Sartre’s Crabs

From Talking With Sartre: Conversations and Debates, a selection of interviews with Jean-Paul Sartre by John Gerassi, from the 1970s, to be published this fall by Yale University Press. Translated from the French by the good folks at Harper’s.

After I took mescaline, I started seeing crabs around me all the time. They followed me in the streets, into class. I got used to them. I would wake up in the morning and say, “Good morning, my little ones, how did you sleep?” I would talk to them all the time. I would say, “Okay, guys, we’re going into class now, so we have to be still and quiet,” and they would be there, around my desk, absolutely still, until the bell rang.

The crabs really began when my adolescence ended. At first, I avoided them by writing about them—in effect, by defining life as nausea—but then as soon as I tried to objectify it, the crabs appeared. nauseaAnd then they appeared whenever I walked somewhere. Not when I was writing, just when I was going someplace. The crabs stayed with me until the day I simply decided that they bored me and that I just wouldn’t pay attention to them.

I would have liked my crabs to come back. The crabs were mine. I had gotten used to them. They kept reminding me that my life was absurd, yes, nauseating, but without challenging my immortality. Despite their mocking, my crabs never said that my books would not be on the shelf, or that if they were, so what?

They left me during the war. You know, I’ve never said this before, but sometimes I miss them—when I’m lonely, or rather when I’m alone. When I go to a movie that ends up boring, or not very gripping, and I remember how they used to sit there on my leg. Of course I always knew that they weren’t there, that they didn’t exist, but they served an important purpose. They were a warning that I wasn’t thinking correctly or focusing on what was important, or that I was heading up the wrong track, all the while telling me that my life was not right, not what it should be. Well, no one tells me that anymore.

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4 Responses to “Sartre’s Crabs”


  1. 1 Julia Rain (the daughter) February 27, 2011 at 8:21 pm

    “The crabs stayed with me until the day I simply decided that they bored me and that I just wouldn’t pay attention to them.”

    That makes me sad. I feel bad for the man, for missing his crabs, and I feel bad for the imaginary, hallucination-induced crabs. Though perhaps they were not imaginary, and the mescaline simply switched something on in the man’s brain that enabled him to note their presence.

    Mescaline is kind of big here, which is odd, considering it’s supposed to be rare. Of course, drug use in general is really big here, more so than where I lived in CA, which is rather ironic. I hear the reason is because “there’s nothing else to do”. I disagree with this, of course, since there are books, cats, squirrels, trees, music, the internet and movies in plenty in this area.

    So of course I’d never touch the stuff. But I like the idea of having a little group of crabs who follow me around and remind me of what I should be doing. Kind of like how I’d never, ever touch LSD, but I wistfully desire to come down with a case of synesthesia, because I wonder things like what does B-flat smells like, and such. It seems like a form of magic, synesthesia.

    Or maybe it’s just that that picture you posted of the crab is so very sweet.

    • 2 bluenred February 27, 2011 at 10:25 pm

      Sartre had access to real mescaline; jeebus knows what sort of sewage passes for “mescaline” there where you live, 12 miles or so from the KKK compound.

      There were drugs where you lived in California. But you were living with your parents at the time. So it was not likely that people would drop by day and night to kick open the door and excitedly upend baggies of narcotics and pseudo-narcotics all over the table, as I imagine happens out there with some frequency these days. : /

      People afflicted with synesthesia generally don’t regard it as a positive experience. There is a vivid description of a person plagued with such a condition in the SF novel The Stars My Destination. Takes you there pretty well.

      There is nothing to prevent you from hauling crabs around with you wherever you go, even without mescaline. The noted San Francisco eccentric Emperor Norton used to walk a lobster through the city streets on a leash.

      And that is quite the sweet crab, there in the picture.

      • 3 Julia Rain (the daughter) February 27, 2011 at 11:38 pm

        Well it’s some kind of cactus derivative, mescaline – right? So it really has no business being in Pennsylvania anyway. People don’t “kick open the door and excitedly upend baggies of narcotics” where I live. Though David’s brother does occasionally show up at 3am with a case of beer. And he has some pretty terrifying drug-related stories, certainly.

        Well yeah I lived with my parents in CA, but I also went to high school. It was just your average drug intake. I suppose it’s wilder in Chico, having the #1 party school in the nation, and all.

        Well that makes me feel bad that I was insensitive about synesthesia. I’ve seen documentaries about it though and the people in them don’t talk about it being bad, just different and sometimes distracting. It appeals to me because I’d like to be able to play my favorite CDs and know what they smell, look and taste like. Seems it would make reading a much more vivid experience, too.

        I remember hearing about Emperor Norton. So I suppose, in theory, I could go down to the grocery store and buy a lobster to keep as a pet. Not sure how the cats would feel about that, though.

        • 4 bluenred February 28, 2011 at 10:44 am

          Mescaline is powdered peyote, or is supposed to be; people down it in capsules rather than chew peyote buttons, because the latter causes most people to hurl. Problem is street mescaline is often not powdered peyote at all, but other junk.

          You can’t kid me about what goes on there: I’ve reviewed both google earth, and NSA intercepts. : /

          Well, if you’ve seen synesthesia documentaries, and the people in them say they’re okay with it, then that must be true. Probably the people I read about were whiners. : /


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