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Sartre at Seventy: An Interview

I

Michel Contat: For the past year there has been much concern over the rumors that have been circulating about the state of your health. You will be seventy years old this month. Tell us, Sartre, how are you feeling?

Jean-Paul Sartre: It is difficult to say that I am feeling well, but I can’t say that I’m feeling bad either. During the last two years, I’ve had several mishaps. My legs begin to hurt as soon as I walk more than one kilometer, and I’ve had serious problems with blood pressure, but recently, and quite suddenly, these have disappeared.

Worst of all, I had hemorrhages behind my left eye—the only one of my two eyes that can see, since I lost almost all vision in my right eye when I was three years old—and now I can still see forms vaguely, I can see light, colors, but I do not see objects or faces distinctly, and, as a consequence, I can neither read nor write. More exactly, I can write, that is to say, form the words with my hand, and I can do this more or less comfortably now, but I cannot see what I write. And reading is absolutely out of the question. I can see the lines, the spaces between the words, but I can no longer distinguish the words themselves. Without the ability to read or write, I no longer have even the slightest possibility of being actively engaged as a writer: my occupation as a writer is completely destroyed.

However, I can still speak. That is why, if television manages to find the money, my next work will be a series of broadcasts in which I will try to speak about the seventy-five years of this century. I am working on this with Simone de Beauvoir, Pierre Victor, and Philippe Gavi, who have their own ideas and will do the editing, which I am incapable of doing myself.

This is my situation at the moment. Apart from that, I am in fine shape. I sleep extremely well. My mind is probably just as sharp as it was ten years ago—no more sharp, but no less—and my sensibility has remained the same. Most of the time my memory is good, except for names, which I recall only with great effort and which sometimes escape me. I can use objects when I know where they are in advance. In the street, I can get along by myself without too much difficulty.

Even so, not being able to write any more must be a considerable blow. You speak about it with serenity….

In one sense, it robs me of all reason for existing; I was, and I am no longer, if you wish. I should feel very defeated, but for some unknown reason I feel quite good: I am never sad, nor do I have any moments of melancholy in thinking of what I have lost.

No feelings of rebellion?

Who, or what, should I be rebelling against? Don’t take this for stoicism—although, as you know, I have always had sympathy for the Stoics. No, it’s just that things are the way they are and there’s nothing I can do about it, so there’s no reason for me to be upset. I’ve had some trying times because things were more serious two years ago. I would have attacks of mild delirium. I remember walking around in Avignon, where I had gone with Simone de Beauvoir, and looking for a girl who had made an appointment to meet me somewhere on a bench. Naturally there was no appointment….

Now, all I can do is make the best of what I am, become accustomed to it, evaluate the possibilities and take advantage of them. It is the loss of vision, of course, which is most annoying, and according to the doctors I’ve consulted it is irremediable. This is bothersome, because I feel moved by enough things to want to write, not all the time, but now and then.

You feel at loose ends?

Yes. I walk a little, the newspapers are read to me, I listen to the radio, sometimes I catch a glimpse of what is happening on television, and in fact these are the things you do when you are at loose ends. I used to write down what I had been thinking about beforehand, but the essential moment was that of the writing itself. I still think, but because writing has become impossible for me, the real activity of thought has in some way been suppressed.

What will no longer be accessible to me is something that many young people today are scornful of: style, let us say the literary manner of presenting an idea or a reality. This necessarily calls for revisions—revisions which sometimes have to be made five or six times. I can no longer correct my work even once, because I cannot read what I have written. Thus, what I write or what I say necessarily remains in the first version. Someone can read back to me what I have written or said and if worst comes to worst I can change a few details, but that would have nothing to do with the work of rewriting which I would do myself.

Couldn’t you use a tape recorder, dictate, listen to yourself, and listen to your revisions?

I think there is an enormous difference between speaking and writing. One rereads what one rewrites. But one can read slowly or quickly: in other words, you do not know how long you will have to take deliberating over a sentence. It’s possible that what is not right in the sentence will not be clear to you at the first reading: perhaps there is something inherently wrong with it, perhaps there is a poor connection between it and the preceding sentence or the following sentence or the paragraph as a whole or the chapter, etc.

All this assumes that you approach your text somewhat as if it were a magical puzzle, that you change words here and there one by one, and go back over these changes and then modify something farther along, and so on and so forth. If I listen to a tape recorder, the listening time is determined by the speed at which the tape turns and not by my own needs. Therefore I will always be either lagging behind or running ahead of the machine.

Have you tried it?

I will try it, I will give it a sincere try, but I am certain that it will not satisfy me. Everything in my past, in my training, everything that has been most essential in my activity up to now has made me above all a man who writes, and it is too late for that to change. If I had lost my sight at the age of forty, perhaps it would have been different.

Within myself, intellectual activity remains what it was, that is to say a guiding of reflection. Therefore on the reflexive level I can revise what I am thinking, but this remains strictly subjective. Here again stylistic work as I understand it necessarily assumes the act of writing.

Many young people today do not concern themselves with style and think that what one says should be said simply and that is all. For me, style—which does not exclude simplicity, quite the opposite—is above all a way of saying three or four things in one. There is the simple sentence, with its immediate meaning, and then at the same time, below this immediate meaning, other meanings are organized. If one is not capable of giving language this plurality of meaning, then it is not worth the trouble to write.

What distinguishes literature from scientific communication, for example, is that it is not unambiguous; the artist of language arranges words in such a way that, depending on how he emphasizes or gives weight to them, they will have one meaning, and another, and yet another, each time at different levels.

Your philosophical manuscripts are written in long hand, with almost no crossings out or erasures, while your literary manuscripts are very much worked over, perfected. Why is there this difference?

The objectives are different: in philosophy, every sentence should have only one meaning. The work I did on Les Mots, for example, attempting to give multiple and superimposed meanings to each sentence, would be bad work in philosophy. If I have to explain, for example, the concepts of “for-itself” and “in-itself,” that can be difficult; I can use different comparisons, different demonstrations, to make it clear, but it is necessary to stay with ideas that are self-contained: it is not on this level that the complete meaning is found—which can and must be multiple so far as the complete work is concerned. I do not mean to say, in effect, that philosophy, like scientific communication, is unambiguous.

In literature, which in some way always has to do with what has been lived, nothing of what I say is totally expressed by what. I say. The same reality can be expressed in a number of ways that is practically infinite. And it is the entire book that indicates the type of reading that each sentence requires, even the tone of voice that this reading in turn requires, whether one reads aloud or not. A purely objective kind of sentence, like those found frequently in Stendhal, necessarily leaves out many things, but this sentence contains within itself all the others and thus holds a totality of meanings that the author must have constantly in mind for them all to emerge. As a consequence, stylistic work does not consist of sculpting a sentence, but of permanently keeping in mind the totality of the scene, the chapter, and beyond that the entire book. If this totality is present, you will write a good sentence. If it is not present, the sentence will jar and seem gratuitous.

For some authors this work takes longer and is more laborious than for others. But generally speaking, it is always more difficult to write four sentences in one, for example, than one in one, as in philosophy. A sentence like “I think, therefore I am” can have infinite repercussions in all directions, but as a sentence it has the meaning that Descartes gave it. While when Stendhal writes, “As long as he could see the clock tower of Verrières, Julien kept turning around,” in simply saying what his character does, he gives us what Julien feels, and at the same time what Mme de Renal feels, etc.

Obviously, therefore, it is much more difficult to find a sentence that counts for several sentences than to find a sentence like “I think, therefore I am,” I suppose Descartes found that sentence all at once, at the moment he thought it.

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