sartre on possessing, giving and receiving


I see the birth of luxury in all those ways of possessing, since luxury resides not at all in the number or quality of the objects possessed, but in a relation as profound, hidden and intimate as possible between the possessor and the object possessed: it’s not just necessary that the thing be extremely rare, it’s necessary that it be born in its possessor’s household and have come into existence especially for him. But, for my part, I’m just the opposite of the luxury-lover; since I have no desire to possess objects, I wouldn’t know what to do with them. In this, assuredly, I ‘am of’ my day; I feel money as an abstract and fugitive power; I like to see it vanish into smoke, and feel out of my element faced with the objects it procures.

I‘ve never had anything of my own, in civilian life – neither furniture, nor books, nor trinkets. I’d feel very awkward in a flat; moreover, it would very soon turn into a pigsty. For ten years, all that I’ve had of my own has been my pipe and my fountain-pen. And I’m profligate even with these objects: I lose pens and pipes; I don’t grow attached to them; they’re exiles in my hands, and live in an atmosphere hardly any more intimate than the cold light which bathed them when they were ranged alongside their brothers in the shop- window.

I don’t positively like them; a new pipe may amuse me for a couple of days, after which I use it without noticing. When anyone gives me a present, I’m always very embarrassed and ill at ease, because I feel obscurely that I’m not taking it as I should. Granted, I’m perhaps more touched than another would be by the attention. (All the more so, since I’m almost never given presents; people must feel they’d be coming to the wrong person – they may be as fond of me as can be , they still give me nothing. Similarly, it’s rare for anyone to  photograph me . That goes together.) But it’s the immediate attention, as portrayed on the tender countenance of the man or woman who’s giving – it’s that attention which moves me. I give too many thanks, because I have a bad conscience; I know I shouldn’t feel the kindness being done me so much on the person’s face, but more in the object.

—from Jean-Paul Sartre, War Diaries – Notebooks from A Phoney War, 1939 – 40. Notebook 12 (February 1940), pp 246 – 247.