As children live and stop living.

from Les Mots by Jean-Paul Sartre page 217 nonfiction ~8 min read

This did not mar my happiness or our union. We had our myths, our oddities of language, and our ritual jokes. For almost a whole year, I ended at least one sentence in ten with the following words, which I uttered with ironic resignation: "But that doesn't matter." I would say: "There's a big white dog over there. He's not white, but that doesn't matter." We got into the habit of relating the trivial incidents of our life to each other, as they occurred, in an epic style; we would refer to ourselves in the third person. We would be waiting for a bus; it would go by without stopping; one of us would then cry out: "They stamped their feet and called down curses," and we would burst out laughing. In public, we had our little collusions; a wink would be enough. In a store, in a tea-shop, the sales- girl or waitress would seem funny to us; when we left, my mother would say: "I didn't look at you. I was afraid of laughing in her face," and I would feel proud of my power: there weren't many children who could make their mother laugh just by a look. We were shy and afraid together. One day, on the quays, I came upon twelve numbers of Buffalo Bill that I did not yet have. She was about to pay for them when a man approached. He was stout and pale, with anthracite eyes, a waxed moustache, a straw hat, and that slick look which the gay blades of the period liked to affect. He stared at my mother, but it was to me that he spoke: "They're spoiling you, kid, they're spoiling you!" he repeated breathlessly. At first I merely took offense; I resented such familiarity. But I noticed the maniacal look on his face, and Anne Marie and I were suddenly a single, frightened girl who stepped away. Taken aback, the gentleman went off. I have forgotten thousands of faces, but I still remember that blubbery mug. I knew nothing about things of the flesh, and I couldn't imagine what the man wanted of us, but the manifestation of desire is such that I seemed to understand, and, in a way, everything became clear to me. I had felt that desire through Anne Marie; through her I learned to scent the male, to fear him, to hate him. The incident tightened the bonds between us. I would trot along with a stern look, my hand in hers, and I felt sure I was protecting her. Is it the memory of those years? Even now, I have a feeling of pleasure whenever I see a serious child talking gravely and tenderly to his child-mother. I like those sweet friendships that come into being far away from men and against them. I stare at those childish couples, and then I remember that I am a man and I look away.


In the first composition, I was last. Young feudalist that I was, I regarded teaching as a personal bond. Mile. Marie Louise had given me her knowledge out of love; I had received it out of bounty, for love of her. I was disconcerted by the eoc cathedra courses which were addressed to one and all, by the democratic coldness of the law. Subjected to those constant comparisons, my fancied superiority vanished. There was always someone who answered more quickly or better than I. I was too loved to have doubts about myself. I wholeheartedly admired my classmates and did not envy them. My turn would come. At the age of fifty. In short, I was ruining myself without suffering. Seized with barren panic, I would zealously turn in extremely bad work. My grandfather had begun to frown. My mother hastily asked for an appointment with M. Ollivier, my official teacher. He received us in his small, bachelor apartment. My mother put on her melodious voice. Leaning against her armchair, I listened to her as I looked at the sun through the dusty windows. She tried hard to prove that I was better than my work showed: I had learned to read by myself, I wrote novels. When she had run out of arguments, she revealed that I was a ten-month child: better baked than the others, more glazed, crispier as a result of staying in the oven longer. M. Ollivier, who was more sensitive to her charms than to my merits, listened attentively. He was a tall, lean, bald man, with a large head, sunken eyes, waxy complexion, and a few red hairs under a long, hooked nose. He refused to give me private lessons, but promised to "follow up" on me. That was all I asked for. I would watch his eyes in class; he spoke only for me, I was sure of it. I thought he liked me; I liked him; a few kind words did the rest. I became, without effort, a rather good student. My grandfather grumbled when he read my report card at the end of the term, but he no longer thought of taking me out of the lycee. In the following grade, I stopped getting special treatment, but I had got used to democracy.

My schoolwork left me no time for writing, My new acquaintances made me lose all desire for it. I had playmates at last! I who had been left out of things in the park was adopted the very first day as if it were the most natural thing in the world. I couldn't get over it. The fact is that my friends seemed closer to me than the young Fardaillans who had broken my heart; they were day-pupils, mamma's boys, studious youngsters. That didn't matter, I was delighted. I had two lives. At home, I continued to play at being a man. But among themselves children hate childishness; they are honest-to-goodness men. A man among men, I left school every day in the company of the three Malaquins, Jean, Ren6 and Andre, of Paul and Norbert Meyre, Brun, and Max Bercot. We ran yelling around the Place du Pantheon. It was a moment of grave happiness. I dropped the family play-acting. Far from wanting to shine, I laughed in chorus with the others, I repeated their catch- words and phrases, I kept quiet, I obeyed, I imitated my neighbors' gestures, I had only one desire: to be integrated. Keen, tough, and gay, I felt I was made of steel, that I had been delivered at last from the sin of existing. We played ball between the Hotel of Great Men and the statue of Jean Jacques Rousseau; I no longer envied M. Simonnot. To whom would Meyre have tossed the ball after making a feint at Gregoire if I hadn't been present, I, then and there? How dull and dismal my dreams of glory seemed compared to these flashes of intuition that revealed to me my necessity.

As bad luck would have it, they went out faster than they lit up. Our games "overexcited" us, as our mothers said, and at times transformed our groups into a unanimous little crowd that swallowed me up. But we could never forget our parents for long; their invisible presence made us quickly relapse into the shared solitude of animal groups. Aimless, purposeless, without a hierarchy, our society wavered between total fusion and juxtaposition. Together, we lived in a state of truth, but we could not help feeling that we were being loaned to each other and that we each belonged to closely knit, powerful and primitive communities that devised fascinating myths, were nurtured on error, and imposed their arbitrary demands on us. Coddled and right-minded, sensitive, open to reason, frightened by disorder, hating violence and injustice, united and separated by the tacit conviction that the world had been created for our use and that our respective parents were the best in the world, we made a point of not hurting anyone and of being courteous even in our games. Jeering and insults were strictly taboo; if anyone lost his temper, the whole group would surround him, calm him down, make him apologize. It was his own mother who scolded him through the mouth of Jean Malaquin or Norbert Meyre. Moreover, those ladies all knew each other and treated each other cruelly. They told each other our remarks, our criticisms, each boy's comments on all the others; we, their sons, hid from each other what the grown-ups said. My mother once returned indignant from a visit to Mme. Malaquin, who had said to her point-blank: "Andre feels that Poulou puts on airs." It didn't bother me, that was how mothers talked among themselves. I didn't hold it against Andre and didn't say a word to him about the matter. In short, we respected the whole world, rich and poor, soldiers and civilians, young and old, men and animals. We despised only the day-boarders and the boys who lived at school. They must have been pretty guilty for their families to have abandoned them. Perhaps they had bad parents, but that didn't help matters: children had the parents they deserved. After four o'clock, when the free day pupils went home, the lycee became a den of thieves.

Such cautious friendships were bound to be somewhat cool. When vacation came, we sepa- rated quite cheerfully. Yet I liked Bercot. Being the son of a widow, he was my brother. He was handsome, frail, and gentle, and I never tired of looking at his long, black hair, which was combed in Joan of Arc style, But, above all, we both had the proud distinction of having read everything, and we would go off by ourselves to a corner of the playground to discuss literature, that is, to reel off over and over, and always with pleasure, the names of the works we had held in our hands. One day, he looked at me with a wild expression and confided that he wanted to write. We were together again later, in the graduating class. He was still good-looking, but tubercular. He died at the age of eighteen.

—Jean-Paul Sartre, Les Mots, p. 217