André Malraux (1901-1976)


[Les Conquérants: The novel describes the struggle between the Kuomintang and the Communists in the Cantonese revolution of the 1920s. It is both an exciting war story and a gallery of intellectual portraits: a ruthless Bolshevik revolutionary, a disillusioned master of propaganda, a powerful Chinese pacifist, and a young anarchist. Each of these "conquerors" will be crushed by the revolution they try to control. The young Malraux put a lot of himself in his central portrait of Garine, fed up with the bourgeoisie from which he sprang but by no means enamored of the proletariat or an egalitarian future.]


The Writer-Activist

Malraux was a nihilistic intellectual who, like Cocteau and Gide, was one of the enfants terribles who scandalized the bourgeoisie of his time. But in reality they all remained bourgeois litterateurs and humanists.

Malraux wrote in a style of tragic obscurity, recounting tales of the individual lost in Pascal’s infinite spaces. His works were a kind of Bible for a generation of bourgeois students of the generation of the 1920s. Although they aspire to be living testimony to a way of life, nothing is more artificial and literary than these novels. But Malraux also influenced revolutionaries in the colonies, in Indochina, Morocco and Algeria. He is still anti-colonial.

There is a long French tradition which began with Chateaubriand of romantic writers who participate in politics. For Malraux as for Chateaubriand personal life is subordinate to political life. Maurice Barrès was another French writer in this tradition. He wrote a book about individual self-affirmation called Le culte du moi. It is a bit Gidean, rejecting all the values that others try to impose on the individual in favor of the ultimate value of the individual himself. But Malraux refused the cult of individual personality in favor of a literature which transcends the individual and concerns itself with man as such. Barrès was anti-bourgeois and professed a violent, quasi fascist nationalism. Although they advocated opposed politics, Malraux and he had much in common.

Malraux’s early study of archaeology and Orientalism already reveals his exoticism. He went to Indochina and China after he finished his studies. These travels inspired Les Conquérants and other early novels. He found statues in the Cambodian jungle which he sold, but he was quickly arrested for theft. Some people believe he was really arrested for political reasons. In any case, literary circles in Paris were upset about his arrest and he was soon released. He went back to France, published La Tentation de l’Occident and founded a revolutionary newspaper.

La Tentation de l’Occident is an exchange of letters between a Chinese who came to the West and a Westerner who went to China. In this book the Chinese writes as though he were estranged from the West, but Malraux later discovered that the Orient is no threat to the West since it too is Westernized. The East itself is thus meaningless for Malraux. The result of this discovery is nihilistic revolutionism, aimed at destroying the West. For Malraux the revolution is the apocalypse, the destruction of the world.

People thought works such as Les Conquérants were a report on his activities in the East because he kept silent about what he had really done there. Actually when he was in China he was quite unlike his characters. He was even temporarily minister of information in Chang Kai-shek’s government.

In 1936 he fought in the Spanish Civil War. In the Second World War he fought in the resistance, was captured, and escaped. He remained faithful to de Gaulle after the war and is now Minister of Culture.

Malraux’s novels reflect the great social events of his time. If one could say that his experiences form the starting point of his books, it could also be said that he chose his experiences on the basis of his needs as a writer. But his novels completely transform the material he found in his life. Malraux was not just a dreamer—he really did give in to “la tentation de l’occident”—but the truth about his life is not in his books. He wrote novels of consciousness, not of actual experience. The revolutions and wars he narrated were the conditions within which he placed the drama of modern consciousness faced with an alien world.



Exoticism is the desire to travel in order to learn and to return later changed under new circumstances. It is a common theme in Western literature beginning with the story of the prodigal son. Malraux’s romanticism motivates his exoticism, but it also reflects a fundamental movement of Western consciousness since the Renaissance. The conte philosophique employed the same exoticizing technique as Malraux in leaving the West in imagination to gain self-knowledge.

Malraux rejected what he believed were stifling forms of thought and art developed in the West. The true horror of human life is hidden by bad faith and degraded bourgeois values, but they are less and less successful in shielding man from the realization that he is a lost child in the universe. The solitude of Western man is the result of the death of God and the critical destruction of the beliefs that had previously supported community.

In leaving the West for China Malraux was trying to rid himself of Western traditions and ideas. In China he hoped to face his destiny as a man. Similarly, Malraux’s characters leave the West because they want to kill it in themselves. They reject the ideals of the West to face the naked truth of their condition.

Malraux's first book, Royaume Farfelu, already reveals a kind of half surrealistic, half exotic attitude. Les Conquérants and La Condition Humaine are as far from the Western bourgeois world as can be.

Les Conquérants exhibits the detachment of a Nietzschean playing with violence because nothing is meaningful. For Malraux it makes little difference whether the characters kill or die. Murder and death are a kind of extreme exoticism, separating the individual completely from his world.

The novel begins when Chang Kai-shek was allied with the Communists in opposition to the foreigners who occupied China. The hero, Garine, is too much of an individualist to be a real Communist. But his individualism is not like that of Barrès, for whom art, love, and pleasure are the basis of self worship.

Garine does not love himself. On the contrary, he hates himself. His attitude toward others is scorn, and that goes for himself as well in so far as he too is an Other. Garine is pessimistic about humanity, including himself, and is drawn to death. This attitude motivates a furious activism. He is much more like Malraux than the communist heroes of the later novel, La Condition Humaine.

The early novels were written during peacetime in the West which helps to explain why they had to take place in the East. Peace repelled Malraux. He went to the East in search of something different. With the coming of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War he returned to the West for literary themes.

His early style is telegraphic and brief, nervous and breathless, a new rhetoric of violence. As he advanced in his writing he created a different style. In the later works the stylistic expression of the feeling of estrangement takes the place of departure from the West. In these works everything is exoticized. For example, in the Noyers d'Altenburg a European who has lived in the deserts of Arabia like Lawrence describes Marseille as though it were ancient Babylon. There is also a description of prisoners held in a Gothic cathedral. Their poorly shaved beards make them appear Gothic.



All romanticism claims to be the latest transcendence of romanticism. Malraux, Sartre, Mallarmé, etc. all try to get beyond romanticism and fall back into it again. One who does not understand this pattern might believe that each new attempt at transcendence succeeds when actually it merely creates new lies. But each attempt clarifies the nature of romanticism. From Malraux we learn a great deal about Rousseau. This is why the study of literature must be historical.

Malraux is in a sense truer than Rousseau, but as the history of romanticism unfolds, the writers are less and less able to create a great oeuvre. They are not helped by their ability to see through past failures. The works become more and more abstract as the creative powers of the authors are impoverished. Balzac could create ordinary people, but all Gide's characters come from the haute bourgeoisie in which he was raised. In Malraux's works there are not even such ordinary bourgeois characters. He was limited to a very special type of revolutionary intellectual. All his great heroes are loners on an exotic voyage that cuts them off from ordinary life. They search within themselves for a true self, beyond the acts that reveal them to others.

In earlier literature the solitude of man was given the romantic name of ennui. For Gide ennui arises ultimately from the desire to enjoy one’s own enjoyment, the obstacle self-consciousness places in the way of fulfillment. But false and hollow values are also obstacles to enjoyment and these obstacles can be overcome. Gide made them the object of his critique.

Malraux too revolted against false and hollow values, not in pursuit of happiness, but in the search for true values. He considered happiness to be a bourgeois value, and in any case it never strongly tempted him. Happiness undermines more important ethical and metaphysical concerns. He also dismissed scruples, pity, and suchlike as monstrous inventions of man.

Malraux rejected Gide's literature of pleasure. Pleasure, passive sensuous enjoyment is missing in Malraux. There are no dreams, children, memories of childhood, sensuality, apart from its metaphysical form as eroticism. Love and women are practically absent in his works. Women usually appear only as minor participants in the wars of men, and the heroes’ relations with them are either masochistic or sadistic.



For Montesquieu the problem was how one could be a Persian, while for Malraux the problem was how to be oneself, how to be a man. Malraux portrayed himself in portraying European exiles refusing their past, rejecting their culture, to be only themselves. His heroes must find their own mission in life since no revelation tells them what to do. Each man must create his own values. Maturity is will, choice. The conquest of virility is the ability to dominate circumstances. Everything must be rejected that is not the creation of man himself, the work of his will, what he has personally chosen.

Malraux once said that a man does not recognize his voice on a tape recording because for him his voice is always in his own throat. The alienation of one's voice symbolizes the alienation of one's being: if one could see one's appearance for others it would be as strange as the voice on the tape. This creates anguish since one desires to possess himself entirely. A character in La Condition Humaine speaks of his love affairs as a way of possessing the aspect of himself that appears to others. Ultimately, he wants to sleep only with himself.

To the degree that the other sees me he possesses a part of me that I have lost and that I must recover. The other is rejected because he alienates me from myself, but he is also needed in order to assure me that my subjective awareness of myself is real. This creates an ambivalent relation to the other expressed in sadism and masochism. But Sadism and masochism both fail because by possessing the other he is turned into a subjective aspect of myself, while in being possessed the individual only gets the other to reveal himself. If the individual attempts to drown the alienated aspect of himself by rejecting all others except his lover, he has no way of knowing that what she affirms is real and not an illusion.


Defiance of Death

Death has a place in life, but not in consciousness. Every consciousness thinks itself as eternal, and for this reason the idea of life’s finitude is an occasion for anguish. But Malraux is not primarily disturbed by man's temporality, the fact that life has an ending, death. This would trouble the enjoyment of one who founds his life on pleasures which can be cut off by death, but that is not Malraux’s problem.

The absurdity is not death alone, but the human condition common to all men of which death is an expression. For Malraux that fundamental condition is humiliation and death is just one among its many forms.

Man is divested of himself by the man on whom he is dependent. Death too is a kind of rival of the individual, its victory a personal humiliation. It cannot be overcome by any human power. It reminds man that he is man. This makes it an object of fascination. We know that we do not choose our parents, our life, indeed, hardly anything. Like death, the humiliations of eroticism and weakness before others all remind man of his finitude. According to Malraux this motivates the desire to be more than human. Men do not desire to be the strongest among men, but to be absolutely powerful, to transcend the human condition, to be God.

Humiliation of one man by another, by women, and by death are constant themes in Malraux’s works. But death is the worst humiliation of all because it prevents one from taking revenge. If a person dies at the hands of others he cannot transform them into the objects of his vengeance. Death is thus opposed to the dignity of man in the highest degree. One solution to this problem is to will one's own death, to kill oneself.

Malraux found the only real salvation in tragic consciousness. Tragedy is not a matter of personal fault. It is the human condition that is tragic. Malraux believed that tragedy is the affirmation of man against destiny which must destroy him in its absurdity. For Malraux self-affirmation is choosing to live at the limits of life, at the edge of the abyss. Salvation is to see the human condition as the enemy, to face it and oppose it and thereby to triumph in defeat. The fact of certain defeat motivates the hero to show his contempt for death by seeking it, thereby conquering it and rendering it meaningless. Man conquers his destiny through mépris.

This is the meaning of Mallarmé's "un coup de dès n'abolira pas le hazard." One throws the dice, but the result is up to luck. Still, by throwing the dice one affirms himself. The act of the adventurer is absorbed into unchosen destiny, but his self-affirmation, his throw of the dice is what is important.

Malraux's heroes search for death and danger and all possible forms of humiliation in order to assert their human dignity. The hero dies, but at least he dies bravely. In a religious context such a death could be significant since it would be a triumph of something real, the soul, but for Malraux it is difficult to see anything more in this triumph than a personal myth. The fact that I can see and understand the absurdity of my existence is supposed to enable me to dominate and transcend it, but this does not make much sense. It is a particularly idealistic version of the romantic lie.


The Impossible Revolution

Risk is not enough to make an adventurer. He must be an intellectual, choosing the idea of danger. Whatever order exists he must attack it to affirm himself. The revolution becomes a way of facing destiny, challenging something that does not come from his own will. This is Malraux’s ideal of the adventurer. He only collaborates with others against the common enemy, the established laws of society and life. If the revolution triumphs the adventure is over. The successful revolution necessarily denies the affirmation of self. Malraux explained that his hero never takes power because this would put him on the side of worldly life. No, he must end up insane, or solitary, or die.

In Malraux’s novels, the crowd is dominated by a tragic hero external to his community. The heroic actions of Malraux's heroes, no matter how socially oriented they seem, actually belong to this very personal project of defying death. His revolutionaries are not concerned with the material motivations of the people. There are in fact no ordinary people at all in Malraux's work. In the midst of the revolution, Malraux's heroes recognize how far they are from the people and their enthusiasms. They are intellectuals, trying to order their life according to an idea. They seek a community of revolutionaries like themselves, based on a shared consciousness of the absurd, but are incapable of creating it.

These bourgeois individuals cannot unite in revolution. They base their life entirely on individual thought, individual pleasure, individual decision vis-à-vis destiny. Garine is unable to join himself to his own movement. In Les Conquérants the heroes’ solitude causes their failure. Their revolutionary struggle is not meaningful since they see it as purely individual. Like his heroes, Malraux himself was never a real revolutionary. The Communists understood that he was an anti-bourgeois bourgeois and rejected him as a romantic idealist.

La Condition Humaine is Malraux’s attempt at a concretely revolutionary novel. In the early novels the heroes die alone. But Kyo in La Condition Humaine dies in triumph because he has chosen the direction of history and identified his destiny with that of revolutionary humanity. In this way he escapes his solitude. He gives his own life meaning by confounding it with the meaning of history. In L'Espoir too the solitary heroism of the early works is transcended in a kind of revolutionary optimism and fraternity.

Marxists claim that individual life can only be given meaning through communion with the life of humanity as a whole. Malraux gradually approaches communism in his works up to L'Espoir. But communion in Malraux does not involve love. One should not found his life on that of others as in the family. The human community is not felt, it is not psychological. The individual does not lose himself in a great communal feeling. This is not a sentimental matter. Communion is based on my choosing in myself what is common to humanity, the form of humanity.

Malraux's theme was Promethean revolution. But he was not interested in the major economic and social problems at the basis of Marxism. Insofar as the proletariat is totally humiliated it represents the human condition, Malraux sympathized with it, but he did not see it as an instrument of a historical process determined by economic laws. He always remained on a metaphysical level. For him the revolution is a movement against the misery and injustice of the human condition, the affirmation of man against the inhuman, as opposed to the Marxists who saw the revolution as replacing one type of society with another.

The fact that Malraux wrote with such passion about the Spanish revolution and communism and yet was not a Communist left many people wondering whether he was not just enjoying an artistic pose and playing with a literary technique. But his revolutionism is better explained by his understanding of the human condition.



Christianity is not a myth for Christians. Marx did not think his own theories were myths, but on the contrary, they promised liberation from myth. Malraux’s disagreement with both Christianity and communism stemmed from his cultural relativism, his belief that truth is a human creation and not something objective. Since the ideas of the various cultures contradict each other we cannot credit those of any particular culture, including our own. For Malraux all beliefs are myths. Barbarism is the slavery of man to his own myths. But if truth is unattainable how can man become master of his myths?

Toward the end of his life Malraux's point of view changed and art took the place of what he had sought in revolution and human solidarity. For Malraux civilization is a tiny speck of light in the absurdity of Pascal's infinite spaces. The absurdity of life is a collective experience rather than an individual feeling. Humanity must express itself in a great monument that asserts its independence. But this must be an expression of humanity as such, not of an individual. Something immense and whole must be created, not just fragments. This is the task of art.

The loss of truth is tragic, but made bearable by art which is the only civilized achievement that transcends cultural relativism. All the cultures that have died, all the tiny lights amidst the absurdity have left only one thing, an artistic heritage, a witness to the creative force of man. Works of art may not be eternal, but there is still continuity in the artistic creation of the world so that nothing great is entirely lost. The communal history of art is the history of mankind, the great monument against time, death, destiny and the irrationality of human life.

According to Malraux's final view art asserts humanity by creating meaning. The artist contributes to the great task of creating humanity through his art. In willing himself to be the very type of humanity in his rebellion against the human condition he is identified with rebellious humanity as a whole in its hatred for the stupidity of destiny. The artist's gesture like that of the revolutionary is an ultimate protest.

In romantic philosophy of art, art is a projection of the divine in man. It  negates history by transcending it. In Malraux’s nihilistic version of this philosophy, man is God only because he is an artist.