The 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’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.