Laurence Gill Lyon

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2940

Both Malte Laurids Brigge and Antoine Roquentin are young writers living with dubious purpose in the shabby, if not squalid milieu of a large French city. Alienated from the past as well as from the environs, each begins a diary in response to a sudden intensification of perception. Both diaries stress Angst, angoisse, and the disintegration of personal identity, and each also documents attempts to reconstitute the integrity of self and world. These and other parallels in image, motif, and theme between Rainer Maria Rilke's Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910) and Jean-Paul Sartre's first novel La Nausée (1938) have already been recorded, but no one has investigated their relationship in detail. Admittedly, some of the parallels are trivial, while others represent concerns held in common by numerous twentieth-century authors. Yet close reading of several compact passages will demonstrate more than a casual similarity in setting or problematic. In at least nine major instances, La Nausée recapitulates neatly discrete metaphoric configurations and extended images prefigured in Malte.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Jean-Paul Sartre Study Guide

Subscribe Now

It is not a new observation that Sartre derived important motifs in his first novel from his omnivorous reading. Can the identification of Malte as one more source for La Nausée have more than marginal interest? It can, I submit, if Sartre's creative response to Malte exhibits a consistent pattern of reinterpretation. The resonance between the two works then constitutes a kind of dialogue which illuminates the characteristic themes of both. What name shall we give this resonance? Cautious readers will prefer to explore it in terms of motivic and metaphoric analogy, especially in the absence of any evidence for a more specific intention on Sartre's part…. Perhaps,… the resonance is merely an unconscious persistence of poetic vision. For this reader, however, some of the parallels are too extended, too detailed to admit this explanation. They imply a more deliberate artistic intent. The pattern of reinterpretation they reveal suggests an intriguing hypothesis: that Sartre sought to parody the tone and value system of Rilke's novel. If the parallel passages do exhibit parodic intent, it is only in the formal sense of that word. Sartre's parody is not principally satiric, though satiric content is not foreign to it. In general, he appropriates the structure of Rilke's motifs and images while negating the thematic significance they bore in Malte. (pp. 53-4)

Malte and La Nausée are participants in the tradition of the diaristic novel. One convention of that form is the encapsulation of the diary proper in a fictitious editorial commentary. The differing manner in which Rilke and Sartre treat this convention illustrates an important distinction between their respective narrative stances…. [In Malte, the] intrusion of the editor is always succinct and betrays no editorial personality…. Sartre's treatment of the editorial convention, on the other hand, is distinctly ironic and concentrated within the first few pages of his work. His point once made, he abandons the device…. This barrage of scholarly impedimenta establishes Sartre as an ironic manipulator of the diaristic-novel convention which Rilke had simply accepted as a tool in the orchestration of his novel. Roquentin-Sartre's ironic ambivalence toward forms and values accepted by Malte-Rilke can be observed repeatedly in the parallel passages to be discussed. Here, of course, no specific dependence on Rilke need be inferred.

Another obvious but superficial point of contact between Malte and La Nausée is the employment of eyes and hands as symbols of perceptive understanding and effective interaction with the world, respectively. (pp. 54-5)

Both Malte and Roquentin have suddenly experienced an inexplicable and threatening alteration in their perception of everyday existence. Malte immediately recognizes that this change is actually a penetration into uncharted regions of the self…. [He] launches the continuing motif of "learning to see."

A more tentative voice speaks in the first pages of La Nausée, but the basic elements of Malte's situation are repeated in Roquentin's words…. (p. 56)

The parallelisms of literary form, setting, personal problematic, and even symbolic vocabulary mentioned until now provide some material for a general comparison of Malte and La Nausée, but they are only preliminary to our discussion of related imagery. The instances of extended correspondence between the two works will be presented in three somewhat arbitrary sections: first, images and motifs expressing alienation from society; second, those relating to the dissolution of personal identity; and finally, those concerning the potential solutions which might permit the narrator to reintegrate himself into the social and the very physical world.

The primary symbol of the social integration and security which both narrators lack is the house. Rilke's use of this symbol takes the most varied forms…. Sartre's usage is more limited. (pp. 56-7)

A strain of unresolved nostalgia does emerge from Roquentin's reverie, but his images, unlike Malte's, ultimately stress the pettiness of an existence he does not aspire to. (p. 58)

If we accept, for the moment, the hypothesis that La Nausée stands in a direct relationship to Malte, Roquentin's reflections on the [homelessness] theme can be read as a response to Malte's self-pity…. The parallels here might, of course, be fortuitous. The house is, after all, almost a natural symbol for security and none of the specific points of similarity is truly distinctive…. Yet it is only one of several such passages; closer reading shows that it broaches many of the characteristic themes of Sartre's hypothetical dialogue with Rilke.

It is relevant, for example, that Malte does indeed possess a past, one which is unhappily inaccessible to him at present. Roquentin, on the other hand, lacks any facility for storing his past…. Roquentin recognizes that it is necessary to abjure the comfort of a self-definition imposed by the past. Malte, for his part, is ambivalent toward the past. In spite of his fear of an externally imposed self-definition, he is unable to renounce his longing for the security of a stable tradition. Although Sartre in La Nausée had not yet clearly formulated his concept of free human life as a projet continually redefined by the future, his rejection of the stable order of the past is already apparent. It constitutes a recurrent element of contrast between the value systems of the two works.

A second repository of traditional values in both works is the portrait gallery. The hallowed aura which suffuses Malte's candlelight expedition to the gallery at Urnekloster well suits the mystique surrounding his ancestral past in the novel. Just as the mansion is disjunct in Malte's memory, so too, only some of the figures in his heritage are known to him. Malte is not an integral part of this tradition: his portrait does not hang in the gallery. The painting of the boy Erik Brahe is the last. The parallel passage in La Nausée is set in the municipal museum of Bouville. Roquentin's own familial heritage is nowhere mentioned in the book, and as for pictures—he is even unable to recognize his former mistress Anny from an old photograph…. His alienation from the pretension of the museum to preserve the past is evident as he enters…. There is none of the romantic heightening here that Malte perceives in the lives of those portrayed at Urnekloster…. Anyone who approaches these stolid bourgeois with something akin to the emotional intensity seen in Malte becomes the butt of Sartre's satire.

A principal focus of Malte's recollections of the portrait gallery is the painting of little Erik Brahe. (pp. 58-9)

In [Sartre's] museum at Bouville, there hangs a comparable portrait [of a cadet]. (p. 60)

The parallels as well as the contrasts between this cadet and little Erik are telling. The ludicrous comments of the sentimental lady in La Nausée establish a trivial tonality for the passage which is quite the opposite of the funereal grandeur of Rilke's treatment of Erik. The boys themselves, however, in each case retain a certain dignity. The important symbol of the eyes is a focal point of the descriptions…. Roquentin-Sartre's ironic exaggeration of conventional sentiment further delineates his self-willed isolation from traditional social values. The genuine melancholy of Malte can have no place in La Nausée.

A similar technique of ironic exaggeration is evident in two further instances. In both of them, ideas expressed quite seriously by Malte are transformed in the mouth of the pathetic-comic figure of the autodidact. (pp. 60-1)

Do these passages contain enough evidence to confirm that La Nausée does indeed contain deliberate echoes of Malte? In no single case is Sartre so blatant a parodist as to establish the relationship beyond all question. The echo becomes incontrovertible only if we attend carefully to the aggregate of approximate parallels….

The problem of personal identity—loss of a sense of self and of control over one's external image—is associated in both works with a complexly intertwined symbolism of face, mask, mirror, and the theater. The motif of changing one's face as if it were a mask, or of putting on a real mask is especially prominent in Malte. Frequently, it represents the tension between the desire to shelter the self in a well-defined persona and the fear of sacrificing all independence to one's image. (p. 62)

In La Nausée, the attempt to create a heightened reality amid theatrical props is the disconcerting affectation of Roquentin's former mistress, the actress Anny. Her attempts are not confined to the stage; they shape her real life as well…. [In] later years, Anny admits to disillusionment: Not only are there no perfect moments in her (artificially arranged) real life, there are none even on the stage. (pp. 62-3)

Once again, Sartre's novel denies the very existence of a reality that is merely depicted as elusive in Malte. While Malte experiences confusion at the disintegration of self and tradition, he never relinquishes his awareness of an order and truth which one might somehow approach if only a proper method could be found. It is this possibility which haunts him. Roquentin confronts a world which is ultimately absurd—or seems so most of the time.

Further illustrations of this dichotomy center upon the symbols of the mirror and the hand. The peculiar capacity of the mirror to fix an image, thereby "realizing" it, makes it an important tool in both novels for those who seek an objective reality free from the vagaries of subjective interpretation. For one who is pure and at one with himself, peering into a mirror reinforces the harmony between the self and one's external image. (pp. 63-4)

Young Malte's most memorable encounter with a mirror is in the scene in which he dresses himself in an old masquerade costume. As he rushes to the mirror, his image suddenly assumes independent existence…. The mirror thus becomes the instrument of one of the chief dangers to the self in Malte, the imposition of a fixed identity from without.

Roquentin's confrontation with the mirror exposes a different danger, but one no less characteristic for La Nausée. He need not fear an externally imposed fixation of the self; on the contrary, the central danger to the self in La Nausée is the utter disintegration of any coherent self-image. Roquentin attempts to avoid the mirror, which can reduce his face to its absurd components, but its power is as great as the mirror in Malte; it is a trap…. Like Malte, Roquentin must succumb to the coercive power of the mirror and is only freed from it by collapsing. Other details of his experience are, of course, very different from Malte's: the mirror here objectifies not a mask, but Roquentin's own face. The horror of alienation is not caused, as in Malte, by an abandonment or obscuring of one's true self, but by the recognition that the components of one's own person are contingents devoid of inherent logic or significance.

The last group of passages dealing with the disintegration of personal identity is united by one of the most frequently recurrent symbols of purposeful interaction with the world in both works, the hand. The representation of the hand as a grotesque sea creature, now twitching, now dead, at once independent of the narrator's volition and yet still a part of him, is one of the least conventional images shared by these works. Young Malte experiences the disintegration of the effective self which this image symbolizes while he is grouping for a lost pencil under his drawing table. (pp. 64-5)

In a separate passage, the hand appears not only as independent of Malte, but as subservient to some unfathomable external power, "das Grosse," which usurps his potency by transforming his hand into a dead animal…. The recurrence of this unusual configuration, the transformation of the disembodied hand into a dead (marine) creature by some impersonal force, is one of the most extended proofs that Sartre utilized images from Malte in La Nausée. In Roquentin's idiom, the impersonal force is termed "la Chose."… "La Chose" flows into Roquentin, filling him, just as "das Grosse" swelled within young Malte. But for Sartre, it would be philosophically inadmissible to represent this sinister power as a truly independent, transcendent entity in the way that Rilke—in this instance at least—represents "das Grosse." Roquentin quickly recognizes that "la Chose, c'est moi." It is his own existence, the sense of the absolute contingency of that existence, which annihilates the concept of purposeful action symbolized by the hand. (pp. 65-6)

[The] inanimate world which vibrates with a secret significance in Malte is infused with lack of meaning in La Nausée.

On one occasion, however, even the sort of radical contingency that is thematic in La Nausée is briefly prefigured in Malte. Although the surrealistic images used to illustrate the potential discontinuity of reality are totally disparate in the two novels, both identify them as a primary source of Angst or angoisse. The awareness that anything might happen frequently overwhelms Roquentin…. A grotesque catalog of just what might occur is later constructed by Roquentin as a kind of vicarious revenge for the insensitivity he perceives in the city he is about to leave…. The vindictive bitterness of Roquentin's catalog is absent [with Malte, there being] more emphasis on the psychopathology of Malte's anxiety than on the discontinuity of reality. Malte's vision is rationally explained as the product of delirium; Roquentin's is a particularly plastic representation of the contingency theme that suffuses the entire novel. These passages are thus related only in their surrealism, but they deserve mention as extreme points in a process of disintegration which extends beyond the problematic of reconciling self and image to a questioning of the rational continuity of all existence.

The third constellation of related motifs is comprised of the potential solutions for the isolation and fragmentation experienced by the two narrators. Both Rilke and Sartre present four major modes of solution: immersion in history, recapitulation of one's own past, interaction with other "outsiders" in the present, and escape into the timeless realm of art. Although these solutions are weighted very differently in each work, all are present in both, and the last two are linked by sets of parallel images. (pp. 66-7)

The by-now-familiar configuration recurs: an aspect of reality which refuses to disclose its secrets to Malte is represented in La Nausée as a simple void. (p. 68)

In Malte, the aristocratic world is passing, but with a melancholy grace; Sartre's bourgeoisie lacks even this.

In spite of repeated encounters with kindred social outcasts, neither narrator can resign himself to acknowledge a relationship with them openly. This would be tantamount to accepting a precise self-definition, which neither is able to do. Only one possibility of salvation remains: escape into the ordered realm of art. To represent art as a timeless refuge from the transience of life is, of course, an ancient cliché: ars longa, vita brevis. In significant passages, however, both Rilke and Sartre represent the liberating power of art as a function of its rhythmic regularity—a much more distinctive construction of the familiar topos. (pp. 69-70)

[It] would be foolish to suggest that the totality of La Nausée, or even the full implications of any single passage here discussed, could be exhausted by considering them as a reaction to Rilke's Malte. Yet the parallels between the works are so numerous and—on occasion—so specific, that coincidental similarity seems excluded. The pattern of correspondence, however, is illuminating even if we refuse to speculate on the origins or intentionality of the relationship. By contrasting small details in a whole series of similar images, we underscore the characteristic differences in the social and philosophical habitus of each novel…. The distinctions on the philosophical plane are no less pointed, though devoid of satire. Repeatedly, situations which bring Malte face to face with the difficulty of gaining insight into the noumenal power of the universe are occasions for Roquentin to experience the absence of such an absolute force: Malte's omnipotent Grosse is deflated to a figment of the self in Roquentin's Chose; … the past that Malte struggles to reinterpret is for Roquentin a virtual nonentity; even the comforting permanence of art which calms Nikolaj Kusmitsch pleases Roquentin only because art escapes the permanence of existence. The thematic reversals are so neat and the sheer number of correspondences so great that I find it impossible to attribute them to coincidence or unconscious recollection. I read these passages in La Nausée as Sartre's deliberate reevaluation, utilizing Rilke's own imagery, of the values cherished by Malte Laurids Brigge. (p. 71)

Laurence Gill Lyon, "Related Images in 'Malte Laurids Brigge' and 'La Nausée'," in Comparative Literature (© copyright 1978 by University of Oregon), Vol. XXX, No. 1, Winter, 1978, pp. 53-71.∗

William V. Spanos

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4073

La Nausée (1938) is one of the most problematic works of contemporary literature. This is not only because of the uncertainties of its meaning, but also—and more important—because of the uncertainties of its place in the chronology of "modernism." The discussion of these matters is so tangled that it is impossible to categorize it without grossly oversimplifying the issues at stake. It can be said …—and this may be one of the fundamental sources of the uncertainty—that for a long time after the publication of La Nausée, the focus of critical interest fell rather heavily on its "existential" meaning. That is, early "criticism," assuming that the novel was radically autobiographical (i.e. that Sartre and Roquentin are virtually identical), disregarded the formal dimension, more specifically the temporal process of the text—to "explain" its philosophical significance and import. And since the primary thematic emphasis is on Roquentin's agonizing discovery of the viscous realm of existence, it was invariably concluded that Sartre's existentialism at the time of writing La Nausée was limited to a phenomenological description of the contingent realm of existence which is prior to essence, or, more fully, of the alienated, virtually solipsistic, consciousness of the terrible viscosity of the absurd world…. In … failing to develop the hermeneutic lead insisted on by the contrast between the inclusive "Symboliste" novel Roquentin intends to write in the "end"—the novel which will allow him to transcend "the sin of existence"—… most early commentators concealed … the fact that La Nausée, despite Sartre's vestigial metaphysical rhetoric, is ultimately a text about the art of fiction that calls previous modes of composition into question in behalf of a new, a post-Modern, novel. (pp. 223-24)

Unfortunately, these critics have approached Sartre's art from a broadly Modernist hermeneutic perspective. They assume … the ontological priority of Form (Being) over process (temporality) and thus … are blinded by their insight to the post-Modern impulse behind Sartre's refusal of closure, or, more accurately, behind his transformation of closure (the circular narrative) into openness (what Heidegger, after Kierkegaard, calls repetition). Conditioned by the traditional expectation of formal unity, these critics pick up Roquentin's "aesthetic solution" … and develop its implications to conclude with unwarranted finality that La Nausée is a novel whose form is determined by a metaphysics which is prior to Sartre's "radical conversion" and his analogous theory of littérature engagée. They conclude, more specifically, that the novel belongs to the early Modernist tradition. (pp. 224-25)

[The] retrieval of the "art" of La Nausée from the purely philosophical speculation which has had a strange hold on the novel constitutes a genuine, if all too belated, break-through in the study of Sartre as literary artist. But it is, I think, partial. For the momentum generated by the philosophical autobiographical readings of La Nausée—and enforced by the Modernist aesthetic expectations of formal unity—has been so great, it seems, that Sartre's philosophy continues to determine largely the aesthetic interpretation; that is, these critics still tend to assume all too easily that Roquentin and Sartre are ultimately identical, that the kind of novel Roquentin promises to write is—in one way or another—the kind which Sartre has written as La Nausée. (p. 227)

I want to make the claim that the novel is not … "influenced" by or "indebted" to the antipositivist Symbolist novel. Whatever its original intention, or, more accurately, whatever Sartre's recollection of his original intention, La Nausée, unlike the novel Roquentin visualizes, can now be understood as a demystification of both formal poles of the binary Western literary tradition…. La Nausée does not ultimately look back, from the vantage point of the late 1930's, to an already triumphant—and rigidifying—early species of "Modernism," but forward, by way of repetition, to that thrust of post-Modern "anti-art" which, under the influence, above all, of the existential phenomenology of Husserl, of Merleau-Ponty, and especially of Heidegger, attempts to destroy received forms to return zu den Sachen selbst, "to the things themselves," to dis-cover (on the ontological, if not overtly on the political level) the authentic temporal experience, the historicity (not history), of modern man that the metaphysics of both the Symboliste art object and the pièce bien faite has covered over and forgotten. (pp. 231-32)

[The] emphasis of the fictional process of Sartre's novel is on Roquentin's ontological crisis. If, however, the parallel between his "visions" in the garden and on the hill overlooking the "solid, bourgeois city" is acknowledged, we realize that the personal ontological theme is not, as Murdoch and others imply, antithetical and separate from the "political" theme, but rather, that they are different manifestations of the same thing, that, in Heidegger's term, the latter is the "ontic" extension of the former. More specifically, we realize that Roquentin's discovery of the ultimate inauthenticity of "naming," i.e., of justifying existence from the end, is also a political discovery of the fraudulence of the ontotheological polis, the modern allotrope of which is the capitalistic City, which the privileged logocentric consciousness creates by self-righteously coercing existence into a stable, well-made—totalitarian—structure. Our awareness of Roquentin's discovery of the ontological/political continuum, in turn, establishes the grounds for understanding Sartre's ultimate attitude towards his protagonist's "aesthetic solution," which Murdoch quite rightly, if for the wrong reasons, feels uneasy about taking seriously. The political theme, in short, is not articulated explicitly; it is enacted by the formal process of La Nausée.

What happens to Roquentin on the ontological level is reflected analogously in the changes wrought on his imagination and on his literary ambitions by his "revelatory" experience in the park-garden. He discovers … that the form of a work of literature mirrors the author's understanding of being, thus adding the category of literary art to the categories of language (naming) and the human City as a third member of the emergent analogy of un-naming. Despite Sartre's unequivocal assertion that "a fictional technique always relates back to the novelist's metaphysics," this category constitutes the most overlooked and, ironically, the most important, dimension of La Nausée—at least from the hermeneutic vantage point of the postmodern context—if, that is, our concern is with La Nausée as a kind of fiction. (pp. 244-45)

Roquentin has experienced (and understood) the de-centering, the unnaming, in all three of its manifestations—ontological, social, and literary—that the question of Sartre's relationship to his protagonist becomes a crucial one…. [Most] interpreters simply take for granted that Roquentin is a strictly autobiographical portrait of the early Sartre and, therefore, that he is little more than a mouthpiece for the author's philosophy at the time of writing La Nausée. What I want to suggest is that, however at one with his protagonist in the destructive phase. Sartre, in fact, dissociates himself from his "constructive" efforts that, more specifically, the "form" of Sartre's novel constitutes a de-struction, an ironic revelation of at least the ambiguity, if not the bad faith, of Roquentin's aesthetic resolution of his ontological crisis.

Despite Roquentin's "vision," he cannot completely acknowledge the unnamed world he has borne witness to in the garden—nor accept the "burden of freedom" (as Sartre, borrowing from Dostoevsky and Heidegger, was to put it later) that he understands to be the essential condition of the anti-Adam in the de-centered world. As we have seen, he despises the bourgeois merchants of Bouville for trying to "arrest" the movement of this superfluous temporal realm by imposing fraudulent names—a providential rhetoric—upon it. He is especially contemptuous of their arrogant devotion, on the grounds of divine justification, to technological process, which is, he knows, a self-deceptive effort to build dikes against the primordial slime (Bouville) or, to use Heidegger's metaphor again, to chart and domesticate die unheimliche Welt, the uncanny not-at-home. But Roquentin, too, finds this same existence not only dreadful but obscenely repellent, indeed, too terrible to be endured. As entry after entry throughout his journals suggest, his disgust for the things of the external world, including human beings is (and has been) virtually total…. Thus Roquentin will work out a mode of evasion that is more subtle—so much more that most critics have failed or refused to understand it as an evasion…. (pp. 250-51)

The first moment of transcendent illumination [when a song neutralizes the Nausea] is described at the beginning of the journal when Roquentin, prepared by the preceding suggestion of "the inflexible order," the "necessity of this music," experiences the whole song at once in the silence between the dying out of the last chord and the emergence of the negress's voice. And the final and definitive moment of illumination comes in the last entry of the journal, when Roquentin discovers in the moment of epiphanic "liberation" that just as the song "is," so too, he wants to "be," a substantial essence, free from the ravages of historical time. Like all metaphysicians from Plato through Descartes, Kant, and Hegel, Roquentin is compelled by a nostalgia for lost origins. He wants … to perceive existence spatially, to annihilate the temporality which, as Heidegger insists in Sein und Zeit, defines human being (Dasein)—and its counterpart, the difference or change (the motion of becoming) that generates desire and loathing—to become something like an angel, capable, that is, of the immediate and undifferentiated knowledge, the "allatonceness," of pure intelligence. This explains Roquentin's contradictory yearning for the "higher" world beyond, which pervades his journals. It also explains his idealization of evanescence, of weightlessness which, in contrast to the weighty solidity of the middle class, Sartre, under the influence of Kierkegaard's critique of the "hovering"—the infinitely negative—ironic or aesthetic consciousness, will henceforth use in his fiction and drama to characterize the hellish "freedom towards nothing" of the disengaged man, i.e., the aesthete: Erostratus, Orestes, Matthieu Delarue and others. The form of the novel Roquentin envisages is thus clearer in his mind than he in fact claims. It will of course, be "modern." But it will be modern, not in opposition to the fiction of the 1930's, but to the positivistic well-made fiction of the bourgeois nineteenth century, in which the assured detective/psychologist (whether protagonist or reader) reigns supreme. Roquentin, that is, will not employ the melodramatic linear sense of "adventure" to work out a "realistic" form that mirrors a positivistic metaphysics and ethos…. He will begin, rather, with the privileged, i.e. teleological, moment, the concept of "adventure" as transcendental aesthetic epiphany, and seek to achieve something like geometric or, at any rate, pure form, in which "the passing moments are rid of their fat" by being coerced into a spatial mould.

Ultimately, of course, the novel he intends to write will align itself with the idealistic aesthetics implied by Socrates to his uncomprehending (because earthbound) listener Protarchus in Plato's dialogue on Pleasure, the Philebus…. More immediately, however, it will align itself with that literary tradition which has become increasingly disillusioned in the possibility of achieving dialogue with the terrible earth and, therefore, has abandoned it in the futile solipsistic pursuit of a compensatory timeless eternity of one sort or another. I am referring, of course, to the "Modernism"—that is no longer very modern by the time Sartre is writing La Nausée—which, in reaction against scientific positivism and its literary counterpart (the "realistic" or well-made work), emerged out of the "natural supernaturalism" of the Romantic movement in the consolatory aetheticism of fin de siècle literature and culminated in the ego-centric "religion" of "infinite negativity" of the Symbolist/Imagist movement—in Mallarmé, Verlaine, Proust, T. E. Hulme, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, et. al.—which Sartre however simplistically, was to inveigh against in What is Literature? Roquentin's novel, in other words, will have its origins in the neo-Platonic Modernism…. It is thus that Roquentin, like his Modernist fathers, will become the privileged maker (author) of a mystified text, and, in so doing, a perpetuater of the logocentric ontotheological tradition.

It could be argued … that, as novelist, Sartre is here acknowledging the ultimate authorial necessity to impose fictions or concordances on contingency, and, indeed, this is consistent with his thesis that man chooses himself. But as both the content … and, as we shall see, the "dis-closive," if not precisely "open," form of La Nausée itself makes clear, Sartre as phenomenologist ultimately insists against Sartre as metaphysician on respect for—perhaps even a generosity towards—the contingent and analogously, therefore, an artfulness, if not an artlessness, that valorizes such respect…. Roquentin's familiar Modernist Will to Power over existence, his disdain … for the ugliness, the squalor, of temporality and his proud Gnostic impulse to "rise" into that "other world" "above existence" by way of spatializing, of coercively in-closing, the temporality of language (which, as discourse, according to Heidegger, is equiprimordial with Dasein as Being-in-the-world), reveals Sartre's ultimately ironic attitude towards his "hero" behind his perhaps ambiguous intention.

Indeed, the parallel between Roquentin's "Platonic" aesthetics and that of the Symbolist/Imagist movement is remarkable…. Reminded of his predisposition towards Platonic beauty—towards "surfaces and solids which a lathe, or a carpenter's rule and square, produce from the straight and the round"—by this apotheosis of "necessary and irrefragable" forms "wrested from the unending flux of being" … it becomes vividly clear to us that Roquentin is thus a late descendent of the first generation of Modernists. Like them, he too is in search of illo tempore, that Golden Age at the beginning when the many was One; difference, Identity, words, the Word. (pp. 257-63)

The critics who identify Roquentin and Sartre from beginning to end and go on to say that Sartre has not yet arrived at an existential philosophy of engagement conclude that La Nausée itself is the work that Roquentin was to write. (p. 269)

What these critics are telling us, it is important to emphasize, is that Sartre's novel posits the ontological priority of form (Being) over temporality: that it is the literary equivalent of a Platonic Circle, a Byzantine mosaic, or a Symbolist novel, which means … that Sartre's Kunstwollen, to use Worringer's language, is seen to be an equivalent desire "to wrest the object of the external world out of its natural context; out of the unending flux of being, to purify it of all its dependence upon life, i.e. of everything about it that was arbitrary, to render it necessary and irrefragable to approximate it to its absolute value." (p. 270)

A Symbolist novel, despite the conservative appearance of its experimentation, is precisely what Sartre has not written. On the contrary, read temporally, or, in Heidegger's terms, with "anticipatory resoluteness" as Sartre appears to insist in his famous essay, "Francois Mauriac and Freedom," written … at about the time of the publication of the novel, the form of La Nausée is understood to be the antithesis of "gemlike Being." And it exists ultimately, as I have been suggesting, not only as an obvious destruction of the linear nineteenth-century "realistic" novel, but also, and in a way more fundamentally, of the novel Roquentin envisages—whether formulated as a Modernist novel of spatial form or, as in the case of Edith Kern, a Künstlerroman, in which the circuitous journey of the hero/author precipitates Poetry as salvation from existence. What I am suggesting is that the source is neither, say, Schlegel's Lucinde nor Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu nor Gide's The Counterfeiters nor Joyce's Portrait, but rather a proto-antinovel (which also destroys the Künstlerroman as well) like Notes from Underground. It is true that, like the Proustian novel, the "form" of Sartre's work refuses to fulfill the obsessive expectations of the bourgeois structure of consciousness for comforting, useful and rational "solutions" to the "problems" of existence. It refuses to assume the preterite structure of Eugénie Grandet, the bourgeois well-made work, in which discords are resolved in the "Aristotelian" sense of adventure, that is, by imposing a necessary plot, a causal beginning, middle, and end on the contingent. But, on the other hand, and despite the appearance of circular structure, Sartre's novel also refuses to fulfill the formal imperatives of symbolism, which, however preferable an alternative for Sartre to positivism, remained mystified (in the Tradition) because the Symbolist imagination failed to understand the spatial origins of the positivistic consciousness and, thus, its relation to Symbolist form. La Nausée … also refuses to fulfill the Symbolist version of the urge to objectify existence: the urge to solipsistic abstraction in which the discords of contingency are transcended in the "Platonic" sense of "adventure," when the privileged moment is expanded infinitely to "totalize" or encompass existence within the circular and substantial All. For in both cases … the will to power, the imposition of necessity on contingency, of objectness on nothing, negates the openendedness of existence and the "humanizing" burden of freedom. (pp. 271-73)

In other words, the structural "circularity" of La Nausée and the style of dis-covering it open up and call into question the logocentric circularity of Roquentin's autotelic novel (and the Romantic/Modernist Künstlerromane it appears to resemble)—and the providential rhetoric it generates. It discloses that in La Nausée, temporality is ontologically prior to Form, be-ing to Being. To return to Kierkegaard's and Heidegger's destructive language, it might be claimed that, unlike the Modernist novel, which, in the objectifying or aestheticizing manner of Plato and Hegel, "recollects [the essential] backwards," Sartre's La Nausée "recollects [the existential] forwards." The circuitous movement, that is, constitutes the achievement of an authentically new beginning, a "repetition," which "is the interest upon which metaphysics [read the perception of being meta-ta-physika] founders." La Nausée, in other words, as Roquentin might have said had he chosen to repeat his distinction between la vie and l'aventure, is an anti-novel. Or, at any rate, it is on the verge of becoming one.

Seen in the light of its temporally dis-covered as opposed to spatially ordered form, the ambiguous, i.e. open-ended or anti-novel, form of La Nausée serves not only the negative function of demystifying Roquentin's logocentric fictional strategy, but also the positive function of demystifying the reader's logocentric expectations of formal unity and thus … of "assigning him to himself," i.e. to his freedom in the context of contingency, of the not-at-home. On the one hand, by rejecting a telos in favor of repetition—the ontological priority of time over Being—Sartre's decentered open form undermines, reduces by violence, as it were, the reader's privileged conventional, that is, "Aristotelian," expectation of a cathartic or comforting end, an end that makes the experience of anguish safe and even pleasurable from the beginning. In the language of existential phenomenology it reduces the inauthentic impulse to objectify (or spatialize), to find an object for, dread or anxiety (Angst), which has no thing as its "object." It thus inhibits the positivistic impulse to grasp the nameless, to transform the mystery of existence into a distanced and satisfying utilitarian ontology of necessity or, to use Sartre's metaphor (which may be adapted from Heidegger), to "domesticate" the contingency of nature by way of the creation of the modern bourgeois City. On the other hand, Sartre's decentered form ironically dis-covers the idealistic Platonic/Hegelian impulse to transcend the "shame of existence" by "com-prehending" it—the counterpart of positivism in the ontotheological tradition—to be an aesthetic (angelic)—and futile—flight from Being-in-the-world. In showing Roquentin caught ambiguously between his radical temporality (difference) and his impulse to escape its imperatives for freedom in symbolic flight, Sartre undermines the teleological reader's privileged status, engages him in rather than distances him from the text and his own experience. He generates, that is, an anxious consciousness of its namelessness and of the need to confront its uncertainty responsibly. Put in another way, the emergent anti-novel form of La Nausée refuses, on the one hand, to provide answers or solutions (as the Aristotelian well-made work or, what is ultimately the same thing, the detective story, does), to the riddle of human suffering in the face of the incomprehensibility of Nothingness. On the other hand, neither does it act as a stimulant that transports us instantaneously, like Hegel's synthesis, into the totalized paradisal "other world" of circles, where questions and answers are irrelevant because contradictions have been reconciled into equilibrium, the existential either/or into the aesthetic or ironic neither/nor; in short, where difference has been recollected into identity. Rather, as the uncertain history of the interpretation of La Nausée clearly suggests, it generates the radical questions [which] … "humanizes" the reader, i.e. transforms him into a dialogic partner in the hermeneutic process.

The "form" of Sartre's La Nausée, in other words, is the fictional counterpart of the demystified "metaphysics" and "epistemology" Roquentin discovers in the public park and on the hill overlooking Bouville…. Sartre's novel …, like all fiction, is a naming that lies. What is different about La Nausée, however, is not simply that it is aware of the fact that it is a lie. More important …, it utilizes artifice to activate the reader's awareness of existence as an absence of presence. Unlike both the traditional ("Aristotelian") and Modern (Symbolist) novel, which exist to cover up difference (fill in the gaps) in the act of naming it, La Nausée make differences explicit. It is … a naming that un-names. What Sartre achieves by way of his artifice, in short, is an example of Kierkegaard's "mastered irony," which, unlike the concealing irony of Modernist literature (especially of the New Critical view of it), dis-covers to the reader his being as being-in-the-world, and thus engages him in the infinitely open-ended ambiguities of actuality.

Sartre, as I have implied throughout, is perhaps too close to the "metaphysical" Western literary tradition to perceive clearly what he is in fact doing to the fictional forms he inherits from it, too close to perceive the "Copernican revolution" that La Nausée achieves in literature…. However, once it is seen that La Nausée is essentially neither an "Aristotelian" nor a "Symbolist" novel in form and content, that, in fact, it constitutes a destruction of these, then it becomes theoretically and critically what it has been in fact for virtually every serious novelist and dramatist since its publication: the turn from Modernism to Postmodernism. With the un-naming in the park and in the fictional form of La Nausée, there is signalled the end of the privileged status not only of the beginning/middle/end of realistic works, but also of the formal closure of Symbolist works in the Western literary tradition…. (pp. 273-77)

From the point of view of the literary tradition, this turn … is a moment in the emergent postmodern effort to repeat or retrieve (wiederholen) in all its original force and for our time the tradition of the sublime, the tradition that invokes that being which is dreadful (and ennobling) precisely because the imagination cannot com-prehend (take hold of) it…. Seen in this light, the literary moment Sartre activates becomes, in turn, of course, part of the larger moment that Heidegger has referred to as the most important of postmodern projects: the "surpassing" … of the coercive, the objectifying, the in-closing metaphysical perspective of the Western ontotheological tradition for the sake of retrieving the mystery of being. (pp. 278-79)

When the form of Sartre's novel is experienced as something akin to an enactment in language of the dreadful unnaming in the park rather than a geometric shape that radiates gem-like flame, the broad parallel with Heidegger becomes evident…. What needs to be said now, at this late date in the history of modernism, is that Sartre's impulse to "surpass" the Western will to power, the obsession to grasp existence, by naming it, is more fundamental. And in its refusal to spatialize form in favor of letting be, it points to an "essential thinking" about literary language and its object that allies … the Sartre of La Nausée with Heidegger's … postmodern project (a-letheia) to dis-cover or to dis-close, and remember, the primordial be-ing as difference that a mystified and logocentric Western anthropomorphism (humanism) has buried, or closed off and forgotten. (pp. 279-80)

William V. Spanos, "The Un-naming of the Beasts: The Postmodernity of Sartre's 'La Nausée," in Criticism (reprinted by permission of the Wayne State University Press; copyright 1978, Wayne State University Press), Vol. XX, No. 3 (Summer, 1978), pp. 223-80.

Alfred Schwarz

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3377

Neither for Sartre nor Camus is unbelief the cause of despair …; it is rather the starting point toward the only meaningful response to the wretched condition of man and the denial of human values—namely, revolt…. [This is the premise of] Sartre's dramatic explorations of the estate of man. "Existentialism," says Sartre, "is nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position."… Both writers in their contexts mean to be optimistic in that they reject passive suffering and resignation to a higher will. But at the same time, giving to man the power to scorn, to appropriate, and even to shape his fate, they set the stage for their tragic parables adapted from myth, history, and politics. In these, man goes under because he deceives himself as to the nature of an alien universe in which he counts for nothing. His alternative is to create an intelligible world centered in himself through a free act of commitment, assuming the burden of guilt implicit in any choice or action.

Despite the obvious fundamental differences among them, there are certain motives common to the so-called existential theater, the Christian drama, and the late plays of Ibsen. The bid for freedom, deliverance from a state of captivity or paralysis, the desire to liberate and thereby define the self by means of an act of the will—the lines of the drama converge on this central moment in all three theaters. But if such motives and type actions are comparable, the concepts behind them are not. The human will in each instance is guided by a different ethic…. The existential protagonist starts … from a forlorn condition. Without hope (which is, however, not to be confused with Christian despair), acknowledging and yet resisting death and the absurdity of life, he proceeds from that awareness to the freedom of being able continuously to shape his existence by choosing to act. In the theater of his world he is indeed the "first actor" or protagonist, the sole judge and spectator. (pp. 262-63)

Although Camus and Sartre did not see eye to eye politically and philosophically, they were both concerned with the drama of man creating his own values, alone and unaided. They prize their differing brands of humanism, but each involves his hero in an act of revolt that marks the progression from the situation of the stranger to that of the man who conquers reality. (p. 266)

[The setting of No Exit is a concrete image] of a philosopher's idea of the universe, which traps its victims and from which there is no escape. What the characters do to each other and say to each other—these are the specific dramatic gestures reflecting man's awareness of his fate; they tell the story of his helplessness and fear, the desire to escape, the recognition of failure, and the abandonment of hope…. [No Exit demonstrates] the negative aspect of existential philosophy, the marred possibilities of life…. [For Sartre] the caged victims are, as well, their own jailers and executioners. (p. 268)

The irony of Sartre's drama of pre-existential suffering is that the characters of No Exit postulate a supernatural power where there is none. The question here is not that of overcoming an unjust fate or rejecting a superhuman, and therefore inhuman, power that would otherwise rule their lives; it is rather a question of learning that the universe is empty except for what men make of it…. Early in Sartre's play all three characters attempt to evade the knowledge that they have damned themselves and that they must inexorably pronounce judgment upon themselves. As every route of escape is tested in their dialogue and logically blocked, they begin to understand the nature of their self-created prison. (p. 271)

[It is] difficult to face the reality that by being what they are they have themselves contrived the logic of their suffering. As the sounds and sights of earth fade from consciousness, they are forced to turn to each other to find a solution to the enigma of their common fate. There are no alibis left because what each has done on earth is the unalterable sum of his life which, in turn, is the key to his present behavior. Once they realize that they are the architects as well as the inhabitants of their peculiar hell, they have gained an invaluable insight into this self-contained logic; but, as there is no opportunity of escape so is there none for rebellion. In Sartre's view, the myth of Sisyphus provides no model for the human condition. There are no gods to scorn, no fate to be surmounted…. Either man shapes his own fate in Sartre's universe, which is devoid of supernatural powers, or he consigns himself to the limbo of the uncommitted, unless, as in No Exit, he lays himself open to the eternal torture of having to contemplate his human failings through the eyes of the others…. Neither defiance nor remorse is possible in a situation in which there is no external system of values that the human will can reject or accept; only a stoic resignation to the finality of death which precludes new choices and redeeming actions, only a perpetual awareness of the self as a fixed object. (pp. 271-72)

Only what a man does defines his life; there are no other values except those which he creates by his acts….

In Sartre's play the human actors have paralyzed themselves through cowardice, crime, and bad faith…. [They] discover the hard truth that they are alone and that by their acts they are directly responsible for their fate. In No Exit the place is hell, and the dead behave as they did in life until the discovery is made. (p. 273)

Goetz [the hero of The Devil and the Good Lord], who plays at being the devil and then one of God's elect, discovers the futility of both roles and claims to have found release in the new kingdom of man. Sartre allows his heroes to liberate themselves not merely from the prescriptive ethic of Christianity but also from the inhibiting idea that man has to come to terms with any superhuman power. "If God exists, man is nothing. If man exists …" The Devil and the Good Lord is not exactly a model of philosophic reasoning, but it is a dramatic and, in part, ironic celebration of the emptiness of heaven…. There is no question here … of emulating the gods or of consenting in the irrational quality of life. The "unreasonable silence" of the universe is simply proof that man is alone and, therefore, by definition master of his fate. What Goetz discovers is that he alone was the author of evil in the first part and that he alone invented good in the second; thus only he can accuse himself and absolve himself. Goetz is done with the comedy of Christian brotherhood as well as with the melodrama of doing evil for its own sake. He has shown that both postures can be faked. Now, by choosing to lead men in order to save them, by whatever combination of good and evil this may be accomplished, he demonstrates that man not only can, but must, supplant the idea of God by acting freely and responsibly.

At this point, Sartre is more persuasive in declaring man's independence than imagining the terrifying burden of his freedom. The furies fling themselves shrieking after Orestes at the conclusion of The Flies. The play ends there, and all we know is that Zeus has been toppled. In The Devil and the Good Lord there is the opportunity to ask, What then? But in the tumult of the action the interesting questions about the emancipated individual get lost…. Sartre's doctrinal conduct of the play causes him to overlook the implications of Goetz's inability to love, knowing that heaven is an empty hole…. But Sartre's ethics and politics are far too rigorous to allow such an admixture of sentiment. Goetz notes his inability to love in the poignant scene with Hilda, but he puts the question behind him as he ends "the comedy of Good" and proceeds in his purpose of saving the peasants like a modern social engineer, discoursing on the inseparability of good and evil under an empty sky. Far from being messianic ("the kingdom of man is beginning") or exhilarating, it is a surprisingly banal ending to an other-wise witty play. (pp. 279-80)

The Flies, when it was produced in 1943 in occupied France, was regarded more as an act of politics than a landmark of Sartre's philosophical ideas. As such, the demythologizing of the story of Orestes ended with a flourish too, and properly so for the occasion. Zeus was shown up as a petty tyrant, or perhaps more precisely and philosophically as a nonentity…. The liberation of the people of Argos was at least as important as defining the nature of Orestes' burden, as he strides off stage. Yet today the play still stands on its own, apart from the political context of its original production, as an important statement in Sartre's work. We may read it … as a modern political drama having to do with liberty and the revolt against the totalitarian state. We must also look at it as a drama having to do with man's challenge to God, his assumption of authority over his own fate by emancipating himself from traditional religious and moral ideologies. (p. 281)

The Orestes of the ancient legends and the versions of the Greek dramatists was a figure of vengeance, and in Aeschylus' Oresteia his deed became a cause célèbre for a new dispensation of justice. Zeus himself stood behind Apollo's directive, his championship of the matricide, and Athene's final judgment. Sartre reverses both motives in his play in the interest of his theme. He creates a new Orestes who comes to Argos, but not because he is of the race of Atreus and therefore doomed to commit his crime…. Rather, he arrives like a curious traveler, a cultivated upper middle-class Corinthian-Parisian youth returning as a stranger to the inhospitable country town which happened to be his birthplace. The Orestes figure who fulfills his destiny by avenging the murder of his father is a tragic hero in the classic sense. The modern Orestes of Sartre who chooses to commit the crime in order to acquire a destiny is tragic in another sense. He is the dispossessed prince laying claim, not to the throne occupied by a usurper, but to the collective guilt of his people. By this act of moral daring, he wants to be a savior king to his people, but "a king without a kingdom and without subjects." And when Zeus cynically performs the role of the Creator of the Universe, in an electronic parody of the voice of God out of the whirlwind in the Book of Job, the modern Orestes becomes the dispossessed youth laying claim to the freedom of Man…. (p. 282)

Orestes' rebellion is defined by the nature of his antagonists, Aegisthus and Zeus, and by the contrast between Electra's behavior and his own. King and God have made of Argos a city where fear and remorse have become civic virtues. It is the model of man in political and moral bondage…. But though Electra's defiant dance of joy on the temple steps … is a bold challenge to their tyranny, it can be only partially successful. Zeus intervenes with a simple miracle, and she is banished from Argos. Electra is capable only of a gesture of moral resistance which is quickly put down.

The episode is a preparation for Orestes' full and positive involvement. It is a foil to his radical act of revolt: the killing of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra and the lifting of the curse from the people of Argos. Zeus remains powerless in the face of his free choice to take the crime and the burden of responsibility upon himself. It is significant that Orestes' motives are unintelligible to Electra. For, unlike her brother, she is locked in the cycle of vengeance, self-hatred, and unending remorse; following the crime she needs the torture of the furies to bear up under her sense of guilt. Electra's reaction to the accomplished act of revenge separates her life from his and underlines dramatically what his commitment means. (pp. 282-83)

The choices are clear in Sartre's play. Orestes kills Aegisthus and his mother swiftly and deliberately, not for revenge, but as a necessary act of commitment transforming the detached stranger suddenly into the guilty murderer deeply implicated in the fate of his race and of his city. As he takes possession of his life, he is struck simultaneously by the heavy burden he has taken upon himself and the freedom he has gained by doing so. Sartre's Electra experiences the opposite extreme. Orestes' existential transfiguration is incomprehensible to her whose life has been dedicated to hatred and the idea of revenge. Now that the revenge has been accomplished she is devoid of hatred as well as any other feeling except fear. But in Sartre's view she fears Orestes more than the furies. A man who leaves behind him all ordinary human emotions, who declares himself outside the divine law, outside nature, utterly alone, who glories in his crime because it set him free, determined to seek his own way and to be a savior to his community by taking its sins and its remorse upon him—such a man is frightening. Yet such a man, choosing this bitter and dangerous path in order to find an unknown but free existence on the other side of despair is also a tragic rebel…. (pp. 284-85)

In The Flies Sartre could still indulge in a kind of theoretical purity. The discovery that man is free and can therefore create his fate was—translated into practical terms—a call to a new life, a way of resisting political and moral subjugation, through acting and taking responsibility for one's acts. But by the time the war was over, the world had begun to learn the horrors that had occurred. The Condemned of Altona (Les Séquestrés d'Altona, 1959) incorporates Sartre's consciousness of a greater catastrophe, a more stupendous moral crisis, than resulted from the defeat of France. In view of the experience of the world war and later of Algeria, he must now deal with guilt as an ineradicable stain. In The Flies guilt and remorse had been a publicly cultivated instrument of oppression, part of an age-old myth that must be shaken off by an act of rebellion. Altona has to do with another world in which … deliverance does not come in the form of a secular redemption or liberation of the human spirit, but is attainable only in a tragic confrontation of the evil of which man is capable. It is therefore far less programmatic than The Flies. The difference for the protagonists is due in part to the change in venue from Argos (Paris 1943) to postwar Germany. (pp. 285-86)

The fiction of the inexpiable crime and the unappeasable dead invented by Zeus to enslave the Argives is now a reality; and the father-God figure of this play, old Gerlach, the Nazi industrialist, is enveloped in the guilt of his son. (p. 286)

If Orestes' act of commitment is the norm of behavior for the engaged existentialist hero, the conclusion of Altona illustrates commitment of the will to end a life of crime and injustice, as if the stalemate situation of No Exit had been broken to allow the condemned the freedom to redefine themselves in death. Orestes voluntarily assumes the guilt of Argos and goes out into the world presumably to shape his life. Franz returns from the war unable to shoulder the accumulated guilt of his life and that of his time until he is willing to face his conscience. It is a far less sanguine view of the exercise of human freedom since the choice is now limited to self-deception and self-judgment. Sartre says that there is an "actual liberation in the two suicides"; that is to say, the act of engagement is the breaking of the moral stasis through self-awareness and death…. Thus the play is also "an act of personal engagement" for the artist and should be by implication an act of engagement for the audience. Yet, the matter of guilt and conscience, engagement, liberation bears a greater resemblance to the corresponding acts in a play like Rosmersholm than to the existential ethic of Orestes in The Flies. Liberation has obviously a different meaning in The Flies. It is a question, to return to Camus's phrase, of man's being able to create his own values alone. Orestes' crime liberates him. In Altona Sartre is forced back to a more traditional view…. The double suicide attempts to resolve an unyielding moral crisis, since Franz cannot resume life in a resurrected and prosperous Germany and Gerlach holds himself responsible for the inhumanity of his son. If it is an act of liberation, one ought to consider that it is so by virtue of their returning to and judging themselves by commonly accepted values. It is as though Zeus and Orestes together capitulated before the invisible bar of human justice in order to expiate their crimes. (pp. 286-87)

Contrary to the Aristotelian legacy of a theater of passion, which he describes as "a rapid disturbance between two moments of calm," [Sartre] sees true theater as the staging of an action causing an irreversible change in the world and in oneself. It is always, in other words, a political act of engagement. (p. 291)

[There are] certain points of common interest between [Camus's] The Just and Sartre's Dirty Hands (Les Mains sales, 1948). Both are political dramas and focus on a moral predicament of our time: namely, the necessity of sacrifice to create and authenticate purely human values. Both protagonists pay with their lives, in an act of free choice, in order to transform murder into a value that transcends the brutality in the one instance and its sheer senselessness in the other. In a world devoid of absolute values the search for justice entails a voluntary giving of the self, not simply in payment for the life taken, but to create such a value—irrationally, imprudently, disregarding the immediate political interest…. The struggle [for Hugo in Sartre's play] is private and treated in terms of existentialist psychology. In his effort to shed his bourgeois character and become engagé, Hugo undertakes a job of political assassination for the party. But he cannot act except under a trivial pretext and at the wrong opportunity, and then almost playacting the scene. Hence the need to reconstruct the meaning of his act, unlike Sartre's earlier hero, Orestes, who kills in order to gain the burden of guilt and responsibility. Apart from Sartre's testing of the weaknesses of his modern protagonist, there is however in Hugo's second chance to make sense of his act the possibility of a free choice, and, like Camus's hero, he asserts his humanity and that of his victim in an irrational gesture of revolt. The sudden change of party policy leaves him with an act of murder done for the wrong reason. But instead of adapting himself to the needs of the party, serving a cause allegedly greater than the life of any single man, he declares himself (in the famous final phrase of the play) non récupérable, ready to face his own liquidation as a politically useless and dangerous person.

In the context of Sartre's thinking, Hugo's act of murder does not define him existentially until he understands that he has killed a man and not merely a party functionary who has outlived his usefulness and until he assumes full responsibility for the deed. Only by his last decision, made as a free agent, does he gain the moral initiative. Thereby he redeems his victim's name and the meaning of his life, at the cost of his own. (pp. 301-02)

Alfred Schwarz, "'Condemned to Be Free': The Will in Action and Paralysis," in his From Büchner to Beckett: Dramatic Theory and the Modes of Tragic Drama (© copyright 1978 by Alfred Schwarz; reprinted by permission of Ohio University Press, Athens), Ohio University Press, 1978, pp. 261-304.∗

Hugh J. Silverman

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 799

Jean-Paul Sartre continues to add to the file which he opened with the 1964 publication of his autobiography, The Words. At the time, those who expected that the philosopher-writer would reveal secrets of his adult life were doubtless disappointed by the self-portrait of his childhood. For the philosopher whose task is to "situate" the individual, The Words could at most be the first gesture. Yet in this account of the early years, much of his mature thought is presemt—albeit in an oblique and barely explicit form. By 1964, Sartre's thought had already undergone a significant revision from his early theory of consciousness. The young boy's "fundamental project" of becoming a writer is revealed in The Words as an autobiographizing which incorporates a theory of individual action as conditioned by, but attempting to overcome, social institutions and social class. (p. 142)

Life/Situations—will do more for those seeking to follow [Sartre's] philosophic-literary-political career than the whole series of minimally substantive remarks that have appeared here and there. Above all, these interviews help to complete the more systematic autobiographical account which Sartre himself has offered in The Words….

When making a plea for intellectuals in Between Existentialism and Marxism, he offers an account on his own behalf: the tools necessary for self-knowledge include Marxism, sociology, and psychoanalysis, but the "unique adventure," the "particularity of the individual," "the singular universal"—these characterize the individual in his efforts at communication…. What we learn from the interview entitled "Itinerary of a Thought" is that he does not expect much interest in a sequel to The Words. The concern was to study "how a man becomes someone who writes, who wants to speak of the imaginary." On this basis, he wrote his biographies of Genet and Flaubert. Since The Words fulfills Sartre's program, we should not look for more. And yet Life/Situations resembles a sequel to The Words. By altering the genre to that of the interview, Sartre opens up a new channel: he gives himself license to reveal [various personal characteristics]. (p. 143)

The political essays in [Life/Situations and Between Existentialism and Marxism] are chronicles [of the times]…. All these essays describe symptoms of a contemporary social malaise that remains largely implicit in Western political life. But Sartre's assessments are highly personalized and for the most part ancillary to his more general philosophical and intellectual positions. These essays will be read for their contribution to his thought in general—they stand on their own only as historical documents.

One cannot look to these two volumes for any kind of systematic philosophical statement. The only possible exception is a 1964 piece entitled "Kierkegaard: The Singular Universal."… The appeal to "lived experience" recounts an epistemological "comprehension" which gives meaning to the paradoxical multiplicity of the singularized universal, i.e., the individual. This is one of Sartre's most effective short statements, but like all of the studies under review, its significance depends upon some knowledge of Sartre's thought in general.

Certain readers will find the studies of Mallarmé and Tintoretto intriguing. The latter essay is valuable because it reminds us—lest we forget his earlier piece on Giacometti—that Sartre is also an art critic…. Two other studies show Sartre's reservations about and amusement at current psychoanalytic praxis…. Together all these essays demonstrate the diversity of Sartre's genius. With the addition of Sartre on Theatre …, which includes the author's various interpretations and anecdotes about his own plays, they display the full spectrum of his intellectual concerns. (pp. 144-45)

Sartre is among the philosophers who embody the principle … that philosophy truly lives when it takes its place among the other domains of human knowledge, including literature, political theory, psychology, sociology, art, history, and religion. As Between Existentialism and Marxism and Life/Situations attest, philosophy can still address the full range of basic human concerns in a serious way. Philosophical theory has no home unless it can be practiced and its practice must have meaning not only for those who engage in it but also for those to whom it is addressed. Although Sartre can no longer be followed in each and every tenet, he can be looked to as a symbol of what is significant in philosophical activity.

The essays in Between Existentialism and Marxism and Life/Situations are drawn from the last three volumes of Sartre's series entitled Situations I-X (1947–1976). Spanning almost thirty years, the series marks the enormous role Sartre has played in recent Western thought. All the major issues and developments of our time are there to remind us where we have been and what we as human beings can do tomorrow. [Author's note: Jean-Paul Sartre died on April 15, 1980. The above remarks were written during his lifetime.] (pp. 145-46)

Hugh J. Silverman, "Autobiographizing," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1980 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XLVII, No. 1, 1980, pp. 142-46.

FrançOis Sauzey

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 755

FRANÇOIS SAUZEY

Born in this century of "specialized knowledge," when the human sciences have divided themselves into ever smaller sub-disciplines, Sartre's thought was complete: In the end, its subject was always the totality of human experience. Though perhaps primarily a moralist, Sartre also provided an epistemology and a psychology, a theory of emotions and a theory of history, even a full esthetics. And, like all "philosophies" in the classical sense, his was unified by an ontological vision…. Juding from Nausea, and from the pace of Being and Nothingness, the discovery of what was to form the bedrock underlying the multiple levels of Sartre's later work had the quality of an intuition, the force of an illumination. In trying to explain the prime energy and simplicity of his vision, one risks being branded a popularizer.

Allowed only one word to characterize it, I would choose "anti-idealism"—meaning not an absence of "ideals," of course, but a refutation of the belief held by centuries of "idealistic" philosophers that values pre-exist and descend upon man according to some abstract and eternal gravity. Allowed a little more than one word, I would choose that tenet of Husserl and the German school of phenomenology, "All consciousness is consciousness of something." (p. 19)

[Sartre wrenched this tenet] from its original purpose to serve his great revolution: Consciousness does not pre-exist; it is only insofar as it relates to something outside. If consciousness does not exist in itself, per se, there is no such thing as an "essence" that in any way precedes "existence," and no such thing as a "nature" of man upon which we can base some overhanging ethics or principles for action. Many can only be defined by his positive interaction with the world (what Sartre called our "project"); nothing binds him a priori, except the outside world and what he chooses to do, or not to do, with it in every given "situation."

Traditional ontologies and their religious or moral extensions had pre-empted man's faculties. Now, as a famous existentialist slogan had it, "man is condemned to be free." True, he is "abandoned" under "an empty sky," as we had been told in school. But this was merely another way of saying that man is restored to the fullness of his powers, that the whole range of his abilities can be fully mobilized; never before have his possibilities been so passionately challenged. (pp. 19-20)

The irreducible individual who redefines himself from one situation to another is at the center of all Sartre's works—from the plays to the novels, from the philosophical treatises to the mammoth biographies and the biting day-to-day exercises of the polemicist. Sartre's dedication to individual man can also be seen in his literary criticism—those beautiful texts, perhaps less known in the U.S. than in Europe, that have molded so much of our literary sensibility since 1938….

It was his belief in man's inalienable individuality and freedom that made Sartre's long relationship with Marxism so difficult—and so seminal…. Sartre's fierce individual … could never submit to being explained or pluralized in the "monstrously mechanical" fallacies of dialectical materialism—or in the abstract concepts and absolute universals superimposed by Marx's followers and interpreters, starting with Engels.

"Valéry is a petit-bourgeois intellectual, no doubt about that. But every petit-bourgeois intellectual is not Valéry. These two sentences sum up the fundamental heuristic inadequacy of contemporary Marxism," Sartre wrote in Questions de Méthode. The method had to be revised, and existentialism was going to do just that; it would give Marxism the foundations it cried for. In order to generalize, to move away from the individual's alienation to the idea of a "group," capable in turn of giving an "end" to history, the analysis had to start from the bottom with the experience of the individual. Hence the enormous and unfinished attempt of the Critique de la Raison Dialectique, that frenzied, perilous exercise in permanent dialectic….

[Because of his death this] Cyclopean, versatile oeuvre was left unfinished. We shall miss the great Ethics he had promised us. But Sartre's ethics are already there, they are the thread-mark and texture of those books where he is most himself: Saint Genet Comedian and Martyr, Words, the Critique, and above all perhaps the first nine volumes of his collected essays, Situations. Sartre's original vision, never entirely sacrificed to circumstances or theories, remains intact. (p. 20)

François Sauzey, "Sartre's Optimism," in The New Leader (© 1980 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LXIII, No. 8, May 19, 1980, pp. 19-20.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial
Previous

Sartre, Jean-Paul (Vol. 13)

Next

Sartre, Jean-Paul (Vol. 24)

Explore Study Guides