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May 24, 2007

Rohit Reviews: The Age of Reason

Age of Reason

Though I did almost meet my soulmate last night coming home from Omaha, I would argue that my greatest accomplishment of the trip had to be finding the time to finish up a book that had been on my reading list since March: L'Âge de Raison (The Age of Reason, in American), the first novel in Jean-Paul Sartre's famed trilogy Les Chemins de la Liberté (The Roads to Freedom). Though often extremely weighty (sometimes unbearably so), the book went by for me rather quickly (I finished half of it on the flight to Omaha, and the other half waiting at the airport to return), and moreover, left me disquieted in a way that only truly despondent novels (and authors) can.

L'Âge de Raison is set in 1938 France against the backdrop of forthcoming invasion of France by Germany, and tells the story of Mathieu Delarue, a bourgeois, but broke philosophy professor, and his tumultuous search for the freedom whilst simultaneously seeking funds to pay for an abortion for his pregnant mistress. The novel takes place over only a few days, and is almost entirely driven by dialog: as Mathieu's pursuit of money becomes increasingly futile, the reader is introduced to a cast of Mathieu's friends and family, each desperately (and vainly) seeking meaning in his or her own life.

The existentialism of the novel is often times heady enough to drop one into an ever-worsening existential depression that one might never escape from, but this is partly why I choose to begin my study of Sartre in the first place. (If one is to really, truly embrace existentialism as a philosophy on life, one must study those who defined it.) Alongside the existential themes is an overwhelming focus on the concept of freedom (a cornerstone of existentialism): what is freedom? How does one attain freedom? Can one ever be truly free? Mathieu's cognitive dissonance over what constitutes freedom continues to grow over the course of the novel: is true freedom found in having no responsibility, making no decisions, experiencing no consequences? Or is conformity to social norms the means to set oneself truly free? Though none of these questions are answered per se, by the end of the novel, Mathieu's character does attain the age of reason.

Quite frankly, I cannot say that I enjoyed this novel (it was much too despondent for that), but I will say that I could often relate to the inner turmoil the characters experienced. No, I don't have a pregnant mistress, and no, I'm not secretly in love with my 20-something student, but it isn't a far cry to sympathize (if not empathize) with the life-altering decisions all the characters are confronted with throughout the novel. And though the book is quite long at 400 pages, and sometimes drags, there are moments of exceptional poignancy to be found when least expected. Overall, 4 stars out of 5, having only read the first book in the trilogy. I suspect the next two will be equally thought-provoking, and I look forward to tackling them in no uncertain terms. What else am I going to do? As Mathieu's character thinks at the end of the novel:

For nothing: this life had been given him for nothing, he was nothing and yet he would not change: he was as he was made.


Rohit, you are SUCH a nerd. I don't know anyone who reads Sartre for fuN!

Julie, the people you know must be pretty dumb, huh?

Wow. You are an asshole, aren't you? But don't worry: with those pretty eyes and curly hair, I would still go out with you, even if you are an elitist and pretentious prick.

In that case, who are you and when can we meet?

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