Book Review – Corydon by Andre Gide

Andre Gide found Corydon so subversive that he only printed a dozen copies when he wrote it. You know there’s an issue when even the author thinks his work too controversial. To compound this, Gide kept those copies in a drawer. He didn’t release Corydon to the public until 1920: nine years later! He included the following quote in his preface: “’Friends,’ said Ibsen, ‘are dangerous not so much because of what they make you do, but what they prevent you from doing.’” (Loc 50) He went on to write:

However, I consider the considerations that I expose in this little book to be of the greatest importance, and I believe it necessary to present them. But, on the other hand, I was very worried about the public and I was ready to seal my thoughts as soon as I believed they could trouble good order. That is why, rather than by personal prudence, that I stuffed Corydon into a drawer and smothered it there for such a long time. However, these last months have persuaded me that this little book, as subversive as it might appear, is only fighting against lies, and nothing is unhealthier, for the individual and for society, then (sic) to accredit lies. (Loc 56)

Just what subject could be so disturbing and contentious for the public good? Corydon served as Gide’s philosophical justification of the then taboo topic of homosexuality.

While I’m heterosexual myself, I knew I had to read this book. I have monumental respect for those who willingly risk personal or professional well-being for the sake of their principles. I also admire people willing to fight for their civil rights in an intransigent society that refuses to yield. For those reasons, I dove into Corydon.

The unorthodox structure won’t appeal to all readers. Gide crafted it in the form of four dialogs between Corydon and an unnamed narrator. He broke the first into three parts, the second into seven, and the third into five. The fourth diverged from this pattern in that it had only one part. I didn’t care for the lack of symmetry.

Although scandalous at the time of publication, I found the narrative dry. Gide performed exhaustive research on his topic and cited many scientific studies on the subject of “uranism” as it was known in his day. Corydon, the character, did espouse some ideas that got my attention. For instance in regard to animal mating, “Fertilization is not what an animal is seeking, simply sensual pleasure.” (Loc 410) Corydon quoted Pascal’s observation that, “all tastes are natural.” The most jarring text read, “…sadism accompanies heterosexuality more than uranism does…” (Loc 358) Expressions such as the later helped to animate the book and make up for the “scientific” parts.

Walter Ballenberger did a good job translating. I did have a few minor issues. At one point Corydon removed a book by Rabelais from his shelf. He then read a passage to the narrator. In the e-book, only two and-a-half lines of periods followed; not the text the speaker cited. I also didn’t like the footnote layout. With most e-books, clicking on the number will take readers to the details. In this version of Corydon, I had to go to the end of the chapter to read them. It became cumbersome.

While Gide published Corydon as an effort to address bigotry, he included some of his own. He wrote the following virulent anti-Semitic remarks:

The Jews have become masters in the art of breaking up our most respected institutions, the most venerable, those that are even the foundation and support of our Western civilization, for the profit of I do not know what kind of license and what looseness of morals which fortunately is repugnant to our good sense and our instinct of Latin sociability. (Loc 1165)

It’s difficult to take the author seriously when he’s just as prejudiced as the target audience.

In spite of that, I thought Corydon erudite and interesting. It’s difficult to comprehend the context of the book as now homosexuals share many of the same rights as heterosexuals. At one point Gide wrote, “The most important thing is not to be cured but to live with the illness.” (Loc 181) Thanks in part to Gide, we now live in a more enlightened era where one’s sexual orientation isn’t viewed as a disease.

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