“We must write for our own time”

A few words from Sartre:

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 receive 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 time it is a good or a bad action. Later, when the time has died, it will become relative; it will become a message. But the judgement of posterity will not invalidate the opinions men had of it during its lifetime. . . .

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 or change it; therefore, go beyond it towards the future; and it is this effort to change it which establishes us most deeply in it, for it can never be reduced to a dead mass of tools and customs.

Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘We Write for Our Own Time’. The full essay was first published in The Virginia Quarterly Review, 25(1), spring 1947. I found it in an obscure bumper anthology from 1973, In the Modern Idiom, edited by Leo Hamalian and Arthur Zeiger.

That book featured in a bookmash here a few years ago, and I finally began dipping into it. After a predictable Sartre phase in my teens and early 20s, I didn’t read him again for a long time. But sometime in between I visited the grave he shares with Simone de Beauvoir in Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.

I like Sartre as a stylist, but the anachronistic use of men as a generic term for people leaps out at me from the passage above. It was the norm in his day, but there’s no excuse for it in current writing – yet I see it still in edited texts, even books on language. We still reflect our sexist culture and can ‘will to maintain it or change it’.

8 Responses to “We must write for our own time”

  1. John Cowan says:

    Ben Jonson’s poem on Shakespeare addresses its subject as “soul of the age”, but then goes on to say he “was not of an age, but for all time.” Of course both are true.

  2. missprinteditions says:

    You are the articulate, sweet voice of reason and heart, as ever.

    It’s clear you meant “phase” in the penultimate paragraph. I hope it is simple to correct. I’ve checked rigorously before posting this but know that, in the inescapable spirit of Muphry’s Law, I’m certain to have made at least one mistake here.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thank you: typo fixed. Normally I proofread posts right after they go up, but today I had to defer it as something came up. Of course it would be one with a capture error. And I think you escaped the inescapable.

  3. scarlett1000 says:

    I studied ‘Les Jeux Sont Faits’ by Sartre at University and found it fascinating. I always wanted to read more of his work. I have made it a priority for 2017. Thanks for the reminder!

  4. John Cowan says:

    The Igor Tale, the oldest preserved work of Russian prose literature, begins with the rhetorical question “Would it not be amiss, brothers, to tell in antique style the sad tale of the wars of Igor, Igor the son of Svyatoslav?” But the tale goes on to deny it: “Let us begin rather in the style of our own time, and not according to the wisdom of Boyan [a legendary bard].”

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