IMG_1686I had ridden my motorcycle from work to my dentist appointment, and so I was dressed in my black leather jacket. My jacket is decorated with a few pins and patches; mementos from my past that still have meaning to me now, though perhaps not the same meaning as when I first collected them. On the epaulets are my corporal stripes from when I was in the Army. Pinned to the zippered flap that folds outward on the front of my jacket is an Army Engineer badge. Scrawled across the kidney belt, now fading from view, is the word “Nihilism.” There are other things, like a Polish eagle pin and the laces from an old pair of boots that serve to hold the side panels of the jacket together. This is a piece of clothing that by slow aggregation has collected together  hints and clues pointing to many of the things I have done and been since I was in my early 20’s. This jacket is unique to me. It is a faded and worn garment that bears traces and marks from 25 years of life.

There was one day, as I walked through the mailroom on my way to my office, that a co-worker stopped me and asked, “Is your jacket European?” I didn’t quite understand her question. “Did you get it from some place in Europe?” she repeated. “No,” I responded. “I’ve had this since I was in my 20’s. It’s an American-made jacket.” “Well it looks very stylish! I thought that maybe you ordered it from somewhere in Europe.” That seemed weird to me, but then someone else gave me a thumbs-up and complimented me on my “cool retro jacket.” I laughed to myself and smiled at my admirer. This is no “retro jacket.” It’s the jacket I’ve had for more than half of my life. I’ve been wearing this jacket longer than I’ve owned my present motorcycle, or my condo, or my pet cat, or my dog. I don’t think of it as a retro fashion statement any more than I think of myself as an old man. Maybe that’s a mistake, but it’s just not the way I think of it or myself. I’m comfortable in this jacket precisely because it has been a part of my life for so long.

So, I had a dentist appointment and I arrived wearing my motorcycle jacket. As I entered the dentist’s office, I noted that there was one other person sitting in the waiting room. After checking in with the receptionist at the front desk, I took a seat next to this person. He was an older black man wearing a baseball cap, and as I plopped down, I noticed that he was scrutinizing my jacket. I nodded and said, “Hello.” He did the same.

“Were you in the service?” the man asked. He spoke in a calm, confident manner. The way he said the word “service” led me to believe that he had been in the military himself, and that he was from a generation that considered military duty as something compulsory and yet character building. Ever since I was a kid I have liked the comportment of this type of person. People of this sort don’t seem to feel as if they have anything to prove, and they give the impression of being unsurprised by anything and comfortable with anyone. Perhaps this is the result of traveling, being stationed overseas and being exposed to foreign cultures.  In any case, while many younger veterans can sometimes come across as aggressive, or broken, or traumatized, or inauthentically caring, this kind of older veteran appears to have settled into his life, wearing his experiences with grace and ease.

“I was in the Army reserves,” I answered. He continued to look at me, friendly and calm. Even though on the surface we looked like very different sorts of people, I felt as if there might be  a deeper point of contact between us.

“I was in the Marines,” he said. “What job did you do in the Army?”

“I was a Combat Engineer. 12 Bravo it was called at the time,” I responded.

“Well I’ll be. That was my job in the Marines! Did you like it?”

I smiled and shook my head a bit. There was something that we shared in common. “Well, it wasn’t the life for me. I’ve always had a cautious streak, so I joined the reserves instead of going active duty to see how I would adapt to military life. It turns out that I wasn’t the best fit with the Army. It’s not that I would take it back; I mean there were plenty of interesting experiences. It’s just that I knew pretty quickly it wasn’t something I wanted to make a career out of. What about you? Did you like your time in the Marines?”

“Oh yes! I loved it. Now mind you, I never saw combat, but we got to travel all over the world. We went to Korea and Vietnam and Japan. It was boring sometimes, but I really did like seeing other parts of the world and meeting different sorts of people. The one place that I wanted to go that we never made it to was Germany. I would have liked to have seen Germany, but that never happened.”

“What sort of things did you do overseas?”

“Mostly clearing landmines. That was our duty in Vietnam. It was after the war, so there were a lot of mines left over. Too much of what we did was just practice putting up and taking down bridges, though. We did a lot of practice with skills that never really got put to use.”

“So how long were you in the service?” I asked.

“I was in for four years. How long were you in for?”

“Eight years total; six as an active reservist and two as an inactive reservist. That was the standard deal when I joined.”

He nodded. “When I got out I came back to the area here and worked on a county road crew. I enjoyed that as well.”

I chuckled a bit and nodded my head in response. Here was another thing we had in common. “Really?! I worked on a county road crew here too. We maintained the trees along the roads. Now that was a job that I really did like. It was sort of like the military in that you got to work outdoors with a good group of guys. It’s funny, I’m remembering now that there was this little town out by the coast, and every time we went out there, the locals would get angry and yell at us. They just didn’t like the idea of any sort of government intrusion, even though we were trying to make their roads safe to drive!”

The man laughed. “I know the place that you’re talking about. Bolinas! Every time our crew would go out there to maintain the signs, the locals would tear them down. They just did not want anyone to do anything in their town! They didn’t want anyone to even know that they were there. I remember one time I went out there to put up a road sign. I got turned around and had to double back past the work sight afterwards. It couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes that went by, and the sign was already gone! They really didn’t like outsiders! From what I understand, they still don’t.”

We both laughed and shook our heads.

“So, you were a combat engineer, you worked on the county road crew; is there anything else that we share in common?” I joked and held out my hand. “My name is John, by the way.”

The man looked at me with raised eyebrows. “John?” he repeated.

“Yes,” I said.

“My name is John as well! What a small world,” he chuckled.

At that point I was called in by the hygienist for my cleaning.

“It was a pleasure talking with you John,” I said as I got up and moved toward the door.

“You too,” the man replied.

I settled into the dentist chair and prepared myself for a cleaning. The cliche “it’s a small world” echoed through my head. I reflected on how the corporal stripes on my comfortable, old leather jacket had just broken the ice between a total stranger and myself. If I had not been wearing it this day, I probably would have said nothing more than “hello” to the man sitting next to me in the waiting room, never realizing that we shared a name and common details in our personal biographies.

This jacket appears to be different things to different people, and it breaks the ice in different ways. It is a motorcycle jacket, and so I often find myself talking with fellow motorcyclists. It is also a punk rock symbol, and so it is a conversation starter for those who are into punk. It is decorated with military badges, which, as I’ve here detailed, can open discussion with folks who have served in the armed forces. My leather jacket is all of these things; and so am I. This is a piece of clothing that I have had for so long that it is molded to my being.

The Age of Reason

Age of ReasonThe Age of Reason is the first in a trilogy of novels written by Jean-Paul Sartre that take place in France around the time of World War II. I have yet to read the second and third novels in the series – The Reprieve and Troubled Sleep – but after finishing this first installment, I am eager to get started on them. Other than Nausea, which is one of my favorite books of all time,  The Age of Reason is the only one of Sartre’s fictional works that I have read. Nonetheless, I have reached the conclusion that Sartre is among the most masterful writers of philosophical fiction. I was absolutely captivated by The Age of Reason.

The Age of Reason deals with ideas and issues that are universally important and with which I am increasingly concerned as I move through middle age. The story’s characters exist in an atmosphere filled with the foreboding awareness of human finitude. The Spanish Civil War lurks in the background, and it is clear that a larger European conflict is on the horizon. The main protagonists are young enough to have a future to which they look forward, but they are also old enough to be aware that this future is not endless. They can see the signs of encroaching age in one another’s faces, and just as they are melancholy about the passing of their youth, they are also anxious about the direction of the future. Throughout the novel, our mental gaze is thus drawn both backwards and forwards, encouraging us to contemplate the passage of time and to regard with urgency the task of embracing life and the projects that we have chosen. The lesson that I took away from this book is that we should learn to value the potential of our personal future just as much as we cherish our youthful past.

The story focuses on Mathieu, a philosophy professor in Paris, who is in the midst of an existential crisis. The central theme of the novel concerns his struggles as he tries to understand the significance and purpose of his life while growing older and confronting his own freedom to choose between alternative life paths. As the novel opens, Mathieu finds out that his girlfriend, Marcelle, is pregnant with his child. The rest of the novel is structured around his frantic attempts to raise the money for an abortion.

Mathieu does not even consider the idea that he and Marcelle might keep the child and raise it together; although this is precisely what Marcelle does wish for. While she wants to get married and settle into a conventional middle-class life, Mathieu resists the very thought, considering it bourgeois. When Mathieu visits his brother, Jacques, to ask him for money, Jacques confronts Mathieu with the embarrassing reality that Mathieu cannot see:

“You are trying,” said Jacques, “to evade the fact that you’re a bourgeois and ashamed of it. I myself reverted to bourgeoisie after many aberrations and contracted a marriage of convenience with the party, but you are a bourgeois by taste and temperament, and it’s your temperament that’s pushing you into marriage. For you are married, Mathieu,” said he forcibly.

“First I’ve heard of it,” said Mathieu.

“Oh yes, you are, only you pretend you aren’t because you are possessed by theories. You have fallen into a habit of life with this young woman: you go to see her quietly four days a week and you spend the night with her. That has been going on for seven years, and there’s no adventure left in it; you respect her, you feel obligations towards her, you don’t want to leave her…Will you tell me how that differs from marriage – except for cohabitation?”

Sartre writes that during this exchange Mathieu “was furious with himself.” He was furious because he already knows what his brother says is true. He has fallen into a way of life that is easy and comfortable, all the while denying that this is the type of person he really is. Mathieu does not conceive of himself as a conventional, married family man. He sees himself as a radical philosopher, living outside of conventionality. And yet the very details of his life tell a different story. When his friend, Brunet, urges him to join the Communist Party and to fight against the fascists in Spain, Mathieu is still resistant. He actively choses to avoid a life of adventure and danger, even when the opportunity presents itself, and instead continues to live, de facto, a bourgeois life. He is not who he claims to be; and this is why he is furious with himself.

In the philosophical language of Sartre’s existentialist philosophy, Mathieu is in “bad faith.” He denies who he is and does not acknowledge his own complicity in choosing the life that he finds himself living. Like all humans, Mathieu is a “being-for-itself,” which means that he is free to make choices. Unlike animals or rocks, which are “beings-in-themselves,” a being-for-itself has a mind and thus can envision a future and work toward the realization of that future, making it his or her life project. In fact, such a being can do nothing else. Humans are doomed to choose. Even in refusing to make a choice, according to Sartre, we still, nonetheless, make the choice not to choose, and so remain responsible for the course that our lives take. Many people, like Mathieu, would like to deny this fact, but at a deep level, we all recognize it. Though we would like to relieve ourselves of responsibility for how our lives turn out, in fact we have no one to blame except ourselves. We are the only ones responsible for who we have become.

While Mathieu is frantically trying to raise a loan to pay for Marcelle’s abortion, he simultaneously finds himself infatuated with a young student by the name of Ivich. Ivich’s charms are solely related to her youthfulness, and Mathieu’s attraction to her is depicted by Sartre as a distraction from Mathieu’s despair concerning his own age. Ivich hangs out at cafes and clubs, drinks irresponsibly and is sexually flirtatious with both men and women. In Ivich, Mathieu sees a kind of freedom; but it is the kind of freedom inappropriate for a man of his age and social position. In a pivotal scene at a nightclub called “Sumatra,” Mathieu and Ivich bond with one another – temporarily – when, after Ivich drunkenly slashes herself with a knife, Mathieu pins his own hand to a table with the same blade:

He jabbed the knife into his palm and felt almost nothing. When he took his hand away, the knife remained embedded in his flesh, straight up, with its haft in the air.

…He felt benignantly impressive and was a little afraid that he might faint. But a sort of dogged satisfaction and the malice of a silly schoolboy took possession of his mind. It was not only to defy Ivich that he stuck the knife into his hand, it was a challenge to Jacques, and Brunet and Daniel, and to his whole life. “I’m a ghastly kind of fool,” he thought. “Brunet was right in saying that I’m a grown-up child.” But he couldn’t help being pleased.

This knife, sticking straight up and out of his hand, is Mathieu’s “fuck you” to the world; a middle finger rudely challenging public decency and manners. But, as he himself senses, it is a childish, immature gesture. It is the sort of thing that one might expect from Ivich, but not from a middle-aged professor of philosophy. Mathieu is, thus, on the one hand satisfied with his ability to break the mold and to act against his appropriate social role with this self-destructive performance. Yet on the other hand, he is also embarrassed that this is the way he chooses to utilize his freedom. It is silly and ultimately safe, since it requires nothing more than a bandage, whereas the choice to change his way of life would require a complete reassessment of his values and priorities. To truly break free and embrace his maturity, Mathieu must do something more than pin his hand to a table with a knife. He must choose a different life path. His realization of this truth is finally signaled when he loses his sexual fascination with Ivich and she begins to appear awkward and vulnerable to him rather than physically attractive.

The book concludes with Mathieu becoming alienated from everyone. He steals money from Lola, a singer at Sumatra, in order to pay for Marcelle’s abortion, but Marcelle refuses the money and instead decides to marry Daniel, an aging homosexual. It is at this point that Mathieu accepts that he is “alone” and that he is responsible for everything that has happened in his life and that will happen in his life. He cannot blame Marcelle, or Ivich or Brunet or Daniel or anyone else for how things have turned out. With this, Mathieu tells himself, “I have attained the age of reason,” and the novel comes to an end.

Throughout The Age of Reason, there are repeated allusions to Albert Camus, who Sartre had a falling out with before writing this book. One of the cafes that the characters frequent is called camus_350x312“Camus’s.” It is a place where “one always has the feeling that it was four in the morning.”  Mathieu also laments at one point that he has been “not a revolutionary, merely a rebel,” a clearly disapproving reference to Camus’ book, The Rebel. In these instances, Sartre seems to be setting himself against the sort of life that Camus advocated.

While Camus was also an existentialist, his brand of existential thinking was committed to non-violence and he was more critical of political causes than was Sartre. According to Camus, political revolutionaries have to settle on a final interpretation of the world in order to act. In so doing, they justify the killing of other human beings as means to their revolutionary political ends. But, claims Camus, this opens the door to the annihilation of the entire human race, since once a person is able to justify one death, there is nothing that stands in the way of justifying any death. That is why commitment to any revolutionary cause is undesirable; it encourages us to view fellow human beings as means to revolutionary ends, thus paving a slippery-slope that leads to atrocity.

Camus prefers the rebel’s stance to that of the revolutionary. The rebel refuses to settle with one, final interpretation of the world. Instead, he or she struggles with never-ending and on-going interpretation, remaining forever rebellious against the meaningless structure of reality. In his classic essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus likens his preferred way of life to the ancient Greek hero Sisyphus, who was condemned by the gods to push a boulder up a steep hill and have it roll back down for an eternity. There is no ultimate purpose or cause that justifies this absurd state of affairs other than the individual’s willful decision to continue striving in defiance of the gods and of reality. In Sartre’s Age of Reason, one gets the sense that this is precisely the sort of position that has driven Mathieu to despair. He is exhausted with nihilism. He is sick of sitting up until “four in the morning,” arguing and debating endlessly, and getting nowhere. He wants to resolutely choose a life that will accomplish something. He wants to make a revolutionary change.

I identify with the character of Mathieu, but I also tend to have more sympathy with Camus’ take on rebellion than I do with Sartre’s desire for political, revolutionary action. I anticipate that in the remaining two books in Sartre’s trilogy, Mathieu will make some sort of resolute commitment, and that he will become a revolutionary. I, however, would like to see him continue to sit in cafes until four in the morning, philosophizing and struggling with nihilistic despair.