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This article is taken from PN Review 35, Volume 10 Number 3, January - February 1984.Memento: Jean-Paul Sartre
THE death of Jean-Paul Sartre, after the initial shock this kind of news produces, aroused in me a feeling of resigned melancholy. I lived in Paris in the post-War years, which were the high noon of his glory and influence. Sartre bore that celebrity with humour and simplicity; despite the bigotry of many of his admirers [. . .] which was irritating and funny at the same time, his simplicity, which was genuinely philosophical, disarmed more reticent spirits. During those years I read him with furious passion: one of his qualities was the way he could elicit from his readers, with the same violence, rejection and assent. Often, as I read, I lamented that I did not know him personally, so I might tell him face to face my doubts and disagreements. A chance incident gave me that opportunity.
A friend, sent to Paris by the University of Mexico to finish his philosophical studies, confided to me that he was in danger of losing his academic grant if he did not publish soon an article on some philosophical theme. It occurred to me that a conversation with Sartre might be the matter for that article. Through some common friends we got near to him and proposed our idea. He accepted it and a few days later the three of us dined in the bar of the Pont-Royal. The dinner-interview lasted more than three hours and during it Sartre was extremely lively, speaking with intelligence, passion and energy. He also listened, and took the trouble to answer my questions and timid objections. My friend never wrote his article but that first meeting gave me the opportunity to meet Sartre again at the same bar of the Pont-Royal. Our relationship ended after the third or fourth encounter: too many things divided us and I did not look him up again. I have defined these differences in some passages in my Corriente Alterna and El Ogro Filantropico.
The subjects of those conversations were the topical ones of the time: existentialism and its relations with literature and politics. The publication in Les Temps Modernes of a fragment of the book on Genet which he was writing at the time, led us to talk about that writer and about St Teresa. A parallel much to his liking since both, he said, in choosing Supreme Evil and Supreme Good ('le Non-Etre de l'Etre et l'Etre du non-Etre'), in fact had chosen the same thing. I was surprised that, guided only by a verbalist logic, he ignored precisely what was at the heart of his concerns and the foundation of his philosophical criticism: the subjectivity of St Teresa and her historical situation. In other words: the physical person that the Spanish nun had been, and the intellectual and affective horizon of her life, the religiosity of the Spanish sixteenth century. For Genet, Satan and God are words which signify cloudy realities, suprasensible entities: myths or ideas; for St Teresa, those same words were spiritual and sensible realities, incarnate ideas. And this is what distinguishes mystical from other expression: though the Devil is the Non-Person by substitution [antonomasia] and though strictly, except in the mystery of the Incarnation, God is not a person either, for the believer both are tangible presences, humanized spirits.
During that conversation I made an uncomfortable discovery:
Sartre had not read St Teresa. He spoke on hearsay. Later, in newspaper statements, he said he had been inspired by a comedy of Cervantes, El Rufian Dichoso, in the writing of Le Diable et le bon Dieu, though he made it clear he had not read the piece, only a summary. This ignorance of Spanish literature is not unusual but widespread among Europeans and Americans: Edmund Wilson vaingloriously proclaimed that he had read neither Cervantes nor Calderón nor Lope de Vega. Nevertheless, Sartre's confession reveals that he did not know one of the highest moments in European culture: the Spanish drama of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. His lack of curiosity still astonishes me, since one of the great themes of the Spanish theatre, the source of some of the best works of Tirso de Molina, Mirademescua and Calderón, is precisely the one which troubled him all his life: the conflict between grace and liberty. In another conversation he confided to me his admiration for Mallarmé. Years later, reading what he had written on this poet, I realized that once again the object of his admiration was not the poems which Mallarmé actually wrote but his project of absolute poetry, that Book he never made. Despite what his philosophy declares, Sartre always preferred shadows to realities.
Our last conversation was almost entirely about politics. Commenting on the discussions at the United Nations about the Russian concentration camps, he told me: 'The British and the French have no right to criticize the Russians on account of their camps, since they've got their colonies. In fact, colonies are the concentration camps of the bourgeoisie.' His sweeping moral judgement overlooked the specific differences-historic, social, political-between the two systems. In equating Western colonialism with the repressive Soviet system, Sartre fudged the issue, the only one that could and should interest an intellectual of the left such as he was: what was the true social and historic nature of the Soviet régime? By evading the basic theme, he helped indirectly those who wanted to perpetuate the lies with which, up to that time, Soviet reality had been masked. This was a serious equivocation, if one can so describe an intellectual and moral fault.
True, in those days imperialism exploited the colonial population as the Soviet system exploited the prisoners in the camps. The difference was that the colonies were not a part of the repressive system of bourgeois states (there were no French workers condemned to forced labour in Algeria, nor were there British dissidents deported to India), while the population of the camps consisted of the Soviet people themselves: farmers, workers, intellectuals and whole social categories (ethnic, religious and professional). The camps, that is to say, repression, were (are) an integral part of the Soviet system. In those years, moreover, the colonies achieved independence, while the system of concentration camps has spread, like an infection, into all the countries in which Communist régimes rule. And there is something more: is it even thinkable that in the Russian, Cuban and Vietnamese camps movements of emancipation should arise and develop, movements like those that have liberated the old European colonies in Asia and Africa? Sartre was not insensible to these arguments but it was hard to convince him: he thought that we bourgeois intellectuals had no right to criticize the vices of the Soviet system, while in our own countries oppression and exploitation survived. When the Hungarian Revolution broke out, he attributed the uprising in part to Khruschev's imprudent declarations revealing the crimes of Stalin: one ought not to upset the workers.
Sartre's case is exemplary but not unique. A sort of moralizing masochism, inspired by the best principles, has paralysed a large number of European and Latin American intellectuals for more than thirty years. We have been educated in the double heritage of Christianity and the Enlightenment; both currents, religious and secular, in their highest development were critical. Our models have been those men who, like a Las Casas or a Rousseau, had the courage to tell and condemn the horrors and injustices of their own societies. I would not wish to betray that tradition; without it, our societies would cease to be that dialogue with themselves without which there is no real civilization and they would become a monologue of power, at once barbarous and monotonous. Criticism served Kant and Hume, Voltaire and Diderot, to establish the modern world. Their criticism and that of their heirs in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth was creative. We have perverted criticism: we have put it at the service of our hatred of ourselves and of the world. We have not built anything with it, except prisons of concepts. Worst of all: with criticism we have justified tyrannies. In Sartre this intellectual sickness turned into an historical myopia: for him the sun of reality never shone. That sun is cruel but also, in some moments, it is a sun of plenitude and fortune. Plenitude, fortune: two words that do not appear in his vocabulary . . . Our conversation ended abruptly: Simone de Beauvoir arrived and, rather impatiently, made him swallow down his coffee and depart.
Even though Sartre had made a brief trip to Mexico, he hardly spoke at all of his Mexican experience. I believe he was not a good traveller: he had too many opinions. His real journeys he took around himself, shut up in his room. Sartre's candour, his frankness and rectitude impressed me as much as the solidity of his convictions. These two qualities were not at odds: his agility was that of a heavy-weight boxer. He lacked grace but made up for it with a hearty, direct style. This lack of affectation was itself an affectation and could go beyond frankness to bluntness. Nonetheless, he welcomed the stranger cordially and one guessed he was harsher with himself than with others. He was chubby and a little slow in movement; a round, unfinished face: more than a face, a groundplan of a face. The thick lenses of his spectacles made his person seem more remote. But one only had to hear him to forget his face. It's odd: though Sartre has written subtle pages on the meaning of the look and the act of looking, the effect of his conversation was quite the opposite; he annulled the power of sight.
When I recall those conversations I am surprised by the moral continuity, the constancy of Sartre: the themes and problems that impassioned him in his youth were those of his maturity and old age. He changed opinions often yet, never the less, in all of his changes he remained true to himself. I remember I asked him if I was right to assume that the book on morality which he promised to write-a project he conceived as his great intellectual undertaking and which he never completed-would have to open out into a philosophy of history. He shook his head, doubtfully: the phrase 'philosophy of history' seemed suspicious to him, spurious, as if philosophy was one thing and history another. Moreover, Marxism was already that philosophy, since it had penetrated to the core the sense of the historical movement of our time. He proposed within Marxism to insert the solid, real individual. We are our situation: our past, our moment; at the same time, we are something which cannot be reduced to those conditions, however much they determine us. In the introduction to Les Temps Modernes he speaks of a total liberation of man, but a few lines further on he says the danger consists in that 'the man-totality' might disappear 'swallowed up by class'. Thus, he was opposed both to the ideology which reduces individuals to being nothing but functions of class, and to the one which conceived of classes as functions of the nation. He kept to this position throughout his life.
His philosophy of the 'situation'- -Ortega had said, more exactly, 'circumstance'-did not seem to him a negation of the absolute but rather the only way to understand and realize it. In the same essay he said: 'The absolute is Descartes, the man who eludes us because he has died, who lived in his epoch and pondered hour after hour with the means at hand, who loved in his childhood a cross-eyed girl, etc.; what is relative is Cartesianism, that wandering philosophy which they trundle out century after century . . . . I am not too sure that these peremptory statements would stand up to close scrutiny. Why must the 'absolute' be a childhood passion for a cross-eyed girl (and why cross-eyed) and why must the philosophy of Descartes (which is not exactly the Cartesianism Sartre depreciatingly alludes to) be relative beside that infantile passion? And why that word: absolute, impregnated with theology? Neither passions nor philosophies are suited to that despotic adjective. There are passions for and towards the absolute and there are philosophies of the absolute but there are no passions or philosophies that are absolute. . . I have digressed. What I wanted to stress is that in that essay Sartre introduces among the social and historical determinants an element of indeterminacy: the human person, people. Thus, back in 1947, he had begun his long and unhappy dialogue with Marxism and Marxists. What task did he really set himself? To reconcile Communism and liberty. He failed, but his failure has been that of three generations of leftist intellectuals.
Sartre wrote philosophical treatises and philosophical essays, books of criticism and novels, stories and plays. Profusion is not excellence. His were not an artist's gifts: often he gets lost in useless digressions and amplifications. His language is insistent and repetitive: hammering as argument. The reader ends up exhausted, not convinced. If his prose is not memorable, what is to be said of his novels and stories? He wrote admirable narratives but he lacked a novelist's power: the ability to create worlds, atmospheres and characters. The same criticism could be made of his plays: we remember the ideas of Les Mouches and Huis-Clos, not the shadow-characters which express them. In his search for solid man Sartre time after time was left clutching a fistful of abstractions. And his philosophy? His contributions were valuable but partial. His work is not a beginning but a continuation and, at times, a commentary of others. What would be left of it without Heidegger?
In his essays lively, dense pages abound, always a little overdone, powerful verbal waves seething with ideas, sarcasms, things that just occurred to him. The best of his writing, to my taste, is the most personal, the least 'committed', those texts which are closer to confession than to speculation, like so many pages of Les Mots, perhaps his best book: the words embody, play, return to their childhood. Sartre excelled in two opposing modes: analysis and invective. He was an excellent critic and a fiery polemicist. The polemicist damaged the critic: his analyses often turned into accusations, as in his books on Baudelaire and Flaubert or in his wild critiques of Surrealism. Worse than the polemicist's axe were the moralist's rod and the schoolmaster's ruler. Often Sartre exercised criticism like a tribunal that distributes punishments and admonishments exclusively. His Baudelaire is at the same time penetrating and partial; more than a study, it is a warning, a lecture. Though the book on Genet sins by the opposite excess-there are moments at which it is a very Christian apologia for abjection as a way to health-it has pages which are hard to forget. When Sartre allowed himself to be led by his verbal gift, the result was surprising. If in talking of men he reduced them to concepts, ideas and theses, he still transformed words into animate beings. A cruel paradox: he depreciated literature and was above all else a literary man.
He thought and wrote much and on many things. In spite of this diversity, much that he said, even when he erred, seems to me essential. Let me state it differently: essential for us, his contemporaries. Sartre lived the ideas, the battles and tragedies of our age with the intensity with which others live out their private dramas. He was a conscience and a passion. The two words do not contradict each other because his was the conscience of a passion; I mean, conscience of the passing of time and of man. More than a philosopher he was a moralist. Not in the sense of the traditions of the Grand Siècle, interested in the description and analysis of the soul and its passions. He was not a La Rochefoucauld. I call him moralist not on account of his psychological insight but because he had the courage to set himself throughout his life the only question which really matters: what reasons have we to live? why and to what end do we live? is it worth while living as we live?
We know the replies he gave to these questions: man, surrounded by nothing and non-sense, is little being. Man is not man: he is the plan for man. That plan is choice: we are condemned to choose and our pain is called history. We also know where that paradox of liberty as penalty led him. Time after time he supported the tyrannies of our century because he thought that the despotism of the revolutionary caesars was nothing but the mask of liberty. Time after time he had to confess that he had erred: what seemed a mask was the concrete face of the Chiefs. In our century, revolution has been the mask of tyranny. Sartre saluted each triumphant revolution with joy (China, Cuba, Algeria, Vietnam) and afterwards, always a little late, he had to declare that he had made a mistake: those régimes were abominable. If he was severe about the American intervention in Vietnam and the French policy in Algeria, he did not shut his eyes to the cases of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Cambodia. Nonetheless, for years he insisted on defending the Soviet Union and its satelites because he believed that, despite everything, those régimes embodied, even if in a deformed way, the socialist plan. His criticism of the West was implacable and distills a hatred of his world and of himself; his preface to the book on Fanon is a fierce and impressive exercise in denigration which is, at the same time, a self-expiation. It is revealing that, in writing those pages, he did not perceive in the freedom movements of the so-called Third World the germs of political corruption which have transformed those revolutions into dictatorships.
Why did he strive so in order not to see and not to hear? I exclude of course the possibility of complicity or duplicity, as in the case of Aragon, the Nerudas and so many others who, though they knew, kept silent. Obstinacy, pride? Penitential Christianity of a man who has ceased to believe in God but not in sin? Mad hope that one day things would change? But, how can they change if no one dares denounce them, or if that denunciation, 'so as not to play into the hands of imperialism', is conditioned and full of reservations and exonerating clauses? Sartre preached the responsibility of the writer and, nonetheless, during the years when he exercised a kind of moral magistracy in the whole world (except the Communist countries), his successive and contradictory engagements were an example, if not of irresponsibility, then certainly of precipitateness and incoherence. The philosophy of 'compromise' dissolved in contradictory public gestures. It is instructive to compare the changes in Sartre with the lucid and extremely coherent oeuvre of Cioran, a spirit apparently at the margins of our age but one who has lived and thought in depth and, for that reason, quietly. The ideas and attitudes of Sartre justified the opposite of what he set himself: the unembarrassed and generalized irresponsibility of the intellectuals on the left [. . .] who during the last twenty years, in the name of revolutionary 'compromise', tactics, dialectics, and other pretty terms, have eulogized and cloaked the tyrants and the executioners.
It would not be generous to continue with the catalogue of his obfuscations. How can we forget that they were the daughters of his love of liberty? Perhaps his love was not very clear-sighted on account of its very impetuous intensity. Moreover, many of those errors were ours: those of our age. At the end of his life he came around completely and joined up with his old adversary, Raymond Aron, in the campaign to charter a boat to transport the fugitives from the Communist tyranny of Vietnam. He also protested against the invasion of Afghanistan and his name is one of those at the head of the manifesto of French intellectuals who petitioned their government to join the boycot of the Moscow Olympics. The shadows of Breton and Camus, whom he attacked with rage and little justice, should be satisfied . . . The aberrations of Sartre are one more example of the perverse use of the Hegelian dialectic in the twentieth century. His influence has been lamentable on the European intellectual conscience: the dialectic makes us see evil as the necessary complement of the good. If all is in motion, evil is a moment of the good; but a necessary moment and, fundamentally, good: evil serves the good.
In a deeper layer of Sartre's personality there was an antique moral fund marked, more than by dialectics, by the familiar inheritance of Protestantism. Throughout his life he practised with great severity the examination of conscience, axis of the spiritual life of his Huguenot ancestors. Nietzsche said that the great contribution of Christianity to the knowledge of the soul had been the invention of the examination of conscience and of its corollary, remorse, which is at the same time self-punishment and the exercise of introspection. The work of Sartre is a confirmation, yet another confirmation, of the precision of this idea. His criticism, whether of American politics or of the attitudes of Flaubert, follows the intellectual and moral scheme of the examination of conscience: it begins as a watchfulness, a tearing off of the veils and masks, not in search of nakedness but of the hidden ulcer, and it ends, inexorably, in a judgement. For the Protestant religious conscience, to know the world is to judge it and to judge it is to condemn it.
By a curious philosophical transposition, Sartre substituted for the predestination and liberty of Protestant theology psychoanalysis and Marxism. But all the great themes which fired the reformers appear in his work. The centre of his thought was the complementary opposition between the situation (predestination) and liberty; this too was the theme of the Calvinists and the nub of their argument with the Jesuits. Not even God is absent: the Situation (History) assumes his functions, if not his features and his essence. But the Situation of Sartre is a deity which, since it has to have all the faces, has none: it is an abstract deity. Unlike the Christian God, it does not assume human form, nor is it an accomplice in our destiny: we are its accomplices and it is fulfilled in us. Sartre inherited from Christianity not transcendence, the affirmation of another reality and of another world, but the negation of this world and the abhorrence of our earthly reality. Thus, in the depth of his analysis, protests and insults against bourgeois society, the old vindictive voice of Christianity resounds. The true term for his criticism is remorse. In accusing his class and his world, Sartre accuses himself with the violence of a penitent.
It is remarkable that the two writers of greatest influence in France this century-I am talking of moral, not literary influence -have been Andre Gide and Jean-Paul Sartre. Two Protestants rebelling against Protestantism, their family, their class and its morality. Two moralist immoralists. Gide rebelled in the name of the sense and of the imagination; more than to liberate man, he wanted to free the shackled passions in each man. Communism disillusioned him because he perceived that it substituted for the Christian moral prison one more total and fierce. Gide was a moralist but also an aesthete and in his work moral criticism is allied to the cultivation of the beautiful. The word pleasure has on his lips a savour at once subversive and voluptuous. More an evangelist than a radical, Sartre despised art and literature with the fury of a Church father. In a moment of desperation he said: 'Hell is other people.' A terrible expression, since the others are our horizon: the world of men. For this reason, no doubt, he later maintained that the liberation of the individual came by way of collective liberation. His work sets off from 'I', to the conquest of 'we'. Perhaps he forgot that the 'we' is a collective 'thou': to love the others one must first love the other, the neighbour. We need, we moderns, to rediscover the 'thou'.
In one of his first works, Les Mouches, there is a phrase which has been cited often but which it is worth repeating: 'Life begins the other side of despair.' Only, what's on the other side of despair isn't life but the ancient Christian virtue we call hope. The first time the word hope, in an explicit way, appears on Sartre's lips is in the last interview which Le Nouvel Observateur published shortly before his death. It was his last statement. A disjointed and moving text. At one point, with an unbuttonedness which some have found disconcerting and others simply deplorable, he declares that his pessimism was a tribute to the fashion of the time. Strange affirmation: the whole interview is shot through with a vision of the world at times disillusioned and at others-most often-emphatically pessimistic. In the course of his conversation with his young disciple, Sartre reveals a stoical and admirable resignation in confronting his coming death. This attitude justly acquires all of its value because it stands out against a black backdrop: Sartre confesses that his work has remained incomplete, that his political action was frustrated and that the world he leaves is more sombre than the one he found at birth. For this reason I was genuinely impressed by his calm hope: despite the disasters of our age, one day men will reconquer (or will they conquer for the first time?) fraternity. I found it strange, on the other hand, that he should say that the origin and foundation of that hope is in Judaism. It is the least universal of the three monotheisms. Judaism is a closed fraternity. Why was he once again deaf to the voice of his tradition?
The dream of universal brotherhood-and more, the enlightened certainty that that is the state to which all men are naturally and supernaturally predestined, if we recover original innocence-appears in primitive Christianity. It reappears among the gnostics of the third and fourth centuries and in the millenarist movements which, from time to time, have shaken the West, from the Middle Ages to the Reformation. But that little disagreement doesn't matter. It is uplifting that, at the end of his life, without rejecting his atheism, resigned to death, Sartre should have taken up the best and most pure element in our religious tradition: the vision of a world of men and women reconciled, transparent to each other because there is no longer anything to conceal or to fear, returned to an original nakedness. The loss and recovery of innocence were the theme of another great Protestant, involved as Sartre was in the battles of his century, and who, on account of the excess of his love for liberty, justified the tyrant Cromwell: John Milton. In the last book of Paradise Lost he describes the slow and distressing departure of Adam and Eve-and with them the departure of all of us, their children-towards the eventual innocent kingdom:
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.
When I wrote these pages and read through them, I thought once more of the man who inspired them. I was tempted to paraphrase him-homage and recognition-writing in his memory:
Liberty is other people.
This article is taken from PN Review 35, Volume 10 Number 3, January - February 1984.