Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 April 2000
Issue No. 477
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BOOKS: a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly
The death of Jean-Paul Sartre on 15 April 1980 was a symbolic moment, the loss of the last public intellectual of the French Left. Twenty years on, and in the wake of new interest in the polymath writer and philosopher, David Tresilian writes from Paris on a major new assessment of Sartre's life and ideas, while Amina Elbendary reconstructs a momentous visit Jean-Paul Sartre made to Egypt on the eve of the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War

Sartre, future rendez-vous

By David Tresilian

Book cover "Poulou, this strange guy who lived in an hotel... dominated French intellectual life and left-wing politics for the best part of three decades, and, with General de Gaulle, whom he loathed ... remains the best-known French figure of the post-war period"
LIKE THAT of many other twentieth-century thinkers, the career of the French philosopher, novelist, playwright, journalist, political activist, and, above all, intellectual dissident, Jean-Paul Sartre is currently being re-evaluated. Sartre was involved in an especially intense way in many of the last century's, and particularly the mid-century's, most characteristic conflicts, from the politics of the Cold War in Europe to the decolonisation of the extra-European world, the Black Panthers' struggle in the United States and the fight for women's and minority rights. A Sartrean album of the time would contain photos of J-P S, sometimes looking strangely vulnerable in his thick specs and old mac, sharing a platform with Fidel Castro, with Bertrand Russell prosecuting American actions in Vietnam, on his way to the Soviet Union, out on the streets with Michel Foucault protesting the racism of the French state, and at home writing (always writing), smoking endless cigarettes, talking with his long-term collaborator, lover and partner Simone de Beauvoir. It turns out that he was on a permanent diet of amphetamines.

"Poulou, this strange guy" who lived in an hotel, as an unpleasant article in the right-wing French daily Le Figaro recently had it, dominated French intellectual life and left-wing politics for the best part of three decades, and, with General de Gaulle, whom he loathed ("worse," he would say, "than Pétain"), remains the best-known French figure of the post-war period. What, however, now remains of Sartre's thought? Which image of Sartre is the right one? Such are the questions now being asked in France. For, twenty years after his death, Sartre is once again the focus of attention thanks to a heavyweight new biography by the writer and critic Bernard-Henri Lévy (Le Siècle de Sartre [The Sartre Century], Grasset) and to a "millennial" desire to look back on the past, perhaps in search of inspiration for the future.

As Lévy himself notes in one of the many interviews he has given to promote his book, contemporary interest in Sartre now exceeds that of any period since the 1950s. To the generations of 1968 and after, drunk on the apocalyptic declarations of the time, this greying old humanist was already a dead letter long before his death. Sartre was fatally unglamorous to the "structuralist" as much as to the "post-structuralist" generations. Yet, as Lévy comments, the time may have come to catch up with Sartre, to return to him. "Twenty years on," he asked in an interview with the magazine Le nouvel Observateur, "what remains of Sartre apart from a few clichés? Sartre, for example, on the barricades in front of the [Renault] factories at Billancourt. Yet what is a major intellectual if not someone who gathers up in himself the forces, the intensities, the intellectual currents of the moment [as Sartre did]? Sartre, or le grand rendez-vous."

Standard treatments have tended to divide Sartre's career, as Julius Caesar did Gaul, into three parts. First there is the young Jean-Paul, star pupil of the Ecole normale superieur (a kind of Parisian intellectual forcing house), philosophy teacher in a high school in Le Havre. Unsurprisingly, these were the years of La Nausée (Nausea), Sartre reacting badly to the boredom and mediocrity of French provincial life. However they also saw the development of Sartre's individualist, expressionist aesthetic. Literature, writing, thinking the great thoughts, these were the proper ends of life, and the literary text was the privileged space of self-realisation in the face of a world that was absolutely "other." Freedom lay within.

Sartre number two, a more familiar figure, emerges following the end of the German occupation. The key term now was "engagement" and writing was a means, if of a highly specialised sort, towards individual and social transformation. One sees this in the series of novels Sartre published after the war, Les chémins de la liberté (Roads to Freedom). Lévy suggests that the uncompromising individualism of the pre-war period was "too heavy a burden" for Sartre to bear. One realises oneself now in the context of a commitment to a group, which one writes for and acts with, such being the special role of an intellectual. This is the programme announced in Qu'est-ce que la littérature? (What is Literature?), worked out, as much as anywhere, in the plays Sartre now wrote in the shadow of Brecht and in that of the existential project he detected in Genet (Saint Genet Comédien et martyr; Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr). Genet bore at least part of the Sartrean project well, and he must have been amused by the consecration ("saint"). According to one authority, Sartre was particularly attracted to what he saw as Genet's theatrical "gesture" in the face of a hostile environment, the taking up of an attitude that aimed "at least for a moment to overturn the order of the world."

For Lévy, Qu'est-ce que la littérature? announces a new understanding of the literary text that was far from the pieties of academic or institutional treatments: literature as graffiti art, or journalism. "Literature is like bananas -- something to be eaten at once, in an instant -- and tough luck on those who still entertain fantasies of the supposed 'immortality' of texts." The publication of Les mots (Words) in 1964 announced a third and final phase. According to Lévy, this short, strange book in which Sartre stages himself wandering in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris in search of friends, discovering what he imagined to be his "ugliness" and taking refuge in literature before, later in life and in a firework display of a theatrical gesture, denouncing "words" in favour of "action", has always appealed to those least sympathetic to its author. However of Sartre's final activities in the 1970s, Lévy comments that there is something "magnificent" in "this gesture of an old man who has decided to burn his boats, to begin everything again from zero, to become young in spirit again" at the risk both of his friendships and of his public image. Lévy stresses the complexity of his subject, a complexity that gave rise to fascinating contradictions which only the glib would reduce to "self-hatred."

"Perhaps," Lévy says, in writing Le Siècle de Sartre "I have been infected by the feverishness, the prodigious energy, the bulimia of this superb, monstrous character ... [but] ... there is something amazing about this man who would spend all day filling page after page with denunciations of literature, saying that his own work was worth nothing, that one had to invent a 'collective intellectual' of a new type, and yet who in secret during the evenings when he was alone would spend his time writing L'Idiot de la famille." This work, unfinished but running to some 2, 800 pages, is Sartre's "total biography" of Flaubert. In general, it is this astonishing energy and these contradictions that Lévy stresses in his subject. Rather in the manner of Brecht, whose aesthetic, while it aimed to produce a critical spirit and attitude of cognitive scepticism, at the same time counselled reconciliation with, of all things, the East German Communist Party, so Sartre, "this most liberal and most rebellious of men, before allowing his play [Les Mains sales] to be performed in such and such a capital would take care to get the consent of the local communist party."

For its part Le Figaro, in a discussion of Levy's book, reminded its readers of some of Sartre's more reprehensible pronouncements. "Liberty of expression is complete in the USSR," Sartre thought, from his base in Paris. "A revolutionary regime," he said, "has to get rid of a certain number of individuals that threaten it, and I don't see any other way in which it can do this than to put them to death. Prison can always be escaped from." A variant of the you-can't-make-an-omelette-without-breaking-eggs argument, Sartre apparently was slow to recognise that even after breaking a great many eggs there still may be no kind of omelette. How many is "a certain number"? Who is to say which individuals are truly "threatening"?

Of this sort of thing, Lévy comments that "there is no such thing as the 'good' Sartre and then, separated from him by some sort of chronological frontier, the bad, confused Sartre who ceaselessly deceived himself." In fact, he told an interviewer in Le Magazine littéraire, the two Sartres "live together. In Sartre's worst period of fellow-travelling, when he would dream only of revolutionary groups and popular justice, there were still moments of freedom, moments of absolute individualism, when only literature and his work on Flaubert counted for anything." Not two Sartres, then, not three, but one, naturally performative subject refracted into unlimited situational gestures.

Lévy's book is part of a whole slew of works designed to mark this year's anniversary of Sartre's death. He says that he undertook it in order "to try to understand" a figure who, according to a writer in Le Figaro, "appears to be the last of our great writers of the Voltaire or the Hugo type, the last capable of causing tens of thousands to turn out at his funeral, the last 'complete intellectual' of our time." There is, the article went on, a lack at present of that "French specialty the ma”tre-à-penser" [leading thinker], a role Sartre successfully played even if he was, "like Voltaire, the second in everything, having neither the philosophical genius of Heidegger nor, as a novelist, coming close to Céline or Proust. As a playwright he is absolutely in the shadow of Claudel or Beckett."

However for Lévy what remains of Sartre is above all the inspiration of this philosopher of freedom, traces of whose refusal to be the prisoner-of-the-other, to be alienated-by-the-other, are to be found underpinning the thought of Fanon (Sartre wrote the 'Preface' to The Wretched of the Earth) and of de Beauvoir. Indeed, de Beauvoir and Sartre together made for an astonishing intellectual partnership, each partner continually inspiring the other. Sartre was, Lévy says, "first of all an artist, a great writer, an entrepreneur of ideas. Someone who had an extreme generosity, who took crazy risks with regard to himself, his public image, his biography and his circle by his energy and his almost unparalleled lack of self-regard." He is also one of the few to have had the distinction of refusing both the French legion d'honneur and the Nobel Prize.


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