The Traitor erases everything and begins himself all over again. That is what gives us, today, the opportunity to read a radical book.
Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘Of Rats and Men’, Foreword to The Traitor
Sartre’s ‘today’ was, of course, the late 1950s. Reading The Traitor footnote1 now involves a double perspective: placing the book in its context and thinking about its relationship to current debates about the self and history, particularly as these are explored in auto-biographical texts. The distance separating us from Sartre’s (and the Gorz of The Traitor’s) today may in fact be a helpful one, in that it heightens the estrangements enacted in the text—between the auto-biographer and his subject (himself), the text and its readers, the text and its generic contexts.
The primary interest of The Traitor was and is Gorz’s intensive and extensive deployment of ‘theory’ (Marxist, psychoanalytic and existentialist) as a way of comprehending the self and its situation. Arthur Koestler set up Freudian and Marxist theories at the opening of his autobiography Arrow in the Blue
footnote2 only in order to show how inadequate they were as ways of explaining and understanding the complexities of life. By contrast, any sense that Gorz has of a mismatch between theory and experience leads him not to an abandonment of
The Traitor is an autobiography that pushes uncomfortably at the limits and boundaries of the genre. It does not situate itself within a ‘tradition’ of autobiographical writing, neither that of the Great Western Cultural Tradition—Augustine, Rousseau, Goethe—nor that of the French line from Montaigne to Roland Barthes. At the same time, it brings to the fore questions about autobiographical writing which, though fundamental, are more often downplayed or hidden from view, lest they raise issues that are too explicit and hence damaging for the autobiographical enterprise. Among these questions, pushed to the forefront of Gorz’s text, are the issue of the motivations underlying the desire to write about one’s own life and who one is writing for and that of the relationship between ‘uniqueness’ or singularity and ‘representativeness’. (Does the autobiographer, for example, seek to justify his/her ‘autobiographical act’ by claiming, like Rousseau, that ‘I am like no one in the whole world’, or does he/she claim to stand for others of his/her time and place as a ‘representative’ individual?) The Traitor also addresses issues which have recently become of particular interest in literary and critical theory—notably that of the self as a product of writing and of the interface between philosophical and literary discourse. It is an ‘intellectual’ autobiography which turns a cold eye on the cerebral obsessions of intellectuals.
The Traitor is a disturbing text in large part because it disrupts the conventional balance between story and commentary, narrated experience and interpretation. Although at one level Gorz recounts the ‘story’ of his experiences—as the son of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother in anti-Semitic prewar Austria and as an exile in Switzerland during his adolescence and early twenties—the narrative is partial and fragmented, and Gorz judges the value of his experience primarily as a contribution to his analysis of whether his ‘condition’ was ‘subjectively’ assumed or ‘objectively’ given. The autobiography disturbs our sense of priorities, particularly the idea that there are some experiences, some stories, whose telling requires no justification. Gorz is not seeking, moreover, to produce a work of ‘literature’, for the literary could be defined as the realm in which it is improper to enquire about the motivation for a narrative. On the other hand, Gorz—or at least his autobiographical persona—expresses some unease about philosophical discourse. He must resist, he states, ‘a claim to set an example, to derive from his own case the illustration of a universal Method; of finding himself included not in the Pantheon of literature but in that of general theories. He must find something else. More precisely, he must find something to say’ (p. 170).
Finding something to say is revealed to be more a matter of finding someone to say it to. In this ‘Sartrean’ autobiography—for it is Sartre’s ‘method’ which is represented as the means to Gorz’s salvation, and Sartre ‘appears’ in the text, under the pseudonym ‘Morel’—writing is only said to be meaningful in so far as it communicates, and the self only becomes substantive at the point at which it recognizes the existence of others. One of the most striking aspects of The Traitor is Gorz’s use of pronominal forms to chart the move from alienation to a kind of self-affirmation. Gorz entitles the sections of the autobiography ‘We’, ‘They’, ‘You’ and ‘I’. ‘We’, Gorz writes, ‘consists for him in the ascetic accession of intellects to that abstract universality in which they can proliferate their theories and lose themselves in the anonymity of the generic’ (p. 88). ‘They’, the most narrativized part of the text, recounts those aspects of Gorz’s childhood and adolescence in Austria and Switzerland ‘relating to his exclusion from the world of men’: Gorz divides this section into ‘Exclusion’, Persecution’ and ‘The Impossible Nullity’. In ‘You’ (‘toi’) he examines ‘his reality as a person in relation to other persons’, while the final section, ‘I’ is not only written, at least in part, in the first person, but moves both back to the ‘beginning’ of selfhood and forward to an intimation of a future. ‘En attendant mieux’ are the final words of the text.
In fact, the progression from an impersonal ‘we’ to a self-affirming ‘I’ is more complex than this account would suggest. The first person emerges at the very beginning of the text, alternated with the ‘he’ to whom it refers. In the last section of the autobiography, the ‘I’ reverts to ‘he’ within a few lines—‘It is not an accident that I have spoken of myself throughout in the third person. . .aside from all theoretical justification, he has a horror of “I”’—(p. 249) and it is not until some way into the final section that the ‘I’ is confidently assumed, when ‘at last the knowledge I have gained of myself meets my own experience.’ The final paragraphs also invoke a ‘we’, affirming the need for a collective project, beyond that of self-assertion: ‘it is my reality in the eyes of those who are on the same side as I which is important to me’ (p. 272).