In an age of Hollow Men and existential angst, re-read Sartre
Skeptical of reason and pessimistic about humans' ability to be other than stupid and cruel, his capacity to think "against himself" and his moral intelligence still illuminate our times
As the geopolitical chessboard continues to be tossed around by ill winds, an exhausted West wallows in the mire of its own failings, and the planet faces a mounting existential crisis, we might do worse than to pause and reflect on how one of the great minds of a previous generation might help us make sense of these times of trouble.
Jean-Paul Sartre was one of the last towering giants of a Renaissance pantheon concerned with the whole spectrum of human existence. Sharp, independent minds have always enjoyed the Sartrean glow that permeates Western culture (or at least those particles of it not fossilized by academia).
Sartre, via his “protest” philosophy, was indisputably the preeminent moral voice and intelligence of the second half of the 20th century, with “protest” carrying the meaning it was imbued with by Martin Luther. And as with Luther, Sartre’s existentialism has a fulminating formula:
“Existence precedes essence.” Before “being,” Man exists. In other words, no God conceived him; ergo, there’s no God. And if there’s no God, Man is condemned to be free. So there is no intrinsic good or evil.
Nausea – a novel capable of changing your life when you read it as a
teenager – is pretty straightforward, far from abstruse philosophy. European intellectual bourgeois values and society irrevocably exploded between 1914-1919. Nazism-fascism was a sort of Frankenstein reincarnation of these concepts. The alternative was Stalinism, the
death of the soul.
Nausea represented the conviction that Man must build himself and create his own existence. Sartre – a notorious procrastinator – did not finish his masterpiece, Being and Nothingness. And a promised volume on ethics never materialized. Ethics would have conferred added value to his new philosophy. But besides being a procrastinator he was a neurotic. Sartre’s tetralogy, Roads of Freedom, actually features only three (extraordinary) novels. His Freudian analysis of Flaubert similarly lacks its final volume.
Sharp, independent minds have always enjoyed the Sartrean glow that permeates Western culture (or at least those particles of it not fossilized by academia)
Sartre could never relinquish his creative passion, while being at the same time fully aware that this passion was irrelevant in the face of our fast-degrading, fragmenting world. Hence his – non-reciprocated –
passion for the working classes, or better yet (as a Frenchman, he was more in tune with Saint-Just than with Marx) for the malheureux, the wretched who constitute the salt of the earth.
Sartre, like every progressive intellectual in the 20th century, had to face the direst of questions: could the liberating power of Marx’s analysis be resurrected amid the Soviet horror? In those Cold War days, the alternative was a world turned into one big Singapore. Or worse (for romantic souls like Sartre), the homogenized tedium of social democracy, so convenient because the parts of the West which adopted it fully exploited what Arnold Toynbee described as the “external proletariat,” i.e. Third World nations.
So Sartre preferred not to tell the French working classes about Stalinist camps. He didn’t wish to dash those workers’ hopes. Camus may have
been appalled by what was happening in the Soviet Union, but Camus in any case had a tendency to be selectively scandalized, believing there to be no difference between the terrorism of the oppressed and the terrorism of oppressors (especially in relation to Algeria).
By the way, Sartre won the intellectual argument against Camus. The bourgeoisie, as he pointed out, was always allowed to lie at will, feeding “entertainment” (as Marcuse used to say) to the masses to keep them
in eternal servitude.
Thinking against himself
Sartre, like Walt Whitman, contained multitudes within himself. He saw Man as always a work in progress, creating himself constantly through action. This is the human condition: “I am my own freedom”. So, inevitably he had to always keep thinking “against himself.”
He was tremendously loyal to close friends he admired, like the Apollonian Merleau-Ponty and the great writer Paul Nizan. Nizan was killed at only 35, at the start of WWII, doubly anguished by France’s plight and the stab to the heart of the Hitler-Stalin pact. These events are at the root of Sartre’s conversion to Marxism and his turbulent coexistence with communism.
Sartre’s intellectual gaze in a sense followed the surrealist maxim according to which our heads are round in order to allow thought to change direction. Sartre may have collaborated with the French Communist Party in denouncing the Korean War – as some Washington factions itched to go nuclear. But at the same time, he wrote the most devastating analysis of the corruptions of Marxism in his book The Ghost of Stalin, after the Soviet invasion of Hungary.
He was blessed beyond belief to share his life – and intellectual passion – with an extraordinary woman. Picture Simone de Beauvoir in Occupied France, walking every afternoon to the library of the Sorbonne to pore over Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, mixed in with
some Kierkegaard, and emerge with two sources that would suffuse both her own writing and existentialism as well: Kierkegaard as an icon of freedom; Hegel with his serene vision of history playing out on an epic canvas.
De Beauvoir did not know if Sartre was alive then. He was, jailed in POW camp Stalag 12D, in the Rhineland, reading Heidegger and plotting a “treatise” that would become Being and Nothingness. He finally gained his freedom on account of his poor eyesight. The rest is, well, history.
In the last stretch of his life, Sartre seemed to have lost any belief in political solutions. His last great passion was for the creative anarchy of 1968, the half-centenary of which will be celebrated in the coming year. At the time, he remarked: “If one rereads all my books, one will realize that I have not changed profoundly, and that I have always remained an anarchist.”
It’s May 20, 1968. Picture Sartre speaking to at least 7,000 students occupying the Sorbonne’s magnificent, statue-filled auditorium (“there were students sitting in the arms of Descartes and others on Richelieu’s shoulders,” Simone de Beauvoir memorably wrote). Sartre, almost 63 by now, is speaking to his virtual grandchildren, making sense of history, linking them to his own generation of angry students in the late 1920s and further down to a dynasty of philosophical rebels with a cause, from Nietzsche to Kierkegaard.
And yet to search the origins of Sartre’s existentialism in Husserl, Heidegger and even Kierkegaard is beside the point. It’s an absolutely original creation dictated by the specific context of European society’s decadence, imperialism and colonialism (I have always wondered whether Sartre had read Conrad, from Heart of Darkness to Nostromo).
He was more Rousseau than Voltaire. And as far as Asia was concerned, it’s not true that Sartre became a Maoist. He always regarded Maoism – the Godard version, immortalized in movies such as La Chinoise – as quite silly. But he defended Maoist intellectuals and accepted an invitation to be the (nominal) editor of their newspaper, to protect them from repression. Here’s Sartre in a nutshell: whenever there was oppression, he sided with the oppressed.
The thermometer of Modern Times
Sartre, near his death in 1980, was isolated (“we live as we dream, alone,” Conrad wrote), brilliantly haranguing the cruelty and stupidity of human beings, but always ready to help them against oppression. In miniature, this is the best we all should aim at if we decide to live a decent existence.
His work is such a breath of fresh air to re-read, today – Sartre as Sophocles displaying his fury against the imperial powers as he explores the agony of Biafra; the serene and melancholic Sartre dissecting what was made of the dreams of Lenin and Trotsky in The Ghost of Stalin; or the extraordinary foreword he wrote for Frantz Fanon’s immensely influential The Wretched of the Earth, in which he stresses the notion that an anti-imperialist revolution must be violent because it helps the colonized to shake off the paralysis of oppression.
Simone de Beauvoir was absolutely seduced by the US when she first visited in the late 1940s: “Abundance, and infinite horizons; it was a crazy magic lantern of legendary images”. And yet, along with Sartre and Camus, she was also horrified by the country’s racial inequality. Sartre later wrote about black “untouchables” and “unseeables” haunting the streets and never meeting your gaze.
Sartre, near his death in 1980, was isolated, brilliantly haranguing the cruelty and stupidity of human beings, but always ready to help them against oppression
Millenials may not be aware that once upon a time not to read Les Temps Modernes, Sartre’s magazine, was to be de facto cut off from progressive Western thought. Whole generations of Global South intellectuals, fabulous cinematic avant-gardists in the 1960s and 1970s, and a wave of leftist intellectuals emerging from Stalinism’s anesthesia, were all influenced by the teachings of Sartre’s magazine.
Critique of Dialectical Reason remains a stinging tour de force, and even with its many flaws (for which its ambition is a mitigating factor) is a must read for all of us who still (naively) believe – against all evidence offered by the intractability of geopolitics – that reason may be a force for good in the world.
Sartre and Bertrand Russell didn’t get along well. And yet uber- rationalist Russell hit the streets and became a popular agitator while Sartre sold newspapers in the streets affirming the intellectual right of free expression. Their example remains.
So, dear reader, from my table at “his” Café de Flore, now swamped
by Asian tourists in search of an existential selfie, here’s to the last humanist, the last Renaissance man of a bygone era. His generosity and wisdom will keep shining more than ever in our age of Hollow Men.