This morning at breakfast I read the most delightful piece in this month's Harpers--a short excerpt of a conversation between Jean-Paul Sartre and John Gerassi, a scholar who interviewed him in 1971. The excerpt details Sartre's post-mescaline visions of crabs. They followed him everywhere, "just three or four of them." (The crabs, it turns out, were lobsters, but having not heard this anecdote before, imagine my delight when the interviewer knowingly responds to Sartre's reference to his near-nervous breakdown with, "you mean the crabs?" And Sartre, interestingly, chooses to refer to them throughout as crabs.)
These crabs kept Sartre company at movies, on walks--always when he "was going someplace." He consulted a psychotherapist, some fellow named Jacques Lacan, who suggested that the crabs were his way of coping with loneliness. It's odd, then, that they were never around when Sartre was writing, for there is nothing more solitary, more grippingly lonely (often) than writing. Simone de Beauvoir (jeez--this guy and his no-name associates) considered crabs a sign of his depression.
The crab's mode of life seems rather relevant. Crabs are not sing-songy bluebirds, or sweet furry creatures. They are hard-shelled, pincered bottom-dwellers that scurry on the ocean floor, eating algae, worms, bacteria, what have you. With creaturely life in mind, the standout line of the interview is this: "Despite their mocking, my crabs never said that my books would not be on the shelf, or that if they were, so what?"
Sartre's crabs kept him grounded and real. From time to time, we could all use a few crabs.