Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Jean-Paul Sartre - 'The Wall'

The Wall is a collection of five short stories that Jean-Paul Sartre published in 1939, the year after he published his electrifying novel Nausea - one of the key works of fiction in Existentialism. This post is about the first story in the collection, also titled 'The Wall'. It's about a man - Pablo Ibbieta - who captured during the Spanish Civil War. He and two other prisoners are sentenced to death by firing squad. How the prisoners handle their impending death is the launch pad from which Sartre expounds his Existentialist creed, and the story is chock full of imagery and loaded language. I definitely won't do the story justice, but here's some of what I pulled out of it.

The story begins with a mock trial, and the first line is: "They pushed us into a big white room and I began to blink because the light hurt my eyes." This image evokes a meeting with God in the afterlife and the judgement religion says we will face. However, the judgement here is a military tribunal with no concerns for morality or justice, good or evil, innocence or guilt. Sartre is clearly likening this irrational procedure to our illusions of divine justice. Given the randomness of existence - who lives and who dies - how can God be much different than these bureaucrats?

In their cold cell, Pablo and two other prisoners - Juan Mirbal and Tom Steinbock - try to make sense of their impending death. Tom tries to warm up by exercising, but fails to do so. He just winds himself. His futile efforts are a metaphor for the futility of any action that attempts to avoid the 'cold' reality of death (the 'wall' of the story's title). Our actions do not change the fundamental fact of our reality: that we will die.

Tom deals with his sentence the best - on the surface. He almost seems to go on as normal with no pronounced reaction, but Sartre soon shows us something different. When Tom seeks to comfort the horrified Juan, Sartre asserts he is doing so because "it would have passed his time and he wouldn't have been tempted to think about himself". Again, Sartre's words are full of meaning. Tom is simply ignoring the issue; he's in a kind of denial. Later, when Tom references the wall they will stand against when executed, he seems to begin dealing with his death. As he imagines the firing squad, he says, "I'll think how I'd like to get inside the wall, I'll push against it with my back...with every ounce of strength I have, but the wall will stay, like in a nightmare." Tom cannot avoid the fact if his own death no matter how hard he tries.

In contrast, Juan is a young man who never really accepts or faces his death.  Because of his youth, both Tom and Pablo reason that he will be spared. But when the prisoners learn they are to be shot in at dawn, Juan's reaction is shocked disbelief ("Not me...I didn't do anything."). The jailer responds with a shrug, and we even get the impression that the wrong sentence has been attached to these three men through some clerical error. Age and innocence mean nothing in the face of death. As Juan emotionally breaks down in response to his death, Pablo thinks critically: 'the kid made more noise than we did, but he was less touched." As the story progresses, we see that Juan's reaction to death is paralysis. Complete fear. He is passive and neither resists nor accepts his mortality.

Meanwhile Pablo offers up gallows humor about death. He refuses to cry, because he "wants to due cleanly". He also rejects the comforts offered by his captors: cigarettes and alcohol. He avoids all physical, philosophical/spiritual, and emotional means of comforting himself about his mortality. He thinks: "Several hours or several years of waiting is all the same when you have lost the illusion of being eternal." Of the three men, only Pablo survives. I won't how or why, but it's enough to say that he escapes through a completely random chance event. This blackly humorous ending underlines Sartre's point that there is no fairness about existence, no justice. This lack of overarching morality is one of the hallmarks of Existentialism.

'The Wall' is a very short story and a cool little read if you enjoy early twentieth century literature. There's a lot to think about and read into this brief story; well worth a read.

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