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Sartre at Seventy: An Interview

But you are involving yourself less in these projects.

I am involving myself less because I have to. Because at seventy I can no longer hope that in the ten useful years remaining to me I will produce the novel or the philosophical work of my life. Everyone knows what the ten years between seventy and eighty are like….

What we are talking about, then, is not so much your half-blindness as old age.

I only feel old age through my half-blindness—which is an accident, I could have others—and through the nearness of death, which is absolutely undeniable. Not that I think about it, I never think about it; but I know that it is coming.

You knew that before!

Yes, but I didn’t think about it, I really didn’t. You know, there was a time when I believed I was immortal, until I was about thirty. But now I know that I am very mortal, without ever thinking of death. Simply, I know that I am in the last period of my life, and therefore certain works are not possible for me. Because of their size, not because of their difficulty, for I feel that I am just about at the same level of intelligence that I was ten years ago. The important thing for me is that what had to be done was done. For better or worse, it doesn’t matter. In any case, I’ve given it a try. And then, there are ten years left.

You remind me of Gide in Thésée:I have done my work, I have lived….” He was seventy-five years old and he had this same serenity, this satisfaction of a finished task. You say the same thing?

Exactly.

In the same spirit?

A few things would have to be added. I do not think of my readers in the same way that Gide did. I do not think of the action of a book as he did. I do not think of the future of society as he thought of it. But, to take only the individual, yes, in a sense; very good, I have done what I had to do….

You are happy with your life?

Very. I think that if I had had more luck, I would have treated more things better.

And also if you had taken a little better care of yourself. Because, in the end, you ruined your health as you were writing Critique de la raison dialectique.

What is health for? It is better to write Critique de la raison dialectique—I say it without pride—it is better to write something that is long, precise, and important in itself than to be in excellent health.

II

Are you sorry that young intellectuals do not read you more, that they know you only through false ideas of you and your work?

I would say that it is too bad for me.

For you, or for them?

To tell the truth, for them too. But I think it is just a passing stage.

Basically you would agree with the prediction Roland Barthes made recently when he said that you will be rediscovered and that this will take place soon in a completely natural way?

I hope so.

And which of your works do you hope to see the new generation take up again?

The Situations, Saint-Genet, the Critique de la raison dialectique, and Le Diable et le Bon Dieu. The Situations, if you like, is the nonphilosophical work which comes closest to philosophy: critical and political. I would very much like that to remain and for people to read it. And then La Nausée too. I think that from a purely literary point of view it is the best thing I have done.

After May 1968 you said to me:If one rereads all my books, one will realize that I have not changed profoundly, and that I have always remained an anarchist.”

That is very true. And it will be evident in the television broadcasts I am preparing. Still, I have changed in the sense that I was an anarchist without knowing it when I wrote La Nausée: I did not realize that what I was writing there could have an anarchist interpretation; I saw only the relation with the metaphysical idea of “nausea,” the metaphysical idea of existence. Then, by way of philosophy, I discovered the anarchist being in me. But when I discovered it I did not call it that, because today’s anarchy no longer has anything to do with the anarchy of 1890.

Actually, you never identified yourself with the so-called anarchist movement!

Never. On the contrary, I was very far from it. But I have never accepted any power over me, and I have always thought that anarchy, which is to say a society without powers, must be brought about.

You must acknowledge the fact, in spite of everything, that even though you reject all power, you have exercised power yourself?

I have had a false power: the power of a professor. But the real power of a professor consists, for example, in forbidding smoking in class—I did not—or in failing students—I always gave passing grades. I was transmitting knowledge; as I see it, that is not a power, or rather it depends on how you teach. Ask Bost1 if I thought I had power over my students, and if I did.

You don’t think that celebrity gave you a certain power?

I don’t think so. Perhaps a policeman will ask me for my papers more politely. But I don’t see how, outside of things like that, I have power. I do not believe I have any other power than the power of the truths which I tell.

One of the surprising things about you: you never take the initiative in an encounter?

Never. I am not curious about people.

Yet you once wrote:I have a passion for understanding men.”

Yes. Once I am face to face with a man, I have a passion to understand him, but I will not go out of my way to see him.

That is the attitude of a recluse.

A recluse, yes. I should point out that I am surrounded by people, but they are women. There are several women in my life, Simone de Beauvoir being the only one, in a sense, but there are several.

That must take up a considerable amount of time. And it took a great deal of time when all you really wanted to do was to write. You once said to me:The only thing that I really like to do is to be at my table and write, preferably philosophy.”

Yes, that is what I really loved. And I was always held back at a small distance from my table: I had to break things in order to return to it.

But you do not like to be alone when you are not working?

In certain cases I like to be alone very much. Before the war, on certain evenings when Castor [i.e., de Beauvoir] was not free, I liked very much to go eat alone at the “Balzar,” for example: I felt my solitude.

That has not happened to you very often since the end of the war….

I remember that three or four years ago I had an evening to spend all alone, and I was very happy about it. This was at the home of a friend who was not there. I drank. I was dead drunk. I walked home and Puig, my secretary, who had come to see if everything was all right, was following me at a distance. And then I fell down, he picked me up, supported me, and took me home. That is what I did with my solitude. Also, when I tell Simone de Beauvoir that I like being alone but that people keep me from being alone, she always says: “You make me laugh.”

How do you live these days?

My life has become very simple, since I cannot get around much. I rise at eight-thirty in the morning. Often I sleep at Simone de Beauvoir’s house and have breakfast in a café on the way home, often in the one I like best, “La Liberté,” which is really a suitable name for me, on the corner of the Rue de la Gaité and the Boulevard Edgar-Quinet, two hundred yards from where I live. I feel at home in Montparnasse. I have some acquaintance with the people of the neighborhood, the waiters in the cafés, the woman who sells newspapers, a few shopkeepers.

I always organized my life around my working hours: from half-past nine or so to half-past one and from five or six PM to nine in the evening. At the moment these hours are a bit empty, but I still keep to them. I go and have lunch in a local brasserie, and then return home at about half-past four.

Usually Simone de Beauvoir is there and we chat for a bit and then she reads to me, either some book or other or Le Monde or Liberation, or other newspapers. That takes us to about half-past eight or nine PM, and then most of the time we go back together to her flat and I spend the evening with her, almost always listening to music, or sometimes she continues reading to me, and I always go to bed at about the same time, about half-past twelve.

Music occupies a large place in your life. Not many people know that….

Music has meant a lot to me, both as a distraction and as an important element of culture. Everyone in my family was a musician: my grandfather played the piano and the organ, my grandmother played the piano quite well, my mother played it well and sang. My two uncles—particularly my uncle Georges, whose wife was also very musical—were excellent pianists, and you know that cousin Albert [Schweitzer] was not bad at the organ either…. In short, everyone at the Schweitzer house played, and throughout my childhood I lived in a musical atmosphere.

At the age of eight or nine I was given piano lessons. Then I had nothing more to do with it until I was twelve, at La Rochelle. There, in the house where I lived with my mother and stepfather, there was a large drawing room which no one entered except for receptions and where a grand piano sat in state. There I relearned by myself, first playing scores of operettas, and then pieces for four hands, which I played with my mother, Mendelssohn for example. And little by little, more difficult things, Beethoven, Schumann, later Bach, with fingering that was hardly correct but finally managing to play more or less up to tempo, not really precisely, but generally respecting the measure.

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    Sartre’s old friend, Jacques-Laurent Bost, author of Le Dernier des Metiers.

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