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Continental Tales

Root, Tomato, Tallith: Three Objects

Peter Benson tells a tale of Sartre, Barthes and Derrida.


In David Cronenberg’s film The Fly (1986) the unfortunate hero, an ambitious scientist, accidentally fuses his own DNA with that of a housefly. As a result he gradually changes into a giant version of the insect. At an advanced stage of this metamorphosis he finds that he can only eat in the manner of a fly, by vomiting digestive juices over each particle of food then sucking the dissolved liquid back into his mouth.

This nauseating image might be taken as an allegory of our general relationship to the objects around us: first we smother them with our own meanings and purposes, then we suck them back into our psyche and make use of them to further our personal projects. In Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927) this is the status of objects, as ‘ready-to-hand’. The world of the ready-to-hand object revolves around human beings, and is permeated with human intentions, drenched with our meanings, imbued with our emotions. Literature is also filled with objects mirroring the feelings and thoughts of the protagonists: sadly drooping willows, or sharply shining jewels. This is a view of an anthropomorphic cosmos, which seems badly in need of a Copernican shift in perspective. Just as Copernicus displaced the earth from the centre of the universe, so some important writers in the twentieth century felt the need to set the egoistic heroes of their novels into orbit, kicking them out of their self-assured centrality.

Jean-Paul Sartre, who was deeply influenced by Heidegger, sought to capture in prose the specific moment when objects cease to function as domesticated entities, docile to our purposes, and gain for themselves an alien existence of their own. He called the experience of this change ‘nausea’, the title of his first novel (1938). The protagonist, Roquentin, has a repeated sensation of objects escaping the grasp of his consciousness and burgeoning into a proliferating existence of their own. For example, the pair of braces worn by a barman bother him because of their indeterminate colour: “as if, setting out to become purple, they had stopped somewhere on the way without giving up their pretensions.” The colour fails to be pinned down by human words, and thus both colour and object escape the world of human intelligibility.

One can experience this phenomenon for oneself by standing in front of one of Barnet Newman’s paintings – for example Eve (1950) in London’s Tate Modern Gallery. A strip of one colour borders one side of a huge field of another colour. Recognizing and fixing the exact colour of the strip in one’s perception is almost impossible, leaving one with a sense of indeterminateness. By these simple means Newman sought to evoke a sense of the ungraspable, reviving in modern art the eighteenth century concept of ‘the sublime’.

In the most famous passage of Sartre’s novel it is a tree-root in a local park which provokes the narrator’s nausea – his sense of the world slipping free from the meanings we usually automatically find in it. Here too, the root’s colour is one of the features that eludes the narrator’s consciousness: “Was it more than black or almost black?” he asks himself. But this is merely one aspect of the multiple ways in which the root slithers away from his grasp:

“Words had disappeared, and with them the meaning of things, the methods of using them, the feeble landmarks which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, my head bowed, alone in front of that black, knotty mass, which was utterly crude and frightened me.”

Sartre describes this experience as one of ‘horrible ecstasy’, in which is revealed the superfluousness and absurdity of all existents, whether people or tree-roots. These notions of superfluousness and absurdity would become central categories for the existentialist philosophies of Sartre and Albert Camus. And yet, why should ‘superfluous’ be any more unassailable a descriptive term for the tree-root than ‘black’? The nauseous instability of Roquentin’s experience seems to depend on its inconclusive, partial nature. The root “stayed there, in my eyes, just as a lump of food sticks in a windpipe.” It is neither digested by his mind, nor expelled from it. His descriptions of the root are also replete with metaphors – “Green rust covered it half way up; the bark, black and blistered, looked like boiled leather” – and also with a persisting anthropomorphism – “All things… were abjectly admitting to one another the fact of their existence.” Thus, far from attaining a mere neutral existence, the root’s presence in his mind conjures up connections with other existents (rust, leather, people) – associations and relationships which exist purely for his consciousness.


One reader who was very struck by this partial detachment of these objects from the world of human meanings was Alain Robbe-Grillet, who, as the project for his own novels, adopted the completion of this process of purification of objects begun by Sartre and Camus. Robbe-Grillet noted in Towards A New Novel (1963) that, in Sartre’s description, the tree-root “successively becomes a ‘dirty fingernail’, ‘boiled leather’, ‘a dead snake’, etc.” We similarly do not find in Camus’ novel The Outsider “as purified a language as the first few pages might lead one to suspect. In fact, it is only those objects which are already loaded with flagrant human content which are carefully neutralised (such as the narrator’s mother’s coffin, where we are given a description of its screws, their shape, and their depth of penetration). Side by side with this we discover the most revealing of classical metaphors … The country is ‘gorged with sunlight’, the evening is like ‘a melancholy truth’, the pot holes in the road rend the ‘shining flesh’ of the tar.”

In deliberate contrast to all this, we find the following description in Robbe-Grillet’s own first novel The Erasers (1953):

“A quarter of tomato that is quite faultless, cut up by the machine into a perfectly symmetrical fruit. The peripheral flesh, compact, homogeneous, and a splendid chemical red, is of an even thickness between a strip of gleaming skin and the hollow where the yellow, graduated seeds appear in a row, kept in place by a thin layer of greenish jelly along a swelling of the heart. This heart, of a slightly grainy, faint pink, begins – towards the inner hollow – with a cluster of white veins, one of which extends towards the seeds – somewhat uncertainly. Above, a scarcely perceptible accident has occurred: a corner of the skin, stripped back from the flesh for a fraction of an inch, is slightly raised.”

The blank objectivity of this description, drained of every trace of human emotion, produces a curious effect, rendering an ordinary object weirdly alien. Indeed, the novel’s protagonist, faced with the tomato, appears to feel some semblance of Sartrean nausea: “Wallas feels a disagreeable sensation in the region of the stomach.” But this is immediately anchored in the purely physical realm: “He had eaten too fast.”

Among early reviews of Robbe-Grillet’s novels, the most insightful were those of Roland Barthes, who in a critical essay, wrote of this slice of tomato:

“Robbe-Grillet’s object is not composed in depth; it does not protect a heart beneath its surface … No, here the object does not exist beyond its phenomenon; it is not double, allegorical; we cannot even say that it is opaque, which would be to recover a dualistic nature … ‘The human condition,’ Heidegger has said, “is to be there.’ Robbe-Grillet’s… entire art is to give the object a Dasein, a ‘being-there’, and to strip it of ‘being something’.”

Here Barthes is making a very striking philosophical point. In Heidegger’s writings the word Dasein (German for ‘being-there’) is only ever used to refer to the self-conscious mode of existence of human beings, not objects. Objects can be ‘ready-to-hand’ or ‘present-at-hand’, but not Dasein. According to Barthes, Robbe-Grillet has levelled the distinctions between people and the objects around them. These are distinctions on which existentialist philosophy had been firmly based.

From Sartre to Barthes

Barthes’ subtle shift in the use of the word Dasein can be seen as a hinge between two eras of continental philosophy – by which I mean something that both connects and separates. The two eras in question are those of French existentialism of the 1940s and 1950s, and the subsequent post-structuralism of the 1960s and 1970s. (Structuralism, which was more a methodology in the human sciences than an actual philosophy, provided a brief inter-regnum between these two eras in the late 1950s.) Barthes was an important and influential participant in the post-structuralist movement.

All histories of twentieth century French philosophy discuss these two successive waves of brilliant thinkers whose ideas spread out from Paris to affect the wider world, influencing novels, fashions and films. But why was the first, existentialist, wave displaced by post-structuralism? Was this merely, as cynics might suggest, a pursuit of trendiness – no different in essence to the way that Jean Paul Gaultier would replace Yves Saint Laurent on the catwalks of Paris? Revolutions in philosophy usually occur through a radical rejection of earlier ideas – in the way that, for example, Bertrand Russell help found analytic philosophy by renouncing the Hegelianism dominant in his youth. Yet the French philosophers of the 1960s were surprisingly reticent in making any remarks about their existentialist predecessors.

However, Barthes’ first book was specifically designed as a riposte to Sartre’s What is Literature?, which had first appeared in 1947 as a series of articles in Les Temps Modernes, the magazine which Sartre edited. Barthes’ response, Writing Degree Zero (1972), began as a sequence of essays in the newspaper Combat (which numbered Camus among its editorial board). The connections and differences between these two books are indicative of significant shifts in sensibility between the two generations.

As Ion Georgiou pointed out in Philosophy Now Issue 75, What is Literature? is neither the most consistent nor the best argued of Sartre’s books. Indeed, the prolixity of its style and the frequent unjustified jumps in the logic of its argument contrast unfavourably with Barthes’ crystallinely elegant prose, already poised and assured even in his early work.

Sartre sought to apply his existentialist principles to the situation of an author faced with a blank page. To quote Georgiou, for Sartre “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.” Sartre’s ideal for the prose writer is ‘commitment’. Even today, the French word engagé, popularised by Sartre, is often used to designate a particular form of politically committed writing, by an author immersed in their immediate social situation.

Barthes’ response is first to complicate this distinction between poetry – aligned by Sartre with style – and prose – which, according to Sartre, uses words in a purely utilitarian fashion, in which “words are transparent and the gaze looks through them.” Barthes suggests a third category between these dimensions of style and message: the particular mode of writing selected by the author. As an example of this he cites the neutral, unemotional manner of writing adopted by Camus in The Outsider, which was soon to be taken much further by Robbe-Grillet. Barthes calls this a ‘degree zero’ of writing, in which all stylistic flourishes are systematically eradicated. But the result of this austerity is not a transparent window on the subject matter. On the contrary, the reader is acutely aware of the literary mode and its deliberate choice.

So Barthes has not discarded the theoretical framework of existentialism. He too emphasises the importance of choice in the writer’s activity. But the choice put at the centre of Barthes’ discussion is that of literary mode rather than the extra-literary political commitment highlighted by Sartre. Whatever the writer’s prior political choices, they must recognize that “because there is no thought without language, Form is the first and last arbiter of literary responsibility.” To this Barthes adds that “the multiplication of modes of writing is a modern phenomenon which forces a choice upon the writer… giving rise to an ethic of writing” (my emphases). Here too the existentialist framework of thought is retained, embodied in such words as ‘choice’ and ‘ethic’. Nor does Barthes’ historical perspective on literature differ greatly from Sartre’s (both writers place Flaubert at the start of a specifically ‘modern’ form of literature). But for Barthes, commitment and responsibility have gained a specifically intra-literary application. So as in the case of Dasein, Barthes has performed a slight but significant shift in the notion of commitment, whose effect is to profoundly alter the intellectual landscape. This increasing attention to the role of language in shaping our thoughts will be a characteristic of French philosophy in the new generation. But as structuralism gave way to post-structuralism, objects too began to re-emerge from their temporary submersion under words, and to become aids to philosophical thinking in their own right.


While the 32-year-old Roland Barthes was beginning his literary career by responding to Sartre’s essays on literature, a 17-year-old schoolboy in Algeria was reading Sartre’s Nausea for the first time “in a certain ecstatic bedazzlement… sitting on a bench in Laferrière Square, sometimes raising my eyes towards the roots, the bushes of flowers, or the luxuriant plants, as if to verify the too-much of existence, but also with intense movements of ‘literary’ identification: how to write like that and, above all, not like that?”

This entranced schoolboy was Jacques Derrida. Like Barthes, he would find himself unable to agree with Sartre’s views on the role and function of prose, despite an admiration for the verve and vigour of Sartre’s polemics. Although he thought of Sartre as an admirable example of the committed intellectual (along with such figures as Voltaire and Zola), Derrida wanted to go further and to “ask oneself… about the questions that have been impressed on us as being the ‘right’ questions to ask… this is a responsibility that is prior… to the responsibility that is called commitment” (from Negotiations, 2002, p.113).

Nowhere else has Derrida stated so clearly the relationship of his own philosophy of deconstruction to the earlier philosophy of existentialism. Where Sartre focused on acts of personal choice between alternatives, Derrida was more concerned with the way these alternatives are first defined, implying the unchosen exclusion of other possibilities which precedes this apparently free moment of choice.

It is typical of Derrida’s attitudes towards earlier thinkers that he has no intention of being dismissive of Sartre’s thought. It is certainly true that we make choices, and that these choices can be crucial to our self-creation, as Sartre said. But something has already happened before a situation presents itself to us in the form of a choice. Derrida is interested in this prior selection of options, which typically take place beyond the field of consciousness, to which Sartre wished to confine himself.

Derrida’s intermittent glances at a nearby tree-root in a square in Algeria, as if to verify and consider Sartre’s descriptions and their philosophical implications, suggests an attitude to objects which differs from that of the protagonist of Nausea, for whom objects impose their existence involuntarily on his awareness. In glancing from page to plant, Derrida is engaging in an activity which is not exactly empirical verification: a brief look at a tree-root will hardly suffice to justify or refute Sartre’s philosophy. It is rather an interleaving of object and thought, where each reflects on the other, the way a pressed flower might be found between the pages of a book on botany. Here, at seventeen, Derrida began a relationship to objects quite different from those of Sartre or Robbe-Grillet.

He takes up this relationship in his later writings, elaborated and developed. An example of this can be found in his 1998 essay ‘A Silkworm of One’s Own’ (in Veils, 2001), in which he writes about the Jewish prayer shawl, known as a tallith, which he had been given as a child and had kept all his life. It is a Jewish custom for each man to own his own tallith, and eventually be buried in it. But what can such an object mean to a secular, non-practising Jew such as Derrida? Surprisingly, it means quite a lot. The object seems permeated with meanings. All aspects of the shawl are prescribed by Jewish law and carry symbolic significance: its fringes, for example, should recall to the faithful “all the commandments of the Lord” (Numbers 15:39). But for Derrida, touching his tallith each night before going to sleep, this object from an ancient culture enabled him to think in new ways about the philosophical issues that concerned him.

Like Sartre, Derrida had been deeply influenced by the philosophy of Heidegger, but both men found their own ways to move beyond this inheritance. For Derrida, the tallith itself suggested ways of thinking outside Heidegger’s worldview. Heidegger believed that truth is attained through a process of unconcealing, unveiling – what was hidden is brought into the light. Derrida describes this as a ‘logic of the veil’, which can be contrasted with a ‘logic of the shawl’. The tallith, Derrida says, “veils or hides nothing, it shows or announces no Thing, it promises the intuition of nothing.” On the contrary, “it is worn in memory of the Law.” He goes on:

“If there is a ‘truth’ of this shawl, it depends less on the lifting or the unfolding of a veil, or on some unveiling or revelation, than on the unique event, the gift of the law… Even if one translates this gift of the Law as Revelation, the figure of the veil, the intuition and movements of vision, counts for less than the taking-place of the event, the singular effectivity of the ‘once only’ as history of the unique: the time, the trace of the date, and the date itself as trace.” (Veils, 2001, pp.69-70)

In this passage, while ruminating on the shawl, Derrida includes many of the central concerns of his philosophy, and the terminology and framework of thought he has developed over many years. To name only three, the themes of ‘gift’, ‘event’, and ‘trace’ occupy many pages in his writings.

Unlike the tree-root and tomato-slice, the tallith is of course a man-made object, and hence has acquired its cultural meanings through its being manufactured. Elsewhere however, Derrida used natural objects in a similar way, to inspire and guide reflective thinking. For example, in his book Glas (1974), botanical details of flowers and their seeds inspires his thoughts about the writings of Jean Genet (whose first novel was appropriately called Our Lady of the Flowers). He presents this approach in marked contrast to Sartre’s own famous study of Genet, in which Genet’s writings are seen as emerging solely from his life. For Sartre, Derrida notes, “the question of the flower… is infallibly avoided.” By tracing the various references to flowers through Genet’s writings, Derrida finds ways to explicate these texts from their literary context without needing to refer to the external facts of Genet’s life. From the flower Derrida proceeds to the fruit – the seed-pod, which, bursting open, scatters seeds in all directions – a process known as dissemination, which Derrida takes as emblematic of texts scattering their meanings among their readers. Thus this detour through botany brings him back to his philosophical speculations on language. Objects (eg flowers and seeds) bring their own specificities to our ruminations.


Matching these three objects (root, tomato, tallith) with the three philosophers who discussed them (Sartre, Barthes, Derrida) we’ve seen how a shift in attitudes towards objects reflects larger developments in twentieth century French philosophy. I hope this makes it easier for us to see how and why these changes took place, and the various ways they modified the intellectual landscape in which we live. How we think about things, and how we use things to think with, reveals to each of us where we stand within this landscape.

© Peter Benson 2010

Peter Benson is a long-time contributor to Philosophy Now. He works in a library in London.

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