Iron Curtain by Anne Applebaum (2012)

‘Every artificially inseminated pig is a blow to the face of imperialist warmongers.’
(Stalinist slogan quoted on page 426)

The full title is Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 and that’s what the book narrates in grim detail. Applebaum is already well known for her magisterial account of the Soviet network of prison camps or gulags. This account of the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe builds on her expertise, and benefits from the opening up of archives in both the Soviet Union and the countries which it subjugated.

There were eight countries in ‘the Eastern Bloc’ (if you accept that the Baltic states, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were simply swallowed whole by Russia and ceased to exist as separate entities): East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Albania. Applebaum’s account focuses in detail on just three – East Germany, Poland and Hungary. I was a little disappointed by this, as I feel I’ve read lots of books and seen plenty of movies about East Germany whereas I know next to nothing about Bulgaria or Romania. But she’s right to say these three provide a selection of types of country which demonstrate the way different histories and experiences were subjected to the same murderous Soviet approach.

Each of the chapters then takes a topic or aspect of the crushing of Eastern Europe and describes its application in each of the three chosen countries:

Zero Hour

Paints the devastation of a continent after the war. Her account supplements Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe. We’ve all seen photos of the ruined cities. It’s the scale of human displacement which is difficult to grasp. Between 1939 and 1943 some 30 million Europeans were dispersed, transplanted or deported. Between 1943 and 1948 a further 20 million were moved (p.11) Levels of theft, looting, violence and murder were orders of magnitude greater than they had been before the war. In many places civil society had completely collapsed.

Victors

The path of the Red Army across Eastern Europe was marked by wanton destruction and mass rape, especially once they’d crossed into Germany. Hundreds of thousands of German women were gang-raped, many then murdered. Alongside individual acts of looting, the Soviet apparatus systematically denuded European countries of their industrial infrastructure. Tens of thousand of factories, trains and railway line, were ripped up and shipped back to Russia. They packed up Leipzig Zoo and sent it East.

Communists

Applebaum profiles the men who were to become the leaders of communist Poland, Hungary and East Germany – Boleslaw Bierut, Matyas Rakkosi and Walter Ulbricht, respectively. They were uniformly from poor backgrounds and badly educated.

Ulbricht was the son of a poor tailor who left school early to work as a cabinet maker before being drafted into the Army. In 1918 he was galvanised when he discovered communist texts which explained the world in simple terms and he never lost his faith. Like the other leaders, he benefited from the way the between-the-wars communist parties, as Stalin’s influence grew, purged many of their brightest and best members. Only the less bright, the more dogged, the more unquestioningly devoted, remained. (Of the thirty-seven original members of the Polish Communist Party’s central committee, no fewer than 30 were arrested in Moscow and shot or sent to labour camps.) This explains the poor intellectual calibre of the leaders of the communist bloc; the clever ones had been liquidated.

Moreover, these ‘leaders’ implemented a social, political and policing model straight from the Soviet template. They all copied the Soviet hierarchy of Politburo, Central Committee, regional committees, and local party cells. In all the countries, regardless of local political or economic conditions, they tried to apply the same political and economic straitjacket.

Because all were ‘Moscow communists’. This meant that during the troubled years of the 1930s and the war, they had all fled to Russia where they were soundly indoctrinated in the One True Way by the Comintern. The Soviets were deeply suspicious of any communists who’d spent any time anywhere else, especially any who had been based in the West. Once the communist regimes were in place, many of these non-Moscow communists were themselves arrested and sent to prison or labour camps – just in case they had divisive or alternative views. About anything. Only the most faithful of the faithful were allowed to take power.

Applebaum points out that, quite apart from notions of social justice or ideological convictions, membership of this small, élite band held two kinds of more tangible rewards: psychologically, it made you feel part of a chosen elite; and in practical terms, both in Moscow and back in their home countries, they lived an elite lifestyle, able to shop at party shops, stay in party hotels, relax in party dachas and send their children to party schools.

Policemen

The most obvious area where the European communist parties simply copied Soviet model was in the creation of their own versions of the Soviet secret police, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del or NKVD).

Applebaum portrays the chillingly efficient way that communist secret police apparatuses, which had been preparing and training for years, were flown in ready-made as each Eastern country was ‘liberated’ by the Red Army, to become the Polish UB, the Hungarian AVO, the East German Stasi.

For a few years most of the liberated countries were allowed to have a facade of democratic politics, with a number of political parties and even free elections. This was because the Soviets knew from experience that democratic politics is a sham: real power lies in the secret police and the prisons. Given complete control of these instruments the political system can be seized overnight simply by arresting everyone.

Applebaum shows how the secret police mentality had been shaped by intense ideological training in the USSR to believe that everyone not in the communist party was a potential enemy spy or saboteur, who consequently had no rights. Anyone could be arrested and she shows how, in the early months of Hungary’s liberation, the new security police was under instructions to deliver fixed quotas of ‘traitors’ and so quite literally arrested anyone they could find in the streets, including children.

And often, of course, even people inside the communist party turned out to be traitors. Absolutely everyone had to be watched, and as far as possible, everyone had to be made a collaborator of the secret police. Hence the extraordinary size and depth of the Stasi’s files when they were revealed to the public in 1990, and the dismaying discovery that a huge percentage of the population routinely reported on their neighbours, friends, and even wives and partners.

Violence

The Comintern knew exactly what they were doing. The liberated countries were to be slowly strangled. Other parties could be included in initial elections and be given various government departments – but the communists always and everywhere controlled the ministries of the Interior, of Defence and the secret police – i.e. all the mechanisms of violence. From the word go they ruled through arrests, beatings, executions and labour camps.

Between January and April 1945 the NKVD arrested 215,540 people in Poland. Most were in fact ethnic Germans who were deported to Germany. The 40,000 Poles were all sent to prison camps in Russia, where some 5,000 died. Between 1945 and 1953 some 150,000 people were incarcerated in NKVD camps in Eastern Germany. A third died due to appalling conditions. There was no heating, no medicines, no doctors, often no food. After the ‘liberation’ of 1945 between 140,000 and 200,000 Hungarians were deported to Russian labour camps.

The arbitrariness of many of these arrests, combined with the careful targeting of specific voices of dissent, worked exactly as the Soviets intended – terrifying entire populations into silence and acquiescence.

It is particularly chilling to learn that, such was the need of the new communist regimes for prison camps, that wherever possible they started reusing the Nazi death camps. Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and even Auschwitz, became prison camps for the ever-multiplying categories of traitors, spies and saboteurs which the communists quickly detected everywhere.

Ethnic Cleaning

The years after the Second World War were marked by the truly epic relocation of peoples. The largest group were Germans, with over 12 million Germans being expelled from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and other East European countries. Admittedly this was partly because many had moved to those countries during the war, as part of Nazi settlement plans, and also because the borders of Poland were drastically moved westwards by Stalin, effectively engulfing a large part of East Germany. But ethnic groups who now found themselves in the ‘wrong’ country were kicked out of all the EE nations. Applebaum’s account of the savage civil war between Ukrainians and Poles in south-east Poland is particularly shocking.

She also explains that anti-Semitism, although part of the hated Nazi ideology, was always liable to be revived in Eastern Europe. Many of the communist leaders were self-conscious about either being Jews themselves or that the party contained lots of Jews and tried at various points to recruit more Volkisch members. The whole issue was revived in the last 1940s as Stalin himself became clinically paranoid about Jews and in particular Jewish doctors, who he thought were trying to poison him, which led to many Jews being rounded up in the purges and arrests of 1949.

As usual, Applebaum conveys the infamy of all of this by telling the heart-breaking stories of individuals caught up in the madness. While all the nations of Eastern Europe set about ethnically cleansing themselves, expelling non-local-speaking languages back to their new ‘homelands’ – Czechs being kicked out of Hungary, Poles kicked out of Ukraine, Germans kicked out of Poland and so on – all these peoples could at least travel to a nominal home country. So this vast panorama of ethnic cleansing adds a kind of fateful inevitability to the increasingly urgent efforts made by Jews all across the East, and in Russia, to travel to their homeland, the newly-founded state of Israel.

Youth

I didn’t know that the Boy Scouts movement was as widespread and popular in Eastern Europe as Applebaum shows. It is just one of the many independent organisations which the communist parties all across the East slowly strangled and co-opted into official party organisations. For example in July 1946 the communist Interior Minister of Hungary, László Rajk, banned over 1,500 organisations.

Why? In the introduction Applebaum has several pages discussing the nature of totalitarianism, invoking the quote associated with Mussolini, that it can be summarised –

All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.

This chapter shows what nothing outside the state means in practice and it really is terrifying. Absolutely everything which we refer to nowadays as civil society – all charities, church groups, youth groups, hobbies and associations – every single way in which people got together had to be either banned or subject to communist control.

The relentless horror of this was brought home by the story of the 17-year-old Polish girl from Lublin who invited members of her old scouts group to get together to form a discussion group. She and seven friends were arrested and sentenced to between two and five years in prison. Nobody was allowed to associate together in any way lest even the slightest form of association create the germ of oppositional politics.

Applebaum points out that the focus on youth movements reflected Soviet and Marxist belief that human beings are blank sheets to be moulded and created at will, in this case to produce a new species, Homo sovieticus.

This is the background to Stalin’s expression that writers and artists should be ‘engineers of the human soul’, the human soul being something which can literally be redesigned and rebuilt to suit the needs of the proletarian revolution. Hence also Stalin’s rejection of modern genetics – because it appears to assert the profoundly fixed basis of human nature – and his promotion of the crackpot Lamarckism of Russian geneticist Lysenko, an apparently academic dispute which in fact had catastrophic consequences when it was applied to Soviet agriculture.

My ears pricked up when Applebaum points out that this view of human nature was prevalent in left-wing circles across Europe, because I have just been reading about Jean-Paul Sartre whose fundamental position is our utter freedom to create and shape ourselves. This contrasts sharply with his ‘frenemy’, Albert Camus’s position, that there is a human nature, its core element being revolt against our condition, against destiny and fate.

Which made me reflect that this is one axis along which to draw the divide between fundamentally left wing and right wing mentalities: on one side the belief that human beings can be changed and improved; on the other the knowledge that human nature is fixed, fallen and must be policed.

Radio

Newspapers were important and had to be controlled, but the easy way to do that was ration or cut off the supply of paper. Radio, however, was a potentially universal disrupting factor, and this explains why the political apparats parachuted in from Moscow already had training in how to use the radio for propaganda purposes. In many cases the Red Army was told not to damage the radio buildings of the enemy, notably the big radio studios on the outskirts of Berlin, virtually the only building left standing, as the Red Army was under strict orders to seize it intact, so that communist propaganda broadcasts could begin even during the last days of the war.

But – in line with the communist clampdown on absolutely every aspect of private life – woe betide anyone who had an unauthorised radio. In October 1944, Bolesław Bierut who would become the president of communist Poland, declared that anyone who owned a radio without a licence would be sentenced to death.

Politics

Detailed account of the way the communist regimes inched their way to power. At first they allowed other parties to exist, organise and publicise but the plan was always to persuade and then bully them into coalitions, where they could be controlled and then strangled.

It is striking to learn that in all the liberated nations the communist parties expected to win free and fair elections. They thought the populations would naturally be grateful to the Red Army for liberating them from the Nazis, and – indoctrinated with Soviet ideology – they also believed the working class would awaken to its historical destiny and realise the future was communist. But it didn’t.

Typical was the Hungarian General Election of November 1945, which was won by the Smallholders Party with 57%, followed by the Socialist Party with 17.4% and the Communist Party with 16.9%. The Soviet commander in Hungary, Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, refused to allow the Smallholders to form a government. Instead Voroshilov established a coalition government with the communists holding all the key posts while the communists set to work to undermine and eventually abolish the Smallholders Party. In February 1946 its General Secretary, Béla Kovács, was arrested, and sentenced to life imprisonment in Siberia for the usual trumped-up charges of treachery and counter-revolutionary activity i.e. anything which in any way could remotely damage communist domination (p.224).

In all the EE countries the same thing happened: the communists were beaten into third place in the only free elections they ever held, promptly cancelled any further elections, and set about intimidating their opponents. Opposition meetings were broken up, newspapers banned or prevented from printing, leaders were threatened and, in some cases, arrested, tried and executed. In Bulgaria the leader of the Agrarian Party, Nikola Petkov, was arrested, tried and executed in the summer of 1947 (p.219). Many of them fled their countries.

The hoped-for democratic gaining of power turned into violent coups.

Economics

The most notable thing about communist economics is that they don’t work. This chapter deals with land and business. Land reform was popular across the East after the war, partly in response to the amazing inequities of landholding, much of which dated back centuries. Still there was surprising resistance to wholesale land redistribution and it was carried out with characteristic inefficiency and inequity and, to the communists’ dismay, even after being given land, most peasants refused to vote for the communists, but preferred the parties set up precisely to represent peasants and small landholders. Until they were abolished.

As to ‘the market’ communists had been taught to abolish it and crack down wherever it appeared. This meant banning privately owned businesses and shops. In Poland between 1947 and 1949 the number of private trading and distribution firms was cut by half (p.248). But the communist apparatus was not able to fill the gap. The result was predictable: a vast increase in the black market and a general shortage of goods. These were to characterise all the communist economies, including the mother economy of the USSR, for the rest of their existence.

What the 45 year experiment showed is that central planning a) is not as responsive to consumer wishes as a free market b) because its monolithic nationalised industries and departments are top-heavy, bureaucratic, slow and inefficient and c) manned by the dimmest, most conformists sections of society. She explains how the cult of ‘shock workers’, i.e. super workers who heroically over-delivered on their quotas (the most famous example being the Russian coal miner and Hero of Socialist Labour, Alexey Stakhanov) paradoxically undermined efficiency, because so many workers were incentivised to copy their examples that quality across all products plummeted.

Pricing is also related to quality. If the factory can only charge one price whether its goods are designed by a team of top designers and engineers, or are the most basic product imaginable, it will opt for the basic model.

The result: empty shops and furtive bargaining down back streets, the permanent shortages and crap quality of all the so-called consumer goods produced in the USSR and all its European satellites. And the typically bleak Soviet jokes:

What is the definition of Socialist Amnesia?
Standing outside a bread shop with an empty bag, not knowing whether you’re in the queue or have just been served.

(In an interesting aside, Applebaum points out that, once an industry is nationalised, for workers to complain about working conditions or pay, is to protest directly against the state. This gives background to my boyhood in the 1970s which were marked by an endless stream of mass strikes in the nationalised iron, steel, rail, coal and car industries, and makes Mrs Thatcher’s move to privatise them seem not only part of her ideological return to free market capitalism, but also an elementary form of political protection. A government which nationalises an industry makes itself directly vulnerable to criticism by the very people it sets out to help)

High Stalinism

This is a brief summary of the topics discussed in part one of the book. The second part looks at the period between the communists’ full establishment of power, around 1948, and the death of Stalin in 1953 – the era of High Stalinism. It is even more shattering and terrifying than part one and covers topics like the rise of Socialist Realism in art and architecture, the creation of Ideal Communist Cities, and the ongoing crushing of internal dissent, among the opposition but also within the communist parties themselves, with waves of purges and executions.

1948 was a swing year. After four years the communist authorities had for the most part established a stranglehold on political structures and civic society, and yet the economies of the Eastern bloc were visibly failing. To anyone with contact with the West, it was obvious the East was falling behind, and fast. 1948 saw the commencement of the Marshall Plan to give American aid to any European countries who requested it, and the foundation, in May, of the state of Israel. As a result of these events, Stalin:

  • embarked on another round of purges and show trials, designed to create scapegoats for the failings of the communist economy
  • embarked on a round of anti-Semitic purges
  • launched the blockade of Berlin on June 1948, which led to the year-long Berlin Airlift by the Allies

In 1949 China went communist and Russia detonated its first H-bomb. In 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea. It was in incredibly fast-moving environment.

I read books, watch TV documentaries and go to all the main art exhibitions in London and regularly feel overloaded with information and nostalgia about the 1960s – about 60s pop, the 60s social revolution, 60s fashion, design, art and all the rest of fit.

But the more I consume these cultural products, the more I feel they amount to an almost deliberate neglect of the far more important and decisive years after the Second War and on into the grey 1950s when much more of vital historical importance took place, and when the freedom of the West, which we all take for granted, was secured in the face of terrifying opposition.

Conclusions

1. By trying to control every conceivable aspect of society, totalitarian regimes turn every conceivable aspect of society into potential points of revolt. Thus the logic of ever-increasing repression, to crack down on every form of expression. But hence also, eventually, a society completely riddled with cracks and fissures. Which explains what history has in fact shown us – that apparently monolithic totalitarian regimes can disintegrate with surprising speed.

2. At bottom the Soviet and East European communist regimes based their entire legitimacy on the promise of future prosperity and higher living standards which were to be guaranteed by ‘scientific’ Marxism. In this one central aim they failed spectacularly. By the time of Stalin’s death in 1953 it was plain to the Soviets and to informed citizens of Eastern Europe that the West was pulling away in terms of technology, consumer goods and living standards at amazing speed. It’s not even that totalitarian communism is morally wrong or artistically repressive or psychologically damaging or violent and cruel, although it was all these – it just didn’t work.

All the issues discussed in Applebaum’s text are vividly illustrated where possible by the fate and experiences of named individuals – so many of them individuals, both communist and non-communist, who thought they could change, influence or improve their countries and who, without exception, were arrested, tortured, sent for long sentences to sub-Arctic camps in Russia, or simply executed. So many worthy people, so cruelly snuffed out by such evil scum.

Indeed, for the book she conducted extensive interviews in person with survivors of each of the three regimes, who are named in an appendix, I counted 90 of them, whose stories and quotes thread through the narrative giving a real sense of what it was like to try to live and think under these suffocating regimes. It’s this detail, this working through of exactly how the communists clamped down on every aspect of human life which we consider valuable, which chills the blood.

On the back cover biographer A.N. Wilson comments that this is the best work of modern history he has ever read. It is certainly among the most important. How many thousands of histories, school textbooks, movies and TV documentaries are devoted to the Nazis and ensuring that never again can such a maelstrom of racial hatred and state violence begin to rear its head in any civilised country?

But there are still legal communist parties all over Europe and communist intellectuals who are listened to. My daughter is being taught Marxism in her Sociology A-Level and I know it is still taught on countless Literature and Humanities courses.

In this respect, for showing what life in a communist state really involves, and the slow but steady way all our civic freedoms can be undermined, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 is a vital and outstanding achievement.


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Camus by Conor Cruise O’Brien (1970)

O’Brien (1917-2008) was Irish and had a long and varied career alternating between politics (Irish Foreign Office, United Nations, MP), journalism (editor-in-chief of the London Observer) and teaching (at universities in Ghana and New York). So he was well-placed to give an all-round assessment of Camus’s role as a novelist, playwright and above all, politically engaged writer and intellectual, 10 years after the Frenchman’s tragic death.

Only when I’d finished it did I understand the blurbs on the back of the book which point out that the entire study is written to a thesis, with a particular political interpretation in mind.

The Arab problem O’Brien starts by briskly outlining Camus’s biography and then gets on with ruffling feathers and questioning received opinion. He quotes a French writer on Camus who claims that all the working class inhabitants of the slum where Camus grew up were happily inter-racial. No, they weren’t says O’Brien; that kind of community is always troubled and there is evidence of outbreaks of unrest throughout Camus’s life.

O’Brien quotes some of Camus’s earliest essays which already make generalisations about Mediterranean Man, invoking images of Greek temples and so on. Absolutely nowhere in these portraits of his homeland does he mention mosques, muezzin, nowhere in any of his fictions is Arabic spoken. (Arabic was, in fact, banned in Algeria’s French-controlled schools.) Just a few pages into his study, O’Brien claims that, regardless of his conscious intentions, throughout his career Camus’s concept of ‘Mediterranean culture’ – by completely erasing Arab culture – served to legitimise French colonialism.

The Outsider (1940) Tough attitude, eh? O’Brien takes it on into his reading of L’Etranger. Here he points out that the account of Mersault’s trial is misleading. a) Mersault’s defence lawyer would have shown that he was defending himself against an Arab who had drawn a knife and had already attacked his friend, Raymond. Chances are a French court would only have charged him with manslaughter and possibly let him off altogether. No way it would have condemned him to death for self-defence against an Arab. b) The entire trial subtly implies that Frenchman and Arab had identical legal and civil rights in French Algeria, but they didn’t.

By gliding over this basic fact, the entire novel softens and conceals the harshness of French rule. This partly explains why the entire second part, devoted to the improbable trial and a schematic encounter with the prison priest, although its central to the plot, is less well remembered than the first half, set in the streets of Algiers, the beach, the desert heat.

O’Brien voices the misgivings I myself had on recently rereading L’Etranger, that the killing of the Arab is not really real. It is for his entire detachment from society that we feel Mersault is convicted – and this mood of rebellious detachment appeals now as it did then to adolescent minds everywhere. But no longer being a troubled adolescent, for me what stood out was the way the Arab has no name, never speaks and goes completely unlamented.

The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) O’Brien suggests this long essay is less a work of philosophy than the soliloquy of an artist meditating on suicide and death. He questions the novelty or viability of Camus’s notion of ‘revolt’, claiming that the post-God stance was the common currency of the time, and that every nation had rebelled against the Nazi occupation. O’Brien says that nonetheless the book had a big imapct on him and  his contemporaries because of its vivid affirmations of life in the face of death and despair.

The Plague (1947) O’Brien says The Plague is a masterpiece but it is not a novel; it is an ‘allegorical sermon’, and quotes Camus who himself referred to it as ‘a tract’.

O’Brien points out its flaws. For a start, Camus was apparently influenced by a recent article of Sartre’s on bourgeois fiction, to drop the notion of an omnipotent narrator. Apparently this explains why there is a fallible ‘Narrator’ who makes a fuss explaining how he has collated other documents, including Tarrou’s diary, to create his text, but this subterfuge is a) not consistently carried through – it ought to have had more newspaper reports or other sources to give it a real documentary feel b) is clumsily undermined when the text reveals at the end that ‘the Narrator’ is none other than Dr Rieux – who has been its central character! Puzzling and unsatisfactory.

But O’Brien goes, once again, for its most striking feature – the complete absence of the Arabs who, of course, made up eight-ninths of the population of Oran, the supposedly Algerian city where the plague breaks out.

O’Brien suggests they have to be erased from the narrative if it wants to be an allegory of the Nazi Occupation of France; for that allegory to work the chosen city must be a purely French city; the presence of Arabs complicates the allegory, in fact would ruin it, because you would have an oppressed population within the oppressed population. But O’Brien speculates that Camus might also have been aware of a more subversive interpretation of his allegory: that it was the French in Algeria who were the plague, the violent conquerors of the free Arabs.

By now O’Brien’s tone is scathing. He refers to the erasure of Arabs from the novel as ‘an artistic final solution to the problem of the Arabs’ – and points out how breath-takingly hypocritical it is that this genocide of the imagination takes place in a book stuffed so full of worthy characters calling for ‘total honesty’ about describing their situation; in a book whose central message is honesty and integrity in the face of the world’s injustice. Ha!

The Rebel (1951) O’Brien concentrates on the political message of The Rebel, specifically its anti-communism, using it as a focus to trace the slowly increasing vehemence of Camus’s anti-communism from the ambivalence of the Resistance days, to his final speeches and essays.

Argument with Sartre (1951) Camus’s attitude to communism was the crux of the break with Sartre when a journalist reviewed The Rebel unfavourably in Sartre’s journal, Les Temps Modernes. O’Brien, surprisingly, takes Sartre’s side by suggesting it needed more integrity to stand up to the immense weight of anti-communist feeling at the time, much of which was stoked up by CIA-funded publications and journalists. Sartre never joined the communist party but for writing in general terms about revolution he was subjected to lots of criticism. Via the same agents of cultural control, Camus found himself being championed as an exponent of liberal democracy and freedom (which he largely was, but with the vulnerabilities O’Brien is pointing out).

Colonialism O’Brien thinks the mounting vehemence of Camus’s hatred of communism and the historical/philosophical arguments he put forward in The Rebel to argue that communist regimes were uniquely, and inevitably, evil and repressive – masked a very bad conscience about the equally inevitable violence and repression of the French Empire, which had started as soon as the World War ended with violent suppression of independence movements in Algeria and Indo-China, to name the two biggest.

Exile and the Kingdom (1957) O’Brien dates these six short stories to just before the Algerian war broke out. Interestingly, O’Brien sees La Femme adultère and Le Renégat as a diptych contrasting heaven and hell. In the first a bored ignored wife has a mystical experience under the stars of the Algerian night sky; the latter is the demented monologue of a Christian missionary to native tribes who has had his tongue ripped out and been reduced to madness.

O’Brien notices how all the stories, even the realistic one about workers at a small workshop in Algiers who go on strike – have a dream-like quality. Everything he wrote, no matter how brutally realistic, was pulled towards a kind of allegorical abstractness.

Actuelles III (Chroniques Algériennes) In 1958 Camus published an entire collection devoted to bringing together all his writings on Algeria, O’Brien is correct to describe them as ‘depressing’. I have just read those of them which Camus selected to be included in his selection of journalism, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death (1961). What’s depressing is their growing irrelevance, which is matched by a steady escalation of high-minded sentiment.

O’Brien catches this in a neat formulation, when he describes them as ‘categorical and resonant in tone, equivocal in substance.’ Yes, it’s the categorical style of all Camus’s factual writing which I find so wearing, the sense that every sentence is pointing out important distinctions and subtleties in what are, in actual fact, a depressingly narrow range of ideas – freedom, oppression, death, life, suicide, freedom, death, rebellion, freedom. Round and round like hamsters in a cage.

The Algerian War of Independence broke out with attacks on French military and civilians on 1 November (All Saints Day) 1954. After a year of escalating massacres and political deadlock, in January 1956 Camus went in person to Algeria and held a public meeting at which he presented his one contribution, the idea of a ‘truce for civilians’ which both sides could abide by. (The speech is reprinted in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death.) He was barracked by the Europeans and ignored by the Muslims and the meeting broke up in disarray. He wrote numerous articles and interviews, but that was his one and only public intervention. His suggestion sank like a stone. The massacres continued for another six years, spreading to mainland France and leading to the widespread use of torture, before the French eventually conceded defeat and granted Algeria independence on 5 July 1962.

O’Brien is cutting. The Algerian war fatally undermined Camus’s position.

  • In his articles Camus was always careful to balance both sides. This sounds fair but what it really means is that he can’t bring himself to come out and state the fact that the entire disaster is the result of French colonialism, government incompetence, cultural arrogance, and systematic repression (rather like the defeat of France in 1940 – almost like there’s some kind of pattern).
  • Camus consistently ruled out any negotiation with the Front de Libération Nationale (the FLN, the leaders of the Algerian revolt), insisting that: 1. Algeria be restored to peace before 2. discussions with moderate Arab representatives could take place, but 3. Algeria could never be given independence because of its economic and social backwardness. But Camus’s central positions – no negotiation with the FLN, no independence – echoed and in effect supported the main French government policy and the military strategy which, with horrible inevitability, led on to the torture and massacres, and to the rise of the French terrorist organisation, OLS, which would end up trying to assassinate the president and organise a military coup in France. It was a complete dead end.

The volume of essays, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, counterpoints the writings on Algeria and his trip there in 1956, with Camus’s two long pieces about the Hungarian Uprising against Soviet control which took place on October-November of the same year. O’Brien dwells on the way Camus really goes to town on the evil repression of the Hungarian Uprising, and repeats in summary form the argument of The Rebel that communism is somehow uniquely and especially inhumane and violent. Camus tries here (as everywhere in his later writings) to be balance the two sides in the Cold War, to talk about two poles of repression. He goes out of his way to mention that the West, too, practices its oppressions and injustices, but he doesn’t even mention the stupid fiasco of Suez (another great triumph for French strategy and arms) and nowhere gives any sense that Western imperial repression was perceived as just as total and unjust as he thinks communist oppression. He can’t escape his Eurocentric point of view.

For O’Brien, although Camus continued for the last few years of his life with his ‘categorical and resonant’ defences of freedom, in practice he was now a right-wing apologist for the colonialist French government.

The Fall (1956) Camus’s third and final novel began life as a short story for the Exile and the Kingdom  volume. Like many of those stories it has a strong dreamlike quality, what with its fairy tale setting in a foggy, allegorical Amsterdam.

O’Brien brings out the centrality of Christian themes and imagery in this story of a successful society lawyer who loses his confidence, who comes to realise he is a fraud, who undergoes voluntary exile in Amsterdam and can only find release (like the Ancient Mariner) by buttonholing strangers and telling them his strange confession. (Having aligned Camus with the French colonialist government and now emphasising the essentially religious nature of his imaginative vision, for a moment I thought O’Brien might go on to predict that, given another 20 years, Camus might have turned into a crusty, right-wing French chauvinist and Catholic. But no.)

O’Brien says that, in contrast to the short stories of Exile and the Kingdom which are (mostly) hard and unrelenting, The Fall involves a return to irony, pleasure, mystery – the positive and enjoyable qualities of his two earlier novels. He has an interesting reason for this. He speculates it’s because the short stories – especially The Guest – dramatise Camus’s excruciating in the early 1950s, caught between two cultures and two irreconcilable armed camps. Whereas, by the time of The Fall a year or so later, Camus has to some extent reconciled himself to his position as an outsider from both sides.

Thus the Amsterdam of the novel is not only, in thematic terms, the anti-Algeria: foggy and wet to Algeria’s blazing sunshine. Its political significance derives from the narrator of The Fall‘s insistence that it is also like the Limbo of the theologians, neither heaven nor hell, a place outside time, a dream-place where one man sits condemned to tell his story over and again. It is the corner into which Camus has painted himself.

Conclusion

O’Brien heads towards the thundering conclusion that Camus’s political position was flawed and wrong. O’Brien believes that Sartre was right and if Camus had allied himself more equivocally with the Sartre group in criticising Western imperialism, much trouble in both Algeria, and then Vietnam, might have been avoided.

He seriously undermines the idea of Camus as some kind of secular saint, a hero of free speech and humanism. Instead, he sees Camus as the most representative voice of Western consciousness and conscience of his era, not because he was a great liberal, but because he had a crippled, fatal relationship to the colonised Third World.

Trying to do the right thing but according to an entirely Eurocentric set of values, incapable of understanding the rights and demands of the colonial peoples, putting up one impractical idea after another while all the while, in effect, acquiescing in the repressive policies of his government – and finally forced into a humiliating silence – he is the representatively troubled intellectual of the Great Decolonising Era, of the end of the European empires.

This is all brought out much more clearly in the title the book was given in America – Albert Camus of Europe and Africa. It is a grimly tragic view of the man and his stance, but I find it very persuasive, having myself noted the elimination of the Arab presence in his novels, the vehement anti-communism of The Rebel and the surprising presence of Christian themes and ideas throughout his work.

And it isn’t all negative. O’Brien also pays reverence to the strengths of his three flawed but haunting novels and, in particular, his deeply political interpretation of the man and his times lends a new depth and resonance to the short but haunting masterpiece, La Chute.


Credit

Camus (Modern Masters) by Conor Cruise O’Brien was published as part of the Fontana Modern Masters series in 1970. All quotes & references are to the 1976 paperback edition (which cost me 65p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Battle for France

The Algerian war of independence

The Plague by Albert Camus (1947)

Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky. This sense of being abandoned, which might in time have given characters a finer temper, began, however, by sapping them to the point of futility. (p.63)

The plot

We’re in Oran, coastal port and second city of the French colony of Algeria, in Camus’s day (1940-something, according to the first sentence) which at the time had a population of around 200,000.

Rats start dying and then people, too. After some weeks of denial the authorities acknowledge that there is a major outbreak of plague and close the city so that no one can get in or out. The narrative focuses on Dr Bernard Rieux as he tries to treat the first few victims, and comes into contact with a cross-section of characters from the city. The plague just gets worse and worse with Rieux reporting every step of its development and helping the authorities to cope – setting up isolation wards, establishing quarantine for all diagnosed patients, organising Volunteer Squads to go out checking each district of the city.

The book can be analysed out into three strands:

  • The narrator’s factual, third-person overview of the progress of the plague and its impact on the population’s morale.
  • The narrator’s interpretation of the events in terms of its impact on individual psychologies and community morale – an interpretation which invokes contemporary ideas derived from Catholic Christianity, revolutionary communism, and liberal humanism.
  • And the character development of the half dozen or so major characters who we follow all the way through the plague, who represent different types of humanity with different coping strategies. All of these come into contact with Dr Rieux, acquaintances who he treats or friends who he listens to pouring out their souls, their stories, their hopes and fears. Like planets round the sun.

I found the first hundred and fifty pages of The Plague a struggle to read because of the lack of detail about the disease, the lack of much incident and the lack of scope among the characters; but the final hundred pages significantly altered my opinion, as the characters reveal more and more about themselves, as the mental strain of their medical work or of being locked up in the quarantined city give them more depth, and as we begin to witness actual deaths among those close to Dr Rieux.

The turning point (for me, anyway) is the pain-filled death of the young son of the city magistrate, Monsieur Othon, Jacques. Jacques dies in agony, wailing with childish pain, witnessed by almost all the main characters. From that point onwards the debates about God and judgement and sinfulness and exile and abandonment and so on – which had seemed abstract and flimsy in the first half – acquired a real depth. Not only was the boy’s death terrifying in itself – towards the end he begins screaming and doesn’t let off till he expires – but the impact it has on the main characters is genuinely unsettling. Grown men are shaken into rethinking their whole lives, but Camus’s depiction of the child’s death makes this very believable.

Although it has its faults of style and long-windedness, the second half in particular of The Plague very powerfully brings to life a whole raft of issues which concerned mid-twentieth century minds, and convinces you that this is indeed a masterpiece.

The characters

The Plague is narrated by a man who calls himself the Narrator, who explains how he has assembled eye-witness accounts and various documents and is able to give third-person descriptions of events and people.

Dr. Rieux is the central character. Aged 35 i.e. around Camus’s age, it is he who first stumbles on a dying rat in the hall of his apartment block, comes across the earliest plague patients, phones around other doctors for their opinion, begins to lobby the authorities, helps put in place the quarantine and isolation wards and liaises with his older colleague, Dr Castel, about the latter’s home-made attempts to devise a serum. He is a prime mover of the medical strand of the narrative.

But Rieux is also the copper-bottomed humanist who, we can imagine, most closely resembles Camus’s own humanist position. It is Rieux who has several in-depth discussions with the novel’s priest about God and divine Justice; who discusses the meaning of exile (i.e. being stuck in the city separated from the woman he loves) with the journalist Rambert; who becomes good friends with big strong Tarrou, who represents the political strand of the book.

Rieux is, in other words, a sort of still point around which the other characters rotate, confiding their life stories, sharing their views, debating the ‘meaning’ of the plague, and of their ‘exile’, of ‘justice’, of ‘love’.

Father Paneloux is a Jesuit priest, the representative of Catholic Christianity in the novel. He gives two lengthy sermons in the city’s cathedral. The first, in the early stages of the plague, castigates the city’s population in traditional Christian terms, saying the plague is a scourge sent by God against sinners for turning their backs on Him. It introduces the metaphor of God’s flail or scourge swishing over the stricken city, an image which comes to haunt several of the other characters.

Then, at the turning point of the story, Paneloux is present at the bedside of little Jacques Othon during the latter’s painful death. He offers prayers etc but, of course, nothing works or remits the little boy’s agony.

There follow inevitable are dialogues between Paneloux and the atheist characters, the latter asking how a caring God could torture children. Paneloux roughs out his explanation in conversation with Rieux and then goes on to give a powerful exposition of it in his Second Sermon.

This Second Sermon is, in its way, even fiercer and more unrepentantly Christian than the first, but in a more personal way. For a start, Paneloux stops saying ‘you’ to the congregation and starts saying ‘we’. He is down among them, he is one of ‘us’.

Paneloux’s argument is that you either believe in God or you don’t. If you do, then you must not only accept but embrace the suffering of the world, because it must be part of his plan. It passes our human understanding, but you must want it and will it. If you say you believe in God but reject this or that aspect of his plan, you are rejecting Him. it is all or nothing.

There is a Nietzschean force to this Second Sermon which I admired and responded to for its totality, for its vehemence, as, presumably, we are intended to.

After the death of little Jacques, Paneloux becomes much more interesting and psychologically resonant as a character. He throws himself into the voluntary work being done among the sick. When he himself falls ill and is nursed by Rieux’s mother at their apartment, his decline has depth and meaning, and so when he dies it is genuinely moving.

Jean Tarrou is a big, strong good-natured guy. He keeps a diary which the narrator incorporates into the text and which gives us independent assessments of tertiary characters like Monsieur Othon, Dr Castel, Cottard and so on. On the practical level, it is Tarrou who comes up with the idea of organising teams of volunteers to fight the plague i.e. going round checking wards, identifying new patients, arranging their conveyance to the isolation wards.

On the level of character type, Tarrou early on lets slip that he fought in the Spanish Civil War on the losing, Republican, side. This explains why he was hanging out in the Spanish quarter when the plague began. He is the political character in the novel, the image of the ‘committed’ man who resonates through existentialist thinking. The man who validates his life by giving it to a cause.

After the little boy’s death, Tarrou’s character moves to an entirely new level, when he confides in Rieux the key incident from his childhood. Tarrou’s father was a kindly family man with an entertaining hobby of memorising railway timetables. Tarrou knew he was a lawyer but didn’t really understand what this meant until, aged 17, he accompanied his father to court one day and was horrified to see him transformed into a begowned harpy of Justice, shouting for the death penalty to be imposed on a feeble yellow-looking fellow – the defendant – cowering in the witness box.

The scales dropped from Tarrou’s eyes and he ran away from home. He joined a worldwide organisation devoted to overthrowing the injustice of bourgeois society, which stood up for the workers and the humiliated everywhere. But he found himself, in turn, acquiescing in the executions which the leaders claimed were necessary to overthrow the regime which carried out executions. Tarrou gives a particularly unpleasant description of an execution by firing squad which he attends in Hungary, in graphic brutal detail. The size of the hole shot in the executed man’s chest haunts his dreams.

Tarrou is telling Rieux all this as the pair of them sit on a terrace overlooking the sea. The mood, the background susurrations of the ocean, and the seriousness of what he’s saying all chime perfectly. Having rejected the orthodox, bourgeois legal world of his father, he has equally walked away from what is not named but is pretty obviously the Communist Party. Now all he wants to do is avoid murder, and prevent death. And then – using the characteristically religious register of this text – he tells Rieux that he wants to be a saint. A saint without God.

This conversation, and Tarrou’s agonised journey from bourgeois rebel, through communist activist and fighter in Spain, to would-be saint is – for me – the best part of the book. For the first time in reading any of Camus’s books I felt I was getting to grip with the issues of his day dramatised in an accessible way.

It is all the more heart-breaking then when, just as the plague is beginning to finally let up, the death rate drop and the city begin to hope again – that tough noble Tarrou himself contracts it and dies. Characteristically, he demands that Rieux tell him the truth about the deterioration in his condition right till the end.

Raymond Rambert is the third major character who rotates around Rieux. He is a journalist visiting Oran to write about conditions in the Arab Quarter, when the plague strikes. When the city is closed he finds himself trapped and spends most of the novel trying to escape, first legally by petitioning the authorities, then illegally by paying people smugglers. This latter strand is long and boring, involving being handed from one dodgy geezer to another and primed to be smuggled out of a gate by ‘friendly’ guards only for the attempt to be permanently delayed due to all kinds of hitches. It is the presumably deliberate opposite of Hollywood exciting. Somewhere the narrator describes the plague as grimly unromantic, as drab and mundane and boring, and that accurately describes this thread of Rambert’s frustrated escape attempts.

Apart from this rather dull thread on the level of the plot, Rambert as a type is the main focus for discussions of ‘love’. He wants to escape so desperately in order to get back to the wife he loves and left in Paris. His energy and devotion is contrasted with the apathy on the one hand, or the frenzied debauchery on the other, of the other trapped townsfolk.

Again, like all the characters, Rambert is transfigured by Jacques’ death. It follows the latest disappointment in his many escape plans and after it, Rambert confides to Rieux, he has stopped trying to escape. After nearly a year in plague-struck Oran, he’s realised that the plague is now his plague; he has more in common with the stricken townsfolk than with outsiders. He will stay until the work here is done.

These are the three major characters (beside Rieux) and you can see how they are simultaneously real people and also function as narrative types who trigger periodic discussions of the issues of Camus’s time, or of larger issues of justice and love.

Minor characters

Joseph Grand is a fifty-something somewhat withered city clerk and a kind of comic version of the would-be author. In numerous scenes we witness him reading aloud to Rieux and sometimes some of the other serious characters, the opening of his Great Novel which, in fact, has never got beyond the opening sentence which he tinkers with endlessly. This is pretty broad satire on the self-involved irrelevance of many litterateurs. On the other hand, once the plague kicks off, he uses his skills to compile the tables and statistics which the city authorities need and finds himself praised by the narrator as precisely the kind of quiet, obscure but dogged commitment to work and efficiency which the narrator considers the true nature of bravery, of heroism.

Cottard lives in the same building as Grand and we meet both of them when Grand calls Rieux to tell him he’s found Cottard just as he was hanging himself. They save and restore him. From that point on Cottard is shifty and evades police and the authorities since attempted suicide is a crime. Once the plague kicks in he becomes much more peaceable, maybe because everyone else is now living in the state of nervous tension which he permanently inhabits. He becomes a black marketeer and pops up throughout the story. When the plague winds down he goes a bit mad and suddenly starts shooting out his window at random passers-by, a scene Rieux and Tarrou stumble across on one of their walks. He is not massacred as he would be in a Hollywood movie, but successfully arrested and taken off by the police.

Dr. Castel is a much older medical colleague of Rieux’s. He realises it is bubonic plague quicker than anyone else and then devotes his time to creating a plague serum, using the inadequate facilities to hand. His efforts tire him out and, although his serum is finally introduced, it’s not clear whether it has any impact on the plague which ultimately declines because it has just worn itself out.

Monsieur Othon the city’s pompous well-dressed magistrate, is often to be seen parading his well-dressed wife and harshly-disciplined children round town. Until his son Jacques dies – at which point he becomes greatly softened. As the relative of a victim he is sent to one of the isolation camps for a quarantine period, but surprises everyone when, upon leaving, he decides he wants to go back and help.

Comments on the characters

Summarising them like this makes it clearer than when actually reading it, how schematic the characters are, how they represent particular views or roles which combine to give a kind of overview of how society reacts to calamity. Having just read three of Camus’s plays (Caligula, Cross Purpose and The Just) I now have a strong sense that this is how Camus conceives of characters, as ideological or issue-driven types.

1. Note how none of them are women. It is the 1940s and still very much a man’s world. Experience only counts if it is male. In any actual plague there would be thousands of mothers concerned and caring for their children and probably many women would volunteer as nurses. The only women named are the remote ‘love objects’ which motivate the men – Rieux’s wife, who is packed off to a sanatorium at the start of the novel for a non-plague-related illness, and Rambert’s wife. In the main body of the narrative no women appear or speak, apart from Rieux’s ageing mother who comes and stays with him. The mother is a holy figure in Camus’s fiction (compare and contrast the centrality of the (dead) mother in L’Etranger.)

2. You will also note that there isn’t a single Arab or Algerian among these characters. Seven years after The Plague was published the Algerian War of Independence broke out and Algerians began fighting for the freedom to write their own narratives of their own country in their own language.

In this respect, in the perspective of history, The Plague is a kind of European fantasy, is set in a European fantasy of a country which soon afterwards ceased to exist.

The medicine and science

There is some medical detail about the plague, some description of the hard buboes which swell at the body’s lymph nodes, how they can be incised to release the pus, some descriptions of the fever, pain, the last-minute falling off of symptoms before the sudden death. Enough to give the narrative some veracity, but no more.

But Camus is more interested in personifying and psychologising the plague than in describing it scientifically.

Thus over a relatively brief period the disease lost practically all the gains piled up over many months. Its setbacks with seemingly predestined victims, like Grand and Rieux’s girl patient, its bursts of activity for two or three days in some districts synchronizing with its total disappearance from others, its new practice of multiplying its victims on, say, a Monday, and on Wednesday letting almost all escape, in short, its accesses of violence followed by spells of complete inactivity, all these gave an impression that its energy was flagging, out of exhaustion and exasperation, and it was losing, with its self-command, the ruthless, almost mathematical efficiency that had been its trump card hitherto.

Rieux was confronted by an aspect of the plague that baffled him. Yet again it was doing all it could to confound the tactics used against it; it launched attacks in unexpected places and retreated from those where it seemed definitely lodged. Once more it was out to darken counsel. (p.232)

In the first hundred pages or so I was hoping for more science, more medical descriptions, and was disappointed. Maybe Camus’s novel reflects the medical science of his day. Or maybe he only did as much research as was necessary to create the scaffold for his philosophical lucubrations.

Either way the book’s science and medical content is underwhelming. Early on Dr Rieux advises a plague victim to be put on a light diet and given plenty to drink. Is that it? Paris sends serum but it doesn’t seem to work very well and there’s never enough. Rieux tries in some cases to cut open the knotted lymph glands and let them bleed out blood and pus – but besides being messy and crude, this doesn’t seem to work either. The only real strategy the authorities have is to cart the infected off to isolation wards where they wait to die before their corpses are taken to massive plague pits and thrown into lime.

In this respect, the science and medical side of the narrative is closer to the medicine of Charles Dickens than to our computer-based, genome-cracking, antibiotic-designing era. It seemed pathetic and antique how the novel describes the isolated old Dr Castel plodding along trying to develop a serum locally, by himself, working with the inadequate means he has,

since the local bacillus differed slightly from the normal plague bacillus as defined in textbooks of tropical diseases. (p.112)

and that the narrator considers this feeble old man’s home-made efforts as truly ‘heroic’.

If it is absolutely necessary that this narrative should include a ‘hero’, the narrator commends to his readers, with, to his thinking, perfect justice, this insignificant and obscure hero who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal. This will render to the truth its due, to the addition of two and two its sum of four, and to heroism the secondary place that rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness.

(Incidentally, this is a good example of the obscurity typical of so much of Camus’s prose — ‘This will render to heroism the secondary place that rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness.’ As usual I find myself having to read Camus sentences at least twice to decipher the meaning, and then wondering whether I have in fact learned anything. Does heroism have a secondary place just after, but never before, the noble claim of happiness? It sounds so precise, so logical, so confident. But it’s meaningless and instantly forgotten.)

Camus’s worldview

As Jean-Paul Sartre usefully, and a little cruelly, pointed out back at the time, Camus is not a philosopher – although he studied philosophy at university, it wasn’t to the same level as Sartre who went on to become a philosophy professor. Sartre also denied that Camus was even an ‘existentialist’ – by which maybe he simply meant that Camus wasn’t one of Sartre’s tribe – and Camus himself is ambivalent about using the term.

Instead, Camus is a kind of philosophical impressionist. Without much conceptual or logical rigour he is interested in depicting the psychological impact, the feel, the climate, produced by a handful of interlocking ‘ideas’.

Chief among these is the Absurd, the result of the mismatch between the human wish for order and meaning and the obvious indifference of a godless universe. ‘Exile’ is the name he gives to that sense humans have of being removed from their true domain, the place of consolation, meaning and belonging. He uses the word ‘hope’ to denote the delusions humans create to hide from themselves their complete abandonment in a godless universe.

Thus the brave and heroic Absurd Man faces down a ‘godless universe’ and lives without hope i.e. without resorting to fond illusions.

And finally, Revolt – the Absurd Man revolts against his condition. The notion of revolt arose from his discussion of suicide in The Myth of Sisyphus (do not kill yourself; face the absurdity; overcome it; revolt against your fate) and was to be developed at length in his other ‘philosophical’ work, The Rebel.

Why is this relevant to The Plague? Because the advent of a plague, spreading unstoppably and leading to the closing of the city, throws up a wide variety of dramatic situations in which his cast of seven or eight main characters can act out and think through and express various aspects of Camus’s worldview.

Very little happens in the ‘plot’. The medical aspect is medieval. We read the book to find in it a steady stream of dramatisations of Camus’s worldview. His other two novels – The Outsider and The Fall are much shorter at around 100 pages each. The Plague is the longest fictional depiction of Camus’s theory of the Absurd. Reading it at such length led me to isolate three distinct themes:

  1. The centrality of Roman Catholic Christianity to Camus’s worldview
  2. The revelation that the Law – with its ideas of justice, judgement, crime and punishment – is arguably more important that the ideas around the Absurd
  3. The horrible long-winded style which makes stretches of it almost impossible to read (and which I deal with in a separate blog post).

1. The role of Christianity in Camus’s philosophy

It was talking Camus over with my 18 year-old son (who has just completed an A-Level in Philosophy) which made me realise the centrality of French Roman Catholicism to both Camus and Sartre.

Both Frenchmen go on and on and on about the ‘anguish’ and the ‘absurdity’ of living in what they never cease to tell us is a ‘godless universe’.

But it is only so distressing to wake up to this godlessness if you ever thought it was godful. I was brought up by atheist parents in the mostly atheist country of England where the Church of England is run by nice vicars. The Anglican worldview is one of moderation and common sense and tea and biscuits. There haven’t really been many great Anglican thinkers because thinking hasn’t been its main activity. Running missions in Africa or the East End or organising village fetes in the Cotswolds have traditionally been Anglican activities. The Anglican church has been a central topic of gentle English humour, from Trollope to The Vicar of Dibley.

French Roman Catholic culture couldn’t be more different. It is both politically and philosophically deep and demanding and, historically, has played a vindictively reactionary role in French politics. The Catholic worldview is far more intense, making the world a battlefield between the forces of God and the Devil, with a weekly confession in which you must confront your own innermost failings. Its educational élite are the mercilessly intelligent Jesuits. Its tradition includes Pascal with his terrifying vision of a vast universe, indifferent to us unless filled by the love of God. Politically, the Catholic Church led the attack on the Jewish army officer Dreyfus in the prolonged cultural civil war over his false accusation for treason – the Dreyfus Affair (dramatised by Robert Harris in his novel An Officer and a Spy) – which divided France from 1894 to 1906.

Since the French Revolution, very broadly French culture has been divided into conservatives who line up behind the reactionary Catholic Church, and liberals and socialists, who oppose it.

Think how repressive, how reactionary, how dominating their boyhood Catholic educations must have been in the 1910s and 1920s for young Jean-Paul and Albert. Think how much of a mental and psychological effort it must have been for them to struggle free of their Catholic education. It meant rejecting the beliefs which their parents, their wider family and the entire society around them cherished. It meant standing alone. It meant being an outsider.

Thus my suggestion is that the extremely negative value which Sartre and Camus attribute to the idea of realising that there is no God and that you are free to make your own set of values and decisions derives from their powerful emotional feeling that this involves a loss, the loss of their once life-supporting Catholic faith.

A lot of the emotional intensity of their ideas and fictions derive from the intensity of the struggle to break free from the Catholic Church. Sartre calls this state of lucid acknowledgement of your freedom in the world ‘anguish’. They both describe the state as a state of abandonment. Camus in particular again and again uses the analogy of it being a state of exile.

All of this terminology is powerfully negative. It suggests that there once was something – and now it is lost. In Sartre and Camus’s works they refer to the lost thing as the ‘illusions’ or ‘habits’ of bourgeois life, but my suggestion is that Sartre and Camus don’t themselves realise how fundamental their lost Christian faith is to their entire worldview.

Godless. Over and over again they refer to the horror and terror of living in a ‘godless’ universe. Well, if you weren’t brought up to expect a godful universe you won’t be particularly surprised or disappointed, let alone thrown into mortal anguish when someone tells you that it is godless.

It was my son who pointed out to me with calm rationality that there is no logical need to be upset or anguished or exiled by living in a ‘godless universe’. You can quite logically accept that there is a ridiculous mismatch between our wish for meaning and comfort and security in the world and the absurdity of people being run over by cars or blown up by terrorists – without giving it an emotional value – without making it the source of catastrophic emotional collapse. Just as you can acknowledge the reality of gravity or the speed of light or that humans are mammals without bursting into tears. It is just one more fact among thousands of facts about the world we live, pleasant or less pleasant, which most people process, accept and forget in order to get on with their lives.

Camus, like Sartre, thinks of these ‘ordinary’ people – people who, alas, aren’t writers or philosophers – as sheep, cattle, as ‘cowards’ or ‘scum’ (which is what Sartre – rather surprisingly – calls them in Existentialism is a Humanism) because they are hiding from or rejecting or denying the Truth. I think, on the contrary, that most people are perfectly capable of grasping the truth about the world they live in, they just don’t make the same song and dance about it as two French lapsed Catholics.

All this is prompted by slowly realising that the supposedly existential or atheist worldview depicted in The Plague is completely reliant on the ideology and terminology of Christianity. Thus it is no surprise that the Jesuit Father Paneloux is one of the central characters, nor that the book contains two chapters devoted to sermons delivered by him, nor that one of the central moments in the book is the confrontation between the humanist Dr Rieux and the Jesuit Paneloux following the death of little Jacques. When the priest insists that God’s Plan ‘passes our human understanding’, the doctor replies:

‘No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.’ (p.178)

God also features in several of the conversations between Dr Rieux and the thoughtful Tarrou:

‘Do you believe in God, doctor?…’ His face still in shadow, Rieux said that he’d already answered: that if he believed in an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him. But no one in the world believed in a God of that sort; no, not even Paneloux, who believed that he believed in such a God…
‘After all,’ the doctor repeated, then hesitated again, fixing his eyes on Tarrou, ‘it’s something that a man of your sort can understand most likely, but, since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence.’
Tarrou nodded.
‘Yes. But your victories will never be lasting; that’s all.’
Rieux’s face darkened.
‘Yes, I know that. But it’s no reason for giving up the struggle.’
‘No reason, I agree. Only, I now can picture what this plague must mean for you.’
‘Yes. A never ending defeat.’ (p.108)

This is Camus’s attitude. Revolt against fate. Rebel against the godless universe. Resist. Fight, even if it’s without hope.

But – and this is my point – note how the secular, Absurdist, existentialist, call it what you will, attitude can only emerge by piggybacking, as it were, on the back of Christian theology. This plucky godlessness only really has meaning be reference to the lucky godfulness which precedes it. They can’t discuss the meaning of life cold, from a standing start – there always has to be a preliminary clearing of throats, some foreplay, involving God this or God that, do you believe in God, No, do you believe in God etc — it’s a kind of warming up and stretching exercise before they can get round to saying what they do believe in – justice, freedom, human dignity or what have you.

The entire discourse of the Absurd absolutely requires there to be a Christianity to reject and replace, before it can express itself.

2. The importance of the law, judgement and punishment

Reading his other two novels has slowly made me realise that pretty old-fashioned ideas of crime and punishment are central to Camus. The Outsider (1942) is about a man who commits a crime (murdering an Arab) and is punished for it. The entire ‘drama’ of the story is in the mismatch between his inner psychological state of almost psychotic detachment from his own life and actions – but where this absurd mismatch is brought to life, where his detachment from social norms is misinterpreted and distorted to make him appear a monstrous psychopath, is in a court of law.

The Outsider becomes a study of the process of the law and a questioning of the idea of human ‘justice’. The entire second part of the book mostly consists of the protagonist’s questioning by magistrates, then the long courtroom scenes featuring the prosecution and defence lawyers doing their thing, followed by the judge’s summing up. It is a courtroom drama.

The Fall (1956) is even more Law-drenched, since it consists of an uninterrupted monologue told by a lawyer about his own ‘fall from grace’. It is a text infested with the imagery of crime and sin, punishment and redemption, judgement and forgiveness. There are some passages about the Absurd but really it is ideas about crime and punishment which dominate.

But also, look at the title. The Fall. A reference to the central event in all Christian theology, the fall of Man. Notions of the law are inextricable interlinked with Christian theology and imagery.

Religion and Law in The Plague

So I was not surprised when I began to discern in The Plague at least as much discourse about religion (about sin and punishment) and about the Law (about justice and judgement) as I did about the ideas Camus is famous for i.e. the Absurd and so on.

In particular, it comes as no surprise when Tarrou, one of the most intelligent characters, reveals that the key to his character, to his entire career as a political activist, was revulsion at the vengefulness of his father’s bourgeois form of justice, and a resultant search for some kind of better, universal, political justice. And I have already noted the centrality of Father Paneloux and the debates about God which he triggers wherever he goes.

Many commentators then and now have thought that The Plague is a clever allegory about the occupation of France by the Nazis, and the stealthy way a sense of futility and despair crept over the French population, numbing some, spurring others into ‘revolt’ and resistance.

Every time I read about this interpretation I wondered why Camus, who apparently was ‘active’ in the Resistance, didn’t at some stage write a novel of what it was actually like to live under German occupation and be a member of the Resistance. That would be of huge historic importance and also directly tie his ideas to their historical context, making them more powerful and meaningful. Maybe it’s petty-minded of me – but it is striking how none of Camus’ three novels mention the war, the defeat of France, the German occupation, Nazi ideology, France’s contribution to the Holocaust, any aspect of the work of the Resistance, or how he and his compatriots experienced the Liberation.

On one level, it feels like a vast hole at the centre of his work and a huge opportunity lost.

Anyway, this historical context is completely absent from The Plague. What there is instead are these dominating issues of law and justice, sin and forgiveness, and the all-pervading language of Law and Religion.

Over The Plague hang the shades of Dostoyevsky’s characters interminably discussing whether or not there is a God and how his love and/or justice are shown in the world – and also of Kafka’s novels with their obsessive repetition of the idea of a man arrested or turned into an insect for no reason, no reason at all, with their predominating idea of the injustice of the world.

(Camus includes a jokey reference to Kafka on page 51 where the dodgy character Cottard says he’s reading a ‘detective story’ about a man who was arrested one fine day without having done anything, a transparent reference to The Trial.)

Statistical evidence

Because the entire translated text is available online, you can do a word search, with the following results which tend to support my argument – that the novel is far more about ideas derived from Christian religion or the Law and jurisprudence, than the ideas of Camus’s brand of existentialism.

  • absurd – 7 times, and never in a philosophical sense
  • revolt – 6 – ‘Weariness is a kind of madness. And there are times when the only feeling I have is one of mad revolt.’ (p.178)
  • abandoned – 4
  • futile – 4
  • suicide – 3
  • godless – 0

So there is surprisingly little direct reference to the main concepts which made him famous. Now compare and contrast with the frequency of religious terms. These are far more common, far more expressed and discussed.

  • God – 46 instances
  • saint – 15
  • religion – 12
  • heaven – 8
  • hell – 7
  • salvation – 6
  • purgatory – 2

And finally, legal terminology:

  • law – 14
  • justice – 10 – ‘When a man has had only four hours’ sleep, he isn’t sentimental. He sees things as they are; that is to say, he sees them in the garish light of justice, hideous, witless justice.’ (p.156)
  • judge – 6
  • crime – 6
  • punishment – 4
  • judgement – 2

Again, there is more reference to basic ideas of justice and injustice than to the concepts clustered around his Absurdism.

The one Camusian idea which is very present is that of ‘exile’, which is mentioned 27 times – ‘the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile’. This is, if you like, a kind of metaphorical embodiment of the central idea of Camus’s version of existentialism – the literal sense of loss, separation, exile from home and loved ones standing for the metaphorical sense of exile from belief systems which give our lives purpose. But it is typical of Camus that it isn’t a philosophical idea – it is a metaphor for a distressed state of mind, for the deprivation of the comforts of home which, deep down – as I suggest above – is in fact caused by the loss of religious faith.

Interestingly, the most commonly used abstract word is ‘love’, occurring 96 times. This suggests the, dare I say it, sentimental basis of Camus’s humanism.


Credit

La Peste by Albert Camus was published in France in 1947. This translation of The Plague by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1948, and as a Penguin paperback in 1960. All quotes & references are to the 1972 reprint of the Penguin paperback edition (which cost 35p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus (1942)

It sums itself up as a lucid invitation to live and to create, in the very midst of the desert. (p.7)

This volume consists of the long (100-page) essay about suicide, The Myth of Sisyphus, which argues against despair and in favour of life – accompanied by five much shorter essays each exemplifying Camus’s healthy lust for living.

It’s worth remembering how young Camus was when he wrote these texts. Born in November 1913, he was just 26 when France fell to the Germans in June 1940, 23 when he wrote Summer in Algiers, 26 when he wrote The Stop in Oran and so on. A young man just beginning a career in writing and still very much entranced by the pleasures of the flesh, sunbathing, swimming, eyeing up beautiful women (a constant theme in his works).

The Myth of Sisyphus

Camus’s preface sums it up. Written in 1940, in the ruins of the defeat of France, the text affirms that even in a Godless universe and a world awash with nihilism, there remain the means to defy and surmount that nihilism. If life is meaningless, the teenager is tempted ask, what on earth is the point of going on living? Why not commit suicide? That is the subject of the essay: it is an essay about suicide, about confronting suicide, the ‘logical’ consequence of realising that we live in an Absurd world.

Camus’s answer is, that we shouldn’t commit suicide because it is more human and more noble and more in tune with a tragic universe – to rebel, to revolt against this fate. To face down the obvious absurdity of human existence and to enjoy the wild beauty of the world while we can.

Revolt gives life its value. Spread out over the whole length of a life, it restores its majesty to that life. (p.54)

Essayist not philosopher

Camus takes a long time to say this. I am influenced by the comment of Jean-Paul Sartre in his 1945 interview, that Camus is not an existentialist, and not a philosopher – he is much more a descendant of France’s 17th century moralists. He is a moralist, an essayist (as the essays later in this volume testify) and the essayist isn’t under any compulsion to produce a coherent sequence of argument – an entertaining flow of ideas will suffice.

Camus certainly plays with philosophical ideas and references a bunch of big names – early on there’s half a paragraph each about Kierkegaard, Jaspers, Heidegger and Husserl – but this very brevity shows that he picks and chooses quotes to suit him, rather like Hazlitt or any of the impressionist Victorian essayists, yanking in quotes here or there to support their flow – and in order to create a rather meandering and impressionistic flow rather than a logical sequence of argument.

Camus himself explains that he is not ‘examining’ the philosophy of a Heidegger or Jaspers – he is ‘borrowing a theme’ (p.40), he is making ‘a sketchy reconnaissance in the origins of the absurd’ (p.20). He is not addressing their philosophical arguments – he is bringing out their common ‘climate’. Camus is much more about impressionistic psychology than repeatable arguments.

  • The method defined here acknowledges the feeling that all true knowledge is impossible. Solely appearances can be enumerated and the climate make itself felt…
  • If it would be presumptuous to try to deal with their philosophies, it is possible and sufficient in any case to bring out the climate that is common to them…
  • Certain men, starting from a critique of rationalism, have admitted the absurd climate…
  • Never, perhaps, have minds been so different. And yet we recognize as identical the spiritual landscapes in which they get under way. Likewise, despite such dissimilar zones of knowledge, the cry that terminates their itinerary rings out in the same way. It is evident that the thinkers we have just recalled have a common climate. To say that that climate is deadly scarcely amounts to playing on words. Living under that stifling sky forces one to get away or to stay…

Climate. Zone. Landscape. Stifling sky. This is not an argument – it is impressionistic prose poetry.

This hell of the present is his [the Absurd Man’s] Kingdom at last. All problems recover their sharp edge. Abstract evidence retreats before the poetry of forms and colors. Spiritual conflicts become embodied and return to the abject and magnificent shelter of man’ s heart. (p.52)

This poetic meandering results in the often pretty obscure nature of the work. Camus is, in fact, often surprisingly turgid and difficult to understand.

If thought discovered in the shimmering mirrors of phenomena eternal relations capable of summing them up and summing themselves up in a single principle, then would be seen an intellectual joy of which the myth of the blessed would be but a ridiculous imitation. (p.23)

I understand what he’s saying: if any of us could discover a really unified theory underlying the world of phenomena how happy we, and mankind, would be. But you can see how this is not anything like philosophy: it is more a description of what philosophy would feel like.

When Karl Jaspers, revealing the impossibility of constituting the world as a unity, exclaims: “This limitation leads me to myself, where I can no longer withdraw behind an objective point of view that I am merely representing, where neither I myself nor the existence of others can any longer become an object for me,” he is evoking after many others those waterless deserts where thought reaches its confines. After many others, yes indeed, but how eager they were to get out of them! At that last crossroad where thought hesitates, many men have arrived and even some of the humblest. They then abdicated what was most precious to them, their life. Others, princes of the mind, abdicated likewise, but they initiated the suicide of their thought in its purest revolt. The real effort is to stay there, rather, in so far as that is possible, and to examine closely the odd vegetation of those distant regions. Tenacity and acumen are privileged spectators of this inhuman show in which absurdity, hope, and death carry on their dialogue. The mind can then analyze the figures of that elementary yet subtle dance before illustrating them and reliving them itself. (p.16)

Most of the book is like this. It is not a continuous philosophical argument, it is a series of psychological insights. He uses the Jaspers quote to create a poetic scenario using – characteristically for the man of Africa – the image of a desert, and going on to describe how we ‘must’ stay out there, in the waterless desert of absurd knowledge, in order to study its peculiar features. (Camus uses the metaphor of the desert of human thought seven times in the book – but I don’t find human thought a desert; I find it a bounteous and infinite garden.)

When he says the thinking mind is ‘an inhuman show’ in which a dialogue takes place you realise this is philosophy envisioned as theatre and become alert to the other metaphors of theatre and actors scattered through the text. Camus was himself a successful playwright and a section of the essay is titled Drama.

  • The irrational, the human nostalgia, and the absurd that is born of their encounter – these are the three characters in the drama that must necessarily end with all the logic of which an existence is capable. (p.32)
  • By thus sweeping over centuries and minds, by miming man as he can be and as he is, the actor has much in common with that other absurd individual, the traveler. (p.75)

It is a vision obscured, rather than clarified, by the author’s habit of imposing histrionic metaphors wherever they’ll fit. Absurdity, hope and death in the final sentence have specific meanings: absurdity is the lucid knowledge of the pointlessness of existence i.e the absence of any God or external values; hope is the word he gives to the thousand and one ways people turn away from and deny the reality of life, hoping for a God or a political party or a cause or something to transform the absurdity of the world; and death is the resort some people take from absurd knowledge, either getting themselves killed for a cause or doing away with themselves. This tripartite categorisation does make a sort of sense. What makes a lot less sense is to talk about how ‘tenacity and acumen are privileged spectators of this inhuman show’ or ‘the figures of that elementary yet subtle dance’.

There is generally a discernible flow to the argument, but Camus’s writerly fondness for metaphors, similes, for paradox, abrupt reversals and the counter-intuitive, so often obscures rather than clarifies his meaning. This is what I mean when I say that he is not a lucid writer. He uses the word ‘lucid’ no fewer than 43 times in the text, and the continual reading of it may begin to unconsciously make you think he is lucid. But he isn’t. Sometimes his style descends into almost pure poetry, emotive, descriptive, incantatory.

‘Prayer,’ says Alain, ‘is when night descends over thought. ‘But the mind must meet the night,’ reply the mystics and the existentials. Yes, indeed, but not that night that is born under closed eyelids and through the mere will of man – dark, impenetrable night that the mind calls up in order to plunge into it. If it must encounter a night, let it be rather that of despair, which remains lucid -polar night, vigil of the mind, whence will arise perhaps that white and virginal brightness which outlines every object in the light of the intelligence. (p.62)

Here is no argument, just rhetoric, poetry, a particular type of melodramatic and harrowing poetry. Some of it teeters on gibberish.

Perhaps we shall be able to overtake that elusive feeling of absurdity in the different but closely related worlds of intelligence, of the art of living, or of art itself. The climate of absurdity is in the
beginning. The end is the absurd universe and that attitude of mind which lights the world with its true colors to bring out the privileged and implacable visage which that attitude has discerned in it. (p.18)

The end is the absurd universe and that attitude of mind which lights the world with its true colors to bring out the privileged and implacable visage which that attitude has discerned in it.

Every time I reread this sentence, it moves further away from me.

Even when I think I understand it, it doesn’t really contribute to any logical argument – it is designed to create a similar climate or attitude in the mind of the reader. It is, thus, a form of attitudinising i.e. creating a mood through poetic means – for example, the way the ‘implacable visage’ is a melodramatic way of describing the Absurd, which is itself a melodramatic concept.

The text is designed to convert you to its rather histrionic (and theatrical) worldview. It is a pose. Every page is made up of this often hard-to-follow attitudinising.

It is barely possible to speak of the experience of others’ deaths. It is a substitute, an illusion, and it never quite convinces us. That melancholy convention cannot be persuasive. The horror comes in reality from the mathematical aspect of the event. If time frightens us, this is because it works out the problem and the solution comes afterward. All the pretty speeches about the soul will have their contrary convincingly proved, at least for a time. From this inert body on which a slap makes no mark the soul has disappeared. This elementary and definitive aspect of the adventure constitutes the absurd feeling. Under the fatal lighting of that destiny, its uselessness becomes evident. (p.21)

‘Under the fatal lighting of that destiny…’

The cumulative effect is to make you stop trying to elucidate what too often turn out to be spurious meanings.

Men who live on hope do not thrive in this universe where kindness yields to generosity, affection to virile silence, and communion to solitary courage. (p.68)

Even before I begin to make the effort to decode what he’s saying, I know in advance it will not be worth the effort. Trying to understand a book about quantum physics or about evolutionary cladistics or memorising the different Chinese dynasties – that’s the kind of thing that’s worth making an effort for, because the knowledge is real and will last. But trying to decide whether this is a universe where ‘kindness yields to generosity, affection to virile silence, and communion to solitary courage’ strikes me as being a real waste of time.

In the rebel’s universe, death exalts injustice. It is the supreme abuse. (p.85)

What? Here he is describing music.

That game the mind plays with itself according to set and measured laws takes place in the sonorous compass that belongs to us and beyond which the vibrations nevertheless meet in an inhuman universe. (p.91)

An impressive display of rhetorical fireworks. But useful? Applicable? Enlightening? Memorable?

Quotable quotes

All this, the emphasis on rhetoric over logic, helps explain why it is much easier to quote Camus’s many catchy formulations in isolation than it is to remember any kind of reasoned argument.

  • An act like this [suicide] is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art. (p.12)
  • Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined. (p.12)

Looked at from one point of view, the text is a kind of impenetrably turgid grey sea from which emerge occasional shiny wave crests, glinting in the sunlight.

  • In a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. (p.13)
  • It is always easy to be logical. It is almost impossible to be logical to the bitter end. (p.16)
  • At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman. (p.20)
  • A man is more a man through the things he keeps to himself than through those he says. (p.80)

Seen this way, Camus certainly does fit Sartre’s description as a traditional moralist – his text is just the stuff which joins together the periodic sententiae or moral statements about life, which are meant to be taken away and meditated on.

  • To an absurd mind reason is useless and there is nothing beyond reason. (p.38)

Great t-shirt material.

The Absurd

A bit like Sartre circling round and round his central concept of ‘freedom’, Camus circles round and round his central concept of the Absurd. The word occurs 316 times in the text, again and again on every page.

Put simply, the absurd is the mismatch between man’s deep need for a meaning/purpose/rational order in the world, and the world’s all-too-obvious lack of any meaning/purpose or order – the world’s complete indifference to human wishes. Again and again Camus defines and redefines and approaches and reapproaches and formulates and poeticises the same fundamental idea.

  • At any streetcorner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face. (p.17)
  • That denseness and strangeness of the world is the absurd. (p.20)
  • The revolt of the flesh is the absurd. (p.20)
  • This discomfort in the face of man’ s own inhumanity, this incalculable tumble before the image of what we are, this ‘nausea’, as a writer of today calls it, is also the absurd. Likewise the stranger who at certain seconds comes to meet us in a mirror, the familiar and yet alarming brother we encounter in our own photographs is also the absurd. (p.21)
  • What is absurd is the confrontation of the irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. (p.27)
  • The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. (p.32)
  • The absurd is essentially a divorce. It lies in neither of the elements compared; it is born of their confrontation. (p.33)
  • The absurd is not in man nor in the world, but in their presence together. (p.34)
  • The absurd is lucid reason noting its limits. (p.49)
  • [The absurd is] that divorce between the mind that desires and the world that disappoints, my nostalgia for unity, this fragmented universe and the contradiction that binds them together. (p.50)
  • [The absurd is] my appetite for the absolute and for unity and the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle (p.51)

The basic idea is disarmingly simple. It is the way he repeats it with infinite variations, under the lights of numerous metaphors and similes, included in sentences which evoke emotional, intellectual and existential extremity, suffering, endurance, and so on, which make it more a poetics of living than philosophy.

The absurd mind cannot so much expect ethical rules at the end of its reasoning as, rather, illustrations and the breath of human lives. (p.65)

I’m not sure how you’d measure this but it seemed to me that, as the book progresses, the references to absurdity become steadily vaguer and more poetical and meaningless.

  • Being deprived of hope is not despairing. The flames of earth are surely worth celestial perfumes. (p.85)
  • All existence for a man turned away from the eternal is but a vast mime under the mask of the absurd. (p.87)
  • For the absurd man it is not a matter of explaining and solving, but of experiencing and describing. (p.87)
  • In the time of the absurd reasoning, creation follows indifference and discovery. (p.88)
  • The absurd work illustrates thought’s renouncing of its prestige and its resignation to being no more than the intelligence that works up appearances and covers with images what has no reason. (p.90)
  • The most destitute men often end up by accepting illusion. That approval prompted by the need for peace inwardly parallels the existential consent. There are thus gods of light and idols of mud. But it is essential to find the middle path leading to the faces of man. (p.94)

This impressionistic approach, this lack of a coherent logic, this mosaic of quotes from Great Thinkers or abstruse analyses of Great Writers, grandiose examinations of the Stage or the mentality of The Conqueror, interspersed with descriptions of everyday life – how, for example, a sense of the futility of life hits you as you look in the mirror to shave – this may account for Camus’s wider popularity than Sartre’s. His very patchiness, the way he’s less logical and consistent, more given to sudden flashes of insight which can be put on a t-shirt.

Thus even if a lot of Sisyphus is turgid and obscure, with much of it showing off or perverse paradox-making for its own sake, there are many other bits which suddenly leap out with great clarity and make you think ‘Yes’.

Sisyphus

It takes Camus a long time to get to the punchline which is that we must face the absurdity of the world and overcome it. We must be like Sisyphus who, in the Greek myth is being punished in hell by being made to roll a rock to the top of the mountain only for it to be dashed to the bottom again. Over and again.

That is how we must live. But we must do it with a smiling heart, happy in the knowledge that we do it because we will it. We want to live.

Teenage heroism

And it is not irrelevant to the book’s popularity, or the popularity of watered-down ‘existentialism’ that it helped promote, that throughout the book the person who holds this notion of the absurd, who doesn’t give in to false consolations or to the siren call of suicide, who faces the meaningless world without flinching – is considered a hero.

It is a heroic pose to be one man undaunted against an uncaring universe, walking a ‘difficult path’.

There is a profoundly adolescent appeal not only in the fascination with suicide but in the rather laughable descriptions of the bold, brave heroism required to outface the absurd, ‘fearlessly’ and stoically living with his bleak knowledge. Refusing consolation and false comfort, committing oneself to live under ‘this stifling sky’ in these ‘waterless deserts’, living a life of ‘virile silence’ and ‘solitary courage’. Sounds like a film noir hero, sounds like Alan Ladd in This Gun for Hire. Down these mean streets the ‘absurd man’ must go because, after all –

  • Sisyphus is the absurd hero

The essay is divided into three parts, the second of which is titled The Absurd Man. It’s heroic posturing is quite funny if read through the eyes of Tony Hancock or Sid James.

  • Not to believe in the profound meaning of things belongs to the absurd man. (p.69)
  • There always comes a time when one must choose between contemplation and action. This is called becoming a man. (p.81)
  • There is thus a metaphysical honour in enduring the world’s absurdity. (p.86)

Around page 70, while taking a break on the internet, I stumbled over several comic strips devoted to taking the mickey out of Camus and Sartre. From that point onwards found it hard to keep a straight face while reading it. This is all so old, so 80-years-old, so much another time. It was passé in the 1960s, now it is ancient history. Old enough to have been satirised and parodied for generations.

Existential Comics – Camus

There is also something specifically comical in the way a writer decides, at the summary of his masterwork about the meaning of life in a godless universe and so on, that the highest possible calling for the Absurd Man is to be… a writer! The section titled Absurd Creation is not much about music or art, but mostly about other writers. It is rather bathetic that a writer decides,after much cogitation, that being a writer is the pinnacle of the kind of lucid courage required to face The Absurd!

Of all the schools of patience and lucidity, creation is the most effective. It is also the staggering evidence of man’s sole dignity: the dogged revolt against his condition, perseverance in an effort considered sterile. It calls for a daily effort, self-mastery, a precise estimate of the limits of truth, measure, and strength. (p.104)

So – as the Existentialist Comic puts it – these bookish guys sitting around in cafés and apartments writing novels, plays and essays all agree that the true Resistance to the Nazis and the true heroes of their time must, logically, according to their ‘lucid’ and ‘precise’ philosophy — be bookish guys sitting around in cafés and apartments writing novels, plays and essays.

Guys just like them, who can therefore congratulate each other on their ‘self-mastery’, their ‘revolt’, their  dignity and their strength. How to be a Hemingway hero without even stubbing out your Gauloise!

But perhaps the great work of art has less importance in itself than in the ordeal it demands of a man and the opportunity it provides him of overcoming his phantoms and approaching a little closer to his
naked reality. (p.104)

‘Ordeal’. ‘Overcoming his phantoms.’ Outfacing ‘naked reality’. Braving the deserts of ‘lucid thought’. Mingling ‘intelligence and passion’. Summoning ‘diligence, doggedness and lucidity’ (p.106). Facing up to this ‘difficult wisdom’ (p.106). ‘Unceasing struggle’.

Wow. Never before or since has sitting at a typewriter smoking a fag been so heroic!

Brief discussion

When I was an over-intellectual 17 year-old these thoughts and Camus’ attitude helped reassure me and calm me down from my own nihilistic panic. My family didn’t understand me, my friendships were superficial, I had no job, no wife, no children and little experience of the real world of work and effort. Looking back I can see why I was subject to panic attacks.

But now I’m a fifty year-old family man with deep commitments, children to care for, bills to be paid and meals to be cooked – I find it impossible to recapture the mood of teenage hysteria which permeates all Camus’s books.

I go to the gym and watch, on the bank of TV screens, pop videos showing half-naked young men and women partying in the city or frisking on beaches, under waterfalls, in tropical islands around the world. My kids jet off to exotic destinations I could only dream of back in the 1970s. They text, Instagram and Facebook with friends in America, Spain, the Middle East, even China.  The world just no longer is the limited world of one-town boredom and dull routine that Camus describes. Rather than a crushed, defeated, broken, humiliated culture as was the Nazi world of 1940 or the post-war ruins of the 1940s – my kids live in a vibrant shiny world alive with music, movies, clothes, festivals, travel round the world and futuristic technology: they think life is great.

Looking back, Camus’s writings are really a kind of prose poetry which repeats pretty much the same idea from a thousand angles, expressed in countless metaphors and images, laced with wit and paradox in the typical French tradition, but essentially static.

A stranger to myself and to the world, armed solely with a thought that negates itself as soon as it asserts, what is this condition in which I can have peace only by refusing to know and to live, in which the appetite for conquest bumps into walls that defy its assaults? To will is to stir up paradoxes. Everything is ordered in such a way as to bring into being that poisoned peace produced by thoughtlessness, lack of heart, or fatal renunciations. (p.25)

The ‘appetite for conquest’, the ‘poisoned peace’, ‘fatal renunciations’?

You either enjoy this kind of poetry or you don’t. I can feel my way into it as I feel my way into the harsh world of the Icelandic sagas or the sweet humour of Chaucer’s poetry or the gargoyle world of early Dickens or the bumptious jingoism of Kipling. Those writers, also, have their truths and their insights, create internally consistent imaginative universes, generate quotable quotes which I may or may not apply to myself or others or the world in general.

But whereas I carry Chaucer and Kipling out into the world, remembering their best lines and beauty to enrich and colour my life, when I closed The Myth of Sisyphus I could remember almost nothing of it. — Some people find life absurd and it drives a tiny minority to suicide but it’s best, on balance, to face up to the meaninglessness of a godless universe and to create your own values and purpose within it.

The absurd man catches sight of a burning and frigid, transparent and limited universe in which nothing is possible but everything is given, and beyond which all is collapse and nothingness. He can then decide to accept such a universe and draw from it his strength, his refusal to hope, and the unyielding evidence of a life without consolation.

Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum. (p.61)

The present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man. (p.62)

OK. I get it. Most people nowadays do that anyway, and don’t need a laboriously over-written, obscure and attitudinising text to help them.

Why is absurdity negative?

My son’s just got an ‘A’ in his Philosophy A-level. He didn’t study Camus (who is, after all, not a philosopher) though he did spend a lot of time on Martin Heidegger, the grand-daddy of 20th century existentialists.

I explained Camus’s notion of the Absurd to him i.e. the mismatch between the human wish (it’s always translated as nostalgia; maybe it means ‘longing’ as well) for order and meaning in the world and the lack of any such order – and the way it is always presented by Camus as a challenge, a trial, an ordeal, a desert under a hostile sky that only the strongest can face up to and confront, and my son said – ‘Why?’

He understood the idea of the mismatch, he got the absurdity of looking for meaning in a ‘godless universe’. OK. But… why does it have to be negative? Why does this mismatch have to have a value? Why can’t it just be… a mismatch, and up to each of us to make of it what we will, to give it a value? Where does all the horror and anguish come from? The absurd can be funny. Absurdity often is funny in everyday life. The horror and the anguish aren’t logically entailed in the concept of a mismatch. They are a value imposed on the situation.

He suggests that the entire climate, to use Camus’s word, of Sartrean existentialism and Camusian Absurdity, the rhetoric of anguish and despair and futility (in Sartre) and being an alien, an outsider in arid deserts under a stricken sky (in Camus) reflects the grim situation of 1930s and 40s France – the political chaos of the 1930s, the grinding humiliation of defeat by the Nazis in 1940, and the even worse humiliation of liberation by the hated Anglo-Saxons in 1944.

Very few people followed the ‘logic’ of the existentialists’ arguments (where a ‘logic’ could be discerned) – but everyone grasped the way their negativity crystallised into words and ideas the vast, continent-wide wartime destruction and the collapse of all established social values, the loss of so many friends and family, hecatombs of corpses, which really did spread an atmosphere of anguish and despair through an entire generation. There was no existentialism in Britain because we never underwent this national humiliation and collapse of values.

At the climax of the book, the last few pages describing the Greek myth of Sisyphus, the book gives way to an orgy of rhetoric and poetic prose. Sisyphus is condemned in Hades to roll his rock up a hill and then watch it be tumbled back to the bottom, and forced to go back down and start rolling it up again – for all eternity. And yet Camus sees him as a positive figure, the epitome of the Absurd Man who sees the futility of life but sets himself to live it, regardless. All this is expressed with rhetoric not reason.

All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing. (p.110)

In its way, and taking into account its very different context, this stirring rhetoric is as full of moral uplift as a speech by Churchill.


Credit

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus was published in France in 1942. This translation by Justin O’Brien was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1955, and as a Penguin paperback in 1975. All quotes & references are to the Penguin paperback edition (which I bought in 1977 for 75p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Battle of France

Algerian war of independence

The Last Chance by Jean-Paul Sartre (1)

When I first read Sartre’s trilogy of novels, The Roads to Freedom trilogy, back in the 1970s, we thought that’s all there was, three books and fini! But it turns out that Sartre published parts of an intended fourth novel (in the magazine he edited, Les Temps Modernes) back in 1949, and he continued working on this fourth work for several more years, producing substantial fragments before abandoning it sometime around 1952. He also made quite a few public statements about how he intended this fourth volume to turn out, and so did his partner Simone de Beauvoir.

Without a doubt the trilogy was originally intended to continue on to become a tetralogy.

This volume, The Last Chance, brings together everything we have of this fourth novel – known to the editors as Roads To Freedom IV – that could be found among Sartre’s papers after he died in 1980. This consists of:

  • two long sections titled Strange Friendship and The Last Chance
  • four fragments about individual characters in the text
  • a draft ‘conclusion’ passage

These assembly of texts is surrounded by quite a lot of editorial apparatus putting them in the context of the times, of Sartre’s career, and explaining their complex textual history. Before we get to the Sartre texts, the volume presents four items:

  • the translator’s introduction
  • a fascinating interview with Sartre from 1945 (just after the first two novels in the series were published)
  • two short notes Sartre made about the first two books in the trilogy, but which were never included in the English translations

Then the book publishes all the text and fragments we currently have – before going on to present four further essays:

  • a general introduction to the trilogy
  • critical notes on each of the two long sections by Sartre scholar Michel Contat
  • a concluding note about the Sartrean idea of ‘bad faith’, by the translator, Craig Vasey

In fact, there is so much material in this editorial apparatus that I am obliged to write two blog posts, one about the fictional texts themselves – which I’ve titled The Last Chance (2) – and this blog post titled The Last Chance (1) and addressing only the points made in the editorial essays.

1. Translator’s introduction by Craig Vasey

American The translator and general overseer of this edition (i.e. provider of all the annotations at the back of the text) is American. Craig Vasey is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Mary Washington, Virginia. As well as meaning we have to read Americanisms like ‘pants’ instead of ‘trousers’ and ‘mad’ instead of ‘angry’ throughout the translation, this also means he lacks the feel for the European experience. Of your country having been bombed, blitzed, conquered, ruined, rationed and only slowly rebuilt, which radiates from the latter parts of the Roads to Freedom trilogy.

Communism I grew up in a country which had a powerful labourite tradition and even a (small) communist party in the 1970s and 80s. Becoming a communist was a plausible political choice in the 1970s and even more so in the polarised society of the 1980s, which saw the rise of the Marxist Militant Tendency, which worked to undermine the traditional Labour Party from within and was partly responsible for keeping it out of power for so long. In the 1970s and 80s George Orwell’s visions of a totalitarian society, or Sartre’s characters’ agonising over how to change society, how to overthrow capitalism, and whether to join the Communist Party – all these still seemed pressing and urgent questions.

Nowadays, as Vasey candidly admits, he finds it difficult to persuade his students that there was ever any merit in communism. As it does to my teenage children, communism now seems to Vasey’s students a barely-understood and irrelevant relic from a buried past.

This means that, alas, for most modern readers Sartre’s trilogy is emptied of not just one of its key ideas, but a key imaginative presence, a pressure, a social compulsion, the option of joining with men and women around the world to try and bring about a better society, which was so fashionable among students in the 60s, 70s and 80s.

In those days communism was an entire climate of thought, it was a threat which both the Right and the liberal Left saw as menacing society. And America never experienced any of this. It was never bombed, blitzed, conquered or crushed. Even in the depths of the Great Depression the Communist Party never presented a serious threat to the U.S. government and in the 1950s it was successfully demonised and repressed. The reverse, the opposite of Communism, America represented to the world, then as now, the triumph of light and shiny consumer capitalism. If its fiction deals in any kind of dissent it is the isolated revolt of miserable loners, beatniks and drunks, from Kerouac to Raymond Carver.

Americans neither had the experience of conquest by a totalitarian regime nor the national humiliation of defeat nor the experience of communism as a serious imaginative and political option, which the French underwent.

This is all by way of explaining why the introduction and many of the essays in this volume had, for me, a curiously detached, clinical feel. They could be dissecting a dead text from the Middle Ages and relating it to the theology of Thomas Aquinas for all the relevance, the sense of feeling the issues, which they convey.

Mistranslations Vasey clears up some mistranslations. In the original French the set is called Les Chemins de la Liberte i.e. The Roads of Freedom not The Roads To Freedom. Sartre didn’t intend there to be a finished destination. Admittedly, in some interviews he did sketch out a conclusion to the characters’ narratives but in the event proved incapable of providing one. During the reading of these 1,400 or so pages I kept thinking of the old proverb, ‘It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.’ Sartre’s philosophy is one of radical indeterminism; there is no God or plan or telos. It’s surprising, in a way, that he ever thought the series could be concluded.

Another egregious mistranslation is that the third book, titled in French La Mort Dans L’Ame, should be translated as Death in the Soul, not Iron in the Soul as the Penguin translation has it.

Plot summaries Vasey gives good plot summaries of the previous three novels though, in my opinion, underplaying the avant-garde techniques which Sartre uses – especially in The Reprieve with its cast of over a hundred characters whose thoughts and experiences meld and jump from one to another in a disconcerting but ultimately very pleasing way.

And Vasey’s summaries in no way convey the sheer weirdness of Sartre’s prose style and worldview, the way the narratives are constantly portraying the characters’ hallucinatory visions of themselves and the strange world they find themselves in – delirious visions of an alienated world, in prose which is routinely studded with great abstract ideas abstract qualities like freedom, peace, night and death.

Present tense The one really useful insight I learned from this introduction is that part two of Iron In the Soul – the part that deals with Brunet trying to recruit some of the defeated French prisoners of war into the Communist Party – is, in the original text, told entirely in the present tense. It isn’t in the English translation. This is a vital fact to know for so, apparently, is the section about Brunet in these fragments.

I guess Sartre took this artistic decision is to emphasise the immediacy, the permanent present, which Brunet, as the most political character, the most engagé, operates in.

Two fragments Strange Friendship was published in Sartre’s magazine in 1949 so has been available for a long time. But it was only in 1981, when Sartre’s complete works were published, that the editors included for the first time a second fragment titled The Last Chance. This latter part has been reconstructed by scholars from three extended segments and a series of fragments, and it is this reconstruction which is presented in this volume.

2. Interview with Sartre at the Café Flore

The day after Sartre gave his public lecture Existentialism is a Humanism in October 1945, a young journalist, Christian Grisoli, scooped an interview with the celebrity philosopher. Unsurprisingly, in the interview Sartre echoes many of the phrases and ideas he’d used the night before, for example:

We say that there is no human nature, there is no eternal and unchanging essence of man – abstract potentiality, Platonic Form – that would determine individual existences. We say that in the case of man, freedom precedes essence, that he creates that essence through acting, that he’s what he makes himself through his choices, that it’s his lot to choose and make himself good or evil, and that he’s always responsible. (p.15)

And:

Man is free. It is he who makes there be a world. It’s by his choice that he decides its meaning. He cannot refuse to choose, because his refusal is itself a choice. And he has to choose on his own, without aid, without recourse. Nothing is coming to him from outside that he could receive or accept. He has to make himself, down to the slightest detail: that’s his abandonment – a consequence of his freedom. As for anguish, that’s the consciousness of his freedom, the recognition that my future is my possibility, that it depends on me to bring it into existence and sustain it. (p.16)

Critical outrage It is interesting to learn from the interview that a lot of contemporary critics disliked the two novels for their focus on the squalid and the sordid: specifically disliking the centrality of the abortion plotline in The Age of Reason and the scene in The Reprieve where patients who are unable to walk are evacuated on a train and obliged to defecate into bedpans in the company of the opposite sex.

Things have changed. I can catch an echo of the outrage of Daily Mail-style philistines, I understand where they’re coming from, I appreciate that the latter scene in particular crosses boundaries of good taste. But I, personally, found the scene where the woman, Jacqueline, deprived of the use of her legs, forced to lie on a stretcher in a cattle truck being taken along with all the other evacuated disabled patients to some unknown destination, for hours on end – how she eventually has to give in and defecate right next to the man, Charles, who she was becoming friendly with.

Having wiped my children’s bottoms and cleared up their vomit (and coped with the various bodily fluids of my partner in sickness and in health) I read this kind of frank depiction of the reality of the human body as liberating, and as profoundly compassionate.

Nonetheless, it is interesting to  learn that Sartre was an innovator not only in his technical experimentations but in his subject matter, too. He was deliberately pushing the boundaries. And he had to fight against the ‘right-thinking’ conformists, the defenders of ‘good taste’, of his age, as we have to in ours.

The interview also makes it clear that Sartre was already well-established by this date as a celebrity intellectual, a philosopher superstar, criticised for being ‘the great corruptor’, a wicked influence on young people, a fashionable curiosity. He already had enough of a scandalous reputation to laugh about it.

Sartre uses the interview to set the philosophical issues addressed in his fourth novel in the context of its predecessors:

Man is free in the fullest and strongest sense. Freedom isn’t in him as a property of his human essence. He doesn’t exist first, and then be free later. He is free by the fact that he exists. There’s no distance between his being and his freedom. But man, who is thus condemned to freedom, still has to free himself, because he doesn’t immediately recognise himself as free, or, because he misunderstands the meaning of his freedom. This working-his-way-along the road to his freedom is the paradox of freedom, and it’s also the theme of my novel. It’s the story of a deliverance and a liberation. But it’s not finished yet. The Age of Reason and The Reprieve are only an inventory of false, mutilated, incomplete freedoms, a description of freedom’s roadblocks. It’s only in The Last Chance that the conditions of a true liberation will be defined. (p.18)

1. Note how wonderfully fluent Sartre is. He’s like a tap: turn him on and a dazzlingly articulate flow of prose streams out, perfectly blending his philosophy with anything he’s asked, his fictions, issues of the day, the critics, Paris society.

2. Note how repetitive Sartre is. The same handful of ideas – total freedom, total responsibility, the ‘anguish’ of realising your ‘abandonment’ – are repeated over and over. In a fluent persuasive stream of rhetoric, it’s true, but – still – highly repetitive. Like advertising slogans or the hook of a pop song, repetition is designed to lodge them in your brain.

3. As to his meaning, it is a bit of a bombshell that the existing three books are all just foreplay leading up to The Last Chance, that only in this final book will ‘the conditions of a true liberation will be defined’.

4. Especially considering it was never finished. The Last Chance was never written. ‘The conditions of a true liberation’ never were defined. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, just as Sartre repeats in his lectures and interviews the same basic idea that man is abandoned to total freedom and must make himself, invent himself, by choosing, by making a commitment – so in his fiction his characters are always seeking freedom, worrying about their freedom and trembling on the brink of their freedom – but never quite arrive.

After all, what happens after Man has made his Commitment? Sartre’s philosophy is silent about this and so is the fiction. Maybe Sartre didn’t know. He himself was happy to be identified as a Marxist but he refused to join the Communist Party and vacillated between criticism and support of the Communist Party throughout his adult life. There is no settled position. Life is a process.

We know from his biography that Sartre’s political position was strongly affected by the war, forcing him to switch from a rather anarchistic, subjective, irresponsible position in the late 1930s into acknowledging the need for full political commitment as a result of his wartime experiences, but… but… He never could bring himself to completely commit to the main revolutionary party of his day. He remained a man of the opposition.

And, mirroring Sartre’s indecision is the wavering attitude of the central character of the trilogy, Brunet the Communist organiser. In the trilogy, Brunet is presented as an almost comically manful man, tall, strong with knotted muscles and complete self-confidence (the central character of the trilogy, feeble philosophy teacher Mathieu Delarue, is in awe of his manliness), But by the final section of book three he is shown in a much more complicated light, assailed with doubts about how to handle ‘the men’, making mistakes, unable to recruit the men he hoped for, and very effectively criticised by his alter-ego Schneider, who is a much more genuine man of the people. In book four, much to my surprise, Brunet completely loses his faith in monolothic communism. In fact, his comrades try to kill him.

So much for the one and only really politically committed figure in the series.

Put simply, the Roads To Freedom series breaks down when it comes time to actually show what ‘commitment’ means in action. Over and again Sartre’s plays, interviews, essays and his grand philosophical work Being and Nothingness, emphasise the need for decision and commitment. But when push comes to shove, when he has to put his money where his mouth is, when he has to really show what making a decision and living a decision look like… he can’t.

Back to the interview. Sartre is eloquent in explaining that Mathieu is the embodiment of complete uncommittedness, always prevaricating, always putting things off, always making excuses. And explaining that Brunet is the opposite pole – Brunet believes in the transcendent values of the Marxist interpretation of History. History has laws, the Party understands and is following a pre-set plan; the Revolution will occur. In his faith in this process he, also, is not free. And where will all these characters will end up? Where will their Roads To Freedom take them?

That’ll be the subject of The Last Chance. (p.19)

It is interesting to learn that Sartre’s huge philosophical tome, Being and Nothingness, which he wrote in tandem with the Roads To Freedom novels, similarly ends on a question mark – ‘on the need and the promise of an ethics’. Sartre publicly said he was working on this sequel to his big philosophical work at the same time he was writing The Last Chance. Everything would be revealed in both of them. Instead of which, neither was ever delivered.

Camus Sartre’s name is often twinned with Camus, but in the interview Sartre is crystal clear about why they’re different, and it’s worth quoting his explanation at length.

Camus is not an existentialist. Even though he refers to Kierkegaard, to Jaspers, to Heidegger, his real influences are the French moralists of the seventeenth century. He’s a classical man, a Mediterranean. I’d call his pessimism solar, thinking of the blackness in the sun. Camus’ philosophy is a philosophy of the absurd, and for him the absurd is born from the relation of man with the world, man’s rational expectations and the irrationality of the world. The themes he draws from there are the themes of classical pessimism. For me there’s no such thing as the absurd in this sense of scandal and disappointment that Camus sees.

What I call absurd is something quite different: it’s the universal contingency of the being who is, but who is not the foundation of his being. It’s what there is in being of the given, the unjustifiable, the always primary. And the consequences that I develop from this feature of being are developed on a completely different level from where Camus put himself, which is the level of dry contemplative reason, in the French style. (p.20)

Hard not to think that in the second section Sartre is trying to bamboozle us with technical terminology and verbiage. The first half, though, seems to me spot on. The Absurd is the mismatch between our ‘rational’ or orderly expectations of the world – and the profoundly irrational, disorderly nature of the world as we actually experience it.

Conformist people expect life to be decent, rational, you work hard you’re rewarded, and so on. They believe what their mummy told them. Absurdists know you can keep fit all your life and drop dead of a stroke while out jogging, be killed by a street sign falling on your head or a terrorist bomb blowing up your plane. There is no correlation between human intention and outcome. There is no God overseeing everything to make sure we get our just deserts. Constantly the rift rises up between the human, sensible, decent morality we think we subscribe to, and the random nature of the world around us which has no concern whatsoever for human beings.

That is Camus’ territory, and his solution is to revolt against this condition, to rebel against existing values, to master yourself and the world. Camus’s is a more emotive, psychological worldview than Sartre’s. It has always seemed to me – and apparently this is the common view – far more life-affirming and positive. Sartre’s characters have weird hallucinations in which they are overcome by profoundly physical sensations of disgust, repulsion, hatred of the body and its slime and excretions (see my reviews of his novels for numerous quotes to this effect). Camus loves the warmth of the sun on his body, the feel of the waves as he swims through them. I have experienced the former; but I definitely prefer the latter.

3. ‘Please insert’ 1

This is a useful one-page introduction which Sartre wrote to the first two novels explaining, in particular, why he used the experimental technique in The Reprieve. In this novel characters’ thoughts often bleed into each other, scenes cut not only in mid-paragraph but sometimes mid-sentence to new scenes and characters. I found it a thrilling read. Sartre references Virginia Woolf and John dos Passos as precursors.

4. ‘Please insert’ 2

Sartre’s one-page introduction to Iron in the Soul namechecks the main male characters from the trilogy and gives teasing hints as to their fates. (These are direct quotes from page 24):

  • Daniel, at his basest and without knowing it, begins the ascent that leads him to freedom and death.
  • Brunet undertakes a project, but he is far from suspecting that through it his sword of certainties will be broken, and that he will be left naked and free.
  • Seeking the death that has been stolen from him, Boris flies towards London, but it is not death that he will find there.
  • And Mathieu… learns that no one saves himself alone. In fact, he has the most to lose: the others have lost their principles, but he – he loses his problem. Rest assured, he will find himself another.

1. Note Sartre’s fluency, along with his tendency to grandiloquence, his fondness for profound abstract terms – freedom, death, naked, sword.

2. Note how it sounds like the trailer for any of a thousand TV series: [Say the following in a corny American accent]

Will Daniel complete his seduction of the innocent Philippe? Will Brunet rouse the demoralised French prisoners of war? What will young gadabout Boris find waiting for him in London? And is Mathieu, who we saw heroically killed in the church tower at the end of part three – really alive after all? Tune in next week, for another thrilling episode of ROADS TO FREEDOM!!!

Except that next week’s episode never came. [For a summary of what did come see my review of The Last Chance (2).]


PART TWO

At this point the book introduces the fragmentary texts of Strange Friendship and The Last Chance, which I review in another blog post. Having read them the reader is then presented with the remaining four short essays in the volume, which I summarise below:

5. General introduction for Roads of Freedom by Michel Contat

This is a very interesting slice of Sartre’s biography which explains the personal and historical context the books were written in. Contat gives half a dozen reasons why the final novel was never finished.

Sartre, pushed by world events in the burgeoning Cold War of the late 1940s, and then by the start of the Korean War in 1950, not only had to reconsider his approach to contemporary politics (which he saw as choosing either the USA and reaction or the USSR and human freedom) but was forced to completely reconsider the role of writing as a form of political commitment or engagement.

Sartre developed his complex ideas about the role of writing in the essays collected as the volume What Is Literature? in 1947, but these themselves underwent further evolution as the Cold War progressed. By the early 1950s his attitude towards writing, his thoughts about the role of the writer, had evolved so far beyond the position of the man who began the series in the early 1940s, that he found it impossible to go back and depict with any enthusiasm the development of his alter-ego, the philosopher Mathieu. He had moved on.

On another level, by the time of the Liberation of France in 1944, Sartre had become a celebrity, a rock star among philosophers and writers, with a battery of writings promoting his brand on all fronts – a series of smash hit plays packing in audiences; long critical essays on contemporary authors and artists; his own magazine Les Temps Modernes publishing with-it commentary on politics and current affairs; and the heavy-duty Being and Nothingness providing something for philosophy students to chew on.

Getting back to depicting characters who were meek and unknown, like the unworldly Mathieu and his modest personal quest for meaning, was now impossible to imaginatively recpature.

And there’s an even simpler reason. Sartre’s fictional technique is consistent in one important respect. The stories tend to happen over a very short time period, without recourse to flashbacks or backstories. Thus the 300 pages of The Age of Reason cover just 48 hours in the characters’ lives. The Reprieve‘s dense 400 pages cover just a week.

The fragments we have of The Last Chance are even more like this, cut down and pared back to read, at moments, almost like scenes from a play, just action and dialogue.

Quite simply, there is no way Sartre could have used this technique to cover everything which happens to his protagonists in the period from spring 1941 (where the novel kicks off) to the liberation of Paris in the summer of 1944, in one book. He had set himself far too much of a task. In fact, given the tiny timescales of the previous novels, using this approach would probably have required a whole further suite of novels. You can see why he might have slowly come to the conclusion that it was just impossible.

6. Critical note on ‘Strange Friendship’ by Michel Contat

Like Dickens, Sartre published his novels in instalments in the periodical he himself edited, Les Temps Modernes. It is instructive to learn that Iron in the Soul was published in six instalments from January to June 1949, was published in book form in September 1949 – and that the two parts of Strange Friendship followed immediately afterwards, being published in the November and December 1949 issues.

It must have looked to regular readers as if the next book was already written and would come out in the same steady manner. But no. It was to be 14 years before readers heard anything more of Mathieu Delarue. When they did, it was in the third volume of Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography, Force of Circumstance, published in 1964. Contat quotes the passage of de Beauvoir in its entirety because it sets out a comprehensive synopsis of what Sartre had told de Beauvoir the book would contain.

Apparently, Brunet was to successfully escape from the prison camp and make it to Paris in time to learn that Germany had invaded the USSR and the Communist Party had completely reversed its position (yet again) and was now calling for CP members to sabotage the German war effort. It turns out that Brunet’s anti-German views in the camp were right all along. Brunet joins the Resistance but with a will now undermined by the subjectivism which we see him experiencing in the early part of the book.

Meanwhile, Mathieu continues his journey to becoming a man of action. Daniel (the amoral conflicted homosexual from the earlier books) gets Mathieu freed from the prison camp and brought to Paris to edit a pro-German journal, but escapes and goes underground to join the Resistance. Mathieu has an affair with his brother’s wife, Odette, who we saw falling in love with him in The Reprieve.

Mathieu is then captured by the Germans and dies under torture, having made himself into a hero.

Philippe, the pompous young pacifist we met in earlier books, becomes a resister and is killed in a German raid on a cafe.

Daniel, the conflicted gay man who had become his lover, takes revenge by taking a hand grenade along to a meeting with senior German officials and blowing himself and them up.

Boris, who had earlier escaped to England, parachutes back into France to join the Resistance.

Phew! What a novel that would have been. Sounds like a very dramatic movie. And note how everybody joins the Resistance. As is well known, everybody in occupied France was a member of the Resistance. All the French were heroes.

When it’s summarised like this, maybe we can again see why Sartre couldn’t bring himself to write this twaddle. His milieu is anguish and uncertainty: all the characters in this scenario sound like they could be played by Bruce Willis or Tom Cruise.

7. Critical note on ‘The Last Chance’ by Michel Contat and George H. Bauer

This is less interesting than the previous essay. It is a scholarly note about the conjectured order of the surviving fragments. It sheds a little more light, or rephrases, the importance of Sartre’s ‘conversion’ to supporting the Communist Party in 1952. A fairly staunch opponent of Stalinism, Sartre changed his view in light of the Cold War. Broadly speaking, he saw the choice as between Reaction and the Right (embodied by America) and Freedom and Hope, albeit a bit shop soiled, embodied by the USSR. Hard to believe, but there you are.

This ‘conversion’ entailed Sartre in a revaluation of the role of the ‘committed writer’ in creating ‘engaged literature’ and this seems to have carried his thinking about what creative writing should be far beyond the goals set in the original conception of the essentially realist novels.

In fact it seems to have carried him beyond the idea of writing novels at all, and he never wrote another one. Works of philosophy followed (The Critique of Dialectical Reason), and critical essays on artists and writers, but the new project seems to have been a vast politico-biographical-critical study of Jean Genet. Novel writing ceased to seem the appropriate form for a ‘committed writer’ to engage in. Sartre moved on, leaving behind these fragments.

8. ‘Bad faith’ and Roads of Freedom by Craig Vasey

These last three pages address the simple issue of why all the passages featuring Brunet – in Iron in the Soul as well as in these fragments – are in the present tense. Vasey thinks this is stylistically appropriate to the character of Brunet, a man who rejects thought, who rejects the notion of a past, who lives entirely for Right Action in the present.

He doesn’t experience himself as an issue, as a question mark, as a problem to be addressed. (p.207)

The notion of ‘bad faith’ is relevant because, for existentialists, bad faith, or mauvais foi in the original French, denotes any strategy for denying or hiding from our fundamental ineluctable freedom of choice, to decide how we live and who we make of ourselves. Saying that we were born thus or brought up thus and so never had a chance to do x, y or z, is bad faith. We can always choose. We are always free to say yes or no. Bad faith means making excuses large or small in order to escape the anguish of realising how very free we are and how totally responsible we are for our own lives.

It always refers to a strategy of life by which one disburdens oneself of responsibility for oneself. (p.208)

Being a Catholic or any kind of religious believer is probably the classic example of bad faith, claiming we are made such and such by God, that there is a human nature, that as a result our actions are limited, we are not free etc. It leads, on a more superficial level, to saying that, as a result, we must follow the rules and regulations of the Church, the local priest, tradition etc etc. ‘Well, no you don’t,’ reply the existentialists. You are free at every moment. You don’t have to do anything.

Sartre typifies the Frenchness of his outlook by the way he directly compares adherence to the global organisation of the Communist Party with being a member of the global Catholic religion: they both have their leaders, their theology, their hierarchy, and a thousand and one rules and regs to help members/believers conceal from themselves their immutable freedom. (In the Anglo-Saxon countries, especially America, we don’t have one monolithic Christian church, but a plethora of Protestant and non-conformist congregations — that the stark choice between two forms of totalitarian belief, two types of all-encompassing bad faith, which European writers take as natural, simply don’t exist here – the kind of hyperbole and extremity of thought natural to French thinkers is just not applicable.)

Anyway, the permanent present tense of the Brunet sections not only represents his living without a past, but is also an aspect of the way Brunet, the Communist disciple, lives without a self. His life and mind are entirely devoted to the Communist Party, which dictates pretty much everything he does and says all day every day. He is not a man in the sense that he has no sense of the selfhood which acknowledgement of his aloneness, his abandonment and the anguish prompted by his freedom, ought to create (in the Sartrean system).

Only once he is cut off from the Communist communion with the arrival of Chalais, does Brunet begin experiencing some of the alienation and therefore the painful thoughts and the sense of abandonment, which non-communists have to contend with on a daily basis. Does he become a ‘man’.

(I would add that this change of heart is also represented by the increasing infection of the Brunet passage, with the kind of hyper-self-consciousness and the histrionic prose poetry which has characterised the other ‘afflicted’ characters right from the start of the series. Not only does Brunet’s character being to acquire selfhood – but the prose style depicting it acquires the florid poetry of selfhood.)


Credit

This edition of The Last Chance by Jean-Paul Sartre was published in French by Editions Gallimard in 1981. This English translation by Craig Vasey was published by Continuum International Publishing in 2009. All references are to the CIP paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Last Chance by Jean-Paul Sartre (2)

Never again, never, will I think about what I am – but only about what I do.
(Mathieu in his diary – p.134)

The Last Chance brings together all the fragments published during his lifetime and found among his papers, of what was intended to be the fourth volume of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Roads To Freedom trilogy (1945-49). I read the first three books (The Age of Reason, The Reprieve, Iron in The Soul) when I was at school in the 1970s and they made a profound impression on me.

This scholarly edition – which brings together all the known fragments for the intended fourth book in the series, along with a number of essays about it and the tetralogy as a whole – was published in France in 1981, but only translated into English in 2009.

I’ve decided to discuss the numerous points made in the introductory material and essays in a separate blog post, The Last Chance (1). In this blog post I am commenting on the two major fragments of fictional text itself, which are titled A Strange Friendship and The Last Chance.


1. A Strange Friendship (68 pages)

In 1939 Sartre was drafted into the French army, where he served as a meteorologist. He was captured by German troops in 1940 in the village of Padoux, and spent nine months as a prisoner of war, first in Nancy and finally in Stalag XII-D. (Wikipedia)

In Iron In the Soul we followed the activities of Mathieu, the ineffectual philosophy teacher – a sort of self-portrait by the author – and Brunet, the tough-minded Communist organiser, both retreating in June 1940 before the German advance in France and ending up in a small French village.

Here Mathieu finds himself volunteering to quit his pack of demoralised men and throw in his lot with a lieutenant and his platoon who arrive in the village having carried out a fighting retreat. Almost before he knows it, Mathieu has accompanied them to the top of the village church tower where they wait anxiously for the first German scouts to arrive. They begin shooting at the Germans, which leads into a fierce firefight, which is ended when the Germans bring up a field gun and blow the tower to pieces. The reader assumes that Mathieu was killed.

Not so Brunet. Without realising the closeness of his boyhood friend, Mathieu, tough Communist Brunet has also ended up in the same village, where he makes the strategic decision to surrender to the Germans in the hope of recruiting and organising the French prisoners of war into a communist cell. The final part of Iron in the Soul follows Brunet’s journey, along with thousands of other POWs, to a holding camp in France, where there is no food and his condition deteriorates along with all the others; before feeding arrangements are finally made and, after a long period of lassitude, the prisoners are marched to a train station, loaded into cattle trucks and shipped off to the Fatherland.

In other words, both Mathieu and Brunet’s stories rely very heavily on Sartre’s own experiences of capture and prisonhood.

Throughout the long second section of Iron in the Soul, Brunet finds himself in conflict with a fellow prisoner, Schneider, who declares himself broadly sympathetic to Brunet’s communist intentions, but is much more a genuine man of the people – in contrast with Brunet’s well-educated background – and at key moments points out flaws in Brunet’s approach, in the way he’s handling the men and so on.

A Strange Friendship opens with Brunet, Schneider and thousands of other French POWs imprisoned in a German prison camp in freezing winter conditions in January 1941. Because it’s based so closely on Sartre’s own identical experiences, we can be confident the descriptions of the camp and the conditions are accurate.

What happens in A Strange Friendship is there is a bunch of new arrivals at the camp and one of them is Chalais, a former Communist Party deputy. He turns Brunet’s world upside down by revealing:

a) that Schneider is none other than ‘Vicarios’, a French Communist Party official who denounced the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 and was expelled from the Party
b) Brunet’s entire strategy within the camp, organising to undermine the Germans, is wrong

Chalais is a mouthpiece for the French Communist Party (which was, of course, a mouthpiece for Soviet Foreign policy). He tells Brunet that the views he’s been putting about – that the war isn’t over, the USSR will crush Germany, the workers should reject the armistice, the defeat of the Axis will be a victory for the proletariat, the prisoners should consider themselves as soldiers (p.55) – are wrong.

Chalais ridicules de Gaulle’s broadcast saying the USSR and USA will enter the war, the Vichy government is illegitimate, the armistice was treason. (He is, of course, dead wrong – all these things came to pass and be accepted as orthodoxy.) With typical bullying insults, in his ‘loudspeaker voice’, Chalais says that Brunet has been dead wrong. He has, ‘objectively’, i.e. in the eyes of the inflexible Party, been merely a streetwalker for Churchill and British imperialism.

Chalais tells him that he and his ‘guys’ must not oppose the Germans; the Germans are allies of our heroic Soviet Union. The Soviet Union will never enter the war. (Indeed, at this point and until it was invaded in June 1941, the Soviet Union for nearly two years supported the Nazi regime with food, oil and raw materials). The Soviet Union will wait until Europe has fought itself to a standstill and then dictate the peace in the interests of the proletariat.

So, instead of subverting the ‘Krauts’, the party should cosy up to the Nazis in a bid to become officially recognised and get a foot into the National Assembly again. To Brunet’s astonishment Chalais says they must work to attack the imperialism of the bourgeois ‘democracies’ (i.e. Britain), attack de Gaulle who is a mouthpiece for British imperialism, and direct the workers towards pacifism (p.63).

Brunet listens, obeys, tries to quell his misgivings, makes himself a servant of the Party. Maybe this is Sartre depicting how a man – Brunet – denies his absolute freedom, represses his own thoughts and feelings, in the name of Obedience to External Law.

The second section of A Strange Friendship jumps to a month later. The result of Brunet following Chalais’s instructions is that the camaraderie Brunet had carefully built up over the previous 6 months in the camp has evaporated, and Brunet is now regarded shiftily by the ‘guys’ he has deserted. They no longer trust him.

In another one-on-one scene Chalais confronts Brunet with the fact that the ‘guys’ don’t trust him and the possibility emerges that Brunet should co-host a Party meeting and stand up, validate Chalais and the Party line, and then humiliate and implicate himself – just as in the Stalin Show Trials of the late 1930s (as explored in Darkness At Noon by Arthur Koestler).

Brunet refuses. His unquavering faith is for the first time broken. For the first time he sees that the Party might be wrong, that the USSR might be wrong. If it loses the war, if the Party is abolished, Man will continue. Here is Brunet explaining (to himself) his previous attitude to free thought i.e. ruthlessly repress it.

So much for ideas. He’d always had them, like everyone, they’re just mildew, leftovers from brain activity; but he never used to pay them any mind, just let them sprout like mushrooms in the basement. So let’s just put them back in their place and everything will be alright: he’ll toe the line, follow orders, and carry his ideas around inside him without saying a word, like a shameful disease. This will go no further, this can go no further: we do not think in opposition to the Party, thoughts are words, words belong to the Party, the Party defines them, the Party controls them; Truth and the Party are one and the same. (p78)

(Worth remembering that Sartre was writing these passages just as George Orwell’s terrifying vision of totalitarian thought control, Nineteen Eighty-Four was published [June 1949]. Orwell’s book now stands alone like an isolated mesa in the desert; but once it was part of the vast ocean of discourse about communism, for and against, which washed over European culture after the war.)

And here is Brunet, moments later, for the first time in his life considering what it would mean if the USSR did lose the war, and the communist cause was defeated.

He blows through the roof, flying in the dark, explodes, the Party is below him, a living jelly covering the globe, I never saw it, I was inside it: he turns above this imperishable jelly: the Party can die. He’s cold, he turns: if the Party is right, then I am more alone than a madman [to oppose it]; if it’s wrong, we’re all on our own, and the world is fucked. (p.79)

It seems to me he is undergoing the classic Sartrean awakening to his abandonment, to his complete aloneness, to the shocking reality of his freedom.

Back in the plot, Brunet realises some men have been despatched from a Party meeting chaired by Chalais to go and beat up Schneider. Brunet comes to the latter’s rescue, but the ‘guys’ he interrupts hitting Schneider don’t get it: Chalais has explained that Schneider is a traitor, why is Brunet defending him? Is Brunet a traitor too? In the childlike simple-mindedness of the Communist Party, well, yes, Brunet is a traitor. Sticking up for a bad guy makes you a bad guy. Brunet smashes one of the guys in the face and the pair slope off, at which point Brunet realises he has burned all his bridges. Now the ‘guys’ belong to Chalais, everything he and Schneider achieved is destroyed, in fact his entire life to date has been negated. The Party has decreed he is a traitor and so he is a traitor. He must get away.

Brunet makes plans for him and Schneider to escape and in the face of a blasting howling January gale, they lay planks over the barbed wire fence surrounding the POW camp and escape – only for the floodlights to come on and them to be shot at from all sides. Brunet realises they’ve been betrayed, probably by ‘the comrades’, who want them more dead than the Germans. As they run for the woodline Schneider is hit. Brunet helps him on and they fall down a wooded slope, coming to rest against a tree which is where Schneider dies in Brunet’s arms, not at all romantically, vomiting and blaming Brunet for his death. Brunet stands up and walks back towards the guards. His death is only just starting.

Commentary

1. I can see why Sartre ran into problems trying to finish this. The more it plunges into the minutiae of the argument between communists loyal to the Soviet-Comintern party line, and every other non-communist brand of leftist, the more obscure this story becomes. Not least because, as the notes point out, the official Party line was itself changing and would, of course, undergo a complete volte-face when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.

In addition, so much had happened between spring 1941 and the post-war, Cold War era of the early 1950s when Sartre was writing. The Korean War broke out in June 1950, increasing general hysteria that the Cold War might escalate into a nuclear apocalypse. Why write about the arcane disputes ot his increasingly remote period of time, when your own times are so pressing and urgent? And so Sartre gave up struggling with The Last Chance and switched to writing political commentary on the very fraught times he found himself in.

2. Looked at from this distance of time, they all seem like idiots – Brunet and Schneider and Chalais, all obsessively blindly defending the Soviet Union which a) they should already have realised was one of the most repressive regimes in human history b) went on to prove it in the brutal repression of Eastern Europe in the 1950s and 60s c) collapsed in 1990 and is now remote, dusty, ancient history.

3. The entire plot exemplifies the way that the Communists’ main talent appears to have been carrying out witch hunts against all other leftists, and then among themselves. This is the central theme of George Orwell’s terrifying memoir of the Spanish Civil war, Homage to Catalonia, which shows how the Communist Party systematically suppressed, arrested, tortured and executed all its opponents on the same side in the civil war – in the opinion of historian Antony Beevor, a major contributory factor to why the Republican side lost The Battle for Spain. And the war of the Communist Party against itself is the subject of Arthur Koeslter’s fictional recreation of the interrogation of an old Bolshevik in readiness for his show trial, Darkness At Noon.

4. Looked at in its broader historical context, the entire sequence is more evidence to add to the 680-page analysis by historian Alistair Horne in his classic account, To Lose a Battle, that France’s defeat by Germany was entirely her own fault and overwhelmingly due to the ruinous divisions in her political culture. At one point Chalais, the hard-line Communist Deputy, actually says out loud that he prefers the Nazis to so-called ‘radicals’ i.e. to left-wingers operating outside the Communist Party (p.64) who he despises and calls dogs. (It is important to remember that the PCF called on workers to sabotage the war effort against Germany – to sabotage their own country’s war effort.) He prefers the Nazis to non-communist left-wingers. Wow.

And this exactly mirrors the attitude of many right-wingers in pre-war France who declared ‘Better Hitler than the reds’. Taken together it is a picture of a country in which nearly all sides wanted Hitler to beat them. I can see how this section was intended as an ‘analysis’ of the Communist Party line at a particular historical moment, and as a portrait of how it undermines and preys on Brunet who wants to be a loyal Party servant but is aware of the cost to himself and his ‘guys’. I can see how it carries out Sartre’s mission to show his ‘heroes’ emerging from various types of ‘bad faith’ into the desolate realisation of their inescapable freedom etc – as Brunet realises that his ongoing presence is undermining Chalais’ Communist Party mission, that his own elimination is called for by strict Party logic — but refuses, in the end, to give up – insists on living.

But at this distance of time, the entire sequence seems just a further example of the complete moral and political bankruptcy of mid-twentieth century French culture.

5. From a literary point of view, more interesting for me is the almost complete absence of any of the prose poetry which characterised the earlier books (and which I quote liberally in my reviews of them). The text is almost completely functional. It often reads like directions for a play: ‘X looks at Y. Y Says Z. X Gets up, leaves through the door.’  This suggests that a lot of the impressionistic poetry, the floods of feeling, the great waves of death and night and futility and emptiness which wash over the characters in the earlier books, that all this was put in later, once the scaffold was in place.

This text consists almost entirely of this very basic scaffold, bare present tense prose use to convey the dry-as-dust theological squabbles of a discredited belief-system and the toxic power struggles it led to. Only at the end, in the final few pages, when the scales fall from Brunet’s eyes, does his mind then entertain some of the delirious hallucinations so common to the other characters in the series; and only in the escape over the wire and through the howling gale does Sartre let rip with some impressionistic prose. I’m guessing this is deliberate. Maybe the grindingly boring, factual prose of most of the section enacts and embodies the grindingly boring nature of revolutionary politics and its squalid betrayals. Whereas the moments of high delirium Brunet experiences in the last few pages, and then the intensely impressionistic description of the escape in the snow storm, represent the return of Freedom, the flooding into Brunet’s consciousness of the confusions, the overwhelming and bewildering sense of finally throwing off his disciplined devotion to The Party, and his arrival in the bewildering abandonment of his human Freedom.

To be free, in Sartre’s fiction, is to be overwhelmed with sensations and thoughts.

6. The whole thing is written as a tragedy but, to an Anglo-Saxon eye it has a certain grim humour. It is notable the way no Germans feature at all anywhere in the story: sure, they’re referred to a lot as the people who run the camp, but there’s

a) no analysis of Nazi strategy, no mention of Hitler’s likely plans and intentions for Europe (which, though interesting, I can see is extraneous to the core subject, which is the drama of Brunet’s disillusionment)
b) no individual Germans appear, even right at the end when they’re pursuing Schneider and Brunet in their escape, they are just disembodied shouts and bullets.

Again, to the sceptical outsider this is partly because – comically – after all, the Germans don’t need to do anything: they know they can leave the French to carry on fighting among themselves, the right-wingers against the radicals, the communists against the Catholics – the French can be relied on to display not a shred of solidarity or patriotism.

Sartre is inside the French political world and so he takes endless internecine fighting for granted: I come from the Anglo-Saxon countries which had a bit more backbone and where patriotism really did unite the country against the potential invader: from where Canadians, Australians, Poles and other European exiles came together to fight the Nazis; not, as the French did, to betray each other to the Nazis.

For Sartre this squalid little squabble among communists can be represented as a kind of noble tragedy – but for the reader outside the snake pit of French culture, it’s just another example of the Communist talent for eliminating each other, and the French talent for ruinous infighting. Vive la France! Vive la Revolution!


2.The Last Chance (76 pages)

We all thought Mathieu Delarue, the most obviously autobiographical character in the series, an ineffectual philosophy teacher, had been blown to smithereens at the end of part one of Iron in the Soul -but no, folks, he’s back and more plagued by philosophical doubts than ever!

Nothing is explained. The segment just starts with Mathieu in a German prisoner of war hospital, from which he’s transferred out into the wider camp. The section opens with him helping a young man who has lost both his legs, amputated after being hit by a shell, put on his ‘pants’ (all the way through the text are reminders that this is a translation into American prose). Apparently, Mathieu was shot through the lungs and still feels weak, but survived otherwise unscathed.

As usual, two things happen immediately: Mathieu is nervous around other human beings, over-sensitively noticing all aspects about them, and his reactions to them, and their reactions to his reactions to them, and so on. And his consciousness is, as usual, susceptible to being flooded with overwhelming, uncontrollable perceptions and sensations. His perceptions flood his mind. This is the Sartre of his first novel, Nausea, and was also a feature of almost all the characters in the first two novels in the sequence.

He opened his eyes, and saw nothing. He was nowhere. Between two wooden frames with rectangular holes, there were a table and benches, but it was nothing, not even furniture, not even utensils, not even things; the inert underside of a few simple gestures; suspended in emptiness. The emptiness enveloped Mathieu with a glassy dissolving look, penetrating his eyes, gnawing at his flesh, all there was was a skeleton: ‘I’ll be living in emptiness.’ The skeleton took a seated position. (p.110)

This is just the latest in a long line of occasions when Sartrean characters cease to even perceive themselves as human, become perceiving objects, lose all their personality, are suffused with grand abstractions like death, night, freedom and so on. I like them. I like this way of thinking and writing. The world, very obviously, is far far weirder than official discourse permits, and Sartre is a great poet of this weirdness, the weirdness of being a walking, sentient nervous system adrift in a sea of things. Just as characteristically, Mathieu then hallucinates that the dour defeated inhabitants of the wider POW camp are sub-human, insets, crustaceans.

Even though they filled him with a slight repulsion, and even fear, like the crazies he had seen in Rouen in 1936, he knew perfectly well that he was not in an insane asylum: rather, he was in a breeding ground og crabs and lobsters. he was fascinated by these prehistorica crustaceans who crawled around on the tormented ground of an unknown planet, suddenly his heart sank and he thought: in a few days, I’ll be one of them. He would have these same eyes, airs and gestures, he would understand these incomprehensible creatures from inside, he would be a crab. (p.113)

Weird, huh? And reminds me of the notion I developed in reading The Reprieve that there is something distinctly science fiction-y about much of the altered states Sartre describes.

He wasmost certainly not in Africa, not even anywhere on a human planet. He was walking dry and crisp, between the glass panes of an aquarium. The horror was not in him yet, he could still defend himself against it: it was in things, and in the eyes of those who saw what he didn’t see. But soon, because of the water pressure and the great sea-spiders, these panes would break. (p.121)

The contrast between the histrionic, science fiction prose poetry of the Mathieu section and the spare functional prose of most of the Brunet section clinches the idea that Sartre alters his prose style to match the subject/character. I am genuinely impressed by the range of styles and rhetorical effects Sartre can pull off.

As to the plot, all we have is fragments. In the notes Vasey explains that the structure of the entire book appears to have been something like:

  • Novel opens with Mathieu in the infirmary. He helps the amputee put on his ‘pants’.
  • Mathieu transfers to the camp where he thinks the defeated soldiers look like undersea crabs.
  • Cut to Brunet smoothly running  his circle of comrades, until Chalais arrives and turns everything upside down.
  • Back to Mathieu: through his eyes we see fragmentary descriptions of camp life and mentality.
    • Ramard: someone has stolen a fur coat from the German stores, Mathieu helps a fellow inmate hide some stolen champagne.
    • The only first person narrative anywhere in the series, apparently from Mathieu’s diary, as he meets the disconsolate architect Longin.
    • One of the guys gets hold of a newspaper from a new inmate and reads it out to Mathieu’s room-mates, with Mathieu interpolating his usual philosophic ruminations. The
    • The Dream of killing: Mathieu has a recurrent waking dream of killing his room-mates. A form of post traumatic stress triggered by his shooting German soldiers back in the church tower. Interestingly, there are seven fragments on this one theme which are obviously reworkings of the same scene: Mathieu is sitting in a prison office watching his colleague, Chomat, doing paperwork and imagining killing him with a knife slipped into the nape of  his neck. Over and over.
  • Cut back to Brunet. It’s 40 days after he was captured trying to escape. Surprisingly, he wasn’t shot but put in the punishment block. Now, released, he returns to his old barrack with trepidation only to discover that Chalais and the cohort of comrades who had it in for him have all been shipped out. Gone as if they never were. Then gets wind of an escape committee, is taken to see it and discovers…
  • It is run by his childhood friend, Mathieu. The book seems to have been intended to climax with the encounter between Mathieu and Brunet, each assessing the road the other has travelled. They don’t particularly like each other. In fact the main tone is boredom and mild dislike. climaxes with a dramatic and philosophical encounter between Brunet and Mathieu.

The encounter between Brunet and Mathieu should triumphantly complete the circle. They met in the first book, The Age of Reason, where the manly convinced communist Brunet tried to persuade the ineffectual philosopher Mathieu to join him. Now Brunet has been disowned by the communist party and discovered how tough life is on the ‘outside’, whereas Mathieu not only ‘became free’ by shooting German soldiers from that church tower, but also – we now learn – runs the team that organises escapes from the camp. He has become the man of action while Brunet has become the man of uncertainty.

And, in a final rather melodramatic twist, it is revealed that the snitch who betrayed Brunet and Schneider’s escape attempt wasn’t Chalais the Commissar, it was the fat, thieving prole Moûlu. And in fact, while they’ve been chatting, Mathieu now reveals that his fellow escape committee members have just tried and executed Moûlu by strangling him. Brunet is more angry than shocked. But the reader is shocked.

Mathieu says Brunet will be suspected by the Germans when Moûlu’s body is found, so they’ll arrange for his escape early the next morning. And there this long, fragmented section ends.


American translation

The translation is by an American, Craig Vasey, Professor of Philosophy at the Mary Washington University, Virginia. This is a shame because Sartre’s demotic French is translated into demotic American, which jars with the English reader. ‘Mad’ means angry’; ‘pants’ mean ‘trousers’; the Germans become ‘the Krauts’, so that it feels like we’re in a U.S. war movie. Worst of all the men or blokes become ‘the guys’. Innocuous though this trivial translation choice may sound, it has major ramifications because the word appears numerous times on every page. For me it dominated the whole reading experience and its continual repetition has the effect of making it seem like we’re in a movie about the mafia.

  • Twenty guys are washing quickly under a shelter.
  • The guys are putting on their coats; they are heading off for work.
  • Brunet looks at his guys with satisfaction.
  • ‘This guy’s name is Schneider.’
  • ‘Our guys in Algiers have the proof.’
  • ‘My guys can’t stand him.’
  • ‘He’s not that kind of guy.’
  • ‘Don’t say anything to the guys.’
  • ‘I’m going to send you up one of my guys.’
  • ‘These Dutch guys don’t speak a word of French.’
  • ‘Hey,’ say the guys, ‘it’s Brunet.’
  • ‘What do you guys want?’
  • All the guys are there, all the guys looking at him…
  • ‘Don’t think about it too much guys…’
  • ‘You guys are assholes…’
French prisoners of war in 1940

French prisoners of war in 1940


Credit

This edition of The Last Chance by Jean-Paul Sartre was published by Editions Gallimard in 1981. This English translation by Craig Vasey was published by Continuum International Publishing in 2009. All references are to the CIP paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

Reviews of related books

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 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.

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. This paperback edition was published in 1973. All references are to the 1973 Methuen paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

1945 – The Age of Reason
1945 – The Reprieve
1949 – Iron In The Soul

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 Reprieve by Jean-Paul Sartre (1945)

Charles felt dirty, he was aware inside himself of a mass of damp and sticky innards. (p.202)

The Reprieve is the second novel in Sartre’s Roads To Freedom trilogy. It is a long, panoramic account of the lives of some 130 characters during the fateful week in September 1938 when all Europe held its breath as Germany threatened to invade Czechoslovakia and spark a continent-wide war in order to ‘liberate’ the Sudeten Germans.

At the last minute, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Premier Édouard Daladier persuaded the Czech government to cede to Nazi Germany Czechoslovakia’s western border regions, containing not only many ethnic Germans, but all her defences and much of her industry. Hitler accepted this deal, the threat of an armed confrontation disappeared, and all Europe breathed a sigh of relief.

Hence the book’s title – The Reprieve. This epic betrayal bought the western democracies exactly one year’s remission, until Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 began the Second World War in Europe.

The Reprieve is drastically different from its predecessor, The Age of Reason. That book had a cast of seven or eight characters but essentially rotated around the plight of one central figure – the depressive philosophy professor, Mathieu Delarue, who was trying to find the money to pay for his mistress’s abortion. It covered just two days and was divided into chapters, 18 to be precise, each of which began in a new scene or setting, in the conventional manner. The Reprieve, by contrast, is much longer and divided into seven very long sections, one covering each day from Friday 23 September to Friday 30 September.

But The Reprieve is massively different from a traditional novel – indeed it is a form of experimental novel – in two key respects:

  1. It has an enormous cast of characters, some from its predecessor, The Age of Reason, but most entirely new. And they are in locations all across France, as well as Germany, England and Spain. There are even scenes depicting the leading politicians of the day as they handled the negotiations about Czechoslovakia – Daladier, Chamberlain and even Hitler himself (we even get to see some of Hitler’s dreams!) So there is an astonishingly large number and wide breadth of characterisation.
  2. And, most distinctively, it jumps between the settings of the different characters, between conversations between characters, and even between characters’ thoughts – with no warning, sometimes in successive paragraphs (easy enough to grasp), sometimes in successive sentences (you need your wits about you) and sometimes in the same sentence. The same sentence can begin describing the thoughts of a character in Morocco and end by describing another in Paris, or Munich or a Czech village. Some sentences jump between multiple consciousnesses.

I found this technique absolutely riveting. It makes reading into a parlour game, a Where’s Wally challenge, a test of the reader’s alertness. I suppose it is also meant to give a panoramic impression of the age, and of the very weird intense atmosphere which united the inhabitants of the entire population of Europe as probably never before, with everyone huddled round their radios or snapped up the latest editions of newspapers to find out whether we were going to war. Thus, again and again throughout the long dense text, characters’ thoughts and feelings and impressions overlap and intermingle.

Sartre sometimes uses James Joyce’s technique of associating certain phrases with certain settings or characters, to evoke their mood or consciousness – but mostly you have to be very alert throughout as it is often only one word which reveals that the text has now jumped from one character to a completely different one – is now in the desert, on the beach, in the city streets, on a plane – and which of its huge cast of characters we are now following.

Generally, all these new characters have one or a few longish (a page, maybe) sections in which to establish their situation and character – after which brief introduction the text freely switches to them at a moment’s notice, for a paragraph, for a few sentences, or even for a few words embedded in a sentence about other characters. Occasionally, what have been established as key words or phrases are blended together in kind of poetic rhapsodies, in fugues which counterpoint a whole host of characters and destinies into webs of words.

Chamberlain was asleep, Mathieu was asleep, the Kabyle put the ladder against the charabanc, hoisted the trunk onto his shoulder, and scrambled up without holding onto the rungs. Ivich was asleep, Daniel swung his legs out of bed, a bell echoed in his head, Pierre looked at the pink and black soles of the Kabyle’s feet.

I found this ‘simultaneous method’ quite spellbinding.

Lunch-time! they had entered the blinding tunnel of mid-day: outside – the sky, white with heat; outside – the dead, white roads, no man’s land, and war: behind the closed shutters, they sat stifling in the heat, Daniel put his napkin on his knees, Hannequin tied his napkin round his neck, Brunet took the paper napkin from the table, Jeannine wheeled Charles into the large and almost empty dining-room with its smudgy windows… (p.101)

I like its profusion, its variety and its sense of the diversity of life!

A happy side-effect of this approach is that the lengthy – the really, really long passages in The Age of Reason in which Mathieu or Daniel or Boris dwelt on the emptiness of their lives, the meaningless of existence and in which they obsessed about the ugliness of their bodies and of everyone else’s bodies, and generally marinaded in disgust and revulsion at life — these are all a lot less in evidence and, when they do occur, are pared back to the bone. Some such passages are still attached to Mathieu, Brunet and a few others, but the overall effect it is far less self-indulgently solipsistic and self-pitying than in the first novel.

Instead of focusing in to create a stickily claustrophobic effect, the text is continually exploding out in multiple directions, jumping across numerous locations, invoking a big cast, creating a sense of openness, breadth, fecundity.

This greater objectivity is indicated in a small but telling moment when Mathieu (35) is telling Odette about the ugly sister of a student of his, Ivich (18), who he’s snogged a few times and might be in a relationship with, is detailing her list of psychological quirks (hates being touched, hates summer, hates her own appearance etc) and, having heard all about it, Odette briskly thinks, ‘A good spanking is what she wants’ (p.23).

And I couldn’t help thinking that a good spanking and being told to grow up is what most of the characters in The Age of Reason wanted.

The characters in order of appearance

I set off imagining it would be a relatively straightforward task to name and give brief thumbnail descriptions of the characters, but soon ran into problems.

Should I include characters who aren’t named or make only fleeting entrances, like the unnamed Arab who puts Maud’s suitcase on the bus roof, or the unnamed steward on the liner, or the unnamed lady sitting next to Hannequin on the train or the unnamed lady who gets Zézette’s signature for a feminist peace petition in the street etc?

Or should I go to the other extreme and only include characters who have substantial speaking parts and whose lives we get to know a bit? I compromised by listing every named character, no matter how brief their appearance.

  • Godesberg, Germany The old gentleman, key to the negotiations, who is revealed to be Neville ChamberlainNevile Henderson (British Ambassador to Berlin), Sir Horace Wilson (special emissary from Chamberlain to Hitler). Later attended by Woodhouse.
  • Pravnitz, Czechoslovakia Milan Hlinka, former woodcutter, now schoolteacher of a Sudeten town which is being taken over by the Czech Nazis, is sheltering in his house with his pregnant schoolteacher wife, Anna, and a child, Marikka, sent there by their concerned parents. In the house opposite live the Jägerschmitts, a German family who had fled a few days earlier as a result of Czech persecution, but now return in triumph, knowing that Hitler is about to triumph and that their – the Gis the cermans’ – day has come.
  • South of France Mathieu Delarue is on holiday at Juans-les-Pins with his brother, Jacques, and his comely wife, Odette. In The Age of Reason Jacques gave Mathieu a common-sense lecture about it being time he grew up and assumed his responsibilities, so now Jacques is the mouthpiece for the bourgeois view that the whole crisis is the fault of the Czechs, who are refusing to see reason and must bow down to Herr Hitler’s very reasonable demands (p.92, 95, 96, 178).
  • Paris Maurice is a young, strong working class member of the Communist Party, walking the streets with his shallow girlfriend, Zézette. They bump into Brunet, the tall, strong, mature Communist, one-time friend of Mathieu and inspiration to younger party members (who we know from The Age of Reason). (Brunet bumps into Joseph Mercier, Professor of Natural History, a momentary encounter seen by both.) Later Maurice makes love to Zézette in a hotel bedroom next to Philippe’s room. Next day he leads a protest at the Gare de l’Est, talks to Simon, and Dubech and Laurent. Maurice is mobilised along with Dornier and Bébert
  • Paris Stephen Hartley, New York journalist, getting his secretary/wife Sylvia to organise a berth on the last boat leaving France.
  • A sanatorium at Berck-sur-Mer in the Pas-de-Calais Charles is crippled by some disease, has to lie prone on a trolley, refers to able people as ‘the stand-ups’, is cared for by sentimental nurse Jeannine, resents ‘the little Dorliac woman’ who gives the nurses generous tips. On the day of the move he is attended by Madame Louise and finds himself in the transport train next to the irritating practical joker Blanchard.
  • Marseilles Sheep farmer Gros-Louis has come to Marseilles looking for a job. He hitches up with an unnamed Negro for a spell. He meets Mario and Starace, the sailors, they take him to a bar to meet prostitute Daisy, get him drunk, and beat him up down a back alley. Next morning, still bloody, he tries to get work at a depot, but Ribadeau the foreman points out to him that he’s been called up.
  • Rural France Daniel (the suave homosexual from The Age of Reason) is on holiday with his new wife, heavily pregnant Marcelle, one-time lover of Mathieu. He hates the countryside. He despises Marcelle. He is longing for a war to break out and rescue him from his predicament.

‘Oh God, if only war would come!’ A thunderbolt which would shatter this smooth-faced world, plough the countryside into a quagmire, dig shell-holes in the fields, and fashion these flat monotonous lands into the likeness of a storm-tossed sea.’ (p.42)

  • Staying at their hotel is a retired colonel, M. de Lestrange. The hotel-keeper’s son, Émile.
  • Marrakesh, Morocco Supercilious Pierre is on holiday having an affair with Maud Dassignies, a member of Baby’s Lady Orchestra. He despises her. On the boat home, she shares a cramped 3rd class cabin with other band members France, Ruby and Doucette and two unnamed women.
  • Paris Pitteaux is editor of a review named The Pacifist (p.125). His secretary, Irène, lets a young tearaway, Philippe Grésigne into his office to see him. The suggestion is that the boy is a rent boy and Pitteaux had some kind of sex with him, now the boy wants more money. Later Pitteaux is called to the house of General Lacaze, who is Philippe’s step-father, husband of Mme Lacaze, where he meets M. Jardies a mental specialist. Philippe has left a note, stolen 10,000 Francs and run away to make some grand pacifist gesture. The General holds Pitteaux responsible. Philippe goes to see a forger to forge him a passport, stays the night in a cheap hotel and hears Maurice making love to Zézette next door. — Irène lectures her kid brother René who is being mobilised. — Philippe falls asleep in a cafe owned by M. and Mme Cazin. The waiter is Felix.
  • Paris Armand Viguier, 80 years old, is dead. He lies stretched out on his bed among his luxury belongings while Sartre speculates poetically about his life dissipating into the objects around him, into an infinite future etc. He body is attended by a nurse, until an elderly relative, Madame Verchoux, arrives. Mme Lieutier asks the butcher in the shop opposite, M. Désiré, about M. Viguier, joined by Mme Bonnetain. –55
  • Marseilles Sarah, the plump placid friend of Mathieu’s from The Age of Reason, has come south to see her husband, Gomez, with their small son, Pablo who glamorises his father’s warriorhood. For a year earlier Gomez had simply walked out of their Paris apartment, headed to Spain and joined the Republican army. Now he has a week’s leave. Sarah she calls to them to come and hear the Negro singing in the street, the same one Gros-Louis had hung out with for a while earlier.
  • Crévilly, France Daddy Croulard, the old soldier, is instructed by the gendarmerie lieutenant to stick up posters round town calling for the mobilisation of all French adult men. Maublanc, a peasant, along with Chapin, Tournus, Cauchios, Simeon, Poulaille, Fraigneau drive their oxen and carts to the nearest barracks as a result of the mobilisation notices they’d read. Louisa Corneille, sister of the level-crossing guard, fiancée of Jean Matrat, watches them pass. Conversation between Madame Reboulier, Marie, Stephanie the tobacconist’s wife, Jeanne Fraigneau. Later Mother Tremblin, Jeanne, Ursule, the Clapot sisters, Little Rose… — 79
  • Paris A Jewish exile from Austria, Schalom, asks help from Georges Levy, then has a long interview with M. Birnenschatz, who we see wave off his pretty daughter, Ella. Then M. Birnenschatz’s talks to one of his staff, Weiss, who has been called up. Weiss says he is sticking up for Jews but Birnenschatz, although he is a Jewish refugee from Cracow, refuses to acknowledge his Jewishness, insists he is a Frenchman first and foremost.
  • Paris One-eyed Pascal is selling irises and buttercups at the Quai de Passy and watches the stream of cars packed with household goods, of families fleeing Paris.
  • Saint-Flour, France François Hannequin, pharmacist, tells his wife, Espérance Dieulafoy, that he is being mobilised and she fusses about the shirts and socks and boots he’ll need to pack. They meet Madame Calvé and Marie, Charlot the ticket collector and M. Pineau the notary.
  • France Jean Servier is a worker reading the sports page of the newspaper. Lucien Rénier finishes his lunch. François Destutt is a laboratory assistant at the Institut Derrien. René Malleville. Pierre Charnier.— 96
  • England Dawburn, journalist for the Morning Post attends a press conference given by an exhausted Chamberlain.
  • France Georges, a particularly feeble, ill, weak man, puts up with his querulous wife, goes in to see his baby daughter and – with typically Sartrean gloom – foresees her futile life, growing up weak and sickly like him, scorned by his schoolmates, feebly suffering, pointlessly struggling through her wretched existence.
  • Paris Maubert and Thérèse have fun tearing down mobilisation posters from the walls. –101
  • A hotel lobby in Paris Boris and Lola, who we know from The Age of Reason, watch numerous guests packing up and fleeing Paris e.g. Madame Delarive and overhear the conversation of a widow and a beribboned old man blaming the Popular Front and the ‘reds’ for arming Spain in 1936 instead of preparing to confront Herr Hitler.
  • A Paris brothel Philippe, determined to be a pacifist hero and do something significant, gets drunk and ends up in a brothel, where he is tended by kindly Negro prostitute, Flossie, who shows him to her friend,
  • The French government Daladier, Sarrault, Bonnet, Champetier de Ribes, Reynaud, 
  • London Fred watches Mr Chamberlain walk by and feels cheered.
  • Berlin Sportpalast The centrepiece of the Monday 26 September chapter is Hitler giving his speech about Czechoslovakia in which we are shown lots of characters across Europe tuning in, listening and reacting, including Karl, a devoted Nazi.
  • Round a radio are Germaine Chabrol and his wife.
  • Barcelona Gomez listens to the broadcast with comrades Herrera and Tilquin.
  • A bar in Paris where Bruno translates Hitler’s speech to the landlord, the Marseillais, the man from the north, Chomis, Charlier.
  • Mathieu’s flat in Paris His concierge, Madame Garinet.
  • Laon, France Ivich, back in her bourgeois home realises she rather likes her father, the Russian exile M. Serguine. –126
  • A nightclub in Paris Irène is being pestered to have sex by boyfriend Marc, who has been called up. Suddenly she sees Philippe, the boy everyone is looking for, being tended by a handsome Negress. When he leaves, Irène pursues him. Philippe shouts ‘Down with the war,’ is promptly beaten up, and is rescued by Mathieu. Irène begs him to help her take the half-conscious Philippe back to her flat. Being French, they go to bed. Being French, Mathieu has a long soliloquy about being, being in the flesh, being inside someone, being inside another person’s body, mind, memory. And so on.
  • Munich Jan Masaryk, Czech government representative at Munich, is left no option by Daladier and Chamberlain but to hand over the Sudetenland to Hitler. This scene is intercut with a completely different scene in which Ivich is angrily losing her virginity to an unnamed man, and hating every second of it – effectively being raped. So that a woman being raped is counterpointed with Czechoslovakia being betrayed and handed over to Hitler.

The interplay of characters, phrases and perceptions overlapping one character into another, is never totally incomprehensible (as it often is in the grand-daddy of this kind of experimentalism, James Joyce) and gives a wonderfully musical sense of counterpoint, of melodies or rhythms interweaving and interplaying. I found it immensely enjoyable.

Aloneness, freedom and decision

Sartre’s more thoughtful characters are oppressed by their self-awareness. They are always horrifyingly aware of themselves looking at themselves, barely able to keep up the pretence of existence, always at risk of drowning in an oppressive flood of impressions, of things.

I come upon nothing but my own self. Scarcely that: a succession of small impulses, darting centrifugally here and there, but no focus. And yet there is a focus: that focus is my self, and the horror lies there. (p.114)

Being a self is horrific in Sartre’s worldview.

And what prompts this nauseous sense of existing in the various characters, is the oppressive extent to which, at so many points, they feel utterly abandoned, adrift, alone.

Mathieu stopped and gazed up at it. A quite ordinary and unprivileged sky. And myself a nondescript entity beneath that vast indifferent arc. (p.296)

This is a key psychological basis of Sartre’s existentialist philosophy. Every adult human is completely alone and completely free – no ties bind us, only what we choose. Everyone must decide for themselves, without ‘bad faith’ i.e. without blaming circumstances or upbringing or this or that political or cultural situation. Our decisions make us who we are, but we can only fully grasp this, and the crushing responsibility it brings, once we have psychologically experienced our terrible aloneness.

  • ‘We are now alone.’ (p.6) Milan
  • He felt alone (p.9) Milan
  • ‘Now we are quite alone.’ (p.10) Milan
  • A man felt isolated (p.13) Maurice
  • Daniel thought: ‘I am alone’. (p.43) Daniel
  • At the moment he was alone. (p.96) Maurice
  • … they are alone upon the earth.. (p.99) Pierre on the Arabs
  • Gros-Louis was glad of their company, but he still felt solitary. (p.135)
  • … she was quite alone… (p.140) Maud, as she masturbates the captain of the liner
  • He was no longer alone (p.159) Philippe in the boarding house
  • For the moment he was there, an innocent, ugly little boy with a diminutive shadow at his feet, alone in the world… (p.196)
  • So you are quite alone?’ ‘Quite.’ He repeated: ‘Quite alone in the world.’ (p.209) Charles talking to Catherine in the evacuation train
  • The Moroccan climbed over the cracked soil of Spain, he thought of Tangier, and he felt alone. (p.220) Soon afterwards the Moroccan is shot dead by a Belgian
  • He was alone in the night, so small and solitary, he knew and understood nothing, like a man about to die. (p.250) Gros-Louis, the illiterate peasant
  • There was no longer anyone in the world but Karl and his Führer. The Führer was speaking in front of a large swastika’d standard, he was speaking to Karl, and to him alone. (p.271)
  • She turned to her mother, to Ivy: but they had receded. She could still see them but not touch them. Paris also had drifted out of reach, the light from the windows fell dead upon the carpet. Contacts between things and people were imperceptibly disintegrating, she was alone in the world with that voice. (p.273) [Ella]
  • He was alone on this bridge, alone in the world, accountable to no man. (p.308) [Mathieu]
  • I’m alone in the street, surrounded by sleeping people, ignored by everyone. (p.310)  [Irene]
  • She felt utterly alone. (p.360) [Maud after peace is declared]

At some point or other, all the characters realise their solitude, alone on the surface of a friendless planet, confronting their futures, their destinies completely unaided.

A man alone, forgotten, devoured by darkness, confronted that fragile eternity. (p.297)

In Sartre’s philosophy, we are each of us completely free, utterly free to make decisions according to our own sense of values – and our decisions therefore define us. And the responsibility, the implications of this radical, total freedom, is crushing.

  • ‘I am free,’ he said suddenly. And his joy shrivelled into horror. (p.299)
  • I am free, he said to himself, and his mouth was dry… Freedom is exile, and I cam condemned to be free. (p.308)
  • I shall be my own witness, I am accountable to no one but myself. (p.337)

If there are any character developments (and for the most part there aren’t: Boris hates Lola, Ivich hates Mathieu, Daniel hates Mathieu etc) the two main ones are:

  1. Mathieu with a start realises he is free, but realises that the nature of that ‘freedom’ is completely unlike what he expected: he expected a sense of deliverance and joy, but instead he experiences terror and physical anxiety. He is free to do anything. (In fact, of course, he doesn’t do much; he sleeps with Irène and volunteers for the army. Big deal.)
  2. Daniel has a religious conversion. Being French, and so Catholic, this is expressed in the same language of extremity, the same hysterical exaggeration, as the other characters’ ‘existential’ musings. To be precise, Daniel becomes aware of being seen, not by a human, but by some unknown see-er who can see right into his soul. And that fixes his mobile tremulous over-intelligent personality. It fixes and transfixes him. It objectifies him. He experiences a massive relief.

Sarte Bullshit bingo

As with The Age of Reason, I began chuckling every time I read characteristic Sartrean key words – despair, anguish etc – and burst out laughing whenever one of his stricken characters had another outbreak of Weltschmerz and nausea – like the numerous episodes where Mathieu and Daniel, in particular, are likely to completely lose their sense of themselves and become pure looks, observing but empty consciousnesses, at one with the surrounding objects, their futures foreknown, foretold, suspended, empty, futile etc etc.

Key terms in Sartre Bullshit Bingo would have to include:

  • nauseam, vomit, slime, sick, disgust, contempt, revulsion, anguish, hate, despise, horror, dismal, white (as in the blinding white glare of the noonday sun), insect (people routinely feel like one; Hitler is described as having an insect face)

Prose poetry

You might not expect it from his reputation, but Sartre is a surprisingly poetic writer. A lot of the rhapsody is negative (slime and vomit and bodily functions) or describes rather esoteric psychological insights into the nature of death, destiny, and his persistent hallucination that the objects around us are watching us, respond to our thoughts, embody our moods.

But in other places, especially in the many descriptions of the sea associated with the Mathieu sections, Sartre is a swift and vivid writer of pure prose poetry.

Odette returned with a smile. It wasn’t the conventional smile that he expected, but a special smile just for him; in one instant the sea had reappeared, the lightly heaving sea, the Chinese shadows speeding across the water, the green aloes and the green pine-needles that carpeted the ground, the stippled shadows of the tall pines, the dense white heat, the smell of resin, all the richness of a September morning at Juan-les-Pins. (p.94)

Summary

Le Sursis is well worth reading:

  1. As a vivid picture of the atmosphere of France, and to some extent the rest of Europe, during that turbulent week in September 1938.
  2. As a fiction in its own right, especially the experimental use of a vast cast of characters whose thoughts and actions blend into each other in such an arresting challenging way.
  3. As an insight into the psychological basis of existentialism, which comes across as the codification of the very peculiar psychological states experienced by its inventor, M. Jean-Paul Sartre who suffers an oppressive sense of self-consciousness, which veers from feeling so emptied-out that he becomes simply a seeing object, a stone which perceives, through to the other extreme of becoming so exquisitely over-sensitive to the suffocating existence of the world around him, and of his own strangling self-consciousness, that he wants to stop it, to cease being so self-conscious, to become as senseless as a stone. Hence the passage where Mathieu looks over the parapet of the Pont-Neuf in Paris and wants to jump into the Seine (pp.308-309), to cease, imagining himself already dead, imagining himself in the past tense (and so on and so on).

Above all, though, it is a good indicator of the wretchedly demoralised state of French culture in the late 1930s which goes a long way to explaining why France surrendered so easily when she was finally attacked by the Nazis in June 1940 – surrendered and quickly set up the Vichy regime which enthusiastically collaborated with the Germans.

Mathieu, Boris, Daniel, Ivich, Philippe – they all lack backbone, spine, a real sense of purpose. When the test came, they all collapsed like a pack of cards. The book is a powerful portrait of a demoralised nation.


Credit

Le Sursis by Jean-Paul Sartre was published by Editions Gallimard in 1945. This translation by Eric Sutton was published as The Reprieve by Hamish Hamilton in 1947. The Reprieve was issued as a Penguin paperback in 1961. All references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback reprint, which I bought 40 years ago for 85p.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

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