According to a pervasive and widespread literature, we came, whether we want it or not, to surround our existences with all sorts of narratives: retrospective interpretations of what came before us and how we were born, anticipative stories about what is to come and what we should expect, and, most of all, restless attempts to describe what our present is made of so that we know how to make sense of it. First-person narratives occupy a central position amongst these varieties of narratives, as they give each of us a chance to provide meaning to our lives and achieve some kind of self-understanding.
Taking a resolutely opposite stance, Sartre (in)famously declared through the voice of the main character of his novel La Nausée that stories cannot but betray the lives they claim to describe, and necessarily fail to be faithful to the very experiencing of life that constitutes its specific grain and texture. In which sense is this failure a failure? In which sense must we consider it a failure, if narratives are the privileged device we use to make sense of existences in general, and ours in particular? Wouldn’t it be both tragic and ironical, from that perspective, that we live our lives in a way that remains impervious to our attempts to bring some meaning over our existence, and that first-person narratives should be regarded as fundamentally inadequate to account for life as we live it?
This paper will address these questions in light of the definition of ‘tragic irony’ that Richard Moran draws from his interpretation of Sartre, understanding tragedy as a clash between forms of significance displayed by incompatible perspectives. We will examine in particular the problem raised by first-person narratives, which conflate the seemingly incompatible perspectives of the narrator and of the character of the story. I will argue that Moran’s view fails to show in which sense the failure of first-person narratives are also, according to Sartre, the condition of their success, and that the irony of life might rely first and foremost on its ability to succeed even when and where it fails. After all, isn’t it the most ironical of it all that Sartre, notwithstanding his harsh critique of the fundamental inadequacy of life narratives, ended his literary career with the publication of his most acclaimed autobiography?
Pierre-Jean Renaudie is Assistant Professor of philosophy (phenomenology and contemporary German philosophy) at the University of Lyon. He is the author of a book on Husserl’s theory of knowledge (Husserl et les categories. Langage, pensée et perception, Paris, Vrin, 2015), co-edited a book on phenomenology of matter (Phénoménologies de la matière, with C.V. Spaak, Paris, CNRS Editions, 2020) and published many articles, in French and in English, on the phenomenological tradition and its connection with contemporary issues in philosophy of mind. He is a member of the Institut de recherches philosophiques de Lyon (IRPHIL) and an associate member of the Husserl Archives in Paris.
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