|Hands across a century
Hands across a century
Aug 28th 2003
From The Economist print edition
Jean-Paul Sartre could be wordy, misguided and infuriating. But, argues a bold biography, now translated into English, no one could say he wasn't serious
MANY thinkers contributed more to 20th-century philosophy than Jean-Paul Sartre, who died in 1980. Many authors wrote better novels or plays. Politically, few changed positions as often as he did during his 30-year editorship of Les Temps Modernes, post-war France's leading left-wing review. Today he seems a dim or derided figure. Yet his achievements were real.
For all his pride in raw output, once calculated at 20 published pages a day over his working life, Sartre's role as gadfly and nay-sayer is what stood out. Politics for him meant neither policy nor persuasion, but taking stands. Flaying out at compromise and hypocrisy, he played David to the Goliaths who won—Charles de Gaulle, liberalism, America, the West. Dismal odds seemed to attract him. His intellectual projects were unmanageably vast. He regarded not finishing almost as a mark of success; in his 60s he dashed off 2,300 pages of a study of Gustave Flaubert before declaring it incomplete. He boasted of never growing up. Indifferent to honours, in 1964 he turned down a Nobel prize.
Sartre was, in short, a character. He had something of Astérix or Tintin in him. The English, who love characters, might have taken him to their hearts had he not hated pets, loathed country walks—and been French.
Convinced of his ugliness from an early age, he ignored and abused his body, to no obvious ill effect. He had many mistresses and one enduring love, Simone de Beauvoir, a novelist and thinker who shared his life and work as friend, lover, nurse, judge and equal, though never wife. Near-blind from youth in one eye, he was otherwise robust. He needed to be. His daily intake included 40 Boyard cigarettes, litres of alcohol and coffee, and a dozen corydrane tablets, a mixture of amphetamine and aspirin then available over the counter (the recommended dose was two).
Sartre's real drug, however, was writing, as Bernard-Henri Lévy nicely remarks. This study, which came out in French three years ago and now in English, is a homage from a critical admirer. It has obvious faults. A one-time Marxist turned darling of the right, Mr Lévy is rather an intellectual dandy. Like his hero, he has a theory or clever remark on everything, including Islamic fundamentalism, which he explored in a recent book, “Qui a Tué Daniel Pearl?” Better conventional biographies are Ronald Hayman's “Writing Against” (1986) and Annie Cohen-Solal's “Sartre” (1987). Mr Lévy's stylistic tics can be maddening. Sartre somewhere complains of the weakness of Flaubert's verbs; Mr Lévy frequently dispenses with verbs altogether. Against those defects, the book's enthusiasm is infectious. It delves sympathetically into Sartre's ideas and makes a strong case for their importance.
Sartre's thought is hard to follow, partly because he refused to re-read or correct. Fond of one-liners, he said his best book was always the one he was about to write. Behind that quip lay an idea that coloured his whole philosophy: at any moment, we are free to make of ourselves what we wish. To deny this freedom—by accepting the stereotypes of others or by treating ourselves as victims of circumstance—was self-deception or bad faith. This was the core of Sartre's existentialism. In “Being and Nothingness” (1943), he tried to embed that moral intuition in a version of idealism—put crudely, there is no world without a mind to experience it.
The book owed much, including its prolixity, to Martin Heidegger, a German contemporary of Nazi sympathies. Both tried to say general things about the character of human thought and experience without the distortions of misleading philosophy. Both, alas, soon gave in to tendentious theorising of their own. Sartre's book holds up better than Heidegger's “Being and Time” (1927), perhaps because as a novelist he was subtler about human experience.
By the late 1940s, Sartre gave up teaching and lived off his writing. His most philosophical novel, “Nausea” (1938), sold more than 1.6m copies in his lifetime, his play about political responsibility, “Dirty Hands” (1948), almost 2m. Then, after failing to fit his views on freedom into a highly personalised Marxism, he gave up philosophy for politics.
Sartre could be perversely wrong: more pacifist than anti-fascist in the 1930s; pro-Soviet in the early 1950s; pro-Castro in 1960 and Maoist after 1968. But he could also be shiningly right: condemning the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956; calling for an Algerian Algeria (anti-independence terrorists twice bombed his apartment in Paris); supporting Israel in 1967; and campaigning for the boat people fleeing communist Vietnam in 1975.
Was there a pattern? Mr Lévy thinks so. Sartre was a lonely and fatherless child, raised by a doting mother and a professorial grandfather. One of a kind, self-involved and living in his head, he longed for comradeship. His months in a German prisoner-of-war camp in 1940, he often said, were the happiest in his life. This romance with imaginary crowds led him into totalitarian foolishness. Against that was his distrust of authority and of the violence it can always call on. “Commanding or obeying, it's all the same,” he wrote in his marvellous memoir of childhood, “Words” (1963). Some of his bravest campaigns were civil-rights defences of radicals pursued by the French state. Sartre never got the urges to belong and to be free into balance. He scoffed at the thought that you could: the thing for him was to keep both going, and see where they led.
|To hell with other people
George Walden reviews Sartre: The philosopher of the Twentieth Century by Bernard Henri-Lévy
When I first encountered Bernard-Henri Lévy in Paris in the 1970s he was one of the "new philosophers" who were noisily challenging leftist thinking. The media was soon onto this intellectual glamour-puss, with his entourage of high-booted girls and his shirts open to the navel, and so was Sartre, who dubbed him a CIA agent. If so he was highly effective, helping to break the Marxist stranglehold on French life, not least by making it seem drearily demode.
Incredibly, the fashionable young man with the almost comically good looks was seriously intelligent. This book is the antithesis of the contemporary English biography: we are not told the name of Sartre's cat (I doubt if he had one), or of his mistresses, who were legion. This is intellectual biography of a recognisably French type: febrile, discursive, gallocentric yet often superbly written and - providing you are not allergic to French philosophising in any guise - hugely engaging.
With his toad's body and ill-favoured face ("one eye perpetually saying merde to the other"), his dislike of trees, children and animals, and his ugly male's inordinate love of women, the prodigy who was to become the universal public intellectual was not an instantly attractive figure. The grandson of a famous Protestant pastor, Sartre was born in 1905. His contrarian streak did not at first encompass politics, which, like much else, nauseated him when he was young.
Lévy shows how successive infatuations - with Bergson, Gide, Celine and Heidegger - eventually led Sartre to existentialism: the doctrine that everyone was free to abandon convention, to invent themselves and to go their own way. The arch-enemy was the bourgeois "salaud" (bastard), with his bovine insistence on things as they are, and his "bad faith" - his refusal to accept his liberty to make choices and take responsibility for himself.
What led Sartre away from this quasi-anarchical individualism was his internment in occupied France. Suddenly the ferocious opponent of benign humanism found himself "swooning with pleasure" (his words) amid the filth and debasement of life among his fellow captives. The discovery of community sparked his later engagement with politics, driven in part by what Lévy calls "the self-flagellation of the shame-faced, sterile mandarin". Not that Sartre threw himself into the anti-Nazi underground on his release. His record is ambiguous: somehow he was permitted to stage plays in Paris under the occupation, although we are assured he was later involved, organisationally at least, in acts of sabotage.
Lévy is at his most subtle in describing how "the totalitarian temptation" was present in Sartre all along. His compulsion to get to the bottom of everything, expressed in his manically prolific writing (aided by amphetamines), was itself a will to domination. Here the book understates the obvious: the desire of this undeniably brilliant and enormously vain man for a commanding role, and his worship of power, all too familiar among intellectuals. And so he slid into communism. Other great minds - Gide, Orwell - outgrew the "totalitarian temptation". Sartre grew into it.
An assiduous fellow-traveller, he broke with his friend Camus, whom he had always considered his inferior. He parroted the Soviet lie about American "germ warfare" in Korea - although he had once been a jazz-loving admirer of the USA - and returned from his first trip to Moscow in 1952 insisting that freedom to criticise the regime was total and that Russian living standards would overtake the West by 1960.
In 1956 he denounced Khrushchev for denouncing Stalin, and subsequently turned on Solzhenitsyn. Dissidents were criminals, deserving of the violence meted out to them. He toadied to Castro, and when he began losing faith in Moscow's revolutionary ardour, it was to toady to Chairman Mao, endorsing the murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics along the way.
"Who thinks greatly must err greatly," Lévy quotes Heidegger as saying, but an alternative formulation springs to mind: that the greater Sartre's gifts - and it would be absurd to deny them - the greater his betrayal.
Here was not just a corrupter of youth, but a corrupter of the intellect. His doctrine of "commitment" by intellectuals turned out to be free from all responsibility, a deeply pernicious doctrine whose results we see around us to this day. For this "aristocrat of culture", the cult of liberty meant above all the freedom for himself to disregard human suffering. .
Lévy suggests that there were two Sartres, but I don't buy it. The truth is that the author of the line "hell is other people" remained an anti-humanist all his life, a self-indulgent intellectual dandy for whom the millions of Russians, Chinese, Cubans or Eastern Europeans whose murder or imprisonment he justified were little more than playthings of his theoretical imagination.
This is a brilliant book, but also a dangerous one. Too anxious to explain away Sartre's behaviour, it risks being seen by a generation who have little knowledge of communism or the Cold War as a rehabilitation of a discredited figure. Lévy acknowledges that Sartre was himself frequently guilty of "bad faith", but the truth is worse: by championing some of the bloodiest dictators of his age, and failing to take responsibility for his choices, by his own definition, Sartre was a bastard.
|As if high on mescaline
Andrew Martin reviews Sartre by Bernard Henri-Lévy
This is a book to be read in a café (ideally on the Boulevard St Germain) with a long meditative coffee in the other hand. Sartre is the urban philosopher par excellence. Camus is all swimming in the Mediterranean and lyrical communing with sun-drenched nature. For Sartre, it's never safe to get back in the water. There is always something nasty lurking just beneath the surface. Only the café - with its small universe of casual sex, Quartier Latin hotels, and intense Gauloise-perfumed conversations - gives a sense, evoked so brilliantly in that masterpiece of existentialism, Being and Nothingness, of "plenitude".
At the same time, notably when your Godot-like date fails to turn up, it is here too that the sense of nothingness, the very possibility of negation, first arises, and soon infiltrates and undermines the whole of reality. Which is when you start thinking, "sincerity is a metaphysical impossibility", or "man is not what he is and is what he is not", and, above all, "hell is other people". But out of that anguish is born a terrible, almost unbearable, sense of liberation. You cannot be dictated to by rules or laws, you are exempt from history, flying free from the black hole of the psyche and even the ugliness of your own body (Sartre looked like something hanging off the outside of Notre Dame and nevertheless made himself irresistible to women). The future is yours to will into existence. Never take a serious job and if they offer you the Nobel Prize for Literature, turn it down.
After being the Elvis (or perhaps the James Dean) of philosophy for so long, over the past few decades Sartre has been the victim of a lot of low-level mud-slinging (poor war record, not a red-hot lover) and huge high-level philosophical disdain. In Sartre: the Philosopher of the Twentieth Century, Bernard-Henri Lévy wonderfully resurrects Jean-Paul as a colossus bestriding the age, a monstrous thinking and writing machine. And he rightly restores him - in such novels as Nausea and The Roads to Freedom - as the philosopher of lived experience who wrestled with the drama, danger and intensity of everyday life. Sartre confers a hallucinatory strangeness on the most humdrum objects: a seat on a tram becomes the upturned belly of a donkey, a hand is a crab, a tree dissolves into the overpowering essence of tree-ness and the "in-itself". Sartre didn't really need to be injected with mescaline - after which he was pursued down the Champs-Elysées by jellyfish - to have visions.
Lévy's book is half homage, half demolition job. The long-term but erotically permissive relationship with Simone de Beauvoir is vindicated as "a great love affair besmirched by cretins". But by the time Sartre had attained global status as the iconic philosopher of the era (some time around the 1950s), he was already well past his sell-by date by Lévy's reckoning. He starts off as the ultimate philosophical cowboy, an intellectual gunslinger who can outshoot every other thinker in town, from Marx to Freud. Anti-everything, but above all anti-fascist, his every text was a testament to the spirit of Resistance. But the radical, hard-edged individualist softens into a flabby collectivist and Stalinist fellow-traveller.
It is hard to quarrel with Lévy's assessment that whereas the work of the 1930s and 1940s, especially Being and Nothingness , is brilliantly alive and life-affirming, a late book such as the Critique of Dialectical Reason , preaching the joy of revolution, is deadly dull and almost unreadable (even Sartre himself compared it to a coffin). But the explanation of the shift is open to debate. Levy's turning-point comes in the Second World War: henceforward, Sartre suffers from a nostalgia for the fraternity of the prisoner-of-war camp.
BHL (as the French call him) applies a decisive test to 20th-century philosophy - does it make sense of the genocide of the Jews? Well, it shouldn't. The Shoah must be an "absolute singularity", transcending analysis. Sartre gets into hot water, from this point of view, when he gives up his theory of "contingency" and develops a Hegelian tendency to reduce history - all history, including the Holocaust - to an intelligible structure. In Lévy's scheme of things, Sartre starts out as a Jew but turns into a bit of a Nazi.
BHL is a nouveau philosophe who favours the fragmented, the fissured, the incomplete. Sartre strove after a theory of everything, "the odious totalisation" in Lévy's phrase. The word totalitaire is not in the least pejorative in Sartre, but it should be pointed out that it means "all-inclusive" rather than "totalitarian" in our specifically political sense. On the other hand, it would be fair to say that whenever Sartre spoke of freedom, Rousseau's sense of people being "forced to be free" was never far away. Parodoxically, as he recalled, he felt most at liberty under the Occupation.
It would be hard to imagine a better translation of BHL's oracular French. Andrew Brown succeeds in bringing Lévy so flamingly to life as a passionately engaged and combative speaker that you can hear him holding forth on the other side of the table in the Flore or the Deux Magots.
|Man who led anti-Sartre revolt repents at length
French writer Bernard-Henri Lévy reveals secret passion in new book
Paul Webster in Paris
Friday January 14, 2000
Twenty years after his death, Jean-Paul Sartre has been raised to the status of "man of the century" by Bernard-Henri Lévy, the philosopher-showman who led the revolt against leftwing thinkers in the 1970s.
His 650-page book, Le Siècle de Sartre, abounds with unsuspected enthusiasm for the guru of postwar existentialism, revealing a passion that Lévy, 51, admits to keeping secret for years.
"What is a great intellectual? The talent, or rather the ambition of Sartre?" he writes.
"His appetite. His insatiable curiosity. His incorruptible intellectual side. Philosophy of course, but also literature, journalism, reporting, theatre, songs, lectures, broadcasts and cinema."
Elsewhere he writes: "Sartre is the only [intellectual] of his generation with a unique energy which will never be found again in anyone else."
Although Lévy says that Sartre anticipated in a "vertiginous manner most of the theoretical inventions of Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan and Gilles Deleuze", the admiration appears based largely on Sartre's ability to get things "outrageously wrong".
The book, in Lévy's words, is intended in part to explain how a "magnificent philosopher and master of freethinking" could become a sad communist fellow traveller and a friend of Maoists - one of the reasons why the young Lévy founded the upstart New Philosophers movement when still in his early twenties.
"Why was the man who invented all the anti-totalitarian inoculations unable to inoculate himself?" Lévy said in an interview with the leftwing Nouvel Observateur, which acts as a permanent shrine to all things Sartrean. "In the twilight of his life, Sartre decided to break everything up [by associating with the extreme left]. To the shock of his intellectual family, he dynamited Sartreism. He took a magnificent gamble on a new surge of youth."
Lévy explains for the first time why he originally shrugged off the masterthinker who was idolised by French youth before the war and well into the 60s.
"I belong to a generation which came of age at the beginning of the Sartrean desert," he said.
"At the end of the 60s it was unanimously accepted that Sartre's work was a humanist whim. In fact L'Etre et le néant, [Being and Nothingness] was the last real attempt at modern philosophy - an ultimate attempt to escape from Hegelianism."
Lévy's colourful activism in campaigns from the condemnation of totalitarian barbarism to a save-Bosnia crusade and beyond has brought him more media attention than his books, particularly since he married the American-born actress Arielle Dombasle. But his avowed determination to "come out" in his enthusiasm for Sartre's double career as thinker and novelist could revive a faltering cult.
"After 20 years, nothing much remains of Sartre other than cliches," Lévy said. "We must repair some immense injustices which see Sartre as the paragon of errors and the scapegoat for all sorts of 20th century madnesses. Hate has pursued him and the dirty jokes around the magnificent couple formed by Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir are pure infamy."
His praise for "this philosopher who so often got things wrong in a magisterial fashion" also extends to Sartre's novels, which have suffered much the same fall in popular interest as those of his contemporary and political adversary, André Malraux.
"La Nausée [Nausea], an absolute masterpiece, remains young and full of life," he said, predicting a revival for Sartre's novels to parallel a similar recent resurrection of Sartre's plays in Paris and Berlin.
|The Absolute Intellectual
The Absolute Intellectual
By Brian C. Anderson
Brian C. Anderson is senior editor of City Journal.
Back in the 1960s, or even early seventies, if you asked the average intelligent person to name a philosopher, the answer would as likely have been Jean-Paul Sartre as it would have been Aristotle or Plato. “The Pope of Existentialism,” as people called him, enjoyed household-name status. By the time of his death in 1980, however, Sartre’s star had already darkened; the 50,000 mourners who shuffled after his casket to Montparnasse cemetery in Paris represented a last flare from his vanishing fame, not a sign of real influence. Structuralism, post-structuralism, feminism, colonial studies — as new radical enthusiasms swept through Paris and through the Western academy, existentialism came for many to seem a mere footnote in the history of twentieth-century thought. Who still took seriously The Critique of Dialectical Reason or even Being and Nothingness and Nausea?
For Bernard-Henri Lévy, contemporary France’s leading public intellectual and a major media star, this neglect of Sartre’s thought and literature is a significant mistake. In fact, he argues in Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century (first published to acclaim in France in 2000 and now translated in this English-language edition by Andrew Brown), Sartre’s work is “the meeting point of all the ways of getting through the twentieth century, getting lost in it, avoiding its dark and slippery slopes — and all the ways of setting it off, now, into the new century.” Plunging into that work once again, Lévy claims, will help protect us against future threats to human liberty. Lévy’s thick book — a kind of intellectual biography cum philosophical meditation — vigorously defends the man he calls “the absolute intellectual.”
Lévy is right about the need to read Sartre, but his admiration is misplaced. What Sartre actually offers us is a paradigmatic example of the leftist mind, in all its dodgy enthusiasms. Sartre’s early existentialism presents a nihilistic conception of human freedom that still informs some forms of liberal thought; his later political writings seethe with the pathologies of the far left, including an admiration for bloodletting, so long as it targets democrats and capitalists and Westerners generally. Sartre may indeed have been “the absolute intellectual,” but only in a negative sense: His oeuvre stands as an absolute warning about the wrong turns that moral and political thought can take when untethered from nature or any sense of reality. Were Sartre alive today, he doubtless would place the blame for September 11 and Palestinian suicide bombings on their victims — defending, as he frequently did, the indefensible.
Jean-paul sartre was born in Paris in June 1905 into a bourgeois family. His mother, born Anne Marie Schweitzer, was a relative of the Christian missionary, theologian, and musician Albert Schweitzer; his father, Jean-Baptiste, was a military officer who died in 1906. After Jean-Baptiste’s death, Sartre’s mother returned to live with the Schweitzers. Her father, Charles, became Sartre’s nominal père. In his 1963 autobiography Words, Sartre described his childhood as introverted and lonely, blaming Charles Schweitzer for keeping him away from other kids — though he never lacked for love.
Revealingly, Words ends at Sartre’s twelfth year, when his mother remarried an engineer, Joseph Mancy. Sartre revered his mother, and Lévy — rightly, I believe — suggests that her remarriage was a trauma from which he never fully recovered. Sartre and his followers would later toss around the word “engineer” as a term of ultimate opprobrium. When Mancy later died, Sartre took in his mother, and they shared an apartment for much of his adult life.
Sartre may have been a lonely mama’s boy, but he dazzled academically and won entry in 1924 to the Ecole Normale Supérieure, France’s premier institute of higher learning for literature and philosophy. Ironically, in 1928, he failed the Agrégation de philosophie needed for a teaching career. He took the test again the next year, however, and finished first — just ahead of Simone de Beauvoir, the “Beaver,” who became his intellectual companion and lifelong lover and partner (albeit a far from exclusive one). Soon he was teaching in Le Havre, an unfashionable French seaport. He longed for fame and Paris café life, but he still had to wait.
Sartre’s writing career took off with the publication in 1938 of the disturbing novel Nausea, followed the next year by a collection of short stories, The Wall, and in 1943 by the massive philosophical treatise Being and Nothingness. During this period of surging productivity, which also included writing for the theater, Sartre did a stint in the French military (in a non-combat meteorological section, due to near blindness in his left eye), spent a year or so as a German prisoner of war following the swift French defeat, and, after his release in August 1941 (the Nazis saw him as a harmless civilian), returned to occupied Paris, where he taught philosophy at the Lycée Condorcet.
From his nestled corner of the Café Flore, where, when not teaching, he could usually be found drinking tea and scribbling furiously, Sartre did next to nothing for the Resistance while watching his writings win acclaim and his plays enjoy throngs of admirers.
He never actively collaborated with the German occupation authorities — Lévy defends him convincingly on that score — but his relatively cushy wartime experience did later draw the ire of writer and Gaullist minister André Malraux. “I was facing the Gestapo,” grumbled Malraux, “while Sartre in Paris had his plays produced with the authorization of the German censors.”
It is the writing of this early Sartre that Lévy so esteems — he calls it “a shock, an event, a tremor, torrent, a tidal wave.” The worldview that runs through all of Sartre’s work of this period, soon dubbed “existentialism,” based itself on several key themes. The first was the purported Death of God and the meaninglessness of existence. Sartre’s protagonist in the hallucinatory Nausea, Antoine Roquentin, laments the “total gratuity and absurd contingency of the universe.” “Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance,” Roquentin says, struggling against a powerful urge to vomit. Lévy sums up this bleak Sartrean vision of man adrift: “Life has no meaning. . . . No promise dwells in it. No invisible hand is guiding it in secret. It is chaotic. Shapeless. Pure disorder and fog. A tangle of moments in disarray. Chaos. A mess.”
Roquentin overcomes his dread and disgust only by recognizing what he deems to be the liberating possibilities for the individual consciousness of a contingent universe. “All is free,” he resolves: We can create our own meanings, our own right and wrong, our own futures, our own multiplicity of selves. Roquentin meditates on an American jazz song he loves — “Some of These Days” — and imagines a musician in a New York apartment finding his reason for living in composing it. “Why not me?” he then asks himself, and concludes that he, too, will create something to triumph over contingency: He will write a novel.
Man’s freedom of will — another central theme of the early Sartre — is what makes such creative acts possible. Drawing on German and French philosophical sources — Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Henri Bergson, among others — Sartre explained that human beings, unlike, say, oak trees and snakes, choose their own future, even when, trapped in “bad faith,” they pretend they do not. Man has no nature that predetermines what he will eventually become; his existence precedes his essence, as the Sartrean formulation puts it.
One problem this choosing self runs up against is how to regard other choosing selves. A third existentialist motif, best summed up in Sartre’s famous phrase “Hell is other people,” shows how Sartre understood that problem. Few writers have ever offered a nastier depiction of human interaction, as Lévy underscores: “[Sartre] cannot imagine any encounter between consciousnesses which does not immediately and definitively turn into a bout of fisticuffs.” Friendship? Just mutual exploitation. Love? Simply what Sartre calls pursuing “the death of the Other.” Sex? Always a kind of violence, at least in part.
Lévy finds in the thinking of this “first Sartre” a potent weapon against Utopianism — and hence against the totalitarian temptation. That is a stretch, to say the least. If the universe is pointless and morals and values simply something we make up as we go along — hypotheses asserted by Sartre but never proven — then why should one free choice matter more than another? The life of an evil brute becomes as worthy as a life dedicated to alleviating suffering. More: Why should freedom itself matter, if Sartre is right? Why not surrender our will to the baying mob? The existentialist has no principled answers to such questions — any more than do relativistic contemporary liberals, who share the Sartrean belief that we make up our own values. Sartre the existentialist is in one sense the unacknowledged father of Richard Rorty, who also believes that contingency goes “all the way down.”
As for Sartre’s description of human interaction as a war of egos, it expands what is worst within men and women into the overriding law of life. It fails to capture the love we have for our children and spouses or to do justice to the real friendships we forge with others and the commitments we make to church and country and shared projects. In the words of the Italian political philosopher Rocco Buttiglione, the agonistic world Sartre depicts is — precisely from an existential point of view — “unbearable and unlivable.” It is significant, I think, that Sartre never married or committed himself exclusively to Beauvoir, disliked children and sired none of his own, regularly broke off friendships, and in general spent most of his time worshiping at his own altar. He was — to use his own language — a bit of a “bastard.” But even the father of atheist existentialism could be generous with the wealth his books’ sales and commissions brought him and reached out to help friends. Even he launched shared projects, including the magazine Les Temps Modernes, still going strong today, more than a half-century after its first issue debuted.
After the war, Sartre, now a celebrity, grew radically politicized and transformed into something of a Marxist — an engagé intellectual. Lévy describes how Sartre’s year as a prisoner of war, where he “swooned with pleasure” amid the muck and degradation of camp life, rubbing shoulders with unvarnished “humanity,” led him to embrace the communitarian — and ultimately totalitarian — politics that characterized his postwar work. But Lévy never explains why, if Sartre’s early libertarian thought supposedly inoculates us against totalitarianism, the absolute intellectual could so easily become one of Marxist totalitarianism’s most steadfast defenders — a toadying to despotism that led to his famous split with Albert Camus, who had much better sense.
The reason Lévy does not is that Sartre’s thought provides no such inoculation. His existentially unbearable individualism demands to be overcome. Yet his loathing for prosaic forms of community — Nausea depicts bourgeois life as fit only for unthinking cows — encourages a quest for a community on the level of politics. Marx beckoned.
To his credit, Lévy lays out Sartre’s ugly postwar record in black and white. It makes for unsettling reading in 2003.
Returning in the early fifties from his first visit to the Soviet Union, where Stalinist minders had given the tour, Sartre proclaimed, Walter Duranty-style, that the citizen of the ussr had the “entire freedom to criticize,” indeed, that he “criticizes more and in a much more effective manner” than the French worker. He eventually admitted he knew this was a lie.
In December 1952, in Vienna, at a time of the “darkest repression” in Eastern Europe, Lévy notes, Sartre did a song and dance for the communist bosses at the annual congress of the World Movement for Peace — in other words, the Stalinist International.
Later, Sartre, accompanied by Beauvoir, took a whirlwind tour of Castro’s Cuba, led around by the nose by the Generalissimo himself. Upon his return to Paris, Sartre wrote 16 fawning portraits of Castro — the “man of the whole and the detail.” (The French publisher Gallimard is now reissuing these writings in book form, as if they had something true to tell us.)
Justifying his refusal of the Nobel Prize for literature, given to him in 1964, Sartre claimed that the award was a tainted Western prize, directed against his Eastern bloc family — a justification Lévy rightly calls a “gigantic and despicable piece of stupidity.”
Even as Sartre praised totalitarian dictators, he was describing the United States as “rabid” and Nazi-like, urging France to break off all relations with it. During the Vietnam War, he went so far as to wish for a nuclear strike on America to put an end to its imperialist tendencies. When he criticized the Soviets, as he did after they invaded Hungary in November 1956, he would denounce the bourgeois democracies in the same breath.
Sartre’s political writings and public statements now celebrated revolutionary violence. In 1952’s The Communists and Peace, he enthused about communist “mass democracy” — which achieved a unanimity “constantly renewed by the liquidation of opponents.” The anti-communist was a “dog,” he spat; like many on the left today, Sartre substituted invective for debate. In his well-known preface to Franz Fanon’s 1961 anti-colonial polemic The Wretched of the Earth, Sartre asserted that, for the black man, “to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time.” Historian Paul Johnson later commented: “This was an updating of existentialism: self-liberation through murder.”
By the seventies, Sartre was really nothing more than an apologist for tyranny and terror. Though Sartre opposed anti-Semitism and generally supported the Jewish cause, he defended the killing of eleven Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. He found it “perfectly scandalous” that “the Munich attack should be judged by the French press and a section of public opinion as an intolerable scandal.” Like those who excuse Palestinian homicide bombings today, Sartre held that the only way the Palestinian people could “show its courage and the strength of its hatred” was by “organizing deadly attacks” against civilians. Embracing Maoism, he demanded that capitalist bosses be bled like pigs. “A revolutionary regime must get rid of a certain number of individuals that threaten it and I see no other means for this than death; it is always possible to get out of a prison; the revolutionaries of 1793 probably didn’t kill enough people,” he said.
The chief theoretical work of this “second” Sartre, The Critique of Dialectical Reason, written in a drug-fueled frenzy and first published in 1961, is one of the scariest books to come from the pen of a major twentieth century thinker. Depicting man as lost in an alienated world of institutions and social exchanges, Sartre maintains that freedom is possible only when men act collectively — and their unity should be enforced by “Terror.” The conservative British political philosopher Maurice Cranston captured Sartre’s argument in a line (it took Sartre nearly 700 pages): “Terror is the guarantee that my neighbor will stay my brother; it binds my neighbor to me by the threat of the violence it will use against him if he dares to be ‘unbrotherly.’” Forget such niceties as the rule of law.
Sartre’s political thought simply ignored the constraints and possibilities of real political life. The social theorist and conservative liberal Raymond Aron, Sartre’s old school chum from the Ecole Normale and his great intellectual rival in postwar France, had it exactly right (echoing a Tocquevillian charge against the architects of the French Revolution): Sartre was a “literary” political thinker. Sartre preferred, explained Aron, to promote “a literary image of a desirable society, rather than to study the functioning of a given economy, of a liberal economy, of a parliamentary system, and so forth,” and he refused ever to ask the question: “if you were in the minister’s position, what would you do?” The reader will find no indication in Sartre’s thousands of pages of political writings that he had even a rudimentary understanding, say, of political economy or comparative politics.
Nevertheless, faced with the contrast between Sartre’s revolutionary fantasies and Aron’s prudent wisdom, and despite Sartre’s loss of prestige, two generations of the French Left have still embraced the dictum “it is better to be wrong with Sartre than right with Aron” — a sentiment Lévy sometimes seems to share. Lévy slights Aron’s contributions throughout Sartre.
Sartre lost his eyesight by the late seventies and grew feeble and incontinent. He became friends and began to collaborate with a young Jew from Cairo, Benny Lévy, who used the nom de plume Peter Victor. Victor’s presence incensed the Sartrean camp, especially Beauvoir; they saw him as an interloper, leading the doddering master astray. Bernard-Henri Lévy, though, believes a third Sartre was emerging, one inspired by Jewish philosopher and ethicist Emmanuel Levinas and with a renewed commitment to freedom. No one will ever know for sure: All that this Sartre left behind, regrets Lévy, is “a phantom oeuvre, forever unrealized.”
By the time the reader reaches the end of Lévy’s book, he is left wondering, despite the author’s intention, whether there is anything in Sartre worth holding on to, apart from the negative example he offers of a mind adrift. I would say yes, though far from as enthusiastically as Lévy does. Sartre’s literary innovations — putting novelistic touches in his philosophy and philosophy in his novels — and his ambition to be creative in so many disciplines are admirable. The American writer Walker Percy claimed to have found a model for his richly philosophical novels in Sartre’s work — proving that writers who do not share Sartre’s politics can use his literary innovations.
Some of Sartre’s writings — Nausea, his unfinished novel series The Roads to Freedom, Being and Nothingness, the play No Exit — contain real, if exaggerated or distorted, insights into the human condition. Read as a description not of a permanent truth of man’s fate but of the predicament of a certain kind of modern man, one who has lost his reference points in God and nature and found nothing to replace them, they still resonate.
Yet, ultimately, most of his endless outpouring of words is today unreadable. (Sartre never shut up, as film director John Huston complained when the two worked together on a biopic of Freud and the former handed in a screenplay a million times too long to use.) One cannot help feeling that the real reason Lévy wants to reclaim Sartre is more a matter of style than substance. Lévy’s politics, unlike Sartre’s, are decent and moderate. He burst on the scene in the 1970s as the ringleader of the anti-communist “New Philosophers” (Sartre ridiculously fingered him as a cia agent); he considers himself an anti-anti-American; and he recognizes the dangers Islamism poses for the West, as one sees in his chilling bestseller Who Killed Daniel Pearl? (Melville House, 2003). But he shares Sartre’s love of the limelight. Strikingly handsome, dressed to the nines, and married to the beautiful actress Arielle Dombasle (who once guest-starred as rocker Ted Nugent’s girlfriend on an episode of Miami Vice), he jets from one global hotspot to another and is rarely off the television screen for long. Like Sartre, too, Lévy has tried his hand at multiple disciplines, from philosophy to novel writing to film direction.
In short, Lévy wants to be the absolute intellectual for the twenty-first century. He would be a big political improvement over Sartre. Yet whether we need an absolute intellectual in the first place is another matter entirely.
Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century is a very Gallic book and will annoy some readers. Lévy writes as if he is holding forth in a salon. He will mix endless sentences that pile up a dizzying number of subordinate clauses with short, breathless ones like: “Joy, again. I like this Sartrean joy.” Get past such tics and you will have much to ponder — above all how Jean-Paul Sartre, such a brilliant man, could be so stupid.