From Asia Times
Skeptical of reason and pessimistic about humans' ability to be other than stupid and cruel, his capacity to think "against himself" and his moral intelligence still illuminate our times
As the geopolitical chessboard continues to be tossed around by ill winds, an exhausted West wallows in the mire of its own failings, and the planet faces a mounting existential crisis, we might do worse than to pause and reflect on how one of the great minds of a previous generation might help us make sense of these times of trouble.
Jean-Paul Sartre was one of the last towering giants of a Renaissance pantheon concerned with the whole spectrum of human existence. Sharp, independent minds have always enjoyed the Sartrean glow that permeates Western culture (or at least those particles of it not fossilized by academia).
Sartre, via his "protest" philosophy, was indisputably the preeminent moral voice and intelligence of the second half of the 20th century, with "protest" carrying the meaning it was imbued with by Martin Luther. And as with Luther, Sartre's existentialism has a fulminating formula: "Existence precedes essence." Before "being," Man exists. In other words, no God conceived him; ergo, there's no God. And if there's no God, Man is condemned to be free. So there is no intrinsic good or evil.
Nausea -- a novel capable of changing your life when you read it as a
teenager -- is pretty straightforward, far from abstruse philosophy. European intellectual bourgeois values and society irrevocably exploded between 1914-1919. Nazism-fascism was a sort of Frankenstein reincarnation of these concepts. The alternative was Stalinism, the death of the soul.
Nausea represented the conviction that Man must build himself and create his own existence. Sartre -- a notorious procrastinator -- did not finish his masterpiece, Being and Nothingness. And a promised volume on ethics never materialized. Ethics would have conferred added value to his new philosophy. But besides being a procrastinator he was a neurotic. Sartre's tetralogy, Roads of Freedom, actually features only three (extraordinary) novels. His Freudian analysis of Flaubert similarly lacks its final volume.
Sartre could never relinquish his creative passion, while being at the same time fully aware that this passion was irrelevant in the face of our fast-degrading, fragmenting world. Hence his -- non-reciprocated -- passion for the working classes, or better yet (as a Frenchman, he was more in tune with Saint-Just than with Marx) for the malheureux, the wretched who constitute the salt of the earth.
Sartre, like every progressive intellectual in the 20th century, had to face the direst of questions: could the liberating power of Marx's analysis be resurrected amid the Soviet horror? In those Cold War days, the alternative was a world turned into one big Singapore. Or worse (for romantic souls like Sartre), the homogenized tedium of social democracy, so convenient because the parts of the West which adopted it fully exploited what Arnold Toynbee described as the "external proletariat," i.e., Third World nations.
So Sartre preferred not to tell the French working classes about Stalinist camps. He didn't wish to dash those workers' hopes. Camus may have
been appalled by what was happening in the Soviet Union, but Camus in any case had a tendency to be selectively scandalized, believing there to be no difference between the terrorism of the oppressed and the terrorism of oppressors (especially in relation to Algeria).
By the way, Sartre won the intellectual argument against Camus. The bourgeoisie, as he pointed out, was always allowed to lie at will, feeding "entertainment" (as Marcuse used to say) to the masses to keep them
in eternal servitude.
Sartre, like Walt Whitman, contained multitudes within himself. He saw Man as always a work in progress, creating himself constantly through action. This is the human condition: "I am my own freedom." So, inevitably he had to always keep thinking "against himself."
He was tremendously loyal to close friends he admired, like the Apollonian Merleau-Ponty and the great writer Paul Nizan. Nizan was killed at only 35, at the start of WWII, doubly anguished by France's plight and the stab to the heart of the Hitler-Stalin pact. These events are at the root of Sartre's conversion to Marxism and his turbulent coexistence with communism.
Sartre's intellectual gaze in a sense followed the surrealist maxim according to which our heads are round in order to allow thought to change direction. Sartre may have collaborated with the French Communist Party in denouncing the Korean War -- as some Washington factions itched to go nuclear. But at the same time, he wrote the most devastating analysis of the corruptions of Marxism in his book The Ghost of Stalin, after the Soviet invasion of Hungary.
He was blessed beyond belief to share his life -- and intellectual passion -- with an extraordinary woman. Picture Simone de Beauvoir in Occupied France, walking every afternoon to the library of the Sorbonne to pore over Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, mixed in with some Kierkegaard, and emerge with two sources that would suffuse both her own writing and existentialism as well: Kierkegaard as an icon of freedom; Hegel with his serene vision of history playing out on an epic canvas.