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The Words Interviewing Oneself

It has been over 45 years since the existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre became the first free man to turn down the Nobel Prize.

According to TIMES, "In 1964, French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (who was privy to pre-announcement rumors) wrote the Nobel committee saying that if they awarded him a Prize, he would refuse it. They ignored his request and awarded him the Literature Prize that year anyway, perhaps hoping he could be persuaded to accept. He was unmoved."

TIMES continued, "Sartre maintained that his ideals about freedom conflicted with those of the Nobel Committee and that he did not want to be "institutionalized' with the prize money, then worth about $53,000--which he believed would corrupt his writing. Days after the announcement, he told a reporter, "A writer ought to live according to his own lights.'"

With Sartre in mind, and with a world waiting a radical philosopher leader, let's look at the book Sartre wrote in 1964, THE WORDS, and get a feel for what the man was about in the radical 1960s (and earlier).

  1. Why do you think Sartre divides his story in two parts, "Reading" and "Writing"?

If the Word is passed onto the prisoner who is chained and facing only the wall of a cave, he has to take in what he hears or has heard from others. Likewise, with his mind, he has to decide the following of what he hears: Is what hears relevant or important? Is it factual? Whether it is partially true? Likewise, much of what we know of our wider world of this planet Earth and of our Universe in Time comes to us from what others say or have written. We, from childhood onwards, can experience and have experienced only very little of what is happening or has happened on this planet. Likewise, what others have written for us or have told us makes up more and more a greater or more humongous background or foreground to what we ourselves experience. Likewise, out of this mass of knowledge and experience are words which we produce but are not entirely only our own words of concepts.

A child cannot write in any language except his own created babble until he has observed, listened to, read, and/or heard the words of others. We are social animals. We may, like the "Knights of Faith" in Kirkegaard's writings, be seeking most of all a religious, ethical and ever more aesthetic experience through which to enjoy our days, but we have to work our way through the food of thought, which often comes from the experiences and writings of others.

Although the first part of Sartre's book is called READING, this fact does not mean that READING ceased for young Jean-Paul Sartre at one age and a new age of writing began in a world he created all by himself, i.e. using words he has thought out on his own, like some amazing superman character who has more knowledge than anyone else on the planet. No. Definitely it is the case that Sartre recognizes only that he came of an age to begin to write and the basis of this skill was empowered through what he had read--even though at the earliest stages of his life he could appropriate and adapt what he had read, heard, and experienced through observing others. In the READING section of The Word, this came through written texts of both classics and children-aimed story books or popular magazines aimed at youth and adventurers.

WRITING was only a new stage in the life of Jean-Paul Sartre, and this new section, WRITING, did not mean that READING concluded, like a scene in drama, with Act 2 taking off in a completely other part of the globe in space and time. For Sartre, obviously getting to know or gaining the ability to decipher what a scribbled word could possibly mean, i.e. reading, preceded naturally his own ability to write in any narrative form. His writing was merely to a great degree an extension of what had come before his eyes over time.

One of Sartre's early favorite French writers, Jean-Jaques Rousseau, could never have guessed how much influence he has had on future generations or how he would influence Jean-Paul Sartre or any number of American or French educators specifically, but the very idea that "existence precedes essence" would be considered by many a reader of these 20th and 21st centuries as simply a continuation of the centuries-old Nature vs. Nurture Controversy, a controversy which rolls on like the ying and yang throughout history for educators, reformers, scientists, politicians, jailers, and ethicists who have continued to argue which comes first in the modern world of progress and development.

Naturally, even spoken- and listened-to- words (or phrases) play a role in both Sartre's education in literature and comics and in his own writings and appropriations and adaptations of other's work or ideas. A search across the internet on the tale's of Sartre's years in street cafes smoking and drinking world of Paris Cafes would be filled with how much he loved the spoken word, especially savoring his own. However, in writing, he claimed to be able to take the criticism he had gained from others and to thus be able to produce an even better work. That is he not only stood on the shoulders of giants, but he learned on the backs of his most determined critiques. However, as a speaker or debater, Sartre found only energy and motivation. Writing was what Sartre felt called to do--although by whom or by what he is called or driven exactly is not clear. He is driven also at times by a flight from or fight with boredom, but that is "another story."


  1. Characterize how Sartre invents the adult world seen from the eyes of a small boy. Is it accurate? What type of insights do children give us into understanding ourselves and the world?

Having read Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye prior to reading The Words, I was struck by the continuity between the works of using the "I" author or first person narrator to tell a sort of autobiography, i.e. iconoclastic biographies. Morrison used various forms of the "I" author and juggled the order of her narration set in a time period and place of her youth. However, she took more seriously the focus of the story as an educational tool to a much greater degree while Sartre focuses more on self-revelation. In choosing this pathway, Morrison may have not gotten as far as she hoped to within the constraints of her mosaic technique--and is therefore a more direct on model narrations of century's gone by and thus more disturbing to some degrees than the first person or "I" narrator of The Words. By this, I mean that rhythm and tempo of thoughts conveyed by the "motorboat" and at times "rootless" tempo of Sartre in The Words, are something that the reader can become used to because the tempo and dimension is always bright and apparent after a while; whereas, the sudden jump into the childhoods of the father and mother of the protagonist Pecola in The Bluest Eye come in the form of a surprisingly neutral narrative format. This format contradicts to some degree the opening ditties and bitter critiques of the "I" narration used by the same third person narration throughout most of the rest of The Bluest Eye.

In The Bluest Eye, Morrison's narrator appears to be a child who claims to have the insight and wisdom of an adult. In this she must be some sort of prodigy. That is, in order to sort out the powers-that-be-sources in her own society at such an early age is at times less than convincing. That is, the narrator appears to be claiming in her critical voice that she doesn't fall for the illusions of the world around her and is calling into question the order of the world at a distinctly young age. She is constantly conscious of the makers-and-shakers who are defining and determining what the people of mainstream America (in her small town) see to be beautiful (or not). From an early age, she perceives scams and cover-ups by elders. However, in such analysis, I find the Blue Eye first-person narrator appearing to fall short,. In short, her narration is more like a fly on the wall narrator at times, i.e. one with a bit of omniscience, like the real author Toni Morrison, but not with the depth of internal growth and thought one sees in Sartre's autobiography, The Words.

The Sartre autobiography, in contrast, in using the Poulou or childhood voice as the "I" (or first person narrator) is at first much more convincing than flamboyant or outrageous. Sartre begins the book with many factually accurate facts of history, and concepts of childhood development and his growing self-confidence are found progressively throughout the book. In short, in comparison to his growing speed in thought and reflection--i.e. flashbacks and future scenes in the second half of his WRITING section of The Words, Sartre starts READING section a bit more traditionally than Morrison, who is certainly often both consciously and overtly concerned with the problem of voice in narration of any autobiography, and is thus clearly never satisfied with her own present perspective in narrative. Sartre, too, claims to never be satisfied with his finished works, but quite obviously enjoys his present work as he puts his enrgy and flames of thought into it.

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KEVIN STODA-has been blessed to have either traveled in or worked in nearly 100 countries on five continents over the past two and a half decades.--He sees himself as a peace educator and have been-- a promoter of good economic and social development--making-him an enemy of my homelands humongous DEFENSE SPENDING and its focus on using weapons to try and solve global (more...)

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