It feels like quite a while since I’ve actually written about any books, and I felt in the mood for a classic, so I thought I’d post on the Daddy of modern French thought, Jean-Paul Sartre, a man whose dwarfish stature (five foot two) and wall-eye did not prevent his success with the ladies, or indeed his (Western) world wide fame. In 1943 Sartre published one of his most famous philosophical works, Being and Nothingness, and although Sartre’s thought altered over the years, the core of Existentialist theory is contained in this tome. The Existentialist doctrine is arguably one of the bleakest perspectives on life that philosophy has produced. It tells us that Man is separate from the world, and that his existence is a complete absurdity. It tells us that God is dead, and that we are nothing more than the sum of our actions. It is essentially a call to heroism in the face of a lot of harsh facts about existence, and a call that we must respond to every day as if anew. Not many jokes, right? Right. But the power of Existential thought was incredibly strong in the period following the war, and it remains a highly influential theory, whether subsequent thinkers have reacted in admiration of it or in condemnation to it.
It’s easier to look at it through the novels that Sartre wrote, particularly the undergraduate’s favourite, Nausea. This is the story of Antoine Roquentin, a somewhat feckless man who is undergoing what can only really be described as a nervous breakdown. He’s been writing a historical biography but the work is going very badly, and he’s starting to have odd experiences with material objects. When he picked up a pebble on the beach he became particularly aware of its materiality, just as when, sitting in the library, he becomes obsessively aware of his hands, and the feel of them hot and living, against his thighs. Now you or I might say, this is the moment to get out of the library and think about something different for a change. But Roquentin is too hypnotised by this freefall state of consciousness, and as he sheds his daily occupations and future plans, so he ends up eyeball to eyeball with this odd, futile, empty business of living at its most fundamental level.
The first thing to go is the reassuring referential solidity of language. When Roquentin looks at the back of his hands and thinks they resemble crabs, he realises that the power of language to designate an object – ‘that is my hand’ – and thus render it safe within a fixed scheme of meaning, has collapsed for him. At the same time he sees how language used to control the world for him by holding it at bay; without its protection he feels vulnerable and perpetually open to invasion. The stubborn, physical presence of objects threatens to overwhelm him, now that language has become a fragile, fluctuating web around the world and can no longer bind its objects tightly into place. Roquentin comes to think that man’s attempts to give his life meaning, or to order or understand the world, his complex patterns of causality and reason, belong on an entirely different, separate plane from the actuality of brute existence. We can talk all we like, but it won’t make the world any different, or make our presence on it any more than a risible, chance occurrence.
Having come so far it’s easy then to see how past and future are only products of this ungrounded language and our feverish, over-optimistic imaginations. Existentialism understands that life really carries on in a perpetual present, in which we are outer casings filled with this bizarre form of consciousness that allows us to reflect on what we do, as we do it. Sartre’s other radical seachange in perspective is to see human beings as completely free, totally undetermined, and thus condemned to make choices every day that will ultimately constitute the sum of our existence on earth. With complete freedom comes equally complete responsibility. So we may or we may not choose to obey the law, but that’s a decision we’re wholly responsible for; there can be no pathetic wriggling on the hook, by claiming one was ‘made that way’ or ‘couldn’t help myself’. Even doing nothing – especially doing nothing – is a clear choice in itself.
This latter point is beautifully illustrated by Sartre’s other well-known novel, The Age of Reason. People don’t tend to read this novel as much as they do Nausea, but I think it’s by far the more engaging read of the two. In this story, beleaguered academic Matthieu discovers that his girlfriend, Marcelle, is pregnant. Obsessed with the concept of his own freedom, Matthieu can think of nothing more than how to scrape together the cash for a decent, if illegal, abortion. Ah, bless, how loving of him. At the same time his good friend is heading off to Spain to fight in the civil war and wants Matthieu to come with him. Political engagement looking like just another form of crippling self-definition, Matthieu allows apathy to keep him in the state of undefined aspic that he likes best. But the events of the novel conspire to make him reconsider his life policy, and when added to the intrigues of demonic friend, Daniel and the self-destructive acts of wild-cat Russian student, Ivich, the lives and loves of these mostly unsympathetic characters get tangled up in provocative ways. You might think this sounds like a collection of characters who all deserve what’s coming to them, and you might be right. But it’s a particular stylistic trick of Sartre’s to keep the reader engaged in superficially dislikeable types. As a novelist he has a lovely, clear writing style, and manages to take you inside the heads of his characters with panache and charm.
I think Existentialism is one of those doctrines that either speaks to you in a troubling kind of way, or which appears resolutely abhorrent. I’m quite fond of it, which is really not the point, but I like its savage bravery, and I think it’s intellectually accurate in a way. Where it fails to encompass the world is in its emotional sterility. The main problem with Existentialism is that it doesn’t allow for the power of love, which is itself a force that destroys all reason and causality but in a compelling, creative way. In some ways you could argue that Sartre fell foul of love himself in later life. He abandoned literature in the end as he believed it was nothing more than a bourgeois substitute for proper political commitment in the real world. I can’t remember the quote exactly, but he said something along the lines that no work of literature was worth anything in the presence of a starving child. As ever, he was right only in an excessive and punctilious kind of way. This always strikes me as a very sentimental thought – a compassionate one, undoubtedly, but one that shifts his attention from the realm of icy, pure intellect, to the one of messy, immediate humanity, without finding any kind of middle ground. It’s a very non-academic and indefensible kind of reading, but I can’t help but feel that all the love that’s missing from the Existentialist doctrine gradually started to seep into its edges and corners until it blotted out everything else, and became the absolute guiding principle of Sartre’s thought. Having forced a bitter pill onto his readers, Sartre then wanted to heal the world. I think more of him for harbouring his contradictions from day to day, and remaining responsible for his changes of heart. Existentialism was made very much in his image: that of a paradoxical, but always ethical and determined man.