“Claude was growing aware of the essential oneness of the forest and had given up trying to distinguish living beings from their setting, life that moves from life that oozes; some unknown power assimilated the trees with the fungoid growths upon them, and quickened the restless movements of all the rudimentary creatures darting to and fro upon a soil like marsh-scum amid the steaming vegetation of a planet in the making. Here what act of man had any meaning, what human will but spent its staying power?”
Above all else, Andre Maulraux’s The Royal Way is a novel about the futility of the actions of man, but in man’s brief existence in this world, there is adventure and man comes to know himself, the other, and death. The essence of man is not to conquer these facets, but merely to know them and to know his relation to them. In his essay entitled “Indochina as ‘Reves-Diurnes’ and Male Fantasies”, Panivong Norindr would have us believe that Malraux’s novel reinforces French colonialist ideologies, a belief supported by Althusser’s theory of Ideology and Ideological State Appratuses. According to Norindr’s reading and Althusser’s theory, Malraux’s work serves an ideological function by promoting the ruling ideology and the ways in which one identifies oneself in relation to such ideology, that is to say Panivong Norindr denounces Andre Malraux for helping to construct the allure of Indochina as a colonial place through his presentations of masculinist eroticism and effeminizations of the asian space. However, just like Althusser’s theory, Malraux’s novel is full of contradictions and the biggest shortcoming of Norindr’s reading is that he focuses too much attention upon the words, thoughts, and actions of the two protagonists Perkins and Claude Vannec and not enough on the consequences and futility of those words, thoughts, and actions. Norindr fails to see that The Royal Way deals with far greater notions than a ruling ideology or meager desires. Perhaps a better argument is to say that contrary to Norindr’s claims, Malraux had no intentions to serve any ideologies, let alone French colonialists ideologies, or to promote any desires, let alone masculinist erotic desires, in fact, the many contradictions in his novel provides us with a means of seeing, perceiving, feeling, and gaining an internal distance from the very ideology in which it is held.
On the surface, The Royal Way is a story about adventure and masculinist desires to conquer the unknown, the other, but while Malraux clearly expresses these desires through Perkins and Claude Vannec, their failures paint a much clearer picture. Early on in the novel, Malraux establishes a homosocial bond between two personifications of himself, Perkins and Vannec.
“In this phantom world, unstable as marriage, his last thoughts of the West fell from him; wave on wave, serenely, a cool wind lapped his temples, and under its soft insistence he saw Perken with new eyes…”
Throughout the novel, Malraux uses this duality to shape and draw perceptions of himself, based in both fantasy and reality. Claude see Perkins as brave and manly, but we quickly learn that Perkins is not nearly as manly as his bravado seems to indicate. Perkins says, “there was that time – the first time – when I found that I was impotent…” and in one fell swoop his manhood is damage and we realize that his desires to conquer are bred out of a selfish desire to compensate for his impotence, but more importantly, this startling revelation damages the notions of adventure and colonial conquest as somehow being for some greater good.
Focusing our attention now to Claude Vannec, we see that he is perhaps more closely resembles the reality of Malraux, that is wanting to be brave and adventurous like Perkins, but driven more by selfish desires of financial gain. After an exchange with a local official, Claude thinks, “What right had this official to claim a title over any objects he, Claude, might discover, to hunt for which he had come here, on which his last hope hung?” Speaking through Claude in this manner, Malraux presents a subtle irony that begs the question, what right did Claude have over any other? Better yet, what right did anyone individual have over any other to any possession. Malraux continues to blur these lines between man and his desire to conquer and possess, “Once more his blows were uniting him with his enemy, the stone.” Through the use of this imagery, Malraux argues allows us to know the ideology of conquest, but by pointing it the futility of possession, the greater sense of oneness, we gain an internal distance from the very same ideology. Furthermore, Malraux is willing to admit that he was not the adventurer he wanted to be when he says, “Just as Claude glanced behind him with a quick jerk of his neck—for a morbid fear of blundering into a spider’s web made him keep anxious watch ahead…”. Surely such a brave adventurer would not have been so afraid of stumbling into a spider’s web, Claude is not exactly the ideal spokesperson for notions of adventure and conquest, if not a direct contradiction to such notions.
Despite Claude being out of his element and Perkin’s being impotent, the duo does eventually manage to obtain the service of some annamites, make it through the forest, and possess the bas reliefs. At this juncture it might seem that Malraux supports the ways in which Perkins and Claude accessorize the local villagers, deface the local landscape for their own benefit, and but we soon we realize that their “victory” is short lived, their attempts futile, and the consequences heavy. Claude could not quell the “feverish excitement his new-won possession had aroused in him…” such fever that it would eventually kill him. Such futility and dire consequences in their course of action was in fact provided much earlier when Malraux says “Aginst his dubious affirmation the lowering sky and the impenetrable tangle of the leafage, teeming with insect-life, affirmed their silent menace.” Some critics aside from Norindr have also call into question much of the language Malraux uses as in the following passage, “Dacoits, planning a raid on the village, would certainly not have chosen a moment when white men were there”. These critics question the way in which Malraux presents the white man as somehow superior, but the point is moot, as despite their Perkin’s assumption, the Dacoits attack and Perkins nearly shares the same fate as his “mighty”, blinded, and enslaved fellow white man, Grabot. Norindr may have believed that these images and these fateful outcomes were somehow appealing to some readers of The Royal Way, but a much more typical Frenchmen probably would have been discouraged from following in the footsteps of these two spokesmen for conquest and empire building.
The contradictions in conquest and possession do not stop merely with Perkin’s and Claude’s journey to obtain the bas-reliefs, they extend well into the ways in which the two protagonists deal with the inevitability of death. When Perkins comments, “You can’t imagine what it means: that feeling of being penned in by destiny,… when you die will have been that man and no other, and what you haven’t had already you will never have…” he captures the essence of his preoccupation with death and possession. Elsewhere in the novel Malraux reveals to us that we will never have and possess regardless, “Never, never would he apprehend, never share, this woman’s sensations; never could the frenzy which thrilled her body be for him anything but a proof of the ubridgeable gulf between them. Without love there can be no possession.” “To live defying death is the same thing.” and yet despite the futility in trying to defy death, to own it, Perkins tries. These images seem to detract from the hegemony of empire building, they speak to the notion that the orient will never be conquered or colonialized. “In the last analysis, of course, no civilization is ever understood by another one. But it’s creations remain – only we are blind to them until our myths come into line with theirs.” In short, if we can know and perceive of ourselves in relation to the other, it is only from an internal distance, and thus we can never possess it.
Perkins and Claude shared the “same dislike for all established codes and the same taste for every form of human activity, combined with an awareness of the futility of action…” but somehow seemed to exclude their own codes, their own human activities, their own actions. This is perhaps the greatest contradiction of all and as “the forest once again asserted it’s domination.” they eventually fail in all their objectives and they possess nothing. Once again, Malraux’s concept presents itself as he says, “It was as if all things, even the earth itself were seeking to convince him of the futility of human life.”
In conclusion, if any Frenchmen decided that Malraux somehow framed Indochina as a colonial space to be conquered and decided to pursue the same adventures as Perkins and Claude, he probably would have ended up like the blind and enslaved Grabot, the penniless Claude, the dead and impotent Perkins, or the selfish drug addict doctor. On his death bed, Perkins says “There is … no death. There’s only … I … I who… am dying.” the final irony as despite any ideology, any doubts, he is dead nonetheless, and all is rendered moot. Without a question, Malraux vividly depicts dreams and fantasies that are complicit with the colonizers desires for conquest, but quite the opposite of promoting the ruling French colonialist ideologies of the time, through the dire consequences and futility of those dreams and fantasies, Malraux’s The Royal Way allowed readers to know, to perceive, to feel and gain an internal distance from the very ideology in which it was held.
Andre Malraux – La Voie Royale
Panovang Norindr – Phantasmatic Indochina