by Samuel Hux (October 2018)
Jean-Paul Sartre, Gérard Fromanger, 1976
It will soon be four decades since Jean-Paul Sartre died (1980, hard to believe!) so it’s a bit too late for an obituary—but not too soon for a reconsideration, I don’t think, for a novelist-playwright-critic who was, for a while, a great philosopher . . . before committing intellectual suicide. Calling an essay a reconsideration usually suggests a kind of positive re-appraisal paying respect to the subject but I confess I am in fact focused almost as much on myself since a significant part of my intellectual life was spent on consideration of Sartre.
I was blown away by his work when I was an undergraduate double-majoring in literature and philosophy. My introduction was his 1946 essay “Existentialism is a Humanism,” which I found in Walter Kaufmann’s great and influential anthology Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre (1956), which inspired me to read his fiction such as Nausea (1938), “The Wall” (1939), and The Age of Reason (1945), his plays such as The Flies (1943) and No Exit (1944), and his philosophical texts such as The Transcendence of the Ego (1937) and of course the most important Being and Nothingness (1943)—which body of work is what I dare say most general readers have had in mind when they thought of Sartre. Literature engagée; choice and responsibility; commitment; authenticity; good faith and bad; “existence precedes essence”: a heady concoction! I had no idea at that time that Sartre was already on the initial steps toward radically modifying—if not quite disowning—the existentialism which made his name. I later wrote a doctoral dissertation which leaned heavily on Sartre; I published several essays directly about him or touching upon him in cultural reviews—all before I finally said “enough.” But not until now have I said, in a different tone of voice, Enough!
A decade before Jean-Paul Sartre’s death Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka edited the two-volume compendium The Writings of Jean-Paul Sartre (reviewed by yours truly) which included a collection of seldom-published pieces and a year by year annotated bibliography, occasional excerpts included, of everything Sartre had written, from novels and plays to philosophical tomes to prefaces and letters to the editor. Because of its breadth, because of its summaries of occasional journalism not normally available to readers outside France, it was a monumental work for scholars—and it was also a monument, one could hardly escape the impression, of the kind normally reserved for writers safely dead.
Sartre’s Between Existentialism and Marxism, published about the same time, reminded one that the commemoration, although several years early, was still not premature. An essay on “Kierkegaard: The Singular Universal,” for instance, an argument that the Dane’s thought can survive only when incorporated into the philosophy of historical dialectic, first Hegelian and now Marxist, reminded one that with some fanfare Sartre had announced the end of his own Existentialism in 1960 in Critique of Dialectical Reasoning. Nothing in the writing that followed could be taken as a change of mind. It was clear: he meant it.
Existentialism, Sartre wrote in the Critique, is not a philosophy but an ideology. That is, as he defines the latter, it is the work of those who, coming after the “great flowering” of a philosophical system, “cultivate the domain . . . take an inventory . . . erect certain structures there . . . may even bring about certain internal changes; but they still get their nourishment from the living thought of the great dead”—in this case Karl Marx. Existentialism “is a parasitical system living on the margin of Knowledge [i.e. Marxism], which at first it opposed but into which today it seeks to be integrated.” Sartre was willing to buy his way in, convinced that Marxism needs the existentialist ideology to provide itself with the clear sense of human subjectivity it lacks—for all its objectivity about broad historical forces—and make possible a convincing philosophical mediation between the praxis of the individual actor, the particularity of the historical moment, and the socio-historical dialectic.
Sartre was always an intellectually and morally obnoxious character (something I was not aware of, or perhaps neglected to notice, in my days of fandom)—limited by his over-confidence, constitutionally unable to distinguish between a conservative and a fascist, the unacknowledged patron saint of political correctness. But there was a time when he was no sycophant. So, what did it mean—this offering-up and creepy genuflection before Marx? What did it mean about his philosophy all along?
The central image in what will last of Sartre’s thought is the mutual conflict between the Self and the Other. In Being and Nothingness a man’s coming into existence, the rise of human consciousness, was described as a kind of ontological severance, the “nothingness” of the title, a “hole in the heart of being.” As a consciousness, l’etre-pour-soi, being-in-itself, I am different from the rest of Being, which “is what it is,” because I am a potentiality. I create my identity day by day; I am a transcendence; I do not have the fixity of a thing, l’etre-en-soi, being-in-itself. Since a consciousness exists only as a consciousness of something, I am a series of “intentions” upon the world about me.
But a part of that world is the Other—who first appears to me as a thing, en-soi; he is after all the object of my consciousness. Gradually I notice that he is looking at me, and I assume correctly that he in turn views me as en-soi. The Look. He objectifies me as I do him. Since we are both consciousnesses, “intentions” who need something to “intend” upon, we are mutually dependent. But since at the same time one experiences the other as something that rejects objectification by returning it, we experience each other as threats. We each steal the other’s freedom as a non-object; we each refuse to have our freedom stolen. We are necessary antagonists; our basic relationship is one of mutual aggression.
That is the most publicized image—or rather, half-image—in Being and Nothingness. Much less acknowledged is Sartre’s fragile resolution of that conflict, his attempt to explain how a community of purpose can arise between such natural antagonists.
Imagine that I and the Other are experiencing the reciprocal “Look” when an accident occurs in the street and we each turn to view it. “Immediately,” says Sartre, “at the very instant when I become a spectator of the incident, I experience myself non-thetically as engaged in ‘we.’ The earlier rivalries . . . have (momentarily) disappeared . . . ‘We’ look at the event, ‘we’ take part.” Such an experience is fleeting, however. So imagine another situation. I versus the Other. Suddenly a “Third” appears and looks at . . . Us. To the Third we are “them.” We are converted by the Third’s Look into objects—but, as well, into an incipient collective “which I agree in solidarity with the Other to constitute. And to the extent that on principle I assume my being-outside for the Third, I must similarly assume the Other’s being-outside; what I assume is a community of equivalence by means of which I exist in a form which like the Other I agree to constitute.” Sartre’s example of men in the street is only a beginning metaphor, for he has in mind a larger significance for the Third. It sounds like the Critique of Dialectical Reasoning, but it’s still Being and Nothingness.
The “master,” the “feudal lord,” the “bourgeois” (Sartre fancying himself an honorary proletarian), the “capitalist,” all of them “appear not only as powerful people who command but in addition and above all as Thirds; that is, as those who are outside the oppressed community and for whom this community exists. It is therefore for them in their freedom that the reality of the oppressed class is going to exist. They cause it to be born by their look.”
The image of I and the Other reappears in the Critique: our hostility, our awkward and suspicious movement toward a We—but all, as we will see, on a fundamentally different ground. This image of antagonism and its resolution is, I think, Sartre’s major offering to Marxism in the hundreds of pages of the Critique, his attempt to give Marxism a believable and non-mechanistic anthropology. But it is also an attempt to show how it is possible to believe in collective action without sacrificing a belief in the antagonistic nature of human beings.
Sartre may be the most significant philosopher of all time to lavish so much attention upon people standing about on street corners. But in the Critique we’re waiting for a bus. We already have a relationship of a kind: we are an un-adhesive collection of isolated consciousnesses, singly possessing the same goal of gaining a seat. But this requires no more cooperation than our simply standing there in a file. We are a “series” (Sartre calls it); our relationship is merely and casually “seriality.” In so far as we are in a series, and of course there are more momentous series than bus queues—classes, ethnic groupings, and so on, the situations we are born into—we exist, each one for himself, in the practico-inerte, Sartre’s term for the lumpy, disparate, non-purposive, casual thereness of society, the social residue perhaps of previous purposive orders lapsed into inertia.
While I remain in a series, my eyes set on a private goal—a seat, for instance, or better yet an adequate wage for someone of my class in my society’s economy—I am not greatly different from that l’etre-pour-soi staring about suspiciously at the Others who are merely part of l’etre-en-soi. But when I recognize, or am made to recognize by external pressures, that the goal I singly possess, as do Others in the series, I also share with them, I am on my way toward a mutual agreement to constitute a group—Sartre’s word for a series become conscious of its collective power. We take over the bus, as it were, and distribute the seats equitably. Or: We become a revolutionary proletariat instead of a seriality of wage earners. Or: etcetera.
But this “group” was created with much more ease, with much less difficulty in overcoming rivalries within the series, than that “community of equivalence” I agreed with the Other to constitute back in Being and Nothingness. This relative ease is because the Sartre of the Critique has changed his mind about what made us antagonists in the first place: Our hostility is not ontologically grounded after all; it is not the result of my consciousness being born as a severance between me and all the rest of Being. It is not a matter of the Look. Rather, it is a matter of socio-economics: we are antagonists prior to the constitution of the group because of scarcity, because of our conflicting needs. Sartre has made his analysis more amenable to the Marxist, but—it seems to me—at the expense of cutting the heart out of his philosophy.
It might be said, on the other hand, that such a cost has its compensation: a much more hopeful and humanistic view of things. But the story is hardly over, for a problem arises that Sartre tries to resolve in a way that will not satisfy those who applaud the hopeful compensation—and which will eventually lead us to the question of authority.
I have already suggested that an element of the practico-inerte is the residue of numerous “groups” that have lapsed into seriality. And, indeed, the problem of the group is that its lasting power is suspect, dependent upon the specific shared project of the constituents. Suppose there is a gain that appears less temporary than it actually is: how can the group remain “fused”? It cannot forever, unless/until there is no more scarcity, in which case, I suppose, there would be no need. In the meantime, to prevent a rhythm of series and group and group and series, the constituents make an “oath,” a kind of contract, and exercise upon any recalcitrant constituent the terreur. There has already been something like a Third: people and institutions that benefit from seriality and the nullifying conflict of mine and the Other’s rivalrous needs. But now the Terror is a kind of Third, interiorized within the group. There is an improvement of a sort, for collectivity in this scheme is not merely a kind of near-impotent parasitical responsiveness to whatever oppresses us from outside, a dependence upon being oppressed in order to be a group instead of a series; rather, now, we are held together from inside—or seemingly so.
Now while the Terror sounds more terrible in ordinary language than it necessarily does in political thought, where it can suggest the administering of the discipline deemed necessary within a movement, a party, a nation, we should not launder the word too much by ignoring ordinary connotations. We know what Committees of Public Safety are, and revolutionary cadres, and dictatorships of the proletariat. To be fair, Sartre does not play dumb to implications in his analysis. He suggests a certain inevitability to the Bolshevik revolution’s remaining “fused” by a combination of “bureaucracy, terror, and personality cult.” But I don’t think we should be disarmed either by preventive-disarming admissions and mumble something about the necessity of breaking eggs to make omelets.
George Lichtheim was perfectly right that “Sartre’s attitude to the Russian Revolution and Stalin is more or less that of Hegel to the French Revolution and Napoleon.” And we should take thorough note of how little the individual is considered, compared to the group-in-fusion, to the “Fraternity of Terror,” as Sartre calls it with no hint of humor. Lionel Abel once pointed out that a strange reversal from Being and Nothingness takes place at this point in the Critique. The individual consciousness was, back then in 1943, l’etre-pour-soi, as against the inertness of l’etre-en-soi; but now in 1960 the group is in effect the pour-soi, while the individual consciousness, threatening the dissolution of the “fraternity” into the practico-inerte, is the en-soi, the mere sodden thereness of Being.
A tentative judgment or two is in order. Sartre’s contribution to political thought is shown in the Critique to be essentially Hobbesean. Which is no small thing! Except that Sartre’s analysis is not so profound as to be the least improvement over Thomas Hobbes, nor so very haunting and revelatory. One is not inclined to say here as a critic said of Hobbes, “We are not often led to the brink of the abyss and asked to look at ourselves, as in a darkened mirror.” Indeed, there is something unconvincing and something pedestrian, in being told, as we were not in Being and Nothingness, that we are such beasts simply because we are hungry, which is what it amounts to.
But beyond this, I think one really has to question the size of Sartre’s fundamental contribution to political sociology. Is his analysis of how groups are formed from antagonistic material reality, to be blunt, beyond the capacities of a moderately talented sociologist? Not that it has to be to be true—but suspicions of a certain hoopla are hard to avoid.
More important, there is no pretense in the Critique and Sartre’s other “Marxist” (or Marxist-friendly) writings of value-free observation, or even of certain conclusions arrived at with much “sad to say, but . . .” Occasional libertarian rhetoric to the contrary (and there was a great deal of it especially during and after the May “revolution” of 1968), Sartre becomes one of the apologists for a Marxist Leviathan. That’s no particular surprise by this time of course, but it is something I should like to approach, now, in a different and ultimately ironic way.
In the history of Existentialism where does Max Stirner come in?—asked the English poet and anarchist Sir Herbert Read. Read answered, “Stirner is one of the most existentialist of all past philosophers, and whole pages of The Ego and His Own  read like anticipations of Sartre.” A consequent meaning of Read’s question might be: In the history of anarchism where does Jean-Paul Sartre come in? Whole pages of Being and Nothingness read like resoundings of Stirner. The answer to the second question is: He doesn’t, but in many ways he ought to—a fact that makes the totalitarian-friendly position he arrived at all the more perplexing.
Where Sartre could have come in is with something like his analysis of the series being fused into a group—something classical anarchism never did succeed in explaining theoretically. How does a singly dissatisfied rebel in insurrection against the oppression of himself come together with other insurrectionists to form a revolution, which is not a single but a political act? (The distinction is Stirner’s.) Mikhail Bakunin’s answer was really none at all, merely a kind of quasi-Marxist magic: Revolutions “come independently of all will and all conspiracies, and are always brought on by natural force of circumstance,” by “the spontaneous action of the masses”—which masked Bakunin’s own practical cultivation of those conspiracies of which revolutions are, he said, independent. The question is a pertinent one because of some facts about anarchist political philosophy which belie popular assumptions about what the classical anarchists believed about humankind: that the human being was an altruistic animal, cooperative by nature. In fact, their vision was quite close to Sartre’s in Being and Nothingness.
About Stirner there can be no quarrel here. The “Libertarian Egoist” taught that the individual realizes himself in the “combat of self-assertion” against others, seeing the others as objects, his own “property.” The picture is essentially that of those alien consciousnesses in Being and Nothingness in mutual aggression against, and objectification of, each other, each realizing himself in the combat of intentions. But Stirner is usually seen as something of a peripheral figure in the anarchist tradition, finding his uncomfortable place as the “lonely rhapsodist of the uniqueness of every human being,” as the historian of anarchism George Woodcock put it. I suggest, however, that Stirner’s vision is there at the very center of anarchism.
Natural cooperativeness? There are in fact a few statements which contradict that impression, a representative one from Pierre-Joseph Proudhon for instance: “Man is a tyrant or slave by his own will before he is made tyrant or slave by fortune; the heart of the proletarian is like that of the rich, a cesspool of babbling sensuality, a home of filth and hypocrisy . . . The greatest obstacle which equality has to overcome is not the aristocratic pride of the rich, but rather the undisciplined egoism of the poor.” But such a judgment need be no more than rage and impatience with the overdue revolution. It is best to be attentive to a definition of human nature that is demanded by a basic tenet of all classical anarchism—whatever the momentary rages or rhapsodies.
“No authority, no government, even if it be popular government; this is the revolution”—Proudhon. Even if it be popular government, the anarchists consistently warned. To expect the revolutionary idealist to remain honest in power was, said Bakunin, “like squaring the circle, an unattainable ideal.” Some such statement (with a distinction between government, “delegation of power,” and administration, “delegation of work”—Errico Malatesta) was made by all the classical anarchists. And it is tantamount to saying that power corrupts. But why should it, so absolutely, unless man is by nature imminently corruptible, native oppressor, not naturally cooperative?
If one wishes to retain the notion of natural cooperativeness while retaining the notion that absolutely anyone is corrupted by power, one has to endow the act of governing with some metaphysical property; government is more than those who govern. But anarchism dismissed this notion as, in Malatesta’s words, “a disease . . . called the metaphysical tendency.” “For us, government is the aggregate of the governors”—an insight that did not keep him from arguing a page later that should the best gain power they would become tyrants. Which is either to ascribe to government some metaphysical properties beyond the aggregate of the governors or to subscribe to a none-too-altruistic definition of human nature. So, again, how do these egotistical aggressors come together in collective action such as a revolution or, later, a commune?
It might be argued that there was kind of “Third” implicit in anarchist analysis: the State itself that oppressed him, her, you, me . . . Us. But, in fact, one of the basics of anarchist thought was that the State unifies no one except those who rule—sometimes. Its natural function is either atomizing people or keeping them atomized; it cultivates what Sartre would later call seriality. What was missing from anarchism as a political theory was a convincing go at the kind of analysis that Sartre did attempt as long ago as Being and Nothingness, a theory to bridge between the natural ego and the possibility of collective action, outside the myth of a social contract so abhorrent to anarchism.
The purpose of this excursion into anarchist thought is to question the inevitability of Sartre’s neo-Marxism. Was he indeed in the earlier “existentialist” works, as he claimed in the Critique, cultivating a domain, taking an inventory, erecting certain structures, all of which are meaningless and merely ideological unless nourished by Marxism? I am not about to suggest that Sartre was really an anarchist instead, only that his earlier writings were perfectly congenial with that school of thought, more so than with Marxism. But is there, although different from inevitability, something like poetic justice to the “conversion”?
It is remarkable in such a profoundly political philosopher as Sartre to find so little convincing concern with authority—that mysterious something that “legitimizes” certain behavior and not other, that is difficult to explain and resistant to questioning, but is assumed whenever we do more than merely describe an event, a course of action. Where is authority in Sartre’s scheme, rejecting as he does any transcendental values or any notion that legitimacy derives from the long, deep past? We know better than to expect him to locate authority, as Plato tried to, in the laws, “which are our parents” (Crito). Bourgeois parents, Sartre would have answered, and that’s that. There is a paucity of vision here, almost amounting to a lack of curiosity in some respects. I will eat a dozen berets if it is ever proven that Sartre so much as glanced at a page of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, the failure to consider which is intellectually fatal to anyone presuming to write about revolution, whether from the left or the right.
An “authority” he sees no need to rationalize arises for Sartre ex nihilo in the praxis of the group fused by a revolutionary project. As long ago as his 1946 essay “Materialism and Revolution,” his first extended critique of Marxism, Sartre argued that since the revolutionary is willing to sacrifice his life—and others’!—for a future social order, for the “antiphysis” (“a rational adjustment of human relationships” replacing “what has been produced blindly by nature”), that future then “acts as a value for him,” and “What is a value if not the call of something which does not yet exist?”
Authority is located, then, not in the transcendental realm, or in tradition, but in the future! A religious visionary might say something similar, but would mean that the future Holy Commonwealth is a projection of, as it corresponds to, presently held views that derive from a transcendental source—or perhaps is a recovery of the true nature of things, a prelapsarian grace. But not so for Sartre: values are made, not derived or recovered. That future that justifies present action is being created by our acts. Those acts—dependent for their justification upon the future they are creating—are creating the source of their own justification. The end that justifies the means is being created by the means that need justification by the end. This is very tiring, and philosophically suffocating. But accept the magic for the moment.
When the group threatens to lapse into the practico-inerte, threatens that is to disintegrate, “Authority” resides in the exercise of the Terror. The Terror holds the group together. But if “authority” was originally the call of the future (“something which does not yet exist”), then by what right does the Terror presume to be authoritative when the future stops calling? And that, of course, is what has happened when the group threatens to disintegrate.
Sartre’s kind of “authority” doesn’t really come into being until the call of values has failed. His position amounts to saying that violence or the threat of violence is authority—which people are willing to say. But I rather agree with Hannah Arendt: “Since authority always demands obedience, it is commonly mistaken for some form of power or violence. Yet authority precludes the use of external means of coercion; where force is used, authority itself has failed.” What Sartre calls authority, it seems to me, is not authority; rather, it is the failure of authority.
Questions of authority are not academic. For it is a matter of sustaining one’s vision amidst choices and decisions. Without some stable sense of authority one can grow incredibly fatigued—which is what I think happened to Sartre. Consider all he offers us: A Hobbesean vision of humankind, and at the same time a sentiment (that’s all it can be, for it is grounded in no logical necessity) in favor of an antiphysis of “popular democratic” ideals; a rejection of transcendental values and all God-talk as sources of authority; a rejection of the mysterious notion that the passage of time can convey a kind of legitimacy (as Nathaniel Hawthorne put it, “custom, so immemorial, that it looks like nature”); no appeal to human nature itself, since that’s the source of the antagonism that creates the difficulty in the first place, All this becomes a burden one escapes by elevating political musculature, by equating authority, makeshift, with force, and then easing one’s sensibilities by saying that any broken eggs are necessary for the realization of that sentiment. Moving in circles may become fatiguing—or one may move in circles because one is fatigued. Give me an arm, Saint Vladimir Ilich!
The classical anarchists, subject to similar quandaries deriving from an implicit definition of human nature that could not sustain their ideal of free mutualism, did not tire so thoroughly. The image of the 78-year-old Peter Kropotkin lecturing V.I. Lenin on power and abuse comes to mind. Perhaps the anarchists were philosophically naïve, intellectually too weak to take their presuppositions to the ultimate conclusions, or merely inconsistent. But perhaps, ironically, what one needs is an acceptance of inconsistency, it that’s what it is, a willed belief in the meta-empirical, a locating of authority in faith or custom or somesuch—imperfect perhaps, maybe only a higher or more poetic pragmatism, but more humane than the sad-to-say-but embrace of practical (and ultimately Stalinist) force.
And perhaps the truth is that Sartre was just too bloody consistent . . . about some things. No hankering after authority outside or beyond the action which works right now at any rate. Here’s the group; take the oath; respect the terreur; and let’s see. By what authority should you behave in a certain way? By that of the oath you took that is legitimized by the Terror that enforces it. There is no particular difference between Sartre’s view of “authority” and a famous saying of Mao to the effect that power comes from the barrel of a gun.
Finally, for all Sartre’s proclaimed progressivism, his political imagination is very old-fashioned—but in no particularly remarkable or refreshed way. What is remarkable is how adventurous, thrilling, and even profound one can appear—to tremendous applause—if one depicts the slow, tired descent into Leviathan with revolutionary rhetoric.
(All that said, appealing to Saint Lenin is a classier act that sucking up to New Left student revolutionaries—as I get ahead of myself for a moment.)
Allow me a tactical reminder: Sartre argued in Critique of Dialectical Reasoning that Marxism is “the philosophy of our time” which “we cannot go beyond because we have not gone beyond the circumstances which engendered it.” Thus existentialism must remain an “autonomous ideology” until Marxist historical dialectics, lacking now the clear grasp of human subjectivity which existentialism has, incorporates this ideology—then “existentialism will no longer have any reason for being.” (Too bad, Ex, you can drop dead later.)
A dozen years later he published Between Existentialism and Marxism, as I mentioned much earlier, which in spite of a title suggesting sustained thesis and sounding like a condition of philosophical death-watch, is not directly about the assumptions of the Critique. Or directly about Sartre’s humble willingness to self-destruct, although his neo-Marxist ideas do inform it. The book is, rather, a collection of pieces published or republished between the Critique and his volumes on Flaubert in 1971-72: four interviews, essays on Vietnam, the Czech repression, Kierkegaard, Mallarmé, Tintoretto, the function of the intellectual; and the transcript of a harrowing, tape-recorded explosion between a fed-up but obviously destructive analysand and his frightened, whining analyst—prefaced by Sartre’s Laingian argument for “reciprocity” in the psychoanalytic encounter, with two dissenting evaluations by Les Temps Moderne editorial board members.
What provides integrity of a sort to this diversity—as much as the post-Critique assumptions do—is a writer’s voice and intellectual style I find enormously disappointing.
No matter how abstract the analyses in Being and Nothingness, the phenomenologist Sartre was able to delineate states of consciousness as well as deep structures of being in almost palpable shape, but Sartre the philosopher of history, his concerns now more “material,” seems to have mislaid that knack for concrete focusing that graced his more “idealist” concerns (as the Marxist called them). Between Existentialism and Marxism is too full of explanations like this one of “le vécu—lived experience”: “neither the precautions of the preconscious, nor the unconscious, nor consciousness, but the terrain in which the individual is perpetually overflowed by himself and his riches and consciousness plays the trick of determining itself by forgetfulness.” Enough of this unintended parody of academese and we’re liable to forget the Sartre so wonderfully attuned to the world’s body and clothing with a perceptual range from nausea, as in his first novel (when the “diversity of things, their individuality” vanishes, “leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder—naked, in a frightful obscene nakedness”), to elegant pleasure, as with Calder’s mobiles (“a small local festival, an object defined by its movement and nonexistent apart from it, a flower that withers as soon as it stops moving, a free play of movement, like coruscating light”).
But the poet of the visual appears occasionally in this book. His Tintoretto piece is a beautiful essay, a rich journey across the face of a painting and into its conception. One is reminded that Sartre was a marvelous art critic, and wonders if that talent had something to do with his abilities as a phenomenologist. Sartre on the Venetian sky which “all [Tintoretto’s] work testifies to”: “In Venice the sky shimmers around the pale fingers of the city, crackles drily at eye-level—while up there above the stratosphere it appears as series of loose, grey silken folds receding out of sight. Between this delicate silken scarf and the rooftops there is a void, a wasteland criss-crossed with scintilla of light. Even when the heat is intense, the sun remains ‘cool’: yet nowhere in the world does it erode so much. It can make an island vanish, disintegrate a district, fall into a canal and evaporate the water, turn the gentle lapping of the waves into a sparkling stammer.”
But such seeing and writing becomes the exception. More characteristic are the displays of admitted polemical genius (“when established power,” I think he means western and capitalist power, “judges it useful to tell the truth, it is because it has no better lie available. Such truth, issuing from official mouths, becomes no more than a lie corroborated by facts”), and the kind of blinding obscurity I have mentioned already.
And something else: When Sartre tells an interviewer that in 1936 or ’40-’41 there was no other choice but to go along with the Communist Party, we can judge that as the familiar nonsense it is. But in the course of a supposedly rigorous philosophical essay on genocide written for the Bertrand Russell “War Crimes Tribunal,” defining genocide on the grounds of intent to destroy a race as a race, Sartre notes along the way an American attempt to bribe North Vietnam with economic assistance, suggests that this would mean the destruction of that country’s socialism, and casually adds, “And that too is genocide.” Is Sartre really such a careless thinker, or is this special pleading disguised as legal philosophy? The disguise doesn’t work. This is disgusting.
Recall his embarrassing defense of the Soviet Union in the early ‘50s against charges of imperialism even before his neo-Marxism. He defends that defense in Between Existential and Marxism not on grounds of truth, but because “it was essential to reject this accusation if one did not wish to find himself on the side of the Americans.” I mean this question quite seriously: Considering that Sartre wrote a play, Dirty Hands, about the question of immoral action in service of an embraced ideology, is it possible that he had been acting over the years in re-runs of an unwritten play called Dirty Thoughts?
Occasional access to fast and loose standards of honesty aside, Sartre’s collection is a disappointment. I miss the mind that, in Being and Nothingness, taught me why one person can be so rotten to another. I don’t see that the later corrections are a philosophical advance. Of course Sartre was under no obligation not to change. But . . . oh my god! I am disturbed at the willingness to emasculate one’s thought, to heel contortedly to the moment’s revolutionary necessities, so conceived. Sartre announces to a juvenile infantile-leftist interviewer, “Now I consider myself available for any correct political tasks requested of me”—this cringe-provoking moment long before anyone knew the phrase “political correctness.” To the very end Sartre still worried himself about being a bourgeois leftist intellectual, one of those who in spite of his “political denunciation” of society “remains objectively an enemy of the people” unless he “negate[s] his intellectual moment in order to try to achieve a new popular stature.” He might have considered—it seems to me—that self-flagellation is one of the more petty bourgeois-leftist habits. I prefer looking at paintings, reading poetry, following my better-half to the ballet without apologizing, as Sartre does to the interviewer for continuing his Flaubert , an interruption of his “correct political tasks”. As I said a moment ago in a slightly different context, this is disgusting.
I never could have thought back in the days of my undergraduate and youngish-faculty intellectual love affair with Sartre that I would eventually say “Enough!” in an essay that could have been entitled—instead of “Reconsidering Jean-Paul Sartre”—“Thoughts on J.-P. Sartre the Obsequious.”
Samuel Hux is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at York College of the City University of New York. He has published in Dissent, The New Republic, Saturday Review, Moment, Antioch Review, Commonweal, New Oxford Review, Midstream, Commentary, Modern Age, Worldview, The New Criterion and many others.
Follow NER on Twitter @NERIconoclast
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