The Writer
As Traitor
I became a traitor and have remained one. Though I throw myself heart and soul into what I undertake, though I give myself up unreservedly to work, to anger, to friendship, I'll repudiate myself in a moment, I know I will, I want to, and I'm already betraying myself, in the heat of my passion, by the joyful presentiment of my future betrayal. On the whole, I fulfill my commitments like anyone else; I am steadfast in my affections and behavior; but I am unfaithful to my emotions. Monuments, paintings, landscapes, there was a time when the last one I saw was always the finest. I annoyed my friends by alluding cynically or simply lightly --- so as to convince myself of my detachment --- to a common memory that might have remained precious to them.

Because I did not love myself sufficiently, I fled forward. The result is that I love myself still less; that inexorable progression constantly disqualifies me in my own eyes: yesterday I behaved badly since it was yesterday, and I have a foreboding of the severity with which I shall judge myself tomorrow.

Above all, no promiscuity: I keep my past at a respectful distance. Adolescence, manhood, the year which has just rolled by, these will always be the Old Regime. The New is ushered in this very hour but is never instituted: tomorrow, everything goes by the board. I've crossed out my early years in particular: when I began this book, it took me a long time to decipher them beneath the blots. When I was thirty, friends were surprised: "One would think you didn't have parents. Or a childhood." And I was silly enough to feel flattered.

Yet I like and respect the humble and tenacious faithfulness of certain people --- particularly women --- to their tastes, their desires, their former plans, to bygone red-letter days; I admire their will to remain the same amidst change, to save their memory, to carry to the grave a first doll, a milk tooth, a first love. I have known men who, in later life, slept with an aging woman solely because they had desired her in their youth. Others harbored resentment against dead people or would have come to blows rather than recognize a venial error committed twenty years earlier.

As for me, I don't hold grudges and I obligingly admit everything; I'm always ready to criticize myself, provided I'm not forced to. In 1936 and 1945, the individual who bears my name was treated badly: does that concern me? I hold him responsible for the insults he swallowed: the fool wasn't even able to comand respect. An old friend meets me; a display of bitterness: he has been harboring a grievance for seventeen years; in a specific situation I treated him inconsiderately. I vaguely remember that I defended myself at the time by counter-attacking, that I taunted him with his touchiness, his persecution mania, in short, that I had my personal version of the incident. I am all the more eager to adopt his; I completely agree with him, I heap abuse on myself: I behaved conceitedly, I acted selfishly, I'm heartless; it's a joyful massacre; I revel in my lucidity; to recognize my misbehavior with such good grace is to prove to myself that I couldn't act that way now. Would anyone believe it?

My fairness, my generous confession only irritate the plaintiff. He has seen through me, he knows that I'm using him. He has a grudge against me, me alive, present, past, the same person he has always known, and here am I leaving him an inert corpse for the pleasure of feeling like a new-born babe. I end by losing my temper with that maniac who's digging up old bones. Vice versa, if anyone reminds me of some incident in which, so I am told, I appeared to advantage, I pooh-pooh the memory; people think I'm being modest, but it's quite the opposite: I'm thinking that I would do better today and so much better tomorrow.

Middle-aged writers don't like to be praised too earnestly for their early work; but I'm the one, I'm sure of it, who's pleased least of all by such compliments. My best book is the one I'm in the process of writing; right after it comes the last one that was published, but I'm secretly getting ready to be disgusted with it before long. If the critics should now think it's bad, they may wound me, but in six months I'll be coming round to their opinion. But on one condition: however poor and worthless they consider the book, I want them to rank it above all my previous work. I'm willing to let them run down my whole output, provided they maintain the chronological hierarchy, the only one that leaves me a chance to do better tomorrow, still better the day after, and to end with a masterpiece.

--- From The Words
Jean-Paul Sartre
©1964, George Braziller
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