outlaw” of literature, Leo Bersani succinctly describes his sexuality as thus: “One thing is for certain: [Michel’s sexuality] is a sexual preference without sex” (Bersani 115). Bersani goes on: “[Michel] reaches for their bodies [the young Arab boys]—in his body; they become a kind of sensualized ideal ego that beguiles him back to health” (Bersani 119). Michel draws the will-to-live from the boys that surround him. During his recovery from tuberculosis, Michel finds himself attracted to Bachir: “Ah, how well he looked. That is what I fell in love with—his health. The small body as in beautiful health” (Gide 26). As he thinks about Bachir’s health, Michel gains the will-to-live: “I thought of Bachir’s beautiful, glistening blood… And suddenly I felt a wish, a desire, more pressing and imperious than anything I had ever felt before, to live!” (Gide 27). Michel’s contact with these bodies is more psychological than corporeal. His cathexis is his own ego; his eroticism is narcissistic. Instead of engaging in sexual liaisons with these boys, Michel draws the will-to-live from them and then goes sunbathing in the nude (Gide 46). Once Michel has drawn enough of the will-to-live from the health of these boys, he dispenses with them: “But soon I was tired of them: I was no longer so weak that I needed the spectacle of their health” (Gide 40); and later, during his return to Biskra, Michel discovers that he is no longer attracted to the same boys, whose health has been tarnished al, “lined by toil and vice and sloth” (Gide 117) in the span of a few years. Michel’s becomes attracted only to the virility of health found in young male bodies. How Nietzschean. While he engages in sexual affairs with women, it is male bodies—that is, healthy male bodies—that Michel is attracted to. All bodies becomes consumable and dispensable to Michel as he searches for his “authentic being” (Gide 43); however, through his practices of consumption, he treats female bodies differently than he does with male ones. Michel uses the female bodies only for pleasure and for possession, while the male bodies become a source of virility upon which Michel draws his will-to-live. By seeking to consume others’ virility over bodily contact and sexual gratification, Michel is very queer in that his desires are narcissistic, Nietzschean, and most of all, vampiric.

6a00e55127ad3588330147e031f98d970b-800wiTo explore his queer desires and his to move beyond good and evil, Michel has positioned himself spatially outside the realm of the Western world and all of its discourses. By doing so, Michel is able to concentrate on the aesthetics of the male body, its virility and its health; and by doing so, Michel is able to establish the connection between desire and health with the young Arab boys that surround him. Both Nietzsche and Wilde’s writings locate the pedagogic/pederast philosophies and erotic potential as not from some “untainted mine” of Hellenic potency but in the “magnetism” exerted by thus fantasy Hellenic space onto modern Christian prohibition (Sedgwick 139). Thus, the male body becomes a site of aesthetic, philosophic, and erotic resistance to religious prohibition.

However, Gide locates his male body not in some Hellenic ideal but in the Arab world—young Arab boys whose exoticism becomes a means for potential becoming. These Arab bodies, detached from his Protestant roots, exotic from Western culture, religion, and philosophy become the space for Michel to descend into decadent narcissism. In his first encounter with an Arab boy, Bachin, Michel catches Bachin looking at him with “large, silent eyes” and Michel becomes “perturbed” (Gide 25). Metaphorically, eyes act as a window to the soul. In this sense, it may be that Bachin had read Michel’s queer desires before Michel himself realized that they existed. By “perturbed” then, Michel may have noticed a hint of eroticism in Bachir’s “large, silent eyes” which aren’t silent at all but which reveal erotic tension. Michel’s perturbed feeling becomes even more pronounced as he notices Bachir’s dainty little shoulder: “I want to touch it” (Gide 25). That is, Michel feels desire.

The exoticism of Bachir’s expressionate eyes allows Michel to experience the magnetism of erotic potency located outside and in opposition to the coldness of his Protestant upbringing. Why did Michel have to travel outside the spatial realm of the West to experience such desire? Why not refer to the Hellenic fantasy space as Nietzsche and Wilde did? Nietzsche was able to build on a notorious German ideology, and so was Wilde, since Oxford was conceived to be a modern Athens. It would be interesting to find out about more about Gide’s France, since (straight) Rome was much more important there. In queer terms: Greek is queer, Rome is straight. What is the nature of space and temporality that Michel requires to move beyond morality? Wilde describes utopia as a space and a temporality that constantly eludes humanity’s reach but for which humanity should always strive: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of Utopias” (Wilde 34). Nietzsche is not interested in humanity as a whole but in the individual, yet he is still concerned with utopian-like becoming—if not described as progress but as a process—as futural striving: “Man is a rope, tied between best and overman—a rope over an abyss…What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end” (Nietzsche 126-27). For both Wilde and Nietzsche, spatial and temporal movements are necessary for progress or for becoming. While movement for him involves spatial relocation, Michel, though, is not concerned with temporal movement: for him, neither the past nor the future has any bearing on him. While he follows Nietzsche and Wilde in his effort to transgress morality, his transgression involves neither fantastic temporal spaces nor futural becoming but a complete nihilistic breakdown of morality altogether in conjunction with spatial relocation. For Michel, moving beyond good and evil is to be perpetually situated in the present, focused only on bodies and contact; and contact among bodies lasts only as long as bodies touch—nothing lingers after contact has ceased. Spatially, then, Michel has to locate bodies that have also moved beyond the good and evil of his Protestant culture. He must move outside the West. Therefore, the exoticism found in the bodies of the young Arab boys like Bachir and Moktir comes about through their unabashed displays of their “naked little shoulders” which transgresses both sexuality and gender vis-à-vis Michel’s French Protestant mores.

“Fish die belly upward, and rise to the surface. It’s their way of falling.”

― Gide

Did Michel become the strapping Ubermensch?

Did Michel become

Nietzsche saw nihilism as a necessary step in becoming but only as a temporary stage through which one, having gone beyond good and evil, now has the ability to become an authentic being. Does Nietzsche provide any guide for Michel to move past nihilism? In his study on the queer connections and uses of Nietzsche’s philosophy, Queer Social Philosophy, Randall Halle describes Nietzschean nihilism as a stage: “Nihilism is a period of revaluation of all values but also a transitional state whose negativity must be overcome by optimism, by will-to-truth, by gay science” (Halle 179). Nihilism is useful for Michel as a transitional state through which he can critique and shed the morality of his bourgeois French Protestant background. However, Michel never overcomes this stage; he never finds optimism or a will-to-truth. Instead, he is left with the emptiness of clear blue skies.


Clear and blue and empty

Once Michel has stepped outside the temporal and spatial realms of the West, he cannot reenter. As his friend speculates, “In what way might Michel be useful to the state?” (Gide 9). Michel’s nihilism has reached a point that his friend is concerned with whether or not he can become reintegrated into society. But what other choice does he have? As Michel notes, “culture, which is born of life, ends up killing it” (Gide 74). The heterogeneity that culture in early 20th century France demands leaves no room for the queer. And Michel is but one of a few queer individuals who have been able to overcome morality. Ménalque, Michel’s queer model and mentor, is another such individual, and in return, he suffered ostracism due to a scandal: “’decent society’ was outraged and so-called ‘respectable’ people felt impelled to turn their backs on him” (Gide 74-75). Though never described as such, this scandal mirrors the homosexual scandal that brought ruin and ostracism to Wilde. Thus, the individual that embraces his or her own queerness in terms of sexuality and morality is subject to the same fate. The society from which Michel stepped out of is too far invested in its social forms of heterogeneous sexuality to allow Michel to be reintegrated as a contributor. Michel, now queer and decadent, would only contribute social decay. Moreover, Michel would not be able to affect other bodies in the social order to initiate their processes of becoming; but rather, Michel would become lost, perhaps even smothered by a sea of heterogeneity. In this sense, the bodies of the social order would be, for Michel, another clear blue sky to look at. Nothing makes sense of it all. Michel’s queerness then becomes both the key, with its ties to nihilism, for overcoming morality and the gate, because of its nihilism, which prevents Michel from reentering society.

Of course, in today’s societal order, there is more flexibility for queers to choose from various discourses to be who they are and more and have a place in society (even if it’s in the back rooms of The Cock). And now, those discourses are exploding into so many ways to be gay–and queer! I doubt Michel would have assimilated into gay marriage and gay babies but he would’ve had that option. Maybe he would decide to become ever more queer. Had Michel lived to see the gay 90’s clubkids1and beyond, I like to imagine that he would’ve become a pill popping Club Kid dancing the night away to Magic Dog’s “Mirror Mirror,” or maybe, later, to vogueing with the queens of Blood Orange’s “Sutphin Boulevard,” following the other queers by flirting with the “no future” of nihilistic tendencies but never really taking that plunge. Thus, the lesson to be learned from The Immoralist is a warning: whether following Nietzsche or Edelman, excessive individualism is dangerous. It takes you nowhere; it leads to nothing. The solution? Pop some pills and dance with the boys instead! Be social!

Works Cited

Bersani, Leo. Homos. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995. Print.

Gide, André. The Immoralist. Trans. David Watson. New York: Penguin, 2000. Print.

Halle, Randall. Queer Social Philosophy: Critical Readings from Kant to Adorno. Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 2004. Print.

Kogan, Vivian. “André Gide.” In The Columbia Anthology of Twentieth-Century French Thought. Ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman. New York: Columbia UP, 2006: 537-539. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In The Portable Nietzsche. Trans. and Ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Penguin, 1976: 103-439. Print.

Pater, Walter. The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. Online.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley and Los Angeles; London: U of California P, 2008. Print.

Wilde, Oscar. The Soul of Man under Socialism. In De Profundus and Other Writings. Middlesex: Penguin, 1986: 17-54. Print.

5 thoughts on “So Many Ways to Be Gay: Nihilism and André Gide

  1. Great book review, Marion! Richard Wagner and Nietzsche…who knew? (I’m uninformed.) And, how “french” is nihilism? Fantastic.

    • Thanks for the suggestion! No, I was not aware of Lucey’s study but I’ve ordered it. Of course, I’ll be reading it while thinking about Bersani–it seems to have his dirty fingerprints all over it. Thank you, Kelsey!

      • I hope you enjoy it. Lucey doesn’t have the grand theories of a Bersani or Halperin, but his deep comprehension of those argument, attention to the details and nuances of a text, and clean writing make for a pretty enjoyable read.

  2. Pingback: You Make Me ____: 21st Century Cruising And Nihilism In Thomas Moore’s ‘In Their Arms’ | Filthy Dreams

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