Writing as playacting and the holy ghost.

from Les Mots by Jean-Paul Sartre page 185 nonfiction ~23 min read

The Holy Ghost was observing me. It so happened that he had just reached a decision to return to Heaven and abandon human beings; I had just about time enough to offer myself; I showed him the wounds of my soul, the tears that drenched my paper; he looked over my shoulder and read, and his anger subsided. Was he appeased by the depth of my suffering or by the magnificence of the work? I said to myself: by the work, but secretly thought: by the suffering. Of course, the Holy Ghost appreciated only what was really artistic, but I had read de Musset, I knew that "the most despairing songs are the loveliest," and I had decided to capture Beauty by a decoy-despair. The word genius had always seemed suspect to me: I went so far as to conceive a loathing for it. Where would the anguish be, where the ordeal, where the foiled temptation, where, in short, the merit, if I possessed the gift? It was bad enough that I had a body and that I had the same face every day; I wasn't going to let myself be confined in a given framework. I accepted my appointment on condition that it be based on nothing, that it shine gratuitously in the absolute void. The Holy Ghost and I held secret meetings: "You'll write," he said to me. I wrung my hands: "What is there about me, Lord, that has made you choose me?"—"Nothing in particular."—"Then, why me?"—"For no reason."—"Do I at least have an aptitude for writing?"—"Not at all. Do you think that the great works are born of flowing pens?"— "Lord, since I'm such a non-entity, how could I write a book?"—"By buckling down to it."—"Does that mean anyone can write?"—"Anyone. But you're the one I've chosen." This faking was very convenient: it enabled me to proclaim my insignificance and at the same time to venerate in me the author of future masterpieces. I was elected, branded, but without talent: everything would come from my sorrows and long patience. I refused myself any singularity: traits of character make one stiff and awkward. I was faithful to nothing but the royal commitment that was leading me to glory by way of torment. The torments remained to be found. That was the one and only problem, but it seemed insoluble since I had been deprived of the hope of living in poverty: whether I was obscure or famous, I drew a salary on the Education Budget; I would never go hungry. I promised myself pangs of love and heartaches, but without enthusiasm: I loathed anguished lovers. I was shocked by Cyrano, that fake Pardaillan who talked silly nonsense to women: the real one dragged all hearts in his wake without even noticing it, though it's only fair to say that the death of Violetta, his sweetheart, had broken his heart forever. I could, of course, be a widower, with an incurable ache: because of a woman but through no fault of hers. That would allow me to reject the advances of all the others. The idea was worth considering. But, in any case, admitting that my young wife from Aurillae had been killed in an accident, the misfortune would not be enough for me to be "the chosen one": it was both too fortuitous and too common. My fury thrust aside all obstacles; certain authors who had been mocked and beaten had wallowed in shame and darkness until their last gasp; glory had crowned only their corpse. That's what would happen to me! I would write conscientiously about Aurillae and its statues. Incapable of hatred, I would aim only at reconciling, at being useful. Yet, my first book would create a scandal as soon as it came out; I would become a public enemy, I would be insulted by the local papers, shopkeepers would refuse to serve me, fanatics would throw stones at my windows, I would have to flee in order to escape being lynched. Dumbfounded at first, I would spend months in a state of daze, constantly repeating, "See here, it's all a misunderstanding! Since everyone is good!" And indeed, it was only a misunderstanding, but the Holy Ghost wouldn't let it be cleared up. I would get over it; one day, I would just down at my table and write a new book: about the sea or about the mountains. But that one wouldn't find a publisher. Hounded, disguised, perhaps banished, I would write others, many others, I would translate Horace into verse, I would expound modest and quite reasonable ideas on pedagogy. Nothing doing. My notebooks piled up in a trunk, unpublished.

The story had two endings; I would choose one or the other, depending on my mood. When I was feeling low, I would see myself dying on an iron cot, hated by everyone, desperate, in the very hour when Glory was blowing its trumpet. At other times, I would grant myself a bit of happiness. At the age of fifty, in order to try out a new pen, I would write my name on a manuscript, which shortly thereafter would be mislaid. Someone would find it, in an attic, in the gutter, in a closet of the house which I had just left. He would read it. Overwhelmed by it, he would take it to Artheme Fayard, the famous publisher of Michel Zevaco. A triumph: ten thousand copies snapped up in two days. What remorse in people's hearts! A hundred reporters would go looking for me and not find me. Recluse that I was, I remained unaware for a long time of this sudden shift of opinion. Finally, one day, I enter a cafe to come in out of the rain. I notice a newspaper lying nearby and what do I see? "Jean-Paul Sartre, the masked writer, the bard of Aurillac, the poet of the sea." On page 3, a six-column spread in capitals. I rejoice. No: I am voluptuously forlorn. In any case, I return home. With the help of my landlady, I tie up the trunk containing the notebooks and ship it to Fayard without giving my address. At this point in my story, I would pause in order to launch out into delicious schemes: if I sent the package from the city in which I lived, the reporters would discover my retreat in no time. I therefore took the trunk to Paris and had it delivered to the publisher by a forwarding agent. Before taking the train, I went back to the scenes of my childhood, the Rue le Goff, the Rue Soufflot, the Luxembourg. I was attracted by the Cafe Balzar; I remembered that my grandfather —who had since died—had sometimes taken me there in 1913. We would sit side by side on the bench, everyone would look at us knowingly, he would order a glass of beer and a small one for me, I felt I was loved. Now fifty years old and nostalgic, I pushed open the door of the cafe and asked for a small glass of beer. At the next table, some beautiful young women were talking animatedly; my name was mentioned. "Ah!" said one of them, "he may be old, he may be homely, but what does it matter! I'd give thirty years of my life to become his wife!" I looked at her with a proud, sad smile, she smiled back in surprise, I got up, I disappeared.

I spent a lot of time touching up that episode and a hundred others which I spare the reader. One can recognize, projected into a future world, my childhood itself, my situation, the concoctions of my sixth year, and the mopiness of my unappreciated paladins. I was still moping at the age of nine, and enjoying it immensely: by moping, the inexorable martyr that I was kept alive a misunderstanding which the Holy Ghost himself seemed to have tired of. Why not tell that ravishing admirer my name? Ah, I would say to myself, she comes too late. "But since she accepts me in any case?" "Well, it's because I'm too poor." "Too poor? What about the royalties?" This objection did not faze me: I had written to Fayard instructing him to distribute the money which was due me to the poor. Nevertheless, I had to finish the story. Well then, I would pass away in my little room, abandoned by all, but serene. Mission accomplished.

I am struck by one thing in that oft-repeated story: the day I see my name in the paper, something snaps, I'm finished; I sadly enjoy my fame, but I stop writing. The two denouements come to the same thing: whether I die in order to be born to glory or whether glory comes first and kills me, the eagerness to write involves a refusal to live. At about that time, I was disturbed by an anecdote which I had read somewhere. It takes place in the last century. At a wayside station in Siberia, a writer is pacing up and down, waiting for the train. Not a single shack on the horizon, not a living soul. The writer's big, gloomy head weighs heavily on his shoulders. He is nearsighted, unmarried, coarse, and always in a temper. He is bored; he thinks about his prostate, about his debts. Suddenly, on the road running parallel to the tracks, appears a young countess in a brougham. She jumps out of the carriage and runs to the traveler, whom she has never seen but whom she claims to recognize from a daguerreotype that someone has shown her. She bows, takes the man's right hand, and kisses it. The story stopped there, and I don't know what it was supposed to mean. At the age of nine, I was amazed that that grumpy author found readers in the steppes and that such a lovely person came to remind him of the glory he had forgotten. It meant being born. More deeply: it meant dying. I could feel that; I wanted it to be so; a living commoner could not receive such testimony of admiration from such an aristocrat. The countess seemed to be saying to him: "If I've been able to go up to you and touch you, it's because there's no longer even any need to maintain superiority of rank. I don't care what you may think of my gesture. I no longer regard you as a man but as the symbol of your work." Killed by a kiss on the hand: a thousand miles from Saint Petersburg, fifty-five years from the day of his birth, a traveler caught fire; his glory consumed him and all that was left of him was the list of his works in flaming letters. I saw the countess return to her brougham and disappear and the steppes sink back into solitude. At twilight, the train rushed by the station without stopping in order to make up for lost time. A shiver of fear ran down my back. I remembered Wind in the Trees and said to myself: "The Countess was death." She would come; one day, on a deserted road, she would kiss my fingers.

Death was my vertigo because I had no desire to live. That is why it filled me with such terror. By identifying it with glory, I made it my destination. I wanted to die. Horror sometimes froze my impatience, but never for long. My sacred joy would spring up again, I would await the instant of lightning when I would burst into flame and burn to the bone. Our deeper intentions are plans and evasions which are inseparably linked. I can see that, despite the bluffing and lying, the mad enterprise of writing in order to be forgiven for my existence had a certain reality. The proof is that I'm still writing fifty years later. But if I go back to the origins, I see there a flight forward, a simple-minded kind of suicide. Yes, more than the epic, more than martyrdom, it was death that I was seeking. For a long time I had been afraid of ending as I had begun, anywhere, in any which way, and I feared that this vague decease would be only a reflection of my vague birth. My vocation changed everything: the sword-strokes fly off, the writings remain; I discovered that in belles-lettres the Giver can be transformed into his own Gift, that is, into a pure object. Chance had made me a man, generosity would make me a book. I could cast my missive, my mind, in letters of bronze; I could replace the rumblings of my life by irreplaceable inscriptions, my flesh by a style, the faint spirals of time by eternity, I could appear to the Holy Ghost as a precipitate of language, could become an obsession to the species, could, in short, be other, other than myself, other than the others, other than everything. I would start by giving myself an indestructible body and then I would hand myself over to the consumers. I would not write for the pleasure of writing, but in order to carve that glorious body in words. Viewed from the height of my tomb, my birth appeared to me as a necessary evil, as a quite provisional embodiment that prepared for my transfiguration: in order to be reborn, I had to write; in order to write, I needed a brain, eyes, arms. When the work was done, those organs would be automatically resorbed. Around 1955, a larva would burst open, twenty-five folio butterflies would emerge from it, flapping all their pages, and would go and alight on a shelf of the National Library. Those butterflies would be none other than I: I, twenty-five volumes, eighteen thousand pages of text, three hundred engravings, including a portrait of the author. My bones are made of leather and cardboard, my parchment-skinned flesh smells of glue and mushrooms, I sit in state through a hundred thirty pounds of paper, thoroughly at ease. I am reborn, I at last become a whole man, thinking, talking, singing, thundering, a man who asserts himself with the peremptory inertia of matter. Hands take me down, open me, spread me flat on the table, smooth me, and sometimes make me creak. I let them, and then suddenly I flash, I dazzle, I command attention from a distance, my powers shoot through time and space, they blast the wicked, protect the good. No one can forget or ignore me: I am a great fetish, tractable and terrible. My mind is in bits and pieces. All the better. Other minds take me over. People read me, I leap to the eye; they talk to me. I'm in everyone's mouth, a universal and individual language; I become a prospective curiosity in millions of gazes; to him who can love me, I step aside and disappear: I exist nowhere, at last I am, I'm everywhere, I'm a parasite on mankind, my blessings eat into it and force it to keep reviving my absence.

This hocus-pocus succeeded: I buried death in the shroud of glory. I now thought only of the latter, never of the former, without realizing that the two were one and the same. At the present time, when I am writing these lines, I know that I've had my day, within a few years more or less. I clearly imagine—and I'm not too gay about it —my forthcoming old age and senile decay, the decay of those I love. My death, never, I sometimes intimate to my close friends—some of whom are fifteen, twenty, thirty years younger than I—how sorry I'll be to outlive them. They laugh at me, and I laugh with them, but it's no use and won't be any use: at the age of nine, an operation took from me the means of feeling a certain pathos which is said to be peculiar to our condition. Ten years later, at the Ecole Normale, this pathos would suddenly seize some of my best friends; they would wake with a start, in a state of fear or anger; I snored like a log. One of them, after a serious illness, assured us that he had experienced the pangs of death, including the last gasp. Nizan was the most obsessed of all. At times, when fully awake, he would see himself as a corpse; he would stand up, his eyes swarming with worms, would grope for his pork-pie hat, and would disappear. The next day we would find him, drunk, with strangers. Sometimes, in a student's room, these victims would tell each other about their sleepless nights, their anticipated experience of nothingness. They understood each other without having to go into detail. I would listen to them; I liked them enough to wish eagerly that I could be like them, but to no avail. All I could grasp and appreciate were the dismal commonplaces: one lives, one dies, one never knows who's alive or who's dead; an hour before death, one is still alive. I had no doubt that there was a meaning in their talk that escaped me. I would remain silent, jealous, in exile. Finally they would turn to me, annoyed in advance: "What about you? Does all that leave you cold?" I would throw up my arms as a sign of impotence and humility. They would laugh angrily, dazzled by the blinding awareness that they were unable to communicate to me: "Don't you ever think to yourself when you close your eyes in bed that there are people who die in their sleep? Haven't you ever thought while brushing your teeth: this time it's it, this is my last day? Haven't you ever felt that you had to be quick quick quick, that time was short? Do you think you're immortal?" I would answer, partly in de- fiance, partly so as to fall in with them: "That's it, I think I'm immortal." Nothing was more false: I had taken precautions against accidental death, that was all; the Holy Ghost had commissioned me to do a long and exacting job, he had to leave me time enough to carry it out. I was an honorary corpse; it was my death that protected me against derailments, congestions, peritonitis: we had made a date; if I showed up too soon, it wouldn't be there yet. My friends could find fault with me all they liked for never thinking about it: they were unaware that I didn't stop living it for a single minute.

I now admit they were right: they had accepted our condition in its entirety, including the anxiety it involves; I had chosen to be reassured; and it was quite true, fundamentally, that I thought I was immortal. I had killed myself in advance because only the deceased enjoy im- mortality. Nizan and Maheu knew that they would be savagely attacked, that they would be yanked from the world alive, full of blood. Whereas I, I lied to myself: in order to deprive death of its barbarity, I had made it my goal and had made my life the only known means of dying. I was going quietly to my end, having no hopes or desires other than what was needed to fill my books, certain that the last burst of my heart would be inscribed on the last page of the last volume of my works and that death would be taking only a dead man. Nizan, at the age of twenty, looked at women and cars, at all the good things of life, with desperate haste: everything had to be seen and taken right away. I too looked at them, but with more zeal than lust: I was not on earth to enjoy things but to draw up a balance-sheet. It was a little too easy. Out of cowardice and with a good little boy's timidity, I had backed away from the risks of a free and open existence, an existence without a providential guarantee. I had convinced myself that everything was written in advance, better still, was a thing of the past.

Obviously that fraudulent operation spared me the temptation of loving myself. Threatened with annihilation, each of my friends barricaded himself in the present, discovered the irreplaceable quality of his mortal life, and thought himself touching, precious, and unique. Each of them loved himself. I, the dead one, did not love myself; I found myself very ordinary, more boring than the great Corneille, and my individuality as a subject had no other interest for me than to prepare for the moment that would change me into an object. Was I therefore more modest? No, but more crafty. I was charging my descendants to love me instead of doing so myself. For men and women still unborn, I would some day have charm, a certain indefinable quality, I would be the source of their happiness. I was even shrewder and more cunning: I secretly harked back to that life which I found tedious, of which I had been able to make only the instrument of my death; I did that in order to redeem it. I looked at it through future eyes and it appeared to me as a touching and wonderful story that I had lived for all mankind, a story that, thanks to me, nobody need relive and that had only to be related. I was in an actual state of frenzy: I chose as my future the past of a great immortal and I tried to live backwards. I became completely posthumous.

It was not entirely my fault. My grandfather had brought me up in a state of retrospective illusion. Moreover, he was not guilty either, and I am far from holding it against him: that mirage is born spontaneously of culture. When the witnesses have disappeared, a great man's death ceases forever to be a disaster; time turns it into a trait of character. An old defunct is dead by nature; he is dead at the time of baptism, neither more nor less than at the time of extreme unction; his life belongs to us; we enter it at either end or in the middle; we go up and down the course of it at will. The reason is that chronological order has exploded. Impossible to restore it. The personage runs no further risks and no longer even expects the tickling in his nose to end in sneezing. His existence has the appearance of an unfolding, but as soon as we try to restore a bit of life to it, it relapses into simultaneity. Though you may try to put yourself in his place, to pretend to share his passions, his blunders, his prejudices, to revive bygone acts of resistance or a touch of impatience or apprehension, you will be unable to keep from evaluating his behavior in the light of results which were not foreseeable and of information which he did not possess or from giving particular weight to events whose effects left their mark on him at a later time but which he lived through casually. That's the mirage: the future more real than the present. This is not surprising: in a life which is over, the end is regarded as the truth of the beginning. The defunct remains mid-way between being and value, between the raw fact and the reconstruction. His history becomes a kind of circular essence which is epitomized in each of his moments. In the drawing-rooms of Arras, a cold, simpering young lawyer is carrying his head under his arm because he is the late Robespierre; blood is dripping from it but does not stain the rug; not one of the guests notices it, whereas we see nothing else; five years will go by before it rolls into the basket, yet there it is, cut off, uttering gallant remarks despite its hanging jaw. This error of perspective does not disturb us because we recognize it; we have the means of correcting it. But the clerks of the period concealed it; they fed their idealism with it. When, they insinuated, a great idea wishes to be born, it requisitions, in a woman's belly, the great man who will be the carrier of it. It chooses his condition and his environment; it determines the exact proportion between the intelligence and the obtuse- ness of his associates, plans his education, subjects him to the necessary ordeals, and composes for him, by successive retouches, an unstable character whose ups and downs it governs until the object of all this care explodes by giving birth to it. This was never stated outright, but everything suggested that the sequence of causes screened an inverse and secret order.

I used this mirage enthusiastically to complete the guaranteeing of my destiny. I grabbed hold of time, pushed it head over heels, and everything became clear. It began with a dark blue little book which was bedizened with showy and somewhat faded gilt ornamentation and the thick pages of which had a corpselike smell. It was entitled The Childhood of Famous Men. A label certified that my uncle Georges had received it in 1885 as second prize in arithmetic. I had come across it at the time of my whimsical journeys, had leafed through it, and then rejected it with annoyance. Those chosen young creatures bore no resemblance to child prodigies. The only thing they had in common with me was the dullness of their virtues, and I wondered why anyone spoke about them. Finally, the book disappeared; I had decided to punish it by hiding it. A year later, I turned the shelves upside down trying to find it. I had changed; the child prodigy had become a great man who was having trouble with his childhood. What a surprise: the book had changed too. The words were the same, but they spoke to me about myself. I had a feeling that that book was going to be the ruin of me, I hated it, I was afraid of it. Every day, before opening it, I would go and sit by the window; in case of danger, I would let the real light of day enter my eyes. People who deplore the influence of Fantomas or Andre Gide now make me laugh: does anyone think that children don't choose their poisons themselves? I swallowed mine with the anxious austerity of a drug-addict. Yet it seemed quite harmless. The book encouraged young readers: good conduct and filial piety lead to everything, even to becoming Rembrandt or Mozart. The author recounted, in the form of short narratives, the very ordinary occupations of no less ordinary but sensitive and pious boys who were called Johann Sebastian, Jean Jacques or Jean Baptiste and who gave joy to their families as I did to mine. But the poison was this: without ever mentioning the name of Bach, Rousseau, or Moliere, the author made a point of constantly inserting allusions to their future greatness, of recalling casually, by means of a detail, their most famous works or deeds, of contriving his
accounts so artfully that it was impossible to understand the most trivial incident without relating it to subsequent events. He introduced into the tumult of everyday life a great, fabulous silence which transfigured everything: the future. A certain Sanzio was dying to see the Pope; he was so eager that he was taken to the public square one day when the Pope was due to pass by. The youngster turned pale and stared. Finally, someone said to him: "I suppose you're satisfied, Raffaello. Did you at least take a good look at our Holy Father?" But the boy replied with a wild look: "What Holy Father? All I saw was colors!" Another day, little Miguel, who wanted to become a soldier, was sitting under a tree and enjoying a novel about chivalry when suddenly he was startled by a loud clash: an old lunatic of the neighborhood, a ruined squire, was capering on an old nag and thrusting his rusty lance at a windmill. At dinner, Miguel related the incident with such sweet, funny faces that he made everyone roar with laughter. But later, alone in his room, he threw his novel on the floor, stamped on it, and sobbed for a long time.

Those children lived in a state of error. They thought they were acting and talking at random, whereas the real purpose of their slightest remarks was to announce their Destiny. The author and I smiled tenderly at each other over their heads. I read the lives of those falsely mediocre children as God had conceived them: starting at the end. At first, I exulted: they were my brothers; their glory would be mine. And then everything turned upside down: I would find myself on the other side of the page, inside the book: Jean-Paul's childhood resembled that of Jean-Jacques and of Johann-Sebastian, and nothing happened to him that was not broadly premonitory. But this time it was at my grand- nephews that the author was winking. I was being seen, from death to birth, by those future children whom I did not imagine, and I was sending them messages which to me were undecipherable. I shuddered, paralyzed by my death, which was the true meaning of all my gestures.

—Jean-Paul Sartre, Les Mots, p. 185