Erostratus by Jean-Paul Sartre, 1939

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by Jean-Paul Sartre, 1939

When he wrote "Erostratus" in 1936, Jean-Paul Sartre was seven years out of college. He had begun a very close relationship with Simone de Beauvoir which would, however, permit physical infidelities on both sides, he had completed his military service, he had gone through a considerable inheritance left to him by his grandmother, and he had spent a year working at the French Institute in Berlin in order to study with the German philosopher Husserl, who had developed a particular brand of phenomenology from Hegel.

Sartre was teaching philosophy at a Le Havre school, and Beauvoir was at Rouen, about 75 kilometers away. Sartre was having a liaison with Olga Kosakiewicz, one of Beauvoir's pupils. He had rewritten a rejected first novel, The Diary of Antoine Roquentin, to be published in French as La Nausée in 1938, but in 1936 he had published nothing, although a publisher, Alcan, had accepted the reworked and less original first part of his thesis, to be published that year as Imagination: A Psychological Critique (L'Imagination). He did not vote in the 1932 or 1936 elections, although he was drifting steadily toward the left and had supported the Front Populaire in a rejected newspaper article in 1936. He had read Kafka, had begun to regard Dos Passos as "the greatest writer of our time," and, in pursuit of his study of image-formation in the brain, had injected himself in a hospital with mescaline. It took him six months to get over the hallucinations.

When "Erostratus" was published in 1939, it accompanied four other pieces of short fiction in The Wall and Other Stories (Le Mur), also published as Intimacy and Other Stories. When he wrote it, Sartre had the Roquentin novel, which still needed pruning. Like the novel, the story was the product of Sartre's need to explore fictionally the sort of mental experience he was also philosophically analyzing in the course of his academic career. He had been hurt by Gallimard's initial rejection of his novel, and he was looking for a philosophy to explain his own experience.

The commercial viability of synchronized sound in the cinema dates from 1930, from which date the earliest popular "talkies." Chaplin had established his idiosyncratic personal style in the days of silent films, relying on his peculiar gait, jerky movements, ineptitude with mechanical contraptions, and perky ability to come out on top against the odds, and after 1930 he remained deter-minedly out-of-date. At Easter in 1936 Sartre and Beauvoir saw the recently released and ironically named Chaplin silent movie Modern Times twice in a Paris cinema. They found irresistible the incongruity on which Chaplin's humor is based, and Sartre called his great postwar cultural review Les Temps modernes after the Chaplin film, a private joke he shared with Beauvoir. There is a grim humor in "Erostratus" that has its origins in Chaplin.

"Erostratus" concerns the way in which individual experience relates one to the world in which one lives. So stated, that is the theme of virtually all of Sartre's fiction and drama, but all five of the short stories published in the 1939 collection focus on the isolation of individuals in the world and thereby emphasize the center of Sartre's imaginative concern in a way a single novel could not. "Erostratus" has a first-person narrator, and one of the other characters, Massé, tells him that he is like Erostratus, remembered for having gratuitously burned down the temple at Ephesus, one of the seven wonders of the world, simply in order to be famous. We realize from the opening that the narrator, too, is groping for some way to affirm his individual identity.

The story starts with what is presented as a reflection in the mind of the narrator, conscious of something that separates him from others. The statement is neutral: "Men, you must see them from above. I put out the light and went to the window." From on top people look bizarre. How does a bowler hat look from a sixth-floor balcony? The people in the street do not know how to fight the great enemy of "the Human," which is its dehumanizing vertical perspective. The narrator laughs.

That first paragraph is skillful. It establishes an ambiguity that will only increase. Is the narrator mad, sad, isolated, alienated, lucky, or unlucky to feel no association with the people in the street? What sort of irony is implied by referring to the collectivity of human beings as "the Human," with a capital letter? Why, we might ask, are they as incongruous to the narrator as Chaplin's antics are to us? Any glance back at the history of western European literature since before Proust reveals an increasing need to explore the boundaries between the sane and the insane, the rationally ordered conscious and the riotously uncontrolled images that obtrude into it with apparent spontaneity from outside. It was that boundary which interested Sartre philosophically and which he here explores imaginatively.

The narrator wonders whether his physical elevation above the passers-by is a sign of moral superiority. He reflects how unpleasant it is to be among the others in the street physically, but also to be morally part of the collectivity. If you are on their level, you cannot think of them as ants. The narrator makes up his mind that humanity is hostile. People would have shaken his hand. But they would have beaten him up if they had known who he really was. He buys a gun, caresses its butt in his pocket, practices shooting at a fair, takes a prostitute to a room, makes her undress, thinks of shooting her in the hole between her legs, decides not to, makes her beat him, gives her a lot of money, and goes home. Three nights running he dreams of making six bullet holes round her navel. The style is casual and conversational, clipped as in American gangster fiction. The reader is made to feel sympathy for the bewildered prostitute, understandably frightened by the revolver, although unharmed by the encounter.

The narrator feels despised, he misses work, he is dismissed, he throws away what money he has left, and he writes 102 copies of a letter to popular authors to explain that he is going to shoot five people. He reveals that his name is Paul Hilbert. He cannot bring himself to go out because it would have meant mixing with people. He stays in, closes the shutters, finds his eyes changing in intensity, and thinks of himself in the third person, capitalizing the "He." What is the point, he thinks, of killing people who are already dead (his italics)? In the end he does randomly shoot someone, using three of his six bullets. He escapes, fires two more, goes into a café, into the lavatory, and cannot bring himself to kill himself with his last bullet. He surrenders. The parable of inadequacy is over.

—A. H. T. Levi