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. …