|by Darwin Leon – stolen painting|
WHY WE WRITE
PYTHIATISM AND THE FAMILY IDIOT
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
Jean-Paul Sartre was looking for himself in The Family Idiot. His theme is that Gustave Flaubert, the so-called realist, had turned his imagination to the wrong end, to “Nothing” instead of “Existence” as the ground of “Being.” He opined that Flaubert, not wanting to engage in the existential struggle one way or the other, chose to merely criticize it; that is, he was a pacifist or coward instead of an activist like him.
Sartre diagnosed his dead patient as “pithiatic,” a neurotic disorder named after the hysterical antics of drugged Cretan nuns called Pythias used as oracles at Delphi in ancient times. Their shrieks were interpreted by Apollo’s priests into answers to questions put to them by leading figures concerned for their futures. Greek states banked their treasures at Delphi, and were wont to bankrupt the politico-religious center when funds were wanted for war.
Shall I win a war I want to wage? I might bribe a priest for a favorable answer. The wily priest would render the Pythia’s rant into an insipid, ambiguous poem, favorable to me or not depending on one’s prejudice, therefore my campaign is divinely sanctioned, and the oracle has an out in case I lose.
It is meet to recall that Sartre’s feminist “pythia,” Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote the fascinating book, The Ethics of Ambiguity, declared that it was impossible to find an ethical system in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. In The Second Sex, while discussing the “myth of the family,” she declares that “a woman’s body—and specifically the girl’s—is a ‘hysterical’ body in the sense that there is, so to speak, no distance between psychic life and its physiological realization.”
Everybody knows that women are hysterical and males are reasonable; how else would women have survived if they had not thrown fits to get their way and “civilize” men in process?
Pithiatism has its passive and active aspect. The process if guided by an analyst may result in the “persuasive healing” of a troubled person by employing the power of suggestion to cultivate a positive or constructive mental attitude causing one to be proactive, to participate in world affairs.
That was the philosopher Jules de Gaultier’s take on Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. He purged her of the arsenic she was taking, turned her around with some reasonable persuasion, nudging her in the right direction. She was, thought he, indeed exemplary of a social malady; she was its passive victim. The harm was not in the power of suggestion itself; one could make active use of it to effect a cure; wherefore he prescribed what he called Bovarysm as the solution to the culture’s misguided inclination. In short, Jules de Gaultier’s Bovarysm takes advantage of Madame Emma Bovary’s neurosis to prescribe a healthy response to the foolish romantic uneasiness of her time. Her neurotic tendency was in effect a betrayal of the Imagination.
On the other hand, a pithiatic subject might withdraw into a corner to brood and poison oneself with nihilism if not arsenic, as Flaubert was said to do. Not that he did not have a great deal of fun in his youth, travelling in 1848-1849 with his wealthy friend Maxime du Camp about North Africa, Egypt, and the Middle East, fighting off thieves, consorting with belly dancers, native girls, and prostitutes. Du Camp consequently produced what may be the world’s first travel photography book. Eventually Flaubert would brood at home in Rouen between trips to Paris, where he enjoyed himself one way or another. Yet his experience with humankind overall, and especially with his countrymen at the subjugation of France by Germany, gave him nothing to have faith in except nothing itself, which would be something if nothing actually exists. If not a nihilist, he was a cynic and skeptic. Flaubert, by the way, contracted syphilis in Beirut; that may help explain his negative attitude.
Many authors, neurotic or not, naturally sympathize with literary giants such as Gustave Flaubert and Jean-Paul Sartre, both of whom were rather realistic in their preoccupation with writing. Flaubert is celebrated as a Realist, a label he was not comfortable with, but he was really a frustrated romantic. Most people do mature to be more or less realistic, yet as idealistic children they were fond of popular romances and adventure stories, their imaginations captivated by heroes and villains and monsters.
Family influences matter, but family is not as deterministic of one’s fate as its enthusiasts believe. Indeed, the mythical nuclear family is a pious fraud, as can be seen by lifting the roofs off homes and peering into the virtual snake pits. Heredity largely determines an individual’s intelligence and temperament hence his fate, not the collection of traits found in a particular family. It was of little avail to our ancestors to exterminate the families of criminals, to burn down their homes, kill their livestock, and uproot their crops. Ridding society of the nuclear patriarchal family altogether might even benefit society according to some radicals.
Jean-Paul undoubtedly saw a bit of himself in Gustave while peering under his roof, albeit in a different light, inasmuch as he was pampered by the dominant male in his own household. The Family Idiot is unfinished hence inconclusive, but Sartre wanted to demonstrate among other things that a person’s family is in fact the determining factor in his or her life; hence he partly exonerates Flaubert and himself for faults.
The redundancy of his the ten-year, unfinished project may be in part due to Sartre’s use of a combination of aspirin and amphetamine that perked him up as he peered, like narcotized Narcissus, into a mirror of his own ‘hysteria.’ His autobiography, The Words, portrays his early struggle against insanity, a jihad that would lead to his existentialist affirmations.
His father died before he was two. He was a lonely, sad, and sickly child, half blind and wall-eyed, spoiled by his patriarchal grandfather, who treated his mother like a slave in chains. He did not have kids to play with so he escaped from the lack, reading trashy adventure novels supplied by his mother, books he preferred to the serious tomes of his grandfather’s large collection. In order to elicit praise for precocity, he pretended he liked authors such as the romantic/classical tragedian, Pierre Corneille.
“I was a fake child. I could feel my acts changing into gestures. Playacting robbed me of the world and of human beings. I saw only roles and props.”
Flaubert, on the other hand, had plenty of kids to play with; playacting was his favorite pastime; he wrote a play about satanic monster called Yuk: Flaubert evidently appeared to be a phony to Sartre.
Sartre called his escapism “death by ecstasy.”
Sartre started writing monster stories at age eight, letting his imagination run wild, and he soon realized that he himself was the toady monster he had imagined. He finally found some kids to play with when he went off to school, but the madness of writing to “forgive” his existence had already determined his arrogant and despairing manner of existing.
Both authors were profoundly influenced by war. Gustave Flaubert and his home in Rouen were left unscathed by the war between France and Germany of 1870-1871 except he was emotionally traumatized by the behavior of his “stupid” countrymen. For Sartre, World War II was an extremely unpleasant personal experience. His residence had been bombed after moving in, he had suffered being a prisoner of war, and so on, but being a member of the Resistance was worth it.
Sartre never forgave or “let go” of his existence. He endured it and survived the circumstances, and found consolation in philosophizing after the war in a basement jazz cellar. An American journalist asked a singer what people were doing there.
“Just existing,” she said.
Thus was the cradle laid for “Existentialism.” Existentialism was not a philosophy or ideology to begin with. The Existentialists denied they were Existentialists at first, and then accepted the label for convenience of being recognized as influential collaborators. Camus never embraced the tag because it was definitely absurd, as can be seen by the metaphysical jibber jabber about the difference between existence and being, and being and nothingness.
To just exist means the individual disregards socializing concepts as beings by placing existence before such being. Sartre like any bourgeoisie intellectual worth existing resented and despised bourgeoisie being. He leaned to the left, but abhorred Nazism and Stalinism.
There is no God to rely on: Man is responsible for himself. Nature does not care: life is absurd. Ethics are incoherent: ambiguity is the rule.
What choice is there but to exist as responsibly as one can?
What can a writer do?
Write to resist, write to free people including ourselves from mass hysteria.
That is why we write, or so we think.
The Birth of Travel Photography Flaubert and DuCamp