The problem with Sartre.

The problem with Sartre.

The problem with Sartre.

A guide to 20th-century culture.
March 29 2007 10:45 AM

Jean-­Paul Sartre

The nothingness at the heart of his philosophy.

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Surely part of the answer, though, is that Sartre couldn't do for himself as an analytical thinker what he was bound to do for himself as a creative artist—live out his bad faith. Sartre is high on the list of the ­writer-philosophers who were more writer than philosopher. Montaigne, Pascal, Lessing, Lichtenberg, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche—it is exalted company, but Sartre earns his place as a stylist who could make the language speak. The actor lucky enough to take the title role in Sartre's play Kean gets better things to say about existentialism than are ever said in Sartre's formal writings on the subject. In its later life, Sartre's play No Exit is too much praised for having been an act of political daring when it was written. Its original production was officially allowed by the German Occupation authorities, some of whom came to see it. They allowed it because they knew its appeal to liberty was camped in the air, and they came to see it because they knew they were in safe company.

The moral problems with which the play's supposedly trapped personages wrestle are woefully abstract compared with those that were currently drenching even the proclaimed fascist sympathizers among French intellectuals in cold sweat every night. (Sartre might really have had something if he had set his play in the railroad car that took minor writers Jacques Chardonne and Marcel Jouhandeau on their 1941 trip to Germany.) As for the moral problems waiting to be faced by French intellectuals who fancied that they were resisting tyranny by assenting to its demands with sufficient reluctance, those had not yet arisen in perceptible form, and in the conspicuous cases of Sartre and Beauvoir, they were never to do so. No Exit is a play absolutely not about its time—a time when the case for humanity was being heard not behind closed doors but with the doors wide open, so that everyone could see, but only at the price of weeping tears bitter with the salt of shame. It is, however, a play of its time, and perhaps most flagrantly so because of what it ignores. In other words, the inner turmoil gets into the action somehow. Why else would these etiolated personalities be pretending ordinary life is hell, unless somewhere, in the real life outside, real personalities were encountering a hell without pretence? As a writer, in short, Sartre was unable to escape history, because his use of language could not keep it out.


As a philosopher, to escape history was Sartre's chief concern. There was almost no salient truth about the occupation period that he was able to analyze directly at the moment when it might have mattered. When it was safe to do so, he nerved himself to say that anti-Semitism was a bad thing. Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate even contains a good epigram: Armed with anti-Semitism, Sartre said, even an idiot can be a member of an elite. Though the trains had already left from Drancy—by the time he wrote the pamphlet, the Nazis were gone as well—at least his opinion was published. He slammed the stable door. But he never made a beginning on the question of how the writers and intellectuals who continued with their careers during the occupation could do so only at the cost of tacitly conniving with Nazi policies, all of which radiated from one central aim, which was the extermination of the Jews. No moral issue was ever more inescapably real; even the cost of ignoring it was directly measurable in lost lives; there could be no philosophical discussion of any subject on which that subject did not intrude.

If Sartre wanted to avoid examining his own behavior—and clearly he did—he would need to develop a manner of writing philosophy in which he could sound as if he was talking about everything while saying nothing. To the lasting bamboozlement of the civilized world, he succeeded, at least on the level of professional prestige. Few professional thinkers anywhere found it advisable to dismiss Sartre's air of intelligence: There was too great a risk of being called unintelligent themselves. Effectivement—to re-employ a French word that was worked to death at the time—Sartre was called profound because he sounded as if he was either that or nothing, and few cared to say that they thought him nothing.

How did he work the trick? There was a hidden door. From the writer committed to transparency it might go against the grain to say so, but there is such a thing as an obscure language that contains meaning, and there is also such a thing as a meaning too subtle to be clearly expressed. The legitimate inference seems to be that an expository language pushing deep into originality might not necessarily sound readily intelligible; with the niggling corollary that a language that does not sound readily intelligible might conceivably be exploratory.

But in philosophy, the infinite regress is a sign that someone has made a mistake in logic. In ordinary life, it is a sign that someone is hiding from reality. Sartre hid. Of course he did; and if he did, anybody can, including us; although I think that if we hide in lies, the lies should not be blasphemous. Sartre blasphemed when he took upon himself, and kept for the rest of his life, battle honors that properly belonged to people who ran risks he never ran, and who died in his stead. All his other weaknesses can be comprehended and easily pardoned if not dismissed: Most of us would have shown the same frail spirit. But to get a play put on, Sartre bent his knee to the occupation authorities. For a man whose Resistance group had done nothing but meet, he was a haughty inquisitor during l'Épuration. Memories of the French Revolution were not enough to tell him that there might be something wrong with the spectacle of a philosopher sitting on a tribunal instead of standing in front of it. Sartre's autobiography was the last thing he wanted us to know, and so his philosophy was never felt, but all a pose.

Clive James, the author of numerous books of criticism, autobiography, and poetry, writes for the New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker. He lives in London.