To Live or to Recount: Quirks and Perks

Sartre and Camus on drawing inspiration from life.

arms spread wide, sky
Photo by Joshua Earle

Quote:  This is what I have been thinking: for the most commonplace event to become an adventure, you must — and this is all that is necessary — start recounting it. This is what fools people: a man is always a teller of tales, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it.

But you have to choose: to live or to recount.

— Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (translator: Robert Baldick)

A lesser mind might have put that last statement as: you cannot be both present in the moment and looking back at the past. Or: you cannot be both within, experiencing life, and without, observing it. But Sartre framed his words in terms of storytelling. On the other hand, the first sentence of the Quote is a recipe for any author (supposedly) bereft of ideas or inspiration: you are a story, your life is a story, all you have to do is recount it.

Skip now from Sartre, the existentialist, to Camus, the absurdist, speaking in his novel The Stranger (which I discussed in The Sunny Absurd).

… I learned that even after a single day’s experience of the outside world a man could easily live a hundred years in prison. He’d have laid up enough memories never to be bored.

prison or castle building
Photo by Christian Bardenhorst


If one can live in prison a hundred years, a hundred days, or even — accounting for extreme exaggeration —  a hundred minutes, on a meagre ration of a day’s experience of the outside, then surely, one can also write a hundred words, a hundred worthy, interesting words about it. But why would that be true? Here is the paragraph preceding the above.

… the whole problem was: how to kill time. After a while, however, once I’d learned the trick of remembering things, I never had a moment’s boredom. Sometimes I would exercise my memory on my bedroom and, starting from a corner, make the round, noting every object I saw on the way. At first it was over in a minute or two. But each time I repeated the experience, it took a little longer. I made a point of visualizing every piece of furniture, and each article upon or in it, and then every detail of each article, and finally the details of the details, so to speak: a tiny dent or incrustation, or a chipped edge, and the exact grain and color of the woodwork. At the same time I forced myself to keep my inventory in mind from start to finish, in the right order and omitting no item. With the result that, after a few weeks, I could spend hours merely in listing the objects in my bedroom. I found that the more I thought, the more details, half-forgotten or malobserved, floated up from my memory. There seemed no end to them.

Upon reading the paragraph like this, out of context, does it not strike you how closely it veers towards advice for aspiring authors? The most convincing details of a story come precisely from this piercing clarity of imagination (let us not dwell strictly on recollection), that convinces the readers to step from the story of their own lives into the story of the author.

The process of writing may be an art or a craft, or a science, even, that has to be learned, grindingly, but the content itself — it’s there. You can live it or you can recount it. Why not a bit of both?

PS: I suppose Camus might have been displeased that I have linked him with Sartre (however weakly); Wikipedia cites Camus as having said: No, I am not an existentialist. Sartre and I are always surprised to see our names linked. Well, I assure whichever author-ghost haunts this world, that this blog post is an accidental product of my sparse literary experience and not a statement of deep philosophical intent. Had I read someone else, someone else would have been quoted. Désolée, c’est la vie.

Reading Recommendations

  1. NauseaJean-Paul Sartre.
  2. The Stranger, Albert Camus.
  3. The Fall, Albert Camus. Because “in a eulogy to Albert Camus, existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre described the novel as ‘perhaps the most beautiful and the least understood’ of Camus’ books,” according to Wikipedia. There, we had Sartre say something about Camus as well.

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

4 thoughts on “To Live or to Recount: Quirks and Perks”

  1. Great post as usual – not just for aspiring authors but for all of us out there. Sartre and Camus – both saying effectively what I’ve long believed. It’s a large part of why I blog/journal/write in general. I think it is possible to do both – live experiences and recount them – and get something very different from each. Though I would argue that one is generally more in one camp than the other. Being quite comfortable spending hours in my head, I can happily recount and relive an experience and maybe get more from it than at the time it happened. We are the storytellers of our own lives! Though I can’t tell mine quite so adroitly as either of your featured authors!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know what you mean about doing both—that’s why I put that comment. I think everyone can (and should? dare I say) do a bit of both, because reflection reinforces experience, and vice versa. One without the other may lead to detachment (at least for us, ordinary mortals).

      As for recounting our own stories … well, it’s a bit like with living our lives: some do it well, some do it less well—but we can all learn to improve. I hope!

      Liked by 1 person

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