Andre Malraux and India.
Amongst the novels that brought Malraux to fame in the 1920s and 1930s, three relate to China: La Tentation de l'Occident (1926, a singular book halfway between an epistolary novel and an essay), Les Conquerants (1928) and La Condition humaine (1933); and one is situated in Cambodia: La Voie royale (1930). There is no Indian novel, and there never would be; Malraux later stopped writing novels. Yet India appears in the two literary genres to which Malraux dedicated himself after the Second World War: his writings on art and his autobiographical writings.
In Antimemoires, published in 1967, Malraux recounts episodes from the war and the official travels he made as Minister of Culture under General de Gaulle. The theme of the Orient determines which memories he chooses: Malraux does not speak of his political action in France, but of his missions in Asia where he plays at a form of oneiric diplomacy between civilizations. India is the subject of most of this book, with three chapters focusing on it (II, 5; III, 1; III, 3), while only one (V, 1) is entirely dedicated to China. A notable difference quickly comes to the fore. Malraux is interested in traditional India, whereas it is post-May-Fourth revolutionary China that holds his attention.
In one of his numerous passages on India in Antimemoires, Malraux says that, of all Asian civilizations, India is the least Westernized and the last to have remained profoundly religious. From Malraux's point of view, India was so deeply immersed in its past, it was as if Egypt had not changed since the time of the Pharaohs. "Remote from ourselves in dream and in time, India belongs to the Ancient Orient of our Soul." (1)
This territory lends itself particularly well to a form of writing which resorts to twilight effects and psalmody to compose oneiric atmospheres. The journey across India as related in Antimemoires--Benares, Madurai, Ellora, Elephanta (figure 3)--belongs to the gripping pages produced by Malraux's oracular postwar style. A mixture of dream and reality, this style resembles a method, a way of approaching a civilization that is so grand and so distant. "I was not presumptuous enough to 'know' (...) a way of thought that had survived seventeen conquests and two millennia; I merely sought to grasp something of its haunting message." (2) Malraux is often accused of inventing a large share of his Antimemoires, in order to surround his life story with a halo of legend, and to "perform his own biography", as one of his characters in La Voie royale says. But he did not seek to cover up this game. When, in recounting his travels in India, he writes sentences such as "the return of the 'real' itself belongs to a cycle of appearance", (3) or, "the musical dream of legend made up for the powerful unreality of life", (4) one has the impression that this civilization inspires the principles of his literary style.
In this book, reinventing his biography signifies his claiming to have several lives and transmigrating through several incarnations. An epigraph of unknown provenance says that the elephant is the wisest of all animals because it is the only one that remembers its past lives. When Nehru welcomes him with the following words: "So now you're a minister ...", Malraux comments: "The phrase did not in the least mean: you're a member of the French government. In a slightly Balzacian, and especially Hindu sense, it meant: so this is your latest incarnation...." (5)
Something else elicits Malraux's reveries on India: the fact that Alexander the Great drove his army there and, by crossing the Khyber pass, "that legendary pass dotted with myrtles and mulberry trees" (6) established a meeting point on the far reaches; a transient and profound contact (or "a deep yet fleeting contact") between the Orient and the Occident. At the end of his life Malraux confessed to having "dreamt", after the war, of writing a play that would have been entitled Alexandre aux Indes (given that Malraux never wrote any plays, this was a rather curious desire triggered by an earlier stage adaptation of La Condition humaine). In Les Voix du silence (1951), the Indo-Greek kingdoms of Bactria and the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara are powerful subjects of fantasy on the encounter between civilizations and the metamorphosis of forms.
The idea of metamorphosis, so important in Malraux (it defines one of his central intuitions: that past statues and paintings were objects gifted with a religious or social function, and that their relatively recent metamorphosis into artworks was a turning point in the history of forms) resonates with the avatars of Vishnu and with the transmigration of souls in Hinduism. This parallel is sketched out on several occasions in Antimemoires, in particular in his conversations with Nehru (figure 1), with the difference that, in their transmigration, men change bodies while keeping the same soul, whereas statues change souls while keeping the same body. This does not mean that Indian thought was a direct source of influence on Malraux. I believe rather that with the passage of time he gradually discovered how close he felt to Indian thought and began to move more and more towards it.
In one of the metaphysical dialogues in his Antimemoires, Malraux says that "the deepest conflict of thought is perhaps that which raises the idea of reincarnation against actual death". In this conflict at the heart of Indian civilization--that of Brahmanism and Vedism versus Buddhism--the latter's message points specifically to the possibility of breaking the cycle of reincarnations, of "breaking free from the wheel of life and death". I believe that Malraux does not take sides in this conflict, but that he interiorizes it, that he turns it into a form of dialogue with himself, since he seems caught between a feeling of nothingness, of a return of all things to ashes, of the irreversible passing of time and an admiration for the challenge to death constituted by the life of forms created by men, with its migrations, its transformations and its continual rebirths.
In a way, I feel that he accepts an individual's wanting to be like a creator with regard to his own existence, in order to struggle against fate and death; at least this is how he behaved with himself. He was most probably haunted, like Chateaubriand, by the Western idea of individual glory while performing his biography to turn it into legend, to erase the difference between what he was living and what he was dreaming. He found in Indian thought another metaphysics, and a form of salvation, for the poetic interplay with identity that runs through his entire oeuvre.
Translated from the French by Devika Singh and William Snow
(1) Andre Malraux, Anti-memoirs, translated from the French by Terence Kilmartin, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1967, p. 225.
(2) Ibid., p. 226.
(3) Ibid., p. 209.
(4) Ibid., p. 213.
(5) Ibid., p. 150.
(6) Ibid., p. 258.
Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
Caption: 1. Jawaharlal Nehru with Andre Malraux. [c] Photo Division of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt, of India.
Caption: 2. Nataraja, Cave 21, Ellora, Maharashtra. photograph: Benoy K. Behl.
Caption: 3. Shiva Trimurti, Elephanta, Maharashtra. photograph: Benoy K. Behl.