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Sketches, on Sartre's Couch

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There is a man sleeping on Jean-Paul Sartre's living room couch.

Well, perhaps, not much of a man. Not that anyone is much of a man these days, but this one is even less so, at least for the moment. This moment, like the ones before it, will pass, and France will be France again, not quite whole but moreso than most. Sometimes, Jean-Paul can't help but wonder what it must be like, to exist in this fashion, so much and so little and so, so alive.

Either way, this person (yes, person, a much better way to put it; it is not human and therefore it is folly to assign a biological designation) is sleeping on Jean-Paul's couch. Of course, when this particular person sleeps on the living room couch, it's not Jean-Paul's couch. No, it's something else entirely, belonging to a very peculiar sort of reality that only exists around this person. That reality only exists for Jean-Paul when this person is here; otherwise, the couch, the person, the living room itself is something else, everything else, often in the same moment.

It's part of what makes this person fascinating. Jean-Paul finds many things about this person on the couch fascinating. And how could he not, when presented with such a being as his own country mimicking the form of a human? At times, his nation isn't a very good imitation of humanity, like when he shows up on the doorstep at two in the morning and nearly eats Jean-Paul out of house and home. Other times, his nation is a very good imitation, like when he recounts with fondness or laughter or tears memories of past lovers. The only difference between humanity and timeless country in those moments is that his nation has outlived them all because those lovers were always human, and mortality has always been the lot of humans.

"Oh, yes, we can die," France once said after he finished eating the last of the petit fours Beauvoir had just bought over from the pâtisserie, "but the problem is all in making us stay dead. We're a rather tenacious bunch. Those were very good--did you say they were from the one at the end of the street?"

Jean-Paul really doesn't mind that France eats his and Beauvoir's food or that he tends to show up unannounced. Camus says France does much the same thing to him, although he doesn't sleep on the living room couch quite so much. Jean-Paul suspects it's because of Camus's children. France loves the children, but he suffers from horrible nightmares. His screams would probably frighten the poor girls, and France does hate to frighten people if he can help it.

Jean-Paul doesn't have children. When he watches his nation sleeping on his couch, he can't say he regrets it. No, not at all.

 

The first time that Jean-Paul Sartre saw France--really saw him, recognized him--was during the Second World War.

Jean-Paul had seen France before, off and on in passing, ever since he'd been a little boy. By the time he met Beauvoir, he'd been half-convinced France was some sort of specter haunting him, although he thought it odd that a specter should change clothes so often. It was only during the war, when he first returned to Paris from the prison camps, that Beauvoir turned with him, followed his gaze across the street to where France was standing under an overhang, and whispered in his ear:

"I can see him, too."

Camus admits that he also had seen France many times in the past before recognizing him, all the way back into his childhood in Algeria. Like Jean-Paul and Beauvoir, he'd seen France more and more frequently as he'd gotten older, although none of them had spoken to their shared phantom, not until Combat was founded and publishing began. It was only then that France made himself known, became more than just a vague sense of déjà vu, a flicker on the edge of the eye from a half-remembered dream. Jean-Paul had entered his room to find the phantom there, a copy of the newspaper in hand, flipping idly through it, somehow more whole to Jean-Paul's eye than any time before that.

"Ah," the phantom said in response to Jean-Paul's sharp exclamation, eyes bright and charming, "so you do know me."

"Know you?" Jean-Paul asked, and later he would remember his composure was impressive for such a moment.

"Of course," the phantom answered. "You can see me, can't you?"

"Yes," Jean-Paul said, "but who -?"

The phantom cut him off with a soft, low laugh. "You know the answer. I exist inside of you. I exist all around you. It's," and here the smile became a grin, wide and white and ghastly, "because of people like you that I haven't died."

It was after that conversation that Jean-Paul started to see France everywhere, his personal phantom suddenly given not only form but life. Most of the time, France was in uniform, going through the motions of a hundred different roles. Once in a while, Jean-Paul saw France dressed in civilian clothing, not all of them masculine, flitting past, in and out of establishments, boots and heels and even sleeping slippers left behind in his wake. And, throughout it all, France smiled, eyes twinkling as charmingly as when he had when he greeted Jean-Paul, his teeth as white as sun-dried bone. Jean-Paul learned quickly not to look too closely at France's smiles, nor too deeply into his eyes.

Later, after France is France again, Jean-Paul, Camus, and Beauvoir met France at a very crowded salon. His face appeared worn and pale in the dark lace dress he was wearing, long opera gloves covering most of his arms and a shawl taking care of the rest. Even so, he smiled broadly, eyes bright and alive as they all exchanged kisses and gentle touches. Jean-Paul could feel strength in those fleeting presses of hand to shoulder, strength just barely restrained and utterly unrelated to France's form.

"The world is changing," France intoned, his voice somehow loud and clear even in the crowded room. "It's because of people like you. Now, if you'd be so kind as to pass me the ashtray. My cigarette is about to burn my gloves and I'd really rather it wouldn't as these are brand new."

 

It is blatantly obvious that his nation is a chain-smoker. Jean-Paul noticed it during the war, acknowledges it following the war as it becomes a habit that he and France will indulge in together.

"We don't suffer from addiction exactly, but we do have habits," France explains, lighting his new cigarette with the pretty silver lighter he always carries; a prize, he'd said once, although he wouldn't specify for what. "I chain-smoke. England drinks. Spain kills inconsequential things. So on, so forth, blah blah blah. We are, after all, in the image of humanity."

Jean-Paul gets the impression, from the bitterness that always colors his speech in those moments, that France envies him, much as a human may envy God. It's a cold sort of envy, since his nation doesn't even have the doubt that He exists to ease the pain of being made in the image of an image. France's existence is a mockery of human life, his masculine design an extension of that mockery. France just smiles when Jean-Paul voices that, smiles in that peculiar way that makes Sartre feel like his nation can see right through him.

"I am whatever the people want me to be," he answers, smoothly, slyly, in that way the Jean-Paul can never tell if it's meant to be kind or mocking; it's likely a cruel combination of both.

And France is cruel in a lot of ways. Beneath the charming, genial veneer, he's snide and base and cynical. He's unafraid to voice his opinions of Jean-Paul's work to his face, and his opinions are often cutting. Sometimes he speaks in anger and frustration, and France will take them back a few hours later, promise Sartre to reconsider, but not always. Even though it does hurt to have his own nation laugh in his face, laugh at his thoughts, Jean-Paul knows it's the best he can ask for, especially from such an entity. France acts much the same way towards Beauvoir and Camus and probably towards all of his philosophers and artists and politicians.

Sometimes Jean-Paul suspects France saves all of his kindness for children and animals because France can seem to have infinite kindness as well as cruelty, but he only shows the former for what it is when he knows it won't be thrown back in his face. Jean-Paul has seen France with the stray dogs, and he has always been kind to those feral, starving mutts, even during the wars, when France wasn't always himself.

"Adults aren't beautiful," France explains, sprawled out languidly on the couch, cigarette dangling from his left hand, like a painting in repose. "I don't need to be kind to them, and I don't want to be. Innocence is true beauty. Adults specialize in destroying it."

"Your body is that of an adult," Jean-Paul points out, unkindly, but it isn't as if they've ever been kind to each other, "yet you call yourself beautiful."

France lifts his cigarette to his lips, kissing the lipstick-stained paper, breathing out a thin stream of smoke, and smiles in the way that forces Jean-Paul to look at his teeth, gleaming white despite all the nicotine and ash.

"There's beauty in destruction, too."

 

In the end, Jean-Paul supposes as he watches France sleep on the living room couch, France is always right. They will always disagree on certain points, but Jean-Paul is only one person, one man. France is more than that, is all that is called or claimed France or French. As a human, Jean-Paul must combat his contradictions, must validate himself in some manner or form. France, as a nation, a concept given form and entity, exists as defined by all that makes him up, his person a mixture of fluid definitions and mutable tides. While Jean-Paul can only hope to be right or wrong, to be or not to be, France is all that and more, single and multiple in the same moment, defined by human conceptions and universal ideals.

On the couch, France stirs. Jean-Paul hands him a half-smoked cigarette, waiting as France takes a deep drag.

"Have you been watching me all this time?"

Jean-Paul nods, and white smoke curls from France lips, blue eyes will-o'-the-wisps in the haze. France smiles.

"It's good," he says, "to know I haven't died."