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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue — that’s 10 digital issues plus six months of full archive access plus the NYR App for just $10.
World Copyright, New Left Review