Existentialism is a Humanism by Jean-Paul Sartre (1945)

Existentialism is nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position. (p.56)

Sartre gave this public lecture at the Club Maintenant on October 29, 1945. (Just a reminder that the Second World War in Europe ended on 8 May 1945, the war against Japan ended on 15 August, so the lecture was only months after the greatest most ruinous conflict in history – and the revelation of the new atom bomb.)

Sartre’s aim was to explain the true nature of his, and French, existentialism, and to rebut various criticisms of it which had been expressed. (It is fascinating to learn that even by 1945 existentialism had become a popular cliché, a widespread catch-phrase and/or term of abuse. Thus Sartre himself gives the example of a woman who lets slip a coarse expression in conversation, then apologises, saying: ‘I think I am becoming an existentialist’ – and of a columnist in Clartés magazine who signs himself ‘The Existentialist’. Maybe, he speculates, people need a new fashion, now that surrealism is blown out. — Fascinating to realise all this was so in 1945 – I thought it was only in the 1950s that wearing black polo necks and looking tragic became de rigueur.)

The text of the lecture is 33 pages long. Sartre then repeated the same lecture in a smaller, more academic setting after which opponents were able to ask him questions. This Q&A session appears as an appendix (14 pages). Then the short book was rounded off with an introduction by Philip Mairet setting Sartre’s existentialism in its historical context (15 pages). The book as a whole was published in French in 1946, and in English translation in 1947.

These 62 pages are absolutely packed with ideas and implications.

1. Philip Mairet’s introduction

Existentialism is a revolt against the triumph of over-cerebral philosophical systems. Immanuel Kant (1704-1804) in the 1700s produced an awesomely complete theory of human perception and morality; but this was trumped by the enormous philosophical theory of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1730-1831), which incorporated everything, even world history.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) rebelled against all this. Who cares about Kantian analysis of mind or Hegelian evolution of thought: these vast abstract systems can’t help you with the individual decisions, the personal dilemmas we all face in our lives. We confront these decisions on our own through ‘conflicts and tumults in the soul, anxieties, agonies’. The reality of existence proceeds from the ‘inwardness’ of man. Only the individual counts. ‘Truth is subjectivity’.

For Kierkegaard the Enlightenment turned God into a set of logical propositions, but neglected the personal sense of God and of our ‘aloneness with God’. They neglected the real subject – ‘man, in the total, unfathomable inwardness of his being’.

Kierkegaard’s writings are scattered and very varied in form, satires, comedies, dialogues, using fictional personas. They weren’t much translated or widely read in his lifetime. Only in the 1930s did they start to become known. Why? Because their time had come. They were part of the general revolt against the over-mechanisation and over-scientisation of society, the same cultural feel which gave rise to Brave New World. I have recently read George Orwell’s criticism of H.G. Wells’s facile scientific utopianism. belief in machines wasn’t enough. God is dead, religion is a dead letter; capitalism was visibly dying; it was only inside that man could feel his deepest feelings, know his truest self.

The revival of Kierkegaard in the 1930s is linked to the revival of Nietzsche, on the face of it as opposed as could be, since Kierkegaard was a devout albeit unorthodox Christian, who believed the agonised subjectivity he was describing ultimately led you to greater knowledge of your aloneness before God – it led, ultimately, to a purified and deepened religious faith; whereas Nietzsche despised and hated Christianity. What both share, however, is an irrational, romantic revolt against linear, logical thought, and an impassioned emphasis on man’s subjectivity, on his struggle with himself, for knowledge, for mastery.

The massively influential modern representative of this Revolt against the Rational was Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), ‘the principal source of contemporary french existentialist philosophy.’ In defeated post-Great War Germany, all official systems had been discredited and a crazed world of the irrational and the reckless dominated Weimar Culture. ‘In such circumstances men try to get back to the roots of their knowledge in search of a more secure basis of life.’

Heidegger’s contemporary was Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) who wrote Man In The Modern Age, ‘a powerful indictment of the progress of contemporary technological civilisation, which he regards as a social disease.’ Why? Because the world becomes so dense with objective and mechanistic modes of thought, gadgets, machines, devices which all need operating according to fixed instructions – that human will, soul, spirit, innerness, whatever you want to call it, is stifled. Jaspers insists on man’s spiritual and moral freedom – but he was a Roman Catholic and so he thought that this freedom can only lead to unending anguish, unless quenched in submission to God.

Back to Heidegger: the Phenomenologists, led by Heidegger’s teacher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), claimed to be a scientific movement exploring the nature of perception. Put simply we don’t perceive ‘objects as they are’ but as they are filtered through our complex nervous system and pre-existing dispositions. On the other hand, our own selves – the fundamental laws by which we perceive and ‘know’ ourselves – are a mystery to us.

Unlike Kierkegaard or Jaspers, Heidegger is resolutely atheist. He sees man as driven by a need to know that he exists, that he is. If, as phenomenology suggests, we cannot know the real world, nor can we know our deepest selves – then our perceiving thinking self is caught in the no-man’s land between these two unknowns, we are condemned to move forever among the phenomena which are the transitory and contingent products of these two unknowns. We are abandoned in a ceaseless drift of phenomena. There is no bottom, no fundamental value, and no perceptual, psychological or spiritual way out of this condition. Hence the ineradicable ‘anguish’ of anyone who reaches this conclusion, who travels along this road to this bleak knowledge. The only way out is a route which sounds a lot like Nietzsche – which is to create a purpose: to accept fully and without self-deception the bleak abandonment of our situation but to overcome it, to master it, to create purposes, meanings, projects, through which he can affirm his existence and his will.

Mairet goes on to say that existentialism thus flows from a number of tributaries and antecedents, and has blossomed in inter-war Europe with lots of writers, artists, thinkers expressing different variations on existentialist themes (Kafka being the most famous and enduring). What singles out French existentialism, says Mairet, is its literary expression. If existentialism concerns embattled subjectivities, then at some point you need to leave behind generalised philosophy and get access to these subjectivities, to see the doctrines embodied.

And that’s where Sartre comes in with the extraordinary explosion of writings he began in the mid-1930s. the novels Nausea and the Roads To Freedom trilogy, his numerous idea-driven plays, and his philosophical-based interpretations of contemporary artists like Giacometti – all provide Sartre with opportunities to show the reading public a wide variety of ways in which an existentialist interpretation of life is embodied in lots of different characters and personalities.

It is through Sartre’s plays and novels that his brand of existentialism has been popularised to a fashionable, educated audience not very familiar with the heavy-duty European philosophical tradition behind it. But, as always happens, this means it has been watered down, simplified by newspapers and magazines, reduced to slogans, become a fashion item

indeed, the word is now so loosely applied to so many things that it no longer means anything at all. (p.26)

And it is this watered-down, simplified version has then come under attack from political and philosophical opponents, by communists and Catholics, by humanists and other philosophers.

It is to state his beliefs clearly, and rebut all these various attacks, that Sartre gave the lecture.


2. Sartre’s lecture

I can divide the contents of this lecture into three elements: what I understand and agree with; what I understand and disagree with; what I don’t understand (or, more accurately, don’t don’t follow, don’t think follow logically from his first principles.)

Sartre starts by summarising the accusations made against his version of existentialism: that it dwells on the sordid side of life; that it leads to despair (a sin for Catholics), quietism and passivity i.e. is a bourgeois luxury (a sin for communists). Communists, especially, zero in on existentialism’s focus on subjectivity and claim this leads it to exclude the possibility of solidarity and revolution. By denying God, but emphasising human freedom, by emphasising the need for us to create our own values, Catholics accuse existentialism of being an ‘anything goes’ philosophy, which leads to selfishness and irresponsibility. Then he explains:

Existence precedes essence Fundamentally, existentialism is a rethinking of European philosophy to assert that existence precedes existence. For Christian philosophers there is a thing called ‘Human Nature’, created by God and we are all variations on this pre-existing template: in this view the template precedes the earthly reality: essence precedes existence. Existentialists invert this definition: there is no God and so no fixed human nature, no pre-defined template. We come into the world fundamentally free to act and define who we are. It is our free actions which create and determine us, not some pre-ordained God-given patter. It is we who define who and what we are. Therefore, Existence precedes essence.

The centrality of subjectivity Or, to phrase it differently – philosophy must begin from the subjective experience of life. If God does not exist there is one being we can know exists for sure; that is our self? But who am I? I don’t know. I find out by acting. By exercising choice, decision, my freedom. Man is what he makes of himself. This is the bedrock of the philosophy, its first position: man is conscious of himself and this is what separates Man from all other objects in the world.

Responsibility The next step is that we are responsible for our decisions.

The first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders. (p.29)

Anguish Each moment of choice is accompanied by ‘anguish’ because we have no external rules or guidelines to guide us. If we choose to follow rules or morality that is our choice which was also a choice. And to follow them now is a choice which could be otherwise.

We only choose the good Then Sartre makes a big leap which I don’t understand or agree with. He says that when we make a decision we are unable ever to choose the worse; in our minds we always do the best thing. — This seems to fly in the face of all the evidence we have of human beings doing terrible things and things they don’t believe in or want to do.

We choose for all mankind But then he goes on to make a massively sweeping statement:

When we say that man chooses himself, we do mean that every one of us must choose himself; but by that we also mean that in choosing for himself he chooses for all men. (p.29)

This seems to me a big leap. His idea is that, in making major decisions, we create an image of all mankind, it is a decision which is valid for all. I can see why he would claim this: it gets him out of the hole of pure subjectivity and solipsism: it suddenly greatly expands existentialism to become a philosophy of society and social solidarity, thus rebutting the charges made by Communists.

Our responsibility is thus much greater than we had supposed, for it concerns mankind as a whole.(p.29)

If a worker joins a Christian trade union he is not only committing himself to a resigned, God-fearing point of view – he is making ‘a commitment on behalf of all mankind.’ If I want to marry, ‘I am thereby committing not only myself, but humanity as a whole, to the practice of monogamy.’

Disagreement Up to now everything had followed logically, and I could go along with it, at least as a sort of imaginative vision, a kind of fiction of a moral theory. But I don’t think this step either follows logically or is very believable. He has made it, in my view, for solely tactical, political reasons – to refute the accusation of existentialism being anti-social and anti-revolutionary, to try and give it a broader ethical relevance. But I think it feels strained and implausible. Is it true that every major decision we make is always for what we consider the best and that by making it we make a commitment on behalf of all mankind, that we imagine all mankind making the same decision? The simple answer is No.

Anyway, Sartre ups the ante by explaining that this is what existentialists mean by ‘anguish’ – that when you make a big decision, you are not only doing it for yourself (which is nerve-racking enough) but you are ‘deciding for the whole of mankind. In such a moment a man cannot escape from a sense of complete and profound responsibility.’ (p.30)

Everything happens to every man as though the whole human race had its eyes fixed upon what he is doing and regulated its conduct accordingly. (p.30)

Thus, in this dramatically expanded vision of human behaviour, existentialism is the opposite of a philosophy of despairing inaction: it is very much a philosophy bound up with man’s continual need to make decisions, to commit himself, and to act.

As to abandonment, this means more or less what it meant for Heidegger who coined it. There is no God, therefore no set of universal values outside ourselves, therefore we are abandoned, adrift in a welter of sense impressions and conflicting beliefs and values systems and have to construct our values for ourself.

If indeed existence precedes essence, one will never be able to explain one’s actions by reference to a given and specific human nature; in other words, there is no determinism – man is free, man is freedom… We are left alone without excuse. That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does. (p.34)

The last idea required to complete the exposition of basic existentialism is ‘bad faith‘. Maivais fois in the original French this has more usefully been defined as ‘self-deception’. Whenever anyone says ‘I had to’, ‘they made me’, ‘it’s what everyone does’ they are showing bad faith and self deception, that’s to say they are hiding from the truth of their own ineradicable freedom. If we are totally free, it follows logically that anyone giving any reason at all for not being free is lying or deceiving themselves – generally in an effort to wriggle off the hook of having done something bad.

Since we have defined the situation of man as one of free choice, withoutexcuse and without help, any man who takes refuge behind the excuse of his passions, or by inventing some deterministic doctrine, is a self-deceiver. (p.51)

To sum up: man is everywhere born completely free and responsible for every action and decision he makes. Not only that, but each decision contains within itself the assumption that this is the best thing for all mankind. Thus the anguish experienced by people dithering over decisions is made even more intense, because our actions commit us to a vision of all humanity.

And thus – to refute the criticisms made at the start – existentialism is far from being a passive, quietist philosophy: the exact opposite, it declares

there is no reality except in action… Man is nothing else but what he purposes, he exists only insofar as he realises himself, he is therefore nothing else but the sum of his actions… (p.41)

Others, politics, commitment

In the final ten pages Sartre deploys a number of rhetorical strategies and arguments to try to expand these insights about the individual human condition into an assertion that, when I come to understand my freedom, I must also grasp the ineradicable freedom of others. That, somehow, my personal freedom is inextricably linked with the freedom of others and that, by willing my freedom – as I must – I must also will the freedom of other people. I must will universal freedom

I think this final ten pages amount to a long, convoluted attempt by Sartre to escape from the solipsism implicit in his position and from the trap of subjectivity. And I think it is equally an attempt to lay the foundations for a left-liberal political and ethical position. He is manoeuvring a philosophy of personal subjectivity to try and morph it into a philosophy of social solidarity and political action.

In both respects, I think it is forced and strained and that is why – in contrast to the first half of the lecture which deals with the personal aspect of existentialism – I think that is why this final section is harder to follow. In my view, it is hard to follow because it is making unjustified leaps of argument. Take this long excerpt:

I declare that freedom, in respect of concrete circumstances, can have no other end and aim but itself; and when once a man has seen that values depend upon himself, in that state of forsakenness he can will only one thing, and that is freedom as the foundation of all values. That does not mean that he wills it in the abstract: it simply means that the actions of men of good faith have, as their ultimate significance, the quest of freedom itself as such. A man who belongs to come communist or revolutionary society wills certain concrete ends, which imply the will to freedom, but that freedom is willed in community. We will freedom for freedom’s sake, and in and through particular circumstances.

And in thus willing freedom, we discover that it depends entirely upon the freedom of others and that the freedom of others depends on our own. Obviously, freedom as the definition of a man does not depend upon others, but as soon as there is a commitment, I am obliged to will the liberty of others at the same time as mine. I cannot make liberty my aim unless I make that of others equally my aim. Consequently, when I recognise, as entirely authentic, that man is a being whose existence precedes his essence, and that he is a free being who cannot, in any circumstances, but will his freedom at the same time, I cannot not will the freedom of others. (pp.51-52)

This is one long paragraph in the original. I have split it at the point where I think the argument breaks down. The second half is full of stirring rhetoric about freedom and liberty. But I don’t understand how it inevitably follows from the first half.

Sartre used this rhetoric to then go on an be a staunch advocate of colonial struggles for independence around the world for the 1950s and 60s, and as the basis of the social solidarity which seemed, at the time, to be epitomised by the Communist Party. But the stirring talk strikes me as being just that, wishful rhetoric. And, secondly, this position strikes me as being obviously and massively contradicted by the record of human beings in which many, perhaps the majority, have acted as if devoutly wishing the repression of other humans. Most human societies for most of history have been empires, based on slavery.

In my opinion Sartre’s existentialism provides a scaffold and a theme for his astonishing fictions, and amounts to a coherent philosophy of man and a moral theory. But it stops well short of providing a philosophical underpinning for the kind of political movements Sartre wanted to support. He can twist his rhetoric of personal freedom to chime and echo with the post-war calls for colonial freedom and the freedom of the proletariat etc. But the political position does not, in my humble opinion, follow necessarily from the philosophical one.

And, beyond the confines of this particular text, I can call for support on the simple evidence that a number of other leading existentialists didn’t at all agree with what developed into Sartre’s full-blown commitment to Marxism. Kierkegaard, the great originator, despite his unorthodoxy, was a Protestant pastor. Karl Jaspers believed the existentialist worldview led to submission to the Roman Catholic God. Heidegger, the big daddy of them all, notoriously joined the Nazi Party, that’s where his existentialist quest for authenticity took him.

In other words, although he tries to justify it with the full armoury of his argumentation and rhetorical skills, I think Sartre’s attempt to position existentialism as the basis for Sartrean politics displays plenty of brio and inventiveness, but ultimately fails to convince.


‘Human nature’

We know a lot more about human nature than Sartre did. The structure of DNA was discovered in 1953 and computers began sequencing genomes in the 1980s. We have a far better sense of how our lives are dictated by genetic factors. I have read numerous books on the subject and worked with geneticists (at Kew Gardens) and discussed the latest developments with my son who is studying Biology.

On the face of it, you could dismiss Sartre at this point, at his claim that there is no human nature. But I’m prepared to go along with that statement as a kind of axiom of moral philosophy completely divorced from contemporary biology and science. Scientific knowledge may change and advance but people’s moral dilemmas and life decisions still have to be faced. In this respect, I don’t mind, in fact I approve of, Sartre sweeping aside science’s infringement on moral philosophy, to focus on the most fundamental point — we are free; what we do creates our selves; we must take responsibility for our actions.

Surely a moral philosophy can only function on this basis.

Jean-Paul Sartre by Henri Cartier-Bresson (1946)

Jean-Paul Sartre in 1946 by Henri Cartier-Bresson


Credit

L’existentialisme est un humanisme by Jean-Paul Sartre was published by Les Editions Nagel in Paris in 1946. This English translation by Philip Mairet was published by Methuen & Co in 1947. All page references are to the 1973 Methuen paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

Giacometti @ Tate Modern

Giacometti was born in 1901 in an Alpine village in Switzerland, the son of a post-impressionist painter.

His subject was always and only the human face and body. This massive exhibition of some 250 sculptures, sketches, paintings and a video of the great man at work, is the largest retrospective of Giacometti for a generation. And in it there was only one object I could see which wasn’t a human body or face – one solitary non-human entity – a dog.

The first room is full of naturalistic busts of friends and family he made as a precocious teenager and continued to make throughout his life.

The second room shows his turn from naturalism to incorporate the interest in non-European sculpture, of Oceanic and African art which arrived in Paris in the 1900s, filtered through modernist sensibilities like Brancusi.

This was my favourite room because, for good or ill, one of my favourite styles is the Vorticist, the angular, the virile and energetic clash of abstract forms and volumes in sculptors like Gaudier-Brzeska or Jacob Epstein.

Like everyone else in the 1930s he got caught up in the Surrealist movement, joining the group in 1932 and participating in exhibitions, group photographs, contributing to their magazines. A display case shows numerous art and literature magazines from the period.

The sudden German attack on France in May 1940 caught Giacometti in Switzerland and he spent most of the war in a hotel room in Geneva. In 1943 he met his wife-to-be, Annette Arm, working for the Red Cross. She became his most important female model. Partly due to the lack of material, Giacometti’s war sculptures are often small. He himself said he was transfixed by seeing a friend of his quite a distance down the Boulevard Saint-Michel and realising how small she looked. He was trying to capture that sense of distance, of dwindling, which brings with it an enormous poignancy. He is quoted as saying:

By doing something half a centimetre high, you are more likely to get a sense of the universe than if you try to do the whole sky.

Certainly, one of my favourite pieces in the whole show was ‘Very small figurine’, a spindly human figure about a centimetre tall. It does give a sense of tremendous distance, like a figure lost in a science fiction fantasy.

In 1945 he returned to set up a studio in Paris and began to produce the elongated, emaciated, human stick figures for which he quickly became well-known and then world famous. Bereft of individuality, their surfaces the opposite of smooth, gouged and hand-shaped, roughly finished, helpless spindly shades, they instantly struck a chord. Contemporary commentators interpreted them as:

  • survivors of the Holocaust
  • survivors of the atom bomb – certainly the jet black colour of the metal casts gives the impression of humans who have been incinerated and reduced to something less than skeletons
  • survivors of the complete collapse of values in western civilisation

An exhibition in New York in 1948 had an introductory essay written by Jean-Paul Sartre, the philosopher-superstar of the era, which clinched Giacometti’s reputation as the artist who summed up the turmoil and collapse of the post-war world. Sartre used key words from his existentialist philosophy like ‘anguish’ and ‘alienation’, but you didn’t have to read the essay to feel how Giacometti’s figurines represented humanity reduced to degree zero.

Alberto Giacometti and his sculptures at the 1956 Venice Biennale (Archives of the Giacometti Foundation)

Alberto Giacometti and his sculptures at the 1956 Venice Biennale (Archives of the Giacometti Foundation)

Giacometti had found his look, his voice, his brand, and he stuck to it for the twenty years up to his death in 1966, producing figurines large and small, some in bronze, some in the raw plaster, some in clay, some striding or bent in movement but most of them tall and straight, mute witnesses to some awful catastrophe.

He was as representative of that time and place and era in European culture as his friends Sartre and Jean Genet and Samuel Beckett. Humanity redux, homo minimus, man and woman stripped not only bare, but stripped of their flesh and fat and bones, burnt away to their irreducible elemental structure.

Alongside the figurines went his portrait paintings. Giacometti produced hundreds of these, obsessive variations on the same full frontal facial pose, many of his close friends and family, but most of  his wife, Annette, and then during the 1960s of his new young mistress, Caroline.

Not so long ago I went to the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition of scores of these Giacometti portraits. I hate to be a philistine but once you’ve seen a few of them, it does feel like you’ve seen them all. Once you’ve got the image, received its parameters, its technique, its aim and its impact – seeing another 5, 10, 20 or 30 doesn’t add much.

In fact, after a while the interest, in the portraits as of the figurines, is their obsessive repetitiveness. Giacometti lived on into the era of radio and then TV documentaries and so there are quite a few films of him at work and being interviewed. He routinely admits that he is never satisfied with a work – he has to start again, try again, keep on.

Reading several expressions of this dissatisfaction reminded me of the famous quote from Samuel Beckett’s play Worstward Ho:

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Of course, the exhibition is followed by the shop where you can buy not only books, postcards, posters and fridge magnets, but mugs, t-shirts, carry bags and pillows bearing Giacometti images. Not so harrowing now, his imagery has been totally assimilated into the great shopping mall of art history, the vast continuum of images among which we move and live.

Man Pointing (1947) by Alberto Giacometti © Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017

Man Pointing (1947) by Alberto Giacometti © Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017

The Tate Modern shop had a section devoted to David Hockney, with lots of blue swimming pools, bright green foliage etc, and it occurred to me that the shift from Giacometti to Hockney – roughly from the 1950s to the 1960s – was like the move from black-and-white to colour television. It reflected the shift from austerity to a mass consumer society, to a world where growing numbers of people could not only afford televisions, but washing machines, fridge freezers, but could go on the new ‘package holidays’ to the sun, buy cheap reproductions of famous art, and so on.

One minute everyone wanted to look like Albert Camus with his collar turned up against the Paris fog, smoking a Gitane, intensely pondering the futility of existence – the next everyone wanted to be on the West Coast soaking up rays by the pool and partying every night.

The world went Pop and, overnight, Giacometti, Camus, Sartre became vivid, powerful but utterly dated figures from the black-and-white post-war moment of European history. A moment vividly and viscerally revived in this massive and evocative exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Iron In The Soul by Jean-Paul Sartre (1949)

He felt himself filled with a sense of vast and pointless freedom. (p.92)

349 pages long in the Penguin paperback edition, Iron in The Soul repeats the format of the previous two novels in The Roads To Freedom trilogy by following a set of French characters over a very specific, and short, timeframe connected with the Second World War, in this case right at the end of the Battle of France.

Part one

Part one is 200 pages long, its first chapter has the dateline ‘New York: Saturday 15 June 1940 9am’ and the final chapter is dated ‘Tuesday 18 June 5.45am’. So it covers four days towards the end of the Battle of France.

In part one there is not much of the ‘experimental’ technique Sartre used to such effect in The Reprieve. In that novel I counted some 130 named characters, and the text made a point of cross-cutting unpredictably from one character’s actions and thoughts to another’s, from one scene to another, continually introducing new characters, sometimes just for brief cameos. This made it quite a challenging read but the reward was in the quite wonderful, almost musical, sense of rhythm in the interleaving of episodes, people and their deepest thoughts.

Part one of Iron in the Soul is more traditional, establishing fixed and static scenes and then following characters within them for substantial lengths of text, before starting new chapters or chapter sections to reflect new scenes and characters. Much more clear and comprehensible.

Timeline

Maybe a recap of the historical background would be useful. In spring 1940:

May 10 Germany invades France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands
May 11 British and French forces begin a long line of strategic defenses to defend Belgium
May 12 German General Guderian with his three divisions reaches the Meuse River
May 13 the first German forces emerge from Ardennes onto the Meuse
May 14 German Panzer Corps fifteen and nineteen break through Allied defenses at Sedan allowing German forces to bypass the Maginot line
May 15 German forces push on toward Paris and the English Channel
May 20 General Weygand replaces General Gamelin as Allied commander
May 17-18 Antwerp and Brussels fall to Germany
May 21 Allied forces try to counter attack German forces but are repulsed
May 24 The Luftwaffe bombs Allied defensive positions around Dunkirk
May 25 German forces take Boulogne as more retreating Allied forces reach Dunkirk
May 26 850 British civilian ships and vessels help Allied forces evacuate Dunkirk in the largest military evacuation in history
May 28 King Leopold of Belgium orders his army to surrender to German forces
May 29 around 47,000 British forces are evacuated from Dunkirk
May 30 around 120,000 Allied forces evacuated from Dunkirk
May 31 around 150,000 Allied soldiers arrive in Britain

June 3 The German Luftwaffe bombs Paris
June 4 Allied forces continue evacuation of the coast. In all some 338,326 British and 113,000 French forces are evacuated from Dunkirk to Britain
June 5th Second part of the Battle of France begins with the German striking south from the River Somme
June 9 German forces launch an offensive on Paris
June 10 Norway surrenders to Germany and Italy joins the war by declaring war on France and Great Britain
June 13 Paris is declared an open city by the French government which flees to Bordeaux
June 14 German troops enter Paris
June 16 Marshal Petain becomes Prime Minister of France
June 17 French government asks Germany for armistice terms. Germans cross the river Loire in the west and reach the Swiss frontier in the south-east
June 18 General de Gaulle broadcasts on the BBC telling the people of France to resist
June 22 France signs an armistice with Germany
June 23 Adolf Hitler begins a tour of the captured city of Paris
June 24 The French officially surrender at Compiegne, site of the German surrender in 1918
25 June All hostilities cease. France has fallen

Part one of Iron In the Soul tracks its characters over the four days during which Parisians flee their city before it is taken by the Germans and when retreating Second Tier armed forces are abandoned by their officers and find themselves at a loss what to do. the key characters from the first novel recur:

  • Gomez is in New York scrabbling for a job in the art world.
  • His wife, Sarah, and son Pablo are caught in the huge stream of refugees fleeing Paris.
  • Daniel, the gay banker who married Mathieu’s mistress, Marcelle, has packed her off and roams the streets of an empty Paris like the last man in the world – until he encounters Philippe, the spoilt youth we met in The Reprieve, and sets about seducing him.
  • Boris Serguine, who we saw join the Army in The Reprieve, was wounded in the fighting but is well enough to go to the apartment of his mistress, the nightclub singer Lola Montero who, however, has been diagnosed with a stomach tumour but can’t bring herself to tell him.
  • We saw Boris’s sister, the prickly Ivich, give herself to a unnamed man in The Reprieve partly as rebellion against her bourgeois parents, partly because she thought war was about to break out and the world end. Nearly two years later, we discover she got pregnant, the man married her, she had a miscarriage, he’s off at the front fighting where, characteristically, she hopes he gets killed.
  • Mathieu’s intolerably pompous self-serving brother, Jacques, a lawyer, forces his wife to pack in a hurry and flee from Paris only to get half way across France and realise he wants to go back, and blames the whole thing on her. She is livid. She goes to sleep in the car dreaming of Mathieu.
  • And the ‘hero’ of the first book – over-sensitive, over-thinking, angst-ridden but ineffectual philosophy tutor Mathieu Delarue?We find him with a platoon of Second string infantry who never saw any fighting. For 200 pages they laze around wondering what to do after their officers have treacherously abandoned them, smoking and getting drunk – until a platoon of Chasseurs arrive who are battle-hardened and disciplined. On a whim – or more accurately, as a result of the incredibly complicated and tortuous meditations about the nature of ‘freedom’ which have filled the previous 800 pages, Mathieu decides to join them, is given a rifle, sent with a squad to be sharp-shooters up a church belfry and when the Germans finally arrive, is involved in a fierce firefight which ends with the belfry being blown up by artillery and Mathieu blazing away till the last minute like a Hollywood hero.

Part two

is significantly different. It took me a few pages to realise that the entire part – all 120 pages – consists of just three paragraphs. With the exception of just two small breaks, these 120 pages make up a solid block of print, with no incidental breaks or indentations. Possibly this is to reflect the subject matter. (Craig Vasey’s introduction to The Last Chance: Roads of Freedom IV tells me that in the original French there weren’t even the two small breaks: the entire 120 pages consisted of one paragraph; and that all the verbs were in the present tense, something the English translation here rejects.)

The ‘plot’ picks up (with savage irony / comedy  / bleak farce) at exactly the point where Mathieu is killed – for taking refuge in a cellar of a house off the square is his friend and contemporary, the strong, manly Communist Brunet. In The Age of Reason, there’s a passage where Brunet tries to persuade Mathieu to become a communist, but the timid philosopher, as with everything else in his life, hesitates and puts the decision off.

Anyway, Brunet has no idea Mathieu is up in the church tower about to be blown to smithereens. He has his own concerns. he fought bravely, most of his platoon were killed. Now he surrenders to the Germans as they finally take the village. He falls in with a trail of French POWs which grows and grows till it is maybe 10,000 strong, a vast concourse of knackered, defeated, demoralised men stumbling along dusty roads in blinding heat. Finally, they arrive at a disused barracks which has become converted into a POW camp.

Here the French are easily shepherded inside and locked up. The next hundred pages give in great detail the dialogue between a cast of about a dozen peasant and proletarian infantrymen, while Brunet makes his plans to create a Communist cell among them. While they fuss about food and the weather and gossip, Brunet is planning for the future.

In this he is sort of helped by Schneider, a tough, surly man who is not exactly a Communist, but agrees to help him. The spine of the section is the wary dialogue between these two men, with Schneider proving himself both more of a man of the people, and smarter than Brunet in various situations. It is difficult to know what this section is ‘about’. Possibly it is a prolonged examination of the nature of a ‘Communist Activist’, with Brunet given Schneider as a foil to dramatise different approaches to handling men, creating a cell, combating cynicism and fatigue, and so on.

Whatever the precise intention, the overt or political purpose of the section now feels completely redundant, part of a long-lost history. It doesn’t even – as with so much Sartre – lead to any real action, for next to nothing happens to this vast concourse of freed men. After five or six days without food, trucks eventually arrive with soup and bread. One madmen runs amok screaming and the Germans shoot him. For the rest the defeated Frenchmen adopt a holiday mood, sunbathing, playing cards, establishing billets in every available building, nicking stuff, squabbling. Both Brunet and Schneider find it almost impossible to motivate anyone. No Germans of any authority appear. They don’t confront the camp commandant or organise a strike or anything really decisive or dramatic. Instead Brunet and Schneider squabble with each other, and with the dozen or so named characters around them.

In the last of the three sections, the setting jumps a bit to aboard the massive train of cattle trucks in which thousands of POWs have been packed as it rattles north through France. A teeny tiny bit of suspense is given to this passage because the more intelligent among them (i.e. Brunet, Schneider, a few others) are pretty sure they’re being taken to Germany to become slave labour. The section shows the various forms of denial, fear, and panic among the POWs as they wonder which way the train will turn at the fatal set of points which will steer them either further north into France or East across the border. One character, a young printer who Brunet had recruited for his Communist cell, panics, jumps from the train when it slows at a cutting, runs away a little, then panics more and tries to return and catch up – only to be picked off by the German guards and fall dead beside the rails. That’s as dramatic as it gets.

When the train reaches the points they are set East, confirming Brunet and Schneider’s gloomy assumptions. They are heading East to a dark future. The final words are:

Above the dead body, above the inert freight-van, the darkness wheeled. It alone was living. Tomorrow’s dawn would cover all of them with the same dew. Dead flesh and rusted steel would run with the same sweat. Tomorrow the black birds would come. (p.349)


Themes

The futility of life

As to the mood and feel of the text, we are back in bleak Sartre-land where the sunshine is futile, life is pointless, breathing is an effort, and the hyper-sensitive characters are oppressed by life, by other people, by other people looking at them, dammit – and everyone agonises about their ‘freedom’, panting after this mystical chimera without ever quite grasping what this much-abused term actually means.

Gomez, the artist has escaped to New York, where he walks around hating the heat, the sunshine, the big buildings, the streamlined cars, the adverts, the magazines and, everywhere, pictures of happy smiling people – Not to grin is a sin, he thinks bitterly – while ‘over there’ i.e. back in Europe, people are suffering, suffering I tell you! This is intercut with the plight of his wife, Sarah, a Jewess, and small son Pablo, who are caught in a vast traffic jam of refugees fleeing Paris. These are Gomez’s thoughts:

He looked at the street, at the meaningless sun, at the whole meaningless day. There would be nothing now, any more, but meaningless days. (p.9)

These are Sarah’s thoughts:

We are no more than the feet of an interminable insect. Why walk when hope is dead? Why live? (p.25)

Sartre’s novels could almost be designed to validate teenage depressives’ most suicidal thoughts and, above all, to make the depressive feel special, superior to what Gomez calls the ‘human tide’ of people in New York with their ‘bright dead eyes’, and Sarah’s description of the refugees as ‘insects’ (a favourite insult term of Sartre’s; he memorably describes Hitler as having an insect face; Mathieu looks down from the church tower on the villagers like ‘frightened ants’; Lola feels that Boris while screwing her is like an insect, when the Germans arrive in the village Mathieu feels they have ‘the eyes of supermen and insects’, p.212).

Everyone else is an insect, or an inane grinning American with dead eyes, part of the machine, part of the bourgeoisie – I, I alone, suffer – look how I suffer – look how special I am!

Suicide

Both The Age of Reason and The Reprieve contain extended sequences describing the thoughts and sensations, the hyper self-awareness, of two men on the brink of committing suicide – Daniel with a razor and Mathieu jumping into the Seine, respectively. Having tried to kill myself, I can vouch for the exquisite sense of self-pity you feel at such a moment, looking at your doomed hands, your tragic face in the mirror, afflicted by sentimental thoughts that this is the last time you’ll look at your face, the last time you’ll turn out the bedroom light (or whatever), after you slash your wrists, take an overdose etc.

So, Ivich invites her brother, Boris, to join her in a suicide pact (p.72) though she isn’t really a serious character, just a spoilt wilful girl. Daniel comes across Philippe, the spoilt son of bourgeois parents, hesitating on the brink of the Seine, trying to nerve himself to throw himself in. Various other characters – for example Mathieu’s sister-in-law, Odette, who is secretly in love with him – think they can’t go on, life is so damn pointless. What’s the point?

In Sartre’s novels, death, and suicide, are all around us. Describing the plot to my son he said, ‘sounds like teenage angst on steroids’.

Rootless, directionless, abandoned

What these people need is a sound spanking (as Mathieu’s sister-in-law, Odette, memorably puts it). Or maybe just the support of a loving family, a job, some stability, something to focus their energy on. But their characters are all carefully chosen to be bohemian types, drifters, people without settled jobs or any real family commitments. Sartre selects a group of people with very few responsibilities and who we never see doing a single day’s work in their lives – thus allowing them all to give vent to maximum feelings of alienation and anomie, thus permitting them all to have lengthy and repetitive soliloquies about the pointlessness of life, about their feelings of abandonment.

As a married father of two, I see both marriage and especially fatherhood, as extremely demanding, responsible roles. Significantly, none of Sartre’s characters are married or have children in the traditional manner –

  • Gomez is married but has dumped Sarah and his son to run away and fight in Spain, then flee to America.
  • Daniel only married Marcelle as an existential dare, in reality he hates her and can’t wait to get away from her.
  • Boris is going out with Lola the singer, but routinely hates her, and in fact dumps her for the army.
  • Ivich got married to Georges after he got her pregnant but, inevitably, hates him, and hopes he’s killed in the fighting (p.66). Ivich loathes her in-laws, and she ‘detests’ the French (p.68), but then she hates more or less everyone.
  • Sarah looks at her crying son and realises she hates him (p.25).
  • The villagers hate the French soldiers who’ve been billeted on them (p.97).
  • Mathieu realises he hates his drunken comrades (p.132).
  • Philippe tells Daniel that he hates his step-father, the general (p.149).
  • Pinette’s girlfriend hates Mathieu (p.157)

In fact, most of the characters hate most of the other characters most of the time. Do all French people hate all other French people? Would explain their surliness.

So if you’re a drifter without a proper job, without any family ties or support, who hates everyone and despises bourgeois society, this is how you will end up feeling: full of despair and anomie. It’s hardly rocket science.

Alone

It is a key axiom of existentialism that every individual is alone, completely alone, and condemned to complete freedom. We are not hemmed in or supported by social structures or traditions or morality, for we choose whether or not to accept those: to blame society or others in any way for any of our acts is bad faith, is a denial of our utter freedom.

But Sartre’s philosophy of life – or his melodramatic poetry about the horror of existence – all begins in this primal, fundamental sense of your complete solitude, the basic feeling of alienation from others, from your fellow soldiers, or your family, from everyone else in the bar or cafe or nightclub, some sudden feeling of your complete aloneness in the face of an utterly indifferent universe.

This is the moment in the characters’ lives which the text keeps returning to like a moth to a flame.

  • He shivered. He felt suddenly naked and alone, a man, I. (p.102)
  • No one needs me. he sat down on the edge of the road because there was nowhere for him to go. Night entered into him through mouth and eyes, through nose and ears. He was no one now; he was nothing – nothing any longer but misery and darkness. (p.162)
  • Mathieu saw the smile and felt utterly alone. (p178)
  • She felt lost in a world of which she could make no use. (p.191) [Odette]
  • She thought: ‘I am alone.’.. He speaks to me and kisses me, but when I come to die I shall be alone… (pp.205-6) [Lola]
  • Where are the Comrades? Brunet felt lonely. Never, in all the past ten years, had he felt so utterly alone. (p.239)
  • [When the French prisoners of war arrive in a huge fences barracks] They were going to bury their filthy old war among these high buildings, were going to stew in their own juice, unseen of the outer world, isolated and alone. (p.241)

Even sex doesn’t unify people, it merely emphasises their inescapable isolation. There are two memorable acts of sex in the book and both of them emphasise the essential loneliness of the male protagonist: first the peasant Pinette screwing the post office girl he’s picked up in a field outside the village where Mathieu and the other soldiers are mooching about; then handsome young Boris making love to Lola the ageing singer. Lola has discovered she has a tumour of the belly and/or the menopause, both of which conspire to make sex very painful, but not as painful as the self-image she has, loathing her dry husk of a body and thinking of Boris as a repellent insect squirting her with sticky fluid. Lots of disgusting, viscous fluids in Sartre.

It is through a wound that you will enter me. When he used to touch me in the old days, I became like velvet: now, my body is like dried earth: I crack and crumble under his fingers… He rent her to the roots of her belly, he was moving in her belly like a knife. On his face was a look of loneliness, of morbid concentration. She saw him as an insect, as a fly climbing up a window-pane climbing, falling, climbing again. She was conscious only of the pain he was causing her… (p.204)

No, not even sex is an escape from the ubiquitous sense of aloneness, of abandonment, which Sartre sees as the permanent basis of the human condition.

In the climaxes of the two parts, the male protagonist is invincibly alone. Mathieu, wounded, and the only survivor of an artillery shell which has brought the roof of the church tower down on all his comrades, struggles to continue shooting for just a few seconds more before being obliterated. In those moments:

He fired. He was cleansed. He was all-powerful. He was free. (p.225)

On the last page of part two, after the little printer has been shot dead and the train moves mechanically onwards.

Brunet was alone, rigid and uncomfortable. (p.349)

It is an oddity than a man so obsessed with the fundamental and irreducible aloneness of each human being became a Marxist, devoted to the idea of international solidarity. And that a man so obsessed with man’s terrifyingly absolute freedom, adopted the Marxist worldview which is characterised by the inevitability of History, that Marx had uncovered scientific laws of History which dictated that a Communist revolution was inevitable i.e that at some deep level human beings are not free. I leave this to the scholars to disentangle: it would certainly be good to reach a better understanding.

Science fiction states of mind

Not much happens in a Sartre novel. Page after page is filled either with lengthy dialogue between its ineffectual characters, or with even lengthier descriptions of their feelings of abandonment and futility. The firefight at the climax of part one, and the death of the printer at the climax of part two, are very much the exceptions which prove the rule. They are more or less the only bits of ‘action’ in the entire trilogy.

Every page features descriptions of the characters’ inner thoughts, lengthy internal monologues but these are not as they would be in a comparable English novel. The distinctive and unnerving feature of them is the extent to which they develop into often almost delirious hallucinations of the world around them, with objects coming alive, with great abstract ideas entering the sky or room or drowning them, with parts of their bodies becoming external objects (arms and particularly hands often seem to their owners to have become alien objects). Here is Mathieu in the bell tower of the village church.

Under their feet was the fragrance of spices and incense, coolness, and the stained-glass windows feebly shining in the shadows of the Faith. Under their feet was confidence and hope. He felt cold. He looked at the sky, breathed the sky, thought with the sky. He was naked on a glacier at a great height. Far below him lay his childhood. (p.200)

In a proliferating multitude of ways, the world around Sartre’s characters, including their own bodies, including their own ideas and sensations, come alive, infuse their thoughts, colour the sky, invade the world.

The effect is often bizarre, surreal or even druggy. ‘He thought with the sky.’

And very often these hallucinations go one step further by infusing these trippy states of consciousness with poetic renderings of grand abstract concepts like Death or Defeat or Despair. Characters frequently become dead men, anticipating their death (by suicide or in battle), realise that they are a dead man walking or thinking. Or death invades whole scenes, the huge vista of prisoners of war becomes a sea of the dead (to Brunet’s eye) or Paris becomes a vast tomb (in Daniel’s imagination), and so on.

Thus Daniel wandering the empty streets of Paris experiences what amount to such intense imaginative transports that they are effectively hallucinations. n a memorable simile the Boulevard St Michel becomes a vast beached whale. In fact, it was while reading the Daniel-wanders-round-empty-Paris section that it suddenly struck me that a lot of Sartre’s scenes have the feel of science fiction.

Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, was silence and emptiness, an abyss stretching horizontally away from him… The streets led nowhere. Without human life, they all looked alike. The Boulevard Saint-Michel, but yesterday a long southward spread of gold, seemed now like a stranded whale, belly upwards. He made his feet ring out upon the great, sodden, hollow carcass. (p.93)

This scene suddenly reminded me of all those science fiction novels in which a man finds himself more or less the only survivor of a disaster, a great plague or nuclear apocalypse.

Anyway, the passage quoted above could be categorised as a Level One hallucination, one which is still a metaphor of a recognisable state. But (as noted above) routinely Sartre’s characters progress to Level Two hallucinations in which the ‘reality’ around them becomes infused with great Abstract Concepts.

He looked at the empty bridge, at the padlocked bookboxes on the quay, at the clock-face that had no hands… A shadow slipped past the Prefecture of Police…Paris was not, strictly speaking, empty. It was peopled by little broken scraps of time that sprang here and there to life, to be almost immediately reabsorbed again into this radiance of eternity. (p.91)

‘Scraps of time reabsorbed into this radiance of eternity.’ This is a kind of philosophical prose poetry, in that it invokes ‘deep’ ideas, but without any systematic application, merely for effect. It is a kind of pseudo-philosophical lyricism for its own sake.

I am here. Time, with its great fanning future, collapsed. All that was left was a tiny flickering patch of local moments. (p.108)

Suddenly this visionary quality reminded me of the prose of the great psychological sci-fi writer, J.G. Ballard. In the 1960s Ballard famously rejected ‘space opera’, the whole sci-fi tradition of rockets going to outer space, aliens and death rays – in order to concentrate on weird mental states achieved here on decaying planet earth. His characters wander landscapes of entropy and decay littered with empty swimming pools, abandoned motels, are attracted to car crashes or go schizo in high-rise buildings. They explore the altered states of inner space. Like Sartre’s.

All about him was once more swallowed in a planetary silence. He must walk, walk unceasingly, over the surface of a cooling planet. (p.134)

Reading Daniel’s visions of abandoned Paris I suddenly saw the surprising similarity between Ballard’s psychological explorations and the many many passages in Jean-Paul Sartre’s novels which obsessively depict mental states of hallucinatory intensity – not for any philosophic or propagandistic purpose, well, OK, partly to promote the feel of his existentialist world-view — but much more for their weirdness, to bring out the strangeness of what it’s like to be the animal who thinks, the animal with self-consciousness, the animal lost in the fever of its own compulsive hallucinations. Here’s Mathieu among his soldiers hanging round the village waiting for something to happen.

We are a vermin’s dream: our thoughts are becoming muddied, are becoming less and less human: thoughts, hairy and clawed, were scurrying around, jumping from head to head; the vermin was on the point of waking up. (p.102)

At which point it dawned on me that Sartre’s philosophy of freedom, the so-called existentialist philosophy, is maybe a rationalisation, an attempt to give a structure and a meaning to what in fact, in the fiction, on the page, comes over as an unstoppable torrent of weird hallucinations.

His mind felt completely empty. He was dead: the afternoon was bleached and dead. It was a tomb. (p.76)

Mathieu is not at all dead as he thinks this, just like none of the other characters who let thoughts of death and the dead ceaselessly invade their thoughts are actually dead. But then maybe ‘think’ is the wrong word. Maybe it would be better to say that this is a poetic description of an intense feeling which is passing through Mathieu’ consciousness. Mathieu is merely the vessel for these delirious psychological states.

All Sartre’s characters are. They are channels for Sartre’s uncontrollable gush of weird mental states. One of the soldiers hanging round with Mathieu begins to tell the others the armistice with Germany has been signed, but hesitates… and suddenly they all grasp the dreadful truth without having to be told.

A dazzle off steel, then silence. The blue, flabby flesh of the afternoon had taken eternity like the sweep of a scythe. Not a sound, not a breath of air. Time had become frozen; the war had withdrawn… (p76)

Is hallucination the right word for this kind of writing? Sometimes. Other times it’s just a peculiar, a very distinctive, way of conceiving human beings and human consciousness, in which ‘thought’ is perceived as an almost organic process and – this being Sartre – generally a revoltingly nauseating one involving slime.

At one moment he was just an emptiness filled with vague forebodings, at another, he became just like everyone else. His forebodings faded; the general mood welled sluggishly up in his mind and oozed from his mouth… (p.97)

The vermin eyes had ostracised him, were looking up at him with an air of astonished solemnity, as though they were seeing him for the first time, as though they were looking up at him through layers of slime. (p.102)

The fact that the French prisoners of war are made to trudge through the heat for hours before reaching the camp, and then aren’t fed for five days gives Sartre the opportunity to let rip with the altered states caused by starvation and dehydration. For an extended sequence Brunet passes into a delirium somewhere between dreams and hallucinations. For example, he imagines all the soldiers are chimpanzees.

There were chimpanzees in the next cage, pressing inquisitive faces to the bars. They had sad and wrinkled eyes. Monkeys have sadder eyes than any animals except man. Something had happened, he wondered what. A catastrophe. What catastrophe? Perhaps the sun had gone cold? (p.274)

Note, again, the tinge of apocalyptic science fiction.

In fact this long second part is a strange mixture of very realistic slangy chat between rough Frenchmen, arguing, crying, going mad, blaming their officers, squabbling, cadging fags etc – and passages of quite stunning prose poetry. Sartre’s philosophy I leave to the experts on Husserl and Heidegger to nail down; it belongs to the European tradition which is difficult for us Anglo-Saxons to really understand.

But for me the revelation of these books is the surprising amount of purple prose and lyricism they contain, the extent to which they are truly writerly. As a last example, imagine a huge prisoner of war camp with thousands of dusty, downcast men lying, squatting, standing, leaning about everywhere, as far as the eye can see. And then:

The airplane passed overhead with a shattering din. The crowded faces lowered, then upturned, passed from black to white, like a field suddenly bursting into flower: in place of hard, black heads, thousands of camelias broke into blossom. Spectacles glittered like scraps of glass in a garden bed. (p.243)

There are lots of passages like this. Whereas his analyses of the political situation have passed into dusty history and his existentialist philosophy may or may not still have adherents – the vibrancy, the unexpected imaginativeness and continual weirdness of Sartre’s continues to haunts with its strange power.


Credit

La mort dans l’âme by Jean-Paul Sartre was published by Editions Gallimard in 1949. This translation is not by the translator of the first two in the trilogy, Eric Sutton, but by Gerard Hopkins. It was published as Iron In The Soul by Hamish Hamilton in 1950. Iron In The Soul was issued as a Penguin paperback in 1963. All references are to the 1967 Penguin paperback reprint, which cost the princely sum of five shillings (25p).

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Age of Reason by Jean-Paul Sartre (1945)

The room was filled with stale heat which had spent its force outside, and left its radiance in the folds of the curtain, and was stagnating there, inert and ominous like a human destiny. (p.66)

Sartre was one of great cultural icons of the mid-twentieth century, the popular face of French existentialist philosophy which he wrote about in countless essays, articles, books and plays, and summarised in his epic and impenetrable treatise, Being and Nothingness.

Most people prefer to sip their Sartre-lite via his half dozen plays (including Huis Close with its famous line ‘Hell is other people’), his début novel Nausea, or the Roads To Freedom trilogy, three novels about France just before World War Two – The Age of Reason, The Reprieve, and Iron In The Soul.

The Age of Reason

The Age of Reason is the first of the trilogy, a third-person narrative set in Paris in 1938 which focuses on two days in the life of Mathieu Delarue (French for ‘of the street’). Mathieu is a 34-year-old, tall, gangly philosophy teacher who spends a lot of time mooching round the streets of Paris feeling sorry for himself. He has a sickly lover, Marcelle, who has just announced she’s pregnant and so Mathieu immediately decides she must have an abortion. He visits his fat placid friend Sarah to ask her help, watched by the aloof Brunet, a committed communist and old friend. Slowly Mathieu realises the cheap abortionists he had been considering (400 Francs) risk seriously injuring Marcelle; Sarah knows a high class abortionist, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Austria, but he charges 4,000 Frances – where on earth can Mathieu get that kind of money?

Mathieu asks his sleek gay friend Daniel for the money. Daniel has it but maliciously refuses. He visits his older brother, Jacques, a successful lawyer, who reads him a lecture about his bohemian lifestyle and says he’ll give him 10,000 Francs if he’ll marry Marcelle. Mathieu refuses. He wants to stay free. He is obsessed with his freedom to do and be. Jacque says he is being childish, he is refusing to grow up – he has now reached the age of reason and he must choose to be an adult, to settle down, to marry, to accept that he has a nice government job (as a tenured professor at the Lycée Buffon) a nice government pension and a nice obliging mistress: in what way is he any kind of rebel or non-conformist?

While he ponders these ‘moral’ quandaries Mathieu hangs out with Ivich, kid sister of Boris Serguine, one of his pupils. Ivich is plain and prickly but Mathieu finds himself making a pass at her in a taxi on the way to an art exhibition. Bad mistake. She is prickly and resentful for the rest of the book.

Boris, meanwhile, is having an affair with Lola Montero, the ageing (well, 40 makes her ageing in this book) nightclub singer. He likes the way her face and body are wrinkled, he likes her ‘experience’, whereas she rather more straightforwardly likes having a young lover – it makes her feel young; she tells Mathieu that Boris is her ‘last chance’. If Boris left she would throw herself in the river (p.37). All the characters are like that – hysterical.

Boris like all the other characters doesn’t appear to have a job and is oppressed by his own ‘freedom’ – which some among us might relabel his lack of a job, a career or any responsibilities. So he’s invented a pastime of shoplifting, to give himself a heady sense of ‘being in the moment’.

Meanwhile, we have several long sections devoted to the sleek, plausible homosexual Daniel Sereno. First of all he elaborately packs up his three cats into a basket, takes a succession of trams across town to the Seine and gets as far as tying a paving stone to a string and to the basket, preparing to drown them – for no particular reason, out of motiveless malice – when he realises he can’t go through with it, cuts the string and retraces his step to his apartment.

Later there’s a description of Daniel going to a covered amusement arcade to watch young toughs hanging around waiting to be picked up by gay cruisers. He is filled with contempt and longing for both types. He eyes a sleek 50-year-old man picking up one of the toughs and is boiling over with hatred and self-loathing, when he is himself unexpectedly accosted by a young catamite he got a job at a chemist’s shop. The lad has lost the job and now wants some money. The 50-year-old observes all this and gives Daniel a wink of complicity as he walks by. Daniel is revolted with himself, with the world.

The most frequent word in the text (apart from ‘the’ and ‘and’) is ‘disgust’. All the characters are disgusted with their lovers, with sex, with Paris, with life, but most of all with themselves. The whole novel is an orgy of self-conscious self-loathing.

Mathieu handed her [Lola] the bag: she took a powder-box out of it, and eyed her face with disgust. (p.210)

In a long sequence towards the end of the book Mathieu drops in on a nightclub to meet Boris and Ivich and watch Lola sing. All four characters go through flashes of loathing and hating each other, but also need each other. Boris tries to touch Lola for the money he knows Mathieu needs but makes up a clumsy cover story and causes a big argument with the singer. He loathes her. She hates him. Etc.

Meanwhile, left at the table together, Ivich and Mathieu spend some time loathing each other – why on earth did he kiss such a plain pasty prickly young woman, thinks Mathieu. Ivich is on edge because she’s certain she’ll fail her exams and be forced to return to her parents’ smotheringly bourgeois home in provincial Laon. Boris had bought a large clasp knife and on a whim Ivich uses it to cut a deep slash right across her palm. Not to be outdone Mathieu lets the knife drop point-downwards into his own palm. It pins his hand to the table beneath. When Lola and Borins come back from their argumentative dance it is to find Ivich and Mathieu bleeding badly and linked by a new complicity. The waiter takes them to the cloakroom attendant who patches them up.

Next morning Mathieu meets Ivich at the Dome cafe and they start drinking to get rid of their hangovers, when Boris appears completely dazed. Lola is dead. They went back to her apartment, she took some more drugs (she snorts heroin) and in the morning was cold, still, with her eyes open. Boris begs Mathieu to go to Lola’s apartment and retrieve his bundle of love letters from her suitcase. Mathieu does so partly to impress Ivich and when he is there, in the darkness of the death room, comes across the bundles of thousands of Francs which Lola has been saving for years. All he need do is take 4,000 and he will have the fee for the high class abortion and ensure Marcelle’s well-being. But stupid scruples prevent him – he drops the notes back in the case and is half way across the room when Lola calls out.

She is not dead at all! This was a genuinely dramatic moment, a Grand Guignol moment, and I was as surprised as Mathieu. Turns out Lola was in a drug-induced fugue and now she slowly stirs and recovers.  Recovering from his surprise, Mathieu makes sure she is alright and returns to Boris and Ivich at the café. Here, Boris refuses to believe that Lola is still alive; and, when Mathieu finally persuades him, Boris refuses to accept it. To him Lola is dead; he has got used to it, he had moved on. He doesn’t want to go back to her, to the woman he thought was a corpse.

Meanwhile, in another strand of the plot, it turns out that the sleek homosexual Daniel has been visiting Mathieu’s mistress, Marcelle, for some time, unbeknown to Mathieu. Daniel is revolted by her (‘He despised Marcelle profoundly’, p.89) but also fascinated by her as a specimen. When Mathieu comes to him to ask for a loan of 4,000 Francs, Daniel wickedly conceives a plan to persuade Marcelle to admit to herself that she wants to keep the baby – and to make her say this to Mathieu – and thus to force Mathieu into having to marry her. The thought of manipulating his ‘friend’ amuses the cynical Daniel (‘When Mathieu adopted a Quakerish attitude, Daniel hated him’, p.94).

Towards the end of the story, Mathieu sneaks back into Lola’s apartment with the key Boris gave him and this time does steal 4,000 of her Francs. He goes to Marcelle’s flat and now finds her strangely attractive and solicitous. (What he doesn’t realise is that Marcelle has been led on by Daniel to believe that Mathieu would propose to her.) When he does nothing of the sort but instead proudly brandishes the money for the abortion, Marcelle’s face falls, she is ashen, she says, ‘So that’s what you think of me’. Mathieu tries to make the situation better, but then, finally, admits – he doesn’t love her any more.

They part. Mathieu goes back to his apartment, where in fact he’d left Ivich sobering up after getting paralytic at lunch time after she’d learned she’d failed her exams and would be sent back to her wretched bourgeois home in the country. The two of them are struggling with whether they love or hate each other, when Lola storms in clutching a bag which probably contains a gun.

On the verge of hysterics, Lola accuses Boris of stealing the 4,000 Francs from her. Mathieu persuades Lola to let the terrified Ivich depart and then confesses that he, Mathieu, stole the money. Around about here it struck me that all these characters are French; maybe that’s why they all hysterically over-react to everything.

He felt ridiculous and detestable… He felt absolutely alone… He felt as though he were plunged in a sinister and preposterous nightmare… Her eyes were glittering with impotent hatred… He saw the back of that tall black figure moving with the blind momentum of catastrophe… ‘I’m even more disgusted with myself…’ Daniel filled him with horror… He was alone… ‘You hate me’ …

Lola is still shrieking her accusations when Daniel dramatically enters stage right, and proffers her an envelope containing the very same amount of bank notes she’s shrieking that Mathieu stole from her. It seems that he visited Marcelle soon after Mathieu left, she gave them the money to give back to Mathieu, and he has stumbled upon this ridiculous scene. Daniel hands the money to Lola. Voilà!

(Some of the writing feels like it’s from a pulp novel. The hysterical over-reacting to everything feels like an Edgar Allen Poe short story. Stripped of the relentless nihilism, it is, in fact, a bedroom farce. Mathieu should be played by Brian Rix.)

Lola is eventually pacified and stumbles off wailingly asking why Boris won’t come back to her.

Once alone with Mathieu, Daniel announces with a flourish that he is going to marry Marcelle. They are going to keep the baby. Mathieu feels like fainting. Daniel goes one step further and reveals to Mathieu that he is gay. What? They both need a drink and broach Mathieu’s bottle of rum. Gay? And going to marry Marcelle? Eh bien – Mathieu, the author and the reader all give a deep Gallic shrug – pourquois pas?


Disgust and loathing

As you can see there’s a fair bit of toing and froing among this cast of deadbeats and losers, but the ‘plot’ is mostly beside the point. The purpose of the novel is to show the Sartrean worldview through six or seven glutinously imagined characters – and that worldview is one of gloomy despair, morbid fear of getting old, of disgust at other people’s decaying, wrinkled, smelly bodies, revulsion at your own physical existence, and a pervasive, sickly hyper-sensitive self-awareness.

The characters ‘suddenly feeling old’, like they do in so many middle-class novels, is trite enough:

  • Good Lord she’s getting old (p.14)
  • ‘I’m getting old. Here I am, lounging in a chair and believing in nothing…’ (p.48)
  • She had suddenly aged. (p.275)

And white bourgeois fictional characters feeling ashamed of their bodies is fairly commonplace. Mathieu is continually oppressed by his sense of his own body, ugly and lank:

  • … a tall and naked figure, moulded out of dough (p.43).
  • Mathieu felt uneasily obtrusive: a heap of refuse against a wall. (p.72)
  • Mathieu made a gesture of disgust. (p.100)

It’s a little unusual that all the characters are consumed with disgust.

  • She disliked her body. (p.68)
  • Daniel envisaged himself with disgust. (p.85)
  • Daniel eyed him with disgust. (p.132)
  • ‘She revolts me.’ (Boris on Lola, p.213)

But the universal revulsion at the physical, at being human, is an incessant chorus of dismay and revulsion which envelops the whole book, gushing forth on every single one of the 300 pages. One strand is Mathieu’s dislike (and fear) of children:

  • Mathieu felt uneasy, without quite knowing why. He had the sense of being engulfed by the child’s eyes. ‘Children are greedy little devils,’ he thought, ‘all their senses are mouths.’ (p.43)
  • He looked at the child and he looked at the fly. A child. A bit of thinking flesh that screams and bleeds when it is killed. (p.44)
  • A child: another consciousness, a little centre-point of light that would flutter round and round, dashing against the walls, and never be able to escape. (p.46)

But this fear of the physical reaches orgasms of revulsion in Mathieu’s revolting imagining of a) sex b) of the little blister of flesh, the foetus growing inside his mistress’s heavy, smelly pink body, and c) how it will be pricked, slashed and sucked out in the abortion.

  • And what about the others? Those who have solemnly decided to become fathers, and feel progenitively inclined when they look at their wives’ bodies – do they understand any more than I do? They go blindly on – three flicks of a duck’s tail. What follows is a gelatinous job done in a dark room, like photography. (p.21)
  • In a pink room within a female body, there was a blister, growing larger… There was no time to lose, for the blister was expanding at that very moment: it was making obscure efforts to emerge, to extricate itself from the darkness, and growing into something like that, a little pallid, flabby object that clung to the world and sucked its sap. (p.44)
  • And she thought: ‘It’s there’. In that belly a little strawberry of blood was making haste to live, with a sort of guileless urgency, a besotted little strawberry, not even yet an animal, soon to be scarped out of existence by a knife. (p.69)

Unpleasant enough, but the text goes way beyond a universal physical revulsion into metaphysical disgust. Consciousness itself is seen as an impossible heavy, wearing, and disgusting phenomenon. It starts with his dislike of children, progresses through his disgust at the growing foetus, and spreads like a stain into a helpless horror at the sheer disgustingness of being alive, at being conscious, at having:

An absurd, superfluous life… (p.70)

Walking down the street is a trial for several of the characters: the heat, the sunlight, the other people, the noise threatens to overwhelm and drown them, to flood and erase their sense of self.

His solitude was so complete, beneath a lovely sky as mellow and serene as a good conscience, amid that busy throng, that he was amazed at his own existence: he must be somebody else’s nightmare, and whoever it was would certainly awaken soon. (p.150)

And this morbid self-consciousness reaches new heights in a disgust at being seen. It is bad enough to be a consciousness trapped inside a revolting body: but in some sense other people trap you in their gaze. You become an object for others, with no escape from their controlling gaze. Thus, when Mathieu leaves the pink prison of Marcelle’s bedroom he is so oppressed by the sense that she is still imagining him, that he feels he is still there – he has to go out of his way into a bar and chat to the staff and customers solely in order to exist for someone else.

He felt the need of being seen. Just of being seen. (p.19)

Boris is similarly self-conscious. In the nightclub he feels Lola’s scrutiny as a physical sensation.

He had a pain in his right side as a consequence of being looked at. (p.24)

This is one aspect of Sartre’s existential philosophy: the aspect he called being-for-others, the external objective side of ourselves which is permanently on display, unfree, trapped. On the other hand it can sometimes restore us to a sense of ourselves when we are lost. Daniel, after having sex with a rent boy, is so disgusted he contemplates suicide and, holding the razor in his hand, becomes almost completely empty of thought and feeling, just a pinprick of consciousness, an arm, a slice of sharpened metal. Eventually, he tears himself free and runs hysterically down into the street.

He must run, he must get away as far as possible, immerse himself in noise and light, in a throng of people, he must become a man among his fellows, and feel the eyes of other men upon him. (p.268)

Freedom

This brings us to the issue of ‘freedom’. Critics I’ve read say the novel is a meditation on freedom, in particular Sartre’s convoluted idea of freedom which is not a positive, but a kind of terrifying nothingness into which we’re hurled and from which we have to create our own lives from scratch, with no help or guidance from outworn creeds or dead religions. And hence the over-arching title of the series, Roads To Freedom as it indeed dramatises different characters’ journeys towards different definitions of freedom.

But this gives an inaccurately optimistic sense of the novel; in reality it is Mathieu’s gloomy meditations on his directionless life which have the most power. The bus he’s riding in brakes suddenly and Mathieu suddenly realises:

‘No, it isn’t heads or tails. Whatever happens, it is by my agency that everything must happen.’ Even if he let himself be carried off, in helplessness and despair, even if he let himself be carried off like an old sack of coal, he would have chosen his own damnation: he was free, free in every way, free to behave like a fool or a machine, free to accept, free to refuse, free to equivocate: to marry, to give up the game, to drag this dead weight around with him for years to come. He could do what he liked, no one had the right to advise him, there would be for him no Good or Evil unless he brought them into being. All around him things were gathered in a circle, expectant, impassive, and indicative of nothing. He was alone, enveloped in this monstrous silence, free and alone, without assistance and without excuse, condemned to decide without support from any quarter, condemned forever to be free.’ (p.243)

Maybe. Maybe that is the ‘human condition’ but why give it such a negative spin? Why ‘condemned’, why not ‘liberated in the sunshine’ to walk and run and skateboard and surf and buy a Harley Davidson and travel the world? The freedom part may be right (I disagree) but the immensely negative emotional interpretation Sartre gives it is entirely his own (and his own problem).

Anyway, I am with Mathieu’s brother, Jacques, when he says that Mathieu is a self-centred good-for-nothing who has no direction or purpose, who’s kept his mistress dangling for seven long years, and makes a fetish of his own inability to make decisions.

The most schematic part of the book is the character of Brunet, who is an almost comical stereotype of the Strong, Conscientious Communist. He invites Mathieu to join the Party. He explains that being a member has given him a sense of purpose and brotherhood with other members all round the world.

‘You are the son of a bourgeois, you couldn’t come to us straightaway, you had to free yourself first. And now it’s done, you are free. But what’s the use of that same freedom, if not to join us…You live in a void, you have cut your bourgeois connections, you have no tie with the proletariat, you’re adrift, you’re an abstraction, a man who is not there… You renounced everything in order to be free… Take one step further, renounce your freedom: and everything shall be rendered unto you.’ (p.118)

By sinking his individuality into a strong disciplined political movement he has gained his individuality. Mathieu listens sympathetically – Brunet is an old friend, and also an imposing presence, tall, physically superb, muscular hands, a man of the people – but as with his mistress or his friends or his job, Mathieu can’t quite bring himself to make a decision. One day he will, he tells Brunet, he tells himself, one day he will make the Great Decision which demonstrates his freedom… just not yet, not yet…

Reading the Brunet sections makes you wonder whether the aim of the book is Communist propaganda (after the war, when this book was being written, Sartre came out as a self-proclaimed Marxist). Maybe the entire novel is designed to show up the pettiness and negativity of the petit bourgeoisie, to show the pointless, aimless lives of modern people who have not accepted The Cause, who have not given their lives a Purpose by committing to the Communist Party. Maybe.

Alternatively, the young student Bruno – who hates being described as Mathieu’s ‘disciple’ – has his own, rather immature definition of freedom.

The individual’s duty is to do what he wants to do, to think whatever he likes, to be accountable to no one but himself, to challenge every idea and every person. (p.138)

Put like that, maybe Sartre and his philosophy have disappeared because they have been so thoroughly subsumed into our modern attitude. Boris’s credo pretty much sums up the attitude of my daughter, aged 16. Maybe these ‘freedom’ sections which caused so much debate in 1945, now seem thin and lifeless because we all think like that, talk like that, and have the t-shirt. Maybe.

Either way, the dozen or so ‘freedom’ sections feel like plasters strapped onto the groaning seething mass of disgust, appalled descriptions of physical functions and an apparently never-ending series of ways for the characters to feel disgusted and revolted by each other. The pregnant Marcelle has morning sickness:

A long filament hung from her lips, she had to cough it away… She watched the dabs of mucus sliding slowly towards the drainpipe leaving glossy, viscous tracks behind them, like snails. (p.68)

This is just one of hundreds and hundreds of vividly described moments of revulsion, nausea, disgust and loathing which saturate the text.

Back in the day, educated people agonised about how to find meaning in a world stripped bare of religion and the old certainties, and threatened by Nazism and totalitarianism. Sartre’s novels and plays, on one level, set out to dramatise that predicament and are of fascinating historical interest. But that predicament, that sense of a personal crisis inextricably linked to the crisis of an entire continent (at a central moment Mathieu buys a newspaper and reads about the latest nationalist atrocity in the Spanish Civil War and is possessed by nausea and fear), and the burning necessity to Make a Choice, to throw in your lot with one political party or the other… all that is long gone.

What has really endured of this book is the relentlessness of everyone’s misery and of their super disgust at being human, at having bodies, at ageing, at living.

  • am my own taste, I exist. That’s what existence means: draining one’s own self dry without the sense of thirst. Thirty-five years. For thirty-five years I’ve been sipping at myself and I’m getting old.’ (p.48)
  • ‘I am utterly immured in my own self.’ (p.186)
  • He spoke with disgust and in short spasms. ‘I’ll try to change,’ he said. ‘I’m contemptible,’ he thought… They walked in silence, side by side, immersed in sunlight, and in mutual detestation. But, at the same time, Mathieu saw himself with Ivich’s eyes, and was filled with self-contempt. (p.80)
  • That ghastly self-contempt, that utterly weak, futile, weak, moribund self-contempt, which seemed at every moment on the point of self-annihilation, but always survived. (p.270)

Fat unhappy Marcelle – trapped by illness in her pink bedroom, stifled by the mother she shares her apartment with – is the central symbol of the squalid reality of the physical body, of nausea at its revolting fecundity, a claustrophobic image of unhappiness.

She sometimes had the feeling that her life had come to a stop one day at noon, and she herself was an embodied, eternal noontide brooding upon her little world, a dank and rainy world, without hope or purpose…. She felt sick…then a sense of uttermost disgust gathered upon her tongue… She disliked her body… the sight of women suckling their babies in the Luxemberg: a feeling beyond fear and disgust…she dreaded having to despise him… (p.67)

But she is only the most extreme example of the quality all the characters share, Sartre’s own disgust and revulsion at life, of being alive, of being human.

In a few days she would be nothing but a lump of misery… A slime of pity had engulfed him. He had no sympathy for Marcelle, and he felt profoundly disgusted… (p.160)

‘The slime of pity’ – Sartre likes slime, viscous trails, vomit, mucus, semen, blood.

I read this book on a lovely sunny day and couldn’t help thinking that all the characters in it needed to get out more, to get a hobby, get some exercise, and generally get a life. None of them have jobs (Mathieu has stopped work for the vacation) or children – they are completely free of timetables and responsibilities, utterly free to be as unhappy and negative as they please.

‘Oh,’ Ivich said vehemently, ‘how I hate the summer.’ (p.73)

The absolute determination of all the characters to be as miserable as possible eventually becomes quite funny. Sometimes it felt like ‘Monty Python and the French Philosopher’, with John Cleese saying in a heavy French accent, ‘Oh no, I feeel ze anguish of freedom oppressing my consciousness and feeelling me with despair at ze ‘uman condeetion’. Some bits made me laugh out loud, they were so over the top.

Love was not something to be felt, not a particular emotion, nor yet a particular shade of feeling, it was much more like a lowering curse on the horizon, a precursor of disaster.’ (p. 250)

Yes, Jean-Paul – love is a curse and a disaster.

If you hate summer, loathe being touched, are so morbidly self-conscious that other people looking at you hurts you, if you are revolted by your bodily functions and oppressed by a feeling of futility and pointlessness, ‘burdened by events to come’ and prey to ‘an intolerable anguish’ (p.83) – then this is the book for you!

Scandal

A footnote in The Last Chance explains that the right-wing Vichy regime which ran unoccupied France till 1944, executed a woman for providing an abortion. The subject of abortion appeared squalid to me, in 1977, but we all miss a lot if we don’t realise that the subject matter was so scandalous that Sartre couldn’t think of publishing the novel till after the Liberation, and even then it called down on his head a ton of criticism from all the respectable, right-thinking critics of his day.

Translation

L’Age de Raison was translated into English by Eric Sutton in 1947. Or at least into a form of English.

‘Glad I am to see you, Ivich.’
‘Good morning,’ said she. (p.52)

As with Darkness at Noon, which I’ve just read, the text’s source in another language is obvious on every page in an English which often clings to French word order and phraseology. The continual alien cadence of the sentences helps to ease the entrance, facilitates acceptance, of what is at the end of the day, a very very alien worldview.


Credit

L’Age de Raison by Jean-Paul Sartre was published by Editions Gallimard in 1945. The translation by Eric Sutton was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1947. This was issued as a Penguin paperback in 1961. All references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback reprint which I bought 40 years ago for 75p.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ by Joseph Conrad (1897)

In August 1897, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee year, a few months after Captains Courageous was published in book form,  Joseph Conrad’s novella ‘The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’‘ began to appear in The New Review. (This was a literary journal edited by WE Henley, major editor and minor poet, remembered for his poem Invictus, quoted by Nelson Mandela upon his release from prison and so used as the title of a recent movie about South Africa. Henley was an important player in 1890s literature. As editor of the Scots Observer he’d brought Robert Louis Stevenson to national attention. After Stevenson surprised the literary world by decamping to the South Seas, Henley was the first in London to recognise The Next Big Thing – Kipling – and helped him establish his reputation by publishing the Barrack Room Ballads in 1892.)

The Nigger is a novella, only 140 pages in the Penguin edition, a study of men isolated on a merchant ship on a long sea voyage who live through a terrifying storm which pitches the ship right onto its side and nearly drowns them all. It is directly comparable in length, publication date and subject matter to Kipling’s Captains Courageous.

Both books are, frankly, hard to read, but for different reasons. Kipling is concerned to show you he has mastered the terminology of sea fishing, so his text is stuffed with technical terms. When he’s not showing off his expertise, his characters are talking in a phonetically rendered version of New England fisherman slang which is almost unreadable:

“‘Ver’ good. Ver’ good don,’ said Manuel ‘After supper I show you a little schooner I make, with all her ropes. So we shall learn.’ ‘Fust-class fer a passenger,’ said Dan, ‘Dad he’s jest allowed you be wuth your salt maybe fore you’re kaownded. Thet’s a heap fer Dad. I learn you more our next watch together.” (Chapter 3)

In terms of meaning or purpose, Kipling’s book is a ‘coming of age’ tale in which a spoilt American brat is transformed into a Man by learning discipline and duty and comradeship from the fishermen he’s fallen among. Though all the characters are American, the message is British public school: Become a Man through Responsibility, Hard Work, through doing your Duty.

Conrad’s vision and style are far removed from this. His vision is one of European existentialism, of despair at the meaninglessness of human existence. His pages are overwhelmed with mournful asides about the immensity of the sea and the pettiness of human concerns.

A heavy atmosphere of oppressive quietude pervaded the ship. In the afternoon men went about washing clothes and hanging them out to dry in the unprosperous breeze with the meditative language of disenchanted philosophers. Very little was said. The problem of life seemed too voluminous for the narrow limits of human speech, and by common consent it was abandoned to the great sea that had from the beginning enfolded it in its immense grip; to the sea that knew all, and would in time infallibly unveil to each the wisdom hidden in all the errors, the certitude that lurks in doubts, the realm of safety and peace beyond the frontiers of sorrow and fear. (Chapter 5)

And as you can see, this vision is conveyed in a baroque style of exceeding wordiness – a seemingly limitless litany of boom words and big phrases, all circling hopelessly round his one big perception – the horror of existence. The word ‘horror’ is repeated a number of times.

Kipling’s bright, shallow British optimism. Or Conrad’s doom-laden European pessimism. Posterity – and literature courses everywhere – have favoured Conrad. But is that right?

As to the ‘nigger’ of the title, the novella centres on a black sailor – James Wait – who ships with the Narcissus knowing he is dying (presumably of TB, though this is never made explicit).

Various crew members – Old Singleton, the sneak Donkin, the youth Charley, sturdy Captain Allisoun, the first mate Baker – are described at length and become fairly ‘real’, but Wait is an allegorical figure, the man doomed to Death who melodramatises his plight, and becomes the psychological centre of the ship, mesmerising the crew.

I think the book is a failure. I didn’t understand from the text or from Conrad’s preface the point of Wait. Conrad keeps calling him a fake, an imposter, but Wait does, truly, die of illness, exactly as he’d been worrying.

I think Conrad is wrestling in a confused manner with the issues which obsess him: his sincere love of the sea and his sailor comrades is brought up against his just-as-powerful personal vision of the heartless universe, and the failure of the story is Conrad’s failure to make them coalesce in any coherent manner.

To my mind Conrad sorted these confused feelings out in his next book, also a novella, Heart of Darkness, published in 1899 – whose key quote, ‘The horror, the horror’, has become part of the culture thanks to the movie adaptation, ‘Apocalypse Now’, and whose critique of the mindless brutality of western Imperialism has never been surpassed. Here the horror of Conrad’s vision finds its ‘objective correlative’ – the publicly understandable image or symbol of Conrad’s private feelings – in the story of Kurtz, the exemplary imperialist servant gone grotesquely rotten in the depths of the jungle.

In the same year as Heart of Darkness, Kipling published his volume of stories about jolly public schoolboys, Stalky and Co., learning through their wily japes the ways of Brotherhood and Service which will stand them in good stead when they go out to run the British Empire.

The contrast couldn’t be starker.

All Hands to the Pumps by Henry Scott Tuke (1889) © Tate

All Hands to the Pumps by Henry Scott Tuke (1889) © Tate


Related links

Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Rudyard Kipling

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

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