Is Sartre's Les Mouches Sartrean?

By Salem-Wiseman, Jonathan | Philosophy Today, February 2012 | Go to article overview

Is Sartre's Les Mouches Sartrean?


Salem-Wiseman, Jonathan, Philosophy Today


How are we to read Les Mouches!1 Written and first performed in 1943, Sartre's re-fashioning of Aeschylus covertly addresses the situation of the French people under the Vichy regime. The not-so-hidden message is this: the buzzing flies covering Argos represent the collective guilt of the French people for passively tolerating their political subjugation. Instead of remaining aloof and disengaged, like Orestes at the beginning of the play, Sartre's countrymen should take up arms, as Orestes eventually does, and actively struggle against the Nazi occupation. By taking up arms against tyrannical rule, Orestes both helps his people to freedom and takes away their guilt when he leaves the city, menaced symbolically by the flies. So, despite what the German censors might have missed or overlooked in a superficial inspection of the play, Sartre is not really writing about ancient Argos; rather, he is enjoining his French comrades to shuffle off their guilt and fight for their freedom against the occupying powers.

This standard, political reading, as Heidegger might say, is "correct," but even if we were to fill in this sketch with historical details and textual support, it would hardly be philosophically satisfying. What Sartre's play requires in order to address the present, speak a universal language, is an interpretation that frees it from its very specific geographical and historical locale. In what follows, accordingly, I will attempt to provide a more philosophically ambitious reading of Sartre's play, taking my point of departure from Walter Kaufman's provocative, decades-old "Nietzschean" reading of Les Mouches and the more recent response to Kaufmann by JeanFrançois Louette in Sartre contra Nietzsche.2 Together, these interpretations help us to think about Sartre's play not only philosophically, but also in light of the complex philosophical relationship between Sartre and Nietzsche.

Certainly, for readers of Sartre's literary works, it is a common and seemingly natural practice to interpret these texts as the repositories of his philosophical ideas. Consequently, when a critic like Kaufmann challenges such orthodoxy and argues that Sartre's Les Mouches is indeed the repository of philosophical ideas, but "the philosophy in The Flies is not Sartre's own" (TP 308), we are faced with a unique interpretive challenge. Kaufmann certainly does not offer an extended commentary on this work, but the bulk of his remarks are directed to proving his hypothesis that the play "embodies the ethic of another philosopher - to be sure the first man mentioned in Being and Nothingness, and a man whose decisive influence on existentialism has long been recognized" (TP 307). That man, of course, is Nietzsche. In what follows, I will attempt to show that Kaufmann's Nietzschean reading of Les Mouches is superficial, governed largely by the rhetorical affinity between certain lines from the play and passages from Nietzsche's texts, especially Thus Spoke Zarathustra, on which I shall focus here. Although united in their preoccupation with the question of selfhood and autonomy and their obvious hostility toward Christianity, I will argue that Les Mouches reads like Zarathustra in reverse, and we are left at the end of die play in the very philosophical world that we encounter at the beginning of Nietzsche's text - a world that soon fades over the course of Zarathustra's philosophical development.

Before turning to the texts of Sartre and Nietzsche, it is important to emphasize, as I mention above, that Kaufmann's Nietzschean reading of Les Mouches has already been vigorously contested by Louette. According to Louette, Kaufmann's argument that Les Mouches incarnates Nietzschean ideas is not only unsatisfactory, but also laughable.3 Although we know that Sartre read Nietzsche from an early age, Louette argues that we do not know the details of this engagement, and we cannot, therefore, carefully footnote and responsibly account for the ostensibly Nietzschean elements that may appear in Sartre's work. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Is Sartre's Les Mouches Sartrean?
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.