Thomas on Stephens (2011)


Stephens, Bradley. Victor Hugo, Jean-Paul Sartre, and the Liability of Liberty. Oxford: Legenda, 2011. Pp. 178. ISBN: 978-1-907747-01-4

Andrea S. Thomas, Loyola University Maryland

As two of the most iconic figures of their time, Victor Hugo and Jean-Paul Sartre have much in common. Both écrivains engagés, they stridently defended human equality and defied the status quo. In his recent study, Bradley Stephens convincingly shows that the similarities between these two writers and their notions of liberty are much more complex and have been neglected for too long. The parallels between Hugo's and Sartre's visions of what it means to be free, Stephens writes, "have revealing implications for each writer's œuvre and for the modern intellectual history of which they form a part" (5). For both writers, Stephens argues, the question of freedom is at the heart of being. Liberty for them is an existential condition which is in constant flux and is "a necessity of human being that is somehow also an acquittal of that same condition" (8). For Hugo, the indeterminism of liberty engendered creativity whereas for Sartre, liberty is a burden. Thus, Stephens's alliterative coined expression, "the liability of liberty," captures both Hugo's lyricism and Sartre's view of freedom as condemnation.

In the first chapter, Stephens addresses the critical reception of Hugo and Sartre, going beyond what he calls the reductive nature of terms like romanticism and existentialism and drawing comparisons between the two as "philosophies of dramatic tension, rather than complete coherence" (16). Rather than try to reconcile their contradictions, Stephens argues, critics should accept paradox and indeterminism as the keystone of each philosophy. Stephens persuasively shows that Sartre's view of the va-et-vient movement of the self, perpetually striving to create meaning in an indeterminate world, shares the romantic's idealism. And romanticism, which problematizes the link between imagination and reason, thus shares a similar outlook with existentialism. Throughout his comparison of Hugo's and Sartre's philosophies, Stephens emphasizes the positive, productive side of contradiction. According to Stephens, both writers stress a dynamic and fluid approach to freedom, allowing for contradiction which ultimately serves as a precursor to the postmodern "dispersal of the self" (10).  

Stephens also examines the ways in which Hugo's and Sartre's positions differ. He begins the second chapter, for example, by addressing the important and distinguishing question of the divine in Hugo's and Sartre's philosophies. While Sartre's notion of being lacks a divine origin, it is integral to Hugo's outlook. Yet, according to Stephens, this difference nevertheless "leaves man equally engaged with the paradox of his condition as autonomous and self-determinate" (49). Both writers respond to this paradox with a certain idealism. Stephens then digs more deeply into Hugo's and Sartre's philosophical writings to show how "the poetic ideal of man in harmony with himself and his world, and the existential reality of their alienation, are two conceptual poles that attract as much as repel one another" (16), which Stephens uses Sartre's terminology to call a game of "loser wins."  

Stephens links the novel to the notion of freedom in the third chapter, arguing that as a hybrid and self-reflexive genre, the novel encourages readers to create their own meaning. While this may not be an original idea by itself, Stephens considers specifically how Hugo's and Sartre's narrative writing is the ideal medium for their ideas on liberty and for literary engagement, in general. Although the writers' plays could also demonstrate their engagement with freedom, Stephens writes, their novels are most replete with the liability of liberty.

Stephens's argument is most compellingly demonstrated in Chapter 4, where he shows these writers' ideas in practice. Here, Stephens provides a detailed reading of Notre-Dame de Paris and L'Âge de raison to show that each text is "a creative process rather than a finished interpretive product, involving not just the characters but moreover the readers in the paradox of freedom" (19). Particularly valuable is Stephens's discussion of the antagonists' resistance to freedom. With their similar lengths, assortments of characters, and significant historical backdrops, Stephens argues, these two novels are most suitable for comparison. Yet Stephens also addresses their dissimilarities, most of which are related to the narrative technique and choice of historical setting.

It would be worthwhile to see Stephens's argument applied to Hugo's and Sartre's celebrated dramatic works; if their novels best demonstrate the liability of liberty, however, it would be useful to see at least a comparison of their other novels. Nevertheless, the analysis of Notre-Dame de Paris and L'Âge de raison provides an excellent case study for his notion of the liability of liberty. In the brief conclusion, Stephens contends that contemporary thinking benefits from a romantic conception of self as dynamic and freedom as burden, although it may not always be recognized. For this reason, Stephen's work provides equally valuable insights for Hugo and Sartre specialists as it does for students of modern culture. Previous scholarship is pleasingly woven into Stephens's argument and his writing style is quick and fluid, itself more dynamic as the work progresses.