Roads to Freedom

imagesAfter thoroughly enjoying Sartre’s novel The Age of Reason, I looked forward to reading the other two books in The Roads to Freedom trilogy: The Reprieve and Troubled Sleep. Unfortunately, neither of these works measured up to the excellence of the first installment in the series. In fact, I initially became so exasperated with The Reprieve that I set it aside for a few months before mustering the energy to once again make an attempt to finish it. It was a slog, but I eventually did make my way through it and Troubled Sleep, not because I found them especially enjoyable but out of a weird feeling that having started the project of reading the trilogy I needed to finish the task. And now it is done.

The Age of Reason really drew me in with the story of Mathieu, a philosophy professor in the midst of an existential crisis. Here was a book that articulated many of my own thoughts and feelings about life, meaninglessness and growing old. In another posting on this blog I detailed what I loved about this book, so here I will just report that I had expected the story of Mathieu to continue in the last two volumes of the trilogy. Unfortunately, Mathieu only makes sporadic appearances in the remaining books as the narrative structure of the story becomes much more fractured and confusing; especially in the second volume, The Reprieve.

DownloadedFileThe Reprieve consists of a kaleidoscope of stories that bleed into one another and that seem intended to convey a sense of collective, anxious nervousness in the days leading up to the Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1938. The title refers to the fact that, at the end of the book, war is temporarily averted by the concessions made to Germany. The mood is frantic, and I will admit that the writing style does help to produce this effect in the reader. Unfortunately it is also at the expense of narrative clarity. Each time I felt that I was beginning to gain some orientation toward what was going on in the novel, the scene would change and I was lost once again. The transitions between the various vignettes are abrupt and unpredictable; the characters are too numerous and mush into one another; the action moves from place to place. All of this contributed to my exasperation. The back cover characterizes the book’s style as “stream of consciousness” and as utilizing a “cinema technique of simultaneity,” but to me the writing just seemed undisciplined and jarringly incongruous in comparison to the style in which the other two installments in the trilogy are written.

This is not to say that there is nothing to recommend The Reprieve. There are characters and episodes that are truly effective and that have stayed with me. We get to check in with Mathieu as he goes off to join a French fighting unit, finally making a resolute decision to act in the world and to break out of his bourgeois lifestyle. And there is Gros-Louis, a stupid and pathetic character who bumbles through the story, getting drunk, being beaten up and taken advantage of. He has orders to report to his unit, but since he is illiterate, he can’t read them and must rely on others to direct him in what to do. And there’s young Ivich who is disappointed in her hope for the utter destruction of Paris by the Nazis. Perhaps the most effective scene in the novel is toward the end when her rape is juxtaposed with the negotiations for the Munich Pact, in which Czechoslovakia was handed over to Germany without a fight. The comparison of Ivich’s personal, sexual violation with the collective, political violation of the Czech people really does produce a startling and upsetting effect.

All is frantic, anxious confusion in The Reprieve, with the characters swept up in the political uncertainty of the times leading up to World War II. Sartre, I think, was trying to convey a sense that while the world at that point in history felt out of any one individual’s control, people were still making existential decisions whether they realized it or not. This is reinforced in the scenes featuring Chamberlin, Hitler, Mastny, Daladier and other politicians. While the forces of history seem to be sweeping impersonally over the continent, behind all of this stand flesh-and-blood human beings who are negotiating, planning and scheming. There is nothing necessary or impersonal about the course that history takes. The war, which from the perspective of the people seems to loom like a threatening force of nature, is actually the result of human decision making. History unfolds according to the collective choices that humans make, and we fall into bad faith the moment that we relinquish our own responsibility for the state of the world. In The Reprieve, we meet characters who have yet to fully learn this lesson.

DownloadedFileTroubled Sleep is organized in a more coherent manner than is The Reprieve. Part One focuses on a retreating French unit, of which Mathieu is a member. This unit has failed to repel the Nazi incursion and now simply waits for something to happen. Having been abandoned by their officers, these men are leaderless and in a state of disarray. They are terrified by the advance of the German “Supermen,” and are convinced that there is nothing that they can do to stop their advance. Some of them get drunk, some of them sit around reading books that they have found in the ruins, one of them starts a sexual relationship with a French postal worker. In a way, what they do is not much different from life before the war. In the absence of leaders to issue orders, these men meander about and waste time, waiting to be captured or to die.

Things change when another French unit arrives. This unit is also without officers but is nonetheless ready to resist the advances of the Nazis. Mathieu and some of his comrades join together with this group and resolve to fight back. When the Germans arrive, a clash ensues in which it becomes clear that Mathieu and his fellow soldiers are vastly outnumbered. As the fighting intensifies, Mathieu becomes increasingly worried that he will prove to be a coward.  But as he fires his weapon he gains courage, realizing that the Germans are human, that they are “vulnerable” just as he is; they are not “Supermen.” The French troops are overwhelmed, but they fight on, killing as many Germans as they are able and trying to hold out for just a few more minutes. “This was no more than the beginning of his own death” (p.254). Mathieu dies in battle, firing his gun and realizing that he is free. He has chosen not to be a coward through his actions. At this point in the story, I was reminded of a line from the previous book when Mathieu thinks to himself, “freedom is exile, and I am condemned to be free.  …I am free for nothing” (p. 363). This is Sartre’s message: being conscious of one’s freedom is its own reward. There is nothing but this sort of authentic self-awareness that makes life worth living. In this sense, Mathieu dies a happy man.

Part Two of Troubled Sleep details the lives of a group of French prisoners of war who wait in a camp while the Nazis decide what is to be done with them. In this final installment in the story, I got the sense that the prisoners were their own worst enemies. Sartre depicts them as hostile toward one another, fighting over food and arguing over whether the Germans are really all that bad. They become angry when one of their group successfully escapes the camp, viewing it as some sort of betrayal of their captor’s hospitality! The central character in this segment of the story is Brunet, a communist who busily tries to organize the members of the camp and to collectivize their resources. He meets continued resistance from most of the other prisoners; except for Schnieder, a printer who is helpful to Brunet, but also seemingly skeptical of his political agenda.

Part two of the book meanders on for hundreds of pages until the final scenes when the prisoners are loaded onto a train that they hope is bound for home. The reader, of course, is left with the ominous suspicion that all of these men will be taken to another camp where they will most likely be brutalized and worked to death. The book ends when one of the prisoners is shot to death and his body is left laying by the side of the tracks. The novel’s closing line, “Tomorrow the black birds would come,” refers equally well to the fate of the murdered prisoner’s body as it does to the remaining prisoners on the train. It is also a symbolic intimation of the future unfolding of the World War.

Conceptually, I like what it is that Sartre has attempted with The Roads to Freedom. Beginning with the first book, he has introduced us to a character who, in the midst of an existential crisis, illustrates the deep, spiritual difficultly of individual human choice and descion making. This is existentialism on the personal level. In the second book, we are thrust into a culture in turmoil as it struggles on a collective level with its situation and the threat to its existence. In the third book we are presented with two separate responses to the existential crisis. One the one hand, there is Mathieu who takes hold of his situation and acts in defiance of the Nazis, fighting and dying for nothing other than his own freedom. On the other, there are the prisoners of war who generally comply and submit to their Nazi captors. In their passivity, of course, they are still making a choice: the choice to obey. Unlike Mathieu who uses his fear to become self aware, the prisoners on the train allow fear to use them and to make them immobile and compliant. Both will die, but, Sarte seems to be telling us, at least Mathieu will die with a full realization of his own power and freedom to act in the world. “He fired: he was cleansed, he was all-powerful, he was free” (p. 256). Mathieu represents the individual who acts and is ultimately alone in the world, while the prisoners seem to represent the group, which is comprised of individuals who cannot bring themselves to act resolutely and independently.

In terms of aesthetic quality, The Roads to Freedom fails for me. While the first book was focused and fascinating, the remaining books are unfocused and fragmented. The Reprieve, especially, reads like it was written while Sartre was high on speed. Troubled Sleep, with its two separate parts, reads like two separate stories. I think that the material in these last two books could have been fruitfully edited down and integrated with the material in The Age of Reason in order to produce a single, cohesive story with Mathieu as the focal point.

I have just learned that there is a fourth, unfinished novel in The Roads to Freedom series. It has recently been published in English under the title The Last ChanceIt looks like my work is not yet over…

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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.