The embodiment of negative maternal love.

from Les Mots by Jean-Paul Sartre page 225 nonfiction ~11 min read

All of us, even the sober-minded Bercot, admired Benard, a plump little boy who was always cold and who looked like a baby chicken. The repute of his merits had even reached the ears of our mothers, who were slightly annoyed by it but who were continually holding him up to us as a model without succeeding in disgusting us with him. Our partiality can be seen from the fact that he was a day-boarder and that we liked him all the more for it. In the evening, beneath the family lamp, we would think about that missionary who stayed in the jungle to convert the cannibals of the dormitory, and we felt less afraid. It is only fair to say that the boarders themselves respected him. I no longer quite see the reason for this unanimous agreement. Benard was gentle, amiable, and sensitive; in addition, he was at the head of the class in everything. And besides, his mamma stinted herself for him. Our mothers did not associate with that dressmaker, but they often spoke to us about her to make us realize the grandeur of mother love. We thought only of Benard: he was the torch, the joy of that unfortunate woman; we saw only the grandeur of filial love; in short, everybody was moved to pity by those worthy poor. Yet that would not have been enough. The truth is that Benard was only half alive. I never saw him without a big woolen muffler. He would smile at us gently but said little, and I remember that he was not allowed to join in our games. As for me, I revered him all the more because his frailty separated him from us. He had been put under glass; he would greet us and make signs to us from behind the pane, but we did riot go near him; we cherished him from afar because he had, in his lifetime, the unobtrusiveness of symbols. Children are conformists: we were grateful to him for carrying perfection to the point of impersonality. When he chatted with us, the insignificance of his remarks delighted us. We never saw him angry or too gay. In class, he never raised his hand, but when he was called on, Truth spoke through his mouth, without hesitation and without zeal, just as Truth ought to speak. He amazed our gang of child prodigies because he was the best without being prodigious. At that time, we were all more or less fatherless orphans. The male parents were dead or at the front; those who remained behind lost status, were less manly, and wanted their sons to forget about them. Mothers held sway, and Benard reflected the negative virtues of this matriarchy.

At the end of the winter, he died. Children and soldiers don't bother their heads about the dead. Yet forty of us sobbed behind his coffin. Our mothers stood by; the abyss was covered over with flowers. The result was that we regarded his decease as a special prize for outstanding achievement awarded before the end of the term. And besides, Benard had been so little alive that he did not really die; he remained among us, a diffuse and sacred presence. Our good morals went up a notch: we had our dear departed, we talked about him in low tones, with a melancholy pleasure. Perhaps we would be taken away prematurely, like him; we imagined our mothers' tears, and we felt we were precious. But have I been dreaming? I have a blurred memory of something frightfully clear: that widowed dressmaker had lost everything. Did I really choke with horror at the thought of it? Did I have an inkling of Evil, of the absence of God, of an uninhabitable world? I think so: if not, why would Benard's image remain so painfully clear in my rejected, lost, forgotten childhood?

A few weeks later, our class was the witness of a singular event: during the Latin period, the door opened and Benard entered the room, accompanied by the concierge. He nodded to M. Durry, our teacher, and took a seat. We all recognized his steel-rimmed glasses, muffler, and slightly hooked nose, and also his general manner, which made one think of a chick trying to keep warm. I thought God was giving him back to us. M. Durry seemed to share our amazement; he stopped the lesson, took a deep breath, and asked: "Family name, given name, parents' occupation." Benard replied that he was a day-boarder and the son of an engineer and that his name was Paul Yves Nizan. I was the most flabbergasted of all. During recreation, I made advances to him; he responded; we became friends. There was one detail, however, that made me feel I was dealing not with Benard but with his satanic likeness: Nizan was wall-eyed. It was too late to take this into consideration. What I had liked about that face was the embodiment of Good; I ended by liking it for its own sake. I was caught in a trap: my inclination for virtue had led me to prize the Devil. In actual fact, the pseudo-Benard was not that bad; he was alive, that was all; he had all the qualities of his double, but withered. In him, Benard's reserve tended toward concealment; when he burned with violent and passive emotion, he didn't yell, but we saw him go white with rage and stammer. What we took for gentleness was only a momentary paralysis. It was not truth that was expressed by his mouth but a kind of cynical and idle objectivity which made us feel uneasy because we were not used to it, and though, of course, he adored his parents just as we adored ours, he was the only one who spoke of them ironically. In class, he shone less than Benard; on the other hand, he had read a great deal and wanted to write. In short, he was a complete person, and nothing amazed me more than to see a person with Benard's features. Obsessed by this resemblance, I never knew whether to praise him for offering the appearance of virtue or to blame him for having only the appearance of it, and I kept shifting back and forth from blind confidence to unreasoned distrust. It was not until much later, after a long separation, that we became real friends.

For two years, these events and encounters suspended my ruminations without eradicating their cause. In actual fact, nothing had changed depthwise. I had stopped thinking about the mandate that had been lodged within me, under seal, by the adults, but it subsisted. It took possession of my person. At the age of nine, I kept an eye on myself, even in my worst excesses. At the age of ten, I lost sight of myself. I ran with Bran, I chatted with Bercot, with Nizan. During this time, my false mission, left to itself, took on weight and finally toppled over into my darkness. I stopped seeing it; it shaped me; it exercised its power of attraction on everything, bending trees and walls, arching the sky above my head. I had taken myself for a 'prince; my madness lay in my being one. A character neurosis, says an analyst friend of mine. He's right: between the summer of 1914 and the autumn of 1916, my mandate became my character; my delirium left my head and flowed into my bones.

Nothing new happened to me. I found intact what I had acted, what I had prophesied. There was only one difference: without knowledge, without words, blindly, I carried everything out. Previously, I had depicted my life to myself by means of images: it was my death causing my birth, it was my birth driving me toward my death. As soon as I gave up seeing this reciprocity, I became it myself; I was strained to the breaking-point between those two extremes, being born and dying with each heartbeat. My future eternity became my concrete future: it made every instant trivial, it was at the core of the deepest attention, it was an even deeper state of abstraction, it was the emptiness of all plenitude, the light unreality of reality; it killed from a distance the taste of a caramel in my mouth, the sorrows and pleasures in my heart; but it redeemed the most trifling moment by virtue of the mere fact that this moment came last and brought me closer to it; it gave me the patience to live; I never again wanted to skip twenty years and skim twenty more; I never again imagined the far-off days of my triumph; I waited. Every minute I waited for the next one because it brought the following one closer. I lived serenely in a state of extreme urgency: I was always ahead of myself, everything absorbed me, nothing held me back. What a relief! Formerly, my days had been so like each other that I sometimes wondered whether I was not condemned to experience the eternal recurrence of the same one. They had not changed much; they still had the bad habit of slipping away with a shudder; but I had changed: time no longer flowed back over my becalmed childhood; rather, it was I, an arrow that had been shot by order, who pierced time and went straight to the target. In 1948, in Utrecht, Professor Van Lennep showed me some tests in which slides are used. My attention was riveted by a certain card: it showed a horse galloping, a man walking, an eagle flying, and a motor-boat shooting forward. You were asked to tell which picture gave you the greatest feeling of speed. I said: "It's the motor-boat." Then I looked with curiosity at the drawing that had asserted itself so brutally. The motor-boat seemed to be taking off from the lake; in a moment, it would be soaring above those wavy wastes. The reason for my choice occurred to me immediately: at the age of ten, I had the impression that my prow was cleaving the present and yanking me out of it; since then, I have been running, I'm still running. For me, speed is measured not so much by the distance covered in a given time as by the power of uprooting.


At the age of ten, I aspired to like nothing else. Every link of my life had to be unforeseen, had to smell of fresh paint. I consented in advance to mishaps and misadventures, and it's only fair to say that I put a good face on things. One evening, the electricity went off; something was out of order. I was called from another room. I moved forward with my arms out and banged my head against a folding-door so hard that I broke a tooth. The incident amused me, in spite of the pain; I laughed at it, just as Giacometti later laughed at his leg, but for diametrically opposite reasons. Since I had decided in advance that my story would have a happy ending, the unforeseen could only be a delusion, novelty could only be an appearance; the exigency of mankind had settled everything by causing me to be born. I saw in that broken tooth a sign, an obscure monition that I would understand later. In other words, I preserved the order of ends in all circumstances, at all costs; I watched my life through my death and saw only a closed memory from which nothing could escape, into which nothing entered. Can anyone imagine how secure I felt? Chance events did not exist: I was involved only with their providential counterfeits. News- papers gave the impression that random forces prowled the streets and struck down the small fry; I, the predestined one, would never encounter any. Perhaps I would lose an arm, a leg, both eyes. But all that mattered was the way things happened; my misfortunes would be only tests, means for writing a book. I learned to put up with trouble and sickness; I regarded them as the first fruits of my triumphal death, as rungs on the ladder that was leading me to my glorious end. That somewhat brutal solicitude did not bother me, and I was eager to prove worthy of it. I regarded the worst as a guarantee of something better: mistakes themselves would be useful—which amounted to saying that I didn't make any. At the age of ten, I was sure of myself. Modest and insufferable, I saw my defeats as conditions for my posthumous victory. Even though I were blind or a legless cripple, even though I were led astray by my errors, I would win the war by dint of losing the battles. I saw no difference between the ordeals reserved for the elect and the failures for which I was responsible. This means that, fundamentally, my crimes appeared to me as calamities and that I regarded my misfortunes as mistakes. The fact is that I could not catch a sickness, whether it was the measles or a head-cold, without declaring myself guilty: I had been lacking in vigilance, I had forgotten to put on my coat, my muffler. I always preferred to accuse myself rather than the universe, not out of simple good-heartedness, but in order to derive only from myself. This arrogance did not exclude humility. I was all the more ready to think I was fallible in that my lapses were necessarily the shortest path to Good. I managed to feel, in the fluctuations of my life, an irresistible attraction that constantly forced me, even despite myself, to make further progress.

—Jean-Paul Sartre, Les Mots, p. 225