The Age of Reason by Jean-Paul Sartre
‘The age of reason’ referred to in the title of this, the first volume of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Roads to Freedom trilogy, is a time of reconciliation. Jacques, the brother of the novel’s protagonist, Matthieu – philosophy tutor, malcontent, sceptic, self-styled rebel, half-hearted communist sympathiser and pseudo-misfit – uses the phrase as he lectures him on having reached a rite-of-passage age (35), at which one ought to take one’s preordained place within the neatly ordered structure of bourgeois normality. Settle down, get married, have kids, get a steady job. Choose a fucking big television. Etc.
The title is, of course, also an ironic echo of the moniker given to the philosophical period preceding the enlightenment, during which rationalists such as Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz regarded human reason as the basis of all knowledge. The world cohered in mathematical symmetry, an a priori jigsaw puzzle with God as the missing piece. However, by the time we get to Sartre, God is dead, a hole has been blown in the rationalist construct, and man is adrift in a fundamentally unknowable and meaningless world. The bourgeois structures that capitalist society has erected as surrogates are, to Matthieu, arbitrary, absurd and self-deluding. But can he really live entirely outside of them?
A novelistic companion to Sartre’s intimidatingly massive, dense and jargon-tastic philosophical magnum opus, Being and Nothingness, The Age of Reason is essentially an extended trope that puts its existential paradox – we are enslaved and imprisoned by our own inescapable freedom – into practise. Matthieu has for his entire adult life been living in a comfortable, limbo period of unchallenged scepticism. Rejecting the bourgeois clichés of marriage and the nuclear family unit, Matthieu’s only acknowledged principle is ‘to retain (his) freedom’ at all costs. Yet in practise he lives within a self-erected comfort zone, bourgeois in all but name. As Jacques puts it in his annoyingly astute bollocking:
“you condemn capitalist society, and yet you are an official in that society; you display an abstract sympathy with the Communists, but you take care not to commit yourself, you have never voted. You despise the bourgeois class, and yet you are a bourgeois, son and brother of a bourgeois, and you live like a bourgeois.”
On the day on which we encounter Matthieu, his philosophy is for the first real time challenged by circumstance. His long-term mistress, Marcelle – whom he has neatly compartmentalised as a sex partner who has no involvement in any other area of his life, but to whom he still retains a domesticated tenderness and sense of responsibility – is pregnant. Being a radical to whom personal freedom is paramount, naturally Matthieu must arrange for an abortion – but there are complications. In the sort of casually anti-semitic typecast uncomfortably common in European novels of the period, one option is a tight-fisted Jewish doctor. Well renowned, he nonetheless charges a king’s ransom for his services. What’s more, he’s leaving for America in two days, and Matthieu is skint.
The more financially viable alternative is a filthy old hag of an illegal back-street abortionist – any scrap of honour or integrity (those unfashionable bourgeois, metaphysical notions) would prevent Matthieu from subjecting Marcelle to such a degrading and potentially life-threatening ordeal. Yet before he will lend him the 4,000 francs he needs, Jacques attaches one condition – Matthieu must marry Marcelle. In order to preserve her dignity, is he willing to compromise his fiercely guarded liberty?
Through this hourglass framework Sartre places Matthieu’s theoretical convictions on a collision course with the inexorable circumstances of his physical existence. Here we can see Sartre the dramatist at work, adhering loosely to the Aristotelian unities of time and place, cranking up the pressure page by page to stretch Matthieu out on the rack of his own contradictions.
Whereas it uses a comparable pressure-cooker structure to Sartre’s first novel, Nausea, The Age of Reason is far more dramatic in its complexion. At times resembling a philosophical soap opera, Sartre displays a distinctly Lawrentian influence in his rendering of his characters’ volatile interior monologues, even culminating in a reprise of the famous homo-erotic wrestling scene from Women in Love. The Russian siblings Illych and Boris – Matthieu’s protégés and, in Illych’s case, the object of his conflicted desire – seem to have wondered in straight out of a Dostoevsky novel, embodying a distinctly Russian brand of irrational, capricious booze-addled mania. Along with Daniel – the seethingly misanthropic, closet homosexual, suicidal banker – they function as an all-suffering contrast to Matthieu’s more cerebral form of philosophical ‘nausea’. They feel what he thinks, and walk what he merely talks.
The ‘philosophical novel’ always walks a perilous tightrope between fiction and argument, and there are undoubtedly times in The Age of Reason when the characters’ status as pawns on Sartre’s dialectical chessboard – each an embodiment of an idea, their every action, thought and gesture driven by a predetermined logic – threatens to rip the fictional fabric of the novel apart at the seams.
The teleology of its form – ending, in an essayistic coup de grace, with the words that form its title – suggests that The Age of Reason is a novel designed to build towards a final climax. However, for me the tension created by the various philosophical cogs in this novel peaked at about halfway through, and deflated thereafter. This is perhaps because characters overtly cast as walking ideas tend to have a limited shelf life. After too much exposure their essayistic function becomes too obvious and they lose their nuance and plausibility.
Nonetheless, though it lost some of its momentum in the second half, this is a novel that is at once sophisticated and accessible, packed with complex ideas compellingly vivified. And what’s more, this all comes mixed with the ultimate guilty pleasure – an at times hilariously over-the-top, melodramatic plotline, punctuated with scenes of Dostoevskian intensity. And that’s one thing you certainly don’t get in Being and Nothingness.