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Theatrical Sartre

Common interests don’t necessarily unify. If six of us have flu, we have indeed the same disease, but we aren’t sharing an illness like a blanket, and our common desire—to recover—may be quite divisive; thus if I am brought to realize that my interests are the same as yours, I may be recognizing you as an enemy. Diverse and divergent aims often promote peace. Separation and indifference are frequently as benevolent as openness and quiet. The recognition, then, that you and I are in the same boat may please neither of us; common descriptions do not signify common interests; common interests do not necessarily unify; unification is not always desirable.

So the drama cannot rest with revealing a mutual plight, nor is any play able to appeal to human universals of whatever sort (sin and salvation, for example, happiness or entelechy), because for Sartre there aren’t any; therefore the appeal must be to a concept of collective action: the need to hold property in common or to unionize, to seize the utilities or run the railroads. The formula for successful plays of this kind consists first in revelation: this is your situation and here is the enemy mainly responsible for it (early Sartre might have bravely blamed the masses for their own enslavement); second, the individual’s only hope lies in collective action; third, there is value in collective action which transcends utility: cooperation becomes brotherhood. This last part is vital, because in establishing a common cause through a common enemy, one must be careful that the joint venture isn’t nevertheless still held together by self-interest, in which case the collective will dissolve like a team at the end of the season, or incorporate itself and become a business. In this country at present, government, business, and labor are each agents of reaction.

The qualities which make great plays, especially great tragedies, require (exactly contrary to Sartre’s formula) that justice be done every opposition, all aspects, each element. When a pie is cut there is pie on both sides of the knife. Brecht regularly wrote plays which were too artful, too original, too just, to be acceptable to the narrowly political mind which invariably expects the poet to condemn other wars than his, other lies than his, other necessary disciplinary actions, expediencies, confinements, interrogations, tortures, murders, than his—and never wars, lies, secrecy, or tyranny in general.

In play after play, even the most dogmatic and didactic (The Mother or The Measures Taken, for example, The Trial of Lucullus), the text undermines its intended message, and the party growls its displeasure, admonishes and threatens.14 One part of Brecht wanted to sell out to discipline, order, and utility, to replace religion with politics, to take a belief like a Teddy bear to bed; another part wanted to compose great plays and have them properly performed. And while that first half tried to submerge us all in the collective, the other continued rather shrewdly to define the special divided self that was Brecht.

Sartre is himself a sufferer from this saving split of feeling and value. His own play, Dirty Hands, was “misunderstood” because the characters for once escaped the program they were tied to and became problems.15 Sartre, at his deepest point, is anarchistic, playful, ironic, proud, lonely, detached, superior, unique. It is a painful position and it is not surprising that the surface flow of his life and his thinking should run so strongly in the direction of humorless moralizing and the obliteration of the self.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal, writing about Brecht’s play, Baal, in 1926, anticipated the future as he summed up the past:

Our time is unredeemed; and do you know what it wants to be redeemed from?… The individual…. Individuality is an arabesque we have discarded…. I should go so far as to assert that all the ominous events we have been witnessing in the last twelve years are nothing but a very awkward and long-winded way of burying the concept of the European individual in the grave it has dug for itself….16

How can consciousness, that emptiness in Nature of which Sartre has spoken so eloquently and so often, be a curse? Nietzsche warned us of its weight, of the difficulties in being human, of the temptation to throw down the soul like a rucksack to lighten one’s flight. Consciousness is like the shadows cast by bodies on a summer’s day, and such evanescence, such Nothingness (it is poetic to report), is more burdensome than Being itself. “The dark was heavier than Caesar’s foot.”

The key concept again, as in all of Sartre, is freedom; but there are as many freedoms as there are threatening pairs—like frying pan and fire. Do we avoid essence only to fall victim to accidents? And in our escape from sufficient reason will we wind up in the arms of chance? Is our freedom going to be metaphysical, physical, psychological, economic, or political? Sartre has bounced the same word off each of them like a yodel from a mountain. These echoes don’t sing harmony.

Metaphysical determinism, like the will of Allah or Calvin’s God’s forechoosing, maintains that what will be will be, but only well after it has been. Psychological laws do not limit acts, only our motives for them, so if Hobbes says we always act to preserve our lives, then even if we sacrifice ourselves for others like a lamb who loves the knife, it is probably a life everlasting we’re after rather than this brief, miserable, and threatened one; or if Epicurus claims we are always on our knees to lap up pleasure, then even if we lacerate ourselves, we shall find our flesh in happy tatters.

It is obvious, however, that if I am macerated by the NKVD or any other malicious alphabetical agency of police, I am as unfree as a canary, sing as I must and they please, and it’s that determinism I don’t like: the determination of outsiders that my determinants shall not be permitted to determine me; for freedom does not begin—is not an applicable idea—until all the necessaries are out of the way. One does not wonder whether the clam is free to be a bee. Why did Aristotle labor to show that change can only take place along a specific line of march (what’s white cannot become musical, he said), if not to instruct posterity?

So shall we deny the hindrance of the genes? Are we ready to defy the fact that human seeds make babies? And when we survey the range of human accomplishment, what has destiny deprived man of, or nature held him back from, which he wishes were in his reach?…besides omnipotence and immortality. Such views of man as Aristotle had, or Hume, or Hobbes, such laws as Spinoza laid upon him, or Kant or Marx, are not designed to limit behavior but to enable and explain it.

Sartre’s examples inform us that is the determinism of the family and the state that troubles him most: character and government—the clash of classes—the constraints on man placed there by man himself, not selfish cells or designs depicted in the stars; yet he has made his objection to social and political coercion into a freedom from human physis as mythological as the Moirai themselves. Against Ananke not even the gods fight, Simonides says, and it makes desperate good sense to distinguish between physical necessities and social constraints, and to kick against the pricks and not against the laws which enable us, as Aristotle says, to be an ensouled body rather than an unarticulated boneless ham or silent pitted stone.

Freedom is a wonderful dream, but Sartre’s defense of human freedom has been too strongly asserted, too badly stated, too weakly reasoned, too plainly caused, and by now the freedom he speaks of has been reduced to a blind Lucretian swerve within a steady rain of atoms.

This is the limit I would today accord to freedom: the small movement which makes of a totally conditioned social being someone who does not render back completely what his conditioning has given him. Which makes Genet a poet when he had been rigorously conditioned to be a thief.17

Yet Genet could become a poet because he possessed his enormous talent from the beginning. The fact is that social and political categories of this kind (God and His Dominions and His Powers) don’t adapt well to the rarefications of metaphysics…unless Denmark’s a prison, of course, and the world’s one.

Sartre explains that Beckett’s plays are admired by the bourgeois because the bourgeois enjoy being told that man is a depraved lost vicious lonely bored but frightened meaningless creature. Such a view will justify the severe social order they favor: the cage man is to be safely kept in. Yet the bourgeois do not like Beckett. The vast mass of the middle class like The Sound of Music. Those few self-selected members of the class who respond to Waiting for Godot are hardly characteristic of the whole. They are, furthermore, the same intelligentsia who provide Sartre with his audience and readers. It was a collection of clercs who nearly made existentialism commercial.

It is the word “bourgeois” which Sartre brings down like a club on most of his traditional opposition. Wouldn’t we all like to have such a weapon? All right. Some time ago there separated from the mass of men like cream in a bottle a group I have chosen to call (after consultation with Dr. Seuss) the Snerls. A snerl is a real or fancied aristocrat who repudiates his origins to play Papa to the masses. (There are a few Mama snerls now, but for a long time the group was almost exclusively male. This did not threaten its existence.) Not all snerls are literary men, though many are: Yeats reaching out through myth to the peasants; Tolstoy, as a young man, shutting himself in his room after witnessing the whipping of an erring coachman, and resolving, so he tells us, to change the world so he would not have to see such unpleasant things again; Mailer running for mayor; and Sartre’s many games of principle and conscience, pronouncement and cancellation, where, quite contrary to Russell’s case, the price is usually paid by others.

Yeats grew peevish with the peasants. From the seat of the righteous, Tolstoy hurled thunderbolts at Baudelaire. Dos Passos crossed nothing to reach the other side. And Mailer’s cock flaps both right wings now when it crows. Sartre is far more subtle. The writers with whom he has had some of his most remarkable differences (Baudelaire, Genet, Flaubert, Mallarmé), he surrounds with his own words like a swelling around a wound, and one of the aims of all this inflammation is to make it impossible their texts should reach us without passing, on their way, through his; although, of course, he also wishes to prove that Flaubert, for instance, was politically engagé, that he hadn’t that purity of aesthetic purpose frequently pinned on him like a medal (all true); yet none of this changes the fact that Flaubert could accept his loathing of the middle class (and himself) only if it were contained in the most rigorously articulated and profoundly beautiful forms. Flaubert was not a snerl (nor in the long run was Yeats). He was a crabby aristocrat.

Sartre insists that “you always have a right to speak evil of the bourgeois as man, but not as bourgeois,” but I should have thought that no one spoke well of the bourgeois…not under that rubric. Of course everyone has his own bourgeois (Sartre his, I mine, you yours), but to prefer content to form—what could be more bourgeois? to think of art in terms of social utility—what could be more bourgeois? to be an intellectual good Samaritan—what could be more bourgeois? to dislike plays that are too gloomy and pessimistic—what could be more bourgeois? to believe that the artist holds some sort of mirror up to nature, or like Taine that a successful work must be in harmony with its era—what could be more bourgeois? and then to feel that plays ought to do you good, that the aim of theater should be “telling the truth”—what could be more bourgeois? to hector, to teach, to drag morality into everything like the worst Victorian Pa—what could be more bourgeois? above all to put on plays which will be eaten like ice creams at intermissions (and for new times there will be new plays, new plans, new truths, and new demands)—what could be more bourgeois, or more in keeping with our consumer society where long novels burn like cigarettes, poems don’t outlast their speaking, paintings fade into the walls they hang on as though the sun were their only patron, and sculpture is made to look as if it had already been thrown away? to use up the whole of the present and dispose of it in history like trash thrown in a can—what could be more bourgeois, more vulgarly commercial, more nightschool, more USA.

Sartre admits that a revolutionary movement needs a reactionary aesthetic, and it is perfectly true that if Sartre entered stage left, he is leaving stage right, for he has managed to forsake every aesthetic norm in favor of a praxis about as effective (though no doubt immensely satisfying) as split on a wall. The editors inform us in their introduction that Sartre has given up writing plays because “the time for individual creation is over and…the dramatist’s new role is to share in a theatrical company’s collective work.” One can readily imagine the excitement of working in the company of gifted and committed people toward a cause which confusion allows everyone to believe is common. Once perhaps men were more like ants and toiled at cathedrals as if they were hills, though I don’t believe it. In any case, the individual, in-formed, isolated, and sometimes lonely consciousness which wrote Sartre’s books and (like Rilke) wrote the rest, is the supreme achievement of our tradition in the West, and if (which again I do not believe) the creative consciousness has become too expensive and in any case rather useless to the struggle of mankind for general animal ease, then general animal ease is too expensive and in any case rather useless to accomplishment, which is the task at hand. Groups feel with a shallow though terrifying strength like a wind over an inland lake; they cause, but they neither think nor create, nor did the Greeks suppose their many gods together jerrybuilt the world. I’ve had to say it before, but even in a gang bang, the best sperm gets the egg.

  1. 14

    Beckett’s work continues to ooze from the pedantically gloomy romantic molds critics persist in seeking for it. Dogmas end up fitting the same conical cap to the same cornered dunce. Claudel’s difficulties are little different, in this respect, from Brecht’s.

  2. 15

    Camus was one of those who stupidly “misunderstood.” Camus’s attitude and the general reception of Dirty Hands provoked Sartre to some interesting comments on the relation between morality and any behavior aimed at realizing an important social project: “Morality is nothing but a self-control exercised by praxis over itself, but always on an objective level; consequently, it is based on values which are constantly becoming outdated because they are posited by previous praxis.” Can one imagine a more essentially Nixonian proposition? And note the “nothing but.” Yet, according to Sartre, those who oppose this doctrine are—again—bourgeois. The entire conversation with Paolo Caruso about Dirty Hands in 1964 is epiphanous. See Sartre on Theater.

  3. 16

    Quoted by Martin Esslin in Brecht: The Man and His Work (Anchor, 1961), p.31.

  4. 17

    The Itinerary of a Thought.” A number of recent books have had to tackle these problems, as almost any work on Sartre must. Many of the points I have brought up here are sympathetically treated in Chapter Two of Existentialism and Sociology, by Ian Craib (Cambridge University Press, 1976). “Consciousness is a lack of Being and a relationship to Being and at the same time a desire for Being. It seeks to become Being…” (p. 19). Existence wants to become a part of essence, as was once alleged of God. One can also find an account of Sartre’s notion of freedom in Phyllis Sutton Morris’s Sartre’s Concept of a Person (University of Massachusetts Press, 1976). She narrows it finally to our choice of an ideal self, however I am not wholly free even there. The success of my project is not essential, but my choice must be realistic. I cannot choose to be a dancer like Nijinsky. In my case there are no means to this end.

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