Man in the Middle – Chapter 45: Mother and Jean Paul Sartre

Breakfast. Mother licks her index finger and pats it onto the crumbs of pain au chocolate on her plate, while casually asking my daughter what existentialism is.

‘It was all the rage thirty years ago. But you don’t hear people talking about it anymore,’ Mother says, as if mourning the end of the golden age of dinner party banter.

My daughter stops supping up her Cheerios and takes a deep breath. She says she can’t explain why existentialism isn’t as popular as it used to be, but she does know existentialism is a philosophical concept which started in the Forties and was major influence on post War thinkers and artists.

‘Some academics would call existentialism a cultural movement more than a philosophy,’ she goes on.

‘Ooooh,’ gasps Mother, as if my daughter had pulled a talking rabbit from the box of Cheerios.

My daughter goes onto suggest that philosophies are like fads and perhaps existentialism is out of fashion right now. Mother sweeps the last flakes of the pain au chocolate into a small funeral mound, grunts thoughtfully, and then dabs her damp finger into the pile, again.

‘It’s a French thingamy, isn’t it?’ she says.

‘Jean-Paul Sartre was French, and he invented existentialism together with his partner Simone de Beauvoir,’ says daughter.

There’s a brief pause while Mother digests this.

‘He was terribly ugly. He looked like a toad,’ says Mother. ‘I’m surprise any woman went near him.’
‘I guess people were attracted to his ideas, not his looks,’ says my daughter, a little irked by her grandmother’s focus on Sartre’s looks rather than his learning.

‘Wonky eye, too,’ says Mother.

My daughter sighs and asks why she is thinking about existentialism. Mother says she doesn’t really know it was just something that popped into her head.

‘Like a piece of toast,’ she laughs.

I have never heard Mother talk about philosophy before. She has always struck me as more interested in people than philosophy, the concrete not the conceptual. I am not saying this makes her superficial or stupid. In fact, she’s well read and trying to stay connected to the world. She ploughs through every page of the Times each morning and even reads the sport and business sections though she has no interest in either, regarding business as the pastime of crooks and sports as a refuge for people who never got used to wearing trousers at school.

Mother’s reading habits have changed, though. She’s given up on reading novels because the books are too heavy for her to hold up for long. She also finds their length a challenge.

‘With novels, by the time I’ve got halfway through I’ve forgotten who all the characters are and by the end I can’t remember what happened at the beginning, so it’s pointless reading them now,’ she smiles.

She’s switched from reading novels to short stories. She’s currently reading a collection by Isaac Bashevis Singer, which was given to her by her sister thirty years ago. The book pages are tinted terracotta, strangely.

‘I am more likely to drop dead before I finish a novel than a short and you know I hate to start a book and not finish it,’ she says.

Back at the breakfast table, my son asks if my daughter has finished her philosophy lecture. She pokes her tongue out at him. I am watching a video compilation of cats and dogs called ‘Awesomely Funny Pets’ because Mother stole the sports section from me when I got up to make her a cup of tea.

Mother seems absorbed in the sports until my daughter gets up to make coffee. My daughter’s wearing shorts and bare legs.

‘Look at your legs,’ says Mother.

‘What do you mean?’ asks my daughter.

‘They go all the way to your hips,’ says Mother.

‘Where else would they go?’ asks my son.

‘Why is everything so body centric with you this morning?’ says my daughter.

‘I just mean they’re good legs,’ laughs Mother, aware her compliment is not going down how she meant it to.

I wonder if Mother’s legs comment is linked to her interest in Sartre? Perhaps she means ‘good’ in an existential sense and is posing a philosophical question: are my daughter’s legs capable of making ethical decisions by themselves, like boycotting BooHoo or refusing to wear tights which aren’t Fair Trade?

I hope she doesn’t mean good as in attractive because if she does, she may find herself on the receiving end of a lecture from my daughter on why women shouldn’t objectify other women’s bodies because there’s more than enough men in the world doing that already.

My daughter lets the moment pass. It was just an innocent compliment from a bye gone age which looks as out of date to her as existentialism looks unfashionable to her grandmother. She understands Mother’s compliment wasn’t meant to oppress her and every generation needs to cut each other some slack, if we’re going through this together.

Read the next in the series – Chapter 46: Walking boots and sweaty socks