Monday, June 21, 2010

The Words

Jean-Paul Sartre was born on this day in 1905. The Words, Jean-Paul Sartre's famous autobiography of his first ten years, has been compared to Rousseau's Confessions. Written when he was fifty-nine years old, The Words is a masterpiece of self-analysis. Sartre the philosopher, novelist and playwright brings to his own childhood the same rigor of honesty and insight he applied so brilliantly to other authors. Born into a gentle, book-loving family and raised by a widowed mother and doting grandparents, he had a childhood which might be described as one long love affair with the printed word. Ultimately, this book explores and evaluates the whole use of books and language in human experience.

Sartre writes about his very early life. He writes about things that as an adult you aren't even conscious of anymore. How reading a book about horses and armies can bring those things to life. Sartre talks about his grandfather, his mother, his absent father. He is pretty dispassionate about them. The main thing about the book is Sartres' ability for clear observation and honesty.  Sartre describes his fatherless childhood, a period during which playmates and rambles were happily exchanged for his grandfather’s library, where “I found my religion”:

          I disported myself in a tiny sanctuary, surrounded by ancient, heavy-set monuments which had seen me into the world, which would see me out of it, and whose permanence guaranteed me a future as calm as the past. …I was a daily witness of ceremonies whose meaning escaped me: my grandfather—who was usually so clumsy that my grandmother buttoned his gloves for him—handled those cultural objects with the dexterity of an officiant…. At times, I would draw near to observe those boxes which slit open like oysters, and I would see the nudity of their inner organs, pale, fusty leaves, slightly bloated, covered with black veinlets, which drank ink and smelled of mushrooms.

Sartre’s reading and writing nurtured “the idealism which it took me thirty years to shake off.” Inside the sixth-floor library, “I would take real birds from their nests, would chase real butterflies that alighted on real flowers”; compared to the bookish archetypes, “the monkeys in the zoo were less monkey, the men in the Luxembourg Gardens were less man.” In the last pages of The Words, Sartre begins to describe the exchange of the idealism for the brand of Existentialism which made him famous. “I’ve given up the office but not the frock,” writes the sixty-year-old: “I still write. What else can I do?”

The Words by Jean-Paul Sartre. Vintage Books, New York. 1981 (1964)

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