SARTRE, selon Bernard-Henri Lévy

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Man who led anti-Sartre revolt repents at length

French writer Bernard-Henri Lévy reveals secret passion in new book

Paul Webster in Paris
Friday January 14, 2000
The Guardian

Twenty years after his death, Jean-Paul Sartre has been raised to the status of "man of the century" by Bernard-Henri Lévy, the philosopher-showman who led the revolt against leftwing thinkers in the 1970s.

His 650-page book, Le Siècle de Sartre, abounds with unsuspected enthusiasm for the guru of postwar existentialism, revealing a passion that Lévy, 51, admits to keeping secret for years.

"What is a great intellectual? The talent, or rather the ambition of Sartre?" he writes.

"His appetite. His insatiable curiosity. His incorruptible intellectual side. Philosophy of course, but also literature, journalism, reporting, theatre, songs, lectures, broadcasts and cinema."

Elsewhere he writes: "Sartre is the only [intellectual] of his generation with a unique energy which will never be found again in anyone else."

Although Lévy says that Sartre anticipated in a "vertiginous manner most of the theoretical inventions of Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan and Gilles Deleuze", the admiration appears based largely on Sartre's ability to get things "outrageously wrong".

The book, in Lévy's words, is intended in part to explain how a "magnificent philosopher and master of freethinking" could become a sad communist fellow traveller and a friend of Maoists - one of the reasons why the young Lévy founded the upstart New Philosophers movement when still in his early twenties.

"Why was the man who invented all the anti-totalitarian inoculations unable to inoculate himself?" Lévy said in an interview with the leftwing Nouvel Observateur, which acts as a permanent shrine to all things Sartrean. "In the twilight of his life, Sartre decided to break everything up [by associating with the extreme left]. To the shock of his intellectual family, he dynamited Sartreism. He took a magnificent gamble on a new surge of youth."

Lévy explains for the first time why he originally shrugged off the masterthinker who was idolised by French youth before the war and well into the 60s.

"I belong to a generation which came of age at the beginning of the Sartrean desert," he said.

"At the end of the 60s it was unanimously accepted that Sartre's work was a humanist whim. In fact L'Etre et le néant, [Being and Nothingness] was the last real attempt at modern philosophy - an ultimate attempt to escape from Hegelianism."

Lévy's colourful activism in campaigns from the condemnation of totalitarian barbarism to a save-Bosnia crusade and beyond has brought him more media attention than his books, particularly since he married the American-born actress Arielle Dombasle. But his avowed determination to "come out" in his enthusiasm for Sartre's double career as thinker and novelist could revive a faltering cult.

"After 20 years, nothing much remains of Sartre other than cliches," Lévy said. "We must repair some immense injustices which see Sartre as the paragon of errors and the scapegoat for all sorts of 20th century madnesses. Hate has pursued him and the dirty jokes around the magnificent couple formed by Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir are pure infamy."

His praise for "this philosopher who so often got things wrong in a magisterial fashion" also extends to Sartre's novels, which have suffered much the same fall in popular interest as those of his contemporary and political adversary, André Malraux.

"La Nausée [Nausea], an absolute masterpiece, remains young and full of life," he said, predicting a revival for Sartre's novels to parallel a similar recent resurrection of Sartre's plays in Paris and Berlin.



Load of old garlic and onions

Philip Hensher

12 July 2003

By Bernard-Henri Levy
Polity Press, £17.96, pp.544, ISBN:074563009X

One had heard rumours from afar of the utterly debased and self-indulgent nature of French intellectual life these days, but I have to say that, like stout Cortez upon a peak in Darien, I hadn’t remotely appreciated the breathtaking scale of the problem until coming upon this unbelievably stupid, ill-written, completely disorganised and monstrously rambling tome. Professor Levy is a well-known operator in the French sagacity market, apparently always available to supply some instant pontification in the media. He sounds good and he looks divine in that impossible French-intellectual way — when David Ginola gets bored of making shampoo advertisements, there would be worse replacements than Professor Levy.
This, however, is my first extended exposure to the great man’s style of thinking and writing. He has a vast reputation in France, and this book had some rapturous reviews: Le Journal de dimanche called it ‘absolutely enthralling’ and La Croix tells us that ‘this is Bernard-Henri Levy at his very best’. It is bad manners to quote other people’s reviews, but in this case it is probably worth indicating that this obviously rubbish book embodies the qualities which French literary circles have come to admire. When a writer of such high reputation writes a study of a figure as celebrated as Sartre, the result ought to be of wide appeal, even in this country. It says a great deal that it is being brought out by a small and specialist publisher: Levy was lucky to be able to interest anybody at all, to be honest.

Levy’s Sartre is not a biography, though it assumes the reader is already familiar with the details of Sartre’s life and alludes freely and casually to encounters and episodes; it is not really a study of Sartre’s philosophy and politics, being (as far as I could detect) almost entirely unsystematic in the way it floats from one thing to another; it is certainly not a work of literary criticism, or of cultural history, or, frankly, anything else. What is it? It looks very much like someone rambling away on late-night television, never quite coming to any kind of point and enjoying the sound of his own voice far too much to realise that noone, not even the cameraman, is listening:

And then, in 1991, at the Théâtre National de Caen, where I really discovered, in the production by J-L Martinelli, the text of this forgotten play that had been rescued from limbo, I remember a feeling of intense unease during Act III; then, as the curtain fell, an impression of déjà-vu which could indeed be explained by the closeness of the finale to those last lines of Nausea which I’d just been rereading but also, before all that, overshadowing the unease and the sense of déjà-vu, stronger than my own ‘nausea’ as I listened to certain formulas in the notorious Act III, a bedazzlement, the word isn’t too strong, at the drollness, the clowning, the dramaturgical intelligence of a text which evidently was quite different from the abortive sketch for Journey to the End of the Night, the rough draft, the piece consigned to the bottom drawer which I, more than anyone, can imagine might well have delighted Sartre – since it was on that night, watching a performance of that text, that I finally decided to make my own debut in the theatre.

I quote this entirely representative sentence complete, simply to convey the fundamental disregard for the reader’s welfare. Whatever point is being made here — I think something about Sartre reworking material — is entirely obscured by a vague fog of self-regard. Absolutely nothing interesting at all is being said here: nothing about the play, or even about Levy’s immediate responses. And the whole book is like that.

The chat-show mannerisms, in a way, are terribly suggestive. There is a constant recourse to punchily verbless sentences, faking a sort of urgency, but all too often deftly avoiding any obligation to make a concrete statement:

Maurras. Barres. A rancid Christianity. An even more rancid anti-Christianity. A patriotic communism. A social personalism. Péguy, of course. The ‘second’ Péguy, they say. The one of the final period.

Er — yes — if you say so. Similar discussion-avoiding tactics are the rhetorical question, often in a weird negative formula: ‘Isn’t there, in a word, something radically obscene in this way of reproaching a man for not having been a hero?’ or ‘Isn’t the best way of purifying a land to begin by sanctifying it?’ It’s a dishonest piece of rhetoric when employed so heavily, because it doesn’t firmly commit the writer to a position which he might need to defend, while firmly discouraging the reader from dissent. It is just wondering out loud.

It would be churlish to deny that some of Professor Levy’s rambling speculations are quite interesting. But many supposedly brilliant and daring thoughts don’t even need a second reading to look banal, unsupported, and meaningless:

Sartre’s true drug was neither mescalin nor corydrane, but writing. He would shoot up on writing. Drug himself with literature. And the Beaver took on the role of dealer who, during the war, provided him, in Brumath, Alsace, coming over to see him herself if need be, with his dose of ink, notebooks, books, paper.

The metaphor, or the leap of thought, doesn’t stand up for a second and seriously misrepresents Sartre, but the interesting thing is the chat-show manner. He says something absurd; then he repeats it in other words; then he repeats it a third time, before embarking on an extravagant elaboration of the conceit. Professor Levy could talk the hind leg off a donkey, and clearly believes that ‘what I tell you three times is true’, but the fact remains that writing is not much like drug addiction, giving someone stationery is obviously not like dealing smack, and nothing whatever is gained by pretending otherwise. And even when he does make a possibly interesting speculation, such as wondering whether for instance, ‘wasn’t it Camus he was talking about?’ when in 1945, Sartre praised writers who had ‘acquired a taste for action’, one’s immediate response is to say, ‘Well, why don’t you go away and find out and then tell us for certain?’

I emphasise the astonishing laziness and self-indulgence of this book, because it is entirely representative of a dominant strand in French intellectual life. Most French intellectuals would regard a solid, sceptical and lucid biography of Sartre with utmost scorn, but that would have ten times the value of this. Sartre, rather unexpectedly, is surviving better than one might have predicted. There is no doubt that his intellectual positions have been thoroughly and systematically discredited. Its philosophy seems no longer of any interest: Being and Nothingness is a vast fantasy on something which was already too personal and idiosyncratic a mythology to be of general application, Heidegger’s Being and Time. His various biographical studies, such as those on Genet and Flaubert, lie unread: I never finished the Flaubert study, and have never met anyone who did, so unenlightening was its ultimate effect. His political stance was that of the French intelligentsia of its time, and often breathtaking in its insouciance: ‘the freedom to criticise is total in the USSR’ was one of his most memorable comments of the 1950s, but despite various gestures of recantation he went on producing ridiculous and disgraceful political comments right up until his death.

But despite all this he remains a distinctive and interesting figure: he embodies a particular moment in French literature, and at his most literary he turned out some splendid work. Huis Clos is an ingenious and unforgettably simple play, and a completely original idea of hell. The novels have a great deal to be said for them: if the Roads to Freedom trilogy fizzles out in the end, the first volume has considerable charm and the second a startlingly original and playful technique in its portrayal of global politics intermeshing with private lives from sentence to sentence. And there are the bons mots, which are outrageous and unfair but often very funny: the Catholic novelist Mauriac’s The End of the Night was ‘not a novel’, since ‘God is not an artist and neither is M. Mauriac’.

In short, he is someone who deserves a clear-sighted, concise, sceptical and well-researched study. Professor Levy is not the man to produce something of this sort; unfortunately, it is difficult to think of any French intellectual who would now be up to the task.



L'épopée de Sartre


Bernard-Henri Lévy convie à une course folle à travers un siècle qui s'éloigne. Retour sur une aventure intellectuelle de la liberté et du risque

Si vous avez des réticences à l'égard du personnage social qu'on désigne souvent par ses initiales, BHL, oubliez-les et plongez dans Le Siècle de Sartre, une course folle dans ce XXe siècle qui s'éloigne, plus de 600 pages de passion, l'épopée d'un homme, d'une pensée, d'une existence, d'une liberté, d'une oeuvre. Ce livre vous dira que, pour juger un écrivain, il faut toujours en revenir à ce qui est écrit - pour Bernard-Henri Lévy comme pour Sartre et bien d'autres -, de préférence aux images de ce « moi médiatique, le moi social, le personnage, le masque, (...) dont Proust disait, comme aurait pu dire Sartre, qu'ils étaient "une création de la pensée des autres" ».

L'oeuvre, cet objet singulier qui permet à chaque lecteur de penser, de repenser, sa propre vie, de « penser contre soi-même » - Bernard-Henri Lévy l'avait un peu mise de côté, il y a quelque dix ans, dans ses Aventures de la liberté (1). On avait le sentiment que les grands intellectuels et écrivains du siècle étaient, avant tout et peut-être seulement, des « engagés » de tous les mauvais côtés, des signataires de pétition qui se seraient sans cesse trompés. Bernard-Henri Lévy venait alors de passer la quarantaine et n'échappait pas aux embarras biographiques et historiques des « demi-siècles », décrits, dans son roman Le Secret (2), par Philippe Sollers : ceux qui ont eu vingt ans au tournant des années 60-70, qui ont pensé « changer la vie » et ont vu advenir - avec leur complicité parfois - une fin de siècle étouffante de médiocrité, un planétaire « ASTHME : argent-sexe-terreur-hystérie-mort-enfant ».

La cinquantaine venue, avec ce gros livre, Bernard-Henri Lévy écrit sa propre aventure de la liberté. C'est aujourd'hui qu'il est jeune, bien plus qu'il y a dix ans. « La vérité, précise-t-il à propos de Sartre, c'est qu'on met longtemps à devenir jeune, très longtemps à trouver ou à inventer son style. » Parcourir le siècle au côté de Sartre, c'est le contraire d'un retour en arrière, d'une commémoration, en cette année des vingt ans de sa mort (le 15 avril). C'est se donner les moyens d'imaginer le futur.

Il y a de multiples manières de lire ce foisonnant Siècle de Sartre guidé par un enthousiasme, un emportement, un élan vers Sartre contre la sinistrose ambiante, vers cette « liberté d'allure », ce « pied de nez aux tartuffes, aux pleurnicheurs professionnels, aux rabat-joie, aux Alceste, aux cancres de la religion du sérieux, qu'est le spectacle de cette vie menée au triple galop ». Chacun, selon ses propres passions, cherchera son chemin dans ce texte, lui aussi mené au triple galop, mimétique de ce destin dont il rend compte, sans en ignorer les contradictions, les fautes, les échecs, qu'il interroge inlassablement.

Pour Bernard-Henri Lévy, l'essentiel était de mener à bien une longue « enquête philosophique » sur « le dernier en date - le dernier tout court ? - des grands philosophes européens ». Enfant d'Althusser - maître auquel il redit son attachement -, Lévy veut « tenter de prendre la mesure de cette aventure compliquée, paradoxale, trouble qui porte le nom de Sartre ». Sans doute son « intérêt passionné pour le grand chantier en ruine qu'est [l'] oeuvre philosophique » de Sartre risque-t-il de mécontenter : trop philosophique pour ceux qui n'y entendent rien, pas assez pour les philosophes. Du moins a-t-il le mérite de ranimer le goût des querelles, de provoquer les sartriens et les anti-sartriens, de continuer le débat sur Heidegger, d'inciter à reprendre les grands textes de la philosophie sartrienne, L'Etre et le Néant et La Critique de la raison dialectique. On peut n'être pas assuré qu'il ait raison et pourtant le suivre avec bonheur dans son hypothèse des deux Sartre : le premier, anti-humaniste, libertaire, auteur d'une « entreprise sans précédent de déniaisement philosophique », le second, humaniste, croyant qu'on peut « imaginer un autre homme de meilleure qualité » et qu'à Moscou ou à Cuba on s'y emploie. La « conversion » aurait eu lieu pendant la seconde guerre mondiale, au Stalag. Il faut cependant relever que Bernard-Henri Lévy, au cours de son analyse, se détache de l'idée trop simple de deux Sartre successifs pour suggérer qu'ils sont souvent concomitants. Celui qu'il aime, c'est évidemment « le premier Sartre », « dont j'entends montrer maintenant, écrit-il, qu'il fut la liberté même ».

Pour parler de ce « monstre »-là, « le seul de sa génération à investir à la fois tous les genres (...) , le seul à occuper le terrain, tout le terrain disponible », Lévy commence, ce qui n'est pas courant, par un très bel hommage à Simone de Beauvoir et à leur histoire à tous deux : « Peu d'histoires d'amour furent, au XXe siècle, si singulières : peu, ceci expliquant cela, furent si méthodiquement salies par les crétins. » Il aura eu, à la faveur de la sortie de son livre, la confirmation, dans la presse, que la haine n'est pas apaisée, qu'on qualifie encore Beauvoir de « grande sartreuse » et autres surnoms sarcastiques. C'est probablement parce qu'il est emporté par son admiration, du moins on aime à le croire, que Bernard-Henri Lévy en vient à tracer un parallèle aussi étonnant que peu convaincant entre Sartre et Beauvoir d'un côté, Valmont et Merteuil de l'autre. On comprend d'autant moins ce lien avec les fascinants héros des Liaisons dangereuses que Lévy s'attache à expliquer le « contrat de transparence » passé entre Beauvoir et Sartre - rien à voir avec l'alliance Valmont-Merteuil -, s'interrogeant avec justesse sur les vertus de cette transparence, à laquelle on peut opposer que « la liberté c'est le secret ».

Si l'on regrette que Bernard-Henri Lévy ne s'arrête pas plus longuement sur deux essais littéraires majeurs de Sartre, le Saint Genet et L'Idiot de la famille, il répondra sans doute que son propos est d'abord philosophique. Pourtant, lorsqu'il s'attarde sur son admiration pour le romancier de La Nausée, lorsqu'il démonte cette fausse autobiographie qu'est Les Mots - le seul texte que sauvent ceux qui n'aiment pas Sartre - il est particulièrement brillant et émouvant, comme lorsqu'il évoque Joyce, « une machine de guerre contre l'idéologie de l'authenticité », analyse la figure paradoxale de Céline ou souligne l'importance de Gide, « comme une énorme aventure compliquée, contrastée, de langue et de pensée », à laquelle Sartre a dû s'arracher pour quitter le XIXe siècle.

Finalement, au terme de ce trépidant voyage, que souhaite Bernard-Henri Lévy ? « Justice pour Jean-Paul Sartre », c'est-à-dire justice pour la vie, contre ces petits maîtres qui nous accablent de leur déploration fin de siècle, contre les « ressentimentaux », en rangs serrés derrière Bourdieu, Debray et Finkielkraut, contre ceux qui prétendent penser le XXIe siècle en se servant du XIXe , pour liquider le XXe . Parier sur Sartre, ce serait comme un souffle de jeunesse, « royal cadeau à ceux qui entendent bien entrer dans une France qui aura, en effet, tourné la page de Maurras, Barrès, Péguy, Vichy et le reste ». Est-ce possible ? Lévy semble le croire et on a envie de le suivre. Envie d'abord, grâce à lui, de lire et relire Sartre, non comme un document historique, non pour clore « son » siècle, mais pour inventer, avec joie, le suivant.





Bernard-Henri Lévy


Polity, £25, 536 pp




To hell with other people
(Filed: 21/07/2003)

George Walden reviews Sartre by Bernard Henri-Lévy

When I first encountered Bernard-Henri Lévy in Paris in the 1970s he was one of the "new philosophers" who were noisily challenging leftist thinking. The media was soon onto this intellectual glamour-puss, with his entourage of high-booted girls and his shirts open to the navel, and so was Sartre, who dubbed him a CIA agent. If so he was highly effective, helping to break the Marxist stranglehold on French life, not least by making it seem drearily demode.

Incredibly, the fashionable young man with the almost comically good looks was seriously intelligent. This book is the antithesis of the contemporary English biography: we are not told the name of Sartre's cat (I doubt if he had one), or of his mistresses, who were legion. This is intellectual biography of a recognisably French type: febrile, discursive, gallocentric yet often superbly written and - providing you are not allergic to French philosophising in any guise - hugely engaging.

With his toad's body and ill-favoured face ("one eye perpetually saying merde to the other"), his dislike of trees, children and animals, and his ugly male's inordinate love of women, the prodigy who was to become the universal public intellectual was not an instantly attractive figure. The grandson of a famous Protestant pastor, Sartre was born in 1905. His contrarian streak did not at first encompass politics, which, like much else, nauseated him when he was young.

Lévy shows how successive infatuations - with Bergson, Gide, Celine and Heidegger - eventually led Sartre to existentialism: the doctrine that everyone was free to abandon convention, to invent themselves and to go their own way. The arch-enemy was the bourgeois "salaud" (bastard), with his bovine insistence on things as they are, and his "bad faith" - his refusal to accept his liberty to make choices and take responsibility for himself.

What led Sartre away from this quasi-anarchical individualism was his internment in occupied France. Suddenly the ferocious opponent of benign humanism found himself "swooning with pleasure" (his words) amid the filth and debasement of life among his fellow captives. The discovery of community sparked his later engagement with politics, driven in part by what Lévy calls "the self-flagellation of the shame-faced, sterile mandarin". Not that Sartre threw himself into the anti-Nazi underground on his release. His record is ambiguous: somehow he was permitted to stage plays in Paris under the occupation, although we are assured he was later involved, organisationally at least, in acts of sabotage.

Lévy is at his most subtle in describing how "the totalitarian temptation" was present in Sartre all along. His compulsion to get to the bottom of everything, expressed in his manically prolific writing (aided by amphetamines), was itself a will to domination. Here the book understates the obvious: the desire of this undeniably brilliant and enormously vain man for a commanding role, and his worship of power, all too familiar among intellectuals. And so he slid into communism. Other great minds - Gide, Orwell - outgrew the "totalitarian temptation". Sartre grew into it.

An assiduous fellow-traveller, he broke with his friend Camus, whom he had always considered his inferior. He parroted the Soviet lie about American "germ warfare" in Korea - although he had once been a jazz-loving admirer of the USA - and returned from his first trip to Moscow in 1952 insisting that freedom to criticise the regime was total and that Russian living standards would overtake the West by 1960.

In 1956 he denounced Khrushchev for denouncing Stalin, and subsequently turned on Solzhenitsyn. Dissidents were criminals, deserving of the violence meted out to them. He toadied to Castro, and when he began losing faith in Moscow's revolutionary ardour, it was to toady to Chairman Mao, endorsing the murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics along the way.

"Who thinks greatly must err greatly," Lévy quotes Heidegger as saying, but an alternative formulation springs to mind: that the greater Sartre's gifts - and it would be absurd to deny them - the greater his betrayal.

Here was not just a corrupter of youth, but a corrupter of the intellect. His doctrine of "commitment" by intellectuals turned out to be free from all responsibility, a deeply pernicious doctrine whose results we see around us to this day. For this "aristocrat of culture", the cult of liberty meant above all the freedom for himself to disregard human suffering. .

Lévy suggests that there were two Sartres, but I don't buy it. The truth is that the author of the line "hell is other people" remained an anti-humanist all his life, a self-indulgent intellectual dandy for whom the millions of Russians, Chinese, Cubans or Eastern Europeans whose murder or imprisonment he justified were little more than playthings of his theoretical imagination.

This is a brilliant book, but also a dangerous one. Too anxious to explain away Sartre's behaviour, it risks being seen by a generation who have little knowledge of communism or the Cold War as a rehabilitation of a discredited figure. Lévy acknowledges that Sartre was himself frequently guilty of "bad faith", but the truth is worse: by championing some of the bloodiest dictators of his age, and failing to take responsibility for his choices, by his own definition, Sartre was a bastard.

George Walden's books include 'The New Elites' (Penguin).


As if high on mescaline
(Filed: 29/07/2003)

Andrew Martin reviews Sartre by Bernard Henri-Lévy

This is a book to be read in a café (ideally on the Boulevard St Germain) with a long meditative coffee in the other hand. Sartre is the urban philosopher par excellence. Camus is all swimming in the Mediterranean and lyrical communing with sun-drenched nature. For Sartre, it's never safe to get back in the water. There is always something nasty lurking just beneath the surface. Only the café - with its small universe of casual sex, Quartier Latin hotels, and intense Gauloise-perfumed conversations - gives a sense, evoked so brilliantly in that masterpiece of existentialism, Being and Nothingness, of "plenitude".

At the same time, notably when your Godot-like date fails to turn up, it is here too that the sense of nothingness, the very possibility of negation, first arises, and soon infiltrates and undermines the whole of reality. Which is when you start thinking, "sincerity is a metaphysical impossibility", or "man is not what he is and is what he is not", and, above all, "hell is other people". But out of that anguish is born a terrible, almost unbearable, sense of liberation. You cannot be dictated to by rules or laws, you are exempt from history, flying free from the black hole of the psyche and even the ugliness of your own body (Sartre looked like something hanging off the outside of Notre Dame and nevertheless made himself irresistible to women). The future is yours to will into existence. Never take a serious job and if they offer you the Nobel Prize for Literature, turn it down.

After being the Elvis (or perhaps the James Dean) of philosophy for so long, over the past few decades Sartre has been the victim of a lot of low-level mud-slinging (poor war record, not a red-hot lover) and huge high-level philosophical disdain. In Sartre: the Philosopher of the Twentieth Century, Bernard-Henri Lévy wonderfully resurrects Jean-Paul as a colossus bestriding the age, a monstrous thinking and writing machine. And he rightly restores him - in such novels as Nausea and The Roads to Freedom - as the philosopher of lived experience who wrestled with the drama, danger and intensity of everyday life. Sartre confers a hallucinatory strangeness on the most humdrum objects: a seat on a tram becomes the upturned belly of a donkey, a hand is a crab, a tree dissolves into the overpowering essence of tree-ness and the "in-itself". Sartre didn't really need to be injected with mescaline - after which he was pursued down the Champs-Elysées by jellyfish - to have visions.

Lévy's book is half homage, half demolition job. The long-term but erotically permissive relationship with Simone de Beauvoir is vindicated as "a great love affair besmirched by cretins". But by the time Sartre had attained global status as the iconic philosopher of the era (some time around the 1950s), he was already well past his sell-by date by Lévy's reckoning. He starts off as the ultimate philosophical cowboy, an intellectual gunslinger who can outshoot every other thinker in town, from Marx to Freud. Anti-everything, but above all anti-fascist, his every text was a testament to the spirit of Resistance. But the radical, hard-edged individualist softens into a flabby collectivist and Stalinist fellow-traveller.

It is hard to quarrel with Lévy's assessment that whereas the work of the 1930s and 1940s, especially Being and Nothingness , is brilliantly alive and life-affirming, a late book such as the Critique of Dialectical Reason , preaching the joy of revolution, is deadly dull and almost unreadable (even Sartre himself compared it to a coffin). But the explanation of the shift is open to debate. Levy's turning-point comes in the Second World War: henceforward, Sartre suffers from a nostalgia for the fraternity of the prisoner-of-war camp.

BHL (as the French call him) applies a decisive test to 20th-century philosophy - does it make sense of the genocide of the Jews? Well, it shouldn't. The Shoah must be an "absolute singularity", transcending analysis. Sartre gets into hot water, from this point of view, when he gives up his theory of "contingency" and develops a Hegelian tendency to reduce history - all history, including the Holocaust - to an intelligible structure. In Lévy's scheme of things, Sartre starts out as a Jew but turns into a bit of a Nazi.

BHL is a nouveau philosophe who favours the fragmented, the fissured, the incomplete. Sartre strove after a theory of everything, "the odious totalisation" in Lévy's phrase. The word totalitaire is not in the least pejorative in Sartre, but it should be pointed out that it means "all-inclusive" rather than "totalitarian" in our specifically political sense. On the other hand, it would be fair to say that whenever Sartre spoke of freedom, Rousseau's sense of people being "forced to be free" was never far away. Parodoxically, as he recalled, he felt most at liberty under the Occupation.

It would be hard to imagine a better translation of BHL's oracular French. Andrew Brown succeeds in bringing Lévy so flamingly to life as a passionately engaged and combative speaker that you can hear him holding forth on the other side of the table in the Flore or the Deux Magots .


Al-Ahram Weekly

13 - 19 April 2000
Issue No. 477


The death of Jean-Paul Sartre on 15 April 1980 was a symbolic moment, the loss of the last public intellectual of the French Left. Twenty years on, and in the wake of new interest in the polymath writer and philosopher, David Tresilian writes from Paris on a major new assessment of Sartre's life and ideas, while Amina Elbendary reconstructs a momentous visit Jean-Paul Sartre made to Egypt on the eve of the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War


Sartre, future rendez-vous

By David Tresilian


LIKE THAT of many other twentieth-century thinkers, the career of the French philosopher, novelist, playwright, journalist, political activist, and, above all, intellectual dissident, Jean-Paul Sartre is currently being re-evaluated. Sartre was involved in an especially intense way in many of the last century's, and particularly the mid-century's, most characteristic conflicts, from the politics of the Cold War in Europe to the decolonisation of the extra-European world, the Black Panthers' struggle in the United States and the fight for women's and minority rights. A Sartrean album of the time would contain photos of J-P S, sometimes looking strangely vulnerable in his thick specs and old mac, sharing a platform with Fidel Castro, with Bertrand Russell prosecuting American actions in Vietnam, on his way to the Soviet Union, out on the streets with Michel Foucault protesting the racism of the French state, and at home writing (always writing), smoking endless cigarettes, talking with his long-term collaborator, lover and partner Simone de Beauvoir. It turns out that he was on a permanent diet of amphetamines.

"Poulou, this strange guy" who lived in an hotel, as an unpleasant article in the right-wing French daily Le Figaro recently had it, dominated French intellectual life and left-wing politics for the best part of three decades, and, with General de Gaulle, whom he loathed ("worse," he would say, "than Pétain"), remains the best-known French figure of the post-war period. What, however, now remains of Sartre's thought? Which image of Sartre is the right one? Such are the questions now being asked in France. For, twenty years after his death, Sartre is once again the focus of attention thanks to a heavyweight new biography by the writer and critic Bernard-Henri Lévy (Le Siècle de Sartre [The Sartre Century], Grasset) and to a "millennial" desire to look back on the past, perhaps in search of inspiration for the future.

As Lévy himself notes in one of the many interviews he has given to promote his book, contemporary interest in Sartre now exceeds that of any period since the 1950s. To the generations of 1968 and after, drunk on the apocalyptic declarations of the time, this greying old humanist was already a dead letter long before his death. Sartre was fatally unglamorous to the "structuralist" as much as to the "post-structuralist" generations. Yet, as Lévy comments, the time may have come to catch up with Sartre, to return to him. "Twenty years on," he asked in an interview with the magazine Le nouvel Observateur, "what remains of Sartre apart from a few clichés? Sartre, for example, on the barricades in front of the [Renault] factories at Billancourt. Yet what is a major intellectual if not someone who gathers up in himself the forces, the intensities, the intellectual currents of the moment [as Sartre did]? Sartre, or le grand rendez-vous."

Standard treatments have tended to divide Sartre's career, as Julius Caesar did Gaul, into three parts. First there is the young Jean-Paul, star pupil of the Ecole normale superieur (a kind of Parisian intellectual forcing house), philosophy teacher in a high school in Le Havre. Unsurprisingly, these were the years of La Nausée (Nausea), Sartre reacting badly to the boredom and mediocrity of French provincial life. However they also saw the development of Sartre's individualist, expressionist aesthetic. Literature, writing, thinking the great thoughts, these were the proper ends of life, and the literary text was the privileged space of self-realisation in the face of a world that was absolutely "other." Freedom lay within.

Sartre number two, a more familiar figure, emerges following the end of the German occupation. The key term now was "engagement" and writing was a means, if of a highly specialised sort, towards individual and social transformation. One sees this in the series of novels Sartre published after the war, Les chémins de la liberté (Roads to Freedom). Lévy suggests that the uncompromising individualism of the pre-war period was "too heavy a burden" for Sartre to bear. One realises oneself now in the context of a commitment to a group, which one writes for and acts with, such being the special role of an intellectual. This is the programme announced in Qu'est-ce que la littérature? (What is Literature?), worked out, as much as anywhere, in the plays Sartre now wrote in the shadow of Brecht and in that of the existential project he detected in Genet (Saint Genet Comédien et martyr; Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr). Genet bore at least part of the Sartrean project well, and he must have been amused by the consecration ("saint"). According to one authority, Sartre was particularly attracted to what he saw as Genet's theatrical "gesture" in the face of a hostile environment, the taking up of an attitude that aimed "at least for a moment to overturn the order of the world."

For Lévy, Qu'est-ce que la littérature? announces a new understanding of the literary text that was far from the pieties of academic or institutional treatments: literature as graffiti art, or journalism. "Literature is like bananas -- something to be eaten at once, in an instant -- and tough luck on those who still entertain fantasies of the supposed 'immortality' of texts." The publication of Les mots (Words) in 1964 announced a third and final phase. According to Lévy, this short, strange book in which Sartre stages himself wandering in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris in search of friends, discovering what he imagined to be his "ugliness" and taking refuge in literature before, later in life and in a firework display of a theatrical gesture, denouncing "words" in favour of "action", has always appealed to those least sympathetic to its author. However of Sartre's final activities in the 1970s, Lévy comments that there is something "magnificent" in "this gesture of an old man who has decided to burn his boats, to begin everything again from zero, to become young in spirit again" at the risk both of his friendships and of his public image. Lévy stresses the complexity of his subject, a complexity that gave rise to fascinating contradictions which only the glib would reduce to "self-hatred."

"Perhaps," Lévy says, in writing Le Siècle de Sartre "I have been infected by the feverishness, the prodigious energy, the bulimia of this superb, monstrous character ... [but] ... there is something amazing about this man who would spend all day filling page after page with denunciations of literature, saying that his own work was worth nothing, that one had to invent a 'collective intellectual' of a new type, and yet who in secret during the evenings when he was alone would spend his time writing L'Idiot de la famille." This work, unfinished but running to some 2, 800 pages, is Sartre's "total biography" of Flaubert. In general, it is this astonishing energy and these contradictions that Lévy stresses in his subject. Rather in the manner of Brecht, whose aesthetic, while it aimed to produce a critical spirit and attitude of cognitive scepticism, at the same time counselled reconciliation with, of all things, the East German Communist Party, so Sartre, "this most liberal and most rebellious of men, before allowing his play [Les Mains sales] to be performed in such and such a capital would take care to get the consent of the local communist party."

For its part Le Figaro, in a discussion of Levy's book, reminded its readers of some of Sartre's more reprehensible pronouncements. "Liberty of expression is complete in the USSR," Sartre thought, from his base in Paris. "A revolutionary regime," he said, "has to get rid of a certain number of individuals that threaten it, and I don't see any other way in which it can do this than to put them to death. Prison can always be escaped from." A variant of the you-can't-make-an-omelette-without-breaking-eggs argument, Sartre apparently was slow to recognise that even after breaking a great many eggs there still may be no kind of omelette. How many is "a certain number"? Who is to say which individuals are truly "threatening"?

Of this sort of thing, Lévy comments that "there is no such thing as the 'good' Sartre and then, separated from him by some sort of chronological frontier, the bad, confused Sartre who ceaselessly deceived himself." In fact, he told an interviewer in Le Magazine littéraire, the two Sartres "live together. In Sartre's worst period of fellow-travelling, when he would dream only of revolutionary groups and popular justice, there were still moments of freedom, moments of absolute individualism, when only literature and his work on Flaubert counted for anything." Not two Sartres, then, not three, but one, naturally performative subject refracted into unlimited situational gestures.

Lévy's book is part of a whole slew of works designed to mark this year's anniversary of Sartre's death. He says that he undertook it in order "to try to understand" a figure who, according to a writer in Le Figaro, "appears to be the last of our great writers of the Voltaire or the Hugo type, the last capable of causing tens of thousands to turn out at his funeral, the last 'complete intellectual' of our time." There is, the article went on, a lack at present of that "French specialty the ma”tre-à-penser" [leading thinker], a role Sartre successfully played even if he was, "like Voltaire, the second in everything, having neither the philosophical genius of Heidegger nor, as a novelist, coming close to Céline or Proust. As a playwright he is absolutely in the shadow of Claudel or Beckett."

However for Lévy what remains of Sartre is above all the inspiration of this philosopher of freedom, traces of whose refusal to be the prisoner-of-the-other, to be alienated-by-the-other, are to be found underpinning the thought of Fanon (Sartre wrote the 'Preface' to The Wretched of the Earth) and of de Beauvoir. Indeed, de Beauvoir and Sartre together made for an astonishing intellectual partnership, each partner continually inspiring the other. Sartre was, Lévy says, "first of all an artist, a great writer, an entrepreneur of ideas. Someone who had an extreme generosity, who took crazy risks with regard to himself, his public image, his biography and his circle by his energy and his almost unparalleled lack of self-regard." He is also one of the few to have had the distinction of refusing both the French legion d'honneur and the Nobel Prize.





  Vol. 22 No. 11 dated 1 June 2000 |

My Encounter with Sartre

Edward Said

Once the most celebrated intellectual, Jean-Paul Sartre had, until quite recently, almost faded from view. He was already being attacked for his 'blindness' about the Soviet gulags shortly after his death in 1980, and even his humanist Existentialism was ridiculed for its optimism, voluntarism and sheer energetic reach. Sartre's whole career was offensive both to the so-called Nouveaux Philosophes, whose mediocre attainments had only a fervid anti-Communism to attract any attention, and to the post-structuralists and Post-Modernists who, with few exceptions, had lapsed into a sullen technological narcissism deeply at odds with Sartre's populism and his heroic public politics. The immense sprawl of Sartre's work as novelist, essayist, playwright, biographer, philosopher, political intellectual, engaged activist, seemed to repel more people than it attracted. From being the most quoted of the French maîtres penseurs, he became, in the space of about twenty years, the least read and the least analysed. His courageous positions on Algeria and Vietnam were forgotten. So were his work on behalf of the oppressed, his gutsy appearance as a Maoist radical during the 1968 student demonstrations in Paris, as well as his extraordinary range and literary distinction (for which he both won, and rejected, the Nobel Prize for Literature). He had become a maligned ex-celebrity, except in the Anglo-American world, where he had never been taken seriously as a philosopher and was always read somewhat condescendingly as a quaint occasional novelist and memoirist, insufficiently anti-Communist, not quite as chic and compelling as (the far less talented) Camus.

Then, as with many things French, the fashion began to change back, or so it seemed at a distance. Several books about him appeared, and once again he has (perhaps only for a moment) become the subject of talk, if not exactly of study or reflection. For my generation he has always been one of the great intellectual heroes of the 20th century, a man whose insight and intellectual gifts were at the service of nearly every progressive cause of our time. Yet he seemed neither infallible nor prophetic. On the contrary, one admired Sartre for the efforts he made to understand situations and, when necessary, to offer solidarity to political causes. He was never condescending or evasive, even if he was given to error and overstatement. Nearly everything he wrote is interesting for its sheer audacity, its freedom (even its freedom to be verbose) and its generosity of spirit.

There is one obvious exception, which I'd like to describe here. I'm prompted to do so by two fascinating, if dispiriting discussions of his visit to Egypt in early 1967 that appeared last month in Al-Ahram Weekly. One was in a review of Bernard-Henry Lévy's recent book on Sartre; the other was a review of the late Lotfi al-Kholi's account of that visit (al-Kholi, a leading intellectual, was one of Sartre's Egyptian hosts). My own rather forlorn experience with Sartre was a very minor episode in a very grand life, but it is worth recalling both for its ironies and for its poignancy.

It was early in January 1979, and I was at home in New York preparing for one of my classes. The doorbell announced the delivery of a telegram and as I tore it open I noticed with interest that it was from Paris. 'You are invited by Les Temps modernes to attend a seminar on peace in the Middle East in Paris on 13 and 14 March this year. Please respond. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre.' At first I thought the cable was a joke of some sort. It might just as well have been an invitation from Cosima and Richard Wagner to come to Bayreuth, or from T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf to spend an afternoon at the offices of the Dial. It took me about two days to ascertain from various friends in New York and Paris that it was indeed genuine, and far less time than that to despatch my unconditional acceptance (this after learning that les modalités, the French euphemism for travel expenses, were to be borne by Les Temps modernes, the monthly journal established by Sartre after the war). A few weeks later I was off to Paris.

Les Temps modernes had played an extraordinary role in French, and later European and even Third World, intellectual life. Sartre had gathered around him a remarkable set of minds - not all of them in agreement with him - that included Beauvoir of course, his great opposite Raymond Aron, the eminent philosopher and Ecole Normale classmate Maurice Merleau-Ponty (who left the journal a few years later), and Michel Leiris, ethnographer, Africanist and bullfight theoretician. There wasn't a major issue that Sartre and his circle didn't take on, including the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which resulted in a monumentally large edition of Les Temps modernes - in turn the subject of a brilliant essay by I.F. Stone. That alone gave my Paris trip a precedent of note.

When I arrived, I found a short, mysterious letter from Sartre and Beauvoir waiting for me at the hotel I had booked in the Latin Quarter. 'For security reasons,' the message ran, 'the meetings will be held at the home of Michel Foucault.' I was duly provided with an address, and at ten the next morning I arrived at Foucault's apartment to find a number of people - but not Sartre - already milling around. No one was ever to explain the mysterious 'security reasons' that had forced a change in venue, though as a result a conspiratorial air hung over our proceedings. Beauvoir was already there in her famous turban, lecturing anyone who would listen about her forthcoming trip to Teheran with Kate Millett, where they were planning to demonstrate against the chador; the whole idea struck me as patronising and silly, and although I was eager to hear what Beauvoir had to say, I also realised that she was quite vain and quite beyond arguing with at that moment. Besides, she left an hour or so later (just before Sartre's arrival) and was never seen again.

Foucault very quickly made it clear to me that he had nothing to contribute to the seminar and would be leaving directly for his daily bout of research at the Bibliothèque Nationale. I was pleased to see my book Beginnings on his bookshelves, which were brimming with a neatly arranged mass of materials, including papers and journals. Although we chatted together amiably it wasn't until much later (in fact almost a decade after his death in 1984) that I got some idea why he had been so unwilling to say anything to me about Middle Eastern politics. In their biographies, both Didier Eribon and James Miller reveal that in 1967 he had been teaching in Tunisia and had left the country in some haste, shortly after the June War. Foucault had said at the time that the reason he left had been his horror at the 'anti-semitic' anti-Israel riots of the time, common in every Arab city after the great Arab defeat. A Tunisian colleague of his in the University of Tunis philosophy department told me a different story in the early 1990s: Foucault, she said, had been deported because of his homosexual activities with young students. I still have no idea which version is correct. At the time of the Paris seminar, he told me he had just returned from a sojourn in Iran as a special envoy of Corriere della sera. 'Very exciting, very strange, crazy,' I recall him saying about those early days of the Islamic Revolution. I think (perhaps mistakenly) I heard him say that in Teheran he had disguised himself in a wig, although a short while after his articles appeared, he rapidly distanced himself from all things Iranian. Finally, in the late 1980s, I was told by Gilles Deleuze that he and Foucault, once the closest of friends, had fallen out over the question of Palestine, Foucault expressing support for Israel, Deleuze for the Palestinians.

Foucault's apartment, though large and obviously extremely comfortable, was starkly white and austere, well suited to the solitary philosopher and rigorous thinker who seemed to inhabit it alone. A few Palestinians and Israeli Jews were there. Among them I recognised only Ibrahim Dakkak, who has since become a good Jerusalem friend, Nafez Nazzal, a teacher at Bir Zeit whom I had known superficially in the US, and Yehoshofat Harkabi, the leading Israeli expert on 'the Arab mind', a former chief of Israeli military intelligence, fired by Golda Meir for mistakenly putting the Army on alert. Three years earlier, we had both been fellows at the Stanford Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, but we did not have much of a relationship. It was always polite but far from cordial. In Paris, he was in the process of changing his position, to become Israel's leading establishment dove, a man who was soon to speak openly about the need for a Palestinian state, which he considered to be a strategic advantage from Israel's point of view. The other participants were mostly Israeli or French Jews, from the very religious to the very secular, although all were pro-Zionist in one way or another. One of them, Eli Ben Gal, seemed to have a long acquaintance with Sartre: we were later told that he had been Sartre's guide on a recent trip to Israel.

When the great man finally appeared, well past the appointed time, I was shocked at how old and frail he seemed. I recall rather needlessly and idiotically introducing Foucault to him, and I also recall that Sartre was constantly surrounded, supported, prompted by a small retinue of people on whom he was totally dependent. They, in turn, had made him the main business of their lives. One was his adopted daughter who, I later learned, was his literary executor; I was told that she was of Algerian origin. Another was Pierre Victor, a former Maoist and co-publisher with Sartre of the now defunct Gauche prolétarienne, who had become a deeply religious and, I supposed, Orthodox Jew; it stunned me to find out later from one of the journal's assistants that he was an Egyptian Jew called Benny Lévy, the brother of Adel Ref'at (né Lévy), one of the so-called Mahmoud Hussein pair (the other being a Muslim Egyptian: the two men worked at Unesco and as 'Mahmoud Hussein' wrote La Lutte des classes en Egypte, a well-known study published by Maspero). There seemed to be nothing Egyptian about Victor: he came across as a Left Bank intellectual, part-thinker, part-hustler. Third was Hélène von Bülow, a trilingual woman who worked at the journal and translated everything for Sartre. Although he had spent time in Germany and had written not only on Heidegger, but on Faulkner and Dos Passos, Sartre knew neither German nor English. An amiable and elegant woman, Von Bülow remained at Sartre's side for the two days of the seminar, whispering simultaneous translations into his ear. Except for one Palestinian from Vienna who spoke only Arabic and German, our discussion was in English. How much Sartre actually understood I shall never know, but it was (to me and others) profoundly disconcerting that he remained silent throughout the first day's proceedings. Michel Contat, Sartre's bibliographer, was also there, but did not participate.

In what I took to be the French style, lunch - which in ordinary circumstances would have taken an hour or so - was a very elaborate affair taken at a restaurant some distance away; and since it had been raining non-stop, transporting everyone in cabs, sitting through a four-course meal, then bringing the group back again, took about three and a half hours. So on the first day our discussions about 'peace' lasted for a relatively short time. The themes were set out by Victor without any consultation with anyone else, so far as I could see. Early on, I sensed that he was a law unto himself, thanks no doubt to his privileged relationship with Sartre (with whom he occasionally had whispered exchanges), and to what seemed to be a sublime self-confidence. We were to discuss: (1) the value of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel (this was Camp David time), (2) peace between Israel and the Arab world generally, and (3) the rather more fundamental question of future coexistence between Israel and the surrounding Arab world. None of the Arabs seemed happy with this. I felt it leapfrogged over the matter of the Palestinians. Dakkak was uneasy with the whole set-up and left after the first day.

As that day wore on, I slowly discovered that a good deal of negotiating had gone on beforehand to bring the seminar about, and that what participation there was from the Arab world was compromised, and hence abridged, by all the prior wheeling and dealing. I was somewhat chagrined that I hadn't been included in any of this. Perhaps I had been too naive - too anxious to come to Paris to meet Sartre, I reflected. There was talk of Emmanuel Levinas being involved, but, like the Egyptian intellectuals whom we'd been promised, he never showed up. In the meantime all our discussions were being recorded and were subsequently published in a special issue of Les Temps modernes (September 1979). I thought it was pretty unsatisfactory. We were covering more or less familiar ground, with no real meeting of minds.

Beauvoir had been a serious disappointment, flouncing out of the room in a cloud of opinionated babble about Islam and the veiling of women. At the time I did not regret her absence; later I was convinced she would have livened things up. Sartre's presence, what there was of it, was strangely passive, unimpressive, affectless. He said absolutely nothing for hours on end. At lunch he sat across from me, looking disconsolate and remaining totally uncommunicative, egg and mayonnaise streaming haplessly down his face. I tried to make conversation with him, but got nowhere. He may have been deaf, but I'm not sure. In any case, he seemed to me like a haunted version of his earlier self, his proverbial ugliness, his pipe and his nondescript clothing hanging about him like so many props on a deserted stage. I was very active in Palestinian politics at the time: in 1977 I had become a member of the National Council, and on my frequent visits to Beirut (this was during the Lebanese civil war) to visit my mother, regularly saw Arafat, and most of the other leaders of the day. I thought it would be a major achievement to coax Sartre into making a pro-Palestinian statement at such a 'hot' moment of our deadly rivalry with Israel.

Throughout the lunch and the afternoon session I was aware of Pierre Victor as a sort of station-master for the seminar, among whose trains was Sartre himself. In addition to their mysterious whisperings at the table, he and Victor would from time to time get up; Victor would lead the shuffling old man away, speak rapidly at him, get an intermittent nod or two, then they'd come back. Meanwhile every member of the seminar wanted to have his or her say, making it impossible to develop an argument, though it soon enough became clear that Israel's enhancement (what today is called 'normalisation') was the real subject of the meeting, not the Arabs or the Palestinians. Several Arabs before me had spent time trying to convince some immensely important intellectual of the justice of their cause in the hope that he would turn into another Arnold Toynbee or Sean McBride. Few of these great eminences did. Sartre struck me as worth the effort simply because I could not forget his position on Algeria, which as a Frenchman must have been harder to hold than a position critical of Israel. I was wrong of course.

As the turgid and unrewarding discussions wore on, I found that I was too often reminding myself that I had come to France to listen to what Sartre had to say, not to people whose opinions I already knew and didn't find specially gripping. I therefore brazenly interrupted the discussion early in the evening and insisted that we hear from Sartre forthwith. This caused consternation in the retinue. The seminar was adjourned while urgent consultations between them were held. I found the whole thing comic and pathetic at the same time, especially since Sartre himself had no apparent part in these deliberations. At last we were summoned back to the table by the visibly irritated Pierre Victor, who announced with the portentousness of a Roman senator: 'Demain Sartre parlera.' And so we retired in keen anticipation of the following morning's proceedings.

Sure enough Sartre did have something for us: a prepared text of about two typed pages that - I write entirely on the basis of a twenty-year-old memory of the moment - praised the courage of Anwar Sadat in the most banal platitudes imaginable. I cannot recall that many words were said about the Palestinians, or about territory, or about the tragic past. Certainly no reference was made to Israeli settler-colonialism, similar in many ways to French practice in Algeria. It was about as informative as a Reuters dispatch, obviously written by the egregious Victor to get Sartre, whom he seemed completely to command, off the hook. I was quite shattered to discover that this intellectual hero had succumbed in his later years to such a reactionary mentor, and that on the subject of Palestine the former warrior on behalf of the oppressed had nothing to offer beyond the most conventional, journalistic praise for an already well-celebrated Egyptian leader. For the rest of that day Sartre resumed his silence, and the proceedings continued as before. I recalled an apocryphal story in which twenty years earlier Sartre had travelled to Rome to meet Fanon (then dying of leukemia) and harangued him about the dramas of Algeria for (it was claimed) 16 non-stop hours, until Simone made him desist. Gone for ever was that Sartre.

When the transcript of the seminar was published a few months later, Sartre's intervention had been edited down and made even more innocuous. I cannot imagine why; nor did I try to find out. Even though I still have the issue of Les Temps modernes in which we all appeared, I haven't been able to bring myself to reread more than a few extracts, so flat and unrewarding do its pages now seem to me. So I went to Paris to hear Sartre in much the same spirit as Sartre was invited to come to Egypt, to be seen and talked to by Arab intellectuals - with exactly the same results, though my own encounter was coloured, not to say stained, by the presence of an unattractive intermediary, Pierre Victor, who has since disappeared into well deserved obscurity. I was, I thought then, like Fabrice looking for the Battle of Waterloo - unsuccessful and disappointed.

One further point. A few weeks ago I happened to catch part of Bouillon de culture, Bernard Pivot's weekly discussion programme, screened on French television, and broadcast in the US a short time later. The programme was about Sartre's slow posthumous rehabilitation in the face of continuing criticism of his political sins. Bernard-Henry Lévy, than whom in quality of mind and political courage there could scarcely be anyone more different from Sartre, was there to flog his approving study of the older philosopher. (I confess that I haven't read it, and do not soon plan to.) He was not so bad really, said the patronising B-HL; there were things about him, after all, that were consistently admirable and politically correct. B-HL intended this to balance what he considered the well-founded criticism of Sartre (made into a nauseating mantra by Paul Johnson) as having always been wrong on Communism. 'For example,' B-HL intoned, 'Sartre's record on Israel was perfect: he never deviated and he remained a complete supporter of the Jewish state.'

For reasons that we still cannot know for certain, Sartre did indeed remain constant in his fundamental pro-Zionism. Whether that was because he was afraid of seeming anti-semitic, or because he felt guilt about the Holocaust, or because he allowed himself no deep appreciation of the Palestinians as victims of and fighters against Israel's injustice, or for some other reason, I shall never know. All I do know is that as a very old man he seemed pretty much the same as he had been when somewhat younger: a bitter disappointment to every (non-Algerian) Arab who admired him. Certainly Bertrand Russell was better than Sartre, and in his last years (though led on and, some would say, totally manipulated by my former Princeton classmate and one-time friend, Ralph Schoenman) actually took positions critical of Israel's policies towards the Arabs. I guess we need to understand why great old men are liable to succumb either to the wiles of younger ones, or to the grip of an unmodifiable political belief. It's a dispiriting thought, but it's what happened to Sartre. With the exception of Algeria, the justice of the Arab cause simply could not make an impression on him, and whether it was entirely because of Israel or because of a basic lack of sympathy - cultural or perhaps religious - it's impossible for me to say. In this he was quite unlike his friend and idol Jean Genet, who celebrated his strange passion for Palestinians in an extended sojourn with them and by writing the extraordinary 'Quatre Heures à Sabra et Chatila' and Le Captif amoureux.

A year after our brief and disappointing Paris encounter Sartre died. I vividly remember how much I mourned his death.

Edward Said's most recent books include Out of Place, a memoir, Reflections on Exile, Freud and the Non-European and, with Daniel Barenboim, Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society.

From the LRB letters page: [ 20 July 2000 ] Steven Maynard, Michael Payne.


Said, Foucault, Sartre

From Steven Maynard

In his piece about meeting Jean-Paul Sartre in Paris in 1979, Edward Said (LRB, 1 June) talks about a conversation he had with Michel Foucault and about Foucault's reluctance to discuss Middle Eastern politics - a reluctance Said attributes to pro-Israeli sentiment. His evidence for Foucault's troubling stance on the Palestinian question includes a piece of gossip told him by someone who taught with Foucault at the University of Tunis in 1967. Foucault claimed he left Tunisia that year out of horror at anti-Israeli riots after the June War, but Said's informant suggests that he had been deported for 'homosexual activities with young students'. Said admits, 'I still have no idea which version is correct' - and I still have no idea exactly what Said wants us to make of these 'connections' between Foucault's homosexual activity and Arab-Israeli politics.

Later in his essay, Said remarks on Jean Genet's 'strange passion for Palestinians'. Such 'passion' might not seem so 'strange', nor the relationship between 'homosexual activities' and politics so bewildering, if sexuality were taken more seriously here. Said muses with reference to Sartre: 'I guess we need to understand why great old men are liable to succumb . . . to the wiles of younger ones.' I couldn't have put it better myself, other than to add that what we need to understand are the complex and contradictory ways sexual relations can nourish (Genet?) and impede (Foucault?) political sympathies and solidarities


From Michael Payne

Edward Said cites two of three recent biographies of Foucault, neither of which suggests that Foucault left Tunis 'in some haste' or because of Middle Eastern politics, much less that he was 'deported because of his homosexual activities with young students'. That Foucault's outrage against the Holocaust made him, like Sartre, a philo-semite seems virtually certain. Why that should be a blot on either of their reputations, Said has failed to explain.

Michael Payne
Lewisburg, Pennsylvania



September / October 2001


A Revival of Sartre?


Bernard-Henri Lévy, Le Siècle de Sartre, Grasset, Paris, 2000. 663 pp.; Michael Scriven, Jean-Paul Sartre: Politics and Culture in Postwar France, Macmillan, London, 1999, xv + 193 pp.

The resurgence of interest in Sartre in the last year or so has come as a welcome development in today's neoliberal and supposedly post-ideological political and intellectual climate. Sartre's trajectory, developing as it does from the existentialist quasi-idealism of Being and Nothingness to the Hegelian and Marxian derived preoccupations of Critique of Dialectical Reason and beyond, is not only a model of intellectual resistance to the more socially oppressive and mind-numbing effects of capitalism but intrinsically problematizes the whole question of the relationship of the individual subject to any notion of ideological system. Even during his notoriously apolitical prewar days - a period during which, for Sartre, ontological concerns more or less occupied the space that political ones normally inhabit - his anti-authoritarian and anti-establishmentarian impulses were already firmly in place.

During the 1940s, Sartre's idealist tendencies led him to consider his existentialist thought a philosophical alternative to any ethico-political position with a strongly defined ideological dimension (an assumption which he was later to reject in Questions of Method (1957), where he acknowledged that existentialism is itself an ideology). His open disputes with his French Stalinist contemporaries after the Liberation are well documented, although it should be remembered that his existentialism of this period stood in even firmer opposition to fascism and bourgeois ideology. His gradual movement towards Marxian thought in the late 1940s and, especially, the 1950s is also well known. But for many years now, and in France in particular, Sartre's thought has suffered critical neglect, thought to be passé in the light of post-structuralist and postmodernist developments. The gradual erosion and dissolution of the notion of the individual subject was often assumed to have definitively undermined Sartre's humanist position. However, recent reassessments of Sartre's work have reminded us of its crucial importance not only to the pre-1960s intellectual debate but also as a fascinating complement - and at times corrective - to some of the dominant theoretical tendencies of the last thirty years.

The contributions of Lévy and Scriven* are both motivated by a desire to re-evaluate and sum up what is of principal importance today in the Sartrean legacy by elucidating the heart of Sartre's intellectual project. For Lévy, this involves identifying the myriad interconnections between the thought of Sartre - in its philosophical and aesthetic dimensions - and that of his most significant predecessors and successors. Scriven, asserting that it is above all the synthesis of the political and the aesthetic which characterizes Sartre's work, sets out to do this by situating Sartre's political development and cultural output in the French sociopolitical context. The matter of which areas of Sartre's thought become the principal focus for particular Sartre scholars is often highly significant. These are two rather different books on Sartre in many ways. Even after a cursory reading, their differences of scope, critical style and intellectual tradition are apparent. Yet it is perhaps, in the final analysis, on the level of the political that it is most fruitful to relate Lévy's and Scriven's accounts of Sartre to each other. Although Lévy's analyses do not centre primarily on Sartre's politics - indeed, there is a conspicuous absence of serious and detailed consideration of Sartre as a political thinker in Le Siècle de Sartre, the majority of Lévy's remarks on the matter rarely elevating themselves above the level of apparently ill-informed anti-communist diatribe - his book is nevertheless a highly political statement, indeed much more so than Scriven's.

During the months following the publication of Le Siècle de Sartre, the French media's fascination with Lévy's project suggested a full-blown Sartrean renaissance. The initial barrage of images of Sartre on the covers of newspapers and magazines gave way to a steady stream of interviews with the media-friendly Lévy, and to review articles devoted to his book. The tone of this journalistic reaction was by and large sympathetic to Lévy and to his account of Sartre. There was general agreement about both the intellectual ambitiousness of Le Siècle de Sartre and the value of Lévy's reopening of the debate. Where substantive criticisms were made, they were for the most part expressions of centrist or centre-right political positions. In particular, Lévy was admonished for not having been even more unforgiving of Sartre's oft-mentioned mistakes, or what Lévy terms `fog' (brume). One sensed that underlying these criticisms there was a deeply felt antipathy towards Sartre, which is an indication of the kind of passionate reactions he continues to inspire. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is to the critical responses of France's Sartre specialists that one must turn to find the most considered reflections on Lévy's work. Although the general feeling has been that Le Siècle de Sartre is a positive contribution to the field, Lévy was often thought to have failed to situate Sartre's errors sufficiently in their historical context1 and not to have accorded Sartre's later philosophy its full importance.2 It is fair to say that these misgivings on the part of the Sartreans are the nearest thing that there has been in France to a Left critique of what Lévy has described as his `first "total" book'.3



Article paru dans l'édition du 29 janvier 2000.

Sartre -  Bernard-Henri Lévy, un éloge de l'ambiguïté

Le 15 avril 1980, il y a presque vingt ans, le cimetière Montparnasse bruissait d'une ferveur retenue. Ils étaient quelques milliers venus exprimer l'émotion que leur causait la disparition de cette grande figure philosophique du XXe siècle que fut Jean-Paul Sartre. Aujourd'hui, l'opinion publique française - qui tend à n'avoir plus comme mémoire que les anniversaires et les signaux médiatiques qu'ils déclenchent - est saisie de " l'événement " avec trois mois d'avance. Le philosophe Bernard-Henri Lévy, dont détracteurs et admirateurs ont en commun de le désigner un peu sèchement par ses initiales, " BHL ", occupe le sommet de cette actualité un peu artificielle avec un pavé de près de 700 pages ambitieusement titré le Siècle de Sartre (1). Pour une fois, les médias aux yeux généralement fermés, ne se sont pas trompés. Si le Siècle de Sartre, de Bernard-Henri Lévy tient le haut de l'affiche, ce n'est pas sans raison, et la plupart de ceux qui ont un préjugé défavorable du fait des prises de position passées de l'auteur en conviennent, après lecture bien entendu.

Que la question, posée en prologue, de savoir si Sartre a bien été " le rendez-vous de toutes les façons de traverser le siècle, de s'y perdre, d'en conjurer les pentes sombres - et de s'engager maintenant dans le suivant " demeure irrésolue est l'une des qualités majeures de cet ouvrage. Plutôt qu'une succession de personnages à différentes époques, le Sartre de Bernard-Henri Lévy ne cesse de cumuler les postures ambiguës. Est-ce là un effet de la liberté dans laquelle le romancier des Chemins de la liberté situe l'aspect essentiel de l'action humaine ? Du Front populaire à l'" après-Auschwitz ", en passant par la Résistance, n'a-t-il pas été, malgré lui, un de ces " spectateurs engagés " dont le concept fut paradoxalement inventé par Raymond Aron, son " petit camarade " d'École normale supérieure ? Le premier chapitre consacré à " la gloire de Sartre " montre combien il lui fut difficile d'être au balcon pour se regarder passer dans la rue. Le philosophe Jankélévitch est allé jusqu'à envisager que la philosophie sartrienne de l'engagement fut une sorte de compensation pour les dangers que le père de l'existentialisme français n'aurait pas courus pendant l'Occupation. À cet égard, on prendra connaissance avec intérêt du chapitre IV de la seconde partie du livre, Justice pour Jean-Paul Sartre, où le " Sartre résistant " est en quelque sorte " réhabilité ".

Faut-il lui reprocher d'avoir filé, en plein Front populaire, à Rome puis à Naples avec la femme qu'il aimait ? Peut-on lui reprocher de n'avoir pas donné suite à son intention de rejoindre en Espagne les Brigades internationales ? Sartre dira plus tard à Michel Contat dans Situations X : " J'étais déchiré entre mon pacifisme individualiste et mon antinazisme. " Et il ajoute : " Au moins dans ma tête, l'antinazisme l'emportait déjà. " Son concept d'engagement n'a pas échappé à " la morale de l'ambiguïté " dont Simone de Beauvoir fut le réceptacle. Faut-il faire grief au prisonnier auquel un codétenu avait fait des faux papiers de s'être réinséré dans sa vie d'enseignant et d'avoir fait jouer les Mouches dans Paris occupé ? En l'an 2000, le regard sur ces " fautes " a changé. Reste l'idée que, quelle que soit l'activité à laquelle il s'adonne, chacun est toujours " engagé ". Cela s'appelle aujourd'hui " parler avec ses pieds ". Dans cet esprit, signalons l'hommage rendu par Bernard-Henri Lévy à l'authentique amour de ce couple symbole du XXe siècle : " Castorisation de l'amour et amour absolu du Castor ". Simone de Beauvoir était son " sur-moi ". Elle savait dans sa chair que Sartre préférait " parler avec une femme des plus petites choses que de philosophie avec Aron ". " Sartre, avec son corps de crapaud, sa chair blette, ses dents gâtées, son oil mort " eut donc d'autres femmes. Beaucoup. Il fut cependant avec Castor d'une fidélité que Bernard-Henri Lévy qualifie de " trans-temporelle ". Castor fut d'une même infidélité fidèle. D'où vient, se demande l'auteur, " que l'on ait tant de mal à entendre tout cela ? ".

Jean-Paul Sartre, une mode ? Ce n'est pas si mal, écrit Bernard-Henri Lévy, une mode quand c'est l'expression d'une morale en actes, une philosophie faite vie. Sartre a fait entrer le quotidien et ses objets ordinaires en philosophie. Devenu un " astre philosophique " de première grandeur, il refusa les honneurs et la gloire que lui proposait le jury Nobel. " S'il est quelque unité dans ma vie, écrit-il en 1940, c'est que je n'ai jamais voulu vivre sérieusement " (voir Carnets de la drôle de guerre). C'était, selon l'auteur de " la barbarie à visage humain ", le " programme de Sartre " : " lacrymographes de tous les pays, dispersez-vous ! ". Le Siècle de Sartre est du genre " enquête ". Qu'il ait été un " homme-siècle ", personne n'en doute. Il s'occupa donc aussi, avec son insoutenable légèreté, de choses très sérieuses. Que Bernard-Henri Lévy lui attribue le mérite d'avoir contribué, avec ses Réflexions sur la question juive, à redonner aux juifs la dignité dont le IIIe Reich avait voulu les priver, n'étonnera personne. Notons dans ce texte de Sartre cet aphorisme de grande portée : " Si le juif n'existait pas, l'antisémite l'inventerait. "

Sartre fut-il un temps le " compagnon de route stalinien " des communistes français ? Et cet épisode doit-il être rangé au rang des " inévitables erreurs " dans la vie d'un intellectuel ? C'est là que je trouve personnellement le propos de " BHL " le plus faible. La question se pose-t-elle aujourd'hui dans les mêmes termes qu'en 1981, au moment de la parution de l'Idéologie française, où il accusait l'ensemble du peuple français d'avoir été pétainiste ? Si l'on en croit l'autocritique à laquelle Bernard-Henri Lévy a procédé tout récemment dans Comédie, peut-il encore traiter le Mouvement mondial de la paix d'" Internationale stalinienne " ? Peut-il encore assimiler l'émotion éprouvée par Sartre lorsqu'il apprend l'exécution d'Ethel et Julius Rosenberg à de l'" anti-américanisme primaire " ? Que Sartre ait abdiqué un peu de ses capacités de révolte et de son anarchisme viscéral pour se solidariser avec les victimes communistes - ou non - du bloc communiste, me semble se situer dans le droit fil de son engagement et de l'ambiguïté qui lui est consubstantielle, toute sa vie durant.

La générosité dont Bernard-Henri Lévy crédite légitimement son personnage ferait-elle ici défaut à l'auteur du Siècle de Sartre ? Le regard porté en l'an 2000 sur cette période n'a-t-il pas, lui aussi, changé ? Que penser aujourd'hui de cet horizon que constitue le marxisme pour Sartre dans la Critique de la raison dialectique ? " Indépassable " ? " Parce que les circonstances qui l'ont engendré ne sont pas encore dépassées. " Le sont-elles, quarante ans plus tard ? Bernard-Henri Lévy ne le dit pas. Faire vivre Sartre aujourd'hui ne mérite-t-il pas aussi d'élucider cette question ?

Arnaud Spire

(1) Bernard-Henri Lévy, le Siècle de Sartre. Enquête philosophique. Éditions Grasset, 670 pages, 148 francs.


Man who led anti-Sartre revolt repents at length

French writer Bernard-Henri Lévy reveals secret passion in new book

Paul Webster in Paris
Friday January 14, 2000
The Guardian

Twenty years after his death, Jean-Paul Sartre has been raised to the status of "man of the century" by Bernard-Henri Lévy, the philosopher-showman who led the revolt against leftwing thinkers in the 1970s.

His 650-page book, Le Siècle de Sartre, abounds with unsuspected enthusiasm for the guru of postwar existentialism, revealing a passion that Lévy, 51, admits to keeping secret for years.

"What is a great intellectual? The talent, or rather the ambition of Sartre?" he writes.

"His appetite. His insatiable curiosity. His incorruptible intellectual side. Philosophy of course, but also literature, journalism, reporting, theatre, songs, lectures, broadcasts and cinema."

Elsewhere he writes: "Sartre is the only [intellectual] of his generation with a unique energy which will never be found again in anyone else."

Although Lévy says that Sartre anticipated in a "vertiginous manner most of the theoretical inventions of Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan and Gilles Deleuze", the admiration appears based largely on Sartre's ability to get things "outrageously wrong".

The book, in Lévy's words, is intended in part to explain how a "magnificent philosopher and master of freethinking" could become a sad communist fellow traveller and a friend of Maoists - one of the reasons why the young Lévy founded the upstart New Philosophers movement when still in his early twenties.

"Why was the man who invented all the anti-totalitarian inoculations unable to inoculate himself?" Lévy said in an interview with the leftwing Nouvel Observateur, which acts as a permanent shrine to all things Sartrean. "In the twilight of his life, Sartre decided to break everything up [by associating with the extreme left]. To the shock of his intellectual family, he dynamited Sartreism. He took a magnificent gamble on a new surge of youth."

Lévy explains for the first time why he originally shrugged off the masterthinker who was idolised by French youth before the war and well into the 60s.

"I belong to a generation which came of age at the beginning of the Sartrean desert," he said.

"At the end of the 60s it was unanimously accepted that Sartre's work was a humanist whim. In fact L'Etre et le néant, [Being and Nothingness] was the last real attempt at modern philosophy - an ultimate attempt to escape from Hegelianism."

Lévy's colourful activism in campaigns from the condemnation of totalitarian barbarism to a save-Bosnia crusade and beyond has brought him more media attention than his books, particularly since he married the American-born actress Arielle Dombasle. But his avowed determination to "come out" in his enthusiasm for Sartre's double career as thinker and novelist could revive a faltering cult.

"After 20 years, nothing much remains of Sartre other than cliches," Lévy said. "We must repair some immense injustices which see Sartre as the paragon of errors and the scapegoat for all sorts of 20th century madnesses. Hate has pursued him and the dirty jokes around the magnificent couple formed by Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir are pure infamy."

His praise for "this philosopher who so often got things wrong in a magisterial fashion" also extends to Sartre's novels, which have suffered much the same fall in popular interest as those of his contemporary and political adversary, André Malraux.

"La Nausée [Nausea], an absolute masterpiece, remains young and full of life," he said, predicting a revival for Sartre's novels to parallel a similar recent resurrection of Sartre's plays in Paris and Berlin.

News World Communication 

PARIS, By Bernard Mitjavile, New York City Tribune correspondent

An intriguing question about Bernard-Henri Levy is how he has been able to remain at the center of public interest or at least the interest of circles of intellectuals in France for so long.

It may not be so much for the depth of his philosophical ideas, which he himself acknowledged during an interview with the New York City Tribune in a café on the left bank, are not so new but because he came to play the role of a kind of barometer of the ideological evolution of trendy intellectuals and journalists.

Questioned about a novel he wrote "Le diable en tête" (the devil in the head), Levy said he hoped his book would become a modern version of the Devils by Russian author Feodor Dostoyevsky, but he still has a long way to go before his heroes reach the depth of Dostoyevsky's characters, the hero of his book, Benjamin, being essentially the embodiment of the search of Levy, his questioning about anti-Semitism and Marxism but there remains a huge gap in credibility and depth between this type of heroes and the characters of the Karamazov brothers.

He sees himself as a great denouncer of anti-Semitism in France. In a book titled "l’Idéologie Française" (French Ideology), he argued that over the last 100 years, most French writers and politicians have shared the same patriotic ideology that was nourished at its core by anti-Semitic ideas.

This infuriated many people, patriots or not. If critics would have only come from rightist circles, this would not have been a problem for Levy as a leftist philosopher, but Raymond Aron, who was then the most respected Jewish intellectual in France (he died in 1983) charged that Levy was falsifying recent French history, or at least interpreting it in a simplistic way. According to Aron Levy's book did little or was even counterproductive in fighting anti-Semitism in putting in the same bag patriots, catholic intellectuals and anti-Semites.

In another book, "God's Testament" Levy argued that Jewish traditions and values as he understood them were the only rampart against the barbarism of totalitarian systems.

The idea sounds good, the only problem being that BHL, as he is familiarly known, proclaims that he is an atheist, something that does make of himself the ideal defender of Jewish religious values.

Some religious-minded Jews and Christians complained that he misquoted the Bible and said Levy's views ran counter to the central Judeo-Christian attitude toward life and history, a hopeful way to look at the future. Levy's book claimed that the hope in a better future for mankind, in an ideal world of peace, should not be taken seriously, in other words that the Messiah will never come.

This pessimistic view of history can be traced back to Levy’s opposition against Marxism. In his first book, "Barbarism with a Human Face" published in the 1970’s, he denounced with vigor, but sometimes in an obscure philosophical style, Marxism-Leninism as the source of all the evils of communism.

He rejected the Marxist view that history has a meaning and a purpose as a dangerous concept used to justify immoral acts by arguing that they fit in with "history's direction" and proposed instead a somewhat pessimistic philosophy: History has no meaning, no ultimate purpose and we should not deceive ourselves into believing that tomorrow will be better than today. But even without hope we should act according to ethical principles and resist the forces of barbarism

Still, the question remains, how through all his works has Levy managed to remain a kind of star among French intellectuals throughout the decades.

The answer may have to do with fashion : in a city of fashion, he became a kind of fashionable thinker or philosopher able to follow the various waves of the idea fashion.

From 1973 to 1976, he was a member of the group of experts advising then presidential candidate François Mitterrand, when the socialist program was still highly regarded among intellectuals and people could still believe it was workable.

Now that the test of power has left socialist ideology in a shambles and destroyed the hopes and dreams nourished before Mitterrand's election, Levy has some very harsh words for the socialist administration, which are in tune with a widespread feeling of disenchantment among intellectuals.

During his interview with the New York City Tribune, he said that members of the government were inspired by "archaic" socialist ideas like 19th-century anticlericalism.

Even his denunciation of the crimes of communism remains within certain acceptable limits for his intellectual peers.

Asked if, when looking back at the crimes committed by communists in Vietnam and Cambodia, he still approves of the anti-war demonstrations in the name of the freedom and independence of these countries by the French left against the U.S. military intervention, he answered positively.

About the anti-war demonstrations during the Vietnam War, he said, "If we had to do it again, I would still march against the U.S. intervention in Vietnam."

This fits in with the general mood in France, where many leftists have opened their eyes to the reality of communism, but are not willing to agree if told that they have always demonstrated for the wrong causes over the past 30 years.

Levy defends his views with a kind of Kantian philosophy, in which the value of actions is not judged by their consequences, but whether they have been done according to some predetermined moral "principles:' a word Levy likes to use.

"We are not responsible for everything that happens afterwards:' Levy said to justify his support of leftist causes that turned out badly in the end.

In fact, it seems that unlike the 1960s, when leading intellectuals like philosopher Jean Paul Sartre felt the urge to be involved in politics and pass moral judgment on almost any event happening in the world, Levy and other writers from his generation are more careful and consider the role of an author is to write books rather than to sign political pamphlets,

"There are limits to what we can do; we are not responsible for everything going on," Levy said.


Sartre: the philosopher of the 20th century by Bernard-Henri Lévy, trans. Andrew Brown

Sparks fly when today's French philosophical superstar confronts his great ancestor. David Coward watches one Left Bank idol grapple with another

16 August 2003

When Jean-Paul Sartre died in 1980, 50,000 sorrowing faithful followed him to Montparnasse cemetery. The figure was well below the 2 million who gave Victor Hugo his send-off in 1885, but it dwarfed the turn-out for the passing of the 20th century's other literary giants or the structuralist warriors - Foucault, Althusser et al - who had unseated "the Pope of existentialism".

Although Sartre was genuinely mourned in some quarters (and vilified in others), he was not greatly missed. The season ticket to the front pages which he held for 40 years had expired. Without new provocations to stir controversy, his reputation continued to dwindle, swallowed up in clouds of postmodernism. Now, 20 years on, Bernard-Henri Lévy, philosopher and media star, offers a reassessment of the century's "total intellectual".

Philosopher, novelist, playwright, journalist, literary critic, political activist and thorn in the flesh of bourgeois everywhere, Sartre began in the Thirties with a radical theory of human freedom. There is no God and the universe goes about its business without reference to us: our existence has no point except itself. Whereas Camus concluded that suicide was therefore the only serious philosophical issue, Sartre believed that a life could be given meaning if it is committed (engagé) to a coherent course of action.

In his novel Nausea (1939), he suggested that creating a work of art is one way of giving a life sense. Sartrean engagement, developed in Being and Nothingness (1943), was used to justify resistance to the German occupier in The Flies, his play staged in 1943. But it was still, at this stage, a duty of the individual not the group. Huis Clos (1944) warned that "hell is other people", for we vie with them in constant competition for attention.

Unless we remain flexible in our responses, accept the consequences of our actions, and act in good faith with ourselves, we become "inauthentic", hypocritical "bastards" and create all the ills that society is heir to. It is hardly an endorsement of collective action.

Like most critics, Lévy finds most to admire in this early Sartre, but for rather different reasons. Extistentialism was not, as the title of Sartre's most famous lecture puts it, "a Humanism" at all. Humanists always set out to make the world better by eradicating the Old Adam who will be persuaded, by force if necessary, to mend his ways.

Initially, engagement was not authoritarian but personal, apolitical and only indirectly a viable social philosophy. If all men act in good faith, then no man will promote totalitarianism, fascism, colonialism, racism, fundamentalism, and so forth. It is in this lack of direct interest in collective problems that his philosophy was "anti-humanist", a recommendation in Lévy's vocabulary.

Had Sartre stopped there, all would have been well. But after the war he applied engagement increasingly to the collectivity: the group must be made to behave authentically. In the process, a philosophy which had been anti-humanist and anti-fascist now became illiberal.

All totalitarian bullies, argues Lévy, begin as idealists who wish to make the world a better place. They assume that community is humankind's natural state and that it is right to restore it. Having persuaded the people to accept these myths, they proceed to lie and deceive to improve the world, and use prison, torture and murder as the means of justifying an end whose coming is permanently postponed.

For Lévy, Sartre turned into just such a totalitarian activist. He defended some of the most despotic regimes in history, travelled the world looking for surrogate proletariats to defend, loathed American imperialism, approved of violence as a political tool, refused, unlike Koestler or Orwell, to see Soviet Russia as fascism in red trousers, and went into the Seventies needing to believe in Mao's Oriental Eden. Sartre was probably the "last Stalinist", yet he himself remarked that he had spent all his life fighting to create a society in which he would not have wanted to live.

For his pains he was called a peddler of filth, a jackal with a pen. His books were placed on the Catholic Index in 1947 and attempts were made on his life. He was accused of corrupting the nation's youth and he treated friends like Camus and Raymond Aron quite odiously.

Lévy pulls no punches (there are distinct sounds of an idol falling). Yet he also writes with affection, rescuing from Sartre's squalid private life his strange relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, which he calls "one of the most beautiful love stories of the 20th century".

As to why the early libertarian Sartre turned into an intellectual terrorist, he suggests a mixture of technical philosophical reasons (notably his failure to find answers to Hegel) and a basic human reaction: the lonely writer's sudden discovery of comradely solidarity in his POW camp in 1940. But his "barbarism" was also an effect of his disillusionment with literature. He came to regard it as a lie because it makes us take words for things and images for reality. Literature was his "neurosis" and, just as he abandoned philosophy, so with his childhood memoir, Words (1964), he finally put literature aside. It was only logical, therefore, that he should refuse the Nobel Prize in 1964, for in so doing he formally rejected what had made him a writer.

Lévy's estimate of Sartre - a personal philosophy of freedom and a public life lived increasingly with "obtuse stupidity" - is less earth-shattering than its intimidating bulk and distracting cleverness promise. Learning here is not worn lightly but brandished violently, as though to warn away the cissies for whom this book is not intended. The class is assumed to have read all the books and the lesson goes at the pace of the brightest. Showy asides on Heidegger, Althusser and Hegel, names flashily dropped, a tendency to write orally, as though for an earnest chat or a public meeting, and expressions like "originary historiality" suggest that Lévy needed a no-nonsense editor. On the positive side, in Andrew Brown, he was given a splendid translator.

David Coward's 'A History of French Literature' is published by Blackwell