Reading Sartre, 1999

" would back out of the finest adventure in the world rather than risk telling yourself a lie."

“I’m getting old. Here I am, lounging in a chair and believing in nothing. And yet I also wanted to set out for a Spain of mine. But it couldn’t be fixed. Are there many Spains? I am there, absorbing the ancient taste of blood and iron-tainted water; - I am my own taste, I exist. That’s what existence means: draining one’s own self dry without the sense of thirst. Thirty-five years. For thirty-five years I’ve been sipping at myself and I’m getting old. I have worked, I have waited, I have had my desire: Marcelle, Paris, independence: and now it’s over. I look for nothing more.” He gazed at that familiar garden, always new, always the same, just like the sea, swept for a hundred years by the same wavelets of colours and of sounds. Here it all was: scurrying children, the same for a hundred years past, the same sunshine on the broken-fingered plaster queens, and on all the trees: Sarah and her yellow kimono; Marcelle pregnant; money. All this was so natural, so normal, so monotonous, it was enough to fill a life, it was life. All the rest – the several Spains, the castles in Spain was – what? A tepid little lay religion for my benefit? A discreet and seraphic accompaniment to my real life? An alibi? That’s how they view me – Daniel, Marcelle, Brunet, Jacques: the man who aspires to be free. He eats, he drinks, like everybody else, he is a government official, not interested in politics, he reads L’Oeuvre and Le Populaire, he is worried about money. Only, he wants to be free, just as other people want a collection of stamps. Freedom, that is his secret garden: a little scheme with himself as sole accomplice…An idle, unresponsive fellow, rather chimerical, but ultimately quite sensible, who has dexterously constructed an undistinguished but solid happiness upon a basis of inertia, and justifies himself from time to time on the highest moral grounds. Is that what I am?

He got up. An official got up, an official who was worried about money and was going to visit the sister of one of his old pupils. And he thought: “Are the stakes all set? Am I now just an official and nothing more?” He had waited so long: his latter years had been no more than a stand-to. Oppressed with countless little daily cares, he had waited: of course he had run after girls all that time, he had travelled, and naturally he had had to earn his living. But through all that, his sole care had been to hold himself in readiness. For an act. A free, considered act; that should pledge his whole life and stand at the beginning of a new existence. He had never been able to engage himself completely in any love-affair or any pleasure, he had never been really unhappy: he always felt as though he were somewhere else, that he was not yet wholly born. He waited. And during all that time, gently, stealthily, the years had come, they had grasped him from behind: thirty-four of them. He ought to have taken his decision at twenty-five. Like Brunet. Yes, but at that age one doesn’t decide with proper motivation. One is liable to be fooled: and he didn’t want to act in that way. He thought of going to Russia, of dropping his studies, of learning a manual trade. But what had restrained him each time on the brink of such a violent break, was that he had no reasons for acting thus. Without reasons, such acts would have been mere impulses. And so he continued to wait…
Sailing boats sped over the Luxembourg pond, lashed from time to time by falling water from the fountain. He stopped to look at the miniature regatta. And he thought: “I’m no longer waiting: she is right: I have cleared myself out, sterilised myself into a being that can do nothing but wait. I am now empty, it is true, but I am waiting for nothing.

And in that night Mathieu was walking through the city, thinking to himself, “I am a wash-out.” It was quite a new idea, he must turn it over in his mind, and sniff at it with circumspection. From time to time Mathieu lost it, nothing remained but the words. The words were not devoid of a certain sombre charm. “A wash-out.” Imagination could conceive all manner of grand disasters – suicide, revolt, and other violent issues. But the idea quickly returned: no, nothing of that kind: what was here in question was a little, quiet, modest misery, no matter for despair; on the contrary, a rather soothing state of mind. Mathieu had the impression that he had just been allowed any indulgence he fancied, like a sick man who cannot recover. “All I need to do is go on living,” he thought.

For nothing: this life had been given him for nothing, he was nothing and yet he would not change: he was as he was made. He took off his shoes and sat motionless on the arm of the easy-chair: he could still feel at the back of his throat the amber, sugared pungency of rum. He yawned: he had finished the day, and he had also finished with his youth. Various well-bred moralities had already offered him their services: disillusioned Epicureanism, smiling tolerance, resignation, common sense, stoicism – all the aids whereby a man may savour, minute by minute, like a connoisseur, the failure of a life. He took off his jacket, and began to undo his necktie. He yawned again as he repeated to himself: “It’s true, it’s absolutely true: I have attained the age of reason.”