Tag Archives: Jean-Paul Sartre

On owning a bike

Being and NothingnessTo possess a bicycle is to be able first to look at it, then to touch it. But touching is revealing as insufficient; what is necessary is to be able to get on the bicycle and take a ride. But this gratuitous ride is likewise insufficient; it would be necessary to use the bicycle to go on some errands. And this refers us to longer uses … But these trips themselves disintegrate into a thousand appropriative behavior patterns, each one of which refers to others. Finally, as one could foresee, handing over a bank note is enough to make a bicycle belong to me, but my entire life is needed to realize this possession.

Jean-Paul SartreOn Being and Nothingness (1943)

Having recently handed over more than a few banknotes to make a new (French) bike belong to me, I’m reminded of the hours (years?) of engagement with it that is still required to make it truly mine. As beautiful as it is, it’s the riding, racing, cleaning, assembling, and disassembling of it, not to mention the talking about it and gazing appreciatively at it, that will appropriate it. Of course, this is a simplification of Sarte’s ideas on the symbolic meaning of appropriation and he would argue that appropriation has only symbolic meaning while rid


LaPierre Xelius 800 EFI

ing, cleaning, assembling and disassembling are different things entirely.

Nonetheless, the enjoyment for me is real, whether its symbolic, anticipated or re-visited through memory. It’s tempered partly by regret at the abandonment of the bike that has served me well for the past six years, though true to form, I’ll keep it to keep my legs honest on those wet and dirty days.

Sartre and Simone deBeauvoir were both avid cyclists, as were Albert Camus and the editor Pierre Gallimard. DeBeauvoir writes of a cycling accident when out with Sartre in which she lost a tooth in a downhill crash. In ‘What is Literature? (1947), Sartre reflected on the spectacle of a veiled Mahomaden woman riding a bicycle whom he saw on his 1938 bus journey from Mogador to Sufi. The observation was in the context of his critique of surrealism and paid little obvious attention  to issues of equality raised by both the bicycle and the veil.

The precise mechanism of the bicycle challenges the idle harem dreams which one ascribes to this veiled creature as she passes by but at the same moment what remains of the voluptuous and magical darkness between the painted eyebrows and behind the low forehead challenges, in turn, mechanism; it gives a feeling that behind capitalist standardisation, there is something beyond, which, though chained and conquered, is yet virulent and bewitching. Phantom eroticism, the surrealist impossible, and bourgeois dissatisfaction: in all three cases the real breaks down.

What is Literature? The Situation of the Writer 1947.

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