How do you envisage the relationship between your early philosophical writings, above all L’Etre et le néant, and your present theoretical work, from the Critique de la raison dialectique onward? In the Critique, the typical concepts of L’Etre et le néant have disappeared, and a completely new vocabulary has taken their place. Yet when reading the passages of your forthcoming study of Flaubert, published in Les Temps modernes, one is struck by the sudden re-emergence of the characteristic idiom of the early work—thetic consciousness, ego, nihilation, being, nothingness. These notions are now juxtaposed in the text with the distinct set of concepts which derive from the Critique. What is the precise relationship between the two in your current thought?
The basic question here, of course, is my relationship to Marxism. I will try to explain autobiographically certain aspects of my early work, which may help to clarify the reasons why my outlook changed so fundamentally after the Second World War. A simple formula would be to say that life taught me la force des choses—the power of circumstances. In a way, L’Etre et le néant itself should have been the beginning of a discovery of this power of circumstances, since I had already been made a soldier, when I had not wanted to be one. Thus I had already encountered something which was not my freedom and which steered me from without. Then I was taken prisoner, a fate which I had sought to escape. Hence I started to learn what I have called human reality among things: Being-in-the-world.
Then, little by little, I found that the world was more complicated than this, for during the Resistance there appeared to be a possibility of free decision. For my state of mind during those years, I think that the first plays I wrote are very symptomatic: I called them a “theater of freedom.” The other day, I reread a prefatory note of mine to a collection of these plays—Les Mouches, Huis clos, and others—and was truly scandalized. I had written: “Whatever the circumstances, and wherever the site, a man is always free to choose to be a traitor or not….” When I read this, I said to myself: it’s incredible, I actually believed that!
To understand how I could have done so, you must remember that there was a very simple problem during the Resistance—ultimately, only a question of courage. One had to accept the risks involved in what one was doing, that is, of being imprisoned or deported. But beyond this? A Frenchman was either for the Germans or against them, there was no other option. The real political problems, of being “for, but” or “against, but,” were not posed by this experience.
The result was that I concluded that in any circumstances, there is always a possible choice. Which is false. Indeed, it is so false that I later wanted precisely to refute myself by creating a character in Le Diable et le Bon Dieu, Heinrich, who cannot choose. He wants to choose, of course, but he cannot choose either the Church, which has abandoned the poor, or the poor, who have abandoned the Church. He is thus a living contradiction, who will never choose. He is totally conditioned by his situation.
However, I understood all this only much later. What the drama of the war gave me, as it did everyone else who participated in it, was the experience of heroism. Not my own, of course—all I did was a few errands. But the militant in the Resistance who was caught and tortured became a myth for us. Such militants existed, of course, but they represented a sort of personal myth as well. Would we be able to hold out against torture too? The problem then was solely that of physical endurance—it was not the ruses of history or the paths of alienation. A man is tortured: what will he do? He either speaks or refuses to speak. This is what I mean by the experience of heroism, which is a false experience.
After the war came the true experience, that of society. But I think it was necessary for me to pass via the myth of heroism first. That is to say, the prewar personage who was more or less Stendhal’s egotistical individualist had to be plunged into circumstances against his will, yet where he still had the power to say yes or no, in order to encounter the inextricable entanglements of the postwar years as a man totally conditioned by his social existence and yet sufficiently capable of decision to reassume all this conditioning and to become responsible for it.
For the idea which I have never ceased to develop is that in the end one is always responsible for what is made of one. Even if one can do nothing else besides assume this responsibility. For I believe that a man can always make something out of what is made of him. This is the limit I would today accord to freedom: the small movement which makes of a totally conditioned social being someone who does not render back completely what his conditioning has given him. Which makes of Genet a poet when he had been rigorously conditioned to be a thief.
Perhaps the book where I have best explained what I mean by freedom is, in fact, Saint Genet. For Genet was made a thief, he said “I am a thief,” and this tiny change was the start of a process whereby he became a poet and then eventually a being no longer even on the margin of society, someone who no longer knows where he is, who falls silent. It cannot be a happy freedom, in a case like this. Freedom is not a triumph. For Genet, it simply marked out certain routes which were not initially given.
L’Etre et le néant traced an interior experience, without any coordination with the exterior experience of a petty-bourgeois intellectual, which had become historically catastrophic at a certain moment. For I wrote L’Etre et le néant after the defeat of France, after all. But catastrophes have no lessons, unless they are the culmination of a praxis. Then one can say, my action has failed. But the disaster which overwhelmed the country had taught us nothing.
Thus, in L’Etre et le néant, what you could call “subjectivity” is not what it would be for me now, the small margin in an operation whereby an interiorization re-exteriorizes itself in an act. But “subjectivity” and “objectivity” seem to me entirely useless notions today, anyway. I might still use the term “objectivity,” I suppose, but only to emphasize that everything is objective. The individual interiorizes his social determinations: he interiorizes the relations of production, the family of his childhood, the historical past, the contemporary institutions, and he then re-exteriorizes these in acts and options which necessarily refer us back to them. None of this existed in L’Etre et le néant.
In L’Etre et le néant, you radically rejected the concept of the unconscious, saying that it was a philosophical contradiction. The model of consciousness in your early work effectively excludes any idea of it whatever. Consciousness is always transparent to itself, even if the subject creates a false screen of “bad faith.” Since then, you have among other things written a film-script on Freud—
—I broke with Huston precisely because Huston did not understand what the unconscious was. That was the whole problem. He wanted to suppress it, to replace it with the preconscious. He did not want the unconscious at any price—
The question one would like to ask is how you conceive the precise theoretical stature of the work of Freud today? In view of your class position, it is not perhaps so surprising that you did not discover Marx before the war. But how did you miss Freud? Surely the opaque evidence of the unconscious, its resistances, should have been accessible to you even then? They are not exactly comparable to the class struggle.
The two questions are linked, however. The thought of both Marx and Freud is a theory of conditioning in exteriority. When Marx says: “It matters little what the bourgeoisie thinks it does, the important thing is what it does,” one could replace the “bourgeoisie,” by “a hysteric,” and the formula would be one of Freud. Having said this, I must try to recount my relationship to Freud’s work biographically.
I will begin by saying that I undoubtedly had a deep repugnance for psychoanalysis in my youth, which needs to be explained as much as my innocence of the class struggle. The fact that I was a petty bourgeois was responsible for the latter; one might say that the fact that I was French was responsible for the former. There would certainly be a lot of truth in this. You must never forget the weight of Cartesian rationalism in France. When you have just taken the bachot at the age of seventeen, with the “I think, therefore I am” of Descartes as your set text, and you open The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, and you read the famous episode of Signorelli with its substitutions, combinations, and displacements, implying that Freud was simultaneously thinking of a patient who had committed suicide and of certain Turkish mores, and so on—when you read all that, your breath is simply taken away.
Such investigations were completely outside my preoccupations at the time, which were at bottom to provide a philosophical foundation for realism. Which in my opinion is possible today, and which I have tried to do all my life. In other words, how to give man both his autonomy and his reality among real objects, avoiding idealism without lapsing into a mechanistic materialism. I posed the problem in this way because I was ignorant of dialectical materialism, although I should add that this later allowed me to assign certain limits to it—to validate the historical dialectic while rejecting a dialectic of nature, in the sense of a natural process which produces and resolves man into an ensemble of physical laws.
To return to Freud, however, I have to say that I was incapable of understanding him because I was a Frenchman with a good Cartesian tradition behind me, imbued with a certain rationalism, and I was therefore deeply shocked by the idea of the unconscious. However, I will not say only this because I must add that I remain shocked by what was inevitable in Freud—the biological and physiological language with which he underpinned thoughts which were not translatable without mediation.
Right up to the time of Fliess, as you know, he wrote physiological studies designed to provide an equivalent of the cathexes and equilibria he had found in psychoanalysis. The result is that the manner in which he describes the psychoanalytic object suffers from a kind of mechanistic cramp. This is not always true, for there are moments when he transcends this. But in general this language produces a mythology of the unconscious which I cannot accept. I am completely in agreement with the facts of disguise and repression, as facts. But the words “repression,” “censorship,” or “drive”—words which express one moment a sort of finalism and the next moment a sort of mechanism—these I reject.
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