Saturday, 30 January 2016


”He could do what he liked, no one had the right to advise him, there would be for him no Good nor Evil unless he brought them into being... He was alone, enveloped in this monstrous silence, free and alone, without assistance and without excuse, condemned to decide without support from any quarter, condemned for ever to be free.”

'The Age of Reason' was an early novel by Jean-Paul Sartre, first published just after the Second World War, and described as “a fictional reprise of some of the main themes in his major philosophical study 'Being and Nothingness'”. It's the first part of a trilogy commonly dubbed 'The Road of Freedom', though I'm yet to read the later books.

The way Sartre structures the novel may be as important as its contents. We're plunged into events. Though the plot is precipitated by Mathieu being told by his lover Marcelle of her unintended pregnancy almost all the characters have already met before the book starts. And yet at the very beginning Mathieu encounters a stranger on the street. It might seem mere context-setting or even extraneous, but in fact its things starting as they're meant to go on. Here “met before” or even “are involved” doesn't equate to “know one another”. Relations come less advanced than ready-entangled. When a waiter tries to second-guess Daniel's drinks order, provoking a flash of temper, its virtually the whole thing in microcosm. Characters who presume to know one another are merely projecting their own prejudices.

Hence the novel's a series of dialogues. Sartre becomes a serial monogamist of narrative perspective, switching from the viewpoint of one character in one chapter to their being framed by the viewpoint of another in the next. One of the few times three characters are present the situation quickly becomes awkward and one has to leave. Two already being a crowd, three becomes an unbearable cacophony. The nightclub scene, occurring two-thirds through is as fulsomely foreshowed as the shootout in 'High Noon', and comes as thick with conflict. (“There will be bloodshed”, predicts Matthieu, prophetically enough.)

While all this might sound fearfully Modernist, concerned with the inner life, the novel also follows the dramatic unities as faithfully as any classical play. It a clock strikes two in one chapter, you can be sure there'll be another one hitting three in the next. It finds it impossible to be in two places at once, any more than it's possible to be in two heads at once. Events are often reported to us, as if we were with others elsewhere. It then takes this fixed time period and sets it against a ticking clock - the only competent abortionist for Marcelle is shortly leaving France, leaving Mathieu scrabbling to raise the cash for his fee. 

As if that’s not enough a subplot then sets off a second clock, Ivich must pass an exam if she is to stay in Paris. And yet this race against time is frequently interrupted by digressions – visits to art exhibitions, nights out at clubs, debates over politics. However, what sounds screwy actually works to the novel’s advantage – the characters do inhabit this world, a strange mix of urgency and drift, of significance and inconsequence.

Political commitment prowls the book, as if looking for a way in, without ever succeeding. (A sense intensified by the copy I read being literally wrapped in Picasso's 'Guernica', see illo.) The stranger that Matthieu meets at the beginning hands him a stamp printed by the anarchists in Spain. Yet asked if he wants to go and fight there, he replies “yes, but not enough”. One character who has taken up the fight is conspicuous by his absence throughout, thought of but never seen, as if taking up a different role in a different book.

Yet, even if these events were recent history, Sartre's including them is a choice. Though begun in '38, he could have as easily made the setting either the peaceful Twenties or post-war Paris. But he prefers the period where to fight in Spain was a choice - it involved getting up and crossing a border. Once France became occupied, choice was less on the agenda.

Characters in fiction often have an internal life as a consequence of their eternal actions. Heroes need to think noble thoughts that they might perform heroic deeds, and so on. Here it's almost precisely the reverse, the external is almost a function of the internal. Both big and small decisions attach to themselves an intensity, as if their primary function is to define the self. Actions are at root gestures, attached not to a purpose but a statement. We see, for example, Daniel debating with himself whether to shave around a pimple or lop it off. But it's perhaps at its clearest in Boris's shoplifting escapades:

“He had drawn no profit from his enterprises: he attached no importance to possessing seventeen tooth-brushes, some twenty ash-trays, a compass, a poker and a darning-mushroom. What he took into consideration in each case was the technical difficulty... The benefit of the theft was entirely moral... it was a test of character. And there was indeed a delicious moment when you said to yourself: I shall count up to five, and at five the tooth-brush must be in my pocket: you caught your breath and and were conscious of an extraordinary sensation of clarity and power.”

And this is set up in pointed contrast to the war in Spain. When Matthieu and lvich deliberately cut their palms in the nightclub scene, we can't forget they could at that moment be firing at Francoists. Characters are often presented as at the mercy of their own idle whims, particularly the compulsive and child-like Ivich with her capricious changes of mood.

And if that seems a rather adolescent perspective on the world, its probably intended to be. Age is a feature of the novel. It’s full of characters who are older than they look, doing things others are telling them they should have grown out of by now. With its fetishisation of the self, there’s no denying it is really quite adolescent. With the era evoked so vividly, the temptation is to read the title as a reference to it, like a variant on “the jazz age”. In fact like everything else its individualised, to do with the ages in Matthieu's life. The age of reason is what he's stumbling towards.

But to critique the novel from this perspective is not only too easy, it seems to miss the point. There’s no particular attempt to dress the characters up as sympathetic, in fact pretty much everybody commits some slapable action at some point. But its less that the novel is told through unsympathetic characters than it creates such characters as a form of self-critique. The choice of the pregnancy plot-line is surely embarked on to enforce on Mathieu that he now needs to take up a man's responsibilities, that his only other choice is that of an utter bastard. When Mathieu's brother Jacques tells him that he's merely living the life of a perpetual student...

”you condemn capitalist society, and yet you are an official in that society; you display an abstract sympathy with Communists, but you take care not to commit yourself, you have never voted. You despise the bourgeois class, and yet you are bourgeois, son and brother of a bourgeois, and you live like a bourgeois.”

...its a rare scene where one character's perception of another has traction. In fact Jacques isn't really much of a character, he seems inserted specifically to say those lines. Mathieu protests, but goes away reflecting “I'm a grown-up child”.

However, if we don't require a novel to be stuffed with sympathetic audience identification figures, Sartre does come close to countenancing their actions through his own inaction. Perhaps we're not likely to get all that worked up over Boris nicking the odd toothbrush. But anyone looking for a work that's politically progressive would be lining themselves up for disappointment. There isn't really much getting round this being a novel about abortion and a man's right to choose. Marcelle's pregnancy is really there to catalyse Mathieu's existential crisis; if he all but ignores how she feels about it, then the novel doesn't do much better. Daniel's sadism may stem from his being gay in a homophobic era, having internalised society's loathing of his sexuality he's forever trying to displace it on others. (At one point he hits a gay cruising spot purely to scupper others' pick-ups.) But when the only other gay characters are sleazy low-lives, its unclear whether we're supposed to see this as a social problem or an inescapable fact of the gay mind.

And things get worse with the more incidental characters. Though the abortionist has a name, he is mostly referred to merely as “the Jew”. He never appears but then we don’t need him described to know what he looks like - the over-familiar grasping Fagan stereotype. (Its bizarre to think Sartre may simultaneously have been at work on his critique of anti-semitism, ‘Anti-Semite and Jew’, 1946). Meanwhile 'negroes' hang around the periphery of scenes, emitting jazz, producing literal and metaphorical colour in equal measure. Perhaps trying to disentangle author form characters may be the wrong thing altogether, as some have seen strong autobiographical elements in the novel.

Yet when Sartre said “my intention was to write a novel about freedom,” from that decision these became the characters he needed. Not because they are free or unfree, but because they are the only ones to have any hope of freedom. For there is an upside to youth, for all their fixations with their pimples. Their moulds are not yet set, they still have potential. Perceiving society to be an outside force exerting its gravity upon you is wrongheaded but can grant perspective. It’s like striding boldly out of your home town, climbing a hill and looking down on it. It takes effort and you’re probably just going to go back home at the end of it. But at the same time it shows things from a different perspective, however temporarily. As Sartre himself said “only the guy who isn’t rowing has the time to rock the boat”.

And this is particularly true for Sartre's definition of freedom - a very particular one, meaning something like “unattached”. Freedom to choose is spent as soon as you've chosen, so you must keep yourself in a kind of stasis. Freedom for Mathieu is defined as staying in a hotel room, with the possibility always open of moving to another. And marriage to Marcelle is defined as having a permanent address, a place in society, a fixed point to the world. Should he ever move into that flat, to leave it again would merely be stretching a chain that cannot be broken. (You can read some of this, perhaps the novel's most famous passage, here.)

Its notable that he refers to his freedom in terms of association with objects. When he feels free the objects in his flat are “no longer his accomplices” but “anonymous objects... mere utensils”. For objects are always taking on some approximation of life. When he is first told by Marcelle of her pregnancy “the lamp, the mirror with its leaders reflections, the clock on the mantlepiece, the armchair, the half-opened wardrobe, suddenly appeared to him like pitiless mechanisms, adrift and pursuing their tenuous existences in the void, rigidly insistent, like the underside of a gramophone record obstinately grinding out its tune. Matthieu shook himself, but could not detach himself from that sinister, raucous world.” While people, for their part, are frequently compared to objects. (“They have lives. All of them. Lives that reach through the walls of the dancing-hall, along the streets of Paris, across France, they interlace and intersect, and they remain as vigorously personal as a tooth-brush, a razor, and toilet objects that are never loaned.”)

Freedom for Mathieu involves grappling with his bad faith - Sartre's term for the pretence we lack free will, the passive acceptance of our social roles. Accept that domestic life and you may as well be a furnishing. Struggle against it and people must become discrete, separate. Freedom is a function of separation, hence Sartre's recurrent conjoining of “free and alone”. To pursue our freedom we must by necessity instrumentalise others, effectively turn them into objects. We are the objects in each other's lives, capable of offering function but at the same time risking associations. Matthieu states boldly “I recognise no allegiance except to myself.” (This may have worked more powerfully in Sartre's era, when very few objects were disposable and many were held as heirlooms. Objects would more readily have taken on associations for them than for us.)

Yet at least to my mind this borders on conceiving freedom as a kind of quarantine from social contact, or at least meaningful social contact. Which was refuted long before Sartre was born, by the poet John Donne in ‘Meditation XVII’:

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man
Is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”

Marx went on to elaborate the point. Freedom “is not possible without the community. Only in community with others has each individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible…. In a real community the individuals obtain their freedom in and through their association.” Others don’t restrict your freedom. They enable it.

The self does lie outside the world, then come up against a social context like a fiery comet getting caught in its orbit. It’s quite the opposite, the self is a social construct to begin with. Had we been brought up by apes or wolves in a world of apes and wolves, it seems likely we would behave more like apes and wolves than we do now. Sartre himself famously said existence precedes essence, but he never really took his own argument all the way.

Danny S Byrne has warned that “the ‘philosophical novel’ always walks a perilous tightrope between fiction and argument, and there are undoubtedly times in 'The Age of Reason' when the characters’ status as pawns on Sartre’s dialectical chessboard – each an embodiment of an idea, their every action, thought and gesture driven by a predetermined logic – threatens to rip the fictional fabric of the novel apart at the seams.”

Well, others are welcome to head straight to the horse's mouth of 'Being And Nothingness' should they choose. But I think the opposite. This novel seems to me the more palatable way to take Sartre, through dialogue and description rather than dense jargon-peppered prose. Reading the novel forearmed by his philosophical treatises probably gives you the key to the colour scheme before its filled in, and when you know how it will all shape up you start to wish it could just get there.

Furthermore, Sartre may well have been a skilled writer but the work's effectiveness is due to more than that. What doesn't necessarily convince as a social philosophy may work well as an organising principle of a novel. Characters are not only driven but built to inscribe their every action, even shaving off a pimple, with the most heightened significance. Characters who bump into one another and spark, generating reactions like Newtonian particles. Irrespective of whether Freudianism seems valid or correct, I naturally distinguish between Freud and Hollywood Freud. I'm not sure I do the same with Existentialism. Ultimately, its tempting to see it more as an artistic than a philosophical movement, and one laid out in this novel.

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