Is it true that for the history of a writer, talent alone counts? In his essay “Writing for One’s Age”, Jean-Paul Sartre claims that he has not even entered history, nor does he know how he shall enter it whether “alone, in an anonymous crowd, or in a footnote of literary handbooks” . Why will the history of his work even matter? The judgments that the future of his works will bear are of no consequence to him as he can do nothing about them!
The course run by a book, or its history, when the author no longer exists will refer back to the author in order to justify it, Sartre asserts. The most beautiful book in the world redeems itself; it also redeems its artist. However, “A book has its absolute truth within an age” according to Sartre. “It is lived only at the time it is written. It is an emanation of intersubjectivity, a living bond of rage, hatred or love among those who produce it and receive it (243).”
If this is true, why do we ask students to read Classical Literature or World History? What value is there in this exercise? When should a book be read? When is it most relevant? Sartre averts that “books that are handed down from age to age are dead fruit (243).” In another time, another taste, they were “tart and tangy”. Just as a banana or a date should be eaten right when it is picked, a book should be read when written. If read later, when the age is done, it will enter into the relative and will become a “message”.
In Jean-Paul Sartre’s short essay „Writing for One’s Age”, Sartre commands that writers change their judgements on who they write for; one must write for the “concrete present and the living future”. Sartre wrote “Writing” and other essays during the German Occupation of France in World War II. Ironically, before the war, Sartre was heavily influenced by German philosophy and created a particular style for his writings which challenged French philosophy and the French language itself (Literary, 167). This, of course, would change over the next decade. Sartre asserted: “(Pre-war) Literature was about the world; readers were in the world; the question was not whether to be, but how to be. (2)” For example, In Flaubert, Balzac, and Zola’s novels, we learn about French society, dress and culture and how it affected the French world but what effect can this have on the living future? Priscilla Clark in Literary France claims of these nineteenth century French writers: “the public writers translated the private affairs of literature into the public arena of culture and society” (126). Clark states that while Voltaire was the philosophe of his generation and Hugo was the prophet, Sartre became the intellectual hero. Voltaire and Hugo became actively involved in politics and their society to make positive changes; Sartre chose to take a philosophical approach and wrote against the bourgeois and the bourgeois reader ( Clark,173).
“Art cannot be reduced to a dialogue with the dead and with men not yet born (237),” One must desire to change certain aspects of the world by realizing the human condition and seeking refuge in a future which is utterly foreign to them now. One must make the concrete present and living future for our grandchildren.
If writers continue to write in the present and expect future generations to value its worth, it will place a burden of responsibility on those generations by prolonging the existence of writers in vain. This is unreasonable as it is not the duty or concern of theirs. “Our grandchildren will have their own concerns; why should they concern themselves with us? “asks Sartre. Will our grandchildren want to read the books being written about the Covid-19 pandemic currently and how it affected their grandparent’s lives as well as the whole World? Of course they will.
“This is the measure we propose to the writer: as long as his books arouse anger, discomfort, shame, hatred, love, even if he is no more than a shade, he will live (254).
Basically, the human condition has not changed. The writer that speaks to the soul, to that which makes us fully alive, will speak to all generations.
Copyright 2020 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)
Clark, Priscilla P. Literary France: The Making of a Culture. University of California Press, 1987.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. What is Literature? and Other Essays. Harvard Press. 1988