On one ordinary day, without specifically looking for anything, I entered an old bookstore on the friendly street of our local shops. And there it was waiting to be snatched away by my very hand. From ‘without specifically looking for anything’, I specifically purchased ‘Intimacy’ before leaving the store.
It is, out of all the Sartre’s books that I have read (the trilogy, Nausea, Words) the most objectively written. The philosophies are clean, the writing is simple and at the heart of it, of course our existence is again being put to measure on the scale of worthiness, liberty and uncertainty. Mr Sartre’s continual search for answers regarding our choices, our decisions, and our nature is apparent, but more importantly, answers are provided within the words.
Intimacy has a very distinctive meaning to Sartre, it is beyond our usual senses for affection, and yet it is so common to our every day life. It is a seed burries deep within our conscious and nature, yet it surfaces on our actions and judgments. And in five little short stories, intimacy is intimately defined in each, and as you progress from the first story to the last, complexes around the central theme of intimacy is built, yet the layers of ideas and philosophies of ‘intimacy’ are being stripped bare, allowing the readers get extra intimate with both Sartre and his characters.
Intimacy – The first story explores the intimacy of a young married couple. To Lulu, the contemplative wife, there is a large discrepancy between the ideal and real definition of how her lover should be. In her real (current) relationship Lulu finds her husband (Henri) habits dirty and somewhat nuisance (i.e. he sleeps in his unwashed, yellow stained underwear, he’s hairy and somewhat voluptuous, he likes to touch her from behind which she finds a little annoying etc…). At the same time, she finds these habits very intimate and liberating. On the other hand, Pierre, her ideal and potential lover is well built, sculpted with hard muscles, he has villa in Italy, he’s charming, well read and well dressed and her good friend Rirette is encouraging Lulu to commit infidelity. The obvious question is not who she should choose, but how does she value her sense of being a woman and what does intimacy mean for her. (Sorry guys, this isn’t Titanic or Jane Austen).
The writing is witty and honest, laying down all the banal, obsolete thoughts of the characters. ‘Once she (Lulu) pretended Pierre wanted to rape Rirette. And I helped him. I held Rirette in my arms…I wonder how her (Rirette) face must look when she’s stretched out like that, all naked, under a man, feeling hands on her flesh. I wouldn’t touch her for all the money in the world. I wouldn’t know what to do with her, even if she wanted it, even if she said ‘I want it’…’ There are also plenty of twists and turns (not like those of Ms Austen) to really portray the honesty of the character Lulu, the nature of women and most of all, defining what is real to a woman in terms of love and intimacy.
The three stories follow (the wall, the room and Erostratus) have similar patterns of thoughts, though they are embedded in different story lines and characters. ‘The wall’ explores the intimacy of a soldier being a millimetre away from death, of fear, of being free from human-hood. ‘The room’ wonderfully explores the intimacy of two minds, one healthy (the wife), the other mentally ill (the husband). As much as she tries to grasp onto and understand his reality, she fails. As much as her parents try to convince her to leave him, to live her youth while she’s still young, they fail. But still, she loves him, alas, it’s not predictable as it sounds, this is where Sartre’s skills for words and thoughts come about.
And just when you think you know how Sartre’s chain of thoughts works, more surprises spring about. In Erostratus, Paul Hilbert, a ‘black hero’ (and black here does not imply skin colour) a misanthrope, an man who idealises his destiny to be short and tragic, planning his act of murdering random citizens of Paris and then his suicide. Erostratus was a man who became famous because he couldn’t find anything better to do than to burn down the temple of Ephesus, one of the seven wonders of the world. Paul Hilbert may sound despicable and insolent, but the deeper you get into the story, the more you understand his logics. And in a creepy sense, while reading the novel, I actually wanted him to carry out his plan successfully, perhaps my feeling for the character is stronger than my philanthropic sense, but that is the power which Sartre has over the readers like me. Sartre’s sense of irony is wonderfully ironic and real, it is shown throughout all of his stories.
The childhood of a leader – This last story is one I most love and despise at the same time. Lucien, the angel child (with golden, radiating curls) while growing up discovers many things in life, in particular, the concept of truth and lie, the saddest of which when he finds out that he no longer loves his mother and begins to question the value of his existence. He of course, being a creation of Sartre, finds human existence quite empty and starts to plan his suicide. In his schooling years in Paris, Lucien becomes friend with Berliac and is quickly influent by Berliac’s obsession with Freudian works. At this point in his life, Lucien is very open to people around him, especially those who he feels have the same complexes with him, people who – lives outside of the matrix (as in the movie Matrix). Then along comes Bergere (one of Berliac close friends), a mid-thirty man, who challenges Lucien’s masculinity and deeply wounds his sexuality. From this point onwards, Lucien is more submerged in the mainstream society, diverged away from the bohemian crowd and very much involved in extreme politic, a subject which celebrates male camaraderie and allows him the typical masculinity which society expects of him. His complexes change, he loses his innocence, begins the practice hatred (specifically towards the Jews), and assumes the role which ‘destiny’ or ‘society’ expects of him. On a personal level, I really like this story because of the similar thoughts and complexes that we might all have perceived as a child growing up, while reading I kept thinking to myself that ‘yes, I thought of the same thing when I was 9’ etc…and obviously Lucien has chosen to become someone else, someone perhaps he finds easier to exist, easier to be accepted in his society and easier to rule society if he wants to. There is much to discuss about this story, and Sartre has made it obvious regarding the difficulty of life choices, the easier of which is adopted by Lucien. Yet ‘But if I could only be what I am I wouldn’t be worth any more than the little kite’. What could one discover searching in this mucous intimacy if not the sorrow of flesh, the ignoble lie of equality and disorder? ‘First maxim’, Lucien said, ‘not to try and see inside yourself; there is no mistake more dangerous – as much as I find Lucien so unlikeable toward the end of the story, I must also agree with Mr Sartre that he has the right to exist - ‘rights were beyond existence, like mathematical objects and religious dogma, the right to be existed to the very flesh, obeyed to the very bed’