What Is Literature & Other Essays Paperback – 1988
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Sartre writes, "Thus, the autor writes in order to address himself to the freedom of readers, and he requires it in order to make his work exist." The
The approach to writing Sartre takes is refreshing and invigorating. In the current entitlement society of today, where people want literature and ideas spoon fed to them - Sartre offers the option of true freedom. How can one resist the thought of equally responsible writers and readers sharing a literary creation. I for one have to believe it works.
To conclude that John Dos Passos was a great 20th century novelist is to be badly deluded. Ironically, Dos Passos, after writing USA, became in later life a "salaud" in Sartre's terms.
Read Sartre's novels and short stories, ignore his lit crit as too tainted by philosophical and sociological misconceptions.
So I didn't exactly have high expectations of this, and was very pleasantly surprised. Sartre's argument is based on a pretty dodgy philosophy, but quite valid feelings: anger at injustice, love of literature. Like most philosophies of literature, he makes absurd and stupid generalizations (the poet 'considers words as things, not signs' and so isn't like a 'writer'), but at least his largest generalization isn't an insult to human beings: the act of writing, he argues, is an act of freedom addressed to other free humans who happen at present to be in terrible situations of unfreedom. The relation between writer and reader can be an ideal image of a world in which people aren't forced to work in jobs they hate, or do anything else they hate for that matter. I'll take that over 'the act of writing is the putting into question of literature' any day. "The work of art, from whichever side you approach it, is an act of confidence in the freedom of men." And, I assume, women.
So Sartre argues that the writer is addressing both a real public - the people who do actually read her - and a virtual public, the people who could conceivably read her. In different historical periods these two audiences will more or less match up: when the society is one of minimal freedom for most people (Sartre's example is the 17th century), the virtual audience is more or less absent; when the society has the potential for greater freedom, the virtual audience expands (e.g., modernity.) But in any case, the writer must address her 'virtual' public through her real one. Abstract palaver has no place in Sartre's theory.
He follows this up with a great history of 20th century literature in France, which is basically a critique of surrealism and the communist party (it's important to note the latter, since everyone - including myself up till now - seems to think Sartre was a Stalinist), and the last chapter is a rousing call for writers to care about what they do.
Consequently, concerning the political
and social events to come, our journal
will take a position in each case.
It will not do so politically -
that is, in the service of a particular
party - but it will attempt to sort out
the conception of man that inspires
each one of the conflicting theses,
and will give its opinion in conformity
with the conception it maintains. (p. 255).
The style of philosophy is likely to condemn works of rock and roll as:
what Mallarmé called "bibelors
d'inanité sonore" (trinkets of
sonorous inanity), this in itself
is a sign - that there is a crisis
of Letters and, no doubt, of
Society, or even that the dominant
classes have channeled him without
his realizing it toward an activity
that seems pure luxury, for fear
that he might take off and swell
the ranks of the revolutionaries. (p. 251).
Spend about five minutes listening to the song What's Up by 4 Non Blondes and see if you hear someone in an institution praying for a revolution every single day. Mostly the song is feeling a little peculiar, and it is quite common in a society that depends on a higher swindle to keep getting by that philosophy is the extraliminated activity of only a very few people, none of whom will be important for the five-second attention span of people who are wrapped up in rock and roll.