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domenica 25 marzo 2012

Pathologies 7.1/ Els Jongeneel: 'Madness in Sartre's "The Room"' [STYLE 43, No. 3, 2009]

Madness in Sartre's "The Room"

At the time when he was writing "The Room" in the mid-thirties, Sartre was elaborating his theory of being inspired by Husserlian phenomenology. "The Room" was published in the review Mesures in 1938 and a year later integrated into the collection of short stories The Wall, which came out shortly after Nausea, Sartre's literary debut. Sartre considered both works as narrative exempla of his philosophy in progress, intended for a larger public. The Wall became a bestseller after the Second World War. (1) Its five easily accessible stories immediately found a larger reading public than Nausea, perhaps because the novel's philosophical pretense appeared more daunting. Significantly, however, this enthusiasm was not shared by the literary critics, who took more interest in Nausea and Sartre's theatre. As for The Wall, most attention went to the title story and the final story, 'The Childhood of a Leader" ("L'enfance d'un chef"). This was probably a result of the theme of both texts, respectively political prisoners waiting for their execution, and a bourgeois child developing into a fascist adolescent during the interbellum period in France.

During the past seventy years, the relatively limited critical debate concerning "The Room" has concentrated on the philosophical implications of the case study of the madman Pierre. (2) Up to now few critics have examined the role of the story in the development of Sartre's nascent existentialism. (3) This is surprising because The Wall enabled Sartre to position himself within French leftist intelligentsia at the end of the '30s and and to mark out a place for himself as a literary author and philosopher. His ideas concerning existence and society, which he wanted to communicate to a large public by means of his short stories, provoked a small hut significant revolution in contemporary thinking, which only came to a conclusion after the Second World War. When we examine "The Room" from this perspective, which l propose to do in this essay, we discover that Eve instead of Pierre is the protagonist of the story. (4) Indeed, it appears that the central theme of pathological insanity has a wider resonance and refers to the general disease of contemporary society, the rottenness we also encounter in the other four stories of The Wall. Eve comes to the conclusion that the insane world cannot be an authentic alternative for the bourgeois milieu she sterns from but which she abhors. The impasse she is in resembles Sartre's at the beginning of his career as a writer and philosopher. He wanted to dismantle the old world, but at the same time he was unsure about the ways to build up a new one. (5)

Madness and The Lightness of Being

In the short note for the press, attached to the original publication of The Wall, Sartre summarizes the main philosophical thesis underlying each of the five stories: "Nobody is willing to look Existence in the eyes. Here are five small routes away flora her--tragic or comic, five lives.... Those flights art stopped by a wall; to run away from Existence, still implies to exist. Existence is a whole from which man cannot escape." (6) The last sentence is a literary quotation flora Nausea. (7) The protagonist of the novel, Antoine Roquentin, comes to this conclusion after having experienced the all-encompassing and inescapable absurdity of being. By "absurdity" Sartre means the absolute gratuitousness of life. Existence is contingent; it has neither meaning norjustification and no teleological orientation towards a hereafter. Thus Roquentin realizes that the admittance of life's absurdity, a shocking discovery indeed, forces him to reorganize his life. To endorse contingency implies to assume responsibility for every act one has performed and for every word one has uttered. Human life is a never-ending project. We cannot fall back on ideological and religious instances offering a fixed pattern of norms and values. From this perspective, life becomes as light as a feather. A "transvaluation of all values" will be necessary so that we may endure the lightness of being.

Obviously, Sartre's philosophical statement at the very beginning of The Wall invites us to interpret the text first and foremost from an existentialist perspective. Each of the five stories, according to Sartre, demonstrates man's confrontation with life's contingency and his refusal to accept it. The inanity of this reaction is allegorized by means of an unsuccessful escape from a walled space. The closed room is characteristic of Sartre's texts and of those of many of his contemporaries (including Gide and Kafka). It refers to the isolation of the individual, the tragic outcome of the permanent conflict engendered by human interaction. Through this pessimistic view of cohabitation, Sartre partly attacks contemporary humanistic and committed authors. (8)

The greater or smaller miseries in each of the five stories in The Wall resemble what journalists call "man interest stories." (9) These small news items are presented in the framework of a so-called existential "boundary situation." (10) A boundary or limit situation consists of a concurrence of circumstances calling for a radical change in attitude towards existence. It compels man to make a choice that will radically change his life. The boundary situation in "The Room" deals with a small family-drama. Charles and Jeannette Darbedat, a married couple living in Paris, have an only child, Eve, whose husband, Pierre, suffers from a hereditary mental illness, hallucinatory psychosis and schizophrenia. The disease has manifested itself some years after their marriage. The doctor has warned Eve that over a year's time the illness will degenerate into complete insanity. Charles urges his daughter to let his son in law be transported to an asylum, which she refuses. She hates her native bourgeois environment, and tries to penetrate into the authentic world of her insane husband. But she falls to participate in Pierre's madness, and to avoid having him in a state of total idiocy, she decides that she will kill him in the near future.

The central theme of "The Room," the question whether madness may be considered an alternative, authentic attitude towards existence, has autobiographical roots. Sartre was interested in psychiatry and psychology even during his student years. He wrote a philosophical thesis on the dissolution of the ego, and, together with a college friend, Paul Nizan, he translated into French Karl Jaspers' Allgemeine Psychopathologie (1927, original edition 1913). Sartre was sceptical about Freud, whose texts became popular in contemporary academic circles. He was unwilling to accept Freud's thesis that the unconscious governs a large part of human actions, which are thus no longer subject to the individual's free will. In order to become acquainted with current scientific methods and theory in the field, he regularly attended a psychiatry seminar at the Sainte-Anne hospital in Paris. In 1936 he made a visit to an insane asylum in Rouen, which turned out to be a shocking experience. Eager for new experiments, he subsequently let himself be injected with mescaline, a hallucinatory drug. As a result, however, he did not enjoy the paradisical fantasies he had hoped for, but was tormented by a long-lasting psychosis. For more than a year, he suffered from hallucinations, which included terrifying phantasmagorias of crustaceans and molluscs. Moreover, the theme of the sexuality of the psychotic patient, which plays an important role in "The Room," was inspired by the case of Louise Perron, a colleague of Simone de Beauvoir. Louise Perron was a psychotic patient who had sexual intercourse with her lover. Among the existentialists, the Perron case gave rise to lively discussions about the status of madness. They wondered whether madness could be an authentic alternative for bourgeois society. (11)

Against Surrealism

The discussions of the existentialists ran parallel with those of the contemporary French avant-garde, the Surrealists. The Surrealists were interested in hallucination and psychosis because of the presumed visionary character of these mental states. In the First Surrealist Manifesto (Premier manifeste du surrealisme, 1924), the leader of the group, Andre Breton, considers the lunatic an authentic and rebellious subject free of constrictions and rules. The madman is exclusively centered on his own subjectivity and, therefore, he argues, has access to the most inner realms of the mind. In his novel Nadja (1926), Breton discusses in more detail his ideas regarding the status of madness. He vehemently protests against the internment of mentally ill patients by the "sane" society that refuses to accept irrational people. The protagonist of the story, Nadja, is an artistic-minded woman, generally stigmatized as mentally ill. The narrator, a mouthpiece for Breton, encounters her while strolling through Paris. He admires her fantasies and visionary talents and calls her a "free genius." In order to express her thoughts and feelings freely, Nadja creates designs and cut-outs, demonstrations of the imaginary depths she succeeds to penetrate, thanks to her phantasms and obsessions - depths that are unattainable for "sane" people.

Other Surrealists, too, argued openly in favor of freedom for mental patients. The playwright Antonin Artaud, for example, spoke in defence of the "convicts of sensibility" ("formats de la sensibilite") in his "Letter to the general surgeons of the insane asylums" ("Lettre aux medecins-chefs des asiles de fous," 1925). By drawing attention to insane art, the Surrealists joined contemporary scientific research. At the beginning of the 1920's, researchers in the field took interest in pieces of art created by psychiatric patients in institutions. (12)

"The Room" contains several allusions to Nadja. The ziuthre, for example (the paper talisman confected by Pierre), refers to the cut-outs made by Nadja, and the flying statues in Pierre's room recall statues in Breton's room, that frightened Nadja. (13) However, as already suggested, Sartre shared neither Breton's sympathy for Freud not his dreamlike and aesthetic sublimation of madness. Nevertheless, like the Surrealists, he was eager to shake middle-class attitudes in order to make room for his nascent existentialist ideas. (14)

Madness or Bourgeois Scum: A Difficult Choice

In "The Room," Sartre adopts three narrative means to interrogate the position of the mental patient in society: character perspective, the (filmic) description of space, and allegory. He seeks to demonstrate that madness is not an authentic alternative for bourgeois untruthfulness and cheating, and he does so by systematically levelling the walls between the sane and the insane world.

Due to his phenomenological approach to reality, Sartre opts for character perspective, or in terms of Genettian narratology, for "variable focalization," as a means to interrogate the status of pathological madness. Consequently, narrative perspective shifts from one character to another in the course of the story. As he argues in his essay, What is literature? (1948), Sartre privileges variable focalization over authorial focalization (the classic point of view of the so-called "omniscient narrator") for the sake of the reader's freedom. The author, according to Sartre, figures as a mediator in confronting his readers with subjective views on existence. To read as well as to write implies being "en situation." Moreover, according to Husserlian phenomenology, man's consciousness is an infinite projection in the world: "Every conscience is the conscience of something." (15) Consequently perception and experience do not take place from within but are the result of the subject's ongoing confrontation with reality. (16) Because of this, the mind bursts upon the objects it encounters and then breaks apart from them again. The self is not consistent; it changes continually throughout the never-ending confrontation with the outer world.

Sartre's chameleonic view of the self opposes the Proustian solution, which finds a consistent personality uncontaminated by what is external, with an inner life controlling and swallowing up objects. (17) In Sartre, on the contrary, the subject first experiences the world, and then starts to reflect on it. All Sartrian characters have these moments of reflection or "recapitulation" (to the dissatisfaction of the modern reader who in general does not like this continuous philosophizing). Ironically it is the madman Pierre who stumbles over the word "recapitulation." Obviously he does not get around anymore to the thing denoted by the word. It is Eve who takes care of the recapitulation of his acts. In short, in "The Room" all acts are immediately reflectorized (18) via the actor or the onlookers. The reader is presented with subjective acts, emotions and thoughts which entice him to fill in the story.

"The Room" develops the theme of madness in the form of dialectical argumentation. The thesis is put forward in the first section of the story by Charles Darbedat, the spokesman of sane society. He argues that mentally ill people cannot be held responsible for their actions; consequently they should not take part in society and should be placed under restraint. The antithesis is expressed by Eve in the second section. She conceives of madness as an authentic attitude towards existence and as a rebellion against corrupt society. She therefore seeks to participate in Pierre's mental state. The synthesis, as expressed in the story's short epilogue, also corresponds to Eve's view and final conclusion: the world of the madman is a mixture of sincere obsession, fear, and bad faith. It paralyzes consciousness by subjecting it to matter, and eliminates free will. Consequently, madness remains, according to Sartre, "inconceivable" for scientists as well as outsiders, or in existentialist terms, "ontologically unrealizable" ("un irrealisable ontologique"). It simply cannot be an alternative for the bourgeois way of life, all the more because it goes together with mental and physical degeneration. Therefore, the question regarding the authenticity or the inauthenticity of madness cannot even be stated.

Significantly, the question regarding the status of madness is definitively settled for Eve once Pierre has fallen victim to aphasic speech. For Sartre, language is one of the most important instruments by means of which human consciousness can freely project itself on the world and transcend it. (19) Deprived of rational language, (20) the lunatic is condemned to degenerate into the being-in-itself of the animal and finally of the inanimate object.

Eve functions as the authentic mediator of the story. Her view corresponds to that of Sartre, as we learn from the short notice for the press already quoted, where Sartre states: "Eve tries in vain to rejoin Pierre in the unreal and enclosed world of madness. This world is only sham and appearance, and madmen are liars." In one of his two essays on "The Room," the literary critic John Simon remarks that Eve's dramatic decision at the very end of the story, "I will kill you before that," may be considered Sartre's solution as well. "Like Eve," Simon says, "Sartre is unwilling or incapable of taking the perspective of the madman; like her, he is determined not to behold the spectacle of the inarticulate and to give himself up to the unconscious." (21) Death and madness are "ontologically unrealizable." They exist but cannot be conceptualized. (22) As a matter of consequence, nowhere in the story is Pierre described from within, but only through the eyes of the other characters (or in narratological terms: by means of variable focalization). His subjectivity escapes conceptualization. Sartre can only consider man as a free and intentional consciousness. He is unable to philosophize about him as a prisoner of body and mind. For the same reason he does not want to investigate death. (23)

Ironically, however, Eve opts for the sane world which she rejects at the same time. In this respect, she once again represents Sartre's pessimistic view of contemporary society. In accordance with authors such as Svevo and Celine, Sartre considers bourgeois culture seriously ill. After all, it is on social paranoia that he concentrates in "The Room." He uses allegory, as already pointed out, to underline his thesis of universal madness. Sartrian allegory is based on a nomenclature of existential attitudes and positions, which the author had introduced shortly before in Nausea and which he would continue to use throughout his fictional texts. To the most frequently recurring items or "positions" of his existentialist lexicon belong firmness and heaviness; the colors black and pink as signs of the lifeless matter of things (the "being-in-itself" er "etre-en-soi"); lightness as a sign of existential freedom of choice and authenticity (the "being-for-itself" or "etre-pour-soi"); softness and viscosity as symbols of contingent matter; role-playing as a sign of the refusal of contingence; the existential type of the bastard ("salaud") who chronically acts in bad faith by rejecting the contingency of existence; and the magic of the gaze as a symbol of the annihilating consciousness.


Both sections of "The Room," we already noticed, are presented by means of character-bound perspective or "internal focalization." In the first scene Madame Darbedat figures as subject of focalization. The opening sentence introduces us into the sickroom of the lady of the house: "Mme Darbedat held a rahat-loukoum between her fingers." The family name makes one think of Latin verb forms. The link with a dead language conjugation suggests rigidity, which almost comically contrasts with the exotic rahat-loukoum that Jeannette tastes. The Turkish delight she is eating provokes Oriental associations by reminding her of her honeymoon in Algiers. This bourgeois lady has identified herself with the room where she is lingering. An unknown illness has made her body and mind heavy, "all weighted down with memories and precious as a coffer of sandalwood." She is exclusively interested in the past and fears mental and corporeal mobility. If possible, she prefers to communicate by means of facial expressions instead of having to spell things out (this is a very negative characteristic in Sartrean fiction: for Sartre unclear verbal communication is a sign of inauthenticity and bad faith--see later on Pierre's aphasiac speech).

It is clear that in this introductory scene Sartre settles scores with a famous room-keeper of his youth, Proust. In opposition to Proust, as we have seen, Sartre propagates the confrontation between subject and outer world as the basis of existence. He cannot accept the Proustian cult of the interior, sensitive I. In a contemporary essay on Husserl already quoted (see note 15), he states: "We are now finally freed of Proust, freed of interior life. It is useless to pamper our interiority, because in the end everything is outside, in the world, among the others." (24) The room of Jeannette Darbedat reminds the reader of aunt Leonie's bedroom in "Combray," the first section of In Search of Lost Time. Leonie, too, has been confined to her room by an unknown illness. The exotic associations engendered by the Turkish fruit ironically bring to mind the memory-stimuli caused by the shell-shaped cookies (madeleines) which aunt Leonie offered to her nephew during his Sunday visits.

The description of Jeannette's person, of her room and the objects in it, consists mainly of existentialist symbols connoting the being-in-itself: the color pink, as well as heaviness and viscosity, all refer to the lifeless being-in-itself of things, as the reader of Nausea knows. Because of their escapist attitude towards the absurdity of existence, their role-playing and self-satisfaction, and because they are fully convinced of their necessity for humankind, Jeannette and her husband, Charles, embody what Sartre calls the existential type of the "bastard." Their bad faith contrasts with Eve's rebellion against self-complacency and the search for existential authenticity.

The description of the normal world thus starts with a presentation of a sick environment. The narrative approach is filmic, in this episode of the story as well as in the others, although there is a lot of introspection as well. Characters, objects and environment are presented by means of external as well as internal focalization. Usually the registration of acts and sensations is followed by quoted monologue demonstrating the characters' inner processing of what they have done and experienced. The combination of external and internal focalization endows the story with journalistic and psychological "authenticity." Some examples:
   [focalizer: Charles]: Eve opened the door: that's right she doesn't
   have a maid. No girls can stay with her. I can put myself in their
   place. He kissed her. "Hello, poor darling."

   [focalizer: Charles]: He thought she looked like a tragedian. I
   even know who she looks like. That woman ... that Roumanian who
   played Phedre in French at the Mur d'Orange. He regretted having
   made so disagreeable a remark ...

   [focalizer: Eve]: "He's gone." The door closed with a dry snap. Eve
   was alone in the salon. I wish he" d die. She twisted her hands
   around the back of the armchair: she had just remembered her
   father's eyes. (25) (14-21, 23, 25-26, 30)

Sartre's style calls to mind the expressionistic style of the American prose writer Dos Passos, orte of his favorites at the time. (26)

The polarity of normality and madness is further reduced in the next episode of the story that takes place in the apartment of Eve and Pierre. The events are focalized initially through Charles, and further on, in the second section of the story, through Eve. Charles views Pierre as an unreasonable child: "Sick people always annoyed him a little--especially madmen because they were wrong."(25) He then realizes that in some respects his sick wife too makes him feel embarrassed: "I must confess it's somewhat the same with my poor Jeannette." (26) Meanwhile, however, he feels uneasy about Pierre's ironic gaze as well as about Eve's hard glance rejecting the slightest complicity. Both glances marginalize him and reduce him to the status of outsider.

As already noted, the exchange of glances is a recurrent motif, embedded in the existential settings of Sartre's fiction. (27) It connotes the permanent conflict between people in daily life situations. The annihilating gaze symbolizes the being-for-itself ("pour-soi") that subjugates its opponent and reduces it to "being-in-itself" ("en-soi"), to the lifelessness of the object. The obsessive recurrence of the gaze in Sartre's fiction and in his philosophical essays (especially Being and Nothingness), is linked to the phenomenological background of his thinking. Particularly striking in this context is the annihilating force of the gaze "on the back" or "on the neck" of the opponent. "The Room" offers three occurrences of this spying glance: in the first section, Mine Darbedat "looked at the powerful red neck of her husband without affection" (20); when entering Pierre's room, Charles catches sight of his son-in-law's thin neck; somewhat later, after he has left the house, Eve, full of hatred, looks through the window at her father's back. Moreover, the motif of the gaze that nails down the opponent recurs several times in Pierre's fantasized comedy, as we shall see shortly.

Subsequently, Sartre also raises the question of the antagonism between sane and insane world through the relationship between man and objects. Under the influence of hallucinatory psychosis. Pierre experiences inanimate objects as animate beings and lively creatures as lifeless objects. Forks and knives come to life and are metamorphosed into crustaceans. Sartre often uses the image of the crab and the crayfish as references to contingent matter: hard from above, soft and pulpy from below. Both are characteristic of the "being-in-itself." Hardness signifies the lifeless being of things; softness refers to amorphous, proliferating contingency. Indirectly, Pierre's attitude towards the inanimate refers to the experiences of the authentic hero who has become acquainted with the contingency of matter. Nausea opens with a series of these illness-inducing discoveries by means of which the protagonist is confronted with bastardy and the overwhelming absurdity of being. Later on in the story, the image of the crab also recurs several times. Whereas Roquentin, however, learns how to cope with absurd matter, Pierre, on the contrary, is dominated and enslaved by it. The relationship between himself and his environment has become corrupt. In his mind dead objects are brought to life, whereas living creatures are reified. He calls his wife "Agathe," because he considers her, or wants her to be, a precious but inanimate gem. In his fantasies, the color black is dominant. It is the color of the inanimate being-in-itself. Like Jeannette Darbedat, he identifies himself with his room. He is dressed in black and has painted his room in the same color. He uses a magical formula and a cardboard talisman on which he has written the words "black" and "power over the pitfall," accompanied by a sketch of the grinning head of Voltaire. (28) However, these as well as his funny magical formulae are powerless efforts to escape. Words, according to Sartre, cannot form a shield against the world: they area means to be in the world.

Pierre's mental degeneration, which becomes apparent in his distorted relationship with the inanimate, contrasts at first sight with Charles' rational and "sane" attitude towards objects. However, Charles' disengaged acceptance of the blank surface of things also breathes degeneration, the degeneration of the bastard. It is summarized in the vignette overlapping the end of the first section and the beginning of the second. Charles has left the apartment and is walking in the street. In his view, the passengers have earnest looks and smooth-skinned faces (the smooth face or face without eyes is a symbol of the bastard in Sartrian nomenclature). He then encounters a mother with a child who is ecstatically watching a radio put on display in the open air. The mother says to the child: "Mustn't touch, it's a radio, it plays music"--after which Charles bends down to the little girl and smiles. This triumphant smile shows Charles' complacency and blindness. He feels at home in a world that fits him. He is in ecstasy in front of inanimate objects and of himself, "the right man at the right place," like all of Sartre's bastards, fond of his selfish love of mankind. As in the opening scene of the story, here, too, we are dealing with a filmic perspective. Charles is focalized from within and through the eyes of Eve, who observes her father from the window of her apartment. We are denied any narrative comment, except Charles' self-centered ruminations and Eve's reaction of disgust, transmitted in the form of quoted monologue and a short narrator's comment.

The second section of the story offers a more precise portrait of Pierre, who is focalized through Eve. Once again, the antagonism between the normal world and the sick world is challenged, this time by means of the theme of the play. The theater stages a well-known topic in Sartre's work. According to Sartre, (29) all of us, adults as well as children, are actors. We are playing roles because we do not accept the contingency of life and want to escape from it. This is because we decline any responsibility for our actions and decisions. Therefore we construct fixed roles for ourselves that constrain us in rigid frameworks of behavioral conventions. As soon as playing a role becomes a chronic attitude, the bastard is born.

Charles plays the role of the vital giant, the rational, indispensable lover of mankind. Pierre, for his part, invents a farce about his first encounter with Eve in Hamburg in order to ward off a terrifying hallucination. The play is a combination of carnival, funfair and adventure story. There is talk of a skirmish with a Danish sailor, a coronation scene, a carrousel of black dodgem cars, and a show with animals sent by the colonies, among which are many apes, the actor par excellence among the animals, and a reference to the inhuman play by Pierre himself. The colonial background could be seen as an ironic reference to the Algerian fantasies of Mme Darbedat at the beginning of the story. Pierre calls the apes "accomplices," and pretends that Eve feared to get lost among them - an allusion to the fact that he suspects her of conspiracy with "the leaders" who want to keep him under control.

In this episode Sartre also raises the question of the sexuality of the mental patient. Pierre's carnivalesque comedy contains some sexual puns. Obviously, Pierre is obsessed by sexual feelings which, however, he cannot interpret rationally: he situates the "comedy" of the encounter with Eve in Sankt Pauli, a well-known red-light district of Hamburg. He says that Eve has bespattered him, and he articulates badly as if some soft and liquid substance is pouring out of his mouth. For a moment he even feels subjugated by Eve's beauty. However, neither play nor eroticism can liberate him from mental and physical degeneration. He is enslaved by his own obsessions. Thus Eve concludes that Pierre's behavior is a mixture of play and authentic fear and therefore cannot be an alternative for bourgeois untruthfulness and bad faith.

No Way Out

In "The Room" as well as in the other stories of The Wall, Sartre uses a pathological case-study mainly to denounce bourgeois society. Thereby, he clearly takes a stand in the contemporary debate on madness as a possible means of escape from the straitjacket of existence. Although he cannot judge whether madness is illness or cheating, he finally declines it as an alternative way of life, since he cannot reconcile the enslaved will with self-consciousness and existential freedom. Consequently, he cannot yet offer a way out of the closed rooms of absurd existence. In "The Room" Sartre points to this existential "status quo" by using the narrative medium in the best possible way. The case-study of the madman Pierre is presented dialectally by means of variable focalization. Thus the reader is con fronted with contrasting points of view giving him the opportunity to freely judge the case. However, as "being-in-itself" deprived of a free and intentional consciousness, the madman has not been used as a focalizer. This implies that Sartre has not given to the mental patient the opportunity, as Breton did in Nadja, to compete with the "sane" bystanders. Once again, madness to Sartre is not an alternative for our daily existence.

If man cannot escape from existence, how can one survive in a contingent world governed by bastards? It is this question that the reader is left to consider at the end of the story, in fact, Sartre does not yet offer an answer to contingency, the cornerstone of his existentialism in progress during the first period of his literary and philosophical career. He demolishes a bourgeois world view, without proposing a viable alternative. Only after the war will Sartre develop, especially in his theatrical plays, the idea of free acting and commitment as a means to resist the absurdity of being. For the moment, though, he only proposes the diagnosis: modern society is ill because, like the mental patient in his obsessions, it is firmly-rooted in an essentialist straitjacket. The essentialist mould blocks our view on reality, a contingent world out of which we cannot escape. As soon as we discover this (the well-known "fall into consciousness" that we encounter in various existentialist texts, including the works of Luigi Pirandello, Franz Kafka and Albert Camus), we feel impelled to completely revise our relationship to others and to ourselves.

Els Jongeneel
University of Groningen 

Works Cited

De Beauvoir, Simone. La force de l'age. Paris: Gallimard, 1960.

Bellemin-Noel, Jean. "Derriere 'La chambre'." Dans la fabrique d'un delire," Les Temps Modernes 46e annee 1990, 531-33.

Boros, Marie-Denise. Un sequestre: l'homme sartrien. Paris: Nizet, 1968.

Breton, Andre. Nadja. Paris : Gallimard, 1964 [1928]. English translation: Nadja, New York: Grove Press, 1960.

Celine, Louis-Ferdinand. Voyage au bout de la nuit. Paris: Gallimard, 1932.

Durozoi, Gerard et Lecherbonnier, Bernard. 1972. Le Surrealisme. Theories, themes, techniques. Paris: Larousse, 1972.

Fludernik, Monika. Towards a "Natural" Narratology. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.

Greenlee, James. "Sartre's 'Chambre': The Story of Eve." Modern Fiction Studies 16.1 (1970): 77-84.

Greer Cohn, Robert. "Sartre vs. Proust." Partisan Review 28.5-6, (1961): 633-45.

Husserl, Edmund G. Cartesian Meditations. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1977.

Idt, Genevieve. Le Mur de Jean-Paul Sartre. Techniques et contexte d"une provocation. Paris: Larousse, 1972.

Jaspers, Karl. Allgemeine Psychopathologie. Berlin: Springer, 1913.

--. Psychologie der Weltanschauungen. Berlin: Springer, 1919.

--. Philosophie. Berlin: Springer, 1932.

Jongeneel, Els. "'La Chambre': un flirt avec la folie." RELIEF 1.1, (2007): 50-63.

Louette, Jean-Francois. "'La chambre' de Sartre, ou la folie de Voltaire." Poetique 153, (2008): 41-61.

Magny, Claude-Edmonde. Les sandales d'Empedocle. Essai sur les limites de la litterature. Neuchatel: la Baconniere, 1945.

Malraux, Andre. La condition humaine. Paris: Gallimard, 1933.

Prinzhorn, Hans. Bildnerei des Geisteskranken. Berlin: Springer, 1922.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. (Euvres romanesques. Paris: Gallimard, 1981.

--. "A propos de John Dos Passos et de 1919." La Nouvelle Revue Francaise, 1938 (English translation in Literary and Philosophical Essays. London: Rider, 1955, and in Dos Passos, the Critics, and the Writer's Intention. Ed. Allen Belkind. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1971.

--. Carnets de la drole de guerre. Paris: Gallimard, 1995.

--. Esquisse d'une theorie des emotions. 1939. Paris: Hermann, 1960.

--. L'Etre et le neant. Paris: Gallimard, 1971.

--. Qu'est-ce que la litterature? Paris: Gallimard, 1948.

--. "Une idee fondamentale de Husserl: l'intentionnalite." Situations I. Paris: Gallimard, 1947.

--. The Wall (Intimacy) and Other Stories. New York: New Directions Publishing, 1969.

Simon, John K. "Madness in Sartre: Sequestration and the Room." Yale French Studies XXX, (1964): 63-67.

--. "Sartre's Room." Modern Language Notes 79.5, (1964): 526-38.


(1) See Sartre, Jean-Paul. (Euvres romanesques. (Paris: Pleiade, 1981), 1806.

(2) Up to now, the most important studies are: Claude-Edmonde Magny, Les sandales d'Empedocle. Essai sur les limites de la litterature; Marie-Denise Boros, Unsequestre: l'hommesartrien; John K. Simon, "Madness in Sartre: Sequestration and the Room," 63-67; John K. Simon, "Sartre's Room;" Jean Bellemin-Noel, "Derriere 'La chambre.' Dans la fabrique d'un delire," 665-83; and most recently Jean-Francois Louette, "'La chambre' de Sartre ou la folie de Voltaire," 41-61.

(3) Genevieve Idt's analysis of The Wall is a favourable exception (le Mur de Jean-Paul Sartre. Techniques et context e d'une provocation. Paris: Larousse, 1972)--but she too pays relatively more attention to the other stories of the collection.

(4) See also Greenlee's "Sartre's 'Chambre': The Story of Eve." I agree with Greenlee that "read with respect for Eve's point of view, the story ... may ... gain substantially by overcoming the problem of Pierre's disease" (78). Greenlee however analyses mainly the theme of Eve's sexuality, without further taking into consideration the existentialist base of the story.

(5) In the following I will build on an earlier study about "The Room," in which, on the basis of a close reading of this short story, I have elaborated its relationship with Sartre's earlier texts from the same period: Jongeneel, Els, "'La Chambre.'" In the present essay, however, I will focus on Sartre's intellectual position in the thirties in relation to the contemporary debate on insanity.

(6) Sartre, Jean-Paul. (Euvres romanesques, 1807 [my translation].

(7) Ibid., 158.

(8) One of the outstanding committed authors in the thirties was Andre Malraux. His successful novel La condition humaine was published in 1934. Although Sartre did not reject Malraux' texts, he preferred the militant and cynical attitude towards society of another contemporary, Celine, whose novel Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932) at the time was a sensation among French readers.

(9) French: "faits divers."

(10) "Grenzsituation," term coined by the German philosopher and psychiatrist Karl Jaspers. Jaspers discussed the boundary situation in Psychologie der Weltanschauungen (Psychology of Worldview, 1919) and elaborated it in Philosophie (Philosophy, 1932).

(11) For more details regarding Sartre's preoccupation with madness at the time he was writing Nausea and The Wall, see Beauvoir's autobiography The Prime of Life (La force de l'age, 1960), 192-206 and 240-245.

(12) In 1922 Hans Prinzhorn, doctor and art historian, published The Artistry of the Mentally III (Bildnerei des Geisteskranken), the first important study of art created by psychiatric patients. On the Surrealists and their interest in madness, see Durozoi, Gerard and en Lecherbonnier, Bernard. 1972. Le Surrealisme. Theories, themes, techniques. (Paris: Larousse 1972), 118-22, 184-87.

(13) The flying statue is a well-known motif in surrealist painting (see Magritte, de Chirico, and Dali). In ""La chambre" de Sartre, ou la folie de Voltaire," Poetique 153, 2008, esp. 50-53, Jean-Francois Louette discusses in detail Pierre's talisman and his horrifying statue-hallucinations.

(14) Elsewhere in The Wall too Sartre parodies the Surrealists, esp. in the cynical final story "The childhood of a Leader" ("L'enfance d'un chef"). See Idt, op.cit., 180-85.

(15) Sartre, "Une idee fondamentale de la phenomenologie de Husserl : l'intentionnalite," Situations I, Paris: Gallimard 1947 [1939], 35. See Husserl, Edmund G. Cartesian Meditations II, 14 (1931), my translation.

(16) See Sartre's essay Esquisse pour une theorie des emotions, published in 1939, the same year as The Wall.

(17) See Greer Cohn, Robert, "Sartre vs. Proust."

(18) In Towards a "Natural" Narratology, 26-28 and 337-341, Monika Fludernik discusses the "reflector character mode" (character point of view in literature) as an example of the cognitive basis of literary narration.

(19) "Every word is a road to transcendance" ("Chaque mot est un chemin de transcendance," Qu'est-ce que la litterature?, 58).

(20) Since he privileges rational language, Sartre rejects associative forms of narration such as stream-of-consciousness. "The Room" as well as other prose fiction by Sartre contains a lot of quoted monologue that never slips into unbridled associations.

(21) John K. Simon, "Sartre's Room," 538.

(22) See Louette, art. cit., 42-45. The concept of the "irrealisables ontologiques" has been taken from Sartre's Carnets de la drole de guerre, 11th carnet, and from L'Etre et le neant, 610-14. In his essay, Louette correctly stresses Eve's paradoxical attitude versus madness. However, he does not elaborate its function with regard to the social critical tendency of the story.

(23) The impossibility of envisaging death is one of the intriguing themes of the title story of The Wall.

(24) Sartre, "Une idee fondamentale de Husserl," 34-35 (my translation).

(25) Sartre, "The Room," in The Wall (Intimacy) and Other Stories 23, 26-27, 30. All references are to this edition.

(26) See his essay "John Dos Passos and 1919" ("John Dos Passos et 1919," 1938), in which Sartre calls Dos Passos "the greatest writer of our time," English translation in Belkin, Allen (ed.). 1971. Dos Passos, the Critics, and the Writer's Intention. (Southern Illinois UP: Carbondale), 80

(27) See Idt, Le Mur de Jean-Paul Sartre, 116-32.

(28) In ""La chambre" de Sartre," Louette enters at length into the role of Voltaire in the story.

(29) In Being and Nothingness first part, chapter II, Sartre enters at length into the act of playing from the point of view of phenomenology.

2009 Northern Illinois University [ STYLE, Vol 43, No 3 (2009); the link doesn't seem to be working lately.]'s+%22The+Room%22.-a0212585142

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