Thursday, December 12, 2013

Review of Jean-Paul Sartre's The Words

This book is an awesome display of the deeply literary and ‘religious’—religious in the sense of considering all the world and one’s self to be profoundly significant and purposive in every part— nature of Sartre. It explains so much about him. The title, The Words, refers to the way he attached a supremely high value in the first half of his life to reading, writing, and being read. This is an autobiographical account of his first ten years of life which were so formative for his adult life. I cannot emphasize enough how very much of Sartre’s philosophy is explained here. I was actually shocked to discover in his first decade alone so many unveilings to the meaning AND motive for his later work.

Sartre was once tempted to think it funny that people wondered if he even had a childhood. “When I was thirty, friends were surprised: ‘One would think you didn’t have parents. Or a childhood.’ And I was silly enough to feel flattered.” This was due to Sartre’s early-adult abandonment of his past which he believed could only be interpreted from his future. Now, Sartre is writing this book in his sixties and finding value in his earlier life like he thought he would, but in a different way. I truly believe he grew to appreciate each moment of his life in itself, rather than as a chronicle to lure others into loving himself, which he couldn’t do. “Because I did not love myself sufficiently, I fled forward. The result is that I love[d] myself still less…”

Sartre’s father died when he was two years old, and his mother moved with him into her parents’ home. It was an upper-middleclass home steeped in education, impassioned politics, and family tension which would indelibly shape his psyche and self-esteem for the rest of his life. His relationship with his mother was much like brother and sister, even as an adult to a child at times, and he accustomed himself to calling her by her name “Anne Marie.” The cause of this was his grandfather’s contempt for Jean-Paul’s father, who died very inconveniently, and the subsequent belittling treatment of Anne Marie by his grandfather who was irked to have his daughter again as his dependent-plus-one leveled, in Jean-Paul’s mind, the roles of Jean-Paul and his mother. Anne Marie was treated as an importunate child, but Jean-Paul was coddled as his grandfather’s alter-ego, and praised from a young age for his precocity. Actually, he was a spoiled brat, and he knew it, and it wasn’t long before he despised himself for the pretentious, melodrama with which he stooped to please his grandfather and sustain his image as a child prodigy. Sartre developed a persona that existed solely to please others around him, and his authentic abilities and desires were hidden deep beneath a veneer that was for him hardly comfortable or satisfying. “Even in solitude I was putting on an act… I sank deeper and deeper into imposture. Condemned to please, I endowed myself with charms that withered on the spot.” He developed many neuroses during his younger years, and may never have outgrown some of them. His feeling of superfluity and absolute insignificance apart from the attention of his doters, which was inconsistent at best and frankly demoralizing, hollowed-out his sense of security and worth, and he increasingly repressed and compartmentalized his less favorable habits, interests, and personality traits to survive socially. The result is that he loathed himself and all identity-pimps. 

He fell in love with writing only superficially and theatrically at first, determined to impress his watchers. He then introverted so far that he couldn’t find his way out for a long time, and he wrote himself into an self-awareness coma by creating fictions in which he was always a delivering hero and the world was celebrating him eternally. It was during this time he began to live ‘posthumously’, imputing meaning to his life by imagining how his ideas and fantastical exploits would be read by people after he was dead. Only then did he believe his life would be explained and his value to others would be etched in stone as a form of ‘legacy’ which has been a maelstrom for many heroes and celebrities who have unwittingly wasted their life in this denial of self. Much of this early tortuous introspection and self-loathing was because he had no friends—he wasn’t permitted to attend schools which didn’t ‘recognize’ his genius—and when he finally made friends at a school he was allowed to attend, he began the slow process of breaking out of what was quickly becoming a sociopathic escapism (“the human race became a small committee surrounded by affectionate animals”), though he would never completely overcome the desire to see his life as a book which would justify all of his actions in some future reader’s mind.

In his later years, he began to be grieved about his early and late inauthenticity. He relates that while writing Nausea he was “fake to the marrow of my bones, and hoodwinked.” And yet, as much as he tried to escape it, he resorted to the ‘elitism’ of criticizing everyone, but at the same time,

“I was I, the elect, chronicler of hell, a glass and steel microscope peering at my own protoplasmic juices…I doubted everything except that I was the elect of doubt.”

In trying to get back to the beginning of his insincerity and objectified, artificial persona, he found an infinite regression of personas that was forever creating new masks for him to unmask. This was a foreshadowing of his theory of the spontaneous and transcendent ego which is beyond our reach, for it inspires and directs our reach. Any sense of self that we discover or delineate has become an artifice, a forgery of the real self which is impelling the discovering and objectifying a decoy ‘self’. Trying to get to the back of the cogito probably kept him busy for a while, and this, along with a fear of death, inflamed his neuroticism. “I lived in a state of terror; it was a genuine neurosis.” I’m truly saddened to think how many psychoses and suicides a little Zoloft back in the day might have prevented.

Sartre was truly oppressed by the thought ingrained in him, mostly by his grandfather’s behavior, that he was not needed anywhere, or had any importance to anyone. He felt completely superfluous. I think his psyche and nervous system was scarred by having to play-act for his grandfather so much. He literally did not feel significant or valuable, and was looking for ways to make himself feel ‘real’.

“We were never in our own home…This caused me no suffering since everything was loaned to me, but I remained abstract. 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.”

At nine years old (c’mon!!) he was thinking about the existential ‘holes’ people leave behind when they aren’t at a party or gathering and people notice that they are ‘not there’. This spoke to Sartre of necessity, and he so badly wanted to feel necessary in a way that his absence would be palpable and would shake the world. It affected his whole outlook on his literary career, and Sartre admitted that it still affected him in his later years. His desire to write in such a way that he would be immortalized and ‘missed’ when he was dead consumed him. He later realized the flaw of living solely that you would be remembered, and labeled this “posthumous” thinking; and yet he couldn’t shake the need to leave a profound impression with others about his past being, whether or not he was still ‘being’ or not. This probably illuminates his more matured ideas about intersubjectivity and our connection to others that is irreducible and fundamental to our consciousness and being. Could it be that Sartre so badly felt the need to be needed, that he invented a philosophy in which this need is proof of our ontological interconnectivity? Or, could Sartre have felt more intensely and consistently this need we all have, and rightly surmised a possible reason for it that better explains its appearance than any other theory? I think both.

Sartre gives an excellent analogy about how he began to feel which may communicate more to the reader in imagery than Sartre could explain in abstract philosophy.

“Since nobody laid claim to me seriously, I laid claim to being indispensable to the Universe. What could be haughtier? What could be sillier? The fact is that I had no choice… I had sneaked onto a train and fallen asleep, and when the ticket-collector shook me and asked for my ticket, I had to admit that I had none. Nor did I have the money with which to pay my fare on the spot. I began by pleading guilty. I had left my identity card at home, I no longer even remembered how I had gotten by the ticket-puncher, but I admitted that I had sneaked on to the train. Far from challenging the authority of the ticket-collector, I loudly proclaimed my respect for his functions and complied in advance with his decision. At that extreme degree of humility, the only way I could save myself was by reversing the situation: I therefore revealed that I had to be in Dijon for important and secret reasons, reason that concerned France and perhaps all mankind. If things were viewed in this new light, it would be apparent that no one in the entire train had as much right as I to occupy a seat. Of course, this involved a higher law which conflicted with the regulations, but if the ticket-collector took it upon himself to interrupt my journey, he would cause grave complications, the consequences of which would be his responsibility. I urged him to think it over; was it reasonable to doom the entire species to disorder under the pretext of maintaining order in a train? Such is pride: the plea of the wretched. Only passengers with tickets have the right to be modest. I never knew whether I won my case. The ticket-collector remained silent. I repeated my arguments. So long as I spoke, I was sure he wouldn’t make me get off. We remained face to face, one mute and the other inexhaustible, in the train that was taking us to Dijon. The train, the ticket-collector, and the delinquent were myself. I was also a fourth character, the organizer, who had only one wish, to fool himself, if only for a minute, to forget that he had concocted everything.”

Writing this book in his sixties, he was able to understand the genesis of his motives for writing, and he could see that he would never be fulfilled by writing in the way he originally thought he could be. “For the last ten years or so I’ve been a man who’s been waking up, cured of a long, bitter-sweet madness.” He could see that his “eagerness to write involves a refusal to live” in that he would always be inclined to think of writing as a need to be loved and justified as a legend, a story, an object in the mind of some other existent.

“My individuality as a subject had no other interest for me than to prepare for the moment [death] that would change me into an object…I was charging my descendents to love me instead of doing so myself.”

He does a wonderful job of sniping the false pride of ‘legacy’ in himself and his culture. A desire to leave a legacy is a loathing of the present moment for the sake of being a chapter in someone else’ history, a drawing in some children’s book, that no longer risks hunger, humiliation, or danger of any kind. It is an agreement for one to die if everyone will tell good stories about them. “I became my own obituary.”

His loud, self-affirming declaration at the end of the book is as bold and clear as any man who has ever spoken a word in his own defense and fought for his own honor, or humbly but confidently surrendered himself to the gallows he would justly hang on. “What remains [of my work]? A whole man, composed of all men and as good as all of them and no better than any.

I love Sartre’s writing. Absolutely love it. It’s genius, meandering, spontaneous, anti-climactic, playful, enigmatic, and always, always honest. He reminds me of Wittgenstein. I often wonder if the two ever interacted. Both of their M.O. seemed to be anti-elitism (“Never in my life have I given an order without laughing, without making others laugh”), anti-institutionalism, spontaneity, and an emphasis on ‘knowing the world through relation’. I love when he tells on himself for being disingenuous, then tells on himself for telling on himself (“I’m always ready to criticize myself, provided I’m not forced to”). He is a fountain of messy, sudden, and superlatively powerful ideas. From a young age he liked word puzzles, and I think he created cryptic messages for diligent readers to unlock, though I think the point is not memorization but assimilation—if you don’t have to work for what you know, you don’t really know it to your core. Sartre notices and says all the things we’ve been taught for so long not to notice or say, and having dumbfounded you, leaves without knowing what you made of it. It was enough for him that he said it…the rest of your life is up to you, as the rest of Sartre’s own life and meanings are left to him. “Never have I thought that I was the happy possessor of a ‘talent’; my sole concern has been to save myself.”

His early childhood ideas and experiences were emotionally and cognitively overwrought and perhaps frantic by some people’s standards, but his hyper-developed sensitivity to existential angst and boredom allowed him to help people realize with devastating accuracy the tradition-vacuum into which modern man and academia has fallen, and the way to climb out. Sounds like a rough road, experiencing such psychological torment before the age of ten and much to follow after, but I’m glad he wrote about it for the postmodern explorer. Thanks Sartre my brother.

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