The Words, by Jean-Paul Sartre

by Robert A. Parker

This 1964 work is a difficult book to review. It is billed as an autobiography, but it really is not. It is an intellectual exploration of Sartre’s formative years from about when he was five to when he was nine. The exploration is primarily that of his relationship with his mother and his grandfather, more significantly the latter.

Sartre’s grandfather kept challenging the boy, and to prove himself to himself Sartre imagined himself acting as a hero in different worlds (shades of Walter Mitty?). These worlds first existed as visual images, and then became expressed in words. The result here is a book of self-analysis, as Sartre tries to explain to us, and to himself, the origins of his intellectual life.

But it is an abstract analysis, an analysis of the intellect of a child, an analysis in which Sartre often needs to employ metaphors. It is not a practical analysis of external events. So with a child’s mind having no depth at that age, we see it only through the mind of this author of 50 years later.

Sartre’s effort to prove himself to his grandfather resulted in his imagining himself to be other people, much like an actor does. And much like a writer does when he tells a story through imagined people. Which meant to the author 50 years later that he was an imposter even as a child. He was pretending in order to win the praise of one man.

Sartre also states that his stories of imaginary heroism usually had no ending. That, in fact, he sought no endings. As if endings did not really matter—suggesting 50 years later that life did not need answers, or really had no answers. That faith was not an answer. All that mattered was one’s existence, the now.

The other repercussion of this false reality is that he later found it difficult to relate to true reality, to other people, and nurtured a sense of his own insignificance. As a youth, he even despised himself for this play-acting.

Of course, any anticipation that nine-year-old Sartre has about his future profession, his future philosophy, is not truly that of the boy. It is that of Sartre as he is writing this 50 years later. As he is trying to explain how his professional life emerged from his years with his grandfather and his widowed mother.

Sartre deals briefly with his turn to atheism after a religious upbringing. Very simplistically, he appears to attribute it to a religious paper he wrote in school that received a silver medal instead of a gold medal. Later, after accidentally burning a rug, his guilty conscience senses an accusation from God, and he curses Him. And 50 years later he writes: “He never looked at me again.” Which I interpret to be the determination of a mature man to lightly toss aside the reason for his lack of faith, and to suggest how insignificant any faith has become to him.

Note that it is only in the final pages that Sartre consciously leaves his boyhood years, and tries to connect his current thinking to those youthful years. He also suggests he plans a similar treatment of his mature years, but it is a book he never did write. Actually, I wish he had written it, and combined the two into one book, but at the same time omitted some of the speculation of this book. Surely, there were significant events, and even more complex thinking in his adolescent years, that led to the mature Sartre.

To sum up, this was not the type of work I expected. It is not the story of a life but an intellectual interpretation of the formative period in the life of a boy who became an intellectual. It reflects too much the author of today rather than the boy of yesterday. It also digs deeper into that boy’s mind than I cared to follow, and at times found difficult to follow. Because while the writing style is perfectly clear, and we understand what Sartre is writing about, his classical and metaphorical references cloud the relevance of these early days to his eventual career. That is, for one who does not possess the same intellectual and cultural context. (January, 2014)