The Marxism of Jean-Paul Sartre

by Wilfrid Desan
Doubleday, 320 pp., $4.95

Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre; drawing by David Levine

A few years ago Jean-Paul Sartre paid a brief visit to Cuba and had a conversation with Castro, in the course of which there occurred the following memorable exchange (reported by Sartre in the account he wrote of his trip, and now preserved for posterity by Mr. Wilfrid Desan in a new book on Sartre’s philosophy):

“Man’s need is his fundamental right over all others,” said Castro. “And if they ask you for the moon?” asked Sartre.

“…it would be because someone needed it,” was Castro’s reply.

Mr. Desan’s comment on this is, “Sartre had found a friend, one who understood that the one humanism that is possible is founded “neither on work nor on culture…but on need.” My own, somewhat more jaundiced, exegesis of the above passage is that Castro had sized Sartre up correctly as someone who would stick to generalities and avoid painful topics, such as the (temporary) suppression of liberty. The two men of course also have other points in common, notably their joint descent from Jacobinism. But that is another matter.

It has to be reported that much of Mr. Desan’s work is at the level of the passage just cited: verbose, rhetorical, and awestruck. This is a pity, for it is plain that he could have written a much better book had he allowed his critical sense more play. His own educational background is French, and his earlier work includes an interpretation of L’Etre et le Néant: that great, inflated, word-intoxicated essay in which Sartre—writing in Paris during the German Occupation—introduced his countrymen to the mysteries of German metaphysics. Mr. Desan knows enough about France, and about philosophy, to do justice to Sartre’s intellectual accomplishment, and if The Marxism of Jean-Paul Sartre is on the whole a disappointing book, the reason is not to be found in any lack of technical accomplishment on the author’s part. It is just that, like so many of his former countrymen (for I take it that Mr. Desan is now an American and writes in English), he has been unduly impressed by Sartre’s public status as the central figure of French intellectual life.

Of the importance attributed to Sartre’s role, even by his opponents, there can be no doubt. By near-unanimous consent he is the Callas of French literature: a star whose bravura performances make up for the frequent lack of an adequate libretto. “Sartre, c’est aussi la France,” De Gaulle is said to have remarked on an occasion when there was some talk of legal action against him for calling upon conscripts to refuse service in Algeria. These two great egotists concur in believing that, were it not for their presence. France would sink to the level of mediocrity so manifest elsewhere in contemporary Europe. As one who happens to share this view or something like it, I am nonetheless skeptical about the claims made for…

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