I’ve come to expect a certain Sartean methodology within his prose: his writing is both playful and beautiful (remind me to tell you about the jellyfish)…and dare I say almost straightforward? But buried within and between the lines is a vast world of incomprehensible complexity…most of which I’m afraid I miss. I breezed through the 254 pages of The Words, but then spent the last week trying to read his short 48 page essay The Transcendence of the Ego, and I can’t do it. I mean…I can actually read the words I just have no idea what he’s talking about. So there’s the great divide. How is Sartre capable of such transparent prose and simultaneously opaque, to the point of incoherence, philosophical treatises?
I think a good simile would be: Sartre’s writing style is like a drive on an existential Grand Prix. It’s cyclical and a tad dangerous. His autobiography moves forward chronologically, but within each anecdotal pause we run through the themes of Sartre’s philosophical oeuvre: Spiritually destructive conformity/ bad faith vs. authenticity, existence precedes essence, nothingness, hell is other people, and the transcendence of the ego.
The Words is only part one of an unfinished multivolume set. Early on he describes these years, 1905-1914 as the years of the “undefined person.” (pg.39) (There is also something about a kiss without a mustache being like an egg without salt…an idiom lost in translation? Not to bring up every reference to mustaches that Sartre has made…but the awesome psychological breakdown in Nausea does have that incredible riff on Descartes: “I do not think therefore I am a mustache!”…This needs to be on a t-shirt…is there a cultural reference that I’m missing here?…A hat doffing to Nietzsche? …but I digress.)
Between the lines are constellations of questions: What is writing? Why does one write and for whom? How does a man become someone who writes, who wants to speak of the imaginary? “What makes a child, like Sartre, fall into the neurosis of literature"? (1)
Sartre takes fifteen pages to arrive at his birth and when he finally does so the language is a harbinger for what is to follow:
“In 1904, at Cherbourg, the young naval officer, who was already wasting away with the fevers of Cochin-China, made the acquaintance of Anne Marie Schweitzer, took possession of the big, forlorn girl, married her, begot a child in quick time, me, and sought refuge in death.” (p.15)
Wasting. Forlorn. Death.
Sartre has been thrown into existence and is saturated with the nausea inducing sensation that he’s not sure who he is or what he is for:
“…nobody, beginning with me, knew why the hell I had been born.” (p.87)
This is ‘existence precedes essence’ in a nutshell…and it’s agonizing. It’s not like he’s born and then a few days later his life is imbued with meaning, instead he is so evidently aware that his life is devoid of meaning. To compensate for this he play acts at life.
“I was a fake child.” (p.84)
I keep creating myself; I am the giver and the gift…Only one mandate: to please; everything for show. What a riot of generosity in our family.” (p.32)
He blames a bit of his childhood existential crisis on his lack of a father. He is without a super-ego. He is the plaything of the adults, etc. and with all of this comes a very temporal way of existing. He is a stranger, an orphan, without possessions or identity.
“Worldly possessions reflect to their owner what he is; they taught me what I was not. I was not substantial or permanent, I was not the future continuer of my father’s work. I was not necessary to the production of steel. In short, I had no soul.” (p.88)
His family expects a certain behavior from their little toy child. They wind it up and it performs its routine. And yet, there is tension between his play acting hell, where he is forever a one dimensional child, dictated to and defined by the whims of the adults around him and the ‘Paradise’ (p.34) of being the doted on apple of many adoring eyes. There is a temptation to submerge oneself beneath the waters of inauthenticity, to play act until you are unrecognizable to even yourself.
This is a good example of: “Bad faith” He has no ability to see himself without the gaze of those around him, they tell him he is good, or valued or ugly and without their verdict he doesn’t exist. This reminds me of Roquentin looking at himself in the mirror (a frequent motif in Sartre works):
“It is the reflection of my face. Often in these lost days I study it. I can understand nothing of this face. The faces of others have some sense, some direction. Not mine. I cannot even decide whether it is handsome or ugly. I think it is ugly because I have been told so. But it doesn’t strike me. At heart, I am even shocked that anyone can attribute qualities of this kind to it, as if you called a clod of earth or a block of stone beautiful or ugly.” (Nausea, p.25)
For young Sartre, with his beautiful locks of golden hair, his beauty was a subject shrouded in…hair. His hair covered his walleye that had developed from a bout of virulent influenza…and then one day his grandfather took him out for a ‘special’ treat, a haircut that would no longer make him look like a girl, and to everyone’s horror his face was now fully exposed with all its distortions. When his mother walked into the drawing room for her ‘surprise’ she ran away crying. Little ‘Poulou’ had been exchanged for Quasimodo.
“The mirror was of great help to me: I made it teach me that I was a monster. If I succeeded, my sharp remorse would change into pity. But, above all, as the failure had revealed my servility to me, I made myself hideous so as to make it impossible, so as to reject human beings, and so that they would reject me. […] By combined twists and puckers I was distorting my face; I was vitriolizing myself in order to efface my former smiles.
The remedy was worse than the disease; i had tried to take shelter against the glory and dishonor in my lonely truth. But I had no truth. All I found in myself was an astonished insipidness. Before my eyes, a jelly-fish was hitting against the glass of the aquarium, wrinkling its flabby collared, fraying in the darkness. Night fell, clouds of ink were diluted in the mirror, swallowing up my final embodiment. Deprived of an alibi, I fell upon myself.
[…] The mirror had taught me what I had always known: I was horribly natural. I have never got over that.” (p.109-110)
Sartre’s ‘ugliness’ is a leitmotif throughout his writing. His characters struggle to see themselves beyond the constraining definitions of those around them. “Idolized by all, rejected by each..” doomed to be the “object par excellence.”
“I was nothing.” (p.90)
Being soulless is different from a state of nothingness.
In The Words Sartre is reaching into a different demographic pool than with his 1943 philosophical treatise Being and Nothingness. He tries a different take on his “Where is Pierre” example of nothingness:
Young Sartre finds himself at a party with his family when all of a sudden his grandfather announces: “There’s someone missing here: Simonnot.”
“In the center of a tumultuous ring, I saw a column: M. Simonnot himself, absent in the flesh. That prodigious absence transfigured him. The attendance was far from complete: certain pupils were sick, others had asked to be excused, but these were merely accidental and negligible facts. M. Simonnot alone was missing. The mere mention of his name had sufficed for emptiness to sink like a knife into the crowded room. It astounded me that a man had his place marked out for him. His place: a nothingness hollowed out by universal expectations, an invisible womb from which, so it seemed, one could suddenly be reborn. Yet if he had sprung up from the floor amidst an ovation, even it the women had rushed to kiss his hand, I would have calmed down: bodily presence is always a surplus. But intact, reduced to the purity of negative essence, he retained the incompressible transparency of a diamond.” (p.91)
Here’s what I think, but don’t quote me on any of this:
I think The Words is Sartre’s attempt to walk us through the origination and maturation of his ontological framework in the genre of biographical sketch. (With a touch of irony and a wink wink at Proust.)
In Hazel Barne’s Essay “Sartre’s ontology: The Revealing and Making of Being” she argues:
“In Sartre’s ontology what differentiates human being from all other being is precisely nothing. Or more accurately, it is a nothingness. In rewriting the sentence I have subtly changed it. Human being is not the same as the rest of being but is distinguished from it by a separate nothingness…”
What does this mean?
In order to exist as a Pierre or a M. Simonnot, you must first have substance or rather authenticity to give personhood to your absence. Young Sartre is nothing, but without substance his nothingness is accidental and negligible. And so he begins his escape by reading, by ingesting the world and possibility of words. At first it’s just avaricious reading, not just the grandfather approved classics, but the sneakily read dime store novels of childhood heroes. Reading has always been a form of escape for Sartre, he says early on: “I began my life as I shall no doubt end it: amidst books.” (p.40) (There’s a great section about “sentences emerging” like centipedes…But I will resist the temptation to delve into his tree/fly/centipede fixation.)
Initially books offer Sartre a world to hide within. He can bury himself within them and disappear:
“I never tilled the soil or hunted for nests. I did not gather herbs or throw stones at birds. But books were my birds and my nests, my household pets, my barn and countryside. The library was the world caught in a mirror.” (p.49)
“Everything took place in my head. Imaginary child that I was, I defended myself with my imagination.” (p. 113)
This sounds almost idyllic…but it’s actually a clarion call for the dangers of passivity. The world is ‘caught,’ trapped in a two dimensional frame, as are those dependent on the mirror for their identity. Reading stories is exchanged for play-acting elaborate narratives of his own invention, where routinely ‘janissaries brandish their curved scimitars’ and exclaim: “Someone is missing here: It’s Sartre.” (p.114) These imaginings save him in a sense from the gaze of others, within this cocoon of a world he is free. And yet this freedom is still within the confines of a false reality, as he play-acts at being a person of substance.
The last installment of his childhood pilgrimage to personhood, and ultimately essence, is a veritable swamp of despair, i.e. the cinema. During the 1960’s Sartre was disgusted by the insipid “Americanization” of his compatriots. The french working class would rather watch movies dubbed in French than agitate for a revolution. (2) (Somewhat of a harsh criticism since Sartre also loved the movies…) But here, in the cinema, humans begin a slow regression, language is exchanged for confused murmurs. Etiquette is exchanged for ‘adhesion.’ As the crowd is pressed together, they share communal joy and sorrow as they watch the screen in front of them project a world they can only imagine.
“I was utterly content, I had found the world in which I wanted to live, I touched the absolute. What an uneasy feeling when the lights went on: I had been wracked with love for the characters and they had disappeared, carrying their world with them. I had felt their victory in my bones; yet it was theirs and not mine. In the street I found myself superfluous.” (p. 125)
Like Roquentin, another Sartean double, there is always something pricking at him, always something unsettling, just around the corner, threatening to make itself visible and expose his life as a sham. He is never able to completely disappear into the world of passive reading. And so he is pushed forward into another imposture: the world of writing. We’ve come full circle and now begin the cycle again. He writes not because he has something to say but because he is Charles Schweitzer’s grandson. He plagiarizes with abandon. He play acts at being a writer. He writes as an object that his family hovers around and publicizes..until they grow tired of this new game.
“Ignored and barely tolerated, my literary activities became semi-clandestine. […] In short, I wrote for my own pleasure.” (p.146)
And this is the beginning of a road to authenticity. The freedom to write for your own pleasure without the labels and definitions of others, without the gaze constraining and constricting your hand.
And then he begins to write and we get a ‘who’s who’ of the Sartrean oeuvre: the chestnut tree, the quay, trees, crabs, an octopus with eyes of flame etc. His plagiarism and boredom are exchanged for the glimmer of personhood. And then he begins to find himself. It is alone with himself that he is finally able to escape from play acting for the world around him. For his entire life, he had believed that in order to “feel necessary” someone would have to express a need for him. (p. 165) Now he realizes that being superfluous is a choice between passivity and action.
“I faced my Destiny and recognized it: it was only my freedom.” (p.171)
This is part one. It can’t end entirely on a good note. He confuses truth and fiction. He has a hard time with crustaceans of all kinds (p.164) and a little Proust envy (p.163)…but by age nine he’s not doing so badly.
“The past had not made me. On the contrary, it was I, rising from nothingness by an act of creation which was always being repeated. Each time I was reborn better, and I made better use of the inert reserves of my soul for the simple reason that death, which was closer each time, lit me up more brightly with its dim light.” (p. 237)
Sartre referred to The Words as his farewell to ‘literature.’ I can sort of see this…towards the end so many authors are being referenced or name dropped it begins to feel a bit chaotic. (“There’s someone missing here. It’s Dickens!” (p.168) Almost a last call for authors of all distinctions.
Sarah Bakewell argues that whatever “farewell” meant for Sartre it didn’t mean an end to writing, but rather an even more prodigious output of writing than before, “in an ever greater mania, while abandoning the attempt to revise and give careful shape to his thoughts. Words was, rather, Sartre’s farewell to careful crafting and polishing..” (3) Whether this was due to worsening vision problems or the tolls of a brain addled from years of heavy drinking and mescaline…I guess we’ll never know, but his ‘editing’ becomes almost nonexistent as he continues to write, and he says curmudgeonly things like ‘editing is for the bourgeoisie .’
Speaking of editing, I’m way past my word count and I think I hear a prehistoric crab, or jellyfish calling my name or gently throwing itself against a mirror. Better go check it out.
1. Bakewell, Sarah. At the Existentialist café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others. Vintage, 2017. p.220
2. Bond. 1967, p.26
3. Bakewell, p. 225