Saturday, 13 April 2013

The Age of Reason- Jean-Paul Sartre

There's a quote from The Simpsons, in the episode where Springfield hosts a film festival, where guest judge and film critic Jay Sherman impresses the Simpson/Bouvier women by saying 'Camus can do- but Sartre is smartrer' (much to Homer's chagrin). I love a pun so I've always thought this quote was quite funny but, although I read a bit of Camus at uni, I could never really claim to understand it as I'd never read any Sartre. This has now changed (hence the title and subject of today's blog) but I thought that starting the blog with a reference to The Simpsons might assure you that reading Sartre doesn't turn you into a cultural snob (which, I have to admit, was a fear of mine before I started).

The story of The Age of Reason could be described as a multi-level exercise in problem-solving. The protagonist Mathieu, a 35 year old philosophy lecturer living in Paris, is trying to find enough money to give to his sort-of girlfriend of seven years, Marcelle, so that she can get a safe abortion from a Jewish doctor who, in light of the gathering spectre of the Second World War, is only in the country for a few more days before leaving for America. At the same time Mathieu is also trying to figure out whether he is in love with a much younger, plainer (and I only mention this because Sartre mentions it repeatedly) woman, Ivich, who is the sister of one of his students, Bruno. Bruno in turn is having an undefined affair with a much older cabaret singer, Lola. Alongside Mathieu there is also his louche, handsome but troubled friend Daniel, who is also involved with Marcelle, although unbeknownst to Mathieu. The novel itself is set over two days- from the time Mathieu finds out that Marcelle is pregnant, to the resolution of Mathieu's predicament. As with Beloved in my previous post I don't want to give too much away about the plot needless to say that these characters interact with each other with the underlying duplicity and savagery of cats competing for territory.  

So what with Sartre's rendering of the atmosphere of Paris in the 1930s, where the prospect of war is rarely alluded to but hangs over the novel like a dark cloud (the novel itself was published in 1945), and the building existential crises that permeate every character of the story, the tone of the novel is unrelentingly oppressive. My penguin edition of the novel runs to 300 pages of small type which, when you consider that the novel is set over an almost uninterrupted two-day time period, makes for a very densely written story indeed. Having said this, Sartre's constant manoeuvring between the 'reality' of Mathieu's quest for money with his internal quest for resolution with regard to his feelings for Marcelle, Ivich and himself, is done with a clear and readable prose- no doubt helped by a very good translation, by Eric Sutton in my edition.

One of the main contributors to this feeling of oppressiveness  and indeed one of the main themes running throughout the novel is the notion of 'running out of time' and the consequences that procrastination and introspection have on Mathieu and by extension the characters around him. In the most basic sense, Mathieu is running against the clock to secure the abortion, which in turn has existential implications for Marcelle as a woman, a lover and, potentially a mother, as well as for the unborn baby. The potential resolutions of the situation, to obtain the money and have the 'safe' abortion; to risk the cheaper but deadlier, back-alley procedure; or to do nothing and have the baby all have seismic consequences for the characters' lives. Sartre makes his readers aware that Mathieu is being forced out of a world of stasis- where he project-managed his relationship with Marcelle in a seemingly eternal state of nothingness- into a world where whichever direction he chooses he will be entering into a new level of existence which he cannot control. The world cannot stay the same and, even though it initially appears that we are merely witness to a snap-shot of the characters lives, what we read not only fundamentally alters these lives- professionally, socially, mortally- but that these revelations will also continue to have consequences after the novel is finished.

Sartre is certainly, then, smartrer. Because throughout what could be perceived to be quite a melodramatic, self-indulgent story (and it is still that) the novel also takes on a greater significance. From his vantage point in 1945 Sartre knows that in the period of time he is writing about, Europe and the rest of the world is hurtling into a period of human disaster. 'By doing nothing' he seems to say, 'you, and the world, are nothing. By doing anything, you and the world, change'. Mathieu is 35 in the novel and is grappling with the notion that his youth is over, that he has purportedly reached the titular 'age of reason'. Whether this understanding that he has reached the age of reason translates into Mathieu's freedom to exist in a changed world is up for debate, and Sartre leaves it for us to decide. Nonetheless the novel certainly raises an important question about whether the notion of existence is a constant struggle against an ever-changing reality. Which is succinctly summed up for me in another Simpsons quote: D'oh.

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