A description of the problems of playacting.

from Les Mots by Jean-Paul Sartre page 107 nonfiction ~8 min read

Mme. Picard was of the opinion that a child can read everything: "A book never does any harm if it's well written." I had once asked permission, in her presence, to read Madame Bovary, and my mother had turned on her too musical voice: "But if my little darling reads books of that kind at his age, what will he do when he grows up?"—'Til live them!" This reply had had a definite and permanent success. Every time Mme. Picard visited us, she alluded to it, and my mother would exclaim in a flattered tone: "Blanche! Do be quiet, you're going to spoil him!" I loved and despised that pale, fat old woman who was my best audience. When I was told she was coming, I felt I was a genius. I dreamed that she lost her skirts and that I saw her behind, which was a way of paying tribute to her spirituality. In November 1915, she presented me with a red leather, gilt-edged booklet. My grandfather was away, and we were sitting in the study. The women were talking animatedly, a tone lower than in 1914 because it was wartime. A dirty yellow haze clung to the windows; there was a stale smell of tobacco. I opened the notebook and was at first disappointed. I was hoping for a novel, a story book.' Over and over I read the same questionnaire on the multicolored pages: "Fill it in and have your little friends do the same. You will be building happy memories." I decided to answer then and there, sat down at my grandfather's desk, laid the booklet on his blotter, took his plastic pen- holder, dipped it into the bottle of red ink, and began to write while the grown-ups exchanged amused glances. With a single leap I had perched higher than my soul in order to hunt for "answers beyond my age." Unfortunately, the questionnaire was not helpful. I was asked about my likes and dislikes: what was my favorite color, my favorite smell? I half-heartedly invented predilections. Suddenly there was an opportunity to shine: "What is your fondest wish?"
I replied without hesitation: "To be a soldier and avenge the dead." Then, too excited to go on, I jumped down and took my work over to the grown-ups. Their expressions grew sharp. Mme. Picard adjusted her glasses; my mother leaned over her shoulder; both of them pursed their lips quizzically. Their heads bobbed up together. My mother had turned pink. Mme. Picard gave the book back to me: "You know, my dear, it's interesting only if you're sincere." I thought I would die. My mistake was glaring: she had asked for the child prodigy; I had given the sublime child. Unfortunately for me, those ladies had nobody at the front. Military sublimity had no effect on their moderate souls. I disappeared and went to make faces in front of a mirror. When I think back to those faces, I realize that they were a means of protection: I defended myself against blazing bursts of shame by a tightening of muscles. In addition, by carrying my misfortune to an extreme, this reaction freed me from it: I rushed into humility in order to evade humiliation. I did away with the means of pleasing so as to forget that I had had them and had misused them. The mirror was of great help to me: I made it teach me that I was a monster. If it succeeded, my sharp remorse would change into pity. But, above all, as the failure had revealed my servility to me, I made myself hideous so as to make it impossible, so as to reject human beings, and so that they would reject me. The Comedy of Evil was being performed against the Comedy of Good; Eliakim was playing Quasimodo's role. B y combined twists and puckers I was distorting my face; I was vitriolizing myself in order to efface my former smiles.

The remedy was worse than the disease: I had tried to take shelter against glory and dishonor in my lonely truth. But I had no truth. All I found in myself was an astonished insipidness. Before my eyes, a jelly-fish was hitting against the glass of the aquarium, wrinkling its flabby collaret, fraying in the darkness. Night fell, clouds of ink were diluted in the mirror, swallowing up my final embodiment. Deprived of an alibi, I fell upon myself. In the darkness, I sensed an indefinite hesitation, a faint touch, a throbbing, a whole living creature—the most terrifying and the only one of which I couldn't be afraid. I fled, I went back to resume, in the light, my role of soiled cherub. In vain. The mirror had taught me what I had always known: I was horribly natural. I have never got over that.

Idolized by all, rejected by each, I was left out of things, and my sole recourse, at the age of seven, was within myself, who did not yet exist, a glass palace in which the budding century beheld its boredom. I had been born in order to fill the great need I had of myself. Until then, I had known only the conceit of a lap-dog. Driven into pride, I became the Proud One. Since nobody laid claim to me seriously, I laid claim to being indispensable to the Universe. What could be haughtier? What could be sillier? The fact is that I had no choice. I had sneaked on to the train and had fallen asleep, and when the ticket-collector shook me and asked for my ticket, I had to admit that I had none. Nor did I have the money with which to pay my fare on the spot. I began by pleading guilty. I had left my identity card at home, I no longer even remembered how I had gotten by the ticket-puncher, but I admitted that I had sneaked on to the train. Far from challenging the authority of the ticket-collector, I loudly proclaimed my respect for his functions and complied in advance with his decision. At that extreme degree of humility, the only way I could save myself was by reversing the situation: I therefore revealed that I had to be in Dijon for important and secret reasons, reasons that concerned France and perhaps all mankind. If things were viewed in this new light, it would be apparent that no one in the entire train had as much right as I to occupy a seat. Of course, this involved a higher law which conflicted with the regulations, but if the ticket-collector took it upon himself to interrupt my journey, he would cause grave complications, the consequences of which would be his responsibility. I urged him to think it over: was it reasonable to doom the entire species to disorder under the pretext of maintaining order in a train? Such is pride: the plea of the wretched. Only passengers with tickets have the right to be modest. I never knew whether I won my case. The ticket-collector remained silent. I repeated my arguments. So long as I spoke, I was sure he wouldn't make me get off. We remained face to face, one mute and the other inexhaustible, in the train that was taking us to Dijon. The train, the ticket-collector, and the delinquent were myself. And I was also a fourth character, the organizer, who had only one wish, to fool himself, if only for a minute, to forget that he had concocted everything. The family play-acting was useful to me: I was called a gift from heaven; that was just in fun and I was aware of it; crammed with coddling, I had ready tears and a hard heart. I wanted to become a useful gift in quest of its recipients. I offered my person to France, to the world. I didn't care a damn about human beings, but since they were involved, their tears of joy would inform me that the universe welcomed me with gratitude. The reader may think I was very bumptious. No, I was a fatherless orphan. Being nobody's son, I was my own cause and was filled with both pride and wretchedness. I had been brought into the world by the momentum that impelled me toward Good. The tie-up seems clear: feminized by maternal tenderness, dulled by the absence of the stern Moses who had begotten me, puffed with pride by my grandfather's adoration, I was a pure object, doomed par excellence to masochism if only I could have believed in the family play-acting. But no. It perturbed me only on the surface, and the depths remained cold, unjustified. The system horrified me. I developed a hatred of happy swoons, of abandonment, of that caressed and coddled body. I found myself by opposing myself. I plunged into pride and sadism, in other words, into generosity, which, like avarice or race prejudice, is only a secret balm for healing our inner wounds and which ends by poisoning us. In order to escape the forlornness of the creature, I was preparing for myself the most irremediable bourgeois solitude, that of the creator. This shift is not to be confused with genuine revolt: one rebels against an oppressor and I had only benefactors. I remained their accomplice for a long time. Besides, it was they who had dubbed me a "gift of Providence." I merely used the instruments at my disposal for other purposes.

Everything took place in my head. Imaginary child that I was, I defended myself with my imagination. When I examine my life from the age of six to nine, I am struck by the continuity of my spiritual exercises. Their content often changed, but the program remained unvaried. I had made a false entrance; I withdrew behind a screen and began my birth over again at the right moment, the very minute that the universe silently called for me.

—Jean-Paul Sartre, Les Mots, p. 107