Summing Up Sartre

Sartre: A Life

by Annie Cohen-Solal, translated by Anna Cancogni, edited by Norman MacAfee
Pantheon Books, 591 pp., $24.95

Sartre: A Life

by Ronald Hayman
Simon and Schuster, 572 pp., $22.95

Sartre's Second Critique

by Ronald Aronson
University of Chicago Press, 253 pp., $13.95 (paper)

The Politics of Prose: Essay on Sartre

by Denis Hollier, translated by Jeffrey Mehlman, foreword by Jean-François Lyotard
University of Minnesota Press, 217 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Simone de Beauvoir: Witness to a Century

edited by Hélène Vivienne Wenzel
Yale French Studies, Number 72, 219 pp., $12.95

Simone de Beauvoir: A Life…A Love Story

by Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier, translated by Lisa Nesselson
St. Martin's, 412 pp., $18.95


Is Jean-Paul Sartre—philosopher, novelist, playwright, critic, biographer, political theorist and activist—to be revered as the outstanding intellectual and artistic figure of twentieth-century France, or was he, as George Orwell suggested in the early days of Sartre’s fame, predominantly a windbag? To rephrase the question in politer terms, was he a great genius or just a colossally gifted word-spinner, strangely—almost frivolously—indifferent to the inconsistencies in his enormous output, and ultimately devoid of any concept of objective truth? Furthermore, was his association with Simone de Beauvoir an archetypal love affair, a pattern for modern heterosexual relationships, or was it largely a fiction that she created and that he never publicly brought into question, once they both had become famous?

On the second issue I have long been disillusioned. On the first, I confess that, over the years, I have oscillated somewhere between the two opposite opinions, always spellbound by Sartre’s torrential flow of mind, but constantly perplexed by his shifting dogmatisms. I am still fairly certain that La Nausée is a masterpiece, an Absurdist classic which will remain along with Camus’s L’Etranger as the expression of a certain cultural moment, but I am now inclined to look upon the vast body of subsequent writing, unique and astounding though it is, as a brilliantly confused mass of words which, moreover, runs counter to some of the essential Absurdist insights contained in La Nausée. Worse still, I have come to suspect that Sartre was not, as is often supposed, a convinced humanist evolving a philosophy for the godless world, but a very different kind of creature: in his second phase, at least, a thoroughgoing, old-fashioned metaphysician with a wild, Luciferian urge to negate or dominate creation.

It follows that I approach these seven new books (LaCapra’s book is, apparently, a reissue, but new to me) with keen curiosity to see where their authors stand, seven years after Sartre’s death. The biographers begin by expressing great admiration for Sartre. Cohen-Solal deplores the fact that his reputation is now in partial eclipse, but declares her confidence in the enduring vitality of his work, without, however, attempting any detailed critical assessment of it. Hayman praises Sartre lavishly as a “world historical figure,” but then concludes his preface with the startling remark:

If he [Sartre] was not always honest, it was partly because honesty was a luxury he could not afford.

Hayman doesn’t explain what higher value there is to which a philosopher may be called upon to subordinate his honesty. He is referring, presumably, to the belief in “commitment,” which led Sartre, on some important occasions, to prefer political expediency, as he understood it, to the expression of intellectual and moral truth. This is a serious charge that can be leveled against him, and an obvious danger of the “committed” stance, when geared to immediate political action. Reversing Hayman’s statement, I would say that political expediency is a politician’s luxury or necessity that Sartre, as philosopher and writer, could not afford, but that…

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