Sartre, Jean-Paul Entries

Les mouches (The flies)


Once, when I was enrolled in a Victorian Literature class in college, reading novel after essay after poem that grieved deeply over the religious upheaval brought on by the scientific breakthroughs of Charles Darwin and others, I asked my professor whether there weren't any 19th-century authors who felt liberated, rather than bereft, by these developments. As a profoundly a-religious person myself, I can try to imagine myself into the position of Arnold, Tennyson, Ruskin and others, who either grieved the loss of, or struggled to reconcile, their Christian beliefs with new geological and biological evidence. (Though I have trouble understanding the objection to a metaphorical reading of the Bible, which would seem to tie up all these problems with a neat little ribbon). But I would have thought that some 19th-century writers would embrace the demise of the god-concept and welcome a life of intellectual freedom and self-determination. My professor thought a while and then said yes, there were those writers, but that we wouldn't be reading Nietzsche in this class.

Nor have I read him since. But Jean-Paul Sartre's Les mouches (The Flies), an existentialist re-telling of the murder of Aegisthos and Clytemnestra at the hands of Orestes and Electra, comes close to what I was looking for back then, despite not having been written until 1943. Sartre takes the classical Greek tale, in which Orestes returns from his exile and is egged on by his long-lost sister Electra to avenge their father's death by killing their mother and her lover, and turns it into a parable about the changeable reality of gods in human lives, the role of remorse, and the power of free will. Having just read Anne Carson's translation of Sophocles's Orestes, the contrast was particularly clear in my mind between the crushing inevitability of the characters' fates in Sophocles, and the clarity with which Sartre's Orestes freely creates his own destiny.

There are other differences. In Sartre, we see the effects of Clytemnestra's and Aegisthos's crime on the regular citizens of Argos. The common people share in their rulers' guilt—something that feels alien to the royalty-centric worlds of Aeschylus, but very appropriate to a France of 1943, in which citizens had to decide whether to support the Resistance or collaborate with the fascist Vichy regime. Fifteen years before the play's action, Clytemnestra and Aegisthos murdered Agamemnon (Argos's king, Clytemnestra's husband), but were immediately seized with horrified remorse at their action. This remorse has taken over their lives and their style of ruling, becoming the ruling cult of Argos. As Electra tells her disguised brother,

[L]a reine se divertit à notre jeu national: le jeu des confessions publiques. Ici, chacun crie ses péchés à la face de tous; et il n'est pas rare, aux jours feriés, de voir quelque commerçant, après avoir baissé le rideau de fer de sa boutique, se traîner sur les genoux dans les rues, frottant ses cheveux de poussière et hurlant qu'il est un assassin, un adultère ou un prévaricateur. Mais les gens d'Argos commencent à se blaser: chacun connaît par coeur les crimes des autres; ceux de la reine en particulier n'amusent plus personne, ce sont des crimes officiels, des crimes de fondation, pour ainsi dire. Je te laisse à penser sa joie lorsqu'elle t'a vu, tout jeune, tout neuf, ignorant jusqu'à son nom: quelle occasion exceptionelle! Il lui semble qu'elle se confesse pour la première fois.
The queen is just amusing herself at our national game: the game of public confessions. Here, everyone shouts their sins in each others' faces; and it's not rare, on feast days, to see some merchant, having closed up shop, crawling on his knees through the streets, rubbing dirt into his hair and yelling that he's an assassin, an adulterer, or a liar. But the people of Argos are starting to get bored. Everyone knows everyone else's crimes by heart; the crimes of the queen, in particular, no longer interest anyone, they're official crimes, founding crimes so to speak. I'll leave you to imagine her joy when she saw you, young and new, not even knowing her name: what an extraordinary opportunity! It feels to her like she's confessing for the first time.

Thus the guilt and penitence of Aegisthos and Clytemnestra have become the dominant characteristic of the entire society—everyone is defined by their misdeeds, and are forever trying to leech some kind of absolution out of everyone else—a vicious spiral that becomes more and more insular and stagnant as time goes on, as symbolized by the plagues of flies that infest the city. The big national fête, for example, involves twenty-four hours of heightened fear and remorse for the citizens of Argos, as a priest moves a boulder away from a cave entrance, and Aegisthos declares that the city's dead have returned from the underworld. (Whether or not the dead actually have returned is a point of contention among the citizens, highlighted by a darkly funny conversation between two guards about whether the dead flies return on this night, or only the dead humans.) Jupiter, god of flies, death, and decay, rules over Argos, feeding on the back-looking contrition of its citizens, and he often demonstrates his vested interest in keeping the Argos people enchained.

Into this pit of recreational remorse steps Orestes, reared in privilege away from Argos and only recently informed of his parentage. Until now he has had no real ties, wandering the world at liberty, belonging to no one and with no one belonging to him. The central conflict of the play, then, involves Orestes's inner struggle over how to claim ownership over his ancestral past, not having shared his sister's years of servitude and hatred, and whether he can or should act to break the cycle of fear and remorse in Argos. In Sartre's hands his eventual murder of Clytemnestra and Aegisthos becomes a declaration of independence, a unique, freely-chosen action, over which Orestes takes full ownership and for which he refuses all regret. The furies, who in classical Greek tragedy haunt Orestes to madness after he murders his mother, are here sent by Jupiter as partisan beings who attempt to bully him into remorse—and must fall back when they see that he does not fear them, or regret his action.

It's such an interesting take on the story, because if I were to choose any era of literature that inclined least toward an expression of free will, I would probably choose ancient Greek tragedy. In a way, Sartre himself accomplishes something similar to Orestes's coup in overthrowing the dominant worldview in Argos: just like the people of Argos have believed for years that they are defined by the confession of their sins, the tellers of this story have always believed that the events therein were fore-ordained and controlled by the gods. For Sartre, however, as Jupiter unwillingly admits,

Quand une fois la liberté a explosé dans une âme d'homme, les Dieux ne peuvent plus rien contre cet homme-là. Car c'est une affaire d'hommes, et c'est aux autres hommes—à eux seuls—qu'il appartient de le laisser courir ou de l'étrangler.
When once freedom has burst into the soul of a man, the Gods have no power to act against him. Because he's now a human affair, and it's up to other men—to them alone—to let him run or to strangle him.

I've hardly mentioned Electra at all here, but Sartre's depiction of her was another unique feature of Les mouches, and the only part of this play that was a bit disappointing to me. In Sophocles and Euripedes (I haven't read Aeschylus's version of events after Agamemnon's death), Electra is if anything the stronger, more vengeful, more obsessive sibling, the one who never falters in her quest to see her mother dead and her father avenged. She is the one who cares for Orestes after the murders are done, the one less affected by the furies. In Sartre this dynamic is reversed: although Electra initially desires Orestes to kill Clytemnestra and Aegisthos, she recoils when faced with the reality of the deed. In the end she can't resist the pull of the remorse-cult on which she was raised, fleeing back into the killing arms of Jupiter. It's an effective choice, I think, and I understand why Sartre worked in this contrast between brother and sister, but I was still a tad bit disappointed not to encounter the blazing, defiant Electra I have come to expect.

All in all, though, another fascinating foray into existential theater, and a rare opportunity to see enacted a celebration of human self-determination, even when that self-determination is difficult and morally ambiguous.

Huis Clos (No Exit)


This may be merely my brain's attempt to justify the hundreds of dollars I recently spent on French-language books, but I feel lucky to have read Jean-Paul Sartre's 1944 existential black comedy Huis Clos (No Exit) in the original. It's been a while since I've read a piece in which the conventions of language are so obviously integrated into the meaning of the whole, in ways that defy translation—and I enjoyed that synthesis so much that upon finishing the play I immediately started again from the beginning and re-read it. In particular, it was Sartre's use of the familiar (tu) and formal/plural (vous) forms of "you"—common to Romance and other languages but nonexistent in English—that intrigued me, and added a surprising amount of depth to the characters' interactions.

The plot of Huis Clos involves three people, recently dead and arrived in Hell. Garcin, Inès and Estelle are shown, one after the other, into the Second Empire sitting room where they will be spending eternity together. The atmosphere is hot but not unlivable, and at first the deprivations seem surprisingly tolerable. No mirrors, for example. No beds and no toothbrushes; no windows; no ability to turn out the lights or open the door. Furniture no one particularly likes. Other than that, nothing too horrible. All three sinners expect gruesome punishments ("Where are the stakes?" asks Garcin), but no judge or executioner arrives. Instead, the three converse and gradually reveal themselves and their sins, becoming a perfect three-way trap of torment each for the others.

At one point, Garcin warns Estelle (who is perpetually hungry for male validation) that he will never love her: "je te connais trop" ("I know you too well"). This equation of human knowledge with distaste, and familiarity with painful vulnerability, is pervasive throughout the play, and Sartre underlines it brilliantly with his use of tu and vous. Whereas one would normally expect a person to use tu in more affectionate, sympathetic situations (such as conversations with a close friend, lover or spouse), and vous in colder, more formal situations or to emphasize a power differential (such as in a professional setting or a conversation between strangers), Sartre turns this expectation on its head. Most often, the periods of respect and temporary alliances between characters are marked by their use of vous with each other, whereas the use of tu is almost always either an attempt at emotional manipulation, or an act of outright cruelty.

Take this scene partway through the play, when the other two gang up on Estelle. Inès and Garcin have just finished an extended conversation with each other, in which they both relate the reasons they've been damned. They offer their revelations willingly, and are as sympathetic with one another as anyone ever is in this play; throughout their exchange, they use vous with each other. They then turn on Estelle, who has claimed not to know what she might have done to end up in Hell:

GARCIN: (à Inès) Oh! vous avez raison. (à Estelle.) A toi. Qu'est ce que tu as fait?
ESTELLE: Je vous ai dit que je n'en savais rien. J'ai beau m'interroger...
GARCIN: Bon. Eh bien, on va t'aider. Ce type au visage fricasée, qui est-ce?
ESTELLE: Quel type?
INES: Tu le sais fort bien. Celui dont tu avais peur quand tu es entrée.
ESTELLE: C'est un ami.
GARCIN: Pourquoi avais-tu peur de lui?
ESTELLE: Vous n'avez pas le droit de m'interroger.
INES: Il s'est tué à cause de toi?
ESTELLE: Mais non, vous êtes folle.

Here both Garcin and Inès transition from using vous in their relatively gentle conversation with each other, to using tu in their aggressive questioning of Estelle. Garcin's "A toi" in the opening line is a badge of contempt: he's indicating that her refusal to be truthful about her past is costing her any respect he may have had for her. Estelle is put in the defensive, pleading position, and continues to use vous with her tormentors—even when, as in the case of the last quoted line ("Mais non, vous êtes folle"), the gendered grammar makes it clear she's speaking to one of them alone, in this case Inès. Being addressed as vous is thus associated with the position of power and consent, whereas being called tu is the mark of force, of the act of depriving someone of their essential protective skin. I can't think of any way to pack this kind of meaning into an English translation without adding words that weren't there in the original—having Estelle say "Mr. Garcin," for example, or assigning words of contempt (child, idiot) to Garcin's and Inès's speech. Otherwise there's definitely less there:

GARCIN: (To Inès) Oh, you're right. (To Estelle.) And you. What is it you did?
ESTELLE: I told you I have no idea. I've tried to think...
GARCIN: Fine. We'll help you out. That fellow with the smashed face, who is he?
ESTELLE: What fellow?
INES: You know perfectly well. The one you were so afraid of when you came in.
ESTELLE: He's a friend of mine.
GARCIN: Why were you afraid of him?
ESTELLE: You have no right to interrogate me.
INES: Did he kill himself because of you?
ESTELLE: Of course not, don't be absurd.

The workings of tu and vous are explicitly acknowledged in another scene, which also involves the fascinating gender dynamics of the play. Here the lesbian Inès is trying to manipulate Estelle's affections by playing on her vanity and need for admiration. Inès offers to take the place of Estelle's absent mirror, attempting to insinuate herself into the girl's affections. She uses tu as part of her sweet-talk toward Estelle and asks the girl to reciprocate. But Estelle stubbornly continues to use vous with Inès, only lapsing into tu under pressure, and eventually admitting that "I find it hard to use tu with other women":

ESTELLE: Et c'est bien? Que c'est agaçant, je ne peux plus juger par moi-même. Vous me jurez que c'est bien?
INES: Tu ne veux pas qu'on se tutoie?
ESTELLE: Tu me jures que c'est bien?
INES: Tu es belle.
ESTELLE: Mais vous avez du goût? Avez-vous mon goût? Que c'est agaçant, que c'est agaçant.
INES: J'ai ton goût, puisque tu me plais. Regarde-moi bien. Souris-moi. Je ne suis pas laide non plus. Est-ce que je ne vaux pas mieux qu'un miroir?
ESTELLE: Je ne sais pas. Vous m'intimidez. Mon image dans les glaces était apprivoisée. Je la connaissais si bien...Je vais sourire: mon sourire ira au fond de vos prunelles et Dieu sait ce qu'il va devenir.
INES: Et qui t'empêche de m'apprivoiser? (Elles se regardent. Estelle sourit, un peu fascinée.) Tu ne veux décidément pas me tutoyer?
ESTELLE: J'ai de la peine à tutuoyer les femmes.


ESTELLE: Does it look alright? It's so annoying, not being able to judge for myself. Do you swear it looks alright?
INES: You don't want to use tu with me?
ESTELLE: Do you (tu) swear it looks alright?
INES: You are beautiful.
ESTELLE: But do you (vous) have any taste? Do you share my taste? Oh, it's annoying, it's annoying!
INES: I have your taste, because I like you so much. Look at me. Smile at me. I'm not so ugly either. Aren't I better than a mirror?
ESTELLE: I don't know. You intimidate me. My reflection in the mirror was tamed. I knew it so well...I'm going to smile: my smile will sink to the bottom of your pupils and God knows what it will become.
INES: And what's keeping you from taming me? (They look at each other. Estelle smiles, slightly fascinated.) You really don't want to use tu with me?
ESTELLE: I find it hard to use tu with other women.

The power dynamic here is less clear-cut than in the previous scene, but again we see the use of tu as an attempted power play—although Estelle's withholding of tu gives her a certain amount of power as well. Indeed, Inès's imprisonment with a beautiful woman she desires (and desires to control), but who will never take her seriously because Inès is not a man, is a key element of Inès's torture. Estelle craves the male gaze, and Inès, despite all her cunning and manipulation, simply cannot provide it. "[M'addresser à] elle?" Estelle exclaims at one point. "Mais elle ne compte pas; c'est une femme." ("[Talk to] her? But she doesn't count; she's a woman.")

Being a woman while also believing the socialized message that women "don't count" makes, of course, for a person who is hard put to spend any time alone, and goes a long way toward explaining why women like Estelle crave constant validation from men. Not that the idea of female invalidity is limited to Estelle, or to women. Sartre acknowledges it as widespread—Garcin, in fact, thinks so little of his wife (low-born as well as female) that he feels no regret at having casually abused her for years, and neglects to even mention to his fellow-prisoners when she dies. Instead, he obsesses about the opinions his former (male) colleagues hold of him and of his actions. Given the famed feminism of Sartre's long-term partner Simone de Beauvoir I'm not sure why I was so surprised at the insightful depictions here of the traps of gender, but, like Sartre's use of language, they came as a welcome treat.

As, despite its darkness, did this entire play. After two readings I know it's one I'll be coming back to again and again, especially as I learn more about the larger framework of Sartre's philosophy.

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography