The philosopher as a toad

I have been reading all summer – right across the field, whatever has come into my hands. My seminar last semester on Foucault’s  “The Order of Things” stimulated my interest in French literature and because of Foucault’s well-known hostility to Sartre I decided to have another look at that philosopher. So I took up Sartre’s autobiographical work “Les Mots” which had been on my bookshelf for quite a while.

Certainly an intriguing and disturbing book. Intriguing as a description how Sartre leaned to read and began to write. But disturbing also because Sartre speaks about himself in the starkest terms.  We read, for instance: “My long hair got on my grandfather’s nerve. ‘He’s a boy,’ he would say. ‘You’re going to make a girl of him. I don’t want my grandson to be a sissy!’ One day – I was seven years old – my grandfather could no longer stand it. He took me by the hand, saying that we were gong for a walk. But no sooner had we got around the corner than he rushed me into a barber shop, saying: ‘We’re going to give your mother a surprise.’ I returned home shorn and glorious. There were shrieks, but no hugging and kissing, and my mother locked herself in her room to cry. Her little girl had been exchanged for a little boy. But that wasn’t the worst of it. As long as my ringlets fluttered about my ears, they made it possible to deny my obvious ugliness. Yet my right eye was already entering the twilight. She had to admit the truth to herself. My grandfather himself seemed nonplussed. He had been entrusted with her little wonder and had brought back a toad.”

And Sartre writes in similar words not only about his own small, dwarfish stature and his bad, disfiguring eye but also about his inner flaws, his hypocrisy and self-deception. Spell-binding as the book was, I must admit that after 250 pages, I felt I had heard enough about the inner life of a precocious ten-year old.

I ended up, however, with one fascinating realization. “Les Mots” came out in 1964 just two years before Foucault published his “Les Mots and les Choses.” Its manuscript had been full of invective against Sartre which had been eliminated only at the last moment. So we must assume that Sartre’s title was presumably on Foucault’s mind. What is more, Sartre criticizes himself at the end of his book for what he considers to have been his early idealism and writes: “”As a mystic, I attempted to reveal the silence of being by a thwarted rustling of words and, what was most important, I confused things with their names.” And there you have the two words that make up Foucault’s title, “les mots” and “les choses,” in one sentence. So, what are we to make of Foucault’s title? Does he mean to say that where Sartre has been stuck in his words, in his subjectivism and humanism, while he, Foucault, is concerned also with things and how words bear on them. But if that is what he means, then Sartre has already anticipated him and has diagnosed the shortcoming in his own earlier self.

One thing is clear, of course, Foucault would never have been able to write a book like “Le Mots.” He would never have been able to lay himself bare in the way that Sartre did.

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