To Gide (and Christine), with Love

Despite the André Gide quote that rests on this page, I do not consider myself to be an artist. I don’t even think of myself as being a writer. I do, however, subscribe to most of that which Gide believed. Re-reading his words made me think of how I discovered him and how that discovery changed me in more ways than one.

As a junior at a small liberal arts college, I was at a crossroads. I had recently chosen Humanities as a major only because the idea of being an English major didn’t exactly thrill me. (I had no desire to read any American literature.) While choosing my courses for my second semester, my advisor recommended a class called “Love and the Ideal in European Literature”. While the title of the course intrigued me, I was quite skeptical. Not only was I (sadly) unfamiliar with most of the writers we would be studying (Proust, Flaubert, Cervantes, and, of course, Gide), the professor teaching it was considered by most students to have incredibly high expectations. However, after some encouragement, I decided to enroll in the course.

I still remember the first day of that class. While Professor Christine Pabon is a tiny woman, her presence and the way she framed the intellectual journey our class would take together was commanding. She talked about how the authors we were going to read all wrote about love and this quest for “the ideal” and how it was something to which we could all relate. She referenced philosophy and art. She even described the infamous “butter scene” in “Last Tango in Paris” as one of the most sensual and erotic scenes in film history. I was hooked. However, it was after reading and writing about Gide’s The Immoralist that my conversion to being what my friends and I call a “Pabonian” was complete.

The Immoralist is about Michel, a newlywed man who embarks on a physical and emotional journey with his bride. After becoming ill on his honeymoon while traveling through North Africa and parts of Europe, Michel experiences a spiritual awakening. Not only does he begin to question his religious beliefs, he also discovers his love for all that is sensual and sensuous and begins to believe that a life spent living in the present is essential to being one’s “authentic self”. As I had just come out, I found this story fascinating, especially since Gide’s story also alluded to homosexuality. The entire class was required to write their final paper on The Immoralist and I approached the task with great fervor. In my paper, I compared Michel’s struggle with that of Theseus going through the labyrinth (the subject of Gide’s final work) and how his homosexuality and desire to live fully in the present has serious consequences, both good and bad. I felt that it was the best paper I had written during my first two years of college and I eagerly anticipated the “A” I would receive. However, I was completely distraught when the paper came back to me with a grade of “B+”. Yet, it was Christine’s encouraging comments that led to what would become a long and fruitful personal and academic relationship. She wrote, “I have enjoyed your pleasure and your strong reactions to the works we have read this semester. You seem to have been ‘available’ to their transforming influences. May you always be so!” I realized that never before had a professor sparked any type of intellectual curiosity within me. More importantly, no professor had ever expressed appreciation for my contributions.

The following year, not only did Christine serve as the main advisor for my thesis (a comparative study between Gide’s  The Immoralist and Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray), but I also took her class “Uses of the Imagination in Cervantes and Shakespeare” (I got an “A”.) and we even co-wrote a conference paper together. As our academic relationship became more solid, so did our personal relationship. We attended plays together, embarked on a road trip, and I even spent some weekends at her home. Soon she began to call herself my second mother.

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My best friend Bridgette (a fellow “Pabonian”), me and Christine at commencement.

When I was hospitalized for several months nine years ago, Christine was one of the first people to call me. Eager to keep my spirits up, she provided me with a reading list that included Doris Lessing, Zola, and Phillip Roth. But first, she said, I needed to re-read The Immoralist. Once again, the transformative powers of Gide (and indirectly Christine) took effect. Michel’s journey was now my own journey and Gide’s message was even more powerful and relevant.

In 2005, Christine and her husband retired. I attended their retirement party and Christine delivered a very moving speech. During that speech she said, “To spend one’s life and work in the world of metaphor, to explore vital questions, to transmit a heritage of moral and spiritual values through the art and literature that reflect them, to have a sense of laying the foundation for future progress, to pursue one’s own voyage while guiding or accompanying the students on theirs—these are the gifts, I believe, we are given as teachers.” Yet it was she who provided me with numerous gifts. Not only was her friendship a priceless gift, but she also provided me with the desire and ability to love art and literature and allow them to influence and transform me.

Christine and I don’t speak with or see each other as much as we both would like as she spends most of her time in Spain. Yet whenever I discover a great book, watch a beautiful film or even look at all the works of Gide that line my bookshelves, I am reminded of her. By introducing me to André Gide, Christine Pabon made me who I am. Literature, art, and film are my religion and they continue to influence me in all that I do. More importantly, like Gide, I will live life as I want to recount it. Without having a teacher and friend like Christine, I may have never learned this. For that, I am eternally grateful.