Friday, 5 August 2016

The Autodidact: Sartre’s Caricature of a Modern Intellectual

In my earlier article on Sartre’s Nausea, I discuss the novel’s protagonist, Antoine Roquentin, and I draw a comparison between him and the protagonist of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Howard Roark. Roquentin and Roark are poles apart philosophically—the former is an exponent of existentialism and is filled with doubts about the nature of reality, while the latter upholds Ayn Rand’s ideas of primacy of existence and is an individualist.

But in my view, Roquentin is not the most important character in Nausea. That distinction goes to the character, the Autodidact. In the novel we are not told much about the Autodidact’s personal life; he is present in very few scenes. We come to know about his obsession for reading every book in the library, his humanism, and his plan for venturing to the Middle East on an educational trip, from the few brief exchanges that he and Roquentin have.

As to why I consider the Autodidact to be the most important character in the novel, consider the fact that he is an accurate caricature of an intellectual. In the novel, the Autodidact is not blamed for spreading bad ideas, but he definitely has the ability to inspire ideas that will worsen the confusion and disorientation in the mind of someone like Roquentin .

Let’s examine the Autodidact’s character.

For the last seven years, the Autodidact has been studying in the library. The noteworthy thing is that he reads books in an alphabetical order. He doesn't pick up books on the basis of their subject, their content, or any other objective criteria—he is intent on reading every book in the library in an alphabetical order. Here’s an excerpt:
Today he had reached ‘L.’ ‘K’ after ‘J’, ‘L’ after ‘K’. He had passed abruptly from the study of coleoptrae to that of the quantum theory, from a work on Tamerlane to a Catholic pamphlet against Darwinism: not for a moment has he been put off his stride. He has read everything; he has stored away in his head half of what is known about parthenogenesis, half the arguments against vivisection. Behind him, before him, there is a universe. And the day approaches when, closing the last book on the last shelf on the far left, he will say to himself: ‘And now what?’"
There is no system in the Autodidact’s reading. He is not reading for gaining wisdom; he is reading for the sake of reading. Indeed, he is memorizing information from a whole lot of books but this information is not helping his mind grow; it is not enabling him to develop ideas for creating any value. He doesn't care to think about why he is reading books in alphabetical order and he has no plans for what he is going to do after he has finished reading all the books in the library.

The Autodidact may seem like an eccentric character but, as I have pointed out earlier in this article, he is also a caricature of the modern intellectuals who are well read and full of information on just about everything, and yet they lack the wisdom to understand the reality of the world.

In his time Sartre was regarded as the intellectual pope of Europe; he was a celebrated philosopher and the author of several bestselling books. He was obviously well read, but he lacked wisdom. If Sartre had wisdom he would not have been the eager supporter of mass murdering regimes like Stalin’s Russia, Castro’s Cuba, Mao’s China, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia.

The Autodidact is so cutoff from reality that he has a bizarre sense of adventure. Here’s how he explains his theory of adventure to Roquentin:
Getting on the wrong train. Stopping in an unknown town. Losing your wallet, being arrested by mistake, spending the night in prison. Monsieur, it seems to me that you could define adventure as an event which is out of the ordinary without being necessarily extraordinary.” 
Seriously, is getting on a wrong train, stopping at an unknown town, and losing your wallet an adventure! Who in his right mind will consider being arrested by mistake and spending the night in a prison an adventure! But such events are an adventure to the intellectual class who are out of touch with reality, because they live in a cloistered academic or bureaucratic environment and have negligible experience of life.

Apparently Sartre thought that the massive numbers of people being slaughtered by Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Castro was nothing more than an adventure! He had no qualms about tolerating mass murderers. He was comfortable being in bed with tyrants.

Like most modern intellectuals, the Autodidact is also a humanist and a member of a left-wing organization.
Since September 1921 I have been a member of the SFIO Socialist Party. That is what I wanted to tell you,” he says to Roquentin when they meet at the coffee house.
In the same meeting he provides a glimpse of his humanist ideas:
The Autodidact: “We must love them, we must love them…
Roquentin: “Whom must we love? The people here?
The Autodidact: “Them too. One and all.
Sartre was a leftist. He used to project himself as a humanist and a human rights activist. But he always closed his eyes to the human rights violations being committed by the communist regimes. Towards the end of the novel it is revealed that the Autodidact is a pedophile; he used to target the young boys who visited the library. Sartre too has been accused of several misdemeanours; however, his stature as intellectual meant that his crimes could never be properly investigated.

Taking the context of the entire story into account, we can see in the Autodidact a rather disgusting and horrifying caricature of a modern intellectual. While we might like to believe that every intellectual has the potential to develop ideas for making the world a better place, and while it’s true in few instances, it’s not true in most cases. Most intellectuals are like the Autodidact—they propose ideas that have nothing to do with reality.

Related:

The Ascent of Howard Roark and the Decline of Antoine Roquentin

Jean-Paul Sartre: The Intellectual Henchman of Tyrants

On Postmodernist Bullying: If You Don’t Like Kafka, You Are a Philistine

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