John Huston—the Hollywood director who made The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)—was a vivid and confident impietist, and his unrespectable success was an important element in the idea of ‘America’ which entranced his distant contemporary, Jean-Paul Sartre. The McCarthyite columnist Frank Conniff was mistaken, however, when he described Huston as ‘the brains of the Communist Party in the West’; almost as crazy as Huston himself, when he decided in 1958 to make a Hollywood Big Movie about ‘Freud’s descent into the unconscious’ which would be ‘as terrifying as Dante’s descent into Hell’. The part of Freud would be played by Montgomery Clift; and the script, Huston hoped, would be written by Sartre. ‘Sartre was a communist and an anti-Freudian. Nevertheless I considered him the ideal man to write the Freud screenplay. He had read psychology deeply, knew Freud’s works intimately and would have an objective and logical approach.’ Huston’s description is wrong in every particular; but in May he went to visit Sartre in Paris. Sartre was exhausted after writing the Critique of Dialectical Reason, and was gloomily trying to wean himself off amphetamines. He was enticed by the prospect of writing a role for Marilyn Monroe, and—to Huston’s condescending amusement—found the proposed fee of $25,000 irresistible.footnote1

Sartre’s synopsis was accepted at the end of 1958; a year later he submitted a complete script, and spent ten days at Huston’s estate in Ireland discussing ways of improving and abbreviating it. (Huston estimated that Sartre’s text would result in a seven-hour film.) Sartre wrote to Simone de Beauvoir about the experience, as she recalls in her autobiography. ‘It was an enormous building, still unfinished, crammed with a costly and bizarre assortment of objets d’art, surrounded by grounds so vast that it took hours to cross them on foot. In the morning, Huston would go prancing about them on horseback, sometimes falling off. He would invite all sorts of people out there and suddenly go off and leave them, in the middle of a conversation, which Sartre would struggle vainly to keep going. Sartre had been forced in this way to entertain an Anglican bishop, a maharajah and an eminent authority on fox-hunting.’footnote2 Huston had his own angle on Sartre: ‘He made notes—of his own words—as he talked. . . . You’d wait for him to catch his breath but he wouldn’t. . . . Everyone’s face had a glazed look. . . . Sometimes I’d leave the room in desperation—on the verge of exhaustion from trying to follow what he was saying; the drone of his voice followed me until I was out of earshot, and, when I’d return, he wouldn’t even notice that I’d been gone.’footnote3

The outcome was predictable. Sartre rewrote the script, but managed to make it even longer, without improving it at all. Huston lost patience and decided to proceed without Sartre. Freud: The Secret Passion came out in 1962, starring Montgomery Clift and Susannah York. Sartre withheld his name and—like most other admirers of Freud or Huston—avoided seeing the film, which flopped. ‘The fault is partly mine, and partly Freud’s,’ said Sartre.footnote4

Sartre’s text could hardly have been expected to be anything but longwinded, melodramatic, ponderous and ill-informed; and it was not made available to an uneager French public till 1984. An excellent English translation is now available.footnote5 And to everyone’s surprise, The Freud Scenario turns out to be one of Sartre’s most ingenious, illuminating and enjoyable works. In spite of the barrages of misunderstanding between them, Huston’s summons to Sartre to become the dramatic popularizer of Freud was, as luck would have it, a happy inspiration.

When Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir first read Freud in the early 1930’s, they found him repellent. Freudianism, they then thought, was submerged in the hateful bourgeois ‘seriousness’ which takes even the most arbitrary and obnoxious social arrangements for granted as if they were unquestionable, inevitable, and eternal. Sartre spelt out the theoretical basis of his early anti-Freudianism in The Transcendence of the Ego (1936), arguing that ‘the Ego’ in both its aspects—‘the I as unity of action’ and ‘the Me as unity of states and qualities’—must be distinguished from deep subjectivity, to which it is a mere object. The allegation that Freud had lamentably confused subjectivity with the Ego was to be repeated and elaborated in Being and Nothingness (1943).footnote6 But it was gradually borne in on Sartre that Freud might not be entirely, if at all, an exponent of the ‘mechanistic theories’ which he had identified with Freudianism. Sartre’s contemporary and distant colleague Jacques Lacan (who published the first version of ‘The Mirror Stage’ in 1936) was already beginning to argue that authentic Freudianism questioned the Ego, rather than siding with it; and Sartre’s Baudelaire (1946) expressed a new respect for Freud.

But the rehabilitation of Freud in Sartre’s world had as much to do with the development of Sartre’s own thought as with his changing interpretation of Freud. In her penitent retrospective on their hasty first reading of The Interpretation of Dreams and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Simone de Beauvoir says that she and Sartre ‘had absorbed the letter rather than the spirit of these works’: ‘We remained frozen in our rationalist-voluntarist position: in a clear-minded individual, we thought, freedom would win out over complexes, memories, influences, or any traumatic experience. It was long before we realized that our emotional detachment from, and indifference to, our respective childhoods was to be explained by what we had experienced as children.’footnote7 A main feature of Sartre’s evolution was his reluctant, inch-by-inch acknowledgment of the unavoidable reality of childhood, and of its jealous hold over later life: an idea which he forced himself to apply to his own case in the autobiography of his early years, Les Mots, which was first drafted in 1954, and frequently revised before its publication ten years later.

Sartre’s discovery of childhood is linked to another frequently overlooked aspect of his work. Both in Being and Nothingness and in the Critique of Dialectical Reason Sartre often needs to describe situations where people embrace an identity which they do not understand, and whose arbitrariness they cannot acknowledge. Sartre says they are playing—like children, but also like actors performing a role.footnote8 This celebrated dramatic analogy, however, needs to be placed alongside Sartre’s idea of people as story-tellers—as authors, wittingly or not, of tales which cast a spell on the evanescence of the present moment by treating it as the passage which links future to past, end to beginning, ‘happily ever after’ to ‘once upon a time’. Sartre’s greatest exploration of this idea is La Nausée (1938), which is presented as the diary of Antoine Roquentin, a historian who has been working for three years on a biography of the Marquis de Rollebon, renowned as the supreme bore of the eighteenth century, and no more interesting in the archives of Bouville in 1932. However, Roquentin discovers that there is an interest in trying to shape his subject’s life into a cogent story: ‘I have the impression of doing a work of pure imagination’, he says. This worries him because he cannot see how ‘there could possibly be such things as true stories; events take place one way and we recount them the opposite way. . . . The end is there, transforming everything.’ ‘This is what fools people: a man is always a teller of tales, he lives surrounded by his stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them: and he tries to lead his life as if he were recounting it.’ Roquentin’s absurdly fastidious conscience will not be reconciled to such comforting illusions. ‘You have to choose:’ he says, ‘to live or to recount.’footnote9 At the time he wrote La Nausée, Sartre probably shared Roquentin’s rigorism; but in Les Mots, he emphasized the past tense when he wrote: ‘I was Roquentin.’footnote10 His understanding both of childhood and of story-telling had now been cross-fertilized with his reassessment of Freud.footnote11