Introducing a Crisis:
After abandoning the Critique, Sartre entered the self-critical, questioning period announced as early as the 1960 interview in which he confessed to having 'had the experience of a sort of a total impotence from my childhood until now'. This sense achieved its sharpest expression in Les Mots and persisted into his new politico-intellectual outlook after May 1968. Les Mots introduced the crisis whose outcome was a new definition of the intellectual's political role and the overwhelming biography of Gustave Flaubert.
If Sartre's call for engaged literature was the first watershed in his intellectual career, Les Mots, published in late 1963, was certainly the second. Quest-ce que la littérature? conceptualized the direction already taken by the playwright, novelist, and essayist, pointing ahead to the politico-intellectual project we have just studied. Sixteen years later, Les Mots explored Sartre's childhood, searching for the sources of what he had come to regard as his weaknesses: his overvaluing of words and immersion in the imaginary, his need to justify himself through writing and sense of priestly calling as a writer. The energy and optimism of Quest-ce que la littérature? were cancelled by the valetudinarian fatalism of Les Mots. His imposture Sartre concluded, was his very character: 'one gets rid of a neurosis, one doesn't get cured of one's self.'
After thirty years of impassioned, missionary writing in which he sought to reveal one dimension of the human world after another, to guide his audience in thought and action, Sartre took a drastic turn. Les Mots was his own account of his apprenticeship to the imaginary as a small boy, of his immersion in an element from which, he now confessed, he had never really escaped. The aggressive, wordly tone of the 1940s and 1950s was absent from these words, as they explored and
pondered the past. A strange autobiography for a great writer, Les Mots was not concerned to reminisce about its author's brilliant career but to meditate upon the origins of his illusions. It was more of a confession than a celebration, an acknowledgement that something had gone wrong.
(Les Mots presents an interesting problem of dating. Sartre himself has said that most of it was written in 1953-54, during what he regarded as his awakening from idealism, at the time of his decision to align himself with the Communists. However, it was not completed and published until 1963. The earlier date sets it in his period of growing political realism, the period of Le Diable et le bon Dieu; the later in the time of his personal and political disillusionment. The text itself mentions only one date, 1963, and refers to its author as a 'quinquagenarian' – he was fifty-seven in that year. More important, although Sartre's references to an awakening from idealism suggest an earlier date, his fatalism certainly reflects the later. It is likely that in the early 1960s, under the impact of the kind of spiralling disillusionment we have just studied, he returned to the earlier draft, preserving some of it, but in the three months he spent on it reshaped the work in accordance with his current frame of mind. The earlier insights were absorbed into a new literary unity whose main themes, we shall see, corresponded to the preoccupations of his later work.)
Self-Understanding as Evasion
Kept out of school until after the age of ten, living with an old man and two women, Sartre as a boy related to images and words rather than to other children or things. He lived for play-acting, for movies; books became his religion. This 'imaginary child' without a father, a guest with his girl-mother in his grandparents' home, felt he belonged nowhere and developed a deep-seated sense of his own superfluity. It seemed that writing might change this, might make him necessary to someone, might imbue the events of his life with the importance of an unfolding destiny. But writing was an escape: 'the eagerness to write involves the refusal to live.' Looking back in his late fifties, Sartre accomplished something remarkable. He uncovered the vice, weakness, or neurosis underlying many of the key themes – and problems – that we have identified in his work. Superfluity: from the very beginning the child felt he belonged nowhere, had no right to exist. Negation: the
Introducing a Crisis: 'Les Mots' 297
young Sartre 'was nothing: an ineffaceable transparency.'1 Isolated individualism: the child's shaping years were spent in a sequestered, unreal inner world, completely cut off from other children.
An overwhelming world: he never had to encounter the outside, never built up even the most minimal tolerance of and ability to cope with the 'external' world. Immersion in the irréel as a way of living life's problems: Sartre had been an 'imaginary child', given over to one form of imposture after another. Art as salvation: transformed into a writer, into his very books themselves, the boy might finally feel that he belonged. Adventures, rigour: he longed to have his life transformed into a destiny by existing for someone else, being important to someone else.
Was all this true only of the little boy, and no longer of the mature writer? Sartre equivocated. Writing pushed him up against reality again and again – the green velvet arm-chair that his grandfather demanded he describe, the real German Kaiser who could not be conquered with his pen while the war went on. But these jolts did not disrupt the project of salvation through writing which, if anything, was more fully consolidated in the ten-year-old's personality structure at book's end. Indeed, this childhood idealism 'took me thirty years to shake off'.2 But did he ever shake it off? In 1953-54 he may well have thought so. But he also acknowledged, appearing to speak from the early 1960s, the persistent power of his urge to write in order to be forgiven his existence. 'The proof is that I'm still writing fifty years later.'3
Sartre's clearest comment on whether or how far he had changed tame as Les Mots drew to a close: 'I have changed. I shall speak later on about the acids that corroded the distorting transparencies which enveloped me; I shall tell when and how I served my apprenticeship to violence and discovered my ugliness – which for a long time was my negative principle, the quicklime in which the wonderful child was dissolved; I shall also explain the reason why I came to think systematically against myself, to the extent of measuring the obvious truth of an idea by the displeasure it caused me. The retrospective illusion has been Smashed to bits; martyrdom, salvation, and immortality are falling to pieces; the edifice is going to rack and ruin; I col-
1. m, p. 73; w, p. 90.
2. m, p. 39; w, p. 51.
3. m, p. 160; w, p. 93.
lared the Holy Ghost in the cellar and threw him out; atheism is a cruel and long-range affair: I think I've carried it through. I see clearly, I've lost my illusions, I know what my real jobs are, I surely deserve a prize for good citizenship. For the last ten years or so I've been a man who's been waking up, cured of a long, bitter-sweet madness, and who can't get over the fact, a man who can't think of his old ways without laughing and who doesn't know what to do with himself. I've again become the traveller without a ticket that I was at the age of seven: the ticket-collector has entered my compartment; he looks at me, less severely than in the past; in fact, all he wants is to go away, to let me finish the trip in peace; he'll be satisfied with a valid excuse, any excuse. Unfortunately, I can't think of any; and besides, I don't even feel like trying to find one. We remain there looking at each other, feeling uncomfortable, until the train gets to Dijon, where I know very well that no one is waiting for me.'4
This is an honest and beautiful self-portrayal. The old urge for salvation is gone, and that is good; but Sartre has found no new direction. Disillusioned by the limited power of words but still lost, he 'doesn't know what to do with himself. 'I've given up the Office but not the frock: I still write. What else can I do?'5 Disillusioned, he would continue to write but without conviction. He had changed, and yet not. The confession continued, slowly coming full circle: 'It's a habit, and besides, it's my profession. For a long time, I took my pen for a sword; I now know we're powerless. No matter. I write and will keep writing books; they're needed; all the same they do serve some purpose. Culture doesn't save anything or anyone, it doesn't justify. But it's a product of man: he projects himself into it, he recognizes himself in it; that critical mirror alone offers him his image. Moreover, that old, crumbling structure, my imposture, is also my character: one gets rid of a neurosis, one doesn't get cured of one's self. Though they are worn out, blurred, humiliated, thrust aside, ignored, all of the child's traits are still to be found in the quinquagenarian. Most of the time they lie low, they bide their time; at the first moment of inattention, they rise up and emerge, disguised; I claim sincerely to be writing only for my time, but my present notoriety annoys me; it's not glory, since I'm alive, and yet that's enough to belie my old dreams; could it be that I still harbour them secretly? I have, I think,
4. m, pp. 210-11; w, pp. 252-53.
5. m, p. 211; w, p. 253.
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adapted them: since I've lost the chance of dying unknown, I sometimes flatter myself that I'm being misunderstood in my lifetime. Griselda's not dead. Pardaillan still inhabits me. So does Strogoff. I'm answerable only to them, who are answerable only to God, and I don't believe in God. So try to figure it out. As for me, I can't and I sometimes wonder whether I'm not playing winner loses and not trying too hard to stamp out my one-time hopes so that everything will be restored to me a hundredfold: In that case, I would be Philoctetes; that magnificent and stinking cripple gave everything away unconditionally, including his bow; but we can be sure that he's secretly waiting for his reward?6
Sartre has suddenly shifted direction. Honesty has given way to evasion. He had changed, he said, by losing the illusion of salvation through writing. Now, without that illusion, he would write on, out of habit. Nevertheless, little as writing accomplished, it still offered people a critical mirror. It was useful. Now came the turn: 'though they are worn out, blurred, humiliated, thrust aside, ignored, all of the child's traits are still to be found in the quinquagenarian'. Perhaps the old dreams were still there – Sartre recalled his childhood heroes Griselda, Pardaillan, Strogoff and Philoctetes. 'So try to figure it out. As for me, I can't . . ' Indeed. The illusions seemed to have dried up on one level but still inhabited him on another. Lost, he would keep on; disillusioned, he would not change. He had understood himself, not so deeply as to affect anything. Self-critical, he resorted nevertheless to what he had once regarded as the ultimate excuse: 'character'. He had confessed, performed a psychoanalytical self-analysis, criticized himself – all without being able to change.
One need not await the book's conclusion to understand this. Beautiful and sensitive as it is, Les Mots was bad psychotherapy. It presented self-revelation but reaffirmed what it revealed, in tone and style as much as in its conclusions. Let us consider this famous passage: 'Every man has his natural place; its altitude is determined neither by pride nor by value: childhood decides. Mine is a sixth floor in Paris with a view overlooking the roofs. For a long time I suffocated in the valleys; the plains overwhelmed me: I crawled along the planet Mars, the heaviness crushed me. I had only to climb a molehill for joy to come rushing back: I would return to my symbolic sixth
6. m, pp. 211-12; w, pp. 254-55.
floor; there I would once again breathe the rarefied air of belles lettres; the Universe would rise in tiers at my feet and all things would humbly beg for a name; to name the thing was both to create and take it. Without this fundamental illusion I would never have written.
'Today, April 22, 1963, I am correcting this manuscript on the tenth floor of a new building: through the open window I see a cemetery, Paris, the blue hills of Saint Cloud. That shows my obstinacy. Yet everything has changed. Had I wished as a child to deserve this lofty position, my fondness for pigeon-houses would have to be regarded as a result of ambition, of vanity, as a compensation for my shortness. But it's not that; it wasn't a matter of climbing up my sacred tree: I was there, I refused to come down from it. It was not a matter of setting myself above human beings: I wanted to live in the ether among the aerial simulacra of Things. Later, far from clinging to balloons, I made every effort to sink: I had to wear leaden soles. With luck, I occasionally happened, on naked sands, to brush against submarine species whose names I had to invent. At other times, nothing doing: an irresistible lightness kept me on the surface. In the end, my altimeter went out of order. I am at times a bottle imp, at others a deep-sea diver, often both together, which is as it should be in our trade. I live in the air out of habit, and I poke about down below without much hope.'7
So, Sartre now lived above the real world, in the 'rarefied air of belles lettres'. It is easy to be so taken by such unaccustomed glimpses of the great man's inner thought as not to notice the evasion perpetrated in this passage. It was evasive first of all in its wordiness. Sartre presented one metaphor after another: 'valleys-plains', 'Mars', 'molehills', 'pigeon-houses', 'sacred tree', 'naked sands', 'submarine species', 'a bottle imp', 'a deep-sea diver'. I am unreal, trying to live above the world, he admitted. But the insight lost most of its effect as it moved through this profusion of words. Moreover, the style and tone of the passage converted the insight into something merely literary. Self-understanding itself became de-realized, transformed into the imaginary. The revelation that he 'dwells' six floors above Paris took place not on the solid ground of real feeling, but rather --six floors above Paris. Sartre's conclusion was not a resolve to change himself or a moment of self-knowledge, but a precious literary finis, a self-indulgent device.
7. m, pp. 47-58; w, pp. 60-61 (translation changed).
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This was representative of the tone of. the entire book. Childhood pain was rendered light and airy, a deep and brutal disconnection from reality presented with enormous charm. Sartre's sense of loss was there, but not his suffering, his sense of unreality but not his alienation.8 A tortured, contradictory childhood became beautiful, gilded by imagination. Les Mots was a search for self which became an escape from self into art, as the source of his writer's neurosis itself became literary. It may be that 'the reader has realized that I loathe my childhood and whatever has survived of it.'9 But if so, it is only by indications, never by the direct impress of feeling, much less through practical demonstration.
'What Else Can I Do?'
The radical self-criticism implied in Les Mots was not adequately articulated or pursued, and was actually cancelled by the text itself. Self-understanding became a means of self-evasion. Yet this work also marked a key reversal of one of Sartre's life-long themes. Why, in 1963, did he still write? Because although 'they are worn out, blurred, humiliated, thrust aside, ignored, all of the child's traits are still to be found in the quinquagenarian' – inscribed in his character. Sartre now reinstated what he had so strongly opposed in La Transcendance de l'ego and his early theories of the theatre. This was his most radical departure yet from a psychology, a philosophy, and a theory of engaged literature constructed on the assumption that humans were sheer activity, and could change almost at will. His autobiography confirmed, in relation to himself, what he had already suggested in the character of Franz: the whole book explained what had shaped him into the person he could not help but be.
We cannot change at will, and our efforts to change the world produce forces which in turn control us. In the thirties and forties, when he saw the world as an implacable given, Sartre espoused an optimism whose source was his concept of freedom. He had now implicitly abandoned this. His new awareness of the ways in which people became trapped both by internal and by external structures was to
8. Adorno has suggested that the entire body of Sartre's committed works likewise failed to arouse the emotions it talked about ('Commitment', New Left Review, 87-88, pp. 79, 86).
9. m, p. 137; w, p. 164.
find expression in the immense project that now lay ahead-the biography of Flaubert.
Towards a Breakdown
At the same time, this profound revision foreshadowed a breakdown in Sartre's thought. By the early 1960s his Critique lay abandoned, he had stopped writing plays, and had failed to find a satisfactory posture as political essayist. His politico-intellectual project seemed to be running aground. He had now perceived our fundamental unfreedom; and this admission of the depth of our social and psychological conditioning and the force of our character was bound to wreak havoc on a literary practice originally premissed on the translucency of consciousness and a perpetual readiness for change. Sartre had taken his pen for a sword, an instrument that could produce change through the recognitions that it compelled; once the accessibility and translucency of consciousness were supplanted by the more resistant substance of character, the power of the pen was no longer evident.
Sartre was unable to resolve this crisis by transforming his thought. Instead, not long after the publication of Les Mots, the tensions at the heart of his thought exploded. The dualism of imagination and reality, the separation between sixth floor and ground floor, between individual and society, existentialism and Marxism, became virtually absolute. Persistently questioning the role of radical intellectual, Sartre finally decided, after May 1968, that as intellectual he had no political role at all, and high up in his study, engrossed himself in the ultimate apolitical work, a colossal imaginary reconstruction of an 'imaginary man'.