I was inside a densely crowded, humid, cigarette-smoke-fouled barn, constructed of simple plywood slats painted red. Closely-set chairs were arranged in rows of about twenty, and around the edges of the barn were narrow tables where food and drink were served. The barn was spacious, with soaring rafters and genuine farm implements scattered about the perimeter and periphery of the seats. At the front was a wide and elevated dais.
The audience was solidly male, solidly geriatric, and solidly French. I noticed the odd female here and there: the type who smoked pipes and beat cats; women whom Gertrude Stein, had she been in attendance, couldn’t be jealous of.
From his seat at the proscenium a thin, haggard, unshaven Jean-Paul Sartre lumbered up to the microphone. The skin on his face was aged and tired, and it hung in such a way that it looked scaly, waxy, reptilian. He wore dun-colored baize trousers, a white shirt with open collars, and a green jerkin under a simple black dinner jacket, which appeared to be made of a scratchy and ill-suited fabric, like hemp, or jute. On his knotty skull he sported the obligatory French beret, and as he clambered up to the podium he struggled with a lit cigarette in one hand and an unsorted mass of papers in the other.
A pall of sickly smoke drifted above the crowd, and the loud audience seethed with excitement as Sartre shuffled his papers, coughed, and spit into a kerchief he pulled from his blazer’s inner pocket. It seemed unreal to me to witness this legend of social philosophers prepare to give an address here, now, years after his death, and moreover, to imagine that in reality, this is what he did, every day, at seven o'clock.
Sartre cleared his throat again, and opened the arms of a pair of large-framed reading glasses. He placed them on his face with his left hand, while his right hand searched to satisfy an itch in his rather large ear. The glasses succeeded in magnifying his eyes to the size of small grapefruits, and each eye pointed in a clearly different direction, as though his seeing orbs were trained on different orbits. While the audience warmed and lathered itself into a foam of French exclamations, whispers, sallies, and inducements, Sartre labored thorough a flurry of minor ticks and spasms, dispatching them each individually, as they came, one after the other. First it was nose, now ear, then brow, forehead, shake, cough, forehead, nod, and so on. When, some minutes later, he finally got around to speaking, he did so in a heavily-accented English, its diction labored and slow, and he slurred his consonants thickly and layered his vowels over and between syllables like waffle syrup.
“How,” Sartre said in leaky bass voice that the microphone amplified over that din which was quickly brought to a hush, “do you translate the word ’utile,’ to an idiom that is completely ’inutile’?”
This opening comment triggered a serpentine murmur which slithered through the audience, as bare-pated old men raised their voices to beat philological horses with their neighbors, and emphasized points by repeatedly slapping outer palms on inner ones, and I distinctly heard a horse whinny somewhere in the barn. Sartre pinched his nose between forefinger and thumb, reflexively shook his head twice from side to side like a dog with water in its inner ear, and continued his discourse. His gravelly batrachian voice intoned deeply and just as quickly the commotion ended.
“Exists the word ‘useful’? Or is it merely a useless construction?
"Exists the idea 'useful’? Or is it merely a construction of utility?
”'To Use’ something signifies that the thing-in-itself contains utility. It is true therefore that nothing is useless if it can be used? The mere possibility that all can be used-means nothing is useless? Or perhaps by making such questions, all becomes useless?“
The audience unexpectedly stirred at the force of these words, but Sartre didn’t wait for the words to have their full effect. Some men in the audience began to voice their ideas to their neighbors in emphatic whispers, but Sartre pressed on.
"If you refuse to use everything, all is therefore useless, until you change your mind, and then all is useful again?
"It is true that all that does not exist is more useful than all that yes exists, because all that does not exist requires creation to make it useful - creation which is in itself useful?”
The audience now was held in rapt attention to the philosopher-king, who continued first sotto voce, but soon amplified his voice to a powerful, almost angry boom.
“It is possible that something is useful only if it is used to create something useful? Or maybe it is useful until it is used to create something useless? Therefore this something used to create, it is no longer useful, but this something that was created, it too is rendered useless, because it came from something now rendered useless - even though that something was originally useful - unless this product itself is used in turn to create another useless thing, and then it is no longer useless. And so all is rendered useless - until it is used to create another useless thing.
"Does it seem that all this process, it is useless? No, it is not, because it is being used - and all that can be used, it is useful, even if it is used only to create something useless. Or perhaps it is, in fact, useless, but this uselessness we convert it into something useful, which, by the intention of creating another useless thing, itself becomes useful when it is used to create other useless things, et cetera, et cetera.”
Jean-Paul Sartre paused, looked up at his mesmerized audience and concluded in slow, latent tone pregnant with significance.
“In this manner all becomes useful or useless depending on the degree of utility of the first thing which is very probably either useless or useful depending on its inherent utility.”
Sartre stopped, took a step back from the podium, and removed his spectroscopic spectacles. Immediately the audience broke into a vigorous, sustained applause. Many of the men, roused to high degrees of passion, raised their hands above their hands and clapped their hands in bird-like fashion. Others lustily shouted Bravo! and still others, excited beyond measure by the philosopher’s imparted wisdom, pounded the hardwood floor with their feet in thumping, primate-like appreciation. Those in the first few rows were brought to their feet in a rouse of passion, and applauded and threw small yellow carnations at their hero. When finally the commotion died down, Sartre spoke again, this time in a breezy French.
“We will break for ouzo and macaroons. Tomorrow, I will discuss why we confuse 'possible’ with 'impossible,’ and on Tuesday, how we can unite 'practical’ with 'impractical’ in a bond of existential significance. Wednesday, I will visit the difference between 'helpful’ and 'unhelpful’ -
I was sufficiently satisfied with this introduction to Borgesian reality to crave unreality, and wanted desperately to leave the barn. Meantime, my mind swam in semantic soup that overwhelmed thought. Am I useless? What if I were rendered useless by something I created that later became useful again?
- Ezra Lunel