Understanding and Commitment: Narrative Representation in Jean-Paul Sartre's L'Idiot De la Famille

By Pihlainen, Kalle | CLIO, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Understanding and Commitment: Narrative Representation in Jean-Paul Sartre's L'Idiot De la Famille


Pihlainen, Kalle, CLIO


In Three Philosophical Moralists, George C. Kerner reminds us of Jean-Paul Sartre's parallel between the life of an individual and the development of a work of art: "Every new brush stroke has to fit in with what is already there on the canvas, and it also portends what colour, what line, what shape is to be fashioned next." (1) Kerner also quite rightly draws our attention to the problems involved with Sartre's idea of each individual's "fundamental project" (pro jet fondamental), arguing that locating the "original choice" of this project in the unfolding of the dialectic in an individual's life is logically impossible since it would need to take place outside of a situation, with no prior choices determining it. As he puts it: "Perhaps an omniscient being can see how all the choices we actually make fit into a prefigured whole. But we have to work at the meaning of our lives piecemeal; we have to eke it out as we go" (161-62).

With regard to developing our personal self-understanding and ethical conduct this criticism seems valid enough, but in his biography of Gustave Flaubert, entitled The Family Idiot (1971-72), Sartre attempts to show that omniscience, although not attainable, can be simulated satisfactorily when it is a question of attempting to understand another retrospectively. As Sartre himself defines it, "the underlying project in the Flaubert is that of showing that ultimately everything is communicable and that one can succeed, without being God, whilst being a man like any other, to understand perfectly--if one has the necessary facts--a man." (2)

This professed aim of perfectly understanding and truthfully communicating another human being presents an obvious challenge to much recent theory of historical narrative. Since Sartre's political goals in writing The Family Idiot correspond with those of narrative historians who question the clear distinction of fact from fiction, a closer examination of his thoughts can contribute to our ongoing debate within historical theory. The discussion that follows concentrates largely on two issues: First, how is fictionality curtailed by Sartre in The Family Idiot? And, second, can Sartre's ideas of fiction and commitment be extended to cover historical narratives in a way that does not endanger their truthfulness? To this end, the biography of Flaubert is examined as an attempt to mediate between committed literature and political writing. As The Family Idiot is neither a "pure" fiction nor a "simple" historical account, an examination in relation to Sartre's theoretical concerns also helps chart developments and changes in his thinking.

For humans, even the simulation of God-like omniscience that Sartre aims for in The Family Idiot is difficult. This is evidenced by the sheer size of the work, a monumental study in which meaning is created from seemingly insignificant details--in imitation of the gradual development of individual self-understanding--through means of the laborious progressive-regressive analysis Sartre undertakes. To reiterate Sartre's theoretical claim: "si on ales elements qu'il faut"--indeed if we have all the necessary elements--we can reach a perfect understanding of the other. (3) Building on this more general claim, Sartre argues that since he "used what ... were rigorous methods, this should also be Flaubert as he really is, as he really was." Recognizing the difficulties with his claim as well as the unclear position of The Family Idiot in terms of genres he also states, however, that he does not write novels any more, since he no longer feels the "urge to do so": "Writing on Flaubert is enough for me by way of fiction--it might indeed be called a novel. Only I would like people to say that it was a true novel. I try to achieve a certain level of comprehension of Flaubert by means of hypotheses. Thus I use fiction--guided and controlled, but nonetheless fiction--to explore why, let us say, Flaubert wrote one thing on the 15th March and the exact opposite on the 21st March, to the same correspondent, without worrying about the contradiction. …

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