The American system is a great external apparatus, an inexplicable machine which one might call the objective spirit of the United States and which over here they call "Americanism"; it is a monstrous complex of myths, of values, of formulae, of slogans, of symbols and of rites.
But it would not do to think that it is deposited in the head of every American as Descartes' God had deposited the primary notions in the mind of man; it would not do to think that it is "refracted" in their brains and in their hearts and that it there determines at every moment emotions and thoughts which are its rigorous expression.
It is, in fact, outside; it is presented to the citizens; the most skillful propaganda presents it to them ceaselessly but never does it do more than present it; it is not in them, but they in it; they struggle against it or accept it, they stifle in it or transcend it, they submit to it or reinvent it every time, they give themselves up to it or make furious efforts to evade it - in every way it remains external to them, transcendent, since they are human and it a thing.
There are the great myths, that of Happiness, that of Progress, that of Liberty, that of triumphant maternity; there is realism, optimism and then there are the Americans who at first are nothing, who grow among these colossal statues and disentangle themselves as best as they can in the midst of them.
Ah, and the myth of Happiness; there are those spellbinding slogans which advise you how to be happy as quickly as possible; there are the films with the happy endings, which every evening show life in rose colors to harassed crowds.
There is that language, laden with optimistic expressions, "Having a good time," "enjoy yourself," "life is fun," "Don't worry, be happy," etc. - and then there are those who are pursued into the most conformist happiness by an obscure malaise that does not know what to call itself, those who are tragic for fear of being so, by that total absence of the tragic in themselves and around them
Nowhere can one find such a wedge between man and myth, between life and the collective representation of life.
An American said to me, "The trouble is that each of us is haunted by the fear of being less American than his neighbor." I accept that explanation as it shows that Americanism is not a simple myth that a skillful propaganda could bury in people's heads, but that every American reinvents it, gropingly, every minute; that it is at once a great external form which rises at the entrance to America's ports, and is the daily product of unquiet liberties.
There is a dread of the American in the face of Americanism; there is an ambivalence of his dread, as if they were asking themselves at one and the same time: "Am I American enough?" and "How can I escape my Americanism?"
A person, in America, is a certain simultaneous answer to these two questions; and everyone of them must find their answers alone.
- The writer, Jean-Paul Sartre, is currently dead.