Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Sartre on blogging

Windy weather. Fat, glossy chestnuts are smashing on the pavement and kitesurfers are on the strait. And thinking of chestnut trees, and those surfers living very much in the moment, reminds me of another passage (not the famous one with the chestnut tree) that I particularly like in Jean-Paul Sartre's novel Nausea. It's about the problem of trying to reconcile the endless possibilities of the present moment with the desire to find narrative coherence in one's life. This is an issue that arises also in philosophy of history, in the debate between rationalists, who emphasize human agency, and positivists, who insist on explaining through lawful regularities. It's also central to the debate over the scientific status of Darwinian theory. Here's Sartre's protagonist:
This is what I have been thinking: for the most commonplace event to become an adventure, you must – and this is all that is necessary – start recounting it. This is what fools people: a man is always a teller of tales, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it.

But you have to choose: to live or to recount. For example, when I was in Hamburg, with that Erna girl whom I didn't trust and who was afraid of me, I led a peculiar sort of life. But I was inside it, I didn't think about it. And then one evening, in a little café at St. Pauli, she left me to go to the lavatory. I was left on my own, there was a gramophone playing Blue Skies. I started telling myself what had happened since I had landed. I said to myself: "On the third evening, as I was coming into a dance hall called the Blue Grotto, I noticed a tall woman who was half-seas over. And that woman is the one I am waiting for at this moment, listening to Blue Skies, and who is going to come back and sit down on my right and put her arms around my neck." Then I had a violent feeling that I was having an adventure. But Erna came back, she sat down beside me, she put her arms around my neck, and I hated her without knowing why. I understand now: it was because I had to begin living again that the impression of having an adventure had just vanished.

When you are living, nothing happens. The settings change, people come in and go out, that's all. There are never any beginnings. Days are tacked on to days without rhyme or reason, it is an endless, monotonous addition. Now and then you do a partial sum: you say: I've been travelling for three years, I've been at Bouville for three years. There isn't any end either: you never leave a woman, a friend, a town in one go. And then everything is like everything else: Shanghai, Moscow, Algiers, are all the same after a couple of weeks. Occasionally – not very often – you take your bearings, you realize that you're living with a woman, mixed up in some dirty business. Just for an instant. After that, the procession starts again, you begin adding up the hours and days once more. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. April, May, June. 1924, 1925, 1926.

That's living. But when you tell about life, everything changes; only it's a change that nobody notices: the proof of that is that people talk about true stories. As if there could possibly be such things as true stories; events take place one way and we recount them the opposite way. You appear to begin at the beginning: "It was a fine autumn evening in 1922. I was a solicitor's clerk at Marommes." And in fact you have begun at the end. It is there, invisible and present, and it is the end which gives these few words the pomp and value of a beginning. "I was out walking, I had left the village without noticing, I was thinking about my money troubles." This sentence, taken simply for what it is, means that the fellow was absorbed, morose, miles away from an adventure, in exactly the sort of mood in which you let events go by without seeing them. But the end is there, transforming everything. For us, the fellow is already the hero of the story. His morose mood, his money troubles are much more precious than ours, they are all gilded by the light of future passions. And the story goes on in reverse: the moments have stopped piling up on one another in a happy-go-lucky manner, they are caught by the end of the story which attracts them and each of them in turn attracts the preceding moment: "It was dark, the street was empty." The sentence is tossed off casually, it seems superfluous; but we refuse to be taken in and we put it aside: it is a piece of information whose value we shall understand later on. And we have the impression that the hero lived all the details of that night like annunciations, promises, or even that he lived only those that were promises, blind and deaf to everything that did not herald adventure. We forget that the future was not yet there; the fellow was walking in a darkness devoid of portents, a night which offered him its monotonous riches pell-mell, and he made no choice.

I wanted the moments of my life to follow one another in an orderly fashion like those of a life remembered. You might as well try to catch time by the tail.
So the choice is clear: to live or to blog.

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