We set up progress as an illusion.

from Les Mots by Jean-Paul Sartre page 238 nonfiction ~9 min read

I became a traitor and have remained one. Though I throw myself heart and soul into what I undertake, though I give myself up unreservedly to work, to anger, to friendship, I'll repudiate myself in a moment, I know I will, I want to, and I'm already betraying myself, in the heat of my passion, by the joyful presentiment of my future betrayal. On the whole, I fulfill my commitments like anyone else; I am steadfast in my affections and behavior; but I am unfaithful to my emotions. Monuments, paintings, landscapes, there was a time when the last one I saw was always the finest. I annoyed my friends by alluding cynically or simply lightly —so as to convince myself of my detachment— to a common memory that might have remained precious to them. Because I did not love myself sufficiently, I fled forward. The result is that I love myself still less; that inexorable progression constantly disqualifies me in my own eyes: yesterday I behaved badly since it was yesterday, and I have a foreboding of the severity with which I shall judge myself tomorrow. Above all, no promiscuity: I keep my past at a respectful distance. Adolescence, manhood, the year which has just rolled by, these will always be the Old Regime. The New is ushered in this very hour but is never instituted: tomorrow, everything goes by the board. I've crossed out my early years in particular: when I began this book, it took me a long time to decipher them beneath the blots. When I was thirty, friends were surprised: "One would think you didn't have parents. Or a childhood." And I was silly enough to feel flattered. Yet I like and respect the humble and tenacious faithfulness of certain people— particularly women—to their tastes, their desires, their former plans, to bygone red-letter days; I admire their will to remain the same amidst change, to save their memory, to carry to the grave a first doll, a milk tooth, a first love. I have known jpen who, in later life, slept with an aging woman solely because they had desired her in their youth. Others harbored resentment against dead people or would have come to blows rather than recognize a venial error committed twenty years earlier. As for me, I don't hold grudges and I obligingly admit everything; I'm always ready to criticize myself, provided I'm not forced to. In 1936 and 1945, the individual who bears my name was treated badly: does that concern me? I hold him responsible for the insults he swallowed: the fool wasn't even able to command respect. An old friend meets me; a display of bitterness: he has been harboring a grievance for seventeen years; in a specific situation I treated him inconsiderately. I vaguely remember that I defended myself at the time by counter-attack- ing, that I taunted him with his touchiness, his persecution mania, in short, that I had my personal version of the incident. I am all the more eager to adopt his; I completely agree with him, I heap abuse on myself: I behaved conceitedly, I acted selfishly, I'm heartless; it's a joyful massacre; I revel in my lucidity; to recognize my misbehavior with such good grace is to prove to myself that I couldn't act that way now. Would anyone believe it? My fairness, my generous confession only irritate the plaintiff. He has seen through me, he knows that I'm using him. He has a grudge against me, me alive, present, past, the same person he has always known, and here am I leaving him an inert corpse for the pleasure of feeling like a new-born babe. I end by losing my temper with that maniac who's digging up old bones. Vice versa, if anyone reminds me of some incident in which, so I am told, I appeared to advantage, I pooh-pooh the memory; people think I'm being modest, but it's quite the opposite: I'm thinking that I would do better today and so much better tomorrow. Middle-aged writers don't like to be praised too earnestly for their early work; but I'm the one, I'm sure of it, who's pleased least of all by such compliments. My best book is the one I'm in the process of writing; right after it comes the last one that was published, but I'm secretly getting ready to be disgusted with it before long. If the critics should now think it's bad, they may wound me, but in six months I'll be coming round to their opinion. But on one condition: however poor and worthless they consider the book, I want them to rank it above all my previous work. I'm willing to let them run down my whole output, provided they maintain the chronological hierarchy, the only one that leaves me a chance to do better tomorrow, still better the day after, and to end with a masterpiece.

Naturally, I'm not taken in. I'm quite aware that we repeat ourselves. But this more recently acquired knowledge undermines my old certainties without quite destroying them. My life has a few supercilious witnesses who won't let me get away with anything; they often catch me falling into the same ruts. They tell me so, I believe them, and then, at the last moment, I feel pleased with myself: yesterday I was blind; today's progress lies in my realizing that I've stopped progressing. Sometimes it's I myself who am my witness for the prosecution. For example, it occurs to me that two years earlier I wrote a page that I might be able to use now. I look for it and don't find it. So much the better: out of laziness I was going to slip an old passage into a new work; I write so much better today; I write it over. When I have finished the work, I happen by pure chance to come upon the lost page. Amazement: except for a few commas, I expressed the same idea in the same terms. I hesitate, and then I throw the superseded document into the waste basket. I keep the new version; there's something about it that's superior to the old one. In short, I fix things up: though undeceived, I fool myself in order to keep feeling, despite the fact that old age is creeping up on me, the youthful exhilaration of the mountain-climber.

At the age of ten, I was not yet aware of my quirks and repetitions, and I was untouched by doubt. Jogging along, chattering, fascinated by the spectacle of the street, I was constantly shedding my skin, and I could hear the old skins fall on their predecessors. When I walked up the Rue Soufflot, I would feel at each stride, in the gleaming wake of the shop windows, the movement of my life, its law, and the noble mandate to be unfaithful to everything. I took my whole self along with me. My grandmother wants to match her dinner set. I go to a china shop with her. She points to a soup-tureen on the cover of which are flowers and a red apple. It's not quite what she wants; there are, of course, flowers on her plates too, but there are also insects climbing up stems. The shopkeeper starts warming up too. She knows what the customer wants, she had the article, but they stopped making it three years ago. This pattern is more recent, a very good buy, and besides, with or without insects flowers are always flowers, aren't they? My grandmother doesn't agree. She persists: wouldn't it be possible to take a look in the stockroom? Oh, in the stockroom, of course, but it will take time, and the shopkeeper is alone, her clerk just gave up her job. I am relegated to a corner and told not to touch anything. They forget about me. I am terrorized by the fragility of the things around me, by the dusty sparkling, by the death-mask of Pascal, by a chamber pot with a picture of the head of President Fallieres. Despite appearances, I'm a false minor character. Some authors push "utility actors" into the foreground and show the hero fleetingly in three- quarter face. The reader is not fooled; he has leafed through the last chapter to see whether the novel has a happy ending; he knows that the pale young man leaning against the mantel has three hundred and fifty pages to go. Three hundred and fifty pages of love and adventure. I had at least five hundred. I was the hero of a long story that ended happily, I had stopped telling myself that story• What was the use? I felt like a fictional character, that was all. Time was disposing of the puzzled old ladies, the imitation-pottery flowers, and the whole shop; the black skirts were fading away; the voices were becoming wooly. I pitied my grandmother; she would certainly not reappear in the second part. As for me, I was the beginning, middle, and end gathered together in a tiny little boy already old, already dead, here, in the shadow, among piles of plates taller than he, and outside, far far away, in the great dismal sun of glory. I was the corpuscle at the beginning of its trajectory and the train of waves that flows back on it after crashing into the buffer. Boxed in, pulled together, touching my tomb with one hand and my cradle with the other, I felt brief and splendid, a flash of lightning that was blotted out by darkness.

Nevertheless, boredom clung to me. At times discreetly, at times disgustingly, I yielded to the most fatal temptation whenever I could no longer bear it: as a result of impatience, Orpheus lost Eurydice; as a result of impatience, I lost myself. Led astray by idleness, I would sometimes hark back to my madness when I should have ignored it, when I should have kept it under control and focused my attention on external objects. At such times, I wanted to fulfill myself on the spot, to take in with a single glance the totality that haunted me when I wasn't thinking about it. A catastrophe! Progress, optimism, the joyful betrayals, and the secret finality, everything which I myself had added to Mme. Picard's prediction would collapse. The prediction remained, but what could I do with it? By wanting to save all my moments, that empty oracle forbade itself to single out any in particular; the future would suddenly dry up and all that remained of it was a carcass; I would again be confronted with my difficulty of being and would realize it had never left me.

—Jean-Paul Sartre, Les Mots, p. 238