Malraux, Georges-André (1901–1976)

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Georges-André Malraux, the French author, critic, revolutionist, and statesman, was born in Paris to a well-to-do family. He studied at the Lycée Condorcet and the Institut des Langues Orientales and early in life developed an enduring interest in archaeology, art, and Oriental languages and thought. His life and writing were characterized by a restless, questioning, quasi-apocalyptic intensity that is fully understandable only in terms of the crisis with which Western thought was confronted in the first half of the twentieth century: At grips with a fast-accumulating mass of new knowledge, Western civilization was seeking to adjust to the violent changes that had disrupted its former social, intellectual, and spiritual framework of values.

In 1923 Malraux went on an archaeological expedition into the Cambodian jungle, and soon afterward he returned to the Orient to participate in the revolutionary struggle that was transforming the Asiatic world. He seems at the time to have been in sympathy with the Marxist ideology. La tentation de l'occident (Paris, 1926), his first serious work, is a fictional dialogue between a Chinese and a European intellectual and shows how decisive was his first encounter with the Orient. It intensified Malraux's self-styled obsession with the notions of civilization and culture. He was always vitally concerned with the problems of the life and death of civilizations; the specificity, irreducibility, and relativity of all cultures; their determining action in shaping the mental structures of individuals; and the bearing on his own cultural world of the observations and conclusions of historians and anthropologists such as Oswald Spengler and Leo Frobenius. This initial obsession was nourished and substantiated by Malraux's legendary familiarity with all realms of art (painting and sculpture in particular); his avid and exceptionally broad grasp of literature; and his addiction to passionate debate with leading personalities in Europe and the Orient. Although his thought was always concentrated on a present unremittingly interrogated, it developed within vast perspectives both in time and space.

In the late 1920s Malraux, as art editor for the Gallimard publishing firm in Paris, traveled widely in search of art treasures, while actively participating in the unavailing struggle of the European intellectuals against fascism, Nazism, and anti-Semitism. He later commanded a group of aviators for the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War, was active in the French resistance after 1940, and became, first, minister of information, then minister of cultural affairs, in the cabinet of General Charles de Gaulle.

He was deliberately "committed" as a writer for intellectual reasons. Western science, he claimed, offers a set of relationships that define the cosmos but, by omitting the observer, it presents a cosmos in which man has no place. According to Malraux, psychoanalysis has revealed the blind, destructive forces at work within the self and has put into question the very notion of a fundamental human personality. To recover some concept of man, Malraux maintained that one must once again examine what man does, thereby redefining his powers. The image of the rational, detached observerscientist or philosopherplaced outside the world he observes must therefore give way to the participant who is, as it were, a knot of relations with the world. Malraux often reiterated that man "is what he does." Participation therefore was the first and necessary stage in his search for definition.

The elucidation of an action is the theme of his novels. All revolve around the question, "What can a man best do with his life?"; all are animated by the same answer that is given in Man's Hope : "Transform into consciousness an experience as broad as possible." Writing is the medium through which this transformation takes place; hence the intensity of the process, the inner questioning, and the many-faceted debate that it embodies. His six widely read novels all are wrenched from stages of his own experience: Les conquérants (Paris, 1928); La voie royale (Paris, 1930); La condition humaine (Paris, 1933); Le temps du mépris (Paris, 1935); L'espoir (Paris, 1937); and Les noyers de l'Altenburg (Lausanne, 1943), the first volume of a two-part novel whose second part was destroyed by the Nazis. These were followed by an impressive series of works on art: Goya (Geneva, 1947); La psychologie de l'art (3 vols., Geneva, 1947, 1949, 1950); Le musée imaginaire de la sculpture mondiale (3 vols., Paris, 1952, 1953, 1954); Les voix du silence (Paris, 1953); and La métamorphose des dieux (Paris, 1960). A number of reviews, prefaces, and speeches add to this abundant corpus of work.

Despite both the variety of his media and the obscurities inherent in his manner of writing, there is a remarkable degree of consistency and lucidity in Malraux's thought, questionable though many of his assumptions and examples may be. He posits as premise the definitive disappearance from Western civilization of the structure of values established by the Christian Weltanschauung. Western man is thus left face to face with a cosmos to which he cannot relate. However, he is still in possession of the inner drive that, since the Greeks, has structured his worldthe need to create a coherent, intelligible image of man's fate that gives significance to each individual life. Hence the double burden of lucidity and anguish characteristic of our time, hence its "temptations." The most prevalent is the nihilism whereby Western man, living in a state of "metaphysical distraction," renounces his drive toward lucidity and submits to blind necessity and to natural and social conditioning. This, according to Malraux, is an intolerable reversion to the "demons," that is, to the blind animal instinct within us. Malraux also examined and partially rejected the Asian resorption of the individual into the cosmos (considered as divine). In preference to the Asian view, he sought to define man's power in his capacity to "leave a scar on the planet," to transform his environment. For a while he understood the process in terms of the Marxist theory of history.

Malraux's final view emerged from his meditations on art. It is a complex outlook related to the study of art styles and their migrations and metamorphoses, an approach that is characteristic of such art historians as Élie Faure and Henri Focillon. In brief, for Malraux a new planetary civilization that has destroyed all significant cultures is now in the making. The structures of values whereby each individual within a human society relates to the cosmos, to the community, and to his own actions now exist only as "relativized absolutes." This is the first agnostic civilization, the first that does not relate to some form of the divine. It also presents a new phenomenon, the "imaginary museum," in which all works of artwhatever their originare available, to be perceived as significant in themselves and not for what they once signified. For Malraux this universal presence and significance testifies to a fundamental power of humankind: the power to dominate and transcend fate and to create a universe in some way accessible to all men, who are thereby freed from time, death, and blind necessity. The privileged potential image of humankind, therefore, that Malraux detects as indicative of our present orientation is that of man as creator and as forger of his own freedom. Malraux thus formulated in new terms the age-old problem of freedom and destiny, to serve as the foundation for a new ethic. His work is fundamentally relevant in an age that is deeply preoccupied with the working of the mind, considered on one hand as a form of conditioned mechanism and on the other as a principle of free activity, order, and meaning.

See also Aesthetics, History of; Agnosticism; Art, Expression in; Marxist Philosophy; Nihilism; Spengler, Oswald; Value and Valuation


works by malraux

The works listed below are English editions of Malraux's works in the order in which they appear in the text.

The Temptation of the West. Translated with an introduction by Robert Hollander. New York: Vintage, 1961.

The Conquerors. Translated by W. S. Whale. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1929.

The Royal Way. Translated by Stuart Gilbert. New York: Smith and Haas, 1935.

Man's Fate. Translated by Haakon Chevalier. New York: Smith and Haas, 1934.

Days of Wrath. Translated by Haakon Chevalier. New York: Random House, 1936.

Man's Hope. Translated by Stuart Gilbert and Alistair MacDonald. New York: Random House, 1938.

The Walnut Trees of Altenburg. Translated by A. W. Fielding. London: Lehmann, 1952.

Saturn: An Essay on Goya. Translated by C. W. Chilton. London: Phaidon, 1957.

The Psychology of Art. Translated by Stuart Gilbert. Vol. I: Museum without Walls ; Vol. II: The Creative Act. New York: Pantheon, 19491951.

The Voices of Silence. Translated by Stuart Gilbert. New York: Doubleday, 1953.

The Metamorphosis of the Gods. Translated by Stuart Gilbert. New York: Doubleday, 1960.

works on malraux

Blend, Charles. André Malraux: Tragic Humanist. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1963. A biography and general critical study, with a bibliography of Malraux's work and a brief critical bibliography.

Frohock, Wilbur. André Malraux and the Tragic Imagination. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1952. A basic work.

Lewis, R. W. B., ed. Malraux. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1964. A collection of critical essays.

Lyotard, Jean Francois. Soundproof Room: Malraux's Anti-Aesthetics. Translated by Robert Harvey. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Raymond, Gino. Andre Malraux: Politics and the Temptation of Myth. Aldershot: Avebury; Brookfield: Ashgate, 1995.

Righter, William. The Rhetorical Hero: An Essay on the Aesthetics of Andre Malraux. New York: Chilmark Press, 1964.

Vandergars, André. La jeunesse littéraire d'André Malraux. Paris: Pauvert, 1964. Contains a wealth of information on Malraux's Indochinese activities.

Germaine Brée (1967)

Bibliography updated by Desiree Matherly Martin (2005)

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Malraux, Georges-André (1901–1976)

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