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Sartre at Seventy: An Interview

Is the fact that you are no longer able to read a burdensome handicap for you?

For the moment, I would say no. I can no longer find out on my own about recent books that might interest me. But people talk to me about them or read them to me, and I pretty much keep abreast of what is coming out. Simone de Beauvoir has read many books to me all the way through, works of every sort.

However, I used to be in the habit of going through the books and reviews I received, and it is a loss no longer to be able to do so. But for the work I am doing now on these historical broadcasts, if I have to learn about a book on sociology, for example, or history, it does not matter if I hear it read to me by Simone de Beauvoir or if I read it with my own eyes. On the other hand, if it is more than a question of assimilating information, if I have to criticize it, examine it to see whether or not it is coherent, whether or not it is consistent with its own principles, etc., then this would no longer be adequate. I would then have to ask Simone de Beauvoir to read it to me several times, and to stop, if not after every sentence, at least after every paragraph.

Simone de Beauvoir reads and speaks extremely fast. I let her go on at her usual speed, and I try to adapt myself to the rhythm of her reading. Naturally this requires a certain effort. And then we exchange ideas at the end of the chapter. The problem is that the element of reflexive criticism which is constantly present when one reads a book with one’s own eyes is never clear when something is read out loud. The principal effort is to understand, quite simply. The critical element remains in the background and it is only at the moment that Simone de Beauvoir and I begin discussing our opinions that I feel that I draw out from my mind what had been hidden by the reading.

Isn’t it painful for you to be dependent upon others?

Yes, although painful would be too strong a word, since as I said before nothing is painful to me now. In spite of everything, this dependence is hardly unpleasant. I was in the habit of writing alone, reading alone, and I still think today that real intellectual work demands solitude. I am not saying that some intellectual work—even books—cannot be undertaken by several people. But I do not see how two or three people can carry out a true intellectual undertaking, one that leads to both a written work and to philosophical reflections. At the present time, with our current methods of thought, the unveiling of a thought before an object implies solitude.

Don’t you think that this may be peculiar to you?

I have had occasion to be involved in collective work, at the Ecole normale for example, or later at Le Havre with other professors, a project for reforming university instruction. I forget what we said, and it could not have been worth much. But all my books, except for On a raison de se révolter and Entretiens sur la politique, which I did with David Rousset and Gérard Rosenthal, were written entirely by myself.

Does it bother you when I ask you about yourself?

No. Why? I believe that everyone should be able to speak of his innermost being to an interviewer. I think that what spoils relations among people is that each keeps something hidden from the other, something secret, not necessarily from everyone, but from whomever he is speaking to at the moment.

I think transparency should always be substituted for what is secret, and I can quite well imagine the day when two men will no longer have secrets from each other, because no one will have any more secrets from anyone, because subjective life, as well as objective life, will be completely offered up, given. It is impossible to accept the fact that we would yield our bodies as we do and keep our thoughts hidden, since for me there is no basic difference between the body and the consciousness.

Isn’t it a fact that we only yield our thoughts totally to the people to whom we truly yield our bodies?

We yield our bodies to everyone, even beyond the realm of sexual relations: by looking, by touching. You yield your body to me, I yield mine to you: we each exist for the other, as body. But we do not exist in this same way as consciousness, as ideas, even though ideas are modifications of the body.

If we truly wished to exist for the other, to exist as body, as body that can continually be laid bare—even if this never happens—ideas would appear to the other as coming from the body. Words are formed by a tongue in the mouth. All ideas would appear in this way, even the most vague, the most fleeting, the least tangible. There would no longer be this hiddenness, this secret which in certain centuries was identified with the honor of men and women, and which seems very foolish to me.

What do you think is the chief obstacle to this transparency?

First of all, Evil. By this I mean acts that are inspired by different principles and that can have results that I disapprove of. This Evil makes communicating all thoughts difficult, because I do not know to what extent the principles which the other uses to form his thoughts are the same as mine. To a certain extent, of course, these principles can be clarified, discussed, established; but it is not true that I can talk to anyone about anything. I can with you, but I cannot with my neighbor or with a passer-by crossing the street: in an extreme case, he would rather fight than have a totally frank discussion with me.

Thus, there is an as-for-myself (quant-à-soi), born of distrust, ignorance, and fear, which keeps me from being confidential with another, or not confidential enough. Personally, moreover, I do not express myself on all points with the people I meet, but I try to be as translucent as possible, because I feel that this dark region that we have within ourselves, which is at once dark for us and dark for others, can only be illuminated for ourselves in trying to illuminate it for others.

Didn’t you look for this transparency first of all in writing?

Not first, at the same time. If you like, it is in writing that I went the farthest. But there are also the day-by-day conversations, with Simone de Beauvoir, with others, with you, since we are together today, in which I try to be as clear and as truthful as possible, in such a way as to yield entirely, or to try to yield entirely, my subjectivity. Actually I am not giving it to you, I do not give it to anyone, because there are still things, even for me, which refuse to be said, which I can say to myself, but which resist my saying them to another. As with other people, there is a depth of darkness within me that does not allow itself to be said.

The unconscious?

Not at all. I am speaking of the things that I know. There is always a kind of small fringe that is not said, that does not want to be said, but that wants to be known, known by me. One can’t say everything, you know that well. But I think that later, that is, after my death, and perhaps after yours, people will talk about themselves more and more and that this will produce a great change. Moreover, I think that this change is linked to a real revolution.

A man’s existence must be entirely visible to his neighbor, whose own existence must in turn be entirely visible to him, in order for true social harmony to be established. This cannot be realized today, but I think that it will be once there has been a change in the economic, cultural, and affective relations among men, beginning with the eradication of material scarcity, which, as I showed in Critique de la raison dialectique, is for me the root of the antagonisms among men, past and present.

There will doubtless be other antagonisms then, which I cannot imagine now, which no one can imagine, but they will not be an obstacle to a form of sociality in which each person will give himself completely to someone else, who will also give himself completely. Such a society, of course, would have to be a world-wide society, for if there remained inequalities and privileges anywhere in the world, the conflicts produced by these inequalities would little by little take over the whole social body.

Isn’t writing born of secrecy and antagonism? In a harmonious society, perhaps there would no longer be any reason for it to exist….

Writing is certainly born of secrecy, but we should not forget that either it tries to hide this secret and to lie—in which case it is without interest—or to give a glimpse of this secret, even to try to expose it by showing what one is in relation to others—and in this case it approaches the translucence that I want.

You said to me once, around 1971:It is time that I finally told the truth.” You added:But I could only tell it in a work of fiction.” What was the reason for this?

At that time I was thinking of writing a story in which I wanted to present in an indirect manner everything that I had been previously thinking of saying in a kind of political testament, which would have been the continuation of my autobiography and which I had decided not to do. The fictional element would have been minimal; I would have created a character about whom the reader would have been forced to say: “The man presented here is Sartre.”

Which does not mean that for the reader there would have been an overlapping of the character and the author, but that the best way of understanding the character would have been to look for what came to him from me. That is what I would have wanted to write: a fiction that was not a fiction. This simply represents what it means to write today. We know ourselves very little, and we are still not able to give ourselves completely to each other. The truth of writing would be for me to say: “I take up the pen, my name is Sartre, this is what I think.”

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