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Peter Royle shows no vexation over Sartre’s crustacean fixation.

Crabs? What have crabs to do with philosophy?

It is well known that at a certain stage in his life Jean-Paul Sartre felt himself to be persecuted by lobsters, crayfish and other crustaceans, including crabs; and that crustaceans, especially crabs, figure prominently in his literature. But surely this obsession can be attributed to his experimentation with mescaline, or belongs to the individual vision of the world that Sartre says each and every one of us has by virtue of the project that defines him as a unique human being? I’ll argue, on the contrary, that crabs emerge from some of Sartre’s deepest thinking.

One of the distinctive features of Sartre’s philosophy is the role played within it by such qualities as hardness, softness, wetness, sweetness, and viscosity, phenomena that would generally be considered as irrelevant to philosophy, but which Sartre regards as universally significant. Viscosity (stickiness or sliminess, for example), is universally repugnant, says Sartre, because it reverses the relations between observer (a ‘being for-itself’ in Sartre’s jargon) and physical object (a ‘being in-itself’). The universal ideal that underlies the unique project of every individual is the hypothetical combination of observer and object as an ‘in-itself-for-itself’. Every ‘human reality’, according to Sartre, is striving to become in-itself-for-itself – that is, to coincide with itself as a necessary (ie non-choosing) being while remaining free and responsible for itself. This, Sartre says, is the definition of the impossible God that each of us, on one level at least, is attempting to become. In the encounter with sliminess, however, the object takes priority over us free beings: we go to pick up a sticky object and instead of our exercising control over it, it clings to us and threatens to suck us into itself. If the ‘in-itself-for-itself’ is the ultimate Value, as Sartre proclaims, viscosity is thus Antivalue.

Where do crabs fit in? In their contingency they seem even less of a fitting subject for philosophy than stickiness and sliminess.

The answer would seem to take us back to Sartre’s childhood, during which a picture in the Hachette Almanac aroused in him a terror of sea creatures, particularly crabs, as he tells us in Words. So his obsession would seem to be purely private, and, while helping to give his literature the unique flavour that any work of art requires, it seems to have nothing specifically to do with any broad philosophical issue. But the title of Words gives the game away: as a child, Sartre writes, he considered words to have more reality than things; and the crab obsession is based on a pun, as we shall see. But the pun points to a thesis of universal philosophical significance.

Sartre’s novel Nausea has a number of important references to crabs, and Roquentin, the narrator, sees both others and himself as crabs. The Wall also has a number of allusions to them, and Lucien and his friends in The Childhood of a Chief compare crabs to their libidos. The crab motif is to be found, in fact, throughout Sartre’s novelistic work. But the most flagrant example of this fixation is to be found in one of his plays, The Condemned of Altona. The protagonist Frantz feels intolerably guilty on account of crimes he has committed during the Second World War, and in his deranged mind the men of the Thirtieth Century have become crabs sitting in judgement on the people of the Twentieth.

Puns and Profundity

When asked what his crabs really are, Frantz replies:

“What crabs? Are you mad? What crabs? Ah! Yes. Well, yes... The crabs are men. And so? Where did I get that idea? Real men, good and beautiful, on all the balconies of the centuries. As for me, I was crawling in the yard; I imagined I heard them speaking: ‘Brother, what’s that?’ That was me. Me the Crab... Well, I said no: my age will not be judged by men. What will such men be, after all? The sons of our sons. Can one permit brats to condemn their grandfathers? I turned the situation round; I yelled: ‘Here is man; apres moi, le déluge; apres le déluge, crabs, you!’ Unmasked, all of them! The balconies were swarming with arthropods.” (The Condemned of Altona)

Our idea of crabs is of something hard on the outside and soft on the inside. Hardness and softness, like viscosity, like sliminess, are attributes that have a metaphorical significance immediately graspable by any normal human being. Frantz is a soft person trying to be hard. Having sequestered himself on the top floor of the large family house in Altona, a suburb of Hamburg, and having been kept in ignorance of what is happening in the world, he believes that the situation outside his retreat is desperate. The crabs he feigns to believe are judging him are a projection of himself, it is clear: but he doesn ’t know whether he should be judged for being too hard – he has tortured prisoners­ – or for being too soft, inasmuch as even greater ruthlessness might have prevented the German defeat and the dreadful situation attendant upon it that he believes the world is in. Sartre defines his own humanism as ‘an optimistic hardness’: but this is a hardness that has no time at all for the wanton, destructive hardness of crab-like creatures like Frantz.

In one of his short stories, ‘Erostratus’, Sartre creates a character, Paul Hilbert, who looks down on human beings from a height and sees them as crabs. He is so disgusted by them that he tries to dissociate himself from them by becoming totally inhuman in his own eyes. He intends to kill people at random in the street, thereby assuring his own immortality, he thinks. He has equipped himself with a gun which, when concealed against his body, feels to him also like a crab. But he finds that such inhumanity is impossible.

The impossibility of being inhuman for a human being is what Sartre calls a limit-situation, like the impossibility of knowing death or a world devoid of consciousness. But committing atrocities does not make a person inhuman, at least in an ontological sense – to commit atrocities is precisely one of the possibilities open to human freedom. To be a crab, in the metaphorical sense of ‘a degenerate human being’, is also quite within the bounds of possibility.

Nobody would deny that openness and freedom is an important theme in Sartre’s philosophy. We are, Sartre avers, totally free. But where is the aforementioned crab pun that is the root of his obsession? And can a pun have philosophical significance?

The word for lobster in French is homard, and the word for man is homme. Now, -ard is a pejorative ending – witness a whole slew of words (eg fuyard, froussard, roublard, pleurard, vantard, mouchard); and the young Sartre, who was so fascinated by words, could only have been intrigued by the possibilities that a combination of syllables such as homme-ard might suggest. Why, then, it might be asked, does Sartre speak of crabs more readily than lobsters?

There are many puns in Sartre: Frantz is France, accused of torture in the Algerian war; Simone de Beauvoir’s nickname is ‘le Castor’ because castor is ‘beaver’ in English [beaver/Beauvoir]; the title of Sartre’s book on Genet is Saint Genet, comedien et martyr because the martyred patron saint of actors is in French, Saint Genet. But these puns are all obvious. There is, however, much wordplay that is not. In The Roads to Freedom, the name adopted by the mysterious character ‘Schneider’ – whose real name turns out to be Vicarios, evoking the English ‘vicarious’ – is the German word for ‘tailor’ – which in Old French is sartre. That Vicarios’ situation as a communist outcast resembles that of Sartre’s friend Paul Nizan more than that of the author himself, merely shows to what an extent Sartre identified with Nizan after the latter’s death in the war. The three characters of In Camera, Garcin, Ines and Estelle, who discover that they are inseparable, have interlocking names (GarcInEstelle). The frequent use in the title story of The Wall of the words gris and rond – both colloquial terms for ‘tipsy’ – may be designed to invoke the intoxication with death of certain circles in the Spanish Civil War. In The Flies there is an explicit connection between mort (dead), mord (bites), and remords (remorse), as well as a necessarily hidden one – given the play’s staging during the occupation – between mouches (flies) and the older mouches (informers: mouchards in modern French). Mur (wall) and mûr (mature) provide an example of cryptic wordplay in ‘The Childhood of a Chief’, the last story in The Wall. So intent is Sartre on keeping many such puns hidden that he prefers to call the first novel in The Roads to Freedom series, L’Âge de raison (The Age of Reason) rather than L’Âge mûr, which is what internal evidence would suggest that the title was meant to be. In the same stealthy way, crabes is the term Sartre uses to describe certain people of whom he disapproves, rather than the disparaging and condescending homards, the too frequent repetition of which would have risked giving away the punning origin of the concept.

Sartre’s Crabby Judgements

But who exactly are these creatures? In Existentialism and Humanism we an introduced to the salaud and the lâche. The salaud (swine or louse) is a person who considers his existence necessary for the good of humanity as a whole, whereas the lâche (coward) is looking for determinist excuses for being the poor specimen he feels himself to be. In the scene between Dr Rogé and Monsieur Achille witnessed by Roquentin in Nausea, we have a classic confrontation between a salaud and a lâche. Both are guilty of bad faith [self-deceit about their own natures – Ed]: the salaud because he knows somewhere inside himself that he has no more right to exist than anyone else; and the lâche because he seeks to hide from himself the fact that he is free and self-responsible for what he is. Dr Rogé may be said to be too hard, whereas Monsieur Achille (whose name is clearly ironic, like other names in Sartre’s work) is as soft as those outsiders described as jellyfish (méduses) are said to be by Lucien and his fascist friends in ‘The Childhood of a Chief’. (Here we have another ironic play on words involving marine creatures: méduse and Méduse whose look turns people to stone.) In The Devil and the Good Lord, Goetz the bastard hero is initially too hard as an avenging conqueror, then, as a convert to Christianity, too soft. Finally, as a ‘man among men’, he is authentically human – ‘real humanity’ connoting being prepared to wage war and kill, but only in the name of an ideal of humanity itself. Goetz rejects all crab-like scuttling away from our responsibility to try to create a world fit for human beings to live in. Authenticity, although not the virtue that guarantees all other virtues, is at the very centre of Sartre’s moral preconceptions. It is the opposite of the crab-like qualities of some of the poor specimens of humanity Roquentin encounters in Nausea, for example. Authenticity involves courage; the courage to be oneself in the face of the judgements and expectations of others, and the resolve to free oneself by working for the freedom of all, as Orestes does in The Flies.

Because every man is the whole of mankind (“tout homme est tout l’Homme”), we are all to some extent both victims and executioners, but some are more one than the other. Similarly, some people are more crab- or lobster-like than others. But the pun contained in the world homard points both to our common humanity and to the permanent possibility of degeneration that freedom brings with it.

Sartre’s Inner Human

Why are some of Sartre’s most important plays on words hidden? For the simple pleasure of playing hide-and-seek with the reader? Yes, certainly. But there could also be a more philosophical reason. As he matured, Sartre grew more and more convinced that reality was beneath words, and was in fact untranslatable into language (a stricture, fortunately, that he did not believe applied to philosophy). Yet he continued to be inspired by fortuitous homonymic collisions, as in his childhood. But while puns have become a mainstay of many postmodern writers, who proudly and somewhat pathetically flaunt them, Sartre most likely felt just a little ashamed of his, and so he buried them; but like children playing hide-and-seek, or according to Freud, like certain criminals leaving clues for the police, buried not so deeply that they cannot be found.

Sartre thinks the genuine philosopher is eclipsed by his work. “To the extent that I make myself understood,” he writes, “I am anybody” (n’importe qui). And n’importe qui is who he alleges he wants to be. His major representative in The Roads To Freedom, the philosophy teacher Mathieu Delarue, bears a surname, ‘Man-in-the-street’, which appears to reflect this wish. But the sincerity of the wish is open to doubt, I think.

Crabs, as I have argued, point to important philosophical ideas; but they are also undoubtedly a part of Sartre’s unique vision of the world, in a way that viscosity, hardness and even nausea are not. This a vision without which, as he well knew, he could not have succeeded as an artist. And he wished to succeed on both fronts, the philosophical and the artistic, at the same time.

To sum up, crabs help to illustrate the following themes: the relevance to philosophy, and particularly to Sartrean philosophy, of what would appear incidental to most people; the differences in their attitude to language between Sartre and the postmoderns; the possibility of ignominy inherent in the concept of freedom itself; and finally, the common humanity of all free beings, including the reprehensible ‘crabs’ who decline to assume their freedom. It is up to us to determine whether the Twenty-First Century (let alone the Thirtieth), will give rise to an ecological wasteland inhabited by mutated humanoid crabs, a global capitalist dictatorship, or, on the contrary, will lead to a human era of freedom, equality, and peace.

© Peter Royle 2008

Peter Royle is a professor emeritus at Trent University, Ontario. His publications include three books on Sartre.

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