08 Sep I persist in a childish illusion: the illusion that a man can always better himself. (JEAN-PAUL SARTRE)
“Hell is other people!”: Other people are hell insofar as you are plunged from birth into a situation to which you are obliged to submit. You are born the son of a rich man, or an Algerian, or a doctor, or an American. Then you have a cut-and-dried future mapped out, a future made for you by others. They haven’t created it directly, but they are part of a social order that makes you what you are. All this has been thrust on you by other people. Hell is the proper description for that kind of existence.
Literature should be the work of clear-eyed men who take into account the totality of mankind. Literature has got to realize that it exists in a world where children die of hunger. Literature has got to realize that it lies within our power, as writers and as human beings, to do something for others. And others can do something for us.
People think that one fine morning, when he’s pulling on his socks, a man can decide: “Hmmm, today I shall invent a moral code.” But a moral code can’t be “invented.” It must be something that already exists in some way. No true moral system exists today, because the conditions of a moral code worthy of the name are not present. Men are not visible to one another. Too many machines and social structures, as I was saying, block the view. It’s impossible to speak of any true moral system today; only of moral codes applying to certain classes and reflecting specific habits and interests. The basic conditions enabling men to be available for a new social order are lacking. In a society such as ours, it’s inevitable that the mass of social structures — not to mention the personal compulsions, private destinies — form barriers to mutual understanding. Thus you trot along with your personal destiny and you meet a Negro, an Arab, a Cuban, each with his own destiny, and any real relationship proves extremely difficult. Or else you must belong to a “movement” in which you make a total break with everything outside it and associate yourself with, say, the Cuban struggle or the Algerian struggle. Yet even then — with the best intentions — you will not achieve complete solidarity. The man whom you contact won’t be completely a man for you; he’ll be a “thing.” But to treat a man as a man, as a human being, is a matter of principle, a principle we must never abandon.
I had cured myself of my youthful illusions, the illusion that a bourgeois writer is bound to be pessimistic, that he is condemned to solitude by the fact of his taking arms against society. In The Words, I describe how I have come to realize that I am a member of society — a society in motion. And because I have now broken free from the illusions of youth, I believe I’ve become an optimist.
I have quite large sums of money to spend, as a matter of fact. But I also have many obligations. And the fact is that I hate to possess. It seems to me that we are possessed by the things we possess — whether it be money or the things it buys. When I like an object, I always want to give it to someone. It isn’t generosity — it’s only because I want others to be enslaved by objects, not me. And I get pleasure from the thought that someone will like an object I give him.
I warn myself that I’ve written some books, but if I feel it my duty to defend the ideas expressed in these books, even if things change, then I am no longer myself. I would become the victim of my own books. I don’t think that one should make a point, as Gide did, of systematically breaking with one’s past; but I want always to be accessible to change. I don’t feel bound by anything I’ve written. Nevertheless, I don’t disown a word of it, either.
Always the here and now is a condition I regard as temporary and wish to leave behind. I persist in a childish illusion: the illusion that a man can always better himself.
Question: Why did you reject the Nobel Prize? Jean-Paul Sartre: I’d rather not talk about it. – Why not? – Sartre: Because I don’t think that an academy or a prize has anything to do with me. I consider that the greatest honor I can have is to be read.
Existentialism and Humanism