Seeing life through the cold eyes of that Frenchman
I remember that in the early 1980s, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was a hot topic among young Chinese intellectuals. Speaking of Sartre, the first thing I recall is his photo of him peddling the leftist newspaper “Dyelo Narok” on the street. He is old and unattractive, hiding behind old-fashioned short-sighted glasses that look like the bottom of a wine bottle. This photo was later included in the anthology “Sartre Research” (1981) edited by Mr. Liu Mingjiu, a French literature expert.
When Sartre’s theories and works were widely disseminated in China, it was the time when the Chinese youth were struggling to get out of the spiritual ruins caused by the ten-year “Cultural Revolution”. Bitten by deceit and remorse for wasted youth, they hungrily searched for a system of thought that could replace the unquestionable spiritual pillars of the past. It was against this background that Sartre’s existential philosophy became popular, and for a while there were endless talks about “existence precedes essence”, “free choice” and “the absurdity of life”. In the eyes of today’s young generation, this is a bit too heavy and “tired of living”.
Sartre’s philosophical thoughts are obscure and daunting, “If I become my anxiety in order to escape anxiety, it assumes that I can shift my own center in terms of what I am” (“Existence and “Nothingness”) and other sentence patterns abound in his works. He realized that obscure and difficult words would definitely hinder the dissemination of his thoughts, so he used literature as a medium to convey the Tao——”Zai” the “Tao” of existential philosophy engraved with Sartre’s imprint. The experiments of Sartre, Camus and others in integrating philosophical concepts into literature or making literature carry philosophical concepts provided a model for the metalinguistic writing of postmodernist novelists decades later.
Ironically, contrary to the original intention of many readers looking for some kind of solace more than twenty years ago, Sartre’s literary works are not “requiems”, they are not like the lyric poem “If Life Has Lied to You” (“Believe that happy days will come/My heart is always looking forward to the future”), nor is it as sentimental as Enya’s “Shepherd’s Moon” by contemporary Irish singer Enya. Sartre provocatively declared that “there is no more optimistic theory than existentialism” (“Existentialism is a Humanism”), but he never used hypothetical conditional sentences to make expressions similar to “if life deceives you”, but Willing to convey his stern outlook on life bluntly: In the end, life will definitely deceive you and tease you, even if you want to avoid it.
The short story “The Wall” included in “Sartre’s Reader” is probably the best interpretation of the false and teasing nature of life. The first-person narrator, Ibieta, was a Republican guerrilla in the Spanish Civil War in 1937. After being captured by Franco’s fascists, he and his two companions faced the fate of being executed soon. The three spent the last night in prison, each of them had a different mentality in the face of death, some felt terror (Juan) and some were forced to be calm (Tom), and some were tired of life and determined to die calmly (Ibieta) also has it. What Ibieta thought at this moment was that his whole life was “issuing a pass for eternal life”. In the early morning of the next day, the fascists shot the two companions, and asked Ibieta to confess where his comrades were hiding after a quarter of an hour, otherwise they would be executed immediately. Ibieta, who had already embraced the belief of death, decided to tease the enemy, so she falsely claimed that the comrade was hiding in the cemetery. Unexpectedly, in order not to hurt his relatives, this person really left his cousin’s house and hid in the cemetery. As a result, he was beaten to death by the enemies who came to search for him.
Existentialists do not believe in God, but believe that life is meaningless, the world is absurd, and no one can escape the fate of being deceived and teased. “The Wall” upholds the tragic spirit of ancient Greece, and like “Oedipus the King”, reproduces the tragic process of human beings being destroyed not only physically but also spiritually. So Roland Barthes believes that “Oedipus the King” is a narrative mode with archetypal significance: “Isn’t every story a form of the Oedipus story? Aren’t all narratives aimed at finding their roots and expressing Do people’s state of mind when confronting discipline reflect the entanglement of love and hate?” The so-called “discipline” is manifested as the confrontation between man and fate in “Oedipus the King”, and it is expressed in “The Wall” The absurd life in the form of evil restrains the characters. Ibieta believes that his life is “all a damned lie”, while the existential philosopher Kierkegaard’s expression is: “Life is a dark maxim.”
Sartre’s diary-style novel “Disgusting” (1938) It is still written in the first-person narrative, and the title of the book seems a bit inexplicable at first glance. Why disgusting? The protagonist Luo Gangdan felt indescribably “disgusting” about the surrounding world or reality many times, from concrete stones on the seashore to abstract time, until he had a sense of materialization like “Zhuang Zhou’s dream of a butterfly”:
”So disgusting seized Me, I slumped on the bench and I don’t even know where I am. The colors are slowly swirling around me and I feel like throwing up. And that’s it, the nausea never leaves me, it takes hold of me.”
No After a while, Roquentin felt that nausea not only grasped him firmly, but also engulfed him in it.
”…the nausea isn’t on me, I feel it’s there, on the wall, on the sheets, all around me. It’s one with the cafe. I’m in the nausea.”
Nausea is an interpretation of existential concepts, so it might as well be regarded as the literary version of Being and Nothingness. Life is nothingness, and people are always struggling in the cycle of hope-disappointment-hope. For example, after Luo Gangdan received a letter from his ex-girlfriend Annie, he was always looking forward to reuniting with her, but when they met, Annie didn’t know her. I would like to have a tender relationship with him, but instead ridicule him and make his “all hopes shattered.” Existence is a kind of accident, limited by a certain time and space, but it is not completely meaningless. Everything is up to him, and only the individual can decide what he is. “Any existence can never prove the value of another existence.” Roquentin finally decided to go to Paris to engage in a writing career, to find and form himself in action. This is written on the eve of the Second World War, the continuous drizzle, the black clothes of Roquentin, especially the sentimental and nostalgic English songs played on the black bakelite record (Some of these days/You’ll miss me honey.) Both heralded the imminent war.
The one-act play “Interrogation in Quarantine” (also translated as “Interval”) is famous for one of the lines “Others are hell”. The image of “hell” in the minds of Westerners mostly comes from the descriptions in Christian classics and Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, where all kinds of poisonous punishments are prepared for sinners, which are eerie and frightening. Sartre’s description of hell is shocking. The original meaning of “Others are hell” seems to mean that human beings yearn for freedom by nature, so they are doomed to reject other people’s visits to their hearts and intentional or unintentional interventions in their actions, which are regarded as unacceptable spiritual torture. At the same time, freedom is precious, and a person should not care about other people’s judgments at all. Once a choice is made, it should stick to it without hesitation and go its own way. Sartre posed throughout his life as a fearless Spanish bull, although he considered himself a life of reading and writing. This maverick thinker blatantly talked about women with dirty work, returned from a visit to the Soviet Union to whitewash Stalin’s regime with complete disregard for reality, and confessed years later that he had lied at the time. He was first a fellow traveler of the Communist Party, and later took to the streets to protest after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, willing to be accused by his political opponents of being unprincipled and capricious.
Perhaps it is a pity that “Dirty Hands” is not included in “Sartre’s Reader”. It was a famous play that exposed the dirtyness of politics. Although Sartre actively “intervened” in politics all his life and always had a sweet love life, he frankly admitted that politics is deception and love is absurd.
Needless to say, as a writer, Sartre is not top-notch, although he has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. (He declined the award on the grounds that he “does not accept all official honors.”) Because of his belief in the maxim that literature should serve philosophy, his works, even well-written plays, are conceptually pre-conceptual and didactic. The fault of being too revealing. However, this is not an unforgivable sin for Chinese readers who are accustomed to “writing to convey the truth”. Moreover, Western literature throughout the ages and the criteria for judging the quality of literature do not exclude certain non-literary factors, and the awards of Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, and Gao Xingjian probably cannot completely exclude non-literary factors.
Except for the works that American critics thought were “not very well written” (see Xu Ben: “Sartre and Camus’ American Journey”, “Dhushu”, No. 7, 2005), Sartre was exposed after his death He despised women, seduced and raped his female disciples who respected him, and even asked his tender life partner Beauvoir to “pimp” him. Ironically, Sartre’s existentialism believes that people must be responsible for their words and deeds, must constantly choose, act and take responsibility for their choices, and believe that the day when people finally create themselves is when life ends. But rumors about Sartre’s private life have upended his own theories. It’s just that the coffin is uncertain, and the dead can only be at the mercy of the living. Who is innocent? But only one of the many praises for Sartre is enough to determine his status in the history of thought, that is, “the conscience of mankind in the 20th century”.