We take our stand against certain critics and authors. We declare that salvation must be won upon this earth, that it must be won for the whole man by the whole man, and that art is a meditation on life, not on death. It is true that for history, only talent is important. But I have not yet entered history, and I do not know how I will enter it: perhaps alone, perhaps in an anonymous crowd, perhaps as one of those names that one finds in the notes of textbooks on literature. In any case, I shall not worry about the judgments that the future may pronounce upon my work, because there is nothing that I can do about them. Art cannot be reduced to a dialogue with dead men and men as yet unborn: that would be both too hard and too easy. In my opinion, this idea constitutes the last trace of the Christian belief in immortality: just as the sojourn of man upon this earth is represented as a brief testing time between Limbo and Hell or Heaven, so a book is supposed to enjoy a transitory period that is approximately the same as that of its effectiveness; after that, disincarated and free as a soul, it enters eternity. But at least for Christians our sojourn upon earth is the decisive factor and eternal beatitude is only a reward. Yet people seem to believe that the career our books have after we are no more should be justified by the life we once led. This is true from an objective point of view. Objectively, we are classified according to our talent. But the perspective our grandchildren will have upon us is not infallible, since others will come after them and judge them in their turn. It goes without saying that we all write out of need for the absolute; and a work of the spirit is, indeed, an absolute. However, people make a double mistake on this score. First, it is not true that a writer raises his sufferings or his errors to the level of the absolute by writing about them; and it is not true that he redeems them. People say of the unhappily married man who writes well about marriage that he has made a good book out of his conjugal misery. That would be too easy. The bee makes honey out of the flower by causing real transformations in the substance of the flower; the sculptor makes a statue out of marble. But the writer makes books out of words, not out of his sorrows. If he wants to stop his wife from behaving badly, he should not write about her; he should beat her. One cannot put one’s misfortunes into a book, any more than one can put a model on a canvas; one draws inspiration from one’s misfortunes—and they remain as they are. Perhaps one gets temporary consolation from placing oneself above them in order to describe them, but once the book is finished, one finds them again. Bad faith begins when the artist tries to give meaning, a sort of immanent finality, to his troubles and persuades himself that they are there so that he can talk about them. When he justifies his own sufferings by this deception, he makes himself ridiculous; but he is despicable if he tries to justify the sufferings of others in the same fashion. The most beautiful book in the world will not redeem the sufferings of a child. We cannot redeem evil, we must combat it. The most beautiful book in the world redeems itself and redeems the artist, but not the man; no more than the man can redeem the artist. We want the man and the artist to win salvation together; we want the work of art to be an act as well; we want it to be expressly conceived as an arm in man’s struggle against evil.
The other mistake is equally serious: there is in every human heart such a hunger for the absolute, that people have often confused eternity which would be a timeless absolute, with immortality, which is only a perpetual delay of execution and a long series of vicissitudes. I understand this desire for the absolute very well. I desire it also. But need we go so far afield to look for it? It is there all around us, under our feet and in all our gestures. We make absolutes, just as M. Jourdain made prose. You light your pipe and that is an absolute; you don’t like oysters and that is an absolute; you join the Communist Party and that is an absolute. Whether the world is matter or spirit, whether God exists or does not exist, whether the judgment of future centuries is favourable or hostile to you, nothing will ever be able to negate the fact that you passionately loved such and such a picture, such and such a cause, and such and such a woman; that you lived that love from day to day: lived it, willed it, and undertook it; and that you engaged your whole being in it. Our grandfathers were perfectly right when they used to say as they drank their glass of wine: ‘One more that the Prussians won’t have.’ Neither the Prussians nor anyone else. People may kill you or deprive you of wine for the rest of your life; that that last drop of Bordeaux that slipped over your palate, no God and no man can take away from you. No relativity; nor the ‘eternal course of history’; nor the dialectic of perception; nor the dissociations of psychoanalysis. That drop of wine is a pure event and we, too, in the very depths of historical relativity and our own insignificance are absolutes, inimitable and incomparable, and our choice of ourselves is an absolute. All the vital and passionate choices that we are and that we are perpetually making with or against other people, all the common undertakings into which we throw ourselves from birth until death, all the bond of love and hate that unite us with each other and that exist only in so far as we feel them, the enormous complexes of movements that supplement or negate each other and that are lived, this whole discordant and harmonious life combines to create a new absolute which I like to call the time. The time is intersubjectivity, the living absolute, the dialectical wrong side of history. It is born in the pangs of events that historians will later stick labels on. Blindly, in fury, in fear, and in enthusiasm, it lives the meanings that they will later define by rational methods. In its own time, each word, before it is an historical slogan or the recognizable origin of a social process, is first an insult for a call or a confession. Economic phenomena themselves, before they are the theoretical causes of social upheavals, are suffered in humiliation or despair. Ideas are tools or flights; facts are born of intersubjectivity and unsettle it as emotions unsettle the individual soul. Men make history out of dead times, because each time, upon its death, enters into relativity and takes its place in the line of the centuries with the other dead. Then people try to throw new light upon it, dispute its meaning with their new knowledge, resolve its problems prove that its most ardent searchings were doomed to failure, that the great undertakings of which it was most proud had opposite results to those it hoped for; suddenly its limitations appear and its ignorance. But all this is because that time is dead; those limits and that ignorance did not exist ‘at the time’; men do not live a lack; or rather, that time was a perpetual overstepping of its own limits toward a future which was its future and which is dead with it. It was that boldness, that imprudence, that ignorance of its own ignorance: to live means to make short-term provisions and to manage on one’s margin. Perhaps our fathers, had they had a little more knowledge, would have understood that such and such a problem was insoluble, and that such and such a question should not have been raised in those terms. But the human condition requires that we make our choice in ignorance; it is ignorance that makes morality possible. If we knew all the factors that condition events, if we could play our hand without uncertainty, risk would disappear; and with risk courage, fear, waiting, the final joy and effort; we would be languid gods, but certainly not men. The bitter quarrels of the Babylonians over the meaning of omens, the bloody and passionate heresies of the Albigensians and the Anabaptists today seem to us errors. At the time man engaged his whole being in them and in expressing them at the risk of his life let truth live through them, for truth never yields itself directly; it only appears through errors. The fate of human Reason was at stake in the quarrel of the Universals and in that of the Immaculate Conception of Transubstantiation. And at the time of the great law suits of certain American states against the professors who taught the theory of evolution it was again the fate of Reason that was at stake. It is absolutely at stake in every period in connection with doctrines that the next period will condemn as false. It is possible that some day the belief in evolution will seem the greatest folly of our century: yet, in supporting it against the churchmen, the American professors lived the truth, they lived it passionately and absolutely at great risk to themselves. Tomorrow they will be wrong, today they are absolutely right: the time is always wrong when it is dead, always right when it is alive. Let people condemn it after the fact, if they wish; nevertheless, it had its own passionate way of loving itself and tearing itself apart, against which future judgments will be of no avail; it had its own taste which it alone tasted and which was as incomparable, as irremediable as the taste of wine in our mouth.
A book has its absolute truth in its own time. It is lived like a riot or a famine, with much less intensity, of course, and by fewer people, but in the same way. It is an emanation of intersubjectivity, a living bond of rage, hatred, or love between those who have produced it and those who have received it. If it gains ground, thousands of people reject it and deny it; we all know very well that to read a book is to rewrite it. At the time it is first a panic, an escape, or a courageous affirmation; at the same it is a good or a bad action. Later, when the time had died, it will become relative; it will become a message. But the judgment of posterity will not invalidate the opinions men had of it during its lifetime. People have often said to me about dates and bananas: ‘You can’t judge them: to know what they are really like, you have to eat them on the spot, just after they have been picked.’ And I have always considered bananas a dead fruit whose real taste escaped me. The books which pass from one period to another are dead fruits, too. In another time they had a different taste, sharp and tangy. We should have read Emile or the Persian Letters just after they were picked.
Thus we must write for our own time, as the great writers did. But this does not imply that we must shut ourselves up in it. To write for our time does not mean to reflect it passively. It means that we must will to maintain it; therefore, go beyond it toward the future; and it is this effort to change it which establishes us deeply in it, for it can never be reduced to a dead mass of tools and customs. It is in flux, it perpetually goes beyond itself; in it the concrete present and the living future of all the men who compose it exactly coincide. If, among other characteristics, Newtonian physics and the theory of the noble savage help to define the first half of the eighteenth century, we must forget not that the former represented a consistent effort to wrest fragments of the truth from the forge of ignorance in order to reach, beyond the contemporary state of knowledge, an ideal science in which phenomena could be deduced mathematically from the principle of gravitation, and the latter was an attempt to go beyond the vices of civilisation and restore a state of nature. Both theories outlined a future; and if it is true that this future never became a present, that men later renounced the Golden Age and the idea of making science a strictly logical chain of reasons it is nonetheless true that these profound and vital hopes sketched a future beyond men’s daily cares and that in order to penetrate the meaning of our day-to-day existence we must approach it with the future as our point of departure. One cannot be a man or make oneself a writer without drawing a line on the horizon beyond oneself, but this going beyond oneself is in each case finite and unique. One does not go beyond in general and for the simple pride and pleasure of going beyond; Baudelairian dissatisfaction with nothing. Real transcendence requires that one wish to change certain definite aspects of the world and any going beyond is coloured by and characterised by the concrete situation it seeks to modify. A man throws himself completely into his plan for freeing the Negroes or restoring the Hebrew language to the Jews of Palestine; he throws himself into it completely and at the same time expresses man’s fate in all its universality, but it must always be through a unique and dated undertaking. And if people say to me that one also goes beyond one’s time when one strives for immortality, I shall answer that this is a false going beyond: instead of wishing to change an intolerable situation, one attempts to escape from it and seeks refuge in a future that is entirely strange to us, since it is not the future that we make, but the concrete present of our grandchildren. We have no way of affecting that present; they will live it for themselves and as they wish, situated in their own time as we in ours. If they make any use of our writings it will be for their own ends, ends which we did not foresee, just as one picks up stones on the road and hurls them in the face of an aggressor. It would be quite vain on our part to throw off on them our effort to prolong our own existence: they have neither the duty nor the desire to do so. And since we have no means of acting upon these strangers, we shall present ourselves to them like beggars and beg them to lend us the appearance of life by using us for any purpose whatsoever. If we are Christians, we shall accept our lot humbly, provided only that they still speak of us, even though they use us to show that faith is ineffectual.
If we are atheists, we shall be very happy if they still concern themselves with our anguish and our errors; were it even to prove that man is miserable without God.
Why should the living man try to fix the image of the dead man he will one day be? Certainly he lives beyond himself; his gaze and his concerns go beyond the death of the flesh; the presence of a man and his weight are not measured by the fifty or sixty years of his organic life, nor by the borrowed life he will lead in future centuries in the minds of strangers: they are measured by his own choice of the temporal cause that goes beyond him.
This is the measure that we propose to the writer: so long as his books provoke anger, embarrassment, shame, hatred, love, he will live, even if he is only a shadow. After that, the deluge. We are for a finite morality, and a finite art.