Making Existentialist Waves (2)

A few weeks ago, I was thinking aloud about the similarities that struck me between Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, published some seven years after Woolf’s book. The more I read the Woolf, the more striking the similarities seemed. Two more examples struck me forcibly. Bernard, towards the end of the book, almost quotes Edmund Husserl’s famous phenomenological dictum, “to the things themselves”:

How much better is silence; the coffee-cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee-cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself. Do not come and worry me with your hints that it is time to shut the shop and be gone. I would willingly give all my money that you should not disturb me but will let me sit on and on, silent, alone.

Virginia Woolf: The Waves

The second concerns Sartre’s preoccupation with biography in Nausea. His character Roquentin discovers (as I described in my last post on the subject) that, for him, writing biography is impossible since the chaos of real life bore little resemblance to the recorded anecdotes told of a life. Woolf’s character Bernard makes several references to his biographer, all of which carry echoes of Sartre’s preoccupations, including this:

‘Once I had a biographer, dead long since, but if he still followed my footsteps with his old flattering intensity he would here say, “About this time Bernard married and bought a house . . . His friends observed in him a growing tendency to domesticity . . . The birth of children made it highly desirable that he should augment his income.” That is the biographic style, and it does to tack together torn bits of stuff, stuff with raw edges. After all, one cannot find fault with the biographic style if one begins letters “Dear Sir”, ends them “your faithfully”; one cannot despise these phrases laid like Roman roads across the tumult of our lives, since they compel us to walk in step like civilized people with the slow and measured tread of policemen though one may be humming any nonsense under one’s breath at the same time- …’

Virginia Woolf: The Waves

It is intriguing to speculate how not only Woolf’s stream of consciousness style might have influenced Sartre but also, subconsciously or otherwise,  the ideas she was writing about. As TS Eliot probably said, “good writers borrow, great writers steal.” It often pays for artists to play down their most significant influences. Draw attention to them and they risk commentators endlessly speculating on the similarities and differences between the artist and their model. This can be a distraction.

I know this might only be interesting to a small group of people who have read and enjoyed both of the books concerned. There is, I think, though, a more general point. I, for one, being a casual reader, was surprised to find the similarities I found. Rightly or wrongly, I kept Woolf and Sartre in quite separate compartments in my view of things: although I thought of both as Modernist novelists I had not made the connections between them I discovered by reading their work side by side. Partly, I think, this is to do with their very different backgrounds and with the very different backgrounds of the characters they invented. It is also to do with what they set out to achieve: for example, Sartre, I read, was very influenced by American “hard boiled” fiction. There is also the matter of the use of the “existentialist” label: the words existentialism and Sartre are inseparably wedded. Occasionally, the word is linked with Woolf, but not often: I may be missing something but in a quick search I found only one or two footnotes to essays suggesting that it would be interesting to explore existentialist ideas in Woolf’s writing.

 

 

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Talking about Freedom

I’ve just been watching a documentary about Jean Paul Sartre, produced by the BBC in 1999. The BBC being the BBC and he being a radical iconoclast, I half expected it to turn into a hatchet-job.  I was pleasantly surprised, though. It does portray the man ‘warts and all’ but one is left with the impression that his warts were, on the whole, the kind that might well be found on any thinking person who lived through the middle of the twentieth century, were they to be this closely examined. It comes round to a positive, affirming conclusion, I think.  ‘He gave our generation a sense of freedom that directed our lives’, says one of those interviewed.  ‘We made choices which I think we can still identify with. I’m just aware that at the present time, the message of freedom that Sartre is delivering is not accepted as if this burden of freedom that he’s putting on everyone’s shoulders is too weighty . Maybe we are in a time when people don’t want to hear about freedom.’

That was  17 years ago. These days, I would argue, people seem to me to want to hear about it even less. To be clear, Sartre was taking about the freedom that we exercise from moment to moment to choose what we do next and, by so doing, to shape the individual we become – a freedom which, as he said, carries with it inevitable anxiety.  Exercising freedom, for Sartre, is a risky business – it’s easier to conform. He famously said that people were condemned to freedom. He also said that the French were most “free” when under German occupation: there were no easy ways out, no comfortable fall-back positions. One had to make frightening choices. Similarly, were he alive today, he might say that the refugees who make terrifying sea-journeys to reach Europe are more “free” than the Europeans they’ll have to live among. The pursuit of freedom is the  assigned lot of those who are driven to make difficult decisions or feel empowered enough to stand up for themselves (and, for that matter, for others). For my money, Jean Paul Sartre still has the power to empower.

 

 

Of Wellingtons and Hot Water Bottles

Just spent  a week and a half in Wales, the first three days in a caravan on a farm at the top of a hill. The view was as magnificent as the weather was cold. You could take photos from the doorstep – with a hot water bottle stuffed up your jumper.

I must have been about seven when I stayed with my parents at the Tyn y Coed Hotel, at the foot of Moel Siabod. From the hotel, its profile appears Matterhorn-like. The sun catches impressive-looking craggy outcrops around its pointed summit. It is impossible not to want to climb it. I pester my parents until they take me on an expedition to conquer it. To their relief, I think, a quarter of a mile from the hotel I step into a stream that is too deep for my wellington boots. The water flows over the rims. Cold water rises inexorably up my legs. We have to empty my boots and turn back.The second, successful attempt on the summit has to wait over forty years. From the caravan where we are staying, the mountain’s profile is less imposing but it still exerts a magical attraction on me, nonetheless.

moel siabod

From the doorway you can see not only Siabod, but all the tops of the Carneddau mountains. If you stand in the right place, you can see the Snowdon group and the Glyders, too. In the photo, Moel Siabod is just to the right of the farmhouse.

ffridd ucha panoramaBandW

In a bookshop in Porthmadog I come across At The Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell. I glance at it and get the feeling that if I buy it, I’ll not be able to put it down. I buy it and, no, I can’t put it down. In the first chapter she says how in the past two or three decades, the world has changed:

Some of those fashionable movements that knocked existentialism out of the way have aged badly themselves…

Quite*. Given the problems of the 21st century, she says,

there is a certain refreshment of perspective to be had from revisiting the existentialists, with their boldness and energy. They did not sit around playing with their signifiers. They asked big questions about what it means to live an authentic, fully-human life… They tackled questions about nuclear war, about… the environment, about violence, and about the difficulty of managing international relations in dangerous times….

Above all, they asked about freedom, which several of them considered the topic underlying all others…

The book is a compelling mixture of anecdote, history and philosophy. She has the knack of explaining potentially difficult ideas in a way which is easy to read. She riffs on the newsreel that survives of Jean-Paul Sartre’s funeral. Watch out for Simone de Beauvoir and for the bearer who takes off his hat – only to hurriedly replace it when he realises that the other bearers have left theirs on, in deference to a man who defied convention.

 

As I think I’ve said in previous posts, all through the eye problems I’ve been having this year I’ve been listening to a lot of music. This increasingly meant the music of Les Six, and of those six French composers, the music of Germaine Tailleferre and Darius Milhaud. Milhaud was prolific, writing over 400 pieces. There’s a case for saying he’s one of the best kept secrets of twentieth century music. In Cob Records, a record shop in Porthmadog, I find a NAXOS CD of Milhaud’s piano music. It includes his Saudades Do Brasil:

 

It also includes Milhaud’s own selection and piano arrangement of  his film music for the 1934 film of Mme Bovary. This is quite special, as it includes the actress Madeleine Milhaud, the composer’s widow, reading extracts from the book between the  short movements. Listening to it, I can’t help but wonder why his music’s not played more often. There is  sometimes a deceptive lightness to it which perhaps leads people to take it less seriously than they should. With another prolific composer, Haydn, he shares a humane sense of humour. Also, being prolific is not always good for popularity: if you write hundreds of pieces (the same probably goes for  creating books and paintings) people can find it hard to seek out your best work and “get a handle” on what you do. Added to that, Milhaud wrote a kind of music that fewer and fewer people seem to think they have a use for. Perhaps, like the existentialists, “there is a certain refreshment of perspective to be had from revisiting” his music. I certainly think so.

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*Noam Chomsky has written about this.