I succeeded at last in playing quite difficult things, like Chopin or the Beethoven sonatas, except for the very late ones, which are extremely difficult; I would play only a part of those. And I played Schumann, Mozart, and also melodies from operas or operettas which I would sing…. I even gave piano lessons when I was twenty-two years old, at the Ecole normale.
In the end it had become important for me to play. For example, in the afternoon at 42 rue Bonaparte, Simone de Beauvoir would come to work at my house and she would begin reading or writing before I did, and I would go sit down at the piano, often for two hours.
Have you ever played for friends?
No, no one has ever asked me. Later I played with my adopted daughter Arlette: she would sing or play the flute and I would accompany her. We did that for several years and then, oh dear, now I obviously cannot play any more. So now I listen to more music than before. I can say that I have a good knowledge of music, from Baroque to atonality.
You have never done any composing?
Yes, I even composed a sonata, which is written out. I think Castor still has it. It must be a little like Debussy, I don’t remember very well any more. I like Debussy very much, Ravel too.
Having said this, it is strange that I have not spoken of music in my books. I think it is because I did not have anything much to say about it that people wouldn’t already know. Of course there is that preface which I wrote a long time ago for the book by René Leibowitz—one of the few musicians I knew personally—but there I spoke less of music than of the problem of meaning in music, and it is certainly not one of my better texts.
Admiration: is that a feeling you are familiar with?
No. I don’t admire anyone, and I would not want anyone to admire me. There is no reason for men to be admired: they are all alike, all equal. What is important is what they do.
Yet one day you told me you admired Victor Hugo….
Oh, not very much. I cannot give you any exact feeling for Victor Hugo. There are many things to criticize in him, and other things that are really very beautiful. It is confused and mixed up, and so I got out of it by saying that I admired him. But the truth is that I don’t admire him any more than anyone else. No, admiration is a feeling that assumes that one is inferior to the person he admires. However, as you know, as I see it, all men are equal and admiration has no place among men. Esteem—that is the true feeling one man could be expected to show for another.
More than loving?
No, loving and esteeming are two aspects of one and the same reality, it is one and the same relation with the other. Which does not mean that esteem is absolutely necessary to love, nor love to esteem. But when both are present together, one has the true attitude of one man toward another. We haven’t arrived at that point. We will be there when the subjective has been completely uncovered.
But how do you explain to yourself the fact that you are fickle in friendship and constant in your love relationships?
I am not fickle in friendship. Let us say, if you like, that my friendships have not counted as much as my love relationships. Why do you say that I am fickle?
I am thinking of Camus, for example.
But I was never against Camus. I was against the paper he sent to Les Temps Modernes calling me “Monsieur le directeur” and developing crazy ideas about Francis Jeanson’s article.2 He could have responded to Jeanson, but not the way he did: it was his article that made me angry.
And the break that followed it did not affect you?
No, not really. We had already been seeing much less of each other and during the last few years every time we met he would blow up at me: I had done this, I had said that, I had written something he did not like and he would blow up at me. It had not yet come to a falling-out, but it had become less pleasant. He had changed a good deal, Camus had. In the beginning, he did not yet know that he was a great writer, he was a funny guy and we had good times together: his language was very racy, so was mine for that matter, we told filthy stories one after another and his wife and Simone de Beauvoir pretended to be shocked. For two or three years I had really good relations with him. We could not go far on the intellectual level because he got alarmed quickly; in fact, there was a side of him that smacked of the little Algerian tough guy, very much a hooligan, very funny. He was probably the last good friend I had.
Let’s get back to the women….
My relations with women have always been the best because sexual relations, properly speaking, allow for the objective and the subjective to be given together more easily. Relations with a woman, even if one is not sleeping with her—but if one has or if one could have—are richer. First of all, there is a language which is not speech, which is the language of hands, the language of faces. I am not talking about the language of sex properly speaking. As for language itself, it comes from the deepest place, it comes from sex, when a love relationship is involved. With a woman, the whole of what one is is present.
What has also struck me since I have known you is that when you speak of your friends you are often caustic….
Because I know what they are like! And what I am like! I could just as well be caustic about myself too.
And if you were to be caustic about yourself, what would you say?
In general, it always comes back to not having gone as far as possible in my radicalism. Naturally, in the course of my life I have made lots of mistakes, large and small, for one reason or another, but at the heart of it all, every time I made a mistake it was because I was not radical enough.
What is astonishingly absent in you is guilt.
I do not have any, it’s true. Of any kind. I never feel guilty, and I am not guilty. In my family, right away, they filled me with the feeling that I was a valuable child. Yet at the same time there was the feeling of my contingency, which somewhat opposed the idea of value, because value is a whole whirlwind that presupposes ideologies, alienations, while contingency is a plain reality. But I discovered a dodge: to attribute value to myself because I felt contingency when the others did not feel it. So, I became the man who talked about contingency and, as a consequence, the man who had placed his value in searching for the sense and signification of it. All that is very clear.
And you don’t think that in the way you act with money, for example, one could read signs of guilt?
I don’t think so. The first thing to say is that I did not come from a family where the relation between money and work was clearly understood as something hard, painful.
My grandfather worked a great deal, but he worked with writing, and for me it was fun to do nothing but read and write. He wrote, he had fun, I had seen the proofs he was correcting, it amused me; and then, there were books in his work room, and then he talked to people, he gave them German lessons. And all that was earning him money. As you can see, the relation was not distinct.
Later, when I myself wrote, there was absolutely no relation between the money I received and the books I wrote: I did not understand it, since I believed that the value of a book was established over the course of centuries. As a consequence, the money that my books earned for me was itself a sort of contingent sign. If you like, the first relation between money and my life continued. It is a stupid relation.
There was my work, my way of living, my effort in which I took pleasure—I have always been happy writing—and, by the way, my position as professor, which was somewhat tied to all that, did not annoy me. I liked doing it. Under those circumstances, what need was there for anyone to give me money? And yet people gave it to me.
As we were talking about guilt, I was thinking more of your way of giving away money.
In order to give it away, I have to have it first. I could not give any away until I was eighteen or nineteen years old, when I was at the Ecole normale and gave lessons to private pupils, and was therefore given money. There, I had a little and I was able to give some of it away. But what exactly was I giving? The paper money that I received after doing work which satisfied me. I did not feel at first hand the value of the coin: I felt the paper bills which I gave away as I received them, for nothing.
You might have wanted to buy things, possess things.
That happened too. I did not give away everything I received, therefore I bought things for myself. But I never wanted to have my own house or apartment. Having said that, I don’t think there is the slightest guilt in the way I give money. I gave it because I could and because those I was interested in needed it. I never gave money in order to rub out a mistake, or because money as such was a burden to me.
One thing that struck me when I first knew you was that you often had fat bundles of bills on you. Why?
It’s true, I often had more than a million3 in my pocket. People have scolded me many times for carrying too much money on me. Simone de Beauvoir, for example, found it ridiculous and it really is idiotic. But to tell the truth, if I do not do that any more now, it is not because I might lose it or someone might rob me but because of my eyesight: I confuse the bills and that can cause annoying situations. Even so, I like having my money on me, and I find it unpleasant that I can’t do it any more. I must say this is the first time anyone has asked me why….
I know it makes me look like a big shot to pull out a fat bundle: I remember a hotel on the Côte d’Azur where we often went, Simone de Beauvoir and I; one day, the substitute for the manageress complained to Simone de Beauvoir that I had brought out too much money to pay her…. And yet, I am not a big shot. No, I think that if I like having a lot of money on me, this corresponds in a certain manner to the way I live with my furniture, the way I have my everyday clothes on, which are almost always the same, my glasses, my lighter, my cigarettes.
It is the idea of having on me as many things as possible that define me for my, whole life, everything that represents my daily life at any given moment. The idea, therefore, of being entirely what I am at the present moment and of not depending on anyone, of not needing to ask anyone for anything, of having all my possessions at my immediate disposal. That represents a kind of way of feeling superior to people, which is obviously false and I am perfectly well aware of it.
You also frequently give tips that are clearly excessive.
That can be troubling to the people you give them to.
There you exaggerate.
It won’t be from you that I learn how reciprocity must be possible for generosity to avoid being in some way humiliating.
Reciprocity is not possible, but kindness is. The waiters in the café appreciate the fact that I give them big tips, and repay me in kindness. My idea is that if a man lives off tips, I want to give him as much as I can, because I think that if I contribute to the livelihood of a man, he must live well.
What still has real interest for you?
Music, as I told you. Philosophy and politics.
But does that excite you?
No, there is not much that excites me any more. I put myself a little above….
Is there anything you would like to add?
Everything, in one sense, if you like, and in another sense, nothing. Everything, because in relation to what we have formulated, there is everything else, everything should be explored with care. But that cannot be given in an interview. That is what I feel every time I give an interview. In a way, interviews are frustrating; they are frustrating because there would actually be many things to say. The interview brings them to life, like their opposites, at the very moment that one answers. But having said this, I think that as a portrait of what I am at the age of seventy, this is what was needed.
You will not conclude, as Simone de Beauvoir concluded, that you have been “had.”
Oh no, I would not say that. Besides, she herself, you know, says rightly that she did not mean that she had been had by life but that she felt cheated in the circumstances in which she wrote that book,4 that is, after the Algerian war, etc. But I would not say that; I have not been had by anything, I have not been disappointed by anything. I have seen people, good and bad—moreover, the bad are never bad except in relation to certain goals—I have written, I have lived, there is nothing to be sorry about.
In short, so far life has been good to you?
On the whole, yes. I don’t see what I could reproach it with. It has given me what I wanted and at the same time it has made me recognize that it isn’t much. But what can you do?
(The interview ends in a fit of laughing brought on by the disillusioned tone of that last statement.)
The laughter must be kept. You should put: “Accompanied by laughter.”
—translated by Paul Auster and Lydia Davis