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"You live in a void, you're an abstraction, a man who is not there. It can't be an amusing sort of life."
on 18 June 2008
The Age of Reason puts Mathieu Delarue's character on trial. We find him in a moral quandary over his mistress of seven years, recently pregnant; does he marry her, or does he try to maintain his `freedom'? The first option is seen by Mathieu as something of a dreaded defeat, the latter... well that develops into more of a problem as it dawns on him that he has absolutely no firm idea of what freedom means. The more the issue is explored the more obscure it becomes, the less assured Mathieu feels in his life, and so the more fateful his choice of marriage or abortion becomes.
The novel's really a fictional presentation of Being and Nothingness and what is mainly explored through Mathieu's character here is issue of bad faith. He criticises bourgeois life but, as the crisis of Marcelle's pregnancy proves, he is only one decision away from the traditional water-torture of career and family. He approves of his friend Brunet, a Communist, but at the same time admits to himself:
"...I don't want any change. I enjoy railing against capitalism, and I don't want it suppressed because I should no longer have any reasons for railing, I enjoy feeling fastidious and aloof. I enjoy saying no, always no, and I should be afraid of any attempt to construct a finally habitable world, because I should merely have to say - Yes; and act like other people."
In his attempt to conform to a youthfully misconceived ideal of freedom Mathieu finds himself beholden to emptiness and ugliness, ultimately he has achieved nothing with his life. The Age of Reason is very much the realisation of a life wasted and sets the scene well for the following volumes, The Reprieve and Iron in the Soul, where Mathieu must define some kind of engagement with life as it forces itself upon him through the second world-war.
Now I know all this sounds a tad glum but Sartre is a writer with a violent sense of humour and, as with his earlier novel Nausea, I did find I was laughing plenty after my initial dismay at a world so grim had subsided. I mean;
"There was in that ill-favoured face of Sarah's an intriguing, almost voluptuous humility that evoked a mean desire to hurt her, to crush her with shame, `When I look at her', Daniel used to say, `I understand Sadism.'"
I found it took me a couple of chapters to acclimatise to Sartre's superficially bleak mood, but after that The Age of Reason was spankingly good. If you haven't read any of the philosophy don't worry, Sartre was a good enough fiction writer for the Roads to Freedom series to stand on its own merits. Top stuff.