Sartre and His Crabs

Sartre is one of my favorite philosophers, not that I know a damn thing about philosophy, but I do like a good quote or aphorism. Anyways, turns out he was stark raving nuts. In a lovable and endearing way of course. Jean Paul Sartre and his crabs. From Harper's:

"jean-paul sartre: At Normale, there were some ten of us who ran around together. The great thing about group activity is that the decision-making process is generalized to the group. So when we decided to take over a bar and that led to confrontations, yes, each of us was responsible, but it was a common act. Of course, there were some individual disasters too. Well, not disasters, I’m exaggerating, but when we decided to experiment with drugs, I ended up having a nervous breakdown.

john gerassi: You mean the crabs?

sartre: Yeah, after I took mescaline, I started seeing crabs around me all the time. They followed me in the streets, into class. I got used to them. I would wake up in the morning and say, “Good morning, my little ones, how did you sleep?” I would talk to them all the time. I would say, “Okay, guys, we’re going into class now, so we have to be still and quiet,” and they would be there, around my desk, absolutely still, until the bell rang.

gerassi: A lot of them?

sartre: Actually, no, just three or four.

gerassi: But you knew they were imaginary?

sartre: Oh, yes. But after I finished school, I began to think I was going crazy, so I went to see a shrink, a young guy then with whom I have been good friends ever since, Jacques Lacan. We concluded that it was fear of being alone, fear of losing the camaraderie of the group. You know, my life changed radically from my being one of a group, which included peasants and workers, as well as bourgeois intellectuals, to it being just me and Castor. The crabs really began when my adolescence ended. At first, I avoided them by writing about them—in effect, by defining life as nausea—but then as soon as I tried to objectify it, the crabs appeared. And then they appeared whenever I walked somewhere. Not when I was writing, just when I was going someplace. The first time I discussed it with Castor, when they appeared one day as we were strolling in the Midi, we concluded that I was going through a depression, based on my fear that I was doomed the rest of my life to be a professor. Not that I hated to teach. But defined. Classified. Serious. That was the worst part, to have to be serious about life. The crabs stayed with me until the day I simply decided that they bored me and that I just wouldn’t pay attention to them. And then the war came, the stalag, the resistance, and the big political battles after the war.

gerassi: When you tried to launch the so-called Third Force, anti–United States and anti-Communist?

sartre: Exactly. But it didn’t work. It attracted too many reactionaries who may have been against U.S. domination but for the wrong reason. And soon we understood, we had to choose. The basic question: Who was ready, willing even, to launch an attack on the other, to lead us into a new war that would devastate the planet? Obviously, it was the United States. So we had to abandon the Third Force and ally ourselves, albeit reluctantly, with Russia.

gerassi: So, during that period, no crabs? No depression?

sartre: Not until 1958. We had work to do. To push France out of NATO, to refuse U.S. bases, to stop selling our resources to U.S. conglomerates. There were rallies, demonstrations, marches almost every day. And our magazine had to lead the way. Then de Gaulle seized power and suddenly it dawned on me that my life would be totally absurd, that my generation was doomed to exist under his pathetic and ridiculous assurances of “la grandeur de la France.

gerassi: Unlike your previous depression, which was personal, that depression was social, meaning no crabs, right?

sartre: I would have liked my crabs to come back. The crabs were mine. I had gotten used to them. They kept reminding me that my life was absurd, yes, nauseating, but without challenging my immortality. Despite their mocking, my crabs never said that my books would not be on the shelf, or that if they were, so what? You have to realize that my psychosis was literature. I was poured into a world where there was a certain immortality, and it took fifty years to put all that into question, to go not from an ivory tower, but still, from a privileged state of the intellectual, to the contrary, challenging the role of the intellectual. I did that by writing The Words, by rereading Marx, by approaching the Communist Party, and by realizing that I had simply been protecting myself. Whatever happened, my books would be on the shelf, hence I was immortal. For all my anti–religiousness at the time, I was almost like a Christian who thinks that if he’s a nice guy he’ll end up next to God.

gerassi: And your social depression got rid of all that?

sartre: Indeed. My crabs had considered me important, or else why bother me? De Gaulle, the ridiculousness of the Cold War, America’s drive to conquer and control, all that made me realize that I was not and would never be significant.

gerassi: From the end of the war until de Gaulle’s coup d’état in 1958, you were haunted by neither crabs nor depression?

sartre: We keep calling them crabs because of my play The Condemned of Altona, but they were really lobsters.

gerassi: Even Castor occasionally refers to them as your crabs. Anyway, they were gone then?

sartre: Oh, yes, they left me during the war. You know, I’ve never said this before, but sometimes I miss them—when I’m lonely, or rather when I’m alone. When I go to a movie that ends up boring, or not very gripping, and I remember how they used to sit there on my leg. Of course I always knew that they weren’t there, that they didn’t exist, but they served an important purpose. They were a warning that I wasn’t thinking correctly or focusing on what was important, or that I was heading up the wrong track, all the while telling me that my life was not right, not what it should be. Well, no one tells me that anymore."

Crazy, but I really like the ending.

Here's a passage of his that always gets me. It is, of course, almost incomprehensible.

"A freedom which wills itself freedom is in fact a being-which-is-not-what-it-is and which is-what-it-is-not, and which chooses as the ideal of being, being-what-it-is-not and not-being-what-it-is."