The critic lives badly; his wife does not appreciate him as she ought to; his children are ungrateful; the first of the month is hard on him. But it is always possible for him to enter his library, take down a book from the shelf, and open it. It gives off a slight odor of the cellar, and a strange operation begins which he has decided to call reading. From one point of view it is a possession; he lends his body to the dead in order that they may come back to life. And from another point of view it is a contact with the beyond. Indeed the book is by no means an object, neither is it an act, nor even a thought. Written by a dead man about dead things, it no longer has any place on this earth; it speaks of nothing which interests us directly. Left to itself, it falls back and collapses; there remain only ink spots on musty paper. And when the critic reanimates these spots, when he makes letters and words of them, they speak to him of passions which he does not feel, of bursts of anger without objects, of dead fears and hope…
It is a holiday for him when contemporary authors do him the favor of dying. Their books, too raw, too living, too urgent, pass on to the other shore; they become less and less affecting and more and more beautiful…As for the writers who persists in living, he asks them only not to move about too much, and to make an effort to resemble from now on the dead men they will be. “
Jean Paul Sartre is a French philosopher. And, by the way, he is dead. In the passage, he makes this rather brilliant link between the work of the literary critic and the dark arts of the dead. He is actually making fun of a certain kind of literary critic whose fundamental principle of engagement with a text is plain and simply the death of the author. You probably know that teacher or friend or colleague who only likes dead authors. The longer they have been dead the more he likes them. living authors are just never quite good enough until they die. That’s the kind of literature lover that Sartre can’t stand. Sartre believes that these people are drawn to dead authors because they like playing safe. After all, dead things are not supposed to be terrifying or risky. Mute and lifeless, the dead are safe and easy to work with.
But somehow this sense of deadness does not ring true with me. Are the dead not perhaps a bit more complicated than that? If as Rilke tells us, the dead are not always entirely dead, would we not then have to rethink the critic’s attraction to dead authors? What if the critic is drawn to the ghosts of these authors as opposed to the mere fact of their being dead? Perhaps Sartre does not believe in ghosts. But might it not be fun to think about how the ghosts of authors past continue to haunt the pages of our so-called contemporary, living authors? Especially those authors of whom we are ashamed, those ones we pretend to have forgotten, those ones we banish to the irrational and archaic past in order to invent for ourselves the illusion of progress and enlightenment.