When a book is required reading and we follow through by actually reading it, even though every word may seem a hurdle, do we ever feel the same about that book or that writer ever again? And when a friend rushes up to us and shoves a book by that author into our hands and proclaims it to be the most wonderful book she has ever read, do we actually read it? Or do we simply accept the book politely and then burn it the moment our friend leaves, perhaps adding in a few expletives directed at the professor who foisted the author’s other books on us in our quest to earn a degree?
Such was the case many years ago when my friend Michele handed me a little novel by none other than the philosopher, playwright, novelist, prankster, and late-life anarchist Jean-Paul Sartre. I had never heard of the book, The Chips Are Down, but had suffered through Being and Nothingness and the Critique of Dialectical Reason, so I was less than thrilled at the prospect of reading anything more by old Jean-Paul. Still, a friend is a friend, so I agreed to give it a try.
I fully expected to toss the book aside after the first page or two, but to my surprise, the book was “a fun read,” an analysis I doubt Sartre would appreciate. Oh, there is plenty of philosophizing throughout on things like truth, free will, determinism, freedom and the illusion of freedom, and morality, but what has stayed with me over the years is the view of the afterlife depicted in the book.
Imagine that you are surrounded at all times by the ghosts of your family, your friends, your pets, and other people, famous and infamous, from all centuries. As I write this, my Cocker Spaniel, Dusty, dead these thirty years, is trying to get my attention for a treat. My late cat Cedric is purring silently in my lap as George Washington is having a heated argument with my late Aunt Bessie, who never thought he should be on the dollar bill. Outside, a column of confederate soldiers gallops by, stirring up dust and provoking the wrath of my Uncle Buddy, who was cane-waving cantankerous to the end.
And now Jean-Paul Sartre leans over my shoulder to see what I’m typing, and tries his best to get me to add his feelings about the current state of the book industry, where a handful of novelists rule the day because their books, however good or bad, are less risky to bring to market than the books of unknown, but perhaps better, writers.
He’s telling me to use the words he used when he declined the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature, and so I will: “A writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution.”
Oh, easy for you to say, Jean-Paul.
By the way, have you met my Aunt Louise? She never married you know. You’d make a charming couple and—John-Paul, where are you going? Jean-Paul!