Jean-Paul Sartre's 'L'Enfance d'un Chef': The Longing for Obscenity

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Author: C. J. Harvey
Editor: Anna J. Sheets
Date: 1999
From: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 32)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 2,270 words

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[(essay date 1983) In the following essay, Harvey examines Sartre's use of obscenity in "The Making of a Leader," focusing on how it serves to develop character and plot.]

Sartre's collection of short stories Le Mur has received less attention from critics or the public than his other works of fiction. Among the few articles devoted to this early work, a brief review by Jean Vaudal expresses the malaise many may experience on reading the last and longest of the collection, "L'Enfance d'un Chef": "Je ne suis pas sûr que dans 'L'Enfance d'un Chef' l'auteur ait voulu mettre autant de grotesque que j'en vois. Le fait est que, maintenant que je l'y ai vu, plus rien ne l'ôtera."1 Various aspects of the story are indeed grotesque; examples range from the vaguely scatalogical but amusing description of young Lucien sitting on his potty, straining to evacuate his bowels, while his mother looks on and says: "Pousse, Lucien, pousse, mon petit bijou, je t'en supplie" (p. 155)2 to the graphically-detailed description of the homosexual act between Lucien and Bergère which Lucien sums up as he contemplates his toes: "Ces orteils, un homme les avait sucés, l'un après l'autre" (p. 206).

Since Sartre's literary work is a vehicle for conveying his philosophy,3 it is hardly plausible to suggest that such details are intended merely to titillate or attract the reader.4 The story chronicles the physical and metaphysical experiences that Lucien Fleurier, the only son of a well-to-do industrialist, undergoes as he grows from infancy to adulthood. It is closely allied thematically to the earlier La Nausée, as it provides a fictitious illustration of the existential basis for man's anguish: Lucien, like Roquentin, may either create his own essence from his existence or may mould his existence to conform to a preconceived essence. In fact, from its ironic title to its concluding words, the story exposes the shams and pretences of the various refuges Lucien seeks in order to avoid creating his essence. As Lucien stands on the threshold of manhood and decides to accept his hereditary "place . . . au soleil" (p. 247), the fifth generation of the Fleurier family to be a leader of society with all the rights and privileges of his station in life, Sartre's condemnation of his "hero's" mauvaise foi is apparent. It is unlikely, then, that those sordid, obscene or scatalogical experiences which give rise to the grotesque are purely gratuitous. They have been characterized as "techniques de provocation" intended to shock or scandalize the reader.5 However, in addition to provoking interaction between text and reader, they may well have a role to play in the development of plot or character, or in the elaboration of Sartre's philosophy. There is in all probability an aesthetic or philosophical value to be found in the use of the grotesque.

From the aesthetic point of view, much of the imagery Sartre employs is, at the very least, unconventional. Little Lucien is sitting on his mother's...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420025620