Praxis and Parapraxis: Sartre's "Le Mur."(Jean-Paul Sartre's Story)

By Redfern, Walter | The Romanic Review, January 1997 | Go to article overview

Praxis and Parapraxis: Sartre's "Le Mur."(Jean-Paul Sartre's Story)


Redfern, Walter, The Romanic Review


I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends nor of my enemies,

either ...

Am I a spy in the land of the living, that I should deliver men to

Death?

EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY. "Conscientious Objector".

Ou sont les avenirs d'antan?

SARTRE: Cahiers de la drole de guerre.

Prosaic though it may be to say so, the fact that "Le Mur" is narrated by its

central figure, Pablo Ibbieta, forewarns us that he will survive its events,

although of course we do not know how till near the end. Like Julien Sorel on

his death-row, Pablo swivels between being momentarily glad of the company and

more often wishing he were alone, for the sake of undistracted

self-concentration. His problems are essentially his own, and this is perhaps

his real problem.

The story's title emphasises the physical context. Pablo, Tom and Juan have

been switched from a cell in the archbishopric, into a hospital cellar: a kind

of oubliette. It is a hint that the focus shifts from the soul to the body and

to human consciousness, though aspirations towards immortality are not

excluded. Light filters from above through an open trapdoor, but there is no

earthly hope of escaping, any more than from a gallows-drop. Pablo's previous

cell had encouraged him to summon up elements of his former life,--beaches, a

bar, a bullfight,--but he had not been under a death-sentence there. That

earlier world was reflected, upside-down, in the sky; the memory was painful

but real. The now smaller patch of sky reflects nothing. He sees a solitary

star. "La nuit serait pure et glacee" (p.218), and thus suitable for the hard

thinking he intends to do, unballasted by his past. His whole life has

effectively been inverted. Offstage sound-effects of executions proceeding,

like hearing a guillotine being nailed together, form a basso continuo for his

self-examination.

The walls around him and the others clearly represent the limits of

possibility, pictured most powerfully in Tom's imagined sensation of facing a

firing-squad and pressing back desperately into the wall. The walls also stand

for the difficulties of communication between those enclosed within them. Pablo

and Tom think often the same thoughts, but respond differently to them. A

barrier separates consciousness and the body, as well as the individual and

other, even once cherished, bodies such as Concha's. Above all, the wall of

mystery,--what is death?--against which Pablo bangs his head.

Sartre, whose head always buzzed with the already said in others' literature,

knew he was rewriting the famous image of Pascal, later recycled by Malraux in

La Condition humaine:

On a dit que nous etions dans la situation d'un condamne, parmi des

condamnes, qui ignore le jour de son execution, mais qui voit executer

chaque jour ses compagnons. Ce n'est pas tout a fait exact: il faudrait

plutot nous comparer a un condamne a mort qui se prepare bravement

au dernier supplice, qui met tous ses soins a faire belle figure sur

l'echafaud et qui, entre temps, est enleve par une epidemie de grippe

espagnole(1).

Sartre clearly did not want, as Pascal did, to instil the fear of God in

readers, nor, like Malraux, to celebrate orotundly human fraternity, but to

exploit the black humour of a fundamentally absurd phenomenon, typified by the

aristocrat implicitly alluded to above, quipping on his way to the scaffold

(e.g. Thomas More). On a more technically philosophical level, Sartre was

equally kicking against Heidegger, whose notion of "Sein zum Tode" Sartre sees

as the false culmination of a process already initiated by Rilke and Malraux :

the "recuperation" and "humanisation" of death(2). …

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