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Where did the words come from?

Ravi Vyas


WHEN we read works of great literature of the order of the Bible, Shakespeare's "Lear" and "Hamlet", Tolstoy's War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Dostoevesky's Brothers Karamazov and other such, the question that springs to mind is, "Where did the words come from"? Of course their greatness lies in the depiction of emotions and people like ourselves — the same sensibilities, the same curiosities, the same inclinations, preoccupations, moods and responses as our own, to say nothing of one's half-formed thoughts expressed and confirmed. But the words matter simply because they stretch our ability to look at our lives far better than we would have been able, to put a finger on our perceptions that we recognise as our own yet could not have formulated on our own. This is what Sartre does with his Words, a childhood memoir of his first 10 years, much like many of us from middle class backgrounds might have had but could not quite see and express that way.

Words is a memoir, which is not, strictly speaking, an autobiography.

By definition, a memoir is accounts of one's relations with very interesting people it had been the good fortune of the author to encounter. In Sartre's case, these interesting people are first of all, his mother and his grandparents: the mother sustained his Oedipal passion, which is the book's core, and his grand parents turned him on to Reading and Writing, the two parts into which the book has been divided.

But, unlike most memoirs that end up as mellow accounts of remembrances of things past with all passion spent, Words has been written in a positive fury of wit, and a nagging pain behind the wit. The wit makes it irresistible, the pain human. So, the brilliance is more attacking, more detailed, and considerably more stimulating. Aphorisms flash from every page, as if Sartre was getting his own back on a child who had no childhood: "He (his grandfather) was a nineteenth century man who, like so many others, including Victor Hugo himself, thought he was Victor Hugo." "I have lived beyond my age as people live beyond their means: enthusiastically, exhaustedly, expensively, and all for show." "I was to have the sex of angels, indeterminate but feminine round the edges." "Since I have lost the chance of dying unknown, I sometimes flatter myself that I live misunderstood." "She (my grandmother) believed in nothing; only her scepticisms kept her from being an atheist." "I confused things with names; that is my belief." "One does not adopt an idea: one slips into it." The whole book, every sentence, is like this: crisp, elegant, bracing, arrogant, sadistic, as if his brains were designed to save him from feelings. "I loathe my childhood," he explains, "and all that remains of it." You wonder why Sartre at the age of 50, when he wrote the book, must attack his childhood with such virulence. Was it because his childhood was not unhappy enough; not because he was insufficiently loved, but that he was insufficiently hated? There was, in any case, a sliver of ice in his heart as his philosophic works, especially Being and Nothingness showed, written as though deliberately to defy analysis.

Sartre's father died when he was a few months old and the bereaved mother and child went to live with her parents: "chilled by gratitude (she) sensed the blame beneath their decency: families naturally prefer widows to unmarried mothers, but only just." Still, all duly loved fatherless Jean-Paul, and his supremacy from infancy was unchallenged.

His grandfather, Charles Schweitzer, uncle of Albert, bearded like God the father, vain, pompous and contemptuous of the whole world, doted on the child.

Family legend had it that one day he entered the church through the vestry while "the priest was threatening the faint-hearted with celestial thunder: God is here! He is watching you! Suddenly the audience saw beneath the pulpit, a tall, bearded man eyeing them. They fled." To the grandson, the grandfather was all — so much so that what he said scarcely registered. "I was too busy listening to hear." What we adults take to be childish inattention is caught in memory that is typical of Sartre's uncanny reconstruction of childhood. He distinguished men and women, he recalls, partly by smell — the men's smells being less pleasant but more serious. Their repulsiveness was part of their glamour. Contrasted with his mother's delicate scent was the bad breath of his schoolmaster, which Sartre relished as the odour of learning and virtue! Despite the adoration of his mother and grandparents, it wasn't enough as though his real loves and hatreds were frustrated and unexpressed.

Sartre's explanation is a little odd: "My father's hasty retreat had conferred on me a very incomplete Oedipus complex; no Super-ego, I agree, but no aggression, either." It is a clever explanation but somehow doesn't ring true. His Oedipus complex was complete from all accounts; what was wrong was that it seemed motiveless. His omnipotence went unchallenged but it wasn't taken seriously. The adoration he received was a bit remote and all his canny outlets for aggression — his cleverness, his outrageous sayings, his precocious literariness, even his long curls were in some way made to reflect glory on his family.

(Sartre's mother had allowed his curls to grow to hide his ugliness; his grandfather thought them effeminate, took him to a barber and had them shorn. "He had taken out his wonder child, and brought home a toad.") Sartre had all these things going but he didn't properly exist. He was merely, in his own words, "a cultural possession." If he was spoilt, it was because he was used; he became a flattering trick mirror for his grandfather's overwhelming narcissism. He hated it, but felt guilty for his apparent ingratitude — as he no doubt felt guilty for his father's death and his complete possession of his mother. So he made amends by changing focus so that it was he, the child, who was using the adults: "We would remain a few seconds, face to face, a pretty group in porcelain, then I would dash forward, laden with fruit and flowers and, to my grandfather's joy, rush to his knees, pretending to be out of breath; he would lift me off the ground, raise me at arms' length to the skies, and then clutch me to his heart murmuring: `My darling child!' This was the second position, closely watched by the passers-by." Sartre's contempt is not wholly destructive; rather it is the driving force behind his cleverness. Isolated from other children, bored, spoilt and loved only in as much as he presented a flattering image to his elders, he saved himself from the failure of all drive and passion and feeling by turning to books. At a ludicrously young age, he began to churn out words — novels, adventure stories and so on — in short, to become someone. "I was born from writing; before that, there was only a reflection in a mirror." So he scribbled endlessly — words, words, words.

His family left him alone, they let him work, they allowed him the beginnings of his own independent identity.

Which brings us back to the original question: "Where did the words come from?" Wordsworth's answer (in relation to poetry) was that "it was the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings which springs from a debt of love... because of some primary instinct of communion." That may be true but it still leaves unanswered a number of questions about the nature of consciousness and feelings.

For Sartre, "the conscious mind was the great inhibitor, the great censor. The conscious mind was created by social mores, education, environment, family pressures, and conventions. For creativity it was necessary to work with the unconscious which accumulates pure experience, reactions, impressions, intuitions, images, memories — an unconscious freed from the negative effect of societal evaluations. The conscious mind can only act later as critic, selector, discarder." The expressive and evocative powers of language must flow spontaneously from the unconscious; they cannot come from the conscious mind alone.

Sartre had meant Words to be a renunciation of his earlier self and his middle-class family culture viewed from the vantage-point of Marxism.

But the memoir belies that. In fact, at one point, he smiles at his juvenile faith in human progress: "Progress, that long and arduous road that led to myself." Words is full of such human insights that ring true because of the language itself. The memoir has little to do with Marxism, or its

alternatives; it has everything to do with `words'.

Words, Jean-Paul Sartre, Penguin Classics, first published in English translation, 1964, special Indian price, 4.50.

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