The Age of Reason is the first volume in the series Paths of Freedom. Other volumes, The Reprieve (Le Sursis) and Iron in the Soul (La Mort dans l’âme), appeared in 1945 and 1949. One fragment of the final unfinished part appeared in Les Temps Modernes in 1949;another was published posthumously in Oeuvres romanesques (1981).As the collective title suggests, the series deals with the consequences of absolute freedom as examined in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness whereby an individual realizes that, in the absence of universal values and human essence, he faces the painful obligation to create his own morality. But to discover ontological freedom, Sartre shows in the novels, one must pass through the struggle for freedom from political oppression, since, although Sartre began the novel from an non-political perspective before 1939, by the end he had become convinced that to see personal freedom without the political and social contexts that condition and restrict it was contradictory.

Involving multiple characters and plots, The Age of Reason is divided into chapters each focusing on one or two story lines; subsequent chapters take up others. The result is a sense of simultaneous action among several personae, whose stories are connected but who receive alternately the narrative focus, allowing Sartre to present reality from their point of view, following his phenomenological emphasis upon perspective. History and politics intrude little, although in the background is the Spanish Civil War, prefiguring the European conflict to come, and suggesting an oppressive historical destiny. The somewhat melodramatic plot lines would not indicate a philosophical novel, but each human dilemma is presented from points of view Sartre developed in Being and Nothingness. Problems such as freedom, value, consciousness, corporeality, and human relationships are woven into the plot, as they are felt and lived by the characters.

Mathieu Delarue is an unmarried philosophy professor—like Sartre—whose principal wish is to remain free. When his mistress,Marcelle, learns she is pregnant, he immediately looks for funds topay for an abortion, since marriage and fatherhood would interferewith his personal freedom. Marcelle, who has ambivalent feelings about the embryo within her, apparently agrees with him, but comes to desire the child as a way of justifying her own life, otherwise seemingly pointless. Mathieu is unable to find money, until he resolves to steal 5,000 francs from Lola, a singer who is the mistress of Mathieu’s former pupil Boris. By the time Mathieu forces himself to take the money, however, it is no longer wanted; the meaning of his one bold action is taken from him.Marcelle has long been secretly seeing Daniel, a homosexual friend of Mathieu, whose attentions add charm to her drab existence. As a homosexual, Daniel cannot accept himself, at least without the mediation of others. His response is masochism. First he tries to drown his cats, but cannot bring himself to punish them as selfpunishment.He even considers self-mutilation. He both humiliatesand gratifies himself by picking up male prostitutes, whose filth andcoarseness appal him and who—he half-hopes—might attack him.He forces himself to pay attention to Marcelle, whom he loathes,particularly in her state of pregnancy. Finally, he conceives of two acts of self-punishment: he confesses his pederasty to Mathieu, and he will marry Marcelle, thus robbing Mathieu of his decision and condemning himself to long-term misery.Boris and his sister Ivich are frequently the focus of attention. Bothrefuse the models and classifications proposed by society. Boris is obsessed by time; although young, he feels he has no future. Ivich’s principal obsession is corporeality; her consciousness tries to deny its bodily extension or facticity, refusing the demands of food and sleep and desire. A telling scene is that where the drunken Ivich, in a nightclub, stabs her hand with a knife, a gesture of fascination with, but rage against, embodiment. Both characters, like Mathieu, who is drawn by Ivich’s apparent freedom from the contingency of being,experience  great difficulty in dealing with others, since others representdemands and responsibilities. Boris cannot abide the gaze ofLola, whose lovelorn look demands a response he cannot give. Ivich   reacts violently to any claim on her, even the barest claim to her friendship by Mathieu.Contrasted by Boris, Ivich, Daniel, Marcelle, and even Mathieu is Brunet, his communist friend. To Mathieu he appears solid, genuine.According to Sartrean ontology, consciousness always feels empty(since it is not a thing but an intention, projected toward and clinging to what is not itself), so that most of the characters experience an inner nothingness and feel objectified by others. But Mathieu feels particularly inauthentic next to Brunet, who has committed his freedom to a cause that validates it. Another character who has engaged his freedom is Gomez, a painter, who is fighting with the Republicans in Spain. The Jewish wife of Gomez, Sarah, serves to represent   a dilemma both political and personal: what does it mean to be a Jew?

 

What gives interest to The Age of Reason is the way in which Sartre concretizes philosophical problems and perceptions. He excels at   rendering in language how existence is felt from the inside and outside—a vague emptiness, the sense of being projected forward without reason, the look of flesh, the glutinous sense of desire. His descriptions of the gaze—how and why it makes one uncomfortable—are masterly. That his characters generally make little of their lives fits his ethics, born of wartime: freedom must be actualized in a cause that must itself promote freedom. Those who deny this deny their own freedom and are in bad faith (the Sartrean term for the self-deception that allows one to see oneself as an essence). Save Brunet and Gomez,no one achieves authenticity: Ivich returns to the bourgeois family she loathes. Daniel will persist in his masochistic bad faith, Marcelle inthe belief that another being can justify her. Mathieu does understand,however, that his freedom is meaningless; he has reached the age of reason.

—Catharine Savage Brosman

Work Cited:Reference Guide to World Literature

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