Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre; drawing by David Levine

How do you envisage the relationship between your early philosophical writings, above all L’Etre et le néant, and your present theoretical work, from the Critique de la raison dialectique onward? In the Critique, the typical concepts of L’Etre et le néant have disappeared, and a completely new vocabulary has taken their place. Yet when reading the passages of your forthcoming study of Flaubert, published in Les Temps modernes, one is struck by the sudden re-emergence of the characteristic idiom of the early work—thetic consciousness, ego, nihilation, being, nothingness. These notions are now juxtaposed in the text with the distinct set of concepts which derive from the Critique. What is the precise relationship between the two in your current thought?

The basic question here, of course, is my relationship to Marxism. I will try to explain autobiographically certain aspects of my early work, which may help to clarify the reasons why my outlook changed so fundamentally after the Second World War. A simple formula would be to say that life taught me la force des choses—the power of circumstances. In a way, L’Etre et le néant itself should have been the beginning of a discovery of this power of circumstances, since I had already been made a soldier, when I had not wanted to be one. Thus I had already encountered something which was not my freedom and which steered me from without. Then I was taken prisoner, a fate which I had sought to escape. Hence I started to learn what I have called human reality among things: Being-in-the-world.

Then, little by little, I found that the world was more complicated than this, for during the Resistance there appeared to be a possibility of free decision. For my state of mind during those years, I think that the first plays I wrote are very symptomatic: I called them a “theater of freedom.” The other day, I reread a prefatory note of mine to a collection of these plays—Les Mouches, Huis clos, and others—and was truly scandalized. I had written: “Whatever the circumstances, and wherever the site, a man is always free to choose to be a traitor or not….” When I read this, I said to myself: it’s incredible, I actually believed that!

To understand how I could have done so, you must remember that there was a very simple problem during the Resistance—ultimately, only a question of courage. One had to accept the risks involved in what one was doing, that is, of being imprisoned or deported. But beyond this? A Frenchman was either for the Germans or against them, there was no other option. The real political problems, of being “for, but” or “against, but,” were not posed by this experience.

The result was that I concluded that in any circumstances, there is always a possible choice. Which is false. Indeed, it is so false that I later wanted precisely to refute myself by creating a character in Le Diable et le Bon Dieu, Heinrich, who cannot choose. He wants to choose, of course, but he cannot choose either the Church, which has abandoned the poor, or the poor, who have abandoned the Church. He is thus a living contradiction, who will never choose. He is totally conditioned by his situation.

However, I understood all this only much later. What the drama of the war gave me, as it did everyone else who participated in it, was the experience of heroism. Not my own, of course—all I did was a few errands. But the militant in the Resistance who was caught and tortured became a myth for us. Such militants existed, of course, but they represented a sort of personal myth as well. Would we be able to hold out against torture too? The problem then was solely that of physical endurance—it was not the ruses of history or the paths of alienation. A man is tortured: what will he do? He either speaks or refuses to speak. This is what I mean by the experience of heroism, which is a false experience.

After the war came the true experience, that of society. But I think it was necessary for me to pass via the myth of heroism first. That is to say, the prewar personage who was more or less Stendhal’s egotistical individualist had to be plunged into circumstances against his will, yet where he still had the power to say yes or no, in order to encounter the inextricable entanglements of the postwar years as a man totally conditioned by his social existence and yet sufficiently capable of decision to reassume all this conditioning and to become responsible for it.

For the idea which I have never ceased to develop is that in the end one is always responsible for what is made of one. Even if one can do nothing else besides assume this responsibility. For I believe that a man can always make something out of what is made of him. 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 of Genet a poet when he had been rigorously conditioned to be a thief.


Perhaps the book where I have best explained what I mean by freedom is, in fact, Saint Genet. For Genet was made a thief, he said “I am a thief,” and this tiny change was the start of a process whereby he became a poet and then eventually a being no longer even on the margin of society, someone who no longer knows where he is, who falls silent. It cannot be a happy freedom, in a case like this. Freedom is not a triumph. For Genet, it simply marked out certain routes which were not initially given.

L’Etre et le néant traced an interior experience, without any coordination with the exterior experience of a petty-bourgeois intellectual, which had become historically catastrophic at a certain moment. For I wrote L’Etre et le néant after the defeat of France, after all. But catastrophes have no lessons, unless they are the culmination of a praxis. Then one can say, my action has failed. But the disaster which overwhelmed the country had taught us nothing.

Thus, in L’Etre et le néant, what you could call “subjectivity” is not what it would be for me now, the small margin in an operation whereby an interiorization re-exteriorizes itself in an act. But “subjectivity” and “objectivity” seem to me entirely useless notions today, anyway. I might still use the term “objectivity,” I suppose, but only to emphasize that everything is objective. The individual interiorizes his social determinations: he interiorizes the relations of production, the family of his childhood, the historical past, the contemporary institutions, and he then re-exteriorizes these in acts and options which necessarily refer us back to them. None of this existed in L’Etre et le néant.

In L’Etre et le néant, you radically rejected the concept of the unconscious, saying that it was a philosophical contradiction. The model of consciousness in your early work effectively excludes any idea of it whatever. Consciousness is always transparent to itself, even if the subject creates a false screen of “bad faith.” Since then, you have among other things written a film-script on Freud

—I broke with Huston precisely because Huston did not understand what the unconscious was. That was the whole problem. He wanted to suppress it, to replace it with the preconscious. He did not want the unconscious at any price—

The question one would like to ask is how you conceive the precise theoretical stature of the work of Freud today? In view of your class position, it is not perhaps so surprising that you did not discover Marx before the war. But how did you miss Freud? Surely the opaque evidence of the unconscious, its resistances, should have been accessible to you even then? They are not exactly comparable to the class struggle.

The two questions are linked, however. The thought of both Marx and Freud is a theory of conditioning in exteriority. When Marx says: “It matters little what the bourgeoisie thinks it does, the important thing is what it does,” one could replace the “bourgeoisie,” by “a hysteric,” and the formula would be one of Freud. Having said this, I must try to recount my relationship to Freud’s work biographically.

I will begin by saying that I undoubtedly had a deep repugnance for psychoanalysis in my youth, which needs to be explained as much as my innocence of the class struggle. The fact that I was a petty bourgeois was responsible for the latter; one might say that the fact that I was French was responsible for the former. There would certainly be a lot of truth in this. You must never forget the weight of Cartesian rationalism in France. When you have just taken the bachot at the age of seventeen, with the “I think, therefore I am” of Descartes as your set text, and you open The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, and you read the famous episode of Signorelli with its substitutions, combinations, and displacements, implying that Freud was simultaneously thinking of a patient who had committed suicide and of certain Turkish mores, and so on—when you read all that, your breath is simply taken away.

Such investigations were completely outside my preoccupations at the time, which were at bottom to provide a philosophical foundation for realism. Which in my opinion is possible today, and which I have tried to do all my life. In other words, how to give man both his autonomy and his reality among real objects, avoiding idealism without lapsing into a mechanistic materialism. I posed the problem in this way because I was ignorant of dialectical materialism, although I should add that this later allowed me to assign certain limits to it—to validate the historical dialectic while rejecting a dialectic of nature, in the sense of a natural process which produces and resolves man into an ensemble of physical laws.


To return to Freud, however, I have to say that I was incapable of understanding him because I was a Frenchman with a good Cartesian tradition behind me, imbued with a certain rationalism, and I was therefore deeply shocked by the idea of the unconscious. However, I will not say only this because I must add that I remain shocked by what was inevitable in Freud—the biological and physiological language with which he underpinned thoughts which were not translatable without mediation.

Right up to the time of Fliess, as you know, he wrote physiological studies designed to provide an equivalent of the cathexes and equilibria he had found in psychoanalysis. The result is that the manner in which he describes the psychoanalytic object suffers from a kind of mechanistic cramp. This is not always true, for there are moments when he transcends this. But in general this language produces a mythology of the unconscious which I cannot accept. I am completely in agreement with the facts of disguise and repression, as facts. But the words “repression,” “censorship,” or “drive”—words which express one moment a sort of finalism and the next moment a sort of mechanism—these I reject.

Let us take the example of “condensation,” which is an ambivalent term in Freud. One can interpret it simply as a phenomenon of association, as in your English philosophers and psychologists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Two images are drawn together externally, they condense and form a third: this is classical psychological atomism. But one can also interpret the term on the contrary as expressive of a finality. Condensation occurs because two images combined answer a desire, a need.

This sort of ambiguity occurs again and again in Freud. The result is a strange representation of the unconscious as a set of rigorous mechanistic determinations, in any event a causality, and at the same time as a mysterious finality, such that there are “ruses” of the unconscious, as there are “ruses” of history; yet it is impossible to reunite the two in the work of many analysts—at least early analysts. I think that there is always a fundamental ambiguity in them; the unconscious is one moment another consciousness, and the next moment other than consciousness. What is other than consciousness then becomes simply a mechanism.

Thus I would reproach psychoanalytic theory with being a syncretic and not a dialectical thought. The word “complex,” indeed, indicates this very clearly: interpenetration without contradiction. I agree, of course, that there may exist an enormous number of “larval” contradictions within individuals, which are often translated in certain situations by interpenetrations and not by confrontations. But this does not mean these contradictions do not exist. The results of syncretism, on the contrary, can be seen in the idea of the Oedipus complex, for instance: the fact is that analysts manage to find everything in it, equally well the fixation on the mother, love of the mother, or hatred of the mother, as Melanie Klein argues. In other words, anything can be derived from it, since it is not structured.

The consequence is that an analyst can say one thing and then the contrary immediately afterward, without in any way worrying about lack of logic, since after all “opposites interpenetrate.” A phenomenon can mean this, while its contrary can also mean the same thing. Psychoanalytic theory is thus a “soft” thought. It has no dialectical logic to it. Psychoanalysts will tell me that this is so because there is no such thing as logic in reality. But this is precisely what I am not sure of: I am convinced that complexes exist, but I am not so certain that they are not structured.

In particular, I believe that if complexes are true structures, “analytic skepticism” would have to be abandoned. What I call the “affective skepticism” of psychoanalysts is the belief of so many of them that the relationship which unites two people is only a “reference” to an original relationship which is an absolute: an allusion to a primal scene, incomparable and unforgettable—yet forgotten—between father and mother. Ultimately, any sentiment experienced by an adult becomes for the analyst a sort of occasion for the rebirth of another.

Now, there is a real truth in this: the fixation of a girl on an older man may well come from her father, or the fixation of a young man on a girl may derive from a profusion of original relationships. But what is missing in conventional psychoanalytic accounts is the idea of dialectical irreducibility. In a truly dialectical theory, such as historical materialism, phenomena derive from each other dialectically: there are different configurations of dialectical reality, and each of these configurations is rigorously conditioned by the previous one, while preserving and superseding it at the same time. This supersession is, however, precisely irreducible. While one configuration may preserve another, it can never simply be reduced to its predecessor. It is the idea of this autonomy that is lacking in psychoanalytic theory. A sentiment or a passion between two persons is certainly highly conditioned by their relationship to the “primal object,” and one can locate this object within it and explain the new relationship by it; but the relationship itself remains irreducible.

Thus there is an essential difference between my relationship to Marx and my relationship to Freud. When I discovered the class struggle, this was a true discovery, in which I now believe totally, in the very form of the descriptions which Marx gave of it. Only the epoch has changed; otherwise it is the same struggle with the same classes and the same road to victory. Whereas I do not believe in the unconscious in the form in which psychoanalysis presents it to us. In my present book on Flaubert, I have replaced my earlier notion of consciousness (although I still use the word a lot), with what I call le vécu—lived experience.

I will try to describe in a moment what I mean by this term, which is neither the precautions of the preconscious, nor the unconscious, nor consciousness, but the terrain in which the individual is perpetually overflowed by himself and his riches, and consciousness plays the trick of determining itself by forgetfulness.

In L’Etre et le néant, there is not much room for the phenomenon of dreams. For Freud dreams were a privileged “space” of the unconscious, the zone where psychoanalysis was discovered. Do you try to situate the space of dreams in your current work? This would be a concrete test of your present relationship to Freud.

My work on Flaubert deals with dreams. Unfortunately Flaubert himself reports very few of his dreams. But there are two extremely striking ones—both nightmares, which he recounts in Mémoire d’un fou, an autobiography he wrote at the age of seventeen, and which are thus perhaps partly invented. One concerns his father, the other his mother: both reveal his relationship to his parents with an extraordinary clarity.

The interesting thing, however, is that otherwise Flaubert virtually never mentions his parents in his writings. In fact, he had very bad relationships with both his father and his mother, for a large number of reasons which I try to analyze. He says nothing about them. They do not exist in his early works. The only time that he speaks of them, he speaks of them precisely where a psychoanalyst would like him to do, in the narrative of a dream. Yet it is Flaubert himself who spontaneously does so. Thereafter, at the very end of his life, five years before he died, he published a novella called La Légende de Saint Julien l’Hospitalier, which he said he had wanted to write for thirty years: it is in effect the story of a man who kills his father and his mother and who becomes a writer by doing so.

Thus Flaubert has two quite different conceptions of himself. One is at the level of banal description, for example when he writes to his mistress Louise: “What am I? Am I intelligent or am I stupid? Am I sensitive or am I stolid? Am I mean or am I generous? Am I selfish or am I selfless? I have no idea, I suppose I am like everyone else, I waver between all these….” In other words, at this level he is completely lost. Why? Because none of these notions has any meaning in itself. They only acquire meaning from inter-subjectivity, in other words, what I have called in the Critique the “objective spirit” within which each member of a group or society refers to himself and appears to others, establishing relations of interiority between persons which derive from the same information or the same context.

Yet one cannot say that Flaubert did not have, at the very height of his activity, a comprehension of the most obscure origins of his own history. He once wrote a remarkable sentence: “You are doubtless like myself, you all have the same terrifying and tedious depths”—les mêmes profondeurs terribles et ennuyeuses. What could be a better formula for the whole world of psychoanalysis, in which one makes terrifying discoveries, yet these always tediously come to the same thing? His awareness of these depths was not an intellectual one. He later wrote that he often had fulgurating intuitions, akin to a dazzling bolt of lightning in which one simultaneously sees nothing and sees everything. Each time they went out, he tried to retrace the paths revealed to him by this blinding light, stumbling and falling in the subsequent darkness.

For me these formulations define the relationship which Flaubert had with what is ordinarily called the unconscious, and what I would call a total absence of knowledge, but a real comprehension. I distinguish between comprehension and intellection: there can be intellection of a practical conduct, but only comprehension of a passion. What I call le vécu—lived experience—is precisely the ensemble of the dialectical process of psychic life, in so far as this process is obscure to itself because it is a constant totalization, thus necessarily a totalization which cannot be conscious of what it is. One can be conscious of an external totalization, but one cannot be conscious of a totalization which also totalizes consciousness. “Lived experience,” in this sense, is perpetually susceptible of comprehension, but never of knowledge. Taking it as a point of departure, one can know certain psychic phenomena by concepts, but not this experience itself. The highest form of comprehension of lived experience can forge its own language—which will always be inadequate, and yet which will often have the metaphorical structure of the dream itself.

Comprehension of a dream occurs when a man can express it in a language which is itself dreamt. Lacan says that the unconscious is structured like a language. I would say that the language which expresses it has the structure of a dream. In other words, comprehension of the unconscious in most cases never achieves explicit expression.

Flaubert constantly speaks of l’indisable, which means the “unsayable,” only the word does not exist in French, it should be l’indicible (perhaps it was a regional usage in Flaubert’s time, but in any case it is not the normal word). The “unsayable,” however, was something very definite for him. When he gave his autobiography to his mistress at the age of twenty-five, he wrote to her: “You will suspect all the unsayable.” Which did not mean family secrets or anything like that. Of course, he hated his elder brother, but this is not what he was talking about. He meant precisely this kind of comprehension of oneself which cannot be named and which perpetually escapes one.

The conception of “lived experience” marks my change since L’Etre et le néant. My early work was a rationalist philosophy of consciousness. It was all very well for me to dabble in apparently nonrational processes in the individual, the fact remains that L’Etre et le néant is a monument of rationality. But in the end it becomes an irrationalism, because it cannot account rationally for those processes which are “below” consciousness and which are also rational, but lived as irrational. Today, the notion of “lived experience” represents an effort to preserve that presence to itself which seems to me indispensable for the existence of any psychic fact, while at the same time this presence is so opaque and blind before itself that it is also an absence from itself. “Lived experience” is always simultaneously present to itself and absent from itself.

In developing this notion, I have tried to surpass the traditional psychoanalytic ambiguity of psychic facts which are both teleological and mechanical, by showing that every psychic fact involves an intentionality which aims at something, while among them a certain number can only exist if they are comprehended, but neither named nor known. The latter include what I call the “stress” of a neurosis. A neurosis is in the first instance a specific wound, a defective structure which is a certain way of living a childhood. But this is only the initial wound: it is then patched up and bandaged by a system which covers and soothes the wound, and which then, like antibodies in certain cases, suddenly does something abominable to the organism. The unity of this system is the neurosis. The work of its “stress” is intentional, but it cannot be seized as such without disappearing. It is precisely for this reason that if it is transferred into the domain of knowledge, by analytic treatment, it can no longer be reproduced in the same manner.

There is an obvious question raised by your work on Flaubert. You have already written a study of Baudelaire

—A very inadequate, an extremely bad one—

Then a long book on Genet, after that an essay on Tintoretto, and then an autobiography, Les Mots. After this succession of writings, what will be the methodological novelty of the book on Flaubert? Why exactly did you decide to return once again to the project of explaining a life?

In the Question de méthode, I discussed the different mediations and procedures which could permit an advance in our knowledge of men if they were taken together. In fact, everyone knows and everyone admits, for instance, that psychoanalysis and Marxism should be able to find the mediations necessary to allow a combination of the two. Everyone adds, of course, that psychoanalysis is not primary, but that correctly coupled and rationalized with Marxism, it can be useful. Likewise, everyone says that there are American sociological notions which have a certain validity, and that sociology in general should be used—not, of course, the Russian variety which is no more than enumeration or nomenclature. Everyone agrees on all this. Everyone in fact says it—but who has tried to do it?

I myself was in general only repeating these irreproachable maxims in Question de méthode. The idea of the book on Flaubert was to abandon these theoretical disquisitions, because they were ultimately getting us nowhere, and to try to give a concrete example of how it might be done. The result can look after itself. Even if it is a failure, it can thereby give others the idea of redoing it, better. For the question the book seeks to answer is: how shall I study man with all these methods, and how in this study will these methods condition each other and find their respective place?

You feel you did not have these keys when you wrote Saint Genet, for example?

No, I did not have them all. It is obvious that the study of the conditioning of Genet by institutions and history is inadequate—very, very inadequate. The main lines of the interpretation, that Genet was an orphan on Public Assistance who was sent to a peasant home and who owned nothing, remain true, doubtless. But all the same, this happened in 1925 or so and there was a whole context to this life which is quite absent. The Public Assistance, a foundling represent a specific social phenomenon, and anyway Genet is a product of the twentieth century; yet none of this is registered in the book.

Whereas today I would like the reader to feel the presence of Flaubert the whole time; my ideal would be that the reader simultaneously feels, comprehends, and knows the personality of Flaubert, totally as an individual and yet totally as an expression of his time. In other words. Flaubert can be understood only by his difference from his neighbors.

Do you see what I mean by this? For example, there were a considerable number of writers who elaborated analogous theories at the time and produced more or less valid works inspired by them—Leconte de Lisle or the Goncourts, for example: it is necessary to try to study how they were all determined to produce this particular vision, and how Flaubert was determined similarly yet otherwise, and saw it in another fashion. My aim is to try to demonstrate the encounter between the development of the person, as psychoanalysis has shown it to us, and the development of history.

For at a certain moment, an individual in his very deepest and most intimate conditioning, by the family, can fulfill a historical role. Robespierre could be taken as an example. But it would be impossible to pursue such a study of him, because there are no materials for doing so. What would be necessary to know is what was the encounter of the revolution which created the Committee of Public Safety, and the son of Monsieur and Madame Robespierre of Arras.

This is the theoretical aim of your present work. But why exactly the choice of Flaubert?

Because he is the imaginary. With him, I am at the border, the barrier of dreams.

There have been writers or politicians who have left a certain work and who could equally well provide the material for such a study

In theory, yes. There were a number of reasons, however, which led me to select Flaubert. Firstly, to give the strictly circumstantial cause of this selection: Flaubert is one of the very rare historical or literary personages who have left behind so much information about themselves. There are no fewer than thirteen volumes of correspondence, each of six hundred pages or so. He often wrote letters to several persons the same day, with slight variations between them, which are often very amusing.

Apart from this, there are numerous reports and witnesses of him; The Goncourt brothers kept a diary and saw Flaubert very frequently, so that we see him from the outside through the Goncourts and we also have a record of what he said to others about himself, recorded by the Goncourts—not an altogether trustworthy source, of course, since they were rancorous imbeciles in many ways. Nevertheless, there are many facts in their Journal. Besides this, of course, there is a complete correspondence with George Sand, letters of George Sand on Flaubert, memoirs of him, and so on. All this is completely circumstantial, but it is of great importance.

Secondly, however, Flaubert represents for me the exact opposite of my own conception of literature: a total disengagement and a certain idea of form, which is not what I admire. For example, Stendhal is a writer whom I greatly prefer to Flaubert, while Flaubert is probably much more important for the development of the novel than Stendhal. I mean that Stendhal is much finer and stronger. One can give oneself completely to him—his style is acceptable, his heroes are sympathetic, his vision of the world is true and the historical conception behind it is very acute.

There is nothing like this in Flaubert. Only Flaubert is much more significant than Stendhal for the history of the novel. If Stendhal had not existed, it would still have been possible to go straight from Laclos to Balzac. Whereas, let us say, Zola or the Nouveau roman are inconceivable without Flaubert. Stendhal is greatly loved by the French, but his influence on the novel is minimal. Flaubert’s influence by contrast is immense, and for this reason alone it is important to study him.

In view of this, he began to fascinate me precisely because I saw him in every way as the contrary of myself. I found myself wondering: “How was he possible?” For I then rediscovered another dimension of Flaubert, which is besides the very source of his talent. I was used to reading Stendhal and company, where one is in complete accord with the hero, whether he is Julien Sorel or Fabrice.

Reading Flaubert one is plunged into persons with whom one is in complete disaccord, who are irksome. Sometimes one feels with them, and then somehow they suddenly reject one’s sympathy and one finds oneself once again antagonistic to them. Obviously it was this that fascinated me, because it made me curious. This is precisely Flaubert’s art. It is clear that he detested himself, and when he speaks of his principal characters, he has a terrible attitude of sadism and masochism toward them: he tortures them because they are himself, and also to show that other people and the world torture him. He also tortures them because they are not him and he is anyway vicious and sadistic and wants to torture others. His unfortunate characters have very little luck, being subjected to all this.

At the same time, Flaubert writes from within his characters and is always speaking of himself in a certain fashion. He thus succeeds in speaking of himself in a way that is unique. This type of discomfited, refused confession, with its self-hatred, its constant reversion to things he comprehends without knowing, wanting to be completely lucid and yet always grating—Flaubert’s testimony about himself is something exceptional, which had never been seen before and has not been seen since. This is another motive for studying him.

The third reason for choosing Flaubert is that he represents a sequel to L’Imaginaire. You may remember that in my early book L’Imaginaire I tried to show that an image is not a sensation reawakened, or reworked by the intellect, or even a former perception altered and attenuated by knowledge, but is something entirely different—an absent reality, focused in its absence through what I called an analogon: that is to say, an object which serves as an analogy and is traversed by an intention. For example, when you are going to sleep, the little dots in your eyes—phosphenes—may serve as an analogy for every kind of oneiric or hypnagogic image. Between waking and sleeping, some people see vague shapes pass, which are phosphenes through which they focus on an imagined person or a thing.

In L’Imaginaire, I tried to prove that imaginary objects—images—are an absence. In my book on Flaubert, I am studying imaginary persons—people who like Flaubert act out roles. A man is like a leak of gas, escaping into the imaginary. Flaubert did so perpetually; yet he also had to see reality because he hated it, so there is the whole question of the relationship between the real and the imaginary which I try to study in his life and work.

Finally, by way of all this, it is possible to ask the question: what was the imaginary social world of the dreamy bourgeoisie of 1848? This is an intriguing subject in itself. Between 1830 and 1840 Flaubert was in a lycée in Rouen, and all his texts speak of his fellow-pupils there as contemptible, mediocre bourgeois. It so happens, however, that there were five years of violent, historic fights in the lycées of that time! After the revolution of 1830, there were boys who launched political struggles in the schools, who fought and were defeated.

The reading of the romantics, of which Flaubert speaks so often as a challenge to their parents, is only explicable in this perspective: when these youths finally become blasés, they are reclaimed as “ironic” bourgeois, and they have failed. The extraordinary thing is that Flaubert does not say a word about any of this. He simply describes the boys who surround him as if they were future adults—in other words, abject. He writes: “I saw defects which would become vices, needs which would become manias, follies which would become crimes—in short, children would become men.” The only history of the school for him was the passage from childhood to maturity. The reality is, however, that this history was that of a bourgeoisie seized with shame at itself in its sons, of the defeat of these sons and thereby the suppression of its shame. The end result of this history is the massacre of 1848.

Before 1830, the bourgeoisie was hiding under its blankets. When it finally emerged, its sons cried, “Bravo! We are going to declare the Republic,” but their fathers found they needed an eiderdown after all. Louis-Philippe became king. The sons persuaded themselves their fathers had been duped, and continued the struggle. The result was an uproar in the schools: in vain—they were expelled.

In 1831, when Louis-Philippe dismissed Lafayette and the road to reaction was open, there were boys of thirteen or fourteen in Flaubert’s school who calmly refused to go to confession, having decided that this was an excellent pretext for a confrontation with the authorities, since after all the bourgeoisie was still officially Voltairean. Confession was a survival from Louis XVIII and Charles X, and raised awkward questions about compulsory religious instruction, which might eventually get as far as the Chamber of Deputies. I take off my hat to these boys of fourteen who planned this strategy, knowing very well that they would be expelled from the school.

The chaplain descended on them—“Confess!” “No!”—then another functionary—“No, No, No!”—they were taken to the principal and thrown out of the school. Whereupon there was a gigantic uproar in the whole college, which was what they had hoped for. The fourth-year class threw rotten eggs at the vice-principal, and two more boys were expelled. Then the day-boys of the class met at dawn and took an oath to avenge their comrades. The next day at six in the morning, the boarders opened the doors to them. Together, they seized and occupied the building. Already, in 1831! From their fortress there, they bombarded the Academic Council which was deliberating in another building within reach of their windows.

The principal was meanwhile throwing himself at the feet of the older pupils, imploring them not to go along with the occupation—successfully. Eventually, the fourth-year class did not achieve the reinstatement of their comrades, but the authorities had to promise that there would be no sanctions against them for the occupation. Three days later, they found they had been tricked: the college was closed for two months. Exactly like today!

The next year, when they came back, they were naturally enraged and there was constant turbulence in the lycée. This was the time in which Flaubert lived, and yet he did not experience it like that. He wrote a great deal about his childhood and youth—but there is not a single text which refers to this history. In fact, what happened, of course, was that he lived the same evolution of this generation in his own way. He was unaffected by this violent episode and yet he arrived at the same result by a different route somewhat later.

The philosophy teacher in the school fell ill, and a substitute took over for him. The pupils decided the substitute was an incompetent and made life impossible for him. The principal tried to victimize two or three, and the whole class joined with them: Flaubert now wrote their collective letter to the principal, denouncing the quality of the course and the threats of punishment. The upshot was that he and two or three others were expelled from the school.

The meaning of the protest this time is very clear: Flaubert and his classmates were young bourgeois demanding a proper bourgeois education—“Our fathers are paying enough, after all.” The evolution of a generation and of a class is manifest in this second episode. These different experiences produce a bitter literature on the bourgeoisie and then this generation resigns itself to becoming merely ironic—another way of being bourgeois.

Why have you opted for biography and the theater in recent years, and abandoned the novel? Is it that you think Marxism and psychoanalysis have rendered the novel as a form impossible, by the weight of their concepts?

I have often asked myself that question. It is, in fact, true that there is no technique that can account for a character in a novel as one can account for a real person, who has existed, by means of a Marxist or psychoanalytic interpretation. But if an author has recourse to these two systems within a novel, without an adequate formal device for doing so, the novel disappears. These devices are lacking, and I do not know if they are possible.

You think that the existence of Marxism and of psychoanalysis prevents any novelist from writing, so to speak, naïvely today?

By no means. But if he does so, the novel will all the same be classified as “naïve.” In other words, a natural universe of the novel will not exist, only a certain specific type of novel—the “spontaneous,” “naïve” novel. There are excellent examples of the latter, but the author who writes them has to make a conscious decision to ignore these interpretative techniques. Thereby he necessarily becomes less naïve. There is another type of novel today in which the work is conceived as a sort of infernal machine—fake novels like those of Gombrowicz, for example. Gombrowicz is aware of psychoanalysis, and of Marxism and many other things, but he remains skeptical about them, and hence constructs objects which destroy themselves in their very act of construction—creating a model for what might be a novel with an analytic and materialist foundation.

Why have you personally stopped writing novels?

Because I have felt no urge to do so. Writers have always more or less chosen the imaginary. They have a need for a certain ration of fiction. Writing on Flaubert is enough for me by way of fiction—it might indeed be called a novel. Only I would like people to say that it was a true novel. I try to achieve a certain level of comprehension of Flaubert by means of hypotheses. Thus I use fiction—guided and controlled, but nonetheless fiction—to explore why, let us say, Flaubert wrote one thing on the 15th March and the exact opposite on the 21st March, to the same correspondent, without worrying about the contradiction. My hypotheses are in this sense a sort of invention of the personage.

You have reproached such books as The Children of Sanchez for not being literary works because the people in it speak a language like that of all of us when we are not writers. You think such works lack invention?

The Children of Sanchez is not a literary work, but it renders a mass of literary works redundant. Why write a novel on its characters or their milieu? They tell us much more by themselves, with a much greater self-understanding and eloquence. The book is not literature because there is no quest for a form that has also a meaning in it: for me the two—form and meaning—are always linked. There is in this book no production of an object, a constructed object.

You continue to write plays?

Yes, because plays are something else again. For me the theater is essentially a myth. Take the example of a petty bourgeois and his wife who quarrel with each other the whole time. If you tape their disputes, you will record not only the two of them, but the petty bourgeoisie and its world, what society has made of it, and so on. Two or three such studies and any possible novel on the life of a petty bourgeois couple would be outclassed.

By contrast, the relationship between man and woman as we see it in Strindberg’s Dance of Death will never be outclassed. The subject is the same, but taken to the level of myth. The playwright presents to men the eidos of their daily existence: their own life in such a way that they see it as if externally. This was the genius of Brecht, indeed. Brecht would have protested violently if anyone said to him that his plays were myths. Yet what else is Mother Courage—an antimyth that despite itself becomes a myth?

You discussed the theater with Brecht?

I saw Brecht three or four times in a political context, but we never had a chance to discuss the theater. I admire Brecht’s plays very much, but I think that what Brecht said about them is not always true. His theory of Entfremdungdistancement—is one thing: the actual relationship between the public and his characters is another. The blind and deaf girl in Mother Courage calls to the people when she falls from the roof, dying.

This is another scene of pathos, and yet it is precisely a passage of the play where Brecht most wants to establish a contestation and recoil from the drama. Mother Courage herself is an anti-heroine who—unavoidably, by her very mystification—becomes a heroine. The Caucasian Chalk Circle presents the same paradox—scenes such as the flight of the servant or the adjudication of the child, which despite all Brecht’s efforts are extremely moving in the most classical tradition of the theater. Brecht was tremendously astute in his use of theater, but he could not always control the final result of his writing.

Your own analysis of the fundamental reason for the degradation of groups into series in the Critique is that scarcity ultimately renders inevitable the fall of any collective project into the “practico-inert.” China remains a very poor country, with a low level of development of productive forces. Your own account of the reign of scarcity leads to the conclusion that it is impossible to abolish bureaucracy in such a country; any attempt to overcome bureaucratic degradation of the revolution will inevitably be profoundly marked by the objective limits imposed by scarcity. This line of argument would explain the bureaucratic safety-rails, whether institutional like the army or ideological like the cult of personality, which trammel mass initiative in China?

It is evident that completely untrammeled initiatives can lead to a sort of madness. Because the free and anarchic development of the individual—not the social individual of the future, but the free practical organism of today—may not endanger his own reason, but can endanger a society. But to insist on his total freedom within a fused group and at the same time to put pebbles in his head called the Thoughts of Mao is not to create a whole man. The two halves of the process are in complete contradiction.

Perhaps the paradox of the cultural revolution is that it is ultimately impossible in China, where it was invented, but is somewhat more possible in the advanced countries of the West?

I think that is correct. With one qualification: is a cultural revolution possible without making the revolution? French youth during May wanted a cultural revolution—what was missing for them to achieve one? The ability to make a real revolution. In other words, a revolution which is in no way initially cultural, but is the seizure of power by violent class struggle. Which is not to say that the idea of cultural revolution in France was merely a mirage: on the contrary, it expressed a radical contestation of every established value of the university and society, a way of looking at them as if they had already perished. It is very important that this contestation be maintained.

What were the main lessons of the May Revolt for you?

I have always been convinced that the origins of May lie in the Vietnamese Revolution. For the French students who unleashed the process of May, the Vietnamese war was not merely a question of taking the side of the National Liberation Front or the people of Vietnam against US imperialism. The fundamental impact of war on European or US militants was its enlargement of the field of the possible. It had previously seemed impossible that the Vietnamese could resist successfully such an enormous military machine and win. Yet that is what they did and by doing so they completely changed the horizon of French students, among others: they now knew that there were possibilities that remained unknown. Not that everything is possible, but that one can only know something is impossible once one has tried it and failed. This was a profound discovery, rich in its eventual consequences and revolutionary in the West.

Today, more than a year later, it is clear that to a certain extent we have discovered the impossible. In particular, so long as the French Communist Party is the largest conservative party in France, and so long as it has the confidence of the workers, it will be impossible to make the free revolution that was missed in May. Which only means that it is necessary to pursue the struggle, however protracted it may be, with the same persistence as the Vietnamese, who after all are continuing to fight and continuing to win.

May was not a revolution: it did not destroy the bourgeois state. To make the revolution next time, organization will be necessary to coordinate and lead the struggle. What sort of political organization do you judge to be the appropriate instrument today?

It is obvious that anarchism leads nowhere, today as yesterday. The central question is whether in the end the only possible type of political organization is that which we know in the shape of the present CP’s: hierarchical division between leadership and rankand-file, communications and instructions proceeding from above downward only, isolation of each cell from every other, vertical powers of dissolution and discipline, separation of workers and intellectuals? This pattern developed from a form of organization which was born clandestinely in the time of the Tsars.

What are the objective justifications of its existence in the West today? Its purpose here appears merely to ensure an authoritarian centralism which excludes any democratic practice. Of course, in a civil war situation, a militarized discipline is necessary. But does a proletarian party have to resemble the present-day Communist Parties? Is it not possible to conceive of a type of political organization where men are not barred and stifled? Such an organization would contain different currents, and would be capable of closing itself in moments of danger, to reopen thereafter.

It is always true, of course, that to fight something one must change oneself into it; in other words one must become its true opposite and not merely other than it. A revolutionary party must necessarily reproduce—up to a certain limit—the centralization and coercion of the bourgeois state which it is its mission to overthrow. However, the whole problem—the history of our century is there to prove it—is that once a party dialectically undergoes this ordeal, it may become arrested there. The result then is that it has enormous difficulty in ever escaping from the bureaucratic rut which it initially accepted to make the revolution against a bureaucratic-military machine.

From that moment on, only a cultural revolution against the new order can prevent a degradation of it. It is not a benevolent reform that is occurring in China today, it is the violent destruction of a whole system of privilege. Yet we know nothing of what the future will be in China.

The danger of a bureaucratic deterioration will be powerfully present in any Western country, if we succeed in making the revolution: that is absolutely inevitable, since both external imperialist encirclement and the internal class struggle will continue to exist. The idea of an instant and total liberation is a utopia. We can already foresee some of the limits and constraints of a future revolution. But he who takes these as an excuse not to make the revolution and who fails to struggle for it now, is simply a counter-revolutionary.

Abroad, you are often seen as a classical product of French university culture. The university system in which you were educated and made your early career, was the exact target of the first explosion which set off the upheaval of May. What is your judgment of it now?

It is certainly true that I am a product of this system, and I am very aware of it: although I hope that I am not only that. When I was a student, only a very small elite got to the university, and if one had the additional “luck” to get into the Ecole Normale, one had every material advantage. In a sense the French university system formed me more than its professors, because in my time the latter, with only one or two exceptions, were very mediocre.

But the system, above all the Ecole Normale, I accepted as absolutely natural: son and grandson of petty bourgeois intellectuals, it never occurred to me to question it. The lectures of the cours magistral seemed idiotic to us, but only because the teachers who gave them had nothing to tell us. Later, others saw that the lecture course itself was irredeemable. We merely abstained from ever going to the Sorbonne: only once, when law students threatened to invade it, did we go to the lectures there—otherwise never.

Most of the Ecole Normale students of my time were very proud if they became agrégés, for instance (although there were a few who thought the hierarchy of agrégés and licenciés was monstrous). Nizan was an exception, of course. He detested the Ecole Normale for a very good reason—its class function in creating a privileged elite. Although he was academically “successful,” he never, never fitted into the system. By the third year he was in such a state of malaise that he escaped to Aden. Of course, this was related to neurotic problems in his personal history, but the fundamental fact was that he could not breathe within these institutions designed to perpetuate a monopoly of knowledge.

What is your view of a correct Marxist practice within the institutions of bourgeois culture—the educational system—after May?

Is a positive revolutionary culture conceivable today? For me, this is the most difficult problem posed by your question. My frank opinion is that everything within bourgeois culture that will be surpassed by a revolutionary culture will nevertheless also be preserved by it. I do not believe that a revolutionary culture will forget Rimbaud, Baudelaire, or Flaubert, merely because they were very bourgeois and not exactly friends of the people. They will have their place in any future socialist culture, but it will be a new place determined by new needs and relations. They will not be great principal values, but they will be part of a tradition reassessed by a different praxis and a different culture.

But how can they be reassessed today, when a revolutionary culture does not exist? They have only one place within existing society—the site assigned to them by bourgeois culture. What is the “correct use” of Rimbaud for a young socialist militant in Vincennes or Nanterre? The question is unanswerable.

It is true that a certain number of university intellectuals of an older generation became revolutionaries within a society that dispensed this culture to them. But the situation has changed radically since then. To take only the material conditions of a university education: in my time an orthodox lecture course was trundled out to perhaps fifteen or twenty people. It was less shocking, because it could formally be contested: a student could interrupt and say he disagreed, and the lecturer would tolerate this because it hid the completely authoritarian character of the whole course. Today, there are one hundred or two hundred students where there were once fifteen. There is no longer any chance of this. Where it was once possible to turn bourgeois culture against itself, showing that Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity had become their opposites, today the only possibility is to be against bourgeois culture.

For the traditional system is collapsing. The Baccalaureat in France is something incredible in its antiquation. In Rouen-Le Havre recently, the subject of the philosophy paper was: “Epictetus said to a disciple: ‘Live Hidden.’ Comment.” Can you imagine—giving a question like that to schoolchildren of sixteen in this day and age! Not only the reference is outrageous, of course. Between 10 percent and 20 percent of the candidates thought that Vis Caché (Live Hidden) was Vices Cachés (Hidden Vices), imagining perhaps that this was ancient orthography, and interpreted the quotation to mean: “Hide your Vices.” They then developed at length the idea of Epictetus along the lines “If you have vices, satisfy them, but secretly.”

The funniest and saddest thing of all is that they approved the formula of Epictetus! “For it is like that in society, one can have a vice, but one should practice it in solitude.” Innocent answers, showing what bourgeois morality is in fact like; pitiful answers because these pupils obviously thought, “Epictetus must be famous, if I criticize him I might get four out of twenty and fail, the only thing to do is to agree with him.”

There is no relationship, no contact whatever between these young people and their teachers. Bourgeois culture in France is destroying itself. Thus for the moment, regardless of the eventual future, I believe that a radical negation of the existing culture is the only possible option for young militants—a negation which will often take the form of violent contestation.

Are you going to write a sequel to Les Mots? What are your future plans?

No, I do not think that a sequel to Les Mots would be of much interest. The reason why I produced Les Mots is the reason why I have studied Genet or Flaubert: how does a man become someone who writes, who wants to speak of the imaginary? This is what I sought to answer in my own case, as I sought it in that of others.

What could there be to say of my existence since 1939? How I became the writer who produced the particular works I have signed. But the reason why I wrote La Nausée rather than some other book is of little importance. It is the birth of the decision to write that is of interest. Thereafter, what is equally interesting are the reasons why I was to write exactly the contrary of what I wanted to write. But this is another subject altogether—the relationship of a man to the history of his time.

Thus what I will write one day is a political testament. The title is perhaps a bad one, since a testament implies the idea of giving advice; here it will simply be the end of a life. What I would like to show is how a man comes to politics, how he is caught by it, and how he is remade other by it; because you must remember that I was not made for politics, and yet I was remade by politics so that I eventually had to enter it. It is this which is

The full text of this interview, which includes a long discussion of the Critique de la raison dialectique, omitted here, was published in No. 58 of New Left Review, 7 Carlisle Street, London W 1. Members of the NLR editorial board conducted the interview with Sartre.


In order to conquer the Biafrans, the nations of the world have allowed the prosecution of a slow war, of hunger and disease. They have tolerated a pseudo-Labor Great Britain and pseudo-Socialist Russia competing with each other to send the most efficient people and the most murderous weapons to allow killers to operate under the most favorable conditions.

Mutilation, bombardment of hospitals and markets, murder pure and simple, not to mention the imposition of an almost complete blockade—nothing has been omitted from this war. And it has carried with it the approval of almost all African states, Arab states, the states of the third world, social-democratic states, fascist states, and others—not to mention the Secretary-General of the United Nations, U Thant, who has given his murderous blessing to the great cause of united petroleum in Nigeria.

There can be no justification for such ignominy. It has no name, but by virtue of it, the Jews were turned into soap, and the Sudanese negroes into game. The South American Indians were slowly exterminated because of it, the Kurds in Iraq were disposed of, and so were the communists in Indonesia. By virtue of it, millions of citizens have been deported by the Soviet Union, and tanks have been sent into Czechoslovakia.

The Biafran issue sums up all of this. But it also marks the beginning of a decidedly new era in human affairs.

An era in which any country will, in the face of any other, or all of them put together, be able to profess it is doing almost anything for the sake of virtually any principle it cares to name.

Let the killers and the stock-phrase ideologists of the world rejoice. Their reign embraces the earth. curious. I will recount what I did politically, what mistakes I committed, and what resulted from it. In doing so, I will try to define what constitutes politics today, in our own phase of history.

—from Peace News, London, January 30, 1970

World Copyright, New Left Review

This Issue

March 26, 1970