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Existentialism & Culture

Sartre on Literature

Ion Georgiou explains the literary theories of a man who loved words.

“A writer writes to a great extent to be read (as for those who say they don’t, let us admire them but not believe them).” Albert Camus

It has been said of Monsieur Sartre – and it remains undoubtedly true – that the main difficulty one encounters upon an initial introduction to any of his works stems from his love of words. Indeed, Words is what he chose to entitle his autobiography. But a man who loves words also appreciates their power. Hence the problem is not that he uses too many or too few, but the more complex issue of quality in choice.

Sartre is a philosopher whose versatility spans all forms of literary genre, from novels to plays, journalism to literary criticism. We must expect such a man to have written some pamphlet, perhaps even a manifesto, on words. With pleasant predictability, Sartre provides us with What is Literature?

There is no better way for a writer to grasp the attention of his readers than to introduce a contradiction early in the work. The tactic serves to engage the reader as critic, drawn by the mystery of whether the author will admit to the faux pas. In What is Literature? Sartre uses the tactic ingeniously, in that he clothes it in a confession of love. Let us begin, then, as Sartre does, with the development of this contradiction.

The thesis is a simple one: the contemporary writer needs to be committed. But far from evoking the bland production which comes from commitment – as in, say, the works of official Soviet artists – he draws us into an argument for meaning in literature. And though Sartre says “there is no doubt that the arts of a period mutually influence each other and are conditioned by the same social factors,” we are warned not to generalise to other art forms. Sartre’s problem then is to distinguish between forms of literature in which his thesis is applicable, or not. He chooses to distinguish between poetry and prose “for the purpose of clarity.”

“Poetry is on the side of painting, sculpture and music,” he says; and if critics say that this is precisely why one can’t even dream of expressing commitment through it, Sartre replies: “Indeed. Why should I want to?” For commitment one must utilise language. Poetry, on the other hand, serves it. Which is why, perhaps, we admire poetry so, perceiving it as almost invincible to attack from those with lesser motives.

Poetry is not utilitarian. It does not discard words which are deemed useless. Poets, in contrast to prose writers, have no need to break free from the bonds of language, for they operate outside it looking in. The poet’s initial ‘silent contact’ with the world allows him to see it for what it is, and only then does he attempt to describe it. In doing so he is influenced as much by aesthetics as by facts, searching for words whose sonority and soul reflect the world rather than provide it with information. In reflecting, they embrace the richness of the world in the same way that Tintoretto’s Golgotha reflects more than simple anguish in its yellow sky.

If poetry is about reflection, to Sartre prose is about choosing words which accurately “indicate a certain thing or a certain notion.” Words are now utilised to “designate, demonstrate, order, refuse, interpolate, beg, insult, persuade, insinuate.” We have entered the world of committed writing. We have entered language itself. The poet’s view, standing outside looking in, has now been exchanged for a view from within language, with the consequent desire to break out. Sartre describes it in this way:

“Prose is first of all an attitude of mind. As Valéry would say, there is prose when the word passes across our gaze as the glass across the sun. When one is in danger or in difficulty one grabs any instrument. When the danger is past, one does not even remember whether it was a hammer or a stick; moreover, one never knew; all one needed was a prolongation of one’s body, a means of extending one’s hand to the highest branch. It was a sixth finger, a third leg, in short, a pure function which one assimilated. Thus, regarding language, it is our shell and our antennae; it protects us against others and informs us about them; it is a prolongation of our senses, a third eye which is going to look into our neighbour’s heart. We are within language as within our body. We feel it spontaneously while going beyond it towards other ends, as we feel our hands and our feet; we perceive it when it is someone else who is using it, as we perceive the limbs of others. There is the word which is lived and the word which is met. But in both cases it is in the course of an undertaking, either of me acting upon others, or the others upon me.”

One begins to see Sartre’s philosophical inclinations, and perhaps we are the poorer for not having as yet uncovered his philosophy of language. We are fortunate, however, to see the nature of literature from his vantage point, and one need not appreciate philosophy in order to grasp it. In short, writing prose is a purposeful moulding whose end is to transmit a message as accurately as possible. In contrast to poetry, which is concerned with style, almost treating a word as “a gentle breeze which plays lightly over the surface of things”, prose is an active force:

“anything which one names is already no longer quite the same; it has lost its innocence … If you name the behaviour of an individual, you reveal it to him; he sees himself. And since you are at the same time naming it to others, he knows that he is seen at the moment he sees himself. The furtive gesture which he forgot while making it, begins to exist beyond all measure, to exist for everybody; it is integrated into the objective mind; it takes on new dimensions; it is retrieved. After that, how can you expect him to act in the same way? Either he will persist in his behaviour out of obstinacy and with full knowledge of what he is doing, or he will give it up. Thus, by speaking, I reveal the situation by my very intention of changing it; I reveal it to myself and to others in order to change it. I strike at its very heart, I transfix it, and I display it in full view; at present I dispose of it; with every word I utter, I involve myself a little more in the world, and by the same token I emerge from it a little more, since I go beyond it towards the future.”

It is in view of this active potential in prose (the potency that “words are action”) that Sartre argues for committed writing. In typical existential fashion he appeals to the challenge of the extreme: “Doubtless, the committed writer can be mediocre; he can even be conscious of being so; but as one cannot write without the intention of succeeding perfectly, the modesty with which he envisages his work should not divert him from constructing it as if it were to have the greatest celebrity. He should never say to himself, ‘Bah! I’ll be lucky if I have three thousand readers,’ but rather, ‘What would happen if everybody read what I wrote?’”

Even by sincerely posing the question ‘What is literature?’, Sartre presents himself as a committed writer. His task is to name and change, to take us into the future. Poetics have no place here. Art for art’s sake is discarded. Giraudoux’s formula – “the only concern is finding one’s style; the idea comes afterwards” – is not the model for writing with commitment.

But the question of style cannot be set aside so easily. Sartre advises that the changing natures of the social and the metaphysical require the development of new styles of expression. Thus even the principle of commitment embraces style, as a secondary moment. And i t is style that constitutes the contradiction of which I spoke earlier – the style of What is Literature? In arguing for committed writing, Sartre does not write in the purest committed fashion. His style does not display the singular purpose of conveying a message as accurately as possible. His prose is infused with poetics, yet his structured argument is all the more enjoyable for the fluidity of its presentation. Consider for instance how, in the midst of arguing the impossibility of committed poetry, he slips into poetic prose:

“Florence is city, flower, and woman. It is city-flower, city-woman, and girl-flower all at the same time. And the strange object which thus appears has the liquidity of the river, the soft, tawny ardency of gold, and finally gives itself up with propriety and, by the continuous diminution of the silent e, prolongs indefinitely its modest blossoming. To that is added the insidious effect of biography. For me, Florence is also a certain woman, an American actress who played in the silent films of my childhood, and about whom I have forgotten everything except that she was as long as a long evening glove and always a bit weary and always chaste and always married and misunderstood and whom I loved and whose name was Florence.”

A woman “as long as a long evening glove” suddenly transports us to another dimension, away from the urgent question ‘What is Literature?’, long enough to allow us a moment of pure pleasure, but curt enough so as not to divert us from the main purpose of the text. Perhaps it is here, in this unnoticed style, that Sartre is his most powerful. Like a weaver, Sartre takes different coloured piles and, as in all his works, combines them into a rich tapestry which engages not only our minds but our hearts. He does this in silence, for “Silence itself is defined in relationship to words, as the pause in music receives its meaning from the group of notes around it. This silence is a moment of language; being silent is not being dumb; it is to refuse to speak, and therefore to keep on speaking.”

© Ion Georgiou 2009

Ion Georgiou is author of Thinking Through Systems Thinking (Routledge, 2007), a philosophical examination of the epistemological structure and ethical consequences of holism.

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