Brian Feeney

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Resident of Brooklyn, NY. Senior Product Designer at the Wall Street Journal.


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November 12, 2010

The Age of Reason

I once read of a movie-goer who upon hearing a film's title spoken aloud as dialogue during the film would yell out a "Woot!" while seated there in the darkened theatre. I was in a restaurant, not alone, when I came upon this line of the novel:

"You have, however, reached the age of reason, my poor Mathieu," said he, in a tone of pity and of warning. "But you try to dodge that fact to, you try to pretend you're younger than you are."

and I nearly woot!ed out loud.

But what's funny about this phrase, "the age of reason," as the title of the novel is that it's misleading as an indicator of the heart of the book; it misses it by a hair. It tells you to be on your toes for philosophical discussion, that there will be some range of moral quandary, and that the human intellect is in the author's cross-hairs. All this is right. But at the moment you find the phrase in the novel (approx. halfway through) you find it's purpose in the novel isn't to point to the philosophy, but instead to the moment in a man's life, around the age of 30, when he must start acting rationally and reasonably in earnest, to take full responsibility for his own actions. Post 30 is the age of reason.

Boris, in particular, has a principled and cynical view of thirty.

Boris felt desolate, and the thought, the grinding thought, suddenly came upon him: "I won't, I won't grow old." Last year he had been quite unperturbed, he had never thought about that sort of thing; and how–it was rather ominous that he should so constantly feel that his youth was slipping from his fingers. Until twenty-five. "I've got five years yet," thought Boris, "and after that I'll blow my brains out." [pg.40]

Mathieu looked at him with a kind of shocked benignity. Youth was for Boris not merely a perishable and gratuitous quality, of which he must take cynical advantage, but also a moral virtue of which a man must show himself worthy. More than that, it was a justification. "Never mind," thought Mathieu, "he knows how to be young." He alone perhaps in all that crowd was definitely and entirely there, sitting on his chair. "After all, it's not a bad notion: to live one's youth right out and go off at thirty. Anyway, after thirty a man's dead." [pg.238]

What Boris is trying to avoid–and what Mathieu has found himself in the thick of–is the entanglement of responsibility. They want to be free of mandatory acts. When growing older it becomes inevitable that something will happen that ties you down, which restricts your movements, forces your tongue. For Mathieu that seems like death. We get at Mathieu's professorial explanation of freedom via Boris' recollection: "the individual's duty is to do what he wants to do, to think whatever he likes, to be accountable to no one but himself, to challenge every idea and every person." Right at the beginning Mathieu says to himself, "I'm getting old," and we prepare ourselves for impending trouble, an unwanted responsibility.

The heart of the book is this: Marcelle, Mathieu's girl, becomes pregnant. They decide to terminate the pregnancy, and though Mathieu spends most of the book trying to raise the money, he eventually realizes the moral implications of his situation, that if Marcelle has any inkling at all about keeping the baby (and she does), then he has no choice but to marry her. Mathieu cannot come up with the money, and he cannot send her to a budget, back-room abortionist. After the pregnancy, Mathieu is no longer accountable only to himself, but also to Marcelle and the unborn child. His old philosophy of freedom is stripped of him. He can no longer "do what he wants to do", but, having reached the age of reason, must act rationally. He must marry Marcelle. But why?

Sartre never had children, and he never married. He had a life-long open relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, and as far we know they never aborted any pregnancies. But the fear of it must have been there. If Simone were to become pregnant, what would they do? How would that affect Sartre's working philosophy? Where does abortion stand within existentialism? As a philosophy, existentialism is very compact and pragmatic, a simple idea at its core which then expands infinitely outward, becoming universally applicable. Sartre has two different ways of defining existentialism; one very austere and esoteric, the other more for laymen and the general citizen. We won't bother here with the first, the idea that "existence precedes essence" -- that takes an 800pg. book to explain -- but we can work with the latter, that "[Man] exists only to the extent that he realizes himself, therefore he is nothing more than the sum of his actions, nothing more than his life." If Mathieu were to push Marcelle towards abortion, he would be a man who pushed his pregnant girl into having an abortion. If Mathieu married his pregnant Marcelle in order to take responsibility for her and the child, then he would be a man who takes responsibility for his girl and child. All he needs is to choose: which man is he?

There is no question of the morality of abortion. That never comes into play. For in existentialism, there is no judgment of murder, of any act. Either one murders or one doesn't; it's a matter of action and self-definition, not of right or wrong. (Let us not forget existentialism is an atheist philosophy, so no heaven or hell to consider, no higher judge.) The moral problem is an interpersonal one, a humanist one. How does Mathieu's decision affect other people? How does it change their impression of him? How does it change him?
Mathieu has this revelation:

"They have lives. All of them. Each his own. Lives that reach through the walls of the dance-hall, along the streets of Paris, across France, they interlace and intersect, and they remain as vigorously personal as a toothbrush, a razor, and toilet articles that are never loaned. I knew. I knew that they each had their life. And I knew that I had one too."

And then, immediately, this:

"I've yawned, I've read, I've made love. And all that left its mark! Every moment of mine evoked, beyond itself, and in the future, something that insistently waited and matured. And those waiting-points–they are myself, I am waiting for myself on a red armchair, I am waiting for myself to come, clad in black, with a stiff collar, almost choking with heat, and say: ‘Yes, yes, I consent to take her as my wife.'

Then, later:

"No, it isn't heads or tails. Whatever happens, it is by my agency that everything must happen." Even if he let himself be carried off, in helplessness and in despair, even if he let himself be carried off like a sack of coal, he would have chosen his own damnation; he was free, free in every way, free to behave like a fool or a machine, free to accept, free to refuse, free to equivocate; to marry, to give up the game, to drag this dead weight about with him for years to come. he could do what he liked, no one had the right to advise him, there would be for him no Good or Evil unless he brought them into being. All around him things were gathered in a circle, expectant, impassive, and indicative of nothing. He was alone, enveloped in this monstrous silence, free and alone, without assistance and without excuse, condemned to decide without support from any quarter, condemned forever to be free.

Mathieu, post-30, taking his brother's advice and accepting his "age of reason", decides to propose to Marcelle; he will avoid the abortion. What happens next is a matter of plot and is inconsequential to the philosophy of the book. The moment of real importance to us, the close readers, is the moment Mathieu decides. He has chosen his action, has chosen for himself which man he would be.

The novel is episodic, follows the meandering lives of a number of protagonists (none so close as to Mathieu, however), and exemplifies a philosophy at work, what Sartre called his Morale (also known as his treatise Being and Nothingness). The lives of these characters are intertwined, they disect each other, run parallel at times then diverge or converge. What matters is what each does for the others, what they do to each other. We are given everyone's opinions of everyone else, Sartre shows us what they think through a narrative style that shifts loosely from free indirect to third person close. We see what they think, but what is consequential is what they do.

Nearing the end, we get a prophecy of what's to come, an undefinable sense of a foreboding future:

"This is going to end badly," thought Mathieu. He did not exactly know what was going to end badly; this stormy day, this abortion business, his relations with Marcelle? No, it was something vaguer and more comprehensive: his life, Europe, this ineffectual, ominous peace. He had a vision of Brunet's red hair: "There will be war in September." At that moment, in the dim, deserted bar, one could almost believe it. There had been something tainted in his life that summer."

The novel was set pre-war, writen during war, and published post-war. Sartre knew what terrible things were happening in history, and in The Reprieve, the second in the Roads To Freedom trilogy, we find these characters thrown haphazardly across Europe, their lives disrupted and uprooted. The road to freedom leads into the fog of war. More choices. More inescapable decisions that will change lives, that will change the world.