Existentialism, Sartre

921601

Sartre, Iris Murdoch
Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction, Thomas R Flynn

Existentialism is commonly associated with Left-Bank Parisian cafes and the ‘family’ of philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) who gathered there in the years immediately following the liberation of Paris at end of World War II… The mood is one of enthusiasm, creativity, anguished self-analysis, and freedom – always freedom. (Flynn)

These two books are only short, not taking up much room in my backpack, and I thought, rightly as it turned out, that I might at last have the leisure to both read and think about them as I was training and boating around southern Europe. To say that I understood them however, and particularly Iris Murdoch’s dense 1953 account of Sartre’s early writing, would be an overstatement.

I first came to Existentialism when I lost my licence (for speeding in a heavy vehicle) and returned to uni for a year of Arts in 1971, and it subsequently became an important part of my opposition to conscription and the Viet Nam War.

I was impressed by Sartre’s credo – Existence precedes Essence, by his work as a novelist, and by his commitment to Revolution. For a number of years I carried a battered copy of his opus, Being and Nothingness (L’Être et le Néant, 1943) with me in the truck, a copy which went missing with many of my ‘political’ books when my son was a teenager, and which I saw maybe ten years ago, on the shelves of one of his friends. When I chipped him about this he said, “Oh yeah, there’s a few of your books in a box out the back.” But that’s as close as I ever got to recovering them.

English philosopher and author Iris Murdoch’s book was the first monograph on Sartre in English (Wiki). Sartre’s writing is notoriously difficult but a beginning to comprehending it might lie in Murdoch’s description of his discursive method of argument. Sartre believes (you can take as read in all that follows, “in my limited understanding”) that you can never know yourself fully through self-reflection, but that, if you are honest with yourself, then each iteration of reflection results in improvement.

According to Murdoch, Sartre is an unwilling solipsist. He wishes to believe in the Other, indeed he imagines himself the unwilling object of the Other’s gaze, but is unable to determine what, or even if, the Other is thinking. And this leads us to ‘Bad Faith’ (mauvaise foi). Good Faith involves constant reflection, to refine our understanding and therefore, our behaviour. Bad Faith consequently, involves a lack of reflection, an acceptance of ourselves as we imagine we are seen by others.

Being and Nothingness is apparently just a (very) extensive rendition of Sartre’s reflections, psychoanalysis as metaphysics according to Murdoch, in which successive iterations progress his arguments (and our understanding, to the extent that we can follow him). Likewise, Flynn’s much later ‘Very Short Introduction’ describes how Sartre’s political thinking was progressed both by reflection and by his better understanding of the external, “real” world, as he got older.

Sartre comes to politics from two points of view. Partly he approaches it as a philosophical solution to a solipsistic dilemma. Partly he meets it as the practical concern of a Western democrat. Sartre has in himself both the intense egocentric conception of personal life and the pragmatic utilitarian view of politics which most western people keep as two separate notions in their head… (Murdoch)

Sartre’s writings were initially concerned with his theories of self, and were very much derived from intense and continuous self analysis. However the War, and in particular of course, the fall of Paris to the Nazis in 1940, brought home to him the need to engage with politics. The pivotal position of the Communists in the Resistance, and his own distaste for the bourgeoisie, made them first port-of-call, but he soon found both their totalitarianism and their insistence on historical determinism at odds with his insistence on freedom, and so moved on.

As Sartre’s politics moved increasingly towards the Left, he separated himself from former friends whose political development moved in the opposite direction [referring to Camus and Merleau-Ponty]. By the time of the student revolt of 1968, Sartre was associating with the so-called French ‘Maoists’, who had little to do with China but a great deal to do with such classical anarchist ideals as ‘direct democracy’. (Flynn)

I recommend Flynn as a very clear account of existentialism and its grounding in European philosophy from the ancient Greeks onwards, whereas Murdoch’s book is more one of one philosopher engaging with another, contemporaneously, only a few years after the War, which is to say, at a time when Sartre’s politics and European philosophy were going through some big changes. Flynn goes on to discuss Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and Post-Modernism which movements seem to me, to the very limited extent I understand them at all, to both involve a great deal of sloppy thinking, and to have been appropriated by the Right to justify their aversion to truth speaking.

Murdoch and Flynn both see as important Sartre’s What is Literature? (1948) in which he writes, “Though literature is one thing and morality another, at the heart of the aesthetic imperative we discern the moral imperative.” Sartre attempts, unconvincingly, to demonstrate that it is the writer’s intrinsic duty to advance the cause of freedom, and proposes a distinction between Poetry and Prose in which the latter is ‘instrumental’, committed to the alleviation of suffering, whereas Poetry, like Music, is non-instrumental, art-for-art’s-sake. A distinction which I think even he was forced subsequently to disown.

You will have to read Flynn for yourself if you are interested in other authors, first amongst them Camus, who advanced existentialism in their writing, but I will say a little about de Beauvoir, Sartre’s partner for life both personally and intellectually. De Beauvoir, a prolific writer, was probably ahead of Sartre in her understanding of the individual as a member of society. Her seminal The Second Sex (1949) contains the line, “One is not born a woman, one becomes one,” meaning, I gather, that a woman begins with certain sexual apparatus, but that society imposes on her the condition of ‘being a woman’.

This leads us back to the famous “Existence precedes Essence”, which comes from a 1945 lecture, ‘Is Existentialism a Humanism?’. Sartre and his philosophy were atheist, so there was no obvious basis for acting morally. Sartre claimed that this freedom from doctrine was itself the basis for moral action, ‘in choosing anything at all, I first of all choose freedom’, not just for himself, but for every member of society. And by “Existence precedes Essence” he meant that every moment of every day we must choose, that our ‘essence’ is what we make of our ‘existence’, and that further, almost the worst choice we can make is to not choose, to be ‘in bad faith’, to abrogate our freedom, to allow our existence to be what others choose it to be.

And that is the basis of my objection to conscription in the Viet Nam War years: that my fellow 20 year olds failed to choose freedom; that they allowed society to choose for them to be soldiers; that they allowed themselves to be used to kill Vietnamese people, soldiers and civilians, who were fighting for nothing more than their own right to make their own choices.

Paola (19)

Iris Murdoch, Sartre, first pub. 1953, my edition (not pictured above) Fontana, 1967
Thomas R Flynn, Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction, OUP, Oxford, 2006


I’ve been reading Charmian Clift’s Travels in Greece, a combo of Mermaid Singing and Peel Me a Lotus, but have spent too many lotus-eating days myself on Greek islands and so am behind with my review. Luckily I had Sartre ready, and, touch wood, I’ll put up Clift this time next week.

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante

9781925240009.jpg

Translated by Ann Goldstein

My Brilliant Friend, Book 1 of Ferrante’s four volume Neapolitan Novels, is both deservedly famous and outside the range of my usual reading, so I hesitate to attempt a review. But geology daughter requested it as a present last Christmas and here on the train from Milan to Naples is an obvious time to read it and to at least record some of my observations.

The story concerns two girls, born about 1945, growing up in one of the poorer sections of Naples. Much of the background – the War, Mussolini, gangsterism – is assumed, but left unsaid, so that our intertextual reading necessarily forms part of the work.

The girls, Lena, the narrator, and her ‘brilliant friend’ Lila, find that they excel at school work, though Lila when she puts her mind to it is often way ahead in reading, in languages, in mathematics, and in writing and constructing arguments. Lena works hard to keep up but still often finds that a few words from Lila show more insight than she has been able to extract from hours of study. We might assume from the narrator and the author having the same name, Elena, that My Brilliant Friend is autobiographical – I haven’t read any reviews or interviews to check – but I hope that it is at least authentic, written out of the author’s lived experience.

Surprisingly in such a ‘popular’ work, the central concerns are literary – the efficient use of words; the efficacy of ‘facts’ laid out as argument over facts presented as fiction – though, in the end, Ferrante has chosen fiction; and the baggage of ‘before’, of history, being carried into the present.

They hated Don Achille and were afraid of the Solaras. But they overlooked it and went to spend their money both at Don Achille’s son’s and at the Solaras’, and sent us too. And they voted for the Fascists, for the monarchists, as the Solaras wanted them to. And they thought that what had happened before was past and, in order to live quietly, they placed a stone on top of it, and so, without knowing it, they continued it, they were immersed in the things of before, and we kept them inside us too.

But of course there are also personal stories – the girls and their friends growing up from childhood, through puberty, to young womanhood; the violence to which the girls are routinely subjected by their fathers, their brothers, and sometimes their mothers; Lila’s brilliance in elementary school on which she seemingly turns her back, to fall back into the life of their community, while Lena works her way up and out through high school. And there are the secondary stories which, as in any tightly knit community, wind their way in and out of the lives of the main protagonists.

Two of these stories indicate ways out of the cycle of poor education, manual labour, early marriage, and constant violence. The first is of the railway conductor (and serial womaniser) Sarratorre who writes poetry and articles for magazines. He and his family leave the neighbourhood to escape the consequences of his relationship with the disturbed widow, Melina. Later, the girls are astonished to find a book of poetry bearing his name and fantasise that he must be rich ‘like Louisa May Alcott’. Lena is attracted to his intellectual son, Nino, who is ahead of her at high school, though when she begins experimenting sexually, it is with Melina’s auto mechanic son, Antonio.

The second is of Stefano, a few years older than the girls, whose father, Don Achille, a minor gangster or loan shark, is murdered by the father of another of their friends. Stefano makes a conscious decision to break with the past, to be both a good citizen and to break the cycle of feuds which underlies all their relationships. The final scene though, a wedding breakfast involving all the neighbourhood families, leaves us hanging – has there has been any progress after all? Maybe.

The prologue, brief, set ‘now’ when Lena and Lila are in their sixties, suggests that Lena has escaped – escaped Naples, yes; escaped the working poor, probably – and that Lila has not escaped, but has diverted her considerable intellect into mastering computers, as far back as the 1960s when she was in her twenties.

Ultimately though for Elena the author and Lena the narrator, it is the writing which is important. While on Ischia, on a summer holiday job, Lena receives a (rare) letter from Lila.

From the first lines I thought of The Blue Fairy [a story written by Lila in elementary school], the only text of hers that I had read, apart from our elementary school homework, and I understood what, at the time, I had liked so much. There was, in The Blue Fairy, the same quality that struck me now: Lila was able to speak through writing; unlike me when I wrote, unlike Santorre in his articles and poems, unlike even many writers I had read and was reading, she expressed herself in sentences that were well-constructed and without error, even though she had stopped going to school, but – further – she left no trace of effort, you weren’t aware of the artifice of the written word. I read and I saw her, I heard her.

Later, Lena persuades Lila to read an article she has written for publication which, with a few, quick edits Lila completely transforms. Ferrante I’m sure is setting out here her ambitions for herself as a writer – to write directly, precisely and well – and in this acclaimed novel she achieves them.

 

Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, translation by Ann Goldstein, first pub. 2012. This edition, Text, Melbourne, 2015

A Man’s Head, Georges Simenon

22058231.jpg

Translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury

Here I am in Paris at last, in a delightful old house of three levels and full of books, on the Rue de la Tombe Issoire; a converted stables maybe, at the rear of an apartment block. “Look for the porte vert”, my daughter wrote, and there it was and in we walked through a cobblestoned tunnel, past the concierge’s door, and out into the courtyard. All exactly as I imagined from half a century of reading Simenon and Maigret.

Yesterday, we – me, ex-Mrs Legend, geology daughter and three grandkids aged 5 – 13 – made our way by #38 bus to the Ile de la Cite – the Palais de Justice, the Prefecture de Police, Notre Dame – on a lovely early spring day, no leaves on the trees yet, but daffodils and tulips flowering in all the gardens. Maigret routinely cuts through the Palais on his way to his office in the Prefecture, but the two buildings/complexes are separated by a street, the Blvd du Palais, and slightly offset, so I’m none the wiser about how that works.

The Penguin edition of A Man’s Head I have with me (earlier than the one pictured) I found quite by accident in a second hand shop in Perth a few days ago. It has an excellent introduction by Patrick Marnham – well, excellent except that it reveals who dunnit – which sets out Simenon’s history as a writer.

Georges Simenon (1903-1989) was a stupendously prolific author, writing up to 40 titles per year. When he wrote La Tete d’un Homme in 1930, first published in English in 1939, as A Battle of Nerves, he was already a successful writer of pulp fiction under various pseudonyms, and had four other Maigret novels completed. They were all launched at a wild party in Montparnasse (just up the road from here!) in February 1931. By the end of the year there were 11 Maigret titles in print, and by 1939 and the outbreak of war, nineteen.

Simenon famously wrote two streams of novels, Maigrets and ‘Simenons’, psychological thrillers. Although they are not so dissimilar in their approach to crime, the Simenons are probably more sexual. By the time he retired in 1972 Simenon had written 193 novels under his own name.

In this early novel, Maigret is already 45, a large man (though under 6′ as it turns out), broad shouldered, imposing, wrapped in his heavy overcoat, and an Inspector in the Police Judiciaire. He and Madame Maigret, waiting patiently at home in their small apartment on the Blvd Richard-Lenoir, are and remain childless. In fact, Mme Maigret, who is a significant presence in later novels, barely rates a mention in this.

Maigret solves his murders by accumulating evidence, not just the forensic evidence, and the curious noises in the dark, of Sherlock Holmes, but the evidence of Maigret’s senses, of his feeling for the characters involved as he absorbs himself in their milieu. Marnham writes that “When the forensic expert tells Maigret that the writer of the anonymous note to a newspaper is an intellectual who speaks several languages [and identifies which bar in Montparnasse the note has come from by the colour of the ink], we can take it that the author is mocking the great tradition of ‘Elementary my dear Watson’.” Maigret is a new type of detective, arriving at the identity of the perpetrator by his intuition into the characters of the victim(s) and the suspects.

A Man’s Head begins with a prisoner on death row awaiting his turn to die, having already heard the man in the next cell being led away – Markham points out that, shockingly, in 1930 “execution was still carried out on the street, in central Paris, outside the prison walls”. The man, Heurtin, sentenced to death for the murders of a wealthy old lady and her servant/companion is allowed to escape and is followed by Maigret’s men as he makes his way back along the Seine to his parents’ inn where, rejected by his father, he hangs himself in the stables. Along the way he is observed by Maigret hanging around outside a Montparnasse cafe attempting unsuccessfully to make contact with a poor young man, a student maybe, ekeing out a coffee and a pot of yogurt over a whole day sitting at the bar. In this cafe Maigret is subsequently approached by the young man, Radek, who wishes to discuss murders with him, and by a flash young man, Kirby, who is the nephew and heir of the murdered old woman, and from there he goes on to uncover the real murderer.

But this brief account does no justice to the long hours Maigret spends waiting, observing and thinking, nor to Simenon’s loving attention to detail, in the descriptions of Paris’ underbelly of prostitutes and petty criminals, and of life along the Seine, the barges, the cafes and inns, out of Paris and into the country.

And Maigret spent an hour after his own heart, snugly ensconced in a corner of the cab, whose windows were splashed with rain and misty from the warmth inside. He smoked incessantly, warmly wrapped in the enormous overcoat that had become a byword on the Quai des Orfevres.

The suburbs of Paris glided by, then the October country. Sometimes a drab band of river came into view between the gables of houses and the bare trees.

Maigret is of course at odds with the examining magistrate who, in the French system, controls the case, and his neck is on the line – though not so literally as Heurtin’s – in the gamble he takes in facilitating the escape of a convicted murderer. There are probably too many coincidences, particularly in Maigret being present when Heurtin attempts to contact Radek, and we have less involvement with Maigret as a person than we do in later novels. But nevertheless, all the elements are there which almost instantaneously made Maigret and Simenon justifiably famous.

WP_20170329_007
The Prefecture de Police (looking down towards Notre Dame)

Georges Simenon, A Man’s Head, first pub. 1931. This ed. translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury, Penguin Classics, 2003.

*The absence of French accents is not me being bolshie! I typed this direct into WordPress (I normally type at least my first draft in Word) and so had no access to special characters – though I guess there must be provision for French bloggers somewhere. Anyway, sorry. I’ll fix it when I get home.


The driver who brought us in from Charles de Gaulle Airport said that the French were unhappy with the British over WW II and had consequently been resistant to speaking English. But I must say that the mostly french-speaking waiters and barmen we have dealt with, far from being ‘notoriously surly’, have been uniformly cheerful and helpful. Tomorrow I make my way to Avignon, where the others are staying on, then on to Barcelona. All I have to do is negotiate my Eurail pass into a ticket into Spain, which is so far proving difficult.