This year, I’ve been making the conscious effort to read difficult and serious books, and to help discipline my mind while educating myself. I’d always wanted to read Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Age of Reason, and I was beyond ecstatic when I finally bought my own copy back in 2012, though I started to read it last year in August, and I finally completed it only this year.
A French philosopher, playwright, novelist, political activist, literary critic and much more, Sartre was and still is a behemoth in the literary, political and philosophical world. A man who lived in an open relationship with renowned feminist Simone de Beauvoir, with whom he challenged the known cultural and social conventions. I’m no academic scholar, but I tried to decode the first book in the ‘Roads to Freedom’ trilogy, and understand existentialism through Sartre’s story.
The Age of Reason by Jean-Paul Sartre ends indeed on a sad and desolate note – nothing positive or concrete remains for Mathieu, the main protagonist. Every friend deserts, save Sarah or as I assume, and every lover leaves him. Marcelle and Ivich, Daniel, Brunet, Boris… everyone.
Marcelle to Mathieu – “Your life is full of missed opportunities.” |“That is your ideal: you want to be nothing.”
I quite understand Mathieu in such a situation. People don’t realise the curse of not having a one-true passion. It isn’t easy drifting through life trying to wrack your brains and hoping to stumble upon that one true love that will propel you through day and night, where you’ll keep working to achieve that one goal through prosperity and adversity.
‘It’s certainly a difficult situation to be in, if you don’t know what to wish for.’
When she gets pregnant, Mathieu must borrow money to pay for the abortion. There is no better way to say this. Am I for or against abortion, that is another business altogether. But few genuinely realise how alone a woman feels when she’s ‘knocked up’, especially when she doesn’t want a baby, or circumstances are not conducive to having one. When Marcelle tells Mathieu of her pregnancy, she says, ‘It’s a woman’s business now’, with painful irony. Though both parties having their share of enjoyment, it is the woman who must bear the sole burden, sometimes shame too. A phrase I stumbled upon while reading, ‘a hunted quarry’ is referred to her pregnancy, quite an unsavoury term.
Mathieu is depicted as rather an apathetic character, who always thought (and admired) about Gomez and his trailblazing actions, but could never himself hop on to a plane or a boat and throw himself into the heart of all the action. Even when Brunet, the communist, offered a position in the communist party, for he felt Communism would give his life a meaning, Mathieu turned it down. He wanted it to be inner calling, not because someone offered him a position. He has no clue what to do, where to go. He solicits advice from anyone who would care to give or even listen to him.
Brunet tries to push him. ‘You live in a void, you have cut off your bourgeois connexions, you have no tie with the proletariat, you’re adrift, you’re an abstraction, a man who is not there. It can’t be an amusing sort of life.’
Mathieu is in search of meaning, in fact, he wishes it finds him first.
‘I have nothing to defend. I am not proud of my life, and I’m penniless. My freedom? It’s a burden to me; for years past I’ve been free, and to no purpose. I simply long to exchange it for a good sound certainty.’
When Brunet leaves Mathieu, which the latter thinks it’s forever, he realises how ideologies have separated friends, how they have been divided, even if Mathieu isn’t an outright bourgeois or a capitalist. He’s just a man of inaction. Mathieu is very caught up in his own ideology, in his own quest for complete freedom. Maybe, it’s this very inaction that Brunet dislikes, this aspect of ‘sitting on the fence’ isn’t palatable for him.
Apart from the weird brother-sister duo of Boris and Ivich, the character Daniel intrigued me. A homosexual, Daniel has been denying himself his true identity, is depressed and suicidal, has lots of money but little to no use for it. He is contemptuous of Mathieu. He hates the fact how Mathieu is always in control of himself and his emotions, has neither a care in the world, no responsibilities. No remorse, anger. He simply exists.
Even though Daniel thought it was goodwill to push Marcelle into admitting she wants the baby, I feel it was vengeance. Cold and pure. The real target was Mathieu, he wanted a fight between the two, an argument, some obstacle, a way for Mathieu to shed his life of a bachelor, settle down, live like an ordinary person burdened with responsibilities.
Mathieu is guilty about Marcelle and the baby. He’s constantly worried. He can’t shake the idea loose. If he marries her, he’s got a life. Marriage is like a final death knell for him. Like chains around his ankles. Even though he’s free, he is preoccupied mentally, throughout the book. He could have travelled, but he doesn’t. Even though he loves Ivich, she despises him. When he sees Boris and Ivich together, he realises that these young souls despise getting old, and he’s not really welcome in their company. They’re constantly afraid of aging, getting wrinkles.
A book penned by a man who was known to challenge set norms of society, I’d expected the story to end on a different note. Looking at this strictly as a plot, Marcelle wanting to keep her child, Daniel avoids coming out to his circle and marries Marcelle so she can have her baby and maybe, it’s the easy way out for him. This sacrifice seems honourable at first, but the world of Mathieu suddenly looks duller than when he was worried about money. Those who think of themselves and their own freedom, are isolated and alone after a point in time. Friends of similar age get married and procreate, while younger companions despise you when you’re too old and wrinkled. Geez, the ending is quite depressing.