The Double Writing of Les Mots: Sartre's Words as Performative Philosophy

By Whitmire, John F., Jr. | Sartre Studies International, December 2006 | Go to article overview

The Double Writing of Les Mots: Sartre's Words as Performative Philosophy


Whitmire, John F., Jr., Sartre Studies International


ABSTRACT: Sartre's Les Mots has given rise to widely divergent competing readings in the philosophical literature, which tend to view it either as a simple continuation of his earlier, radical libertarianism, or as part of an alleged wholesale renunciation of the position we find in his early texts. I argue that most of these readings ignore the very real tensions in Words between the freedom of consciousness and the weight of circumstances. I further argue that Les Mots is a performative text whose double writing (originally composed 1954-1957; rewritten 1963) demonstrates for us that, whereas we cannot simply renounce our past and the original meanings mediated to us in childhood through our families, we do have the power to take it up in ways that skew those meanings in somewhat different directions. No matter what we do, however, the blurred outlines of those original meanings will always remain.

KEYWORDS: Sartre, Les Mots, words, autobiography, self, subject, conversion, palimpsest, performative.

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Hugo: I have no gift for anything.

Hoederer: You have a gift for writing.

Hugo: For writing! Words! Always words!

(Dirty Hands, tr. Lionel Abel) (1)

It is generally recognized that there is in Sartre's thought a significant shift away from his earlier emphasis on radical freedom in Being and Nothingness, The Transcendence of the Ego, and the phenomenological studies of imagination, in the later Critique of Dialectical Reason and its introduction, translated as Search for a Method. Indeed, by the time one reaches The Idiot of the Family, the multi-volume study of Flaubert, very little seems to remain of the robust sense of freedom in those early works. Sartre himself characterizes the matter thus in 1974: freedom is "the small movement which makes of a totally conditioned being someone who does not render back completely what his conditioning has given him ... the small margin in an operation whereby an interiorization re-exteriorizes itself in an act." (2) In the same interview, he claims that "L'Etre et Le Neant traced an interior experience, without any coordination with the exterior experience of a petty-bourgeois intellectual." (3)

What one does not find a great deal of in the secondary literature, however, is reflection on the place Sartre's own autobiographical work, Les Mots, occupies in this movement. (4) While there have certainly been significant critical studies on important philosophical and textual issues conducted by literary critical theorists, (5) the shelf space devoted to Words among philosophers is notably small.

Rivca and Haim Gordon sum up the scholarly situation with respect to Words in a particularly vitriolic way in a 1992 essay, (6) noting that most discussions of the text occur in a literary-critical, "non-philosophical" context. Although they grant that Hugh Silverman (among a very few others) traces the links between Les Mots and the Critique, they contend (7) that there is no serious work systematically linking Words with Being and Nothingness, in English or in French, up to the date of publication of their own work. They go on to excoriate "Robert Champigny's rambling essay 'Sartre on Sartre'" as a typical example of the "cunning musing on Sartre's various views and personal development" that takes place in the "non-philosophical" literature, and to the exclusion of a "systematic" or "wise" linkage of Words and the more theoretical works. (8)

While I do not share their conviction as to the lack of value of the literary critical studies, an evaluation of the philosophical literature published since 1992 makes it clear that virtually the same situation obtains now as Gordon and Gordon described over 10 years ago. Even the impressive collection of studies of Les Mots by Michel Contat and others (9) is primarily devoted to literary critical analyses of the text, by which I mean analyses of style, cultural allusions and literary references in the work, and so forth.

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