Literature and Revolution
In claiming that the literary and the real 'cities of ends' were animated by the same principle, Sartre revoked his earlier separation of art, the irréel, from real life. Literature was now a 'conducting wire' leading to socialist democracy,1 Sartre demanded that writers do more than offer their readers a fleeting experience of the imaginary city of ends – that they show how it implied another, a real city which could only be brought about through social change. In this perspective, he outlined specific literary themes, criteria for judging literature, and the relationship to be sought between writer and audience.
The very nature of literature demanded such engagement. A writer who became a fascist or a collaborator, Sartre had written in Les Lettres françaises in April 1944, betrayed the very principles of art.2 Reiterating this thesis now, he extended it to include writers who withdrew into visions of the eternal. Literature was a social art with a definite function and effect, an act always situated in a given society at a given time, and whose deepest meaning was human freedom. A literature fully aware of itself would accept its function, would immerse itself in the issues of the day, and this always from the standpoint of the oppressed.
Action by Disclosure
Sartre begins Qu'est-ce que la littéature? by deepening the familiar theme of art as a 'mirror', using the concepts of L'Etre et le Néant. Psychological or social determinism, fatalism, the notion of destiny are all modes of bad faith in which I lie to myself about my terrifying
1. ql, p.296; wl, p.268.
2. 'La Littérature, cette liberté' ('Literature, That Freedom'), Les Lettres françaises, 15, p.8; crw, 44/45, p.94.
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freedom to create myself, to change and assume new patterns of behaviour. (I may also attempt to hide an identifiable pattern in my behaviour, such as homosexuality, by claiming that my actions are random, disconnected, and without meaning). Whether proclaiming my helplessness or denying my behaviour, my bad faith is an avoidance of myself as I am. But in reading a novel I see myself; and this self-confrontation is precisely the function of literature. I see my own patterns of conduct and my own freedom as I assume them in the act of reading. Reading is thus a cognitive act – not in the sense that I learn something new about the world or myself, but because I encounter what I have tried to keep hidden from view all along. In reading I become self-conscious. This process has two aspects. In the first, which Sartre defines through the concept of bad faith and the self-Other dialectic, I feel as if I have been seen by the Other, 'caught in the act' as when peering through a keyhole. 'If you name the behaviour of an individual, you reveal it to him; he sees himself. And since you are at the same time naming it to all others, he knows that he is seen at the moment he sees himself. The furtive gesture which he forgot while making it, begins to exist beyond all measure, to exist for everybody; it is integrated into the objective mind; it takes on new dimensions; it is retrieved.'3 Another person has seen me for what I am and fixes my pattern of behaviour in describing it. He sees me, and before him my behaviour appears objective. I can no longer pretend that it exists only as I want it to appear, that it is other than it really is, that it is only temporary or that circumstances forced me into it. Through being seen, my bad faith is shattered and I see myself as I am. Looked at, I look at myself.
The second dimension of the act of reading distinguishes it radically from being surprised at the keyhole. I myself create the novel. I freely bring about this self-revelation. It can never be imposed by another person. I can put the novel down, I can skip over the disturbing passages, I can read it rapidly or without interest. Moreover, Sartre implies, the picture taking shape in my imagination depends on me in an even deeper way. At the most profound level, the novel is me. Raskolnikov and Porfiry cannot exist unless I lend them my feelings. Unless I project my own experience and feelings into the characters, they cannot live. This suggestion is left largely undeveloped in Sartre's analysis, but its implication is clear. I do not merely observe someone else's picture of a pattern of behaviour that I
3. ql, p.72; wl, p.16.
happen to share with the protagonist. I myself participate in creating that protagonist's action. The novel is my subjectivity become objective. Seeing myself in the novel is not a subjectivist error or a mere after-effect of literary experience but a constitutive moment of the very act of reading. I see myself and see myself as seen. In making this possible, the writer is politically engaged in 'a certain method of secondary action which we may call action by disclosure'.4 Why should we call it action? Because seeing myself, the free assumption of this or that pattern of behaviour, is a decisive moment of my action. In order to explain this, Sartre distinguishes between my ordinary or immediate state and the reflective state. Ordinarily I am immersed in my spontaneous activity; I do not see my activity as it is, from the outside, with the Other's eyes. 'But spontaneous behaviour, by passing to the reflective state, loses its innocence and the excuse of immediacy: it must be assumed or changed.'5 In other words, when a reader recognizes his pattern of dishonesty and evasion, he can no longer hide it from himself. In spite of all his efforts, it has appeared for what it is, seen by the Other and willingly created by himself. 'After that, how can you expect him to act in the same way? Either he will persist in his behaviour out of obstinacy and with full knowledge of what he is doing, or he will give it up.'6
This is the heart of Sartre's theory of literature as critical mirror. Reflection is a moment of action, not a detached contemplative activity. For through reflection – and through it alone – I correct, judge, and change myself. Only when I step back and look at myself do I know what I am doing. Reflection is 'an essential condition of action? Only this 'reflective revolution' frees me from my immersion in the instrumental chain of the world and allows me to see my activity and its meaning.8 Such self-discovery is the business of literature. 'To speak is to act: anything which one names is already no longer quite the same; it has lost its innocence'9 To write is to act. Art, an irréel, turns out to have a vital function in the real world. In this way, Sartre reverses the trend of his earlier thought, carrying us
4. ql, p.73; wl, p.17.
5. ql, p.142; wl, p.90.
6. ql, pp.72-73; wl, p.16.
7. ql, p.197; wl, p.153.
8. Cf. en, p.252; bn, p.201.
9. ql, p.72; wl. p.16. See also en, pp.l16-118; bn, pp.74-76.
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beyond his rigid separation of the imaginary and real worlds. But there are two equally striking lines of continuity. First, art becomes a mode of action precisely because it is an irréel. As the concluding chapter of L'Imaginaire had already indicated, it is in the very act of projecting an irréel that we detach ourselves from the real world, free ourselves from it, and see it as a whole. As long as we maintain a realistic attitude we are immersed in events, unable to see ourselves. Thus art's very 'unreality' is what makes it a source of change through reflection and self-knowledge. And second, art is in some sense all-powerful here, as it was earlier. Again and again we have seen Sartre say that, as an irréel, art momentarily solves life's basic problems. He now argues that literature, as a decisive moment of action, has the power to change what people do. In either case, words and their peculiar power are at the heart of Sartre's world view. Even as he becomes politically engaged, aesthetics remains at the centre of his thought.
Revealing This Society
One might accept Sartre's principle of disclosure yet insist that what must be disclosed are the permanent' weaknesses of the species, the unchanging problems of any society. This was his own course in La Nausée and Huis Clos. The socio-historical situation and its issues were marginal to these works. Why should the writer orient himself to the specific society in which he lives and turn to social rather than purely individual problems?
We have already seen Sartre discover society and history. On the theoretical level his political conversion led him slowly to change his notion of the situation. One of the most promising lines of L'Etre et le Néant had spoken of man exercising his freedom in a given situation which included his past, his present environment, his re/low humans, and the prospect of his death. But this account lacked all clarity concerning the relative importance of these dimensions and laid primary emphasis on our ability to act within any situation. In the introduction to Les Temps Modernes, Sartre began to emphasize the historical and social dimension of the 'situation'. 'Man is only in a situation: a worker is not free to think or to feel like a bourgeois.'10 Now, accordingly, he insisted that the writer and reader were born into a given class at a given historical point in the development of their society.
10. 'Présentation', p.22; 'Introduction,' p.441.
There is no pure 'man' and there is no pure 'literature'. Each book appeals to' the whole life of the particular society in which and for which it was written. 'Hence, in each one there is an implicit recourse to institutions, customs, certain forms of oppression and conflict, to the wisdom and the folly of the day, to lasting passions and passing stubbornness, to superstition and recent victories of common sense, to evidence and ignorance, to particular modes of reasoning which the sciences have made fashionable and which are applied in all domains, to hopes, to fears, to habits of sensibility, imagination, and even perception, and finally, to customs and values which have been handed down, to a whole world which the author and the reader have in common. It is this familiar world which the writer animates and penetrates with his freedom. It is on the basis of this world that the reader must bring about his concrete liberation; it is alienation, situation, and history. It is this world which I must change or preserve for myself and others. . . .'11
Action by disclosure is, then, directed at a given class at a given point in the life of a given society. The writer not only shatters the bad faith of this or that isolated individual. He also presents the society, and especially its ruling class, with the image it tries to hide from itself. 'If society sees itself and, in particular, sees itself as seen, there is, by virtue of this very fact, a contesting of the established values of the regime. The writer presents it with its image; he calls upon it to assume it or to change itself. At any rate, it changes; it loses the equilibrium which its ignorance had given it; it wavers between shame and cynicism; it practices dishonesty; thus, the writer gives society a guilty conscience,' he is thereby in a state of perpetual antagonism toward the conservative forces which are maintaining the balance he tends to upset. . . .'12
It is necessarily an act of contestation to present a class society as it really is, to present the ruling class as it really is, because any class society is naturally dishonest with itself. Its bad faith may lie in proclaiming the universal equality of men while maintaining their inequality, or in proclaiming the fight to property while it sanctions the vast majority's lack of it; at all events, its ideology is at odds with the facts of its social reality. But it does not yet see itself as dishonest: it
11. ql, p.119; wl, p.64.
12. ql, p.129; wl, p.75.
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has a good conscience. Now when the writer reflects the society's own magic, and asks it to assume it, he makes the contradictions apparent. By penetrating the mystifications of ideology, the writer threatens the society's equilibrium. Because he presents things as they are, he naturally opposes all modes of self-deception. He is the natural enemy or' any class society.
If I ignore the social struggles and issues of the day I do not thereby become neutral. Writing remains action, and so, also, is silence. 'This silence is a moment of language; being silent is not being dumb; it is to refuse to speak, and therefore to keep on speaking.'13 To refuse, to escape into eternal values or to see art as existing for its own sake, is tacitly to accept the established society. By not revealing and thus helping to change this or that aspect of a society's life, the writer uses his influence on behalf of the existing order. To help maintain the existing order writers need not sing its praises: it is enough that they do not speak out against it.
The world's hunger, the atomic threat, the alienation of man – these are the realities of our situation. To remain silent about them is to accept them, as does the writer who spends his life writing novels about the Hittites. When the writer remains silent about the epoch's central problems it may well mean that 'the ruling classes have directed him into frivolous activities without his knowing it, for fear he might join the revolutionary troops.'14 The imperative is not, finally, to become engaged, but to become aware of being engaged already. For we have already taken sides, whether we admit it or not: 'if every man is embarked, that does not at all mean that he is fully conscious of it. Most men pass their time in hiding their engagement from themselves. That does not necessarily mean that they attempt evasions by lying, by artificial paradises, or by a life of make-believe. It is enough for them to dim their lanterns, to see the foreground without the background and, vice-versa, to see the ends while passing over the means in silence, to refuse solidarity with their kind, to take refuge in the spirit of pompousness, to remove all value from life by considering it from the point of view of someone who is dead, and at the same time, all horror from death by fleeing it in the banality of everyday existence, to persuade themselves, if they belong to an oppressing class, that they are escaping their class by the loftiness of
13. ql, p.75; wl, p.19.
14. 'Présentation', p.12; 'Introduction', p.435 (translation changed).
their feelings, and, if they belong to the oppressed, to conceal from themselves their complicity with oppression by asserting that one can remain free while in chains if one has a taste for the inner life. Writers can have recourse to all this just like anyone else.'15 Sartre's demand is that writers and readers 'achieve the most lucid and the most complete consciousness of being embarked.'16 Aware that writing is in fact an action, and silence no less so, the writer should understand that his words are 'loaded pistols'. 'If he speaks, he fires. He may be silent, but since he has chosen to fire, he must do it like a man by aiming at his targets, and not, like a child, at random, shutting his eyes and firing merely for the pleasure of hearing the gun go off.'17 Becoming aware of his influence, the writer must decide that this influence shall be deliberate and conscious; he must be responsible for his actions.
Now the writer who is not in bad faith, who has become aware of his own situation, cannot really write about anything he pleases, just as he cannot be anyone he pleases. It would be senseless, for example, to write a charming and heartbreaking love story amid the debris and disorder of France in 1947. And the self-conscious writer will see, as a man and as a writer, that not all values and all causes are equally legitimate. Because his writing is by its very nature an act of confidence in the freedom of men, he will want to engage himself on their
Freedom for All
Does the aesthetic city of ends necessarily imply the freedom of all other people? Is it not possible to write for a small circle – the ruling elite and their professional and intellectual supporters– to speak of them as free, and to accept the oppression of everyone else? And why – to take up Sartre's wartime argument – is it impossible to write a good novel advocating oppression?
Sartre admits that any writer chooses and thus limits his audience, speaking to certain specific groups. Richard Wright, for example, does not try to reach those who cannot possibly be affected by his work, say Frenchmen or Southern racists. But beyond a specific and limited group, composed of black intellectuals and sympathetic
15. ql, pp. 123-124; wl, pp.69-70.
16. ql, p.124; WL, p.70.
17. ql, p.74; wl, p. 18 (translation changed).
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whites, Wright still addresses everyone. 'The illiterate Negro peasants and the Southern planters represent a margin of abstract possibilities around his real public. After all, an illiterate may learn to read. Black Boy may fall into the hands of the most stubborn of Negrophobes and may open his eyes. This merely means that every human project exceeds its actual limits and extends itself step by step to the infinite.'18
Any book implies a readership of all humans, even if abstractly and in the distance. People may learn to read, may be drawn in by it and see themselves. All people – even the most vicious racists – freely make themselves and thus may conceivably change. This means that every novel is potentially a concrete, if unintended, relationship between the writer and all other people. I might enter the city of ends with anyone. This holds even for a racist novel. A black may read the book, and in so doing exercise his power of free, self-determining creativity. Having entered the city of ends with me, he would read that I consider him an inert, passive object, capable only of being directed from without. It is a contradiction. The mutually respectful relationship on which the novel rests belies the way I have depicted him and what I would do to him. My novel denies the very principles which make its existence possible.
While his argument remains abstract and timeless in temper, Sartre now introduces the historical dimension into the centre of his analysis. He undertakes an extended history of the relationship between writer and reader in France from the twelfth century to the present, which shows how the audience of literates broadened and how, by the mid-nineteenth century, the writer could ignore the proletarian masses only by betraying his craft. Literature can appear now as the 'common and forever renewed experience of all men' only because reading and writing are no longer the special preserve of a few.19 'To-day we consider reading and writing as human rights and, at the same time, as means for communicating with others which are almost as natural and spontaneous as oral language. That is why the most uncultured peasant is a potential reader.'20 Anyone can read: this is the central fact today.. It visibly confirms a human freedom which the existence of classes tries to deny. All humans are now recognized to be capable of creating that imaginary object, the novel,
18. ql, p.127; wl, p.73 (translation changed).
19. ql, p.131; wl, p.77.
20. ql, p.131; wl, p.78.
and all can equally enter with me – and with each other – into the aesthetic city of ends. If I advocate the oppression of any portion of humankind I am simply denying in my words the very fact which I recognize in my writing. This is the concrete historical reason why in my writing 'I feel that my freedom is indissolubly linked with that of all other men.'21
From th6 time of Flaubert, Baudelaire, and the Symbolist poets, writers have faced two publics – an actual public which does in fact read their works and for whom they directly write, and a virtual public, the oppressed masses. This split readership exists only because classes exist. In such a situation, the writer can become truly universal only by placing himself on the side of the vast majority. Their freedom does not demand anyone else's oppression, but rather a classless society. The freedom of the ruling class, however, requires that the many be oppressed. There are, then, two reasons why the writer who is aware of himself and his craft will place himself on the side of the masses. First, their cause is the only one which truly involves freedom for all; and second, this freedom is the concrete realization of the formal reader-author relationship in a society where all can read. In such a society, the distinct historical possibility exists that all humans can be free.
Literature in a Classless Society
Sartre's argument culminates in the claim that literature can 'only realize its full essence in a classless society'.22 There, the writer will become the 'mediator' – the agent of self-consciousness – for all. Only in this society will the writer's subject – human freedom – and his potential public – the whole body of free people – coincide. No longer will the 'virtual public' remain 'like a dark sea around the sunny little beach of the real public' while the writer confuses 'the interests and cares of man with those of a small and favoured group.'23 No longer torn between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the writer would no longer need 'to deny that he is in a situation, he would no longer seek to soar above his times and bear witness to it before eternity, but, as his situation would be universal, he would express the hopes and
21. ql, p.112; wl, p.58.
22. ql, p.194; wl, p.150.
23. ql, p.194; wl, p.150.
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anger of all men, and would thereby express himself completely'.24 Only in a classless society would literature be truly able to be itself, to 'enjoy its essence'. 'Literature in this classless society would thus be the world aware of itself, suspended in a free act, and offering itself to the free judgment of all men, the reflective self-awareness of a classless society. It is by means of the book that the members of this society would be able to get their bearings, to see themselves and see their situation.'25
To be fully effective, then, the writer needs a fully democratic socialist society. He 'must write for a public which has the freedom to change everything; which means, besides suppression of classes, abolition of all dictatorship, constant renewal of frameworks, and the continuous overthrowing of order once it tends to congeal.'26 In a class society, institutions become rigid in an attempt to keep the class structure frozen and to protect the interests of the ruling class. Humans may become self-aware in a class society, but its fixed forms and institutions keep them from acting on that awareness. Once classes are eliminated, however, society will be able to respond immediately and flexibly to new human goals, new human projects, and develop institutions as they are needed, destroying old institutions as they become petrified and useless.
Because a free society has no 'stability' in the traditional sense it elevates the writer beyond all previous expectations. In 'a collectivity which constantly corrects, judges, and metamorphoses itself, the written work can be an essential condition of action, that is, the moment of reflective consciousness.'27 'In short, literature is, in essence, the subjectivity of a society in permanent revolution.'28
The Power of Words
Calling for engagement in writing, Sartre also demands that we who read, who read him, should become engaged. His argument itself attempts to demonstrate that words can lead to change, that the reflection they induce is a decisive moment of action. In writing he
24. ql, p.194; wl, p.151.
25. ql, p.196; wl, p.152.
26. ql, p.196; wl, p.153.
27. ql, p.197; wl, p.153.
28. ql, p.196; wl, p.153.
tries to compromise his readers, show them to themselves, to prompt them to change their behaviour or at least be troubled by it. We can experience directly as we read the enormous faith that Sartre places in the power of words. He was later to become disillusioned – and perhaps we can already see why. We have noted Simone de Beauvoir's reflection that Marxism or psychoanalysis 'might have clarified our thinking in the thirties', but that they lacked either. Still lacking some such clarification, Sartre's argument remained suspended. While demanding engagement of this abstract figure, the writer, Sartre put little weight on the underlying forces- material, psychological, or social – which actually lead people to see this or that reality, to adopt or change a course of behaviour.
This was of course strictly in keeping with his earlier rejection of pre-conscious and unconscious structures, and with his entire line of thought from La Transcendence de l'ego to L'Etre et le Néant. It was notable here, in 1947, that while certain lines of his thought began to shift, Sartre stood fast in, and acted out of his belief in the transparency of consciousness. If consciousness was totally free and spontaneous, if no internal or external forces shaped our perceptions, feelings, or actions, then indeed a passionate argument might demand, and perhaps win, commitment from us. By systematically undervaluing the weight of the internal and external world, Sartre now overvalued the power of words.
In part, of course, Sartre's faith in words was the index of his complete dependence on them, in his increasingly adverse political situation. The solidarities of the Resistance had passed with the euphoria of the Liberation. The pcf had emphatically rejected Sartre, leaving him politically powerless and isolated. His new situation was described by de Beauvoir: 'suspect among the bourgeoisie and cut off from the masses, Sartre was condemning himself to a future without a public; from now on he would have merely readers. He accepted this solitude willingly, because it titillated his love of adventure. Nothing could be more despairing than this essay, and nothing more high-spirited. By rejecting him, the Communists were condemning him to political impotence; but since to name is to unmask, and to unmask is to change, Sartre extended his notion of commitment still further and discovered a praxis in writing. Reduced to his petit-bourgeois singularity, and rejecting it, he was aware of himself as "an unhappy consciousness", but had no taste for jeremiads and was confident of being
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able to find a way of going beyond this state.'29
In effect, Sartre was calling on words to remake his situation. So, for all its force, his vision was an abstract one. If his exploration of the social meanings and conditions of writing was fertile and provocative, it was unmistakably redolent of philosophy-in-the-world. Yet the activist energy of these years was unmatched in Sartre's work, and impelled him to his highest pitch of productivity. In The Writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, Contat and Rybalka record 135 pages of entries for the 1945-49 period, compared with ninety-two and ninety for his next two most productive half-decades. Sartre's hope for the power of words might eventually bring him to disillusionment, but its immediate result was an impassioned effort to realize une littérature engagée.
29. La Force des choses, p.146; Force of Circumstance, p.131.