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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Saturday, November 29, 2014

Draw conclusions on The Wall: The meaning of Sartre's story

Poking around in some old fiction anthologies I read or probably re-read (it's been a long time) Jean-Paul Sartre's story The Wall - a tense, well-paced, gripping first-person narrative about four men imprisoned by Franco's right-wing forces in the Spanish Civil War, all scheduled to be shot by firing squad at dawn. First of all, this is probably the greatest fictional account of the dread men go through while awaiting execution - only near-equal that comes to mind is Koestler's Darkness at Noon (not sure if that was also first person). Second, this piece holds an important place in Sartre's canon and for those grad students who today still may read and get lost in his philosophical tomes it's probably helpful and illuminating to read some of literary works. For a guy who became famous by writing dreadfully obscure philosophical tracts and essential creating the world concept of "existentialism," now passe but a guiding principle in post-war Europe and 1950s counterculture, such as it was, in America as well. I'd say comparisons between The Wall and his most famous play, No Exit - "Hell is other people" - have been the material that launched a thousand Ph.D. theses, or at least grad-school papers. Both about a small group - of 4 to be precise - held in some kind of captivity, driving one another crazy, unsure of their fate - but one really seemingly about politics and rebellion, the other about being and nothingness. Yet perhaps there's more of a connection between the two works than is first apparent. (Spoilers to come.) There should be no surprise that the narrator of The Wall survives the night and the dawn - as it seems he lives to tell the tale (though I think Koestler's narration of executive ends in sudden blackness, like the last moment of The Sopranos) - but what's striking actually is how her survives: they're trying to squeeze from him the location of a much more important loyalist soldier, he tells them a location that he believes to be a macabre joke - says the guy is hiding in the cemetery - but that turns out to be in fact where the guy is hiding, so they let the prisoner-narrator go (at least they don't execute him at dawn - long-term, we have no idea of his fate among these sadists and functionaries). The story ends with the narrator laughing at the apparent irony of his fate and his rescue. So the story of political resistance, in the end, becomes an existentialist tome as well - and a cynical one, at that. Heroism, ideals, resistance do not matter - we are all creatures at the hand of a more powerful fate, and our lives are a matter only of "existence" - not of "being" or "becoming."

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