Exit, Pursued by a Lobster
Jean-Paul Sartre: Brilliant philosopher, or totalitarian apologist?
Who was Jean-Paul Sartre? Was he the greatest philosopher of freedom of the 20th century? Or its most influential apologist for totalitarianism? More than two decades after his death, French intellectuals are trying to reconcile the two Sartres. In the cafes of Paris, the question "Êtes-vous Sartrien?" is once again being heard. Recently, a new biography of Sartre and several homages to his career have become best sellers in France. One of them, Bernard-Henri Lévy's Sartre: The Philosopher of the Twentieth Century, has just been brought out here in English. What is taking place is a rehabilitation of sorts, and it isn't hard to see what's behind it.
As an intellectual superstar and monstre sacré, Sartre has no equal in the English-speaking world. Even in France you would have to go back to Voltaire to find a figure of comparable stature. At his funeral in 1980, a crowd of 50,000 people followed the cortege through the streets of Paris to the Montparnasse cemetery. This ugly little wall-eyed scribbler had done it all. He created existentialism, a philosophy that could be lived. His treatises and novels sold in the millions; his plays were boffo successes; his public lectures were mobbed. He founded Libération, which was to become France's most powerful left-wing newspaper, and Les Temps Modernes, for years its premier intellectual journal.
By dint of sheer intellectual authority, Sartre could engage his bitter adversary Charles de Gaulle as an equal, even though de Gaulle was head of state. ("One does not imprison a Voltaire," the general said of him.) He snubbed the Nobel committee by refusing its prize for literature in 1964. A grand séducteur, he maintained many mistresses at a time and employed the ever-devoted Simone de Beauvoir, feminism's founding theorist, as his procuress. (Because her last name sounded like "beaver" in English, he always addressed her as le castor, the French word for beaver.) If you combined aspects of Bertrand Russell, Arthur Miller, Noam Chomsky, Saul Bellow, Leonard Cohen, and Mick Jagger, you might get something approximating Sartre. (Come to think of it, you'd have to toss in Timothy Leary because of Sartre's experiments with mescaline, which left the philosophe with the recurrent fear that he was being pursued by a lobster.)
France is a country that reveres philosophy; it's taught in high school, debated in the cafés-philo. But how good was Sartre as a philosopher? Some critics say that in creating existentialism he simply took the ideas of Heidegger and give them a Gallic gloss. Sartre's Being and Nothingness, they complain, is just Heidegger's Being and Time with some racy passages thrown in about the anus and Italian love-making. That is unfair. It is certainly true that Sartre, who grew up in a bilingual Alsatian household, owed a great debt to German thought. But the starting point for his philosophy, as he always insisted, was the Cartesian formula "I think, therefore I am." Consciousness, the core of our being, is an emptiness or "negativity" that must fill out its nature through arbitrary choices—that is the idea behind Sartre's celebrated aphorism "We are condemned to be free."
Despite the phenomenological complexities of his philosophy, Sartre managed to make it exciting. Anybody could become an existentialist, especially the young. The teutonic dread of Kierkegaard and angst of Heidegger gave way to Sartrean fun. In the underground caves of St. Germain-des-Prés, jazz dancing was deemed the highest expression of existentialism. Never has a serious philosopher had such an impact on nightlife. Sartre even wrote a rather beautiful song for the great chanteuse Juliette Greco to sing at the Rose Rouge.
Sartre's classic period as a philosopher was over by the late 1940s. The war had politicized him. (After a brief internment in a stalag, he spent the rest of the war in Nazi-occupied Paris, where, in his imagination at least, he was part of the Resistance.) In the early 1950s, when the Cold War was at its peak, he realized that he was "living a neurosis"; despite his philosophy of action, he had been a mere bourgeois writer, like Flaubert. His interest in Marxism awakened, he decided to align himself with the Communist Party—this at a time when the crimes of Stalin were being documented and other intellectuals were abandoning the party. The erstwhile philosopher of freedom morphed into Sartre totalitaire.
That is something of a caricature, but Sartre did have his shameful moments over the next two decades. He broke with Camus because the latter denounced totalitarianism. He was silent on the gulag ("It was not our duty to write about the Soviet labor camps"), and he excused the purges of Stalin and later Mao. When the defector Victor Kravchenko published I Chose Freedom, the first inside account of the horrors of Stalinism, Sartre wrote a play implying that Kravchenko was a creation of the CIA. Even when Sartre was on the right side, he could be morally tone-deaf. In opposing the war in Vietnam, he urged the Soviet Union to take on the Americans, even at the risk of nuclear war. And in championing Algerian independence, he wrote (in his preface to Franz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth) that for an African "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."
Sartre's philosophy of freedom was flatly inconsistent with the Marxist doctrine of historical necessity. He tried to make the two cohere in his Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960) but ended up drowning in a sea of verbiage. In any case, existentialism had drifted out of fashion by the 1960s. It was superseded by the structuralism of Levi-Strauss and Althusser, which said that man, far from being radically free, was just a locus of social and linguistic forces. Still, Sartre retained his aura of intellectual authority. Disenchanted with the French Communist Party, he took up Maoism and the cause of Third World liberation, agitating in the streets of Paris and before the gates of suburban Renault factories. Meanwhile, in a massive biography of Flaubert, The Idiot in the Family, he set about the most hopeless intellectual task of all: reconciling existentialism, phenomenology, Marxism, and psychoanalysis. But his eyesight gave out in 1973, with only three of the projected five volumes completed, and by the end of the decade he was dead.
In the light of his rather embarrassing late career, why is Sartre once again becoming the object of veneration? After all, French intellectuals have moved considerably to the right since his death. Bernard-Henri Lévy, currently the biggest celebrity among Paris philosophes, became famous in the late '70s as one of the "new philosophers" who broke ranks by denouncing Marxist totalitarianism. Figures like Camus and Raymond Aron, who courageously opposed Sartre much earlier, have had their integrity posthumously acknowledged. Then why does BHL, in his new book, cast his lot with those who say, in the notorious formulation, "I would rather be wrong with Sartre than right with Aron"?
Here is a sampling of what I heard during a panel discussion among various Sartriens (including BHL) in Paris a while back:
Jim Holt is a longtime contributor to The New Yorker—where he has written on string theory, time, infinity, numbers, truth, and bullshit, among other subjects—and the author of Stop Me If You’ve Heard This. He is also a frequent contributor to the New York Times. He lives in Greenwich Village, New York City.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.