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  • Rupture and Literary Creation in Jean-Paul Sartre [1968]
  • René Girard (bio)
    Translated by Robert Doran

Literary interpretation, Sartre, Flaubert, The Flies, The Condemned of Altona, The Words, Oresteia, Tragedy, Myth

Using specific examples drawn from Sartre’s oeuvre, I propose to treat the contemporary problem of critical method—or, more precisely, of critical interpretation—in literary texts. I begin by examining the meaning of Sartre’s The Flies (Les mouches, 1943), one of his earliest dramatic works.

The themes of the play are easily grouped into pairs of opposing concepts: authenticity versus inauthenticity, lucidity versus bad faith, revolt versus conformism, atheism versus religion, revolution versus reaction, and so on. All these themes appear, and are organized, as a function of the conflict between Orestes and Aegisthus. The drama is the embodiment of thematic oppositions. If these oppositions were overcome, the conflict would be less dramatic. The thematic oppositions establish the difference between the two protagonists, and, reciprocally, the dispute [le différend] that separates them guarantees the authenticity of the thematic oppositions.

In truth, what is this difference? How does it concretize, in the relations it puts into play, the conflict between Orestes and Aegisthus? On the level of dramatic action, there would appear to be more resemblances than [End Page 1] differences. Like Aegisthus, and also motivated by a woman, Orestes assassinates the reigning sovereign. Like Aegisthus, Orestes transforms his crime into an instrument of prestige, an object of fascination. One could say that Aegisthus wants to make himself fascinating to enslave his people, whereas Orestes wants to liberate them. But is it not contradictory to put fascination in the service of freedom? Is fascination not always a form of slavery?

It is a fact that all oppositions claim a ground of identity. But this is not the issue here. Does the tragic conflict of The Flies emerge from difference or identity? Does not the dispute [le différend], the desire for a common object, royal power, hide the identity of the rivals?

To respond in the affirmative, to root the differences in the identical, would mean dismantling the framework that maintains the ideological oppositions. The attention given to the drama’s concrete forms leads us beyond a simple indifference to ideas; it gradually renders all the meanings suspect. And the fact that these meanings are suggested by the author himself makes them appear all the more constraining. The well-informed public, as well as literary critics, always accepted these meanings as an irreducible datum, something that goes without saying. The correlations of structure, even the most elementary structures, already direct us to a reading that is contrary both to the intentions of the author and to all the claims that an intelligent and otherwise justified reading of the work can make, with reference to its author. We are now drifting toward a mistrust that characterizes a certain strain of contemporary criticism in the eyes of the public.

This mistrust is certainly important, but one can show the inevitable character of the approach it inspires. One need only compare the The Flies, Sartre’s first drama, to his most recent play, The Condemned of Altona (Les séquestrés d’Altona, 1959).

In The Condemned of Altona, the protagonist, Franz von Gerlach, discovers the insignificance of the conflict that opposes him to his father and his family. This conflict reprises that between Orestes and Aegisthus. But the revolt against the indignant father is no longer an act adequate to its end; this act no longer establishes a difference, a truly significant distance. After having believed, like Orestes, in the fecundity of his revolt, Franz discovers its sterility. The Flies represents the moment of revolt, which is why the revolt is present in this play, whereas it is relegated to the past in The Condemned of Altona. Franz is an Orestes cured of his illusions. [End Page 2]

All the differences reveal themselves to be illusory; they give way to identity. In The Condemned, the characters and the relations already found in The Flies are all modified according to a new message. The vain revolt, the posited yet unrealized difference figured, of course, in The Flies in the...


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