Books: Cultural Amnesia — Jean-Paul Sartre |
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Radiating contempt for its bourgeois liberal conformity, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) looms in the corner of this book like a genius with the evil eye. For the book’s author, Sartre is a devil’s advocate to be despised more than the devil, because the advocate was smarter. No doubt this is a disproportionate reaction. Sartre, after all, never actually killed anybody. But he excused many who did, and most of those never actually killed anybody either: they just gave orders for their subordinates to do so. There is a moral question there, of the type with which Sartre was well equipped to deal, had he chosen to do so. He was a brilliant man: the first thing to say about him, although unfortunately not the last. After the liberation of Paris in 1944 he called, in his capacity as a Resistance fighter, for punishment to be vented on those among his fellow literati who had collaborated with the Nazis. The question of how much Resistance fighting he had actually done did not impede his post-war climb to prominence. As philosopher, novelist, playwright, social commentator and political analyst, Sartre was the pre-eminent French left-wing intellectual of the Fourth Republic and beyond, reigning supreme in the Left Bank cafés with Simone de Beauvoir the queen at his side. The pair made intellectual distinction into a media story: the celebrity enjoyed now by a glamour-boy philosopher such as Bernard-Henri Lévy has its precedent in that post-war connection between serious thought and media dazzle, a Parisian microclimate which helped to give France a sense of luxury at a time when food and fuel were still in short supply. After Camus died prematurely in a car crash, Sartre’s true rival, Raymond Aron, was a long time in attracting the allegiance of the independent left, and in the meanwhile Sartre’s gauchiste vision was the style setter of French political thought, founding an orthodoxy that still saturates French intellectual life today, and, to a certain extent, continues to set a standard of engagement (the word, especially when detached from any real connotation, looks better in the orginal) for intellectual life all over the world. A key principle in this vision is that the Communist regimes, no matter how illiberal, had serious altruistic intentions in comparison with the irredeemably self-serving capitalist West. (Acadmics in the capitalist West greeted this brainwave with awed approval, failing to note that their society could hardly be self-interested if it allowed them to do so—unless, that is, freedom of expression is a sly trick played by capitalism to convince the gullible that they are at liberty.) When Sartre broke with the Communists, he retained respect for their putatively benevolent social intentions, and was ready to say something exculpatory even if what he was exculpating was the Gulag network, whose existence, after he finally ceased to deny it, he never condemned as a central product of a totalitarian system, but only regretted as an incidental blemish. This manoeuvre, implying a powerful ability to deny the import of a fact even after he had acknowledged it, was hard to distinguish from duplicity.

Sceptics might say that a knack for making duplicity look profound was inherent in Sartre’s style of argument. Students who tackle his creative prose in the novel sequence The Road to Freedom or the play Kean (his most convincing illustration of existentialism as a living philosophy) will find clear moments of narrative, but all clarity evaporates when it comes to the discursive prose of his avowedly philosophical works. It should be said in fairnesss that even the English philosopher Roger Scruton, otherwise a severe critic of Sartre, finds Sartre’s keystone work L’être et le néant (Being and Nothingness) a substantial work; and Jean-François Revel, who took Sartre’s political philosophy apart brick by brick, still admired him as a philosopher who earned his own credentials, without depending on the university system for his prestige. But those of us unfettered by being either professional philosophers or patriotic Frenchmen can surely suggest that even Sartre’s first and most famous treatise shows all the signs not just of his later mummery, but of the mummery of other pundits who came to later fame. Foucault, Derrida and the like shouldn’t have needed scientific debunking to prove them fraudulent: the pseudo-scientific vacuity of their argufying was sufficiently evident from the wilful obfuscation of their stylistic hoopla: and the same could have been said of their progenitor. Where Sartre got it from is a mystery begging to be explained. It could have had something to do with his pre-war period in Berlin, and especially with the influence of his admired Heidegger. In Sartre’s style of argument, German metaphysics met French sophistry in a kind of European Coal and Steel Community producing nothing but rhetorical gas.

But the best explanation might have more to do with his personality. Perhaps he was over-compensating. It would be frivolous to suggest that Sartre’s bad eye was a factor determining personality, like Goebbels’s bad foot; and anyway, Sartre’s physical ugliness in no way impeded his startling success with women. It might be possible, however, that he was compensating for a mental condition that he knew to be crippling. He might have known that he was debarred by nature from telling the truth for long about anything that mattered, because telling the truth was something that ordinary men did, and his urge to be extraordinary was, for him, more of a motive force than merely to see the world as it was. This perversity—and he was perverse whether he realized it or not—made him the most conspicuous single example in the twentieth century of a fully qualified intellectual aiding and abetting the opponents of civilization. More so than Ezra Pound, who was too crazy even for the Fascists; more so even than Brecht, a straight-out cynic who kept his money in Switzerland. Sartre was never corrupt in that way. Like Robespierre, he had an awful purity. Sartre turned down the Nobel Prize. He was living proof that the devil’s advocate can be idealistic and even self-sacrificing. Minus his virtues, he would be much easier to dismiss. With them, he presents us with our most worrying reminder that the problem of amoral intelligence is not confined to the sciences. It can happen to culture too, which suggests that on some level being a humanist means not being like Sartre. His admirers might say that we are in no danger of that. But usually, when they admire him that much, they make his sort of noise. The tip-off is the sentence that spurns the earth because it fears a puncture.

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The Cogito never delivers anything except what we ask it to deliver. Descartes never interrogated it concerning its functional aspect: “I doubt, I think,” and by having wanted to proceed without a guiding thread from this functional aspect to its existential dialectic, he fell into the substantialist error. Husserl, instructed by this error, remained fearfully on the plain of functional description. By that fact, he never superseded the pure description of appearance as such; he remained fixed on the Cogito; he merits being called, despite his denials, a phenomenist rather than a phenomenologue; and his phenomenism borders at all times on Kantian idealism. Heidegger, wanting to avoid the phenomenism of description that leads to the megatic and antidialectic isolation of essence, directly tackles the existential analytic without passing through the Cogito...


BUT ENOUGH, AND more than enough. Language which makes such a show of saying everything at once is usually concealing something important, and in Sartre’s case, Revel knew exactly what it was. Revel could have hung Sartre out to dry, had he wished. Revel had the credentials and the information with which to expose Sartre’s imposture as a Resistance hero. Sartre’s nauseating theatricality in that regard (he didn’t mind implicating de Beauvoir in the charade either: for once they were a couple) was finally laid bare in 1991 by Gilbert Joseph in his blood-curdling book Une si douce occupation. But it could have been done years before, by people who were on the scene and knew the truth: people like Revel.

Revel contented himself with pointing out what ought to have been self-evident: that anyone who could perpetrate a passage of balderdash like this had done a pretty thorough job of detaching philosophy from wisdom—and wisdom, according to Revel, was the only thing that philosophy could now concern itself with, and had been since the rise of the sciences cancelled the last possibility of philosophy being a science to itself. In France, where the language offers no automatic defence mechanism against the flummery of scientism, this argument needed plenty of putting until quite recent times. Finally it took a pair of scientists, writing in French but with a thorough background in American scepticism, to produce the book that blew the whistle on Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Jean Baudrillard and the other artistes in the flouncing kick-line of the post-modern intellectual cabaret. But the two sceptical critics, Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, did not extend their catcalling to management level. Their justly praised but not really very revolutionary book Impostures intellectuelles (1997) should not have come as such a bombshell. It did so because critics well qualified to assess the health of French intellectual life had been pussyfooting for decades, uncomfortably aware that the infection of pseudo-scientific casuistry was not peripheral to the main fields of humanist speculation, but central: exalted balderdash was their common property. Revel knew all too well that Sartre was peddling a system for betting on the horses. But the interesting question was how a serious customer like Sartre got himself into such a comical fix, and that was the question that Revel couldn’t bring himself to tackle.

Surely part of the answer is that Sartre couldn’t do for himself as an analytical thinker what he was bound to do for himself as a creative artist—live out his bad faith. Sartre is high on the list of the writer-philosophers who were more writer than philosopher. Montaigne, Pascal, Lessing, Lichtenberg, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche—it is exalted company, but Sartre earns his place as a stylist who could make the language speak. The actor lucky enough to take the title role in Sartre’s play Kean (in the original production it was the mighty Pierre Brasseur, he who was Frédéric Lemaitre in the Occupation’s escapist masterwork, the film Les Enfants du Paradis) gets better things to say about existentialism than are ever said in Sartre’s formal writings on the subject. In its later life, Sartre’s play Huis clos is too much praised for having been an act of political daring when it was written. Its original production was officially allowed by the German Occupation authorities, some of whom came to see it. They allowed it because they knew its appeal to liberty was camped in the air, and they came to see it because they knew they were in safe company. The moral problems with which the play’s supposedly trapped personages elegantly wrestle are woefully abstract compared with those which were currently drenching even the proclaimed fascist sympathizers among French intellectuals in cold sweat every night. (Sartre might really have had something if he had set his play in the wagon-lit that took the minor writers Jacques Chardonne and Marcel Jouhandeau on their 1941 trip to Germany, or if he had set it in the swastika-decorated salon of the Vienna hotel where they were joined not only by the French collaborators Drieu la Rochelle and Robert Brasillach but by the Nazi hierarch Baldur von Schirach in full dress uniform.) As for the moral problems waiting to be faced by French intellectuals who fancied that they were resisting tyranny by assenting to its demands with sufficient reluctance, those had not yet arisen in perceptible form, and in the conspicuous cases of Sartre and Beauvoir they were never to do so. Huis clos is a play absolutely not about its time—a time when the case for humanity was being heard not behind closed doors but with the doors wide open, so that everyone could see, but only at the price of weeping tears bitter with the salt of shame. It is, however, a play of its time, and perhaps most flagrantly so because of what it ignores. In other words, the inner turmoil gets into the action somehow. Why else would these etiolated personalities be pretending ordinary life is hell, unless somewhere, in the real life outside, real personalities were encountering a hell without pretence? What could not be said in the street was there in the theatre in the resounding form of what could not be said on stage. As a writer, in short, Sartre was unable to escape history, because his use of language could not keep it out.

As a philosopher, to escape history was Sartre’s chief concern. There was almost no salient truth about the Occupation period that he was able to analyse directly at the moment when it might have mattered. When it was safe to do so, he nerved himself to say that anti-Semitism was a bad thing. Réflexions sur la question juive even contains a good epigram: armed with anti-Semitism, he said, even an idiot can be a member of an elite. Though the trains had already left from Drancy—by the time he wrote the pamphlet, the Nazis were gone as well—at least his opinion was published. He slammed the stable door. But he never made a beginning on the question of how the writers and intellectuals who continued with their careers during the Occupation could do so only at the cost—precisely calculated by the Propaganda Abteilung—of tacitly conniving at Nazi policies, all of which radiated from one central policy, which was the extermination of the Jews. No moral issue was ever more inescapably real; even the cost of ignoring it was directly measurable in lost lives; there could be no philosophical discussion of any subject on which that subject did not intrude. If Sartre wanted to avoid examining his own behaviour—and clearly he did—he would need to develop a manner of writing philosophy in which he could sound as if he was talking about everything while saying nothing. To the lasting bamboozlement of the civilized world, he succeeded, at least on the level of professional prestige. Working by a sure instinct for bogus language, a non-philosopher like George Orwell could call Sartre’s political writings a heap of beans, but there were few professional thinkers anywhere who found it advisable to dismiss Sartre’s air of intelligence: there was too great a risk of being called unintelligent themselves. Effectivement—to reemploy a French word that was worked to death at the time—Sartre was called profound because he sounded as if he was either that or nothing, and few cared to say that they thought him nothing.

How did he work the trick? There was a hidden door. From the writer committed to transparency it might go against the grain to say so, but there is such a thing as an obscure language that contains meaning, and there is also such a thing as a meaning too subtle to be clearly expressed. Karl Popper made a heavy commitment to what he called “ordinary language philosophy.” But in Unended Quest (subtitled “an intellectual biography”) he registered his telling, last-ditch concessions that ordinary language is conservative; that “in matters of the intellect (as opposed, perhaps, to art, or to politics) nothing is less creative and more commonplace than conservatism”; and that although “common sense” is often right, “things get really interesting just when it is wrong” (p. 125: the italics are his). Because Popper is the doorman, we can believe that there really must be a door, and that it is a very large one to be left open. The legitimate inference seems to be that an expository language pushing deep into originality might not necessarily sound readily intelligible; with the niggling corollary that a language which does not sound readily intelligible might conceivably be exploratory.

Revel, heartening in his impatience with Sartre’s ponderous folderol, usefully records Kierkegaard’s threat to Hegel: that he would send to him a young man who was in search of advice. Kierkegaard’s menacing insinuation was that Hegel would have to either get down to brass tacks or be responsible for the young man’s bewilderment. Revel also, and even more usefully, suggests that we should make the same threat to Heidegger. One says “even more usefully” because although there is something to be said against the belief that Hegel’s obscurity is never meaningful, there is nothing to be said against the belief that Heideggers’s obscurity is always meaningless. Hegel was trying to get something awkward out into the open. Heidegger was straining every nerve of the German language to do exactly the opposite. More than half a century later, the paradox has still not finished unravelling: it was Heidegger’s high-flown philosophical flapdoodle that lent credibility to Sartre’s. It was a paradox because Heidegger was an even more blatant case than Sartre of a speculative mind that could not grant itself freedom to speculate in the one area where it was fully qualified to deal with the concrete facts—its own compromises with reality. But merely to call Heidegger a “more blatant case” shows what we are up against. The case is still not clear, and in the years when Sartre and Heidegger were in a supposedly fruitful intellectual symbiosis, it was still not even a case: Heidegger’s involvement with the Nazis was thought of as a flirtation. The means scarcely existed for anyone—philosopher, philologist, literary critic, journalist or clinical psychologist—to point out the truth which has since become steadily more obvious, even if it does not appear axiomatic yet: that these two men, Heidegger and Sartre, were only pretending to deal with existence, because each of them was in outright denial of his own experience, and therefore had a vested interest in separating existence from the facts. Will it ever be realized that they were a vaudeville act? Probably not. Even George Steiner, who can scarcely be accused of insensitivity to the historical background, persists in talking about the pair of them as if they were Goethe and Schiller. Those of us who think they were Abbott and Costello had better reconcile ourselves to making no converts.

There are plenty of philosophical works that writers should read, starting with the Platonic dialogues if not before. Life being short, however, and full of things that an artist should know, there is only so much time to read books about philosophy. Bertrand Russell wrote a great one—his History of Western Philosophy—and there are many more, some of them very seductive: Bryan Magee’s handbook about Popper is an introduction much more entertaining than the subject it introduces. But caveat lector: life is waiting, and to read about someone who writes about life is getting far from it. Reading Schopenhauer when he tells you to watch out for reading too many books is already getting far from it, and at this moment you are reading someone who is telling you about how Schopenhauer said that you should not let reading come between you and life. In philosophy, the infinite regress is a sign that someone has made a mistake in logic. In ordinary life, it is a sign that someone is hiding from reality.

Sartre hid. Of course he did; and if he did, anybody can, including us; although I think that if we hide in lies, the lies should not be blasphemous. Sartre blasphemed when he took upon himself, and kept for the rest of his life, battle honours that properly belonged to people who ran risks he never ran, and who died in his stead. All his other weaknesses can be comprehended, and easily pardoned if not dismissed: most of us would have shown the same frail spirit. Many of the traumatized French soldiers who were allowed to go home from German POW camps pretended they escaped: it sounded less feeble. To get a play put on, Sartre bent his knee to the Occupation authorities. In one of Beauvoir’s novels, a character otherwise obviously based on Camus is portrayed as doing the same, whereas the character based on Sartre is braver than a lion. Sartre was genuine (conveniently genuine) in granting Beauvoir her individuality, so he can perhaps be excused for not feeling responsible for her: but on that point an apology to Camus might not have come amiss. To question himself, however, was not in Sartre’s nature. For a man whose Resistance group had done nothing but meet, he was a haughty inquisitor during l’épuration. Memories of the French Revolution were not enough to tell him that there might be something wrong with the spectacle of a philosopher sitting on a tribunal instead of standing in front of it.

But many a mouse came out roaring during l’épuration: it was what that performance was for, a fact de Gaulle recognized by closing it down as soon as possible. Sartre should have called it a day after that. Camus did: decently aware that his resistance had not amounted to much (though he took many more risks than Sartre), he was out of the hero business long before his death. But Sartre could never let it go. He pretended that he had been brave: the single most shameful thing a man can do when other men have been brave and have paid the price. Sartre, the philosopher, the man of truth, lied in his teeth about the most elemental fact of his adult life all the way to the end, so it is no wonder that his philosophy is nonsense. Revel valuably noticed how modern philosophy denies from the start that “the level of the essayist and the critic” should be its departure point. He must also have noticed that in Sartre’s case it couldn’t be, because Sartre, as an essayist and critic, was almost exclusively concerned in concealing the truth instead of revealing it. As Solzhenitsyn pointed out in The Gulag Archipelago, Sartre on his trip to Moscow was at one point standing only a few feet away from the living refutation of all his mendacity on the subject of the Soviet Union: a black Maria full of innocent prisoners. If the back door had accidentally swung open, he would probably have said the people inside were criminals, or actors—anything except what everyone in Russia knew they were. Nobody serious in the ex–Iron Curtain countries ever thought Sartre the Philosopher much better than a solemn buffoon. But in his homeland Sartre’s national prestige was too enormous for anyone to think of undermining it completely. Mockery was permitted, but only within the limits of throwing eggs at the Arc de Triomphe.

Not even Revel, by far the most penetrating critic of Sartre’s bombastic philosophical style, could quite bring himself to say that it was a mechanism devised not only to ape meaning while avoiding it, but by avoiding it to conceal it. As Egon Friedell noted, the true philosopher is close to the artist, except he has only himself for a character; so that any deeply felt philosophy is an autobiographical novel. The converse holds: Sartre’s autobiography was the last thing he wanted us to know, and so his philosophy was never felt, but all a pose.