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Monday, May 05, 2014

Jean Paul Sartre's "The Wall" and Pre-World War II Existentialism

Jean Paul Sartre's "The Wall" is full of those tiny stylistic nuances, so much so that if the reader "blinks" too fast, he might miss them. On the other hand, "The Wall" manifests characters that are alive to more than just emerging literary traits of the "not quite" mid-20th Century. Published in 1939 just about the same time Europe was about to explode to the fury of a new war, "The Wall" pre-dates much of the experiences that later led to Sartre's all-encompassing philosophy. The existentialism is certainly there, but in a "younger" form distinct from his post-World War II literary endeavors.

The title story builds upon the painful experience of prisoners during the Spanish Civil War. While a lot has been made of the allegorical "wall," the absurdity of these prisoners' condition and their suffering certainly points to the existential question, but it is the outcome of the story that reveals the truly over-the-top ridiculousness of "being." The protagonist seems to have sworn allegiance to the cause or to one of its leaders or to God knows what, and to that allegiance he is determined to be truthful to the very end. As he is interrogated, he is asked about the whereabouts of the leader and he responds with an absurd suggestion he anticipates the interrogators would never take serious. Nevertheless, when the suggestion is followed through and investigated, it turns out satisfactory to the powers in charge. This is not revealed to the protagonist after his companions have been executed, including among them a very young man who is emblematic of the existential idea of waste.

 The story "The Room" explores the capacity of loyalty but in much different fashion. A woman is married to a man who has become "questionably" insane. Her parents are caught in the whirlwind of decisions and options, as they do not want to see her "waste" her life away. In its own way, the story explores questions of self-sacrifice, loyalty and discipline to one's beliefs. This is a brief story (compared with the others) and, on the surface, seems to reveal less about the characters than the other stories in the collection. The question of insanity transfers from one character to the other, primarily displaying how each is committed to their own ideals of truth. The father, for example, is quite disgusted when he learns from the mother that their daughter is still being intimate with her husband. The premise reminded me of a quote from a novel by Ernest Hebert which I read in 1993 or thereabouts and made a great impact on me: "Men are loyal to their own ideas as dogs are loyal to undeserving owners," or something to that effect. In the end, the young woman is unable to leave her husband illustrating the despair of choices and the absurdity of attachments.

"Erostratus" follows a character in a desperate path to commit an act of violence for which he has no reason or explanation. By killing six people he hopes to "write" some history for himself, an existential mold that draws quite a bit from Kirilov, the nihilist in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's "The Demons." "If I am to prove powerful to some extent," observed Kirilov, "then I must kill myself." He intends to leave a mark on history, however insignificant by simply exercising the power of the act in itself. The judgment of how useless and wasteful those deaths happen to be is beyond his act; a judgment to be formulated by others, as if to say, by second hand. The failure of his act paints a portrait of existential ready-made art--that is to say, Sartre does not judge right or wrong despite the psychological and philosophical tendencies of the story. Sartre simply states the events as they happen and the reader is left to judge. This echoes the stream of consciousness of the protagonist and the close reader is rewarded with this epiphany at the end. We are led to judge, again, in second hand.

Lulu has a friend named Rirette and a lover named Pierre. She also has a husband who exemplifies the archetypal domineering male who emotionally abuses his wife. But the seemingly clearly cut characters of "Intimacy" reveal more than stereotypical traits. Lulu is a complex female character not just struggling with issues of repression, guilt and loyalty, but also with existential conundrums revealing society's pressures of role and decorum. She intends to leave her husband, and goes as far as to plan her eloping with Pierre but fails in dramatic fashion leaving Rirette to piece together the irrational behavior of her dear friend.

"The Childhood of Leader" is the story of the making of a fascist. The main character Lucien Fleurier is depicted from early childhood into young adulthood in a series of psychologically linked scenes. From simple angst about not belonging to being sexually abused by a child predator, Lucien (who is the son of an industrialist) gravitates from ideas about self to growing connections about the world around him. The fascist element is connected by Sartre to the impending explosion of violence that is both relevant to the story and relevant to the historic events taking place at the time. Lucien is aimless in the sense that he looks into the future with a clear idea of what he does not want, yet he is powerful to transform his life away in a way that would direct him away from what he sees as doom. Therefore, he falls easy prey of those around him. Here Sartre uses a different technique--he does not so much inject existentialism into the story as he allows it to grow with the character, often simply displayed as anger, frustration and angst. The revelatory factor of the story is Lucien's acknowledgment of the absurd, with the disturbing vagueness of his acceptance as an added bonus to the reader.

I am surprised at how much I enjoyed deciphering these short stories and connecting the dots about Sartre's intentional use or outright avoidance) of existentialism. I have to look to more of Sartre's pre-war works.

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