Sunday, March 20, 2016


Since I read Sarah Bakewell's brilliant book "At the Existentialist Cafe," I have made a renewed attempt - the third or fourth over the course of as many decades - to come to terms with the vast oeuvre of Jean-Paul Sartre. Despite the disdain shown by some, including Analytic philosophers unprepared to grapple with his magnum opus "Being and Nothingness," Sartre without question ranks internationally as the most influential intellectual of the 20th century.

He was massively active in a number of fields: fiction, the theater, literary and artistic criticism, political commentary, and philosophy. Nonetheless, his reputation declined after his death in 1980. This decline reflected disillusionment with his seeming dalliance with Stalinism, a fault especially glaring after 1991; his tendency to make provocative judgments which he then had to correct (or should have corrected); and the appalling style of some of his later works, so much in contrast with the careful crafting of his Nausea (a short novel), The Wall (short stories), and No Exit (one of six or seven plays).

A graphomane, he ground out the later works under the influence of opiates and alcohol. Yet now, as often happens, Sartre's reputation is reviving. Perhaps the most important aspect of this recuperation lies in his tireless defense (equalling that of Voltaire) of the downtrodden and dispossessed, especially people of color. With rising inequality both within and between societies today, these interventions seem very timely - though of course some of the details have not held up. His critique of anti-Semitism, though challenged in some respects, was courageous and innovative. Likewise the rare but generally sympathetic comments about homosexuals. Not to be forgotten is his close partnership with Simone de Beauvoir, whose feminism he encouraged.

I continue to struggle with my ambivalence, inflected by great admiration, with regard to J-P Sartre. As far as I know there is no comprehensive account of the fluctuations of his reputation since his death 35 years ago. At this distance, the dialogue is hard to trace as much of it is in periodicals.

Still, there seem to be three main areas of contention: 1) the record of Sartre and de Beauvoir in WWII, which was less sterling and more procrastinating than later accounts often have it; 2) his tendency to excuse Communist and third-world dictatorships as somehow the party of humanity (very late, he partially recanted); and 3) his tortured effort to reconcile existentialism and Marxism in the two ultraturgid volumes of the Critique of Dialectical Reason.


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