That’s Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre up there.
Saturday, April 28, 2012

Roads to Freedom

One of the many books my wife gave me for Christmas was Last Chance by Sartre. This is the recently published fourth volume of what had been previously been a trilogy. I went through a Sartre phase in high school, and I saw a late night production on David Susskind’s Play of the Week of No Exit, and read it and some other Sartre. I’ve had the three volumes of The Roads to Freedom (The Age of Reason, The Reprieve, Troubled Sleep) floating around in my library for around 50 years and I read the first one, The Age of Reason back in high school, so I decided it was time to read all three before tackling the Christmas present.

The series portrays a number of individuals in the time before and during WW II. The first one centers around Mathieu and Marcelle, an unmarried couple who have maintained a relationship that’s not an open marriage only because they aren’t married. Marcelle discovers that she’s pregnant, and Mathieu decides that she has to have an abortion. The novel takes 350 pages to narrate the events of the next two days as Mathieu tries to raise the money for the abortion.

Now I have to admit that I’m not terribly sympathetic to Sartre. He was an ardent socialist. He liked Mao and Che. He had numerous affairs. I’m also not terribly sympathetic to the abortion quest.

One common trope of the abortion crowd is that the baby is not a baby, it’s a fetus, and that it’s only tissue. Sartre has two contrasting images towards the beginning of the book in which people visualize the baby growing in Marcelle. In one it’s described in terms of a complete baby, something growing, and developing. In the other there’s an emphasis on disgust, and it’s pictured in relation to blood. Interestingly, both of these images counteract, to my mind, that it’s something other than tissue.

Mathieu, a philosophy professor, claims that he wants to live a life of total freedom, hence he and Marcelle will not marry because that would be participating in the bourgeois convention of marriage. Now the problem with a life of absolute freedom is that it’s impossible. Once you’ve decided to do something, rob a bank, take a drug, fix a cup of coffee, you’ve immediately cut off the infinite possibilites that previously existed, and set out upon a road on which you will encounter the consequences of your actions. Some reviewers over on Amazon have commented on Mathieu’s apparent paralysis, and his inability to take any action.

There is an interesting parallel between Sartre’s novel and Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants.” In both stories it is the man who chooses for the woman. In the short story the man keeps telling the girl that it’s just a little operation “to let the air in.” In Sartre’s novel it is Mathieu who chooses for Marcelle. The nature of their relationship is supposed to be that if one does not agree that he or she will object. It is only then that any kind of discussion or negotiation will take place. In both cases the women are reluctant and would rather have the child. It is the man who chooses the abortion.

By choosing for Marcelle rather than letting her choose Mathieu effectively denies her her freedom. The man who wishes absolute freedom for himself paradoxically chooses slavery for his woman and death for his child.

Mathieu is rescued from having to propose to Marcelle by Daniel, who marries her, and agrees to raise the child.

The Reprieve takes place sometime later, and I’ll be dealing with it in a week or two.