Source: Jean-Paul Sartre, Words [Le Mots] (London: Penguin, 2000 – orig. pub. 1964), translated by Irene Clephane, pp. 75-79
Text: I challenge my contemporaries to tell me the date of their first experience of the cinema. We entered blindly into a traditionless century which was to contrast sharply with the others by its bad manners, and the new plebeian art anticipated our barbarism. Born in a robber’s cave, classified by the authorities along with travelling entertainers, it had certain vulgar qualities which shocked serious people; it was an amusement for women and children. My mother and I adored it, but we hardly ever thought about it and we never mentioned it: do you mention bread if there is plenty of it? When we became aware of its existence, it had long since become our major need.
On rainy days, Anne-Marie would ask me what I wanted to do, and we would hesitate a long while between the circus, the Châtelet, the Maison Électrique, and the Musée Grévin; at the last moment, with deliberate casualness, we would decide to go to a picture theatre. My grandfather would appear at the door of his study when we opened the door of the flat; he would ask: ‘Where are you children off to?’ ‘To the cinema,’ my mother would say. He would frown and she would add hastily: ‘To the Panthéon cinema, it’s very near; we only have to cross the rue Soufflot.’ He would let us go with a shrug; the following Thursday, he would say to Monsieur Simonnot: ‘Look here, Simonnot, you’re a sensible fellow, can you understand this? My daughter takes my grandson to the cinema!’ and Monsieur Simonnot would say in a conciliatory tone: ‘I’ve never been but my wife sometimes goes.’
The show would have begun. As we stumbled along behind the attendant, I felt I was there surreptitiously; above our heads, a beam of light would be shining across the hall, and dust and smoke would be dancing in it; a piano would be tinkling, violet light-bulbs would be glowing on the wall, and I would catch my breath at the varnish-like smell of a disinfectant. The smell and the fruits of that inhabited night mingled within me: I was eating the exit lights, filling myself with their acid taste. I would scrape my back against people’s knees, sit on a creaking seat. My mother slipped a folded rug under my buttocks to raise me up; finally I would look at the screen and would see fluorescent chalk, and shimmering landscapes streaked with rain; it was always raining, even in bright sunshine, even inside a flat; sometimes a fiery planet would cross a baroness’s drawing-room without her appearing to be surprised. I used to love that rain, that restless disquiet which tormented the wall. The pianist would strike up the overture to Fingal’s Cave and everyone would know that the villain was about to appear: the baroness would be crazed with terror. But her handsome, dusky face would be replaced by a mauve notice: ‘End of first part.’ Then would come the abrupt sobering-up and the lights. Where was I? At school? In a government office? No ornaments of any kind: rows of tip-up seats, which revealed their springs when pushed up, walls smeared with ochre, and a wooden floor littered with cigarette ends and spittle. Muffled voices would fill the hall, words would exist once more; the attendant would offer boiled sweets for sale and my mother would buy me some; I would out them in my mouth and I was sucking the exit lights. People would rub their eyes and everyone would realize he had neighbours. Soldiers, local servants; a bony old man would be chewing, hatless working-women would be laughing out loud: all these people were not of our world. Fortunately, dotted here and there, large bobbing hats brought reassurance.
The social hierarchy of the theatre had given my late father and my grandfather, who used to sit in the upper circle, a taste for ceremony: when a lot of men get together, they have to be separated by rituals or else they slaughter each other. The cinema proved the opposite: the very mixed audience seemed to have been united by a disaster rather than by a show; once dead, etiquette finally unmasked the true link between men, their adhesion. I came to loathe ceremonies but I adored crowds; I have seen all kinds, but I never recovered that naked awareness without recoil of each individual towards all the others, that waking dream, that obscure awareness of being a man until 1940, in Stalag XII D.
My mother even went so far as to take me to the Boulevard cinemas: the Kinérama, the Folies Dramatiques, the Vaudeville and the Gaumont Palace, then called the Hippodrome. I saw Zigomar and Fantômas, Les Exploits de Maciste and Les Mystères de New York: the gilding spoilt my pleasure. The vaudeville, formerly a theatre, refused to yield up its old grandeur: up to the last minute, a red curtain with gold tassels hid the screen; three knocks would announce the beginning of the performance, the orchestra would play an overture, the curtain would go up and the lights out. I was annoyed by this incongruous ceremony, by the dusty pomp which achieved nothing except to remove the characters to a distance; in the circle, in the gods, impressed by the chandeliers and by the paintings on the ceiling, our fathers could not or would not believe that the theatre belonged to them: they were received there. I wanted to see the film as close as possible. In the egalitarian discomfort of the local halls, I had realized that this new art was mine, was everyone’s. We had the same mental age: I was seven and could read; it was twelve and could not speak. They said that it was just starting and that it would improve; I thought that we would grow up together. I have not forgotten our mutual childhood: when I am offered a boiled sweet, when a woman near me varnishes her nails, when I breathe a certain smell of disinfectant in the lavatories of provincial hotels or when I star at the small violet night-light on the ceiling of a night-train, I recapture in my eyes, in my nose and on my tongue, the scents and the lights of those vanished halls; four years ago, at sea off Fingal’s Cave, in heavy weather, I could hear a piano in the wind.
Inaccessible to the sacred, I adored magic: the cinema was a dubious phenomenon which I loved perversely for what it still lacked. That stream of light was everything, nothing, and everything reduced to nothing: I was present at the frenzies of a wall; solid objects had been robbed of a massiveness which bore down even on my body, and the young idealist in me delighted at this endless contraction; later on, the lateral and the circular movements of triangles reminded me of those shapes gliding across the screen. I loved the cinema even for its two-dimensional quality. I made primary colours of its white and black, comprising all the others and revealing themselves only to the initiate; I loved seeing the invisible. Above all, I loved the immutable dumbness of my heroes. But no; they were not mute because they knew how to make themselves understood. We communicated through music; it was the sound of what was going on inside them. Persecuted innocence did better than to speak of or show its woe: it stole its way into me through the tune which issued from it; I would read the conversations, but I understood the hope and the bitterness, and caught a whisper of the proud suffering that did not proclaim itself. I was committed; that was not me, that young widow crying on the screen, and yet she and I had but one soul. Chopin’s Funeral March; that was all it needed for her tears to moisten my eyes. I felt that I was a prophet unable to foretell anything: even before the traitor was betrayed, his crime would steal its way into me; when all seemed quiet in the château, sinister chords would betray the presence of the murderer. How lucky those cowboys, musketeers and policemen were: their future was there, in that foreboding music, and it determined the present. An unbroken song mingled with their lives and led them on towards victory or death, as it moved towards its own end. They were expected, these men: by the young girl in peril, by the general, by the traitor ambushed in the forest and by the friend tethered near a battle of powder as he sadly watched the flame run along the fuse. The course of that flame, the virgin’s desperate struggle against her ravisher, the hero galloping across the steppes, the interweaving of all these images, of all these speeds and, underneath them, the hell-bent movement of the ‘Race to the Abyss’, an orchestral selection from The Damnation of Faust adapted for the piano, all meant one thing to me: Destiny. The hero would jump down, put out the fuse, the traitor would go for him, and a duel with knives would begin; but the hazards of this duel would themselves become part of the strict musical development: they were false hazards which poorly concealed the universal order. What joy when the last knife-stab coincided with the last chord! I was satisfied, I had found the world in which I wanted to live – I was in touch with the absolute. What uneasiness, too, when the lights went on again: I was torn with love for these characters and they had disappeared, taking their world with them. I had felt their victory in my bones, yet it was theirs and not mine: out in the street, I was a supernumerary once more.
Comment: Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was a French philosopher, novelist, playwright and public intellectual. He also wrote or co-wrote a number of screenplays. Le Mots is his autobiography. Anne-Marie is his mother. He was imprisoned in Stalag 12D during the Second World War. Zigomar was a 1911 French adventure film series. It was adapted from a serial novel, as was Fantômas (France 1913-14). The character of Maciste first appeared in the 1914 Italian film Cabiria, played by Bartolomeo Pagano, with numerous follow-up films featuring the character appearing from 1915 onwards. Les Mystères de New York was the French title of the American serial The Exploits of Elaine (1914). My thanks to Guido Convents for recommending this extract.