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 he did allow himself, with sad effects on the quality of his work, as indeed Hayman himself has to point out in the course of his narrative.
Of the three analytical writers, Aronson is the most enthusiastic. His appreciation of Sartre’s genius has, he says, only increased with time, and he regrets in passing that no Chair of Sartrian Studies exists as yet in the English-speaking world (nor is there any, so far as I know, in France). He is concerned here only with Sartre’s thought, and more particularly with the unfinished, posthumously published, second volume of La Critique de la raison dialectique in its relationship to the first volume. Although he formulates some reservations about Sartre’s theoretical positions, he does so very respectfully, and seems to be writing as a liberal Marxist, anxious to show that Sartre made a contribution to the doctrine.
LaCapra and Hollier are obviously fascinated by Sartre, but the general drift of their books is hostile. The former, after recognizing that “for good or ill Sartre has been on the horizon of modern thought,” wrestles with the Sartrian inconsistencies, trying to see them in a tolerant light as “continuities in discontinuities, and discontinuities in continuities.” However, his book might equally well have been called A Postscript rather than A Preface, because it reads like a record of disillusionment, and contains a number of very trenchant judgments on important issues. LaCapra is, with Aronson, the most seriously intellectual of these writers.
Hollier, too, is intellectual, but in that precious, punning, elaborately anti-Cartesian manner which has become fashionable, alas, among younger French academics in recent years. While it seems clear that he intends an ironical undermining of Sartre’s doctrine of commitment, his argument largely escapes me, especially in this rather hit-and-miss English version of his concetti. I quote a typical passage of The Politics of Prose to show how skittishly obscure French professors can be nowadays:
Faulkner’s narrative apparatus had been accused of decapitating (décoller) time, amputating it of its future, “the dimension of actions and freedom.” Benjy, the idiot of The Sound and the Fury, had moreover, in a sense, lost his head. Ought we not to see an anticipation of Sartre’s reticences in the fact that Roquentin, in La Nausée, is a full head taller than his contemporaries. A head more. In Le Cheval de Troie, Nizan calls him Lange. One more or one less? Roquentin, in effect, lives on the rue des Mutilés. But the divergence is not so great between a beheading (décollation) and a take-off (décollage). A vanguard, in the last analysis, is merely a detachment of the head. Décollation: the head is detached. Décollage: the detachment moves ahead. From Jean sans terre to Terre des hommes. According to the definition in “Matérialisme et révolution” (“That possibility to take off (décoller) from a situation and gain a perspective on it is precisely what is called freedom”), Les Chemins de la liberté should have been constructed on the model of an airstrip.
As for the two books on Simone de Beauvoir, neither puts the surely inevitable question: was the personal relationship between her and Sartre consistent with the feminism of which she became a world-famous representative? In the Yale French Studies volume, Margaret A. Simons, discussing the philosophical relationship between the two, argues that Beauvoir was not just the camp follower she was often taken to be, but had a firmer sense of reality than Sartre, while the other contributors confine themselves to the internal discussion of the different modes of feminism, without reference to Sartre. Francis and Gontier, on the other hand, as their subtitle might lead one to expect, are tremulously in awe of the great lovers. To enhance their description of the deathbed scene, during which Beauvoir attempted to lie down beside Sartre’s corpse, they even quote from Tristan et Iseult by Chrétien de Troyes. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that, while Simone may have been something of an Isolde, Jean-Paul was no Tristan; nothing could have been further from the single-minded devotion of the courtly lover than his unabashed polygamy.
Both biographers give, for the first time, fully documented accounts of Sartre’s complicated life, based not only on the abundant written evidence but also on interviews with a great many of the surviving contemporaries. Cohen-Solal’s book, in the original French version, appeared first. Hayman mentions it in his bibliography as one of the texts he consulted, so she must be given credit for blazing the trail, although he adds a number of details not included in her book. She is the more enjoyable to read, because of her lively, rhetorical style, 1 whereas he remains rather plodding. Both avoid the opposite pitfalls of hagiography and systematic detraction. However, one thing missing in both books is some overall, controlling judgment, not so much in connection with a detailed appraisal of Sartre’s work—neither, after all, claims to be writing a “critical biography”—as with the moral tone of his life and mind.
At the height of his fame, it was not unusual to see him as the great modern embodiment of the humanistic tradition of the Enlightenment, the new Voltaire, a liberal philosopher who had stepped down from his ivory tower to do his best, clumsily perhaps but with good will, for the rest of mankind. I myself inclined to this view, and I remember being deeply shocked when another very eminent French writer, with whom I once attempted to discuss Sartre, cut me short with the vicious thrust: “Ne me parlez pas de ce crapaud, qui est en même temps une crapule” (“Don’t speak to me about that toad, who is also a swine”). At the time, I attributed the outburst to pure jealousy, but I later came to see that there might be a germ of truth in the terrible alliterative formula. In the final analysis, we have to decide whether Sartre’s intellectual contradictions, and inconsistencies and indelicacies of behavior, were the inevitable accidents of a great brain struggling valiantly with the complexities of the world, or whether they arose, at least in part, from doubtful philosophical principles and questionable emotional attitudes.
The two biographers do not hesitate to describe Sartre’s peculiarities but, having done so, they tend to stand back and accept them as part of the necessary pattern, almost as if Sartre’s tremendous lifetime fame somehow smoothed away the necessity for judgment. Cohen-Solal, for instance, demonstrates that the highly colored account of his childhood that Sartre gives in Les Mots seems often to be at odds with the ascertainable facts, which would explain why his mother, on reading the book, exclaimed in surprise: “Poulou n’a rien compris à son enfance!” (“Poulou hasn’t understood a thing about his childhood.”) His grandfather had not been such a dislikable person, and had in fact helped him a lot; his stepfather was not such an ogre, etc. Also, despite his declared opposition to Freud, Sartre seems to have suddenly decided, without warning, to refashion his childhood as an ultra-Freudian Oedipal fable.
Cohen-Solal calls the book “une autoanalyse, agencée par un orfèvre qui aurait truqué ses outils,…un règlement de comptes,…une ode à sa mère,…une belle oeuvre d’art” (“a self-analysis contrived by a practitioner who seems to have falsified his instruments,…a settling of accounts,…an ode to his mother,…a beautiful work of art”). It is certainly one of his most brilliant pieces of writing after La Nausée, but it breathes a curious heartlessness about people—even, I should say, about his mother, whose remarriage is seen entirely from her son’s point of view—as if it were a virtuoso exercise in narcissism, prompted by a fierce self-love/self-hatred, stronger than his interest in any other person. Written some twenty years on, it marks no advance over the limited Existentialist psychology of L’Etre et le néant, from which any disinterested notion of love of the Other, or forgiveness of the Other, is missing. Cohen-Solal, after stressing how misleading the book is as a guide to anything that might be called “the truth,” simply passes on, without drawing any conclusion about Sartre’s character.
Both Cohen-Solal and Hayman point out that Sartre, sooner rather than later, broke with all his male friends of comparable intellectual standing—Raymond Aron, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, René Etiemble, Camus, etc.—and lived in a circle of younger male admirers, some of them his former pupils. One wonders what would have happened to his relationship with his best friend, Paul Nizan, had the latter not been killed in the first months of the war. The quarrels all related to differences of opinion, and they show that Sartre was temperamentally incapable of tolerating anyone who disagreed with his dogmatism of the moment, and moreover never apologized, if he later changed his position on the issue that had been the overt cause of the break.
The most striking case was the quarrel with Camus over the review of L’Homme révolté in Les Temps modernes. Sartre, who was in a pro-Soviet phase at the time, thought that Camus’s theoretical refutation of Marxist ideological certainty was tactically injudicious, because it might indirectly serve the American cause. Instead of doing Camus the honor of criticizing the book personally, he delegated the task to his then sidekick, Francis Jeanson, who produced a rather supercilious article, which Camus resented. There was a public exchange of letters, indignant on Camus’s side and unpleasantly condescending on Sartre’s, and the two never met again. As far as I can see, Sartre was entirely in the wrong. Whatever the incidental weaknesses of L’Homme révolté, Camus’s basic position on the issue of Marxist ideology was sound, and Sartre had behaved indelicately (just as he had, some years before, on a more trivial level, when Camus, as editor of the left-wing paper Combat, had financed him on a reporting trip to America and he had sent all the more interesting pieces to the right-wing daily Le Figaro).
Since the quarrel occurred at the peak of Sartre’s Parisian reign, most of the intelligentsia slavishly followed his lead, with the result that, even now, Camus’s reputation has not fully recovered from the blow. The effect still seems to be working on Cohen-Solal, because she declares, quite unjustifiably, “tous deux [Sartre and Camus], totalitaires, révèrent d’annexer sans conditions le champ intellectuel français” (“Both, being totalitarian, dreamed of establishing unconditional authority over the French intellectual scene”). Camus may have been proud and touchy, but he was not totalitarian. She admits “le mépris et l’arrogance paternaliste de Sartre” (“Sartre’s condescendingness and paternalistic arrogance”), and adds: “Sartre était partisan de la vérité, mais avec certaines circonstances atténuantes” (“Sartre was in favor of truth, but with certain extenuating circumstances”), whereas Camus “se cantonnera toujours au plan des principes et de l’exigence morale, refusant de mettre ses principes au service d’une polémique politique” (“would always remain on the level of principle and moral obligation, refusing to compromise his principles in the service of a political polemic”). One would have thought that this last statement clinched the matter, but Cohen-Solal, astonishingly, puts the attitudes of the two men in the same moral category as “deux manières d’illustrer l’éthique en politique, selon deux niveaux de saisie différents” (“two ways of illustrating the application of ethics to politics, according to different levels of appreciation”).
Hayman, similarly, recognizes the self-centered ruthlessness which made Sartre, although the declared champion of the committed way of life, so remarkably unfitted for any moderately democratic collaboration with others, and caused him to exist, as it were, in a whirling dream of intellectual omnipotence:
Privately he was more interested in dominating a group than in subordinating himself…. He liked the effect he could have on other people more than he liked other people…. Lusting for fame…he was aware of his brain as an aggressive weapon. Part of his need to keep shifting positions was the need to bring the weapon constantly into play. The boxer can never afford to think about what he did in the last round: what matters is what he is doing now. If other people got stuck with yesterday’s ideas, that was because they were the audience. He was the champion…. The radical knighterrant who rode on international airlines…never quite arrived at what he called “the age of reason,” at adult stability.
Hayman makes many more observations in this vein, and they add up to a formidable indictment. However, he simply alternates them with laudatory comments, intended, no doubt, to redress the balance, although not properly adjusted for this purpose. On the question of Sartre’s contradictions, which he has said may result partly from aggressiveness, intellectual arrogance, and immaturity, he merely changes his tune from time to time:
Instead of reducing his importance, these inconsistencies enhance it. Better than any of his contemporaries, he incarnates the dilemma of the intellectual torn between creativity and commitment, unable to concentrate on literature and philosophy when to campaign against oppression and injustice might possibly alleviate suffering.
But is it true to say that Sartre’s furious activism was dictated by compassion? He rarely sounds a compassionate note, and has none of Voltaire’s warm humanitarianism. He seems to be driven rather by an overpowering urge to be against: against the bourgeoisie, against America, against capitalism, against social democracy, and, at times, even against communism and Marxism, almost as if he couldn’t bear to be for anything in a consistent manner. It is difficult to see him as a great-hearted apostle of light; he sounds more often like a super enfant terrible of the bourgeoisie, enjoying a gleefully recriminatory ego trip.
On the Beauvoir issue, as well, the two biographers are quite frank, but again, perhaps, without drawing all the threads together. Their accounts show that Sartre was the center of Beauvoir’s existence, despite the hint of a lesbian element in her makeup. Her books probably represent the most extensive tribute ever paid to a male by a female. Even her description of his decline and death, which some people have interpreted as an act of revenge, can be taken as a last, tender homage to the only man she could set up as the absolute finality, or terminus ad quem, that she needed. Had he ever seriously proposed marriage to her—as he did to various other women, but only halfheartedly and for tactical reasons—it seems obvious that she would have accepted him. The other men in her life, including Nelson Algren, were clearly stopgaps, resorted to because, after the first three or four years, Sartre no longer had any vital need of her, except intermittently as a convenient sounding board for his endless monologue.
It was he who, from the beginning, imposed the conditions of their relationship on her. Hayman quotes his remark, as reported by Beauvoir:
What we have is essential love; but it’s good if we both experience contingent loves too.
Hayman adds that Sartre was “adapting his philosophical terminology to his sexual convenience.” He could have gone further and pointed out that the statement must have been a Sartrian joke, of which Beauvoir, with submissive femininity, chose not to feel the sting. Sartre, because of his belief in absolute, and ever-renewed, freedom, hated essences, which he saw as crystallizations of “bad faith.” Besides, “essential” love would suppose the “necessary” conjunction of two partners, in the Romeo-and-Juliet manner, through the complementary genetic determinisms of their human natures, and “human nature,” as a concept, was banned from Sartrian Existentialism.
Beauvoir, the professed feminist, was, in one sense, the consenting victim of Sartre. He went after any woman who took his fancy, whether attached or unattached, and, operating on the equally convenient principle of “transparency,” would give Beauvoir a detailed account of his exploits, if he felt like it. Somewhere in his letters, after recounting a rather sordid episode, he admits “Je suis un salaud (“I am a shit”), but she seems never to have taken him up on this point. At a relatively early stage, she tacitly accepted the role of senior, sexually retired, pseudowife on the fringe of his fluctuating seraglio. Cohen-Solal refers to Sartre’s “harem ouvert et sans limites” (“his open and limitless harem”), and Hayman defines his behavior as “a pattern of scheduled promiscuity.” In the end, he adopted the last in line of his mistresses as his legal daughter. Hayman comments:
For a lifetime of devotion De Beauvoir’s reward would be to see the youngest of her rivals given unchallengeable ownership of everything Sartre had written, everything he possessed.
There appears to be no evidence that he discussed this step in advance with Beauvoir; it led to friction between the two women, at the same time as Beauvoir, with what seems like pathetic imitativeness, legally adopted her younger companion, Sylvie. Nor is there any indication that, in earlier years, Beauvoir ever found it morally dubious, from the feminist point of view, that four or five mistresses at a time should accept monthly subsidies from Sartre, and live in effect as kept women serving a single male ego. One cannot avoid the surprising thought that Sartre had exactly the same sexual mores as Louis XIV. Each was cock of his particular walk, although—fortunately or unfortunately—the philosopher was not philoprogenitive like the Sun King.
Yet, paradoxically, Sartre was also at the source of Beauvoir’s theoretical feminism. The famous opening sentence of Le Deuxième Sexe: “On ne naît pas femme, on le devient” (“One is not born a woman, one becomes a woman”) is, rhetorically, an obvious echo of the still more famous opening sentence of Rousseau’s Contrat Social: “L’homme est né libre, et il est partout dans les fers” (“Man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains”), but it draws essentially on Sartre’s belief in the abstract nature of the freedom of the consciousness, or Being-for-Itself, which he arbitrarily assumes to be independent of its physiological siting in the body. His “For-Itself,” in fact, is almost as metaphysical an entity as the Christian “soul.” Beauvoir is starting from the principle—although she may later, unwittingly, depart from it at times—that femininity is not the result of inborn tendencies but a sedimentation of “bad faith” that women accept because of their historical conditioning by male dominance. At best, this is only a stimulating half-truth. If the For-Itself is inherently independent of physiological gender, this must be the case for both sexes, so that one could equally well say: On ne naît pas mâle, on le devient. How, then, did the differences between male and female behavior arise?
Common sense tells us, of course, that the biological difference between men and women has an effect on the consciousness, however endlessly complex the difference and its consequences may be. In other words, there is such a thing as sexualized human nature, inscribed in the flesh. It works itself out in different patterns in different environments at different times. The problem is to decide when a particular pattern has become morally and psychologically unjustifiable, and how it should be changed. The Yale French Studies issue, dedicated to Beauvoir, and largely devoted to the inter-female argument about what sort of woman a woman should be, shows that the second part of the task is not easy. No contributor, incidentally, mentions the fact, so demonstrative of the complexities of human nature, that Le Deuxième Sexe was written by a dutiful pseudo-wife, living in the aura of a tranquilly pasha-like male chauvinist.
The issue of the freedom of the For-Itself lies at the heart of the immense tangle of Sartrian abstract thought. Hayman, perhaps without realizing the seriousness of his criticism, since he doesn’t develop it, simply rejects Sartre’s basic principle:
In his fundamental division of Being into two orders, the For-Itself and the In-Itself, Sartre ignores the animal elements in human consciousness…and disregards the question of how consciousness is rooted in the brain.
LaCapra points out the importance of the theme for Sartre:
This notion of an internally pure intentional consciousness as the basis of free praxis that generates meaning and value is repeated in different guises throughout Sartre’s thought.
His reproach is not so much that Sartre neglects to take the body into account as that the notion of consciousness as an empty spontaneity leads him to accept language as a neutral, unproblematic instrument, directly and reliably expressive of his thought, and blinds him to the fact that he cannot, contrary to his frequent assumption, think independently and originally from scratch, because—language and culture being collective, historical constructs—“spontaneity” can only be exercised on a basis of linguistic and cultural tradition, not all of which can be rejected en bloc as “bad faith.”
Combining these two lines of attack, I would say that Sartre is an old-fashioned, pre-Enlightenment metaphysician in that, despite his learning and the limits he eventually sets on freedom, he behaves primarily as if he were “pure” spirit, thinking in “pure” language, and divinely master of his thought.2 He doesn’t start concretely from the post-Enlightenment hypothesis that man is an evolved animal, engaged in the ongoing, paradoxical task of trying to understand the whole of which he is only a part, and who is doing so, moreover, by means of language, a historical folk product, the genesis and immediate functioning of which have still not yet been elucidated. Similarly, although he makes much play with the idea of man being “in situation,” he constantly seems to forget, at least on the theoretical level, that the “situation” of each individual includes not only his family and his social class, but also the initial, “absurd” datum of his particular genetic makeup, which conditions his reactions to his circumstances. Genes are a primary destiny; freedom, insofar as it can be said to exist, is a variable epiphenomenon of our individual animal nature. The point is, perhaps, easily overlooked by a childless philosopher, without brothers or sisters, who may never have had occasion to notice how strongly marked individual infant temperaments can be, even from the day of birth.
Happily, these strictures do not apply to La Nausée. In that book, through his narrator, Roquentin, who presumably represents his own temperament, Sartre gives a wonderful description of the awakening of a consciousness to the mystery of life, as if “contingency sickness” were a necessary phase of intellectual puberty, which has to be gone through, even perhaps as late as in adulthood. Roquentin finds his consciousness in a particular body, with which it feels only intermittent solidarity; he is surrounded by the given, incomprehensible rituals of society, is using words that seem to bounce back from the objects to which he applies them, and is obsessed by the flow of time, which can neither be stopped nor recalled. His discussion of the task he is engaged upon—the biography of the eighteenth-century figure, M. de Rollebon—is a perfect critique of the limits of historical writing. His description of the Autodidact, who is reading all the books in the public library in alphabetical order, gently satirizes the human ambition for total knowledge. His delight in the jazz song, “Some of These Days,” demonstrates the relief, at once true and illusory, provided by art, and so on. All this represents a subtle development of the more primitive awareness of the Absurd present in the Enlightenment tradition, and would surely have been applauded by Voltaire and Diderot.
For some reason, Sartre’s wartime experience caused him to switch from the intellectual delicacy of La Nausée to the cruder, though always infinitely ingenious, mode of his later thought, connected with the belief in commitment. He himself says, in Les Cahiers de la drôle de guerre, that his reading of Heidegger, just before and during the war, was instrumental in making him realize his “historicity.” I quote from the English version:
I can rediscover Heidegger’s assumption of his destiny as a German, in the wretched Germany of the postwar years, in order to help me assume my destiny as a Frenchman, in the France of 1940.
At this point, he had still not decided on action and, in any case, it seems odd that a man of thirty-five, who had written so perceptively about history, should have needed both a war and Heidegger to make him see himself in a historical perspective. Besides, there had already been the Spanish Civil War, which had not prompted him to action, although he knew all about the behavior of Malraux and others. If he felt guilty about his parasitical status as an uncommitted intellectual, why did the crisis not occur then? It may be an unworthy thought, but I wonder if his later experience of the prison camp, where he discovered that he could have the same charismatic effect on adults as he had had on schoolboys, did not give him a taste for action—or the rhetorical semblance of action—as an ego-boosting complement to writing. But it still remains puzzling that his “conversion” should have made him think below his previous standard. Hollier, deviating for once into witty lucidity, remarks with some justification: “He had gone off as Roquentin and came back as the Self-Taught Man.”
Perhaps it was because Sartre had not yet elaborated the abstract system of L’Etre et le néant that La Nausée remains, for the most part, so beautifully and concretely phenomenological. The brilliantly satirical presentation of bourgeois “bad faith” in that book is appropriate as the immediate reaction of Roquentin’s temporarily alienated consciousness to a social setting in which he is a mere spectator (just as the trial scene in L’Etranger is a delicate rendering of Meursault’s subjective feeling of puzzled half-innocence, although inaccurate and unfair as a description of the general functioning of the law). But Sartre, the would-be political participant, has two major handicaps which occasionally fuse into one.
In the first place, the psychology of human relationships in L’Etre et le néant, whatever its dazzling ramifications, boils down in the end to a struggle for dominance between conflicting Pour-Soi or For-Themselves; hence the slogan in Huis Clos: L’enfer c’est les autres, which is acceptable as an amusing squib, but misses out the obvious fact that, while other people may be Hell, they are also the only Heaven we know. The battle of the For-Themselves is an undeniable part of reality, and can be translated into other vocabularies—original sin, the amourpropre that La Rochefoucauld presented as the mainspring of human action, the selfish gene, etc.—but it cannot, by itself, be a basis for positive democratic activity, which also supposes human solidarity, unselfishness, tolerance, and love, none of which are dealt with adequately by Sartre. While claiming to be democratic, he is saddled with a one-sided negativity which makes democracy impossible. This is what LaCapra is suggesting, I think, when he says of L’Etre et le néant that “it might even be read as a philosophical systematization of a paranoid, schizophrenic world view.”
In the second place, Sartre’s political commitment began as opposition to the German occupier, in a black-and-white situation. From the start, incidentally, he showed no aptitude for, or patience with, the practical details of action; Cohen-Solal assembles considerable evidence to this effect. After the war, and during his subsequent career, he kept looking for black-and-white patterns on which to exercise his rhetorical verve, and he could only do this by damning villains and defending victims. The French bourgeoisie was solidified into a permanent villain, essence of villain, one might say, although human essences were supposed not to exist; capitalism was another villain; the Communists were now villains, now victims, according to his mood. LaCapra sums up this all-or-nothing approach:
Sartre never makes a sustained investigation and immanent critique of existing institutions (for instance, those of capitalism) or a set of specific recommendations for major institutional change. Instead, he combines general indictment, apocalyptic tremor and threats of violence.
He also points out that Sartre’s major theoretical work on politics, La Critique de la raison dialectique, allows for no middle term between “seriality” (atomized individuals, as Sartre—again quite arbitrarily—supposes them to exist in a queue at a bus stop) and “the group-in-fusion” (a crowd united in violent passion leading to action, as at the storming of the Bastille):
The group-in-fusion…can in no sense be stabilized as an ongoing community. The institution is not perceived as a “third” that may both mediate and supplement human relations in ways that are both simultaneously structured and open to contestation.
The commitment, which helped so much to make Sartre world-famous can, with hindsight, be looked upon as a resounding and tragic failure. We can either say that he squandered his talents through going in a dramatically wrong direction, or that his failure at least served the cause of literature by demonstrating, with extravagant excess, that literature and politics are fundamentally different activities, whatever links there may be between them. He founded Les Temps modernes as the engine of war of committed literature, but fell out with all the important original contributors, and the review itself never equaled the achievement of its predecessor, La Nouvelle Revue française. The theoretical contradictions in his lively polemical manifesto, Qu’est-ce que la littérature? soon became glaringly obvious, as did the discrepancy between his theories and his own literary practice. His novel sequence, Les Chemins de la liberté did not show the roads to freedom promised in the title, and was left unfinished. No general movement of committed literature came into being. His attempt to launch a political party quickly collapsed. For years, his off-and-on relationship with the Communist party and Soviet Russia was supported by arguments of a byzantine casuistry, if not dishonesty. In the end, he abandoned the Communists to throw in his lot with neo-Maoist groups, whose anarchistic, and sometimes terrorist, activities seemed to him to have a populist quality missing from bureaucratized political parties. He had gone full circle, as it were, from the passive anarchism of his early, precommitment phase to the febrile anarchism of his old age, when he tried to get himself arrested for selling banned newspapers in the streets. LaCapra offers a best, and a worst, interpretation of his evolution:
This movement might be seen as a progressive and promising journey toward a theoretical and practical basis for a gauchiste (if not more generally New Left) politics of liberation or as a negative and hollow passage from the activeless mind to mindless activism.
It is a strange irony that such an extraordinary mind can be accused of mindlessness. Yet it is a fact that Sartre’s enormous intelligence sometimes seems to turn itself inside out to become a kind of monumental obtuseness. His exceptional cerebral power is characterized by a sort of inflation, which leads him to erect the most complex verbal structures by means of scholastic variations on relatively simple, and patently limited or dubious, premises. At times, one feels that the whole house of cards is going to collapse into nonsense and, in fact, I think it often does; then again, it can happen that he makes one of his more telling points when he is way out on some verbal limb, like an acrobat saving himself in extremis. No writer is more bewilderingly uneven. The reader, about to lose heart after toiling through a desert of doubtful, though fiercely affirmative, jargon, may suddenly find himself in an oasis of delightful perceptiveness, as if a different and altogether more sensitive part of Sartre’s mind had suddenly come into play. The superior passage is often an improvisation on some incidental theme, only slightly connected with the main argument. Sartre himself referred to such digressions as des hernies, hernias or bulges that he left as they were, because he could neither bring himself to sacrifice them nor incorporate them properly into the text. In some future anthology of his work, they may figure as proofs of the sporadic survival of his talent.
The inflationary style is especially noticeable in his extraordinary biographical-critical studies of Baudelaire, Flaubert, and Genet, in which he displays both a cavalier attitude toward the ordinary rules of evidence and an almost complete insensitivity to the initial physiological identities of the individuals concerned. He presents each as the embodiment of an abstract existential choice, which he imposes on them retrospectively, without paying very scrupulous attention to the recognized facts of their lives, and sometimes by inventing facts or factoids to support his thesis, as he openly admits in the case of Flaubert.
The genre of the biographie romancée was given its name in the prewar years by a typically bourgeois man of letters, André Maurois, and one can imagine how scathingly Sartre would have dealt with it in his early phase. Roquentin, in La Nausée, gives up writing the life of M. de Rollebon because he comes to realize that, however closely he may study the data, he still has to fall back on his imagination to fill the gaps, and this he feels to be a form of dishonesty. He is making the Absurdist discovery that we have no way of knowing the past in any absolute manner. This is just one aspect of the broader Absurdist perception that all knowledge is uncertain. We live in a mystery, in which we make little provisional clearings of human understanding. Such is the inevitable ground bass of all intellectual activity, and it can be experienced as an anguish, or an anguished excitement, as it is, indeed, throughout La Nausée. But after his “conversion,” Sartre, instead of accepting the provisional and relative nature of knowledge as a fact of life with which one has to come to terms, seems to have jumped wantonly to the conclusion that anything goes. Perhaps he was curing his anguish by making subjective dogmatism an act of faith. At any rate, he executes a complete volte-face; after showing the limits of knowledge in La Nausée, he undertook his study of Flaubert with the declared intention of achieving total knowledge, as if the human brain could digest the universe.
Both LaCapra and Hayman emphasize that these so-called biographical studies are, to a large extent, highly idiosyncratic hymns of hate: against the bourgeoisie, against his subjects insofar as he finds them guilty of “bad faith,” and against the bourgeois he was trying to exorcise from within himself. LaCapra makes the point in measured terms:
His readings tend to be selective, one-way appropriations that do not recognize the other as having a view, especially in respects that might generate radical doubts.
Hayman says more sharply that, with Sartre, biography tends to become a form of displaced autobiography. On the one hand, he is fiercely, although often intelligently, unfair to Baudelaire and Flaubert, because he is hating himself, and all bourgeois, in them. On the other hand, he builds up Genet into a great Angel of Darkness, because Genet’s works, which glorify bastardy, sexual inversion, theft, treachery, and murder, can be read, without excessive distortion, as a complete, heroic reversal of all “normal” values, the apotheosis of alienation, on a par with the black universe of the Marquis de Sade. As someone once said, if Genet had not existed, Sartre would have had to invent him to give full rein to his negative impulses.
It is understandable and, in a sense, admirable, that Genet, given his “situation,” should have made the existential choice to turn negativity into his positive value. It is less obvious why Sartre, a privileged intellectual, should have believed so strongly in the empty spontaneity of the For-Itself as the necessary negating force of the whole status quo, in the dim, long-term expectation of the socialist millenium, when the need for negation will miraculously disappear, and all will be well.
I sometimes think that the “immaturity” mentioned by Hayman is to be explained as the impatience of a spoiled, hyperintelligent little boy, who would like to smash the world at once, as if it were an irritating, incomprehensible toy—which is what it may seem to all of us, of course, in certain moods—rather than patiently share the handling of its incomprehensibility with others. Sartre is being unfaithful to his initial awareness of the Absurd by forgetting that, if Absurdism is true, it is valid for everyone, even for the benighted bourgeois, who can never be an essence but is, at worst, an uncertain, provisional, always partly modifiable, crystallization of “bad faith.” As Camus, unlike Sartre, came to realize, the only moderately hopeful basis for democracy in the godless world is the principle that we are all brothers and sisters in the Absurd, although a lot of people may not yet have grasped this, and those who have may have difficulty in constantly bearing it in mind.
At other times, I suspect that Sartre never got rid of the idea of God, but remained an atheist, hating father figures of all kinds (with the major exception of Stalin as the mediator of the millennium), and hating the bourgeoisie as an authoritarian father class, a sort of front for the unforgivable God responsible for creation. I used to suppose that he understood the expression “God is dead,” as the metaphor it undoubtedly is (a God who never existed cannot have died; only the illusory idea that there is a God can have died), and that Orestes defying Jupiter in Les Mouches, Goetz parleying with God in Le Diable et le bon Dieu, and Frantz declaiming to the void in Les Séquestrés d’Altona were just rather crude theatrical devices, resorted to, with tongue in cheek, because of Sartre’s avowed weakness for melodramatic effects. Now, I am not so sure.
Just as he behaves as if God, although dead, kept popping up again in some ghostlike form and had to be constantly challenged and reargued out of existence, so he produces endless variations on the formula “man is the being who projects being God.” This again, for humanists, can be no more than an ironical figure of speech; “God” is only a shorthand term for the limits of man’s understanding, a hypostatization of the central mystery of the Absurd; how can man—even a man as clever as Sartre—project to be the incomprehensible which baffles him? Yet Sartre often gives the impression that he sees his For-Itself engaged in a sort of duel with the For-Itself of God. If this is actually the case, he is falling prey to the megalomaniacal delusion that he, a man, can somehow, if he tries hard enough, understand the whole of which he is a part, and ensnare it in a web of words. LaCapra, with what sounds like faint dismay, comments on “the totalizing intentionality of the-man-who-would-be-God” and “on the increasingly elaborate spiral of dialectically totalizing discourse” in the volumes on Flaubert.
That there was something slightly deranged in the amazing pyrotechnics of Sartre’s later intellectual phase seems to me to be confirmed by Aronson’s lucid analysis of the central argument of Critique II, a work not published in Sartre’s lifetime, but which remains as evidence of his state of mind. Briefly, Sartre’s concern was to discover a dialectical meaning in history, so that it can be made intelligible as “a totalization without a totalizer”; in simpler terms, so that history can be seen as making sense, even though there is no God behind it realizing His cosmic plan; and, more particularly, so that it doesn’t remain “a tale told by an idiot…signifying nothing,” but instead demonstrates how the Marxist dialectic is inevitably working itself out in the direction of the millennium. As Aronson puts it, Sartre is trying to
rescue historical materialism from the agnosticism that sees history as detotalizing as indifferently as it totalizes, that sees praxis but not trends, that taboos revolutionary visions.
I am not convinced that agnosticism needs taboo revolutionary visions; such visions can be the mainspring of a political activity which, for empirical reasons, uses reformist rather than revolutionary methods. However, the point at issue is whether the history of Soviet Russia, in particular, can be interpreted as a reassuring example of the dialectic, in spite of all the mistakes and crimes committed in the name of Marxism, and that Sartre was, by now, willing to admit.
Aronson explains in detail and, on the whole, with approval, the marvelous casuistical skill displayed by Sartre in trying to prove, for instance, that Stalin, as the emanation of the general will of the population of a communist state in an early phase of its existence, was a necessary agent of the dialectic in employing antihumanitarian methods in order to ensure the survival of Soviet Russia, so that it could evolve toward the ultimately humanitarian state, which is to be hoped for in the future.
On one level, of course, this is just an elaborate restatement of the old argument about the end justifying the means, that Camus had rejected on the commonsense grounds that the end is never sure and that evil, once committed, is irreversible. More interestingly, it shows Sartre’s tolerance of, and even weakness for, authoritarian leaders, provided they did not belong to the “bourgeois” West, as did De Gaulle, about whom he never said a good word, although De Gaulle could, in his own terms, be seen as an outstanding example of a neo-Nietzschean For-Itself exercising its freedom in order to dominate a highly challenging “situation.” But, above all, it raises the question of the nature of the being of the dialectic. What does the dialectic rest upon? It is not the work of God, since He doesn’t exist. It cannot be a collective product of human nature since, according to Sartre, human nature doesn’t exist either. If it is the outcome of the free spontaneities of the For-Themselves, what is swaying their choices in a particular direction, so that their combined praxis falls into the desired, intelligible, dialectical pattern?
The answer can only be: some kind of metaphysical force, like the Hegelian World Spirit, which would take us back to God as an immanent presence, or Sartre’s own brain which is ingeniously reading into the data the logic it would like to find there. I opt for the second explanation. The totalization without a totalizer depends, in fact, on Sartre, the human totalizer, who is stepping confidently into the place once thought to be occupied by “God.” I am reminded of a famous early article, in which Sartre attacked the Catholic novelist, François Mauriac, and which ended with the memorable sentence: “Dieu n’est pas un artiste; M. François Mauriac non plus” (“God is not an artist; nor is M. François Mauriac”). We could perhaps echo it here, in the form: “God is dead; He cannot rise again as M. Jean-Paul Sartre.”
August 13, 1987
At least in the French version, published by Gallimard, that I have used. The translation brutally prunes away many of her stylistic effects and often misses her precise meaning. It is a pity that Pantheon Books, having taken the initiative of commissioning the biography, should not have been able to ensure a translation worthy of it. ↩
However, another of Sartre’s contradictions is that his assertion of the freedom of the For-Itself did not prevent him from making reckless use of physical stimulants—coffee, alcohol, and amphetamines—to keep his brain and his pen going. Cohen-Solal, after toting up his intake in later life, calls his behavior suicidal. ↩