Tuesday, 6 July 2010

'The Age of Reason' by Jean-Paul Sartre

Next, I decided to read Jean-Paul Sartre's trilogy, 'The Roads to Freedom'. The BBC did a brilliant serialisation of this years ago, and although it had a very profound effect on me, I never actually got to read the books. I decided that it was time to rectify that. The first of the three books is entitled 'The Age of Reason',(Penguin, London, 1961; originally published in hardback in 1945), and so obviously, that is where I began.

The development of Sartre's thinking, the sophistication of his novel-writing is very marked. 'The Age of Reason' is just such a better and more engaging read than 'Nausea' (and he wrote this book only just 7 years after writing 'Nausea'). Philip Kerr is certainly praise-worthy of the book, saying "For my money...the greatest novel of the post-war period". Well, that was something of an exaggeration, in my view, but still it was a good book. And of course, what is so important and special about Sartre's work is that he wrote both non-fiction and fiction, and decided presumably, that some of his philosophical ideas and messages could be conveyed more effectively (or at least the contradictions could be expressed better) through the novel than through non-fiction writing. A shame that Nietzsche did not arrive at the same conclusion; the world would have been better off for that.

The big philosophical issue that Sartre addresses in this book, involves his wish and aim to somehow marry up Existentialism with Marxism. Not that he does marry it up in the book, but this just, in itself, illustrates how difficult it is to do this. Indeed, perhaps, it is impossible. Which is precisely why the topic had to be addressed in a novel. A good non-fiction, academic and worthy work requires consistency of thought; now that is very difficult achieve, if not impossible, with this topic. But never-the-less the topic is of earth-shattering importance, in my view. I am becoming very close to agreeing with Sartre here, although I started off more clearly from the Marxist perspective, whereas Sartre started from the existentialist perspective. (although, in another sense, I guess that many of us, when growing up in particular, crave for freedom in some way).

Anyway, to turn to the plot. The main character in the book, Mathieu Delarue, is living an existential-type of existence. But within this, his long-term partner Marcelle falls pregnant. Having the baby would disrupt Mathieu's life, and indeed, the free, existential life that he wants to continue to live, so he wants her to have an abortion. But Mathieu can't find the necessary cash for it. Neither is Marcelle necessarily 100% happy about having an abortion anyway. Somewhat ironically, Daniel, the gay character in the book, tries to talk her out of it, and even offers to marry her so that she can have the baby. Then Mathieu thinks that perhaps he should marry her himself, even though the person that he is actually in love with is Ivich.

Mathieu is a philosophy teacher, and the whole book is set around just 2 days, with Mathieu walking about, going into the cafes and bars of Montparnasse, talking to friends on various topics whilst also trying to obtain the money. His friends, for example, think that he wants to be free:

"Only, he wants to be free, just as other people want a collection of stamps. Freedom, this is his secret garden: a little scheme with himself as sole accomplice...An idle, unresponsive fellow, rather chimerical, but ultimately quite sensible, who has dexterously constructed an undistinguised but solid happiness upon a basis of inertia, and justified himself from time to time on the highest moral grounds. Is that what I am?", asks Mathieu. (p. 49)

Whilst all this is going on he ia also approached and asked if he would like to join the Communist Party. His instinct tells him 'no', although he does consider it, but then rejects it. It would inhibit his freedom too much (and this is where the Existentialist/Marxist dilemma is addressed). Here are some of Mathieu's thoughts on the matter:

"I refused because I want to remain free: that's what I can say. And I can also say - I got the wind up. I like my green curtains, I like to take the air in the evening on my balcony, and I don't want any change. I enjoy railing against capitalism, and I don't want it suppressed, because I should no longer have any reasons for so doing. I enjoy feeling fastidious and aloof. I enjoy saying no, always no, and I should be afraid of any attempt to construct a finally habitable world, because I should merely have to say - Yes, and act like other people. From above or below: who would decide?" (p. 124)

Then, a bit later a few more thoughts on the matter, this time from Mathieu's friend, Boris:

"...in the philosophy class there had been a a good deal of lively interest in Communism, and Mathieu had evaded the issue by explaining what freedom was. Boris had promptly understood: the individual's duty is to do what he wants to do, to think whatever he likes, to be accountable to no one but himself, to challenge very idea and every person. Boris had constructed his life on this basis, and he kept himself conscientiously free: indeed, he always challenged everyone, excepting Mathieu and Illich: that would have been futile, for they were above criticism. As to freedom, there was no sense in speculating on its nature, because in that case one was then no longer free." (p.138)

Sartre led much of his personal life in a free, existentialist-type of way, and indeed, had many lovers, and was also deceitful in the process. And of course, living such a way can lead to one hitting up against many and various problems, as well as probably hurting various people in the process. The existentialist is supposed to be responsible for their actions, but all that is very difficult of course. And so we run up against these types of problems. Marxism, on one level can seem to overcome some of them, not on another level, I don't think it can. Still, some of these issues can be addressed in fiction as I say, so that's great.

Finally, Mathieu realises that he has entered 'The Age of Reason'.


  1. Actually, no. Mathieu isn't in love with Ivich. He may think he is. But no, he obsesses over the freedom she emits rather than her, herself. Ivich merely poses as a symbol of the freedom which Mathieu so desperately wants. Ivich is the life he wants, but in the end, Ivich isn't a life to live at all. It is void of all responsibility and requires no respect. He eventually realizes that he despises that.

    You aren't emphasizing some of the more important points here.... And no offense intended (readers should know some of this stuff).
    It's very important when reading the novel that you take into account the relationships within Ivich and Marcelle, as Ivich is symbolic for the life which lacks responsibility (a life of youth and carelessness), and Marcelle symbolizes the Age of Reason. The life with Marcelle is more ideal because, in Mathieu's case, it is of responsibility and growth. Or, more so... And end to that. The point in life where everything should have meaning and purpose. To stop waiting and finally accept responsibility and your usefulness in the world. It's the eventual fate of man, I guess. But it's ideal.
    Anyway, great review. I came across it while googling notes for my exam final.

  2. Your reply here is rather 'preachy'. Lecturing in English Literature? You say:

    "It's very important when reading the novel that you take into account the relationships within Ivich and Marcelle..."

    Who says?

    The main point of reading (especially literature) as far as I am concerned, is for pleasure (followed by things such as enlightenment). I got a lot out of this book, as so many others have too, of course. If people get something out of my blog too as well, then that's great. If not - then no worries.

    There are a number of reasons why this book is important for me:

    1. The inclusion of Philosophy and non-fiction ideas in fiction.
    2. Considering both Existentialism and Marxism -the contradictions and difficulties and the exploration for a worthwhile way of living.
    3. Responsibility v. escapsim/carefree living.
    4. The hope that fiction can, perhaps, contribute towards changing the world in some small way.

    People get different things from reading, as they do from various artistic enterprises, and indeed, from life in general. It all depends on so many things - ones background, various experiences, how one views the world etc.