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An Interview with Sartre

The reading of the romantics, of which Flaubert speaks so often as a challenge to their parents, is only explicable in this perspective: when these youths finally become blasés, they are reclaimed as “ironic” bourgeois, and they have failed. The extraordinary thing is that Flaubert does not say a word about any of this. He simply describes the boys who surround him as if they were future adults—in other words, abject. He writes: “I saw defects which would become vices, needs which would become manias, follies which would become crimes—in short, children would become men.” The only history of the school for him was the passage from childhood to maturity. The reality is, however, that this history was that of a bourgeoisie seized with shame at itself in its sons, of the defeat of these sons and thereby the suppression of its shame. The end result of this history is the massacre of 1848.

Before 1830, the bourgeoisie was hiding under its blankets. When it finally emerged, its sons cried, “Bravo! We are going to declare the Republic,” but their fathers found they needed an eiderdown after all. Louis-Philippe became king. The sons persuaded themselves their fathers had been duped, and continued the struggle. The result was an uproar in the schools: in vain—they were expelled.

In 1831, when Louis-Philippe dismissed Lafayette and the road to reaction was open, there were boys of thirteen or fourteen in Flaubert’s school who calmly refused to go to confession, having decided that this was an excellent pretext for a confrontation with the authorities, since after all the bourgeoisie was still officially Voltairean. Confession was a survival from Louis XVIII and Charles X, and raised awkward questions about compulsory religious instruction, which might eventually get as far as the Chamber of Deputies. I take off my hat to these boys of fourteen who planned this strategy, knowing very well that they would be expelled from the school.

The chaplain descended on them—“Confess!” “No!”—then another functionary—“No, No, No!”—they were taken to the principal and thrown out of the school. Whereupon there was a gigantic uproar in the whole college, which was what they had hoped for. The fourth-year class threw rotten eggs at the vice-principal, and two more boys were expelled. Then the day-boys of the class met at dawn and took an oath to avenge their comrades. The next day at six in the morning, the boarders opened the doors to them. Together, they seized and occupied the building. Already, in 1831! From their fortress there, they bombarded the Academic Council which was deliberating in another building within reach of their windows.

The principal was meanwhile throwing himself at the feet of the older pupils, imploring them not to go along with the occupation—successfully. Eventually, the fourth-year class did not achieve the reinstatement of their comrades, but the authorities had to promise that there would be no sanctions against them for the occupation. Three days later, they found they had been tricked: the college was closed for two months. Exactly like today!

The next year, when they came back, they were naturally enraged and there was constant turbulence in the lycée. This was the time in which Flaubert lived, and yet he did not experience it like that. He wrote a great deal about his childhood and youth—but there is not a single text which refers to this history. In fact, what happened, of course, was that he lived the same evolution of this generation in his own way. He was unaffected by this violent episode and yet he arrived at the same result by a different route somewhat later.

The philosophy teacher in the school fell ill, and a substitute took over for him. The pupils decided the substitute was an incompetent and made life impossible for him. The principal tried to victimize two or three, and the whole class joined with them: Flaubert now wrote their collective letter to the principal, denouncing the quality of the course and the threats of punishment. The upshot was that he and two or three others were expelled from the school.

The meaning of the protest this time is very clear: Flaubert and his classmates were young bourgeois demanding a proper bourgeois education—“Our fathers are paying enough, after all.” The evolution of a generation and of a class is manifest in this second episode. These different experiences produce a bitter literature on the bourgeoisie and then this generation resigns itself to becoming merely ironic—another way of being bourgeois.

Why have you opted for biography and the theater in recent years, and abandoned the novel? Is it that you think Marxism and psychoanalysis have rendered the novel as a form impossible, by the weight of their concepts?

I have often asked myself that question. It is, in fact, true that there is no technique that can account for a character in a novel as one can account for a real person, who has existed, by means of a Marxist or psychoanalytic interpretation. But if an author has recourse to these two systems within a novel, without an adequate formal device for doing so, the novel disappears. These devices are lacking, and I do not know if they are possible.

You think that the existence of Marxism and of psychoanalysis prevents any novelist from writing, so to speak, naïvely today?

By no means. But if he does so, the novel will all the same be classified as “naïve.” In other words, a natural universe of the novel will not exist, only a certain specific type of novel—the “spontaneous,” “naïve” novel. There are excellent examples of the latter, but the author who writes them has to make a conscious decision to ignore these interpretative techniques. Thereby he necessarily becomes less naïve. There is another type of novel today in which the work is conceived as a sort of infernal machine—fake novels like those of Gombrowicz, for example. Gombrowicz is aware of psychoanalysis, and of Marxism and many other things, but he remains skeptical about them, and hence constructs objects which destroy themselves in their very act of construction—creating a model for what might be a novel with an analytic and materialist foundation.

Why have you personally stopped writing novels?

Because I have felt no urge to do so. Writers have always more or less chosen the imaginary. They have a need for a certain ration of fiction. Writing on Flaubert is enough for me by way of fiction—it might indeed be called a novel. Only I would like people to say that it was a true novel. I try to achieve a certain level of comprehension of Flaubert by means of hypotheses. Thus I use fiction—guided and controlled, but nonetheless fiction—to explore why, let us say, Flaubert wrote one thing on the 15th March and the exact opposite on the 21st March, to the same correspondent, without worrying about the contradiction. My hypotheses are in this sense a sort of invention of the personage.

You have reproached such books as The Children of Sanchez for not being literary works because the people in it speak a language like that of all of us when we are not writers. You think such works lack invention?

The Children of Sanchez is not a literary work, but it renders a mass of literary works redundant. Why write a novel on its characters or their milieu? They tell us much more by themselves, with a much greater self-understanding and eloquence. The book is not literature because there is no quest for a form that has also a meaning in it: for me the two—form and meaning—are always linked. There is in this book no production of an object, a constructed object.

You continue to write plays?

Yes, because plays are something else again. For me the theater is essentially a myth. Take the example of a petty bourgeois and his wife who quarrel with each other the whole time. If you tape their disputes, you will record not only the two of them, but the petty bourgeoisie and its world, what society has made of it, and so on. Two or three such studies and any possible novel on the life of a petty bourgeois couple would be outclassed.

By contrast, the relationship between man and woman as we see it in Strindberg’s Dance of Death will never be outclassed. The subject is the same, but taken to the level of myth. The playwright presents to men the eidos of their daily existence: their own life in such a way that they see it as if externally. This was the genius of Brecht, indeed. Brecht would have protested violently if anyone said to him that his plays were myths. Yet what else is Mother Courage—an antimyth that despite itself becomes a myth?

You discussed the theater with Brecht?

I saw Brecht three or four times in a political context, but we never had a chance to discuss the theater. I admire Brecht’s plays very much, but I think that what Brecht said about them is not always true. His theory of Entfremdungdistancement—is one thing: the actual relationship between the public and his characters is another. The blind and deaf girl in Mother Courage calls to the people when she falls from the roof, dying.

This is another scene of pathos, and yet it is precisely a passage of the play where Brecht most wants to establish a contestation and recoil from the drama. Mother Courage herself is an anti-heroine who—unavoidably, by her very mystification—becomes a heroine. The Caucasian Chalk Circle presents the same paradox—scenes such as the flight of the servant or the adjudication of the child, which despite all Brecht’s efforts are extremely moving in the most classical tradition of the theater. Brecht was tremendously astute in his use of theater, but he could not always control the final result of his writing.

Your own analysis of the fundamental reason for the degradation of groups into series in the Critique is that scarcity ultimately renders inevitable the fall of any collective project into the “practico-inert.” China remains a very poor country, with a low level of development of productive forces. Your own account of the reign of scarcity leads to the conclusion that it is impossible to abolish bureaucracy in such a country; any attempt to overcome bureaucratic degradation of the revolution will inevitably be profoundly marked by the objective limits imposed by scarcity. This line of argument would explain the bureaucratic safety-rails, whether institutional like the army or ideological like the cult of personality, which trammel mass initiative in China?

It is evident that completely untrammeled initiatives can lead to a sort of madness. Because the free and anarchic development of the individual—not the social individual of the future, but the free practical organism of today—may not endanger his own reason, but can endanger a society. But to insist on his total freedom within a fused group and at the same time to put pebbles in his head called the Thoughts of Mao is not to create a whole man. The two halves of the process are in complete contradiction.

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