The failure of writers.

from Les Mots by Jean-Paul Sartre page 181 nonfiction ~4 min read

I plead extenuating circumstances. There were three of them. Firstly, by means of this transparent fantasy I was questioning my right to live in the mankind without a visa which awaits the Artist's good pleasure, one can easily recognize the coddled child who is bored on his perch; I accepted the loathsome myth of the Saint who saves the populace because, in the last analysis, the populace was myself: I declared myself a licensed redeemer of crowds so as to win my own salvation on the sly and, as the Jesuits say, into the bargain.

Secondly, I was nine years old. As an only child and without a friend, I did not imagine that my isolation could end. I must admit that I was a very unknown author. I had started writing again. My new novels, for want of anything better, resembled the old in every single way, but no one noticed it. Not even I, who hated to reread myself. My pen raced away so fast that often my wrist ached. I would throw the filled notebooks on the floor, I would eventually forget about them, they would disappear. For that reason, I never finished anything: what was the good of relating the end of a story when the beginning was lost? Besides, if Karl had deigned to glance at those pages, I would not have regarded him as a reader but as a supreme judge, and I would have feared that he might condemn me. Writing, my grim labor, had no reference to anything and was thus an end in itself: I wrote in order to write. I don't regret it: had I been read, I would have tried to please, I would have become a wonder again. Being clandestine, I was true.

In any case, the idealism of the clerk was based on the realism of the child. I said earlier that as a result of discovering the world through language, for a long time I took language for the world. To exist was to have an official title somewhere on the infinite Tables of the Word; to write was to engrave new beings upon them or—and this was my most persistent illusion—to catch living things in the trap of phrases: if I combined words ingeniously, the object would get tangled up in the signs, I would have a hold on it. I began, in the Luxembourg, by focusing my attention on a bright simulacrum of a plane-tree. I did not observe it. Quite the contrary: I trusted to the void, I waited. A moment later, its true foliage would suddenly appear in the form of a simple adjective or, at times, of a whole proposition: I had enriched the universe with quivering greenery. Never did I set my finds down on paper: they were being stored away, so I thought, in my memory. Actually, I would forget them. But they gave me an inkling of my future role: I would impose names. For centuries, in Aurillac, idle heaps of whiteness had been begging for definite contours, for a meaning; I would make real monuments of them. As a terrorist, I was concerned only with their being: I would establish it by means of language. As a rhetorician, I cared only for words: I would set up cathedrals of words beneath the blue eyes of the word sky. I would build for the ages. When I took up a book, I could see that though I opened it and shut it twenty times, it did not deteriorate. Gliding over that incorruptible substance, the text, my gaze was merely a tiny, surface accident; it did not disturb anything, did not wear anything away. I, on the other hand, passive and ephemeral, was a dazzled mosquito, pierced by the rays of a beacon. I would put out the light and leave the study: invisible in the darkness, the book kept sparkling, for itself alone. I would give my works the violence of those corrosive flashes, and later, in ruined libraries, they would outlive man.

I enjoyed my obscurity, I wanted to prolong it, to make a merit of it. I envied the famous prisoners who wrote in dungeon cells on candle paper. They had respected their obligation to redeem their contemporaries and had lost that of associating with them. Of course, moral progress had reduced my chance of drawing on confinement for my talent, but I didn't lose all hope: impressed by the modesty of my ambitions, Providence would set its heart on fulfilling them. While waiting, I locked myself up in advance.

—Jean-Paul Sartre, Les Mots, p. 181