"Time,” wrote W. H. Auden, “Worships language and forgives / Everyone by whom it lives. / Pardons cowardice, conceit, / Lays its honors at their feet.” Time certainly has a few things to forgive Jean-Paul Sartre for. Not cowardice or conceit; he was brave enough and not particularly vain. But he let himself be carried away by his enthusiasms, and he wrote far too much, which practically guarantees that a writer will occasionally make a fool of himself. In private life he was decent but not irreproachable, though the sexual temptations of male intellectual superstars in the 1950s were undoubtedly fierce, and were in any case rarely resisted.
But Sartre was unquestionably one of those by whom language lives, and vice versa. Many people read voraciously; Sartre wrote voraciously. Novels, plays, stories, memoirs, literary criticism, biography, autobiography, political essays, and philosophical treatises flowed unceasingly—and, it must often have seemed, effortlessly—from his pen (though we learn from an interview included in these Selected Essays, they typically went through five or six revisions). Renown does not always correspond to merit, of course; but Sartre’s degree of eminence as, simultaneously, a creative writer, a political thinker, and a philosopher is, I think, unique.
Sartre’s essays are prodigious in quantity and range. They are collected in ten volumes called Situations (the French word does not precisely mean what “situations” means in English—there’s a soupçon of actively “situating” or “putting in context”). This new selection from NYRB Classics culls from all ten volumes. It leaves out a couple of my favorites: “The Situation of the Writer in 1947” and the poignant tribute to Albert Camus after his sudden, early death. But it’s an excellent selection nonetheless, almost doing justice—for full justice, the fiction and plays are indispensable—to this protean, exasperating, revelatory author.
It’s said that William James wrote psychology textbooks that read like novels, while Henry James wrote novels that read like psychology textbooks. Sartre’s criticism of literature and art is saturated with philosophy, while his philosophical writings invariably have a literary flair (which is not to say they are usually either vivid or clear). This collection includes essays on John Dos Passos’s 1919, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Camus’ The Stranger, Georges Bataille’s Inner Experience, Francophone African poetry, and the sculpture of Alberto Giacometti and Alexander Calder. These critical essays rarely contain much in the way of aesthetic judgments or patient delineations of technique. Sartre does not much care about influences, relative merits, or demonstrations of how one or another verbal or visual effect is achieved. He is concerned with historical, moral, or metaphysical significance. His insights are often startling, provoking, sometimes thrilling, but one isn’t always sure whether Sartre has found them in the work or put them there.
The essay on Faulkner is celebrated, and typical. In The Sound and the Fury, “the past,” according to Sartre, “acquires a sort of surreality…its outlines become crisp and hard—changeless. The present, nameless and fleeting, suffers greatly by comparison: it is full of holes and, through these holes, it is invaded by things past, which are fixed, still, and silent, like judges or stares.” Man, Sartre objects,
is in no sense the sum total of what he has but the totality of what he doesn’t yet have, of what he could have. And if we are immersed, in this way, in futurity, isn’t the formless harshness of the present thereby attenuated? The event doesn’t spring on us like a thief, since it is, by its very nature, a having-been-future. And, in seeking to explain the past, isn’t it first the historian’s task to research into the future?
The essay concludes with an ambivalent valediction:
Faulkner’s despair seems to me to precede his metaphysics. For him, as for all of us, the future is blocked off. Everything we see and experience suggests to us that ‘this cannot last,’ and yet change is not even conceivable, except in cataclysmic form. We are living in an age of impossible revolutions, and Faulkner employs his extraordinary art to describe this world that is dying of old age and our suffocation in it. I love his art; I do not believe in his metaphysics.
This is glittering wordplay and concept-play. But one can’t help wondering whether Faulkner’s preoccupations aligned so neatly with Sartre’s.
Sartre’s philosophy is represented in this collection by his essays on Kierkegaard and Husserl and by “Existentialism: A Clarification.” For this reader, Sartre’s philosophical prose has the ethereality and delicacy (though not the color) of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century French orchestral music; and like orchestral music, it cannot be rendered into intelligible, everyday meanings. The word “Being” induces one of two opposite reactions, depending on one’s philosophical temperament: either the pulse quickens or the eyes roll. As a member of the second, metaphysically tone-deaf tribe, I must acknowledge that Sartre’s (and Husserl’s and Heidegger’s and Merleau-Ponty’s) theoretical ideas mostly elude me. I appreciate their emphasis on the “embeddedness” of perception, identity, and consciousness; and Sartre’s explication of mauvaise foi seems to me original and valuable (though I think he says it better in the novels and plays). But alas, I cannot follow him any further than that.
Sartre excelled at intellectual portraiture. Selected Essays contains two lengthy memoirs: one of Paul Nizan, the novelist, philosopher, and Communist militant who was killed early in World War II; and one of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Sartre’s longtime collaborator on Les Temps modernes, the enormously influential journal they founded in 1945. (Sartre’s essay introducing the first issue is included here, with its famous proclamation of the writer’s responsibility: “The writer is situated in his time; every word he utters has reverberations. As does his silence.”)
Nizan was Sartre’s roommate at the École normale supérieure, the French version of Oxford/Cambridge or Harvard/Yale/Princeton/Stanford. He seems to have been a Rimbaud-like figure: a dandy and an enfant terrible who rebelled against a solidly bourgeois background, getting into scrapes and wandering off to Africa. But Nizan turned to politics with a fury that bewildered the youthful Sartre: “My anger was a mere soap bubble, his was real.... His words of hate were pure gold, mine were false coin.” After twelve years, Nizan left the Communist Party—the unforgiveable sin. When he died soon afterward, a chorus of slander buried his reputation. Sartre’s essay helped rescue it.
Next to Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre’s closest relationship was with Merleau-Ponty. They also passed through the École normale at the same time, though in different circles. The Resistance brought them together. Sartre’s long, tender, intimate reminiscence reveals what few suspected at the time: that it was an unequal partnership, and that Sartre always felt himself the junior partner. The imperturbable Merleau, bequeathed an apparently unshakeable psychic equilibrium by what Sartre calls his “golden childhood,” was the real guiding spirit of Les Temps modernes and a political/philosophical lodestar for the excitable Sartre.
IN THE AFTERMATH of World War II, politics eclipsed—perhaps “annexed” would be a better word—philosophy and literature. The future of Europe seemed up for grabs. For the first time since the crushing of the German workers’ uprising in 1919, anticapitalist revolution was a live option in Europe. Intellectuals in France felt the need to declare themselves.
Sartre never joined the French Communist Party, and in fact always despised its leadership and its generally disgraceful opportunism, intellectual dishonesty, and internal conformity. Nonetheless, he admired many Communists’ heroic role in the Resistance, and, more important, he believed that no other group enjoyed the confidence of the working class or aimed at fundamental political change. So he consistently offered them his support (which they consistently scorned) and defended their right to a leading role in French politics. Likewise, he continued until the mid-1950s to maintain that the Soviet Union had not definitively forfeited its claim to incarnate revolutionary socialism, however imperfectly, and still deserved, in respect of its concentration camps, show trials, and subjugation of Eastern Europe, if not the benefit of the doubt then at least a suspension of final judgment. An editorial of January 1950, “The USSR and the Camps,” written by Merleau-Ponty, set out their joint position:
We have the same values as a Communist…. We may think he compromises them by embodying them in today’s communism. The fact remains that they are ours, and that on the contrary we have nothing in common with a good number of communism’s adversaries.... The USSR is on the whole situated...on the side of those who are struggling against the forms of exploitation known to us.... We do not draw the conclusion that indulgence must be shown toward communism, but one can in no case make a pact with its adversaries. The only sound criticism is thus the one which bears on exploitation and oppression, inside and outside the USSR.... The decadence of Russian communism does not make the class struggle a myth…or Marxist criticism in general null and void.
The editorial pleased no one and scandalized many. In the English-speaking world, Sartre’s and Merleau-Ponty’s reputations for intellectual integrity and political judgment have never recovered from it. I think, on the contrary, that the general condemnation reflects badly on the critics. I have several disagreements with the passage above. “Nothing in common” is too strong—refusal to acknowledge the fundamental decency of one’s opponents is a failing more characteristic of Stalinists than of Sartre or Merleau-Ponty. By 1950 (since 1917, in fact) the USSR (like the United States) was on no one’s “side” except that of its own ruling class. And the authors might have said which values they shared with which communists—Marx and Victor Serge, presumably, rather than Stalin and Louis Aragon. Still, by virtue of at least acknowledging the existence of exploitation and class struggle, it seems to me a more penetrating and honest grappling with the contemporary situation than anything penned by Walter Lippmann, Reinhold Niebuhr, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Isaiah Berlin, or other esteemed Cold War liberals.
Similarly, Sartre’s preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth has seemed to many the epitome of irresponsible Third-Worldist bravado and an unforgiveable romanticizing of revolutionary violence. It is true that some West European New Leftists read it that way, and Sartre failed in his responsibility to disabuse them. Does the essay deserve its notoriety? Here is the corpus delicti:
No gentleness can efface the marks of violence; it is violence alone that can destroy them. And the colonized cure themselves of the colonial neurosis by driving out the colon with weapons. When their rage explodes, they recover their lost transparency, they know themselves in the same measure as they create themselves; from afar, we regard their war as the triumph of barbarism; but it leads by itself to progressive emancipation of the fighters, it progressively liquidates the colonial darkness within and outside them. Once it starts, it is merciless. One must remain terrified or become terrible; that is to say: abandon oneself to the disassociations of a falsified life or conquer native unity. When the peasants pick up guns, the old myths pale, prohibitions are one by one overturned: the fighters’ weapons are their humanity. For, at this first stage of the revolt, they have to kill: to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, doing away with oppressor and oppressed at the same time: what remains is a dead man and a free man; the survivor, for the first time, feels national soil under his feet.
The burden of this passage is: “You—my Western readers—have driven anti-colonial rebels to violence, even senseless violence. You have left them no way to gain their freedom or self-respect nonviolently.” That seems devastatingly true—about brutalized colonial subjects, though not about middle-class European youth. If only Sartre had paused in the magnificent rush of his eloquence—and here he was indeed at fault—to admonish the rebels, however futilely, that inevitable savagery—torture, the killing of civilians—was still savagery, and that their children, if not they themselves, would (or should) come to feel ashamed of it. But here, as with criticizing the USSR, he feared comforting the enemy. He should have been less fearful.
No one can tell the whole truth about his time or strike exactly the right balance among its conflicting moral demands. Nor can anyone combine passion and dispassion in unfailingly correct proportions. Sartre did a creditable job, on the whole. Few writers have given more offense (often justified) to their readers, but even fewer have deserved so well of them.