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Inspired by mysticism, the narrator uses desire and its fulfillment as the principle of life and religion. The senses are explored in depth in contact with a nature rich in gifts, captured in landscapes with oriental colors from Biskra and the painter Etienne Dinet.
" Look in the evenings as if the day were to die here; and in the morning as if all things were born there. May your vision be new at every moment. The wise man is the one who surprises himself with everything. …..Throw out my book; tell you that it is only one of the thousand possible postures in front of life. Look for yours. What someone else would have done as well as you, don’t do. What someone else would have said as well as you, don’t say, _ as well written as you, don’t write. Be devoted in
yourself only to what you feel which is nowhere other than in yourself, and create from you, impatiently or patiently, ah! the most unrivalled of all beings. There are strange possibilities in every man. The present would be full of all futures, if the past did not already project a history. But, alas! a unique past offers a unique future – projects it before us, like an infinite point on space.
I wish no rest other than the sleep of death. I am afraid that any desire, any energy that I would not have satisfied during my life, for their survival will torment me.
I hope, after having expressed on this earth all that awaited me, I am satisfied, I hope to die completely desperate.
No, not sympathy, Nathaniel, love. You realize, don’t you, that it’s not the same thing. It is out of fear of a loss of love that sometimes I was able to sympathize with sadness, trouble, pain that otherwise I would have barely endured. Leave everyone to take care of their own lives.
(I can’t write today because a wheel turns in the barn. Yesterday I saw her; she was beating rapeseed. The ball flew away; the grain rolled on the ground. The dust suffocated.
A woman turned the wheel. Two handsome boys, barefoot, harvested the grain.
I’m crying because I have nothing more to say.
Everything that seeks to assert itself denies itself; everything that renounces itself affirms itself.
Tomorrow’s dream is a joy, but tomorrow’s joy is another, and fortunately nothing resembles the dream we had of it; for it is different that everything is worth anything.
Dare to be what you are. Don’t let it get out of hand. There are admirable possibilities in every being. Persuade yourself of your strength and youth. Know how to tell you over and over again: He only cares about me.
Our actions cling to us as his phosphorus glow.
They consume us, it is true, but they make us our splendour.
And if our soul was worth anything, it was that it burned more ardently than a few others.
I settle down in this point of the space that I occupy, in this precise moment of duration. I do not accept that it is not crucial. I extend my arms all the way. I say: this is the south, the north… I am effect; I will be cause. Determining cause! An opportunity that will never come again. I am; but I want to find a reason for being. I want to know why I live.What absurd conception of the world and life manages to cause three-quarters of our misery, and by attachment to the past refuses to understand that tomorrow’s joy is only possible if the joy of today gives way, that each wave owes the beauty of its curve only to the withdrawal of that which precedes it, that each flower must wither for its fruit, that this one, if it does not fall and die, does not die. From the day when I convinced myself that I didn’t need to be happy, happiness began to dwell in me; yes, from the day when I convinced myself that I didn’t need anything to be happy. It seemed to me, after giving the touch of selfishness, that I had poured forth such an abundance of joy from my heart that I could water all the others with it.
I understood that the best teaching is an example. I accepted my happiness as a vocation."
This work of youth, long matured, is that of a "convalescent who embraces life as something he almost lost". No novel, no essay, no long poem in prose, this unclassifiable work is a little bit all this at once. In the eight books that make up the book, the narrator, referring to himself as a master called Ménalque, addresses a disciple who answers to the biblical name of Nathaniel and who represents the virtual reader of the text. The subject of the work is given from the Warning which precedes the first book:"Let my book teach you to be more interested in you than in itself.Terrestrial Foods are the great work of Gide, without which the author’s knowledge is incomplete. It is, however, surprisingly different from the Pastoral Symphony, the False Minters or the Narrow Gate, which adopts the Romanesque form. A long poem in prose, a textbook of hedonistic philosophy or a travel narrative, it is read like an exalted praise of nature and the senses.The fruits, the gardens, the soil are so many beauties rediscovered by new organs and which want to be free of any physical, sentimental and social attachment. It is freedom in uppercase, pleasure erected as a law above the heart and mind, absolute availability to the world and the moment – all this contradicts the very writing of this manual, which stirs memories and shapes this new ethic of joy rather than being satisfied with the present.
Letter to Nathaniel
"You can’t imagine, Nathaniel, what can finally become of this watering of light; and the sensual ecstasy that gives this persistent heat… A branch of olive tree in the sky; the sky above the hills; a flute song at the door of a café… Algiers seemed so hot and full of festivities that I wanted to leave it for three days; but at Blidah, where I was in a place like Blidah, where I could not believe it!I go out in the morning; I walk around, I don’t look at anything and see everything; a wonderful symphony is formed and unheard sensations are organized in me. The hour goes by, my excitement aligns itself, as the less vertical sun’s march is slower. Then I choose, to be or something, of what to fall in love with, – but I want it to move, because my emotion, once fixed, is no longer alive. It seems to me then at every moment that I have not yet seen or tasted anything.I’m lost in a disorderly pursuit of the things that flee. Yesterday I ran to the top of the hills overlooking Blidah, to see the sun a little longer; to see the sunset and the fiery clouds colouring the white terraces. I surprise the shade and silence under the trees; I lurk in the moonlight; I often feel as if I am swimming, so much the warm, luminous air envelops me and lifts me softly."
The book was written in 1895 (the year of Gide’s marriage) and appeared in a review in 1896 before publication the next year. Gide admitted to the intellectual influence of Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra but the true genesis was the author’s own journey from the deforming influence of his puritanical religious upbringing to liberation in the arms of North African boys. Andre Maurois draws attention to the similarity of moral outlook between the two works in these words: "Like Thus Spake Zarathustra, Les Nourritures Terrestres is a gospel in the root sense of the word: glad tidings. Tidings about the meaning of life addressed to a dearly loved disciple whom Gide calls Nathanael." "Nathaniel" comes from the Hebrew name נְתַנְאֵל, "Nethan’el", meaning "God has given".
The book has three characters: the narrator, the narrator’s teacher, Menalque, and the young Nathanael. Menalque has two lessons to impart through the narrator. The first is to flee families, rules, stability. Gide himself suffered so much from "snug homes" that he harped on its dangers all his life. The second is to seek adventure, excess, fervor; one should loathe the lukewarm, security, all tempered feelings. "Not affection, Nathanael: love …"
A subtly structured collection of lyrical fragments, reminiscences, poems, travel notes, and aphorisms, the book came to command such a following after World War I that Gide wrote a preface stressing the work’s self-critical dimension. Nevertheless it influenced a generation of young writers, including the existentialists Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, to cast off all that is artificial or merely conventional. In Roger Martin du Gard’s The Thibaults, two of the main characters, Jacques Thibault and Daniel de Fontanin, are deeply changed after reading the book.Gide develops the theme of the relationship with matter and natural elements, in an ode that is both lyrical and sensual. Through the work, an almost extatic enthusiasm for life emerges, making the text a kind of gospel of the awakening of the senses; in fact, it seems that sensuality almost acts as a profession of faith, or even a new religion, so much so one feels fervour and emotion, especially for the earth, the harvests, the fruits, all that is physical and fleshy.The entire text can be considered a true hymn to the libido sentiendi.In terms of filigree, it is also about sexuality, even if this theme is not directly mentioned in the book. In this sense, the work can be interpreted as a hyperbole on desire and eroticism, the evocation of harvests and "food" having the value of a symbol of the desired body. It is, above all, a book on desire, on thirst, the objects evoked as a pretext for expressing this desire, often unquenchable, irrepressible, overflowing, which succeeds in magnifying and transcending the whole world.It is not strictly speaking a novel, but rather a long prose poem in which sensuality is expressed, tinged with fervour and contact with nature.The question of the kind of terrestrial food finds its answer in an aesthetics of diversity. Gide proposes hybrid structures, made up of obsolete poetic forms (ballads, rounds), fragments of diaries, notebooks, wandering notes. Despite the current editions, it is important to know that the original manuscript took great liberties in terms of typography, even going so far as to resemble the future modernist verses and other calligrams in vogue at the beginning of the twentieth century. On the other hand, editors have tended to pick up the text and some verse episodes are now presented as a block of prose.
The novelistic aspect of the book is to be found in the theme of travel, in the existence of emblematic characters and above all in the reconstruction of a hedonistic life that transgresses traditional morality.The Foods are in a sense the joyful and solar counterpart of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, a dark work in which the Irish writer also developed, but "negatively" through absence and lack, a form of absolute sensuality that seeks to free itself from the narrow moralism of the Victorian era, conformism and social conventions.
Gide was born in Paris on 22 November 1869, into a middle-class Protestant family. His father was a Paris University professor of law who died in 1880. His uncle was the political economist Charles Gide.At a very early age, André began learning to play the piano, which would be his lifelong companion. An accomplished pianist, he regrets that he did not meet excellent teachers early enough to make him a true musician. In 1877, he entered the Alsatian School, beginning a discontinuous schooling2. Indeed, he was soon dismissed for three months after letting go of his "bad habits", that is to say masturbation. Shortly after his return to school – "healed" by the threat of a doctor’s castration and the sadness of his parents – the disease keeps him away from it again. In spite of the medical and parental objections, onanism – which he calls "vice" 3 and which he does not practice without a strong taste for sin and sad defeat – will later regain its place among his habits, which will make him write at the age of 23 that he lived until he was "completely virgin and depraved".
Gide was brought up in isolated conditions in Normandy and became a prolific writer at an early age, publishing his first novel, The Notebooks of André Walter (French: Les Cahiers d’André Walter), in 1891, at the age of twenty-one.The death of his father on October 28,1880, pushed him away from normal schooling. Already marked by the death of a little cousin, Émile Widmer, who provoked a deep crisis of anguish in him, baptized, according to Goethe, by the German name Schaudern, André lost, with the death of Paul Gide, a happy and tender relationship, which left him alone in front of his mother:"And I suddenly felt all wrapped up in this love, which now closed on me. During one of his stays in Rouen in the fall of 1882, he surprised his cousin Madeleine’s secret sorrow about her mother’s adulterous relationships. In his emotion, he discovers "a new orientation to his life". There a long and tortuous relationship emerges. Gide is fascinated by the young girl, by her consciousness of evil, her rigid and conformist sense of what to do, a sum of differences that attracts her. Little by little, he builds a perfect image of his cousin that he falls in love with, in a purely intellectual and yet passionate way.Between 1885 and 1888, the young André lived through a period of religious exaltation – described as a "seraphic state" 8 – which he shared with his cousin through extensive correspondence and common readings. He draws heavily from the Bible, Greek authors, and practices asceticism. In 1885, he met François de Witt-Guizot at La Roque-Baignard, whom he associated for a time with his mysticism. The following year, Pastor Élie Allegret, a summer tutor, became his friend.In 1887, he returned to the Alsatian School of rhetoric and met Pierre Louÿs, with whom he became involved in a passionate friendship, which revolved around literature and their common desire to write. The following year, while preparing for the baccalaureate in philosophy (at Henri-IV high school), he discovered Schopenhauer. After graduating from the baccalaureate in 1889, he began to attend literary fairs, meeting many writers. His first collection, Les Cahiers d’ André Walter, through which he hopes to obtain a first literary success and the hand of his cousin, meets with the favor of criticism, failing to attract the public’s attention. In the spring of 1892, a trip to Germany without his mother was an opportunity to deepen his knowledge of Goethe. Gide then begins to think that "it is a duty to be happy. In the Elégies romaines, he discovers the legitimacy of pleasure – unlike the puritanism he has always known – and it gives him a "temptation to live". It’s also the beginning of tension with her mother. However, the latter decided to support her son in the conquest of Madeleine, against the rest of the Rondeaux family and the young girl herself, who remained firmly opposed to a union with her cousin.
In the summer of 1892, he wrote the Voyage d’ Urien, which was co-authored with the painter Maurice Denis, who produced thirty original lithographs16. The book is ignored by critics and little encouragement is given to those close to them. In the fall, after a brief barracks stint – poorly experienced – and five review boards, Gide was reformed. The following year was marked by the birth of a new friendship – initially exclusively epistolary – with Francis Jammes, which Eugène Rouart presented to him.However, it is another friendship, that of Paul Laurens, which will play a decisive role. The young painter, as part of a scholarship, must travel for one year and invites him to join him. This journey, reported in "Si le grain ne meurt" is going to be for Gide the occasion of a moral and sexual emancipation that he called for from his vows. They left in October 1893 for a nine-month trip to Tunisia, Algeria . André then moved to Biskra in Algeria, where they continued her romance, in the arms of the young Mériem. Juliette Gide’s sudden intrusion, worried about her son’s health, broke their intimacy before the journey resumed without her in April 1894.