Jun 24, 2009

 
"If you want to engage yourself," writes a young imbecile, "what are you waiting for? Join the Communist Party." A great writer who engaged himself often and disengaged himself still more often, but who has forgotten, said to me, "The worst artists are the most engaged. Look at the Soviet painters" An old critic gently complained, "You want to murder literature. Contempt for belles-lettres is spread out insolently all through your review." A petty mind calls me pigheaded, which for him is evidently the highest insult. An author who barely crawled from one war to the other and whose name sometimes awakens languishing memories in old men accuses me of not being concerned with immortality; he knows, thank God, any number of people whose chief hope it is. In the eyes of an American hack-journalist the trouble with me is that I have not read Bergson or Freud; as for Flaubert, who did not engage himself, it seems that he haunts me like remorse. Smart-alecks wink at me, "And poetry? And painting? And music? You want to engage them, too?" And some martial spirits demand, "What's it all about? Engaged literature? Well, it's the old socialist realism, unless it's a revival of populism, only more aggressive."
What nonsense. They read quickly, badly, and pass judgment before they have understood. So let's begin all over. This doesn't amuse anyone, neither you nor me. But we have to hit the nail on the head. And since critics condemn me in the name of literature without ever saying what they mean by that, the best answer to give them is to examine the art of writing without prejudice. What is writing? Why does one write? For whom? The fact is, it seems that nobody has ever asked himself these questions.

(...)
Sartre, J. P. What is Literature? Translated by Bernard Frechtman. New York, Philosophical Library, 1949 (on Archive.org).

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