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Hard Sell

On Sartre, Freedom, and Stories

Sartre, thinking...

Sartre, thinking…

Interesting week last week – I was putting together my books based on the words of people from a care home for The Living Words project (blog here), while still enmeshed in the world of Sartre’s War Diaries. Here’s what it made me think –

For Sartre, the Cartesian error is to imagine a fixed consciousness which can then be described, and which then reaches out into the world and describes it. Rather, the world enters us and forms consciousness. This is not, however, a passive process. We can change our ‘judgement’ of the world, and this is what he describes as Freedom (not freedom of action etc).

So far, so Philosophy 101. But what I think is interesting is that Sartre then argues that writing is a positing of freedom, in that it describes the world in a new way – the world is the stories we tell about it, and thus the act of writing is a form of protest. (This is why middle-brow books and films are the worst of all worlds, as they take this freedom and use it to reinforce the prevailing morals of the time, rather than challenging them by positing new realities). In writing ‘our people’, we are, of course, telling a story, and thus inventing them in some sense – no person (as Sartre points out elsewhere) can be captured in, or reduced to, a single coherent narrative. Power attempts to do this – I am a number, a type, an artefact. I have a comprehensible beginning, middle and end.

The novel I am writing at the moment is a fictionalised biography, or at least it was. Creating these books has reminded me that in telling a life story (authentically), what is vital is to resist totalising narratives, or at least to play with them as a trope. In writing about Percy Grainger, I felt a fidelity to certain aspects of his character that I felt I had to ‘realise’ in order to present a true representation (or True Representation). But looking at one of the people in the care home I was working with, D, I came to realise that it was precisely the ellipses, erasures, repetitions and alterations in his stories that ARE the story. They ARE a representation of a character that resists totalising strategies. Names from his past shifted at each meeting – this is how (as Proust nailed it) we do in fact inhere in the world. It is a created space, and I know more about D from these ambiguities than I would from looking at a timeline of his life.

Much thinking to do…

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