Jean-Paul Sartre's "The Words"
Jean-Paul Sartre writes so simply that the grace of his style survives translation. His style is an indication of the clarity of his thought. His mind works with a lucidity that seems to be exclusively the gift of old or middle-aged men, men who are past the complex years when every passing skirt or newspaper article excites them. It is a beautiful simplicity, but one that exists at the expense of turbulent reality as young people know it. It cannot convey, because it does not remember, what being a child is like. The Words is not an account of an extraordinary childhood, but the extraordinary fantasy about childhood of a man who has created things with words all of his life. When it comes to recounting the events of his childhood Sartre (exactly like Genet's Lady of the Flowers when she is asked to describe the crime at her trial) sees no reason to stop describing life itself as the ultimate act of imagination.
Sartre never says he is making up what he tells of the first ten years of his life--the period he covers in The Words. The events he describes certainly took place; it is the interpretation that seems so entirely retrospective. The first half of The Words is called Reading; the second half, Writing. Divisions of such clarity are only possible when a man has forgotten the nosepicking details of the first ten years.
That Sartre conjures up emotions for his youth tells us more than that he forgot what actually happened. It also suggests and extraordinary ambivalence to whatever emotions he actually experienced. This is a man who from childhood onward was so selfconscious that he firmly believed whatever he did was a pose. At the age of seven, "I led two lives, both of them untrue. Publicly I was an imposter: the famous grandson of the celebrated Charles Schweitzer; alone, I sank into imaginary moping. I corrected my false glory by false incognito. I had no trouble shifting from one role to the other." There was no trouble shifting, but there was trouble deciding which was him, and in later years the confusion about who he was added greatly to the attraction existential ideas had for him. Life consists of poses, and the poses are false, at least we have no way of knowing which pose is true.
This raised a problem: since all accounts Sartre could give of his life would be equally false, why not choose the account most attuned to the vision of his life he now holds? Sartre presently believes he is a writer who writes for his own salvation, not because it will change the course of events in the world or influence intellectual history. At present, therefore, the best story for Our Lady Jean-Paul to tell about his childhood was that it consisted of words-- reading them and writing them. Perhaps this is a pose, but since even the shredded memories of childhood which could be listed in a more "objective" account are a pose, what does it matter?
The Words is a literary production in which Sartre plays with words about what it must be like to be a child with a fifty-nine-year-old's perspective. It is an incredibly beautiful production, as great an autobiography as any written in this century. Yet there is something sad about the creativity. It is sad because this mild cynic wished above all to grip naked reality. He ends up with new fantasies between his hands, fantasies that rushed in to take the place of vulgar illusions the existentialists hoped to strip away.
The fantasies through which we wander in The Words are wonderfully treated, for Sartre is a writer of frightening soft power. They often catch something in the preconscious of the reader and they hold it as the shock of recognition floods in. But while a portion of these fantasies are conscious and intended, most of them are not. Sartre has, for example, to some degree, the illusion of having experienced a perfect infancy. Because his father died when he was very young, Sartre believes he escaped the burden of Oedipal difficulties stemming from father-son competition:
There is no good father, that's the rule. Don't lay the blame on men but on the bond of parternity, which is rotten. To beget children, nothing better; to have them, what iniquity. Had my father lived he would have lain on me at full length and would have crushed me. As luck had it, he died young. Amidst Aeneas and his follows who carry their Anchises on their backs, I move from shore to shore, alone and hating those invisible begetters who bestraddle their sons all their life long.
Whether or not Sartre is entirely serious in these passages, it is sufficiently interesting psychoanalytically that they occur to him. He calls his father's death "the big event of my life: it sent my mother back to her chains and gave me freedom." Freedom from what? From the necessary difficulties that parenthood (not just fatherhood) brings to every member of the family? Certainly Sartre's later life with his mother and Simone de Beauvoir hardly convinces anyone that he escaped so unscathed.
When Sartre dies, his works will mark him as one of the most exciting subjects for psychobiography in recent times. This dreamlike, enchanting story will be one of the books that his students will study carefully. And although his philosophical works may appear for a long time to be the most important part of what he wrote, the autobiography might well emerge in the end as Sartre's enduring writing. The Words covers only one-sixth of Sartre's life--completing the work will be an exhausting task. Yet one senses that Sartre realizes his life is the most important source for his mature creativity. The rest of the autobiography may have first priority on his time.
Unfortunately this reviewer cannot convey to you how extraordinarily well-written and alive Sartre's prose in The Words is. The book is the testament of a persevering genius, a writer who labors over his words until they reflect precisely his thoughts, which were clear before he began the process of writing. Now he has turned to the subject he cares most about--himself. The vitality and art with which he speaks of his life are extraordinary