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Sartre at Seventy: An Interview

Can’t a truth be expressed independently of the person who expresses it?

It is no longer interesting then. It removes the individual and the person from the world and goes no farther than objective truths. One can attain objective truths without thinking of one’s own truth. But if it is a question of speaking of both one’s objectivity and the subjectivity that is behind this objectivity, and which is just as much a part of the man as his objectivity, at this point it is necessary to write: “I, Sartre.” And, as this is not possible at the present time, because we do not know each other well enough, the detour of fiction allows for a more effective approach to this objective-subjective totality.

Would you say then that you have come closer to your own truth through Roquentin or Mathieu than in writing Les Mots?

Probably, or rather, I think that Les Mots is no truer than La Nausée or Les Chemins de la Liberté. Not that the facts I report are not true, but Les Mots is a kind of novel also, a novel that I believe in, but that nevertheless remains a novel.

When you said that the time had come for you to tell the truth at last, this statement could have been understood to mean that until now you had only lied.

No, not lied, but said what is only half true, a quarter true…. For example, I have not spoken of the sexual and erotic relations in my life. Moreover, I do not see any reasons for doing so, except in another society in which everyone put his cards on the table.

But are you sure that you know everything there is to know about yourself? Have you ever been tempted by psychoanalysis?

Yes, but not at all in order to understand things about myself that I would not have understood otherwise. When I began writing Les Mots again, of which I had done a first version in 1954 and which I had returned to in 1963, I asked a psychoanalyst friend, Pontalis, if he wanted to analyze me, more out of intellectual curiosity concerning the psychoanalytic method itself than to understand myself better. He thought, quite rightly, that given our relations over the past twenty years, it would be impossible for him. It was just an idea I had had, a rather vague one, and I didn’t think about it any more.

Nevertheless, one can infer from a reading of your novels many things about the way you have experienced sexuality.

Yes, and even from my philosophical works. But that only represents a phase in my sexual life. There is not enough detail or complexity for someone really to find me in these books. Then, you would say, why talk about it? And I would say: because a writer, as I see it, should talk about the whole world in talking about his whole self.

Where is the specific character of writing, then? Doesn’t it seem that it would be possible to speak of this totality orally?

In principle it is possible, but in fact one never says as much in speaking as in writing. People are not accustomed to using oral language. The deepest conversations there can be today are those between intellectuals. Not that they are necessarily closer to the truth than nonintellectuals, but, at the present time, they have knowledge, a mode of thought—psychoanalytic or sociological, for example—that allows them to reach a certain level of understanding of themselves and others that people who are not intellectuals do not usually reach. Dialogue proceeds in such a way that each person thinks that he has said everything and that the other person has said everything, while in fact the true problems begin at a point beyond what has been said.

In the end, then, when you spoke of the truth that finally had to be told, it was not a matter of expressing certain things that you had suppressed, but things that you had not understood before?

It was above all a question of putting myself in a certain position in which, necessarily, a kind of truth I had not known before would appear to me. By means of a true fiction—or a fictional truth—I would take up the actions and thoughts of my life in order to make a whole, all the while examining their apparent contradictions and their limits, to see if it was really true that they were limits, that I had not been forced to consider ideas contradictory that were not, that my actions of a given moment had been interpreted correctly….

And perhaps it was also a way of allowing you to escape your own system?

Yes, to the extent that my system could not include everything, I had to place myself outside it.

From Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs, we know that since 1957 you have worked with a feeling of extreme urgency. Simone de Beauvoir says that you ranan exhausting race against time, against death.” It seems to me that if you have such a strong feeling of urgency you must feel that only you are capable of saying something that absolutely must be said. Is this true?

In a sense, yes. It was then that I started writing Critique de la raison dialectique, and it was this that was gnawing at me, that took all my time. I worked on it ten hours a day, taking corydrane—in the end I was taking twenty pills a day—and I really felt that this book had to be finished. The amphetamines gave me a quickness of thought and writing that was at least three times my normal rhythm, and I wanted to go fast.

It was the period when I broke with the communists after Budapest. The rupture was not total, but the ties were broken. Before 1968 the communist movement seemed to represent the entire left, and to break with the party would have been to push oneself into a kind of exile. When one was cut off from the left, one either moved to the right, as did many who joined with the socialists, or one stayed in a kind of limbo, and the only thing left to do was to try to think to the very limit what the communists did not want you to think.

Writing the Critique de la raison dialectique represented for me a way of settling my accounts with my own thought outside of the Communist Party’s sphere of influence over thought. The Critique is a Marxist work written against the communists. I felt that true Marxism had been completely twisted and falsified by the communists. Right now, I no longer think exactly the same thing.

Didn’t the feeling of urgency also come from the first effects of growing old?

I was writing Les Séquestrés d’Altona and one day, during the winter of 1958, I began to feel very unsure of myself. I remember that day, at Simone Berriau’s: I was drinking a glass of whiskey; I tried to set it down on a shelf and it fell over; it was not a question of clumsiness, but a problem with my equilibrium. Simone Berriau saw it right away and said to me: “Go see a doctor, it’s very bad.” And, in fact, several days later, still working on Les Séquestrés, I was scribbling illegibly rather than writing: I wrote sentences absolutely devoid of meaning, without any relation to the play, which frightened Simone de Beauvoir.

Were you yourself afraid?

No, but I saw that I was in bad shape. I was never afraid. But I stopped working: for two months I don’t think I did anything. And then I got back to work. But this held up Les Séquestrés for a year.

It seems to me that at this period you had a very strong feeling of responsibility toward your readers, yourself, and thosecommandments that are sewn into your skinthat you spoke of in Les Mots: by and large, it was a question of write or die. When did you begin to let up, if you have ever let up?

In the last few years, since I gave up the Flaubert. For this book also I did an enormous amount of work, using corydrane. I spent fifteen years on it, working on and off. I would write something else. Then I would return to Flaubert. Even so, I will never finish it. But this does not make me so unhappy, because I think I said the essentials of what I had to say in the first three volumes. Someone else could write the fourth on the basis of the three I have written.

Nevertheless, this unfinished Flaubert weighs on me with a kind of remorse. Well, perhaps “remorse” is too strong a word; after all, I had to give it up because of circumstances. I wanted to finish it. And, at the same time, this fourth volume was both the most difficult for me and the one that interested me the least: the study of the style of Madame Bovary. But I can say to you that the essentials are there, even if the work remains incomplete.

Can this be said about your work as a whole? One could almost say that one of the principal characteristics of this work is its unfinished state…. Do you find that this….

That this bothers me? Not at all. Because all works remain unfinished: no man who undertakes a work of literature or philosophy ever finishes. What can I say, time never stops!

Today you no longer feel yourself pursued by time?

No, because I have decided—I say it loud and clear: I have decided—that I have said everything I had to say. This decision implies that I will cut off all that I might still have said, and that I will not say it, because I consider what I have already written to be the essential. The rest, I tell myself, is not worth the trouble; they are merely temptations that one has, like writing a novel on this or that subject, and then abandoning the whole thing.

Actually, this is not completely so: if I put myself in the true state of necessity of a man who has some years before him and who is in good health, I would say that I am not finished, that I have not said all I have to say, far from it. But I do not want to say this to myself. If I last another ten years, that would be very good, that wouldn’t be bad at all.

And how do you plan to use these ten years?

By doing projects like the broadcasts I am preparing, which I feel should be considered as part of my work. By doing a book of conversations that I have begun with Simone de Beauvoir, which is the continuation of Les Mots, but which will be arranged this time by themes, and which will not be done with the style of Les Mots, since I can no longer have any style.

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